Jüdisches Museum

This was on Sunday, my regular weekly journey to one of Berlin’s hundreds of museums and art galleries. Alas, my webhost decided to trash one of their servers, and between recovering from that and all the rest of the week, it’s now Friday and my memory is crystallised; the immediate thoughts and emotions running over the same paths until ruts form and possibilities for other considerations become faint.

This is a troubling museum. I was angry at someone, and wanted to take that anger out on them. Anyone, preferably German, though Jewish would also suffice. Someone responsible for this; responsible also for forgetting and repeating.

My first visit to it when I was newly arrived in Berlin was an act of encompassing: I didn’t go in because of the queue. When I was a student, I’d bought a large monograph on Daniel Libeskind and the architecture of this Jüdisches Museum, so I found wandering outside was a thing in itself. Having now been inside, it seems two different things. In places the exterior breaks forth into the interior, but never as stark or clear. Often it feels too busy and demanding: there are arrows on the floor determining the correct path to take, as usual, I missed them and saw everything counter-clockwise.

People are very solemn at first. The stairs lead down to underground. The way forward is both uphill and tilted, or warped. The architecture is banal here, it reminds me of Hanna Arendt writing on Eichmann and how utterly mediocre his thinking was, his acts were, the blandness of an office from where murder was issued. I’m not sure this is intentional here, and despite what Libeskind says about his work being open to interpretation, there is much that is very deliberate yet also in other places unfulfilled.

This is a Jewish museum, a German Jewish museum. It is not a history of Jews or Jewishness in its entirety, it is centered on land that became Germany as well as neighbouring countries, and as time passes the focus narrows onto Germany and Berlin.

I was reading a letter that had been smuggled out of Auschwitz when a school group broke into laughter as one of them said something. I only caught, “… transvestites … ” and the laughter. Here is one I wanted to take my anger out on. The idiocy of not understanding; of not caring to understand. It is precisely and only because we begin by laughing at those who are different that we can later murder them. This the museum does not teach the visitor, perhaps because the stating the conceptual leap is too troubling for a country (Germany) that regards certain members in the same language (Turkish, Roma), or for another country (Israel) that treats people in the same way (Palestinian, Bedouin).

I went to the Holocaust place. The dead end. After the confined, low-ceiling blandness of the paths before, the cold, dark void I found peaceful. Once I was alone in there and my eyes adjusted, I could see the play of weak light from high above shape the space. Standing beneath it and looking back, small holes in the facing wall looked out to the garden, too high for eyes to see through. The sound was sharp and precise. I clapped my hands and like a gun firing the strike echoed for half a minute. A sound to meditate by.

Again, a simple reading is possible, yet I am not so grim a nihilist to think that there is not some peace intended to be experienced here, also in the garden outside. The bleakness suits winter.

Out and up the stairs. The architecture of this progression is also exclusive. For those without legs to walk the stairs, it is not possible to follow the axis of continuation, nor to experience the museum as it expects.

Arriving at the top it is a relief. There are spices, colours, smells. I find a reproduction of a 14th century illumination, teaching children the alphabet by baking each letter into a biscuit, because knowledge is sweet and beyond all else important. This is something I can feel an affinity for. Later there is an etching of darling, dear Spinoza, not a minor philosopher at all. Also a Torah for children, as drawn by a renaissance xkcd. There are messages on the wall though, creeping into vision. Kant says, “They are nowaday vampires of society” …

The language again. It is language I hear now from people I would assume understand words and what they are saying. Of course, because they utter them against immigrants, asylum seekers, Roma, Turkish, Muslims, it is ok. The police standing on guard at every Jewish building in Berlin remind us that Berlin, Germany, Europe does not understand what it will never forget.

The 20th century, then. Almost a return trip to the Deutsches Technikmuseum, and what was perhaps not clearly mentioned there is certainly here: that Jews were at the front of industrialisation, modernisation, innovation, art, culture. And I am angry again. That they let this happen. They, Germans, Jews, Europeans. Sometimes I want to punch the city of Berlin itself, but I have also seen photographs of Berlin from above in 1945 to know the city did that task to itself. And I am angry at that too.

China. Shanghai. When I said this is a German Jewish museum, it is what is absent that frames what is here. The persecution for hundreds of years pushed them into travelling. There are Jews in China, converted hundreds of years ago who follow a memory of Jewishness. There were tens of thousands of refugees in Shanghai and Chongqing. I photographed some of the illustrations of this, an entire story in itself. There is also land in northern China that for a small moment in time could have become Israel.

The word ambivalent is perhaps the closest I can find to this pull of contradictions, to also the presentation of a single narrative of Jewishness. What is missing? Where are the wealthy Jews who signed away the lives of the poorer, who were absolutely complicit in murder? Where are the heterosexual Jews who persecuted the gay, lesbian, transgender ones? Certainly the latter have “their own” museum, as if there were no cock-sucking, pussy-licking, cross-dressing Jews. Them and us.

There is a photograph of Heinz Joachim and Marianne Prager, Jewish Communist resistance fighters. They are in a clearing in a forest, he is kneeling on a blanket, she standing. His arms are around her waist, she has one on her shoulder. He looks up into her eyes, they are smiling, laughing. He is wearing a short-sleeved gingham dress, and she a man’s dark suit, jacket and trousers. They were murdered in 1942, both 23 years old, two years after this photo. There is no remark made on their clothing or why they were wearing it, their identities are both present and erased.

The museum winds back on itself. After the dead-end of the holocaust, it becomes a green room, dressed in artificial grass, warm golden light. The people after. There are cubes lit from within on poles, like saplings, each has a photograph of a person and a short biography. One says, “ … and when my father in Palestinian exile, witnessed how the expelled began doing the expelling, he wrote: ‘The swastika is twining around the Star of David …’”

I can’t say anymore. Like the museum going back on itself – to exit I have to go back down the stairs, through the basement, glance at the path to the holocaust once more – my thoughts go back on themselves, worrying and pulling at themselves. I want to say this is pathetic, hundreds of years of culture and all that is shown is religion and death. One exhibit is the Brit milah, circumcising the baby boy. Ritual genital mutilation is another way of putting it. There is no commentary on how some secular and religious Jews find this act disturbing. There is scant room for discussion of this in Germany because any criticism becomes itself criticised for anti-semiticism. It’s possible what I write now, what I think now would be defined as anti-semetic.

At last there is a separate exhibition of a photographer. The first image is that of a woman. I haven’t written of how frequently and how clearly conscious and matter-of-fact the place of the women who appear in this exhibition, from the ceramic artists who are the first exhibits encountered, to the long biography of a Jewish merchant woman, to this last image, Hannah Arendt.


Reading… a 3rd anniversary

Regarding the two-score books of the last year, it is surprising which of the non-fiction – a term I use somewhat lightly given the nature of the fiction I read – I think is the most important. Not to say best, because it is simply not possible to compare G. Whitney Azoy’s Buzkashi – Game and Power in Afghanistan with Hanna Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem or Katherine Pratt Ewing’s Stolen Honor – Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin, besides perhaps to consider the strong anthropological authorship in each.

I think perhaps I’ve been reading more science-fiction than I should in the past few months though; somewhat akin to my previous chocolate indulgence, put paid to by immanent risk of gaping holes in teeth. Charles Stross is, as in the last year, well-represented, though slogging through all six volumes of The Family Trade series doesn’t exactly count. With three other books devoured this year, he nonetheless pads out the numbers.

Perhaps to start with disappointments. William Gibson and Zero History. It’s curious to find a writer of near-future speculative (science-)fiction (hence my remark about the ambiguity of a fiction/non-fiction division) feeling dated and behind the times even on the day of publication. I’m sure I’ll read him again, but this was unexceptional, in no way saved by the pseudo-MacGuffin. Charles Stross’ Family Trade series also wallowed adrift for the second trio, and many intriguing ideas hinted at in the earlier ones (and outlined on his blog) remained undeveloped or abandoned; instead veering off on an un-engaging Bush-era terrorist spiel.

On the non-fiction side, Christopher I. Beckwith, who is indisputably a formidable scholar on Central Asia and Tibet frustrated me in twice. First in Empires of the Silk Road for his ceaseless tirades agains post-modernism and other failings of scholarship, which is especially jarring when I’m trying to concentrate on the lineage of Mongolian barbarians. The second is for confusing said lineages with history. I was deeply thrilled to receive The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia, anticipating much excitement (and winter fashion) with the Goloks. Instead I was beaten into submission by the feudal slaughter equivalent of biblical begatting. History is not an ad nauseum which man with an army ground which other underfoot.

Lucky The Tibetans, while not so much an an in-depth academic text, manages to avoid this monotony and thus far is the best generalist volume I’ve read on the region. Still, I am searching for more substantial books, be it eastern Tibet, Amdo and the Goloks, or western and the mountain passes into the -stans. I haven’t really begun reading The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan, which I hope might bring a little more enlightenment… I’ll have to wait for next year’s anniversary to discover that.

Many other books I’m very happy to have at least attempted this year. Edward Said’s Orientalism falls into this category. I expect I’ll slowly absorb it by sleeping near than by overthrowing it in a week-long siege. Some out of China also, Voices from the Whirlwind, Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China and The Age of Openness: China Before Mao filling out my sino-reading – something I’ll need to do more of in the next year if I wish to get through even a portion of my reading list.

Surprisingly, the non-fiction book of the year isn’t some Sino-Tibetan / Central Asian monograph on horse sport, but one which many people I know have read: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. That it made me question and change my already infrequent meat-eating, as well as dispose of much dairy product consumption through reminding me why I became vegetarian and vegan in the first place is only part of the reason. That it is causing in my friends similar responses is perhaps the greatest achievement. And to think I read it out of boredom in an evening lying on a sofa in Vienna.

To say a little more. It is beholden upon us and our generation to instigate change. The governments, politicians and businesses who nominally are our seniors and act in our interests have categorically failed to act in any meaningful or decisive way on what is unequivocally a great catastrophe facing the planet. To reduce this catastrophe to the term, ‘global warming’, while certainly affording attention to one aspect, fails to include myriad interconnected impending disasters which are the singular result of our lifestyles. When confronted with the reality of the ecological vandalism and destruction eating meat involves – even before raising the issue of the suffering it causes and our complicity therein – it becomes unarguable that the single biggest, immediate difference a person – we – can make to bring about change, to attempt to avert or at least partially ameliorate this coming ruin, is to comprehensively and permanently change how we eat.

On, then, to science-fiction.

Charles Stross has provided many hours enjoyment this last year; The Fuller Memorandum was consumed twice in quick succession, but it was Saturn’s Children that came closest to fiction book of the year. He, like Iain Banks attracts my attention because he writes strong female characters (even if the females are sexbots from after the demise of humans) and like Banks and Miéville has an obvious social and political agenda in his work that I find an affinity for.

Iain (M.) Banks provided similar pleasure with re-readings of many old favourites and the new Transitions and (just finished) Surface Detail. Both are very good but don’t quite get up to the level of wild brilliance of earlier novels. Yet, they do seem to – along with The Algebraist and Matter – point to a new period in his writing and I’m already looking forward to his next.

Further on the unambiguously fiction side, by which I mean science-fiction or science-bloody-horror-no-near-future-speculative-fiction-here-fiction, the book of the year though is the quite brilliant, verging on genius for the two most terrifying thugs in London – far better than The City and The City which won a Hugo this year – China Miéville’s Kraken. If I’ve managed to persuade you to read Iain (M.) Banks, this isn’t quite Feersum Endjinn, my book to take if I can only take one book, but it’s close.

Finally adding a Reading category, almost all the books I’ve read in the last couple of years can be found there. Otherwise, some of the many books I’ve enjoyed this year…

(Oh, I started the ‘Reading … ” thing here in October, 2007 (with William Gibson’s Spook Country), which is why ‘Book of the Year’ arrives in October (the 16th or so) instead of on some other temporarily significant yet nonetheless arbitrary date such as the end of the year.)

(Some) Stuff I Read This Week

For some reason I decided to start using Twitter again — I suspect iPhone — and without any clear purpose thought to keep track of (some of) what I trawl through every day from the various news feeds I subscribe to. Certainly not a complete list… I wouldn’t even bore myself with that. (For those of you who like Twitter, I am here: francesdath)

Hannah Arendt And The Challenge Of Modernity: A Phenomenology Of Human Rights

Publishing Bigotry: What Obligations Do We Have?

The Banksoniain #16

From the Feuilletons (10/09/2010)

Insights From The Afghan Field

What Books on Afghanistan?

Can we really say Wen is insincere?

You have failed us, Mr. Wen

William S. Burroughs’ Lost Graphic Novel Ah Pook Is Here Gets Exhumed

Corruption in Afghanistan, Part DLXXII: Kabul Bank in Crisis

On Clean Energy, China Skirts Rules

If We Only Had Twelve Fingers

Obama: I mean it — tax the rich

China’s Other Billion: Mud Houses in China’s Powerhouse

Being Jewish in Shanghai

Racist patriarchy in Israel, updated

‘Livelihood Issues’

Shenzhen Special Economic Zone celebrates 30 years

Hungary: Heterosexual Pride March

Thesis: That’s why they go to war

Book review: Goodbye to London – Radical Art and Politics in the Seventies

Awesome death spiral of a bizarre star

Readin: GYP.

Thoughts on Inner Mongolia (內蒙古回顧)內蒙古回顧/

Hu’s Shenzhen speech: the numbers

Israel: “Rape by deception” turns out to be brutal rape of a vulnerable and abused woman

Assigning a gender to be appealed