Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Notes from a fragmented country

The Rhine between Koblenz and Bonn: a stretch of broad silvery splendour against a finally clear winter sky. A dramatic skyline of mountains, covered in wood and topped with ruins telling of former glory. This is the sight that inspired the romantic travellers on their “Grand Tour”: Lord Byron, Caspar David Friedrich and William Turner. I am another traveller, this time from the UK, home for Christmas on the train passing Loreley’s enchanted rock, the view stunning. The tale of the wicked enchantress comes to my mind, singing me back to my childhood and my father’s stories. The tale of a water spirit sitting on a rock high above the river Rhine with its dangerous abysses and whirlpools, singing fishermen to a wet grave by hypnotizing them with her chanting while combing her blond hair. Demonized, she has been, marked as a witch and a Circe, but I like to think there is more to her story than that. I like to think she kept wake there, a gatekeeper, singing the lore of land and river, making everything else seem irrelevant to those who listened to her. And the fishermen are her demon lovers, giving themselves up to her song's deathly embrace, being taken in by nature, becoming one with what they truly are. I find myself digging for my inheritance, now, that I am coming back, almost a stranger after more than 18 month during which I just whistle-stopped here.

My father. A storyteller if ever there was one. A memory-keeper in a society that was muted and has turned deaf. When I think about him back then, telling folk tales or making up stories as he went, I once more realize how different I grew up in this country where traditions are mostly dead, the threads hacked off by shame and guilt and haunted by the ghost of political incorrectness. My memories are a layer of inheritance that passes unseen: my father singing old ballads with his untrained but beautiful baritone driving our old VW bus, travelling long distances to the shop from our village. My mother’s thread was poetry and literature: I remember her lost in it, in Rilke’s “Book of hours” and the “Duino Elegies”, the “Magic Mountain” of Thomas Mann and his exquisite prose. When later I tried to find a rare copy of a certain study about Mann, psychoