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A Berlin Epiphany

Virginia Quarterly Review | Friday, Nov 17, 2006

One could see how it might have been intended to work.

I was in Berlin a few months back for a concert featuring two compositions by Ernst Toch, my grandfather: a Cello Concerto that during the height of the Weimar era had been one of the most celebrated and performed pieces of its time, there in that capital of avant-garde music; and then the defiantly vivid and unbowed Piano Quintet he had composed only a few years later, early on in the California exile that would nevertheless, with time, come to entail the slow occlusion of his once-vibrant reputation (“I still have my pencil!” he had declared near the outset of his life as a deracinated refugee, though it presently became clear that just having one’s pencil wasn’t by itself ever going to prove quite enough)—anyway, there I was, witnessing the stirrings of a not insubstantial revival of that reputation (in Berlin, of all places!), and I was taking advantage of a break in the rehearsals at the celebrated Kammermusiksaal of the Philharmonic to saunter through the clean, clear late spring afternoon in the direction of Peter Eisenman’s recently completed Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, a few blocks away, just off Hannah-Arendt-Strasse, on the lee side of the lush Tiergarten park, in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate and a few blocks down from the Reichstag itself; and having read so much about the memorial, I was brimming over with expectation.

And now, there it came looming into view: an austere block-wide low-slung hive of graphite-gray monoliths: monoface rectangular plinths arrayed in a regular perpendicular grid over gently undulating terrain—more than three thousand of them spread across nearly five acres, some (near the perimeter) as low as a foot and a half, some farther into the hive (where the terrain fell away into some of its deeper undulations) as high as ten feet, the entire expanse crisscrossed by narrow paths between the parallel rows of vaguely pitched concrete plinths, paths that veritably beckoned those above on the busy city sidewalks into this uncanny maze of vaguely determinate remembrance.

And as I say, the thing ought to have worked. One could see how, being drawn in, one might thereupon have been expected to feel a humbling sense of solitude, much like that experience of getting lost in a rippling field of sky-high wheat that the seventy-four-year-old American Eisenman (himself the son of refugees) has cited as one of his inspirations for this memorial scheme, “an experience,” as he has said, “close to what it’s really like to be alone in some place.” (And I must say, I do like that source of inspiration, a rippling wheat field with its Homeric undertow of a bountiful harvest ripe, alas, for wholesale scything.)

Maybe it was the sublime afternoon, the crisp springtime sky. Though it shouldn’t have been that: I mean, perhaps the single most viscerally gut-wrenching representation of the Holocaust I ever experienced came in the 1974 East German film Jakub der Lünger (Jacob the Liar), in a scene from inside a cattlecar packed to the rafters with foredoomed Jews, trundling their way relentlessly toward the extermination camp; at one point the camera assumes their point of view, peering out through the narrow slats of the cattlecar’s confining walls, and the view outside turns out to be one of gleaming lush springtime, teeming green meadows and breezy blue skies. (I don’t know, somehow I had just always magically assumed that Europe clouded over one terrible morning in September 1939 and the smoke-choked skies hadn’t then cleared for nearly six years.)

Or maybe it was the oblivious bustle in the busy streets outside. For, although Eisenman had spoken, in advance, of his memorial field as being a place where a visitor could fall away from the city and into the solitude of his or her own bare thoughts, the clean perpendicular vantages rendered the city visible (and audible) at every moment and to every side: what you in fact were forced to witness were the tour buses lumbering to a stop along the memorial’s perimeters and disgorging their cargo of dutiful tourists (talk about echoes of cattlecars!), or aggressively colorful advertising billboards blissfully celebrating Germany on that springtime afternoon (on the eve of the coming World Cup) as THE COUNTRY OF IDEAS! (I’ll say, I couldn’t help but think. And some Really Big Ideas at that.)

But what really undercut the effect: all the kids scampering about, the schools having apparently just let out a few moments earlier—the blissed-out teenagers chasing each other in a cheery tag-team version of hide-and-seek, with some of the older ones nipping behind this or that plinth for a furtive hug or peck, moans and giggles and general merriment all around, with here and there heedless exclamations (of German, of course) erupting in giddily happy snatches. Come to think of it, how could the kids have been expected to act otherwise, this being the virtual equivalent of an amusement park arcade specifically designed for the purpose?

“Campo dei Fiori,” I found myself muttering. Campo dei Fiori cubed. Which, come to think of it, might have made a nice title for the entire enterprise.

*  *  *  * 

One evening in the spring of 1943, in Warsaw, the thirty-two year old Czesaw Miosz witnessed the agony of the Warsaw ghetto uprising from the city side of the wall, where a carnival fair happened to be in full swing, a chance happenstance that became the occasion for one of the most powerful acts of witness from the bloody century now past. “In Rome,” Miosz began his poem, recalling a prior visit to that other town,

    on the Campo dei Fiori
    Baskets of olives and lemons,
    Cobbles spattered with wine
    And the wreckage of flowers.
    Vendors cover the trestles
    With rose-pink fish;
    Armfuls of dark grapes
    Heaped on peach-down.

    On this same square
    They burned Giordano Bruno.
    Henchmen kindled the pyre
    Close-pressed by the mob.
    Before the flames had died
    The taverns were full again,
    Baskets of olives and lemons
    Again on the vendors’ shoulders.

“I thought of the Campo dei Fiori,” he continued, turning to this more recent experience,

    In Warsaw by the sky-carousel
    One clear spring evening
    To the strains of a carnival tune.
    The bright melody drowned
    The salvos from the ghetto wall,
    And couples were flying
    High in the cloudless sky.

    At times wind from the burning
    Would drift dark kites along
    And riders on the carousel
    Caught petals in midair.
    That same hot wind
    Blew open the skirts of the girls
    And the crowds were laughing
    On that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.

“Someone will read as moral,” he goes on, anticipating the almost too easy and evident response (which is to say, frankly, my own),

    That the people of Rome or Warsaw
    Haggle, laugh, make love
    As they pass by martyrs’ pyres.
    Someone else will read
    Of the passing of things human,
    Of the oblivion
    Born before the flames have died.

“But that day,” Miosz asserts, speaking for himself,

    I thought only
    Of the loneliness of the dying,
    Of how, when Giordano
    Climbed to his burning
    There were no words
    In any human tongue
    To be left for mankind,
    Mankind who live on.

“Already they were back at their wine / Or peddled their white starfish,” he now concludes,

    Baskets of olives and lemons
    They had shouldered to the fair,
    And he already distanced
    As if centuries had passed
    While they paused just a moment
    For his flying in the fire.

    Those dying here, the lonely
    Forgotten by the world,
    Our tongue becomes for them
    The language of an ancient planet.
    Until, when all is legend
    And many years have passed,
    On a great Campo dei Fiori
    Rage will kindle at a poet’s word.

So, yes, there you see why I was thinking, a building rage barely suppressed, of the Campo dei Fiori, the Campo dei Fiori cubed, as I sat there that glorious afternoon, on one of the lower plinths near the perimeter of the Eisenman memorial.

*  *  *  * 

But presently I found myself thinking of another poem—another Polish poem at that, one composed almost exactly fifty years afterwards by that other sublime Polish Nobel laureate, Wisawa Symborska, and composed (I suddenly came to realize) as if in direct response to Miosz’s looming masterpiece. Szymborksa’s “Reality Demands” (translated by Stanisaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh):

    Reality demands
    that we also mention this:
    Life goes on.
    It continues at Cannae and Borodino,
    at Kosovo Polje and Guernica.

    There’s a gas station
    on a little square in Jericho,
    and wet paint
    on park benches in Bila Hora.
    Letters fly back and forth
    between Pearl Harbor and Hastings,

(How I love that line! Who else but Szymborska would ever think such a thought?)

    a moving van passes
    beneath the eye of the lion at Chaeronea,
    and the blooming orchards near Verdun
    cannot escape
    the approaching atmospheric front.

    There is so much Everything
    that Nothing is hidden quite nicely.

(And that, too. Quintessential Szymborska, with a side-nod, it seems to me, to W. H. Auden, who in his 1939 elegy for W. B. Yeats had famously proclaimed that “poetry makes nothing happen,” a line most people read as a cautionary and almost despairing—given the moment of its pronouncement—gloss on the inefficacy of poetry in the actual political world, though one that I, among others, have always chosen to read slightly differently, which is to say more actively, as if Auden were declaring, precisely, that poetry, and maybe poetry alone, can and occasionally does Make Nothing Happen—a reading for which in turn, it seems to me, Szymborska’s herein concurring, though she now trumps that insight with a further one to the effect that, even so, the lifeworld, Everything, is so teemingly rich and various that that poetic Nothing can itself be quite easily breached and overwhelmed.)

    Music pours
    from the yachts moored at Actium
    and couples dance on their sunlit decks.

    So much is always going on,
    that it must be going on all over.
    Where not a stone still stands,
    you see the Ice Cream Man
    besieged by children.
    Where Hiroshima had been
    Hiroshima is again,
    producing many products
    for everyday use.

    This terrifying world is not devoid of charms,
    of the mornings
    that make waking up worthwhile.

She goes on like that for a few more stanzas (“Perhaps all fields are battlefields, / those we remember / and those that are forgotten”) before concluding, in a line that seems to address Miosz directly,

    What moral flows from this? Probably none.
    Only the blood flows, drying quickly,
    and, as always, a few rivers, a few clouds.

    On tragic mountain passes
    the wind rips hats from unwitting heads

    (again here a direct countervailing allusion to Miosz)

    and we can’t help
    laughing at that.*

So that I don’t know, I didn’t know, sitting there on the perimeter plinth among the whoops and shrieks of those happy German kids: Maybe life does just go on, and that is its blessing (as well as its curse). I mean, there I was in Germany to help witness a renewal of interest in the work of my grandfather Toch, work that had been spawned right there in Germany and out of Germany (right alongside everything else).

I reached into my pocket and pulled out a sheet of paper onto which I’d photocopied a letter Toch himself had written to his friend and patron Elisabeth Sprague Coolidge, back in January 1942 (just a bit more than a year before Miosz’s terrible epiphany by the ghetto wall); I was intending to quote from it later that evening in my introduction to the coming concert. He was reporting excitedly on some recent investigations he’d embarked upon in anticipation of a stint of lecturing at Harvard: “I never expected so much fascination to come from investigations on the nature of musical theory and composition,” he wrote.

    Aspects unfolding to me show why the rules of established musical theories could not be applied to “modern” music, why there seemed to be a break all along the line, either discrediting our contemporary work or everything which has been derived from the past. To my amazement, though, I find that those theories are only false in reference to contemporary music because they are just as false in reference to old music, from which they have been deduced, that in correcting them to precision you get the whole immense structure of music into your focus.

Such that, I don’t know, pace my grandfather and pace Szymborska, maybe with time, as the whole immense structure of history swings into view, it is the continuities and not the breaches that render themselves most manifest.

But then again, then again . . .

When it comes to Germany, as likely with most people of my generation (and still rightly so?), I will likely always be of two minds.

As to whether kids in the next generation should likewise always be of two minds as regards Germany, as regards that I am also of two minds.

*  *  *  * 

Or then again (the kids in the plinth hive were still playing gleefully as the sun now began to dip toward the horizon) maybe, just maybe not. ♦


*Note: Around the same time (which is to say the time of the seemingly interminable Bosnian war), Szymborska composed another poem around the same theme, “The End and the Beginning,” which begins:

    After every war
    someone has to tidy up.
    Things won’t pick
    themselves up, after all.

    Someone has to shove
    the rubble to the roadsides
    so the carts loaded with corpses
    can get by.

It continues like that for several stanzas, before arriving at these lines, so resonant with our purposes here:

    Someone, broom in hand,
    still remembers how it was.
    Someone else listens, nodding
    his unshattered head.
    But others are bound to be bustling nearby
    who’ll find all that
    a little boring.

And similarly, a few lines further on:

    Those who knew
    what this was all about
    must make way for those
    who know little.
    And less than that.
    And at last nothing less than nothing.

That marvelous Szymborskian Nothing again . . . till finally:

    Someone has to lie there
    in the grass that covers up
    the causes and effects
    with a cornstalk in his teeth,
    gawking at clouds.

Gawking, that is, at the clouds over Berlin on that clean springtime afternoon, and with that cornstalk in his teeth no less, as in Eisenman’s wheat field, but also—and here trapdoors open onto trapdoors—it seems certain to me, in allusion to that earlier miniature masterpiece of Szymborska’s (in this instance, as with the Miłosz, clearly welling out more directly from Poland’s own wartime experience of the forties), “Could Have,”

    It could have happened.
    It had to happen.
    It happened earlier. Later.
    Nearer. Farther off.
    It happened, but not to you.

    You were saved because you were the first.
    You were saved because you were the last.
    Alone. With others.
    On the right. The left.
    Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
    Because the day was sunny.

    You were in luck—there was a forest.
    You were in luck—there were no trees.
    You were in luck—a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
    a jamb, a turn, a quarter inch, an instant.
    You were in luck—just then a straw went floating by.
    .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .
    So you’re here? Still dizzy from another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
    One hole in the net and you slipped through?
    I couldn’t be more shocked or speechless.
    how your heart pounds inside me.

My own italics there: just then a straw went floating by. Which is to say, you were hiding underwater or something, the Nazis in hot pursuit, such that coming up for air would likely have proved fatal; you were running out of air, desperate, choking, gagging, and just then a straw went floating by. (Every single one of those clipped phrases opens out onto a short story like that, or even a novel.)

At any rate, a straw goes floating by . . . or so years later might a boy bring himself to imagine, lounging lazily in an open field, staring dreamily at the clouds, a cornstalk in his teeth.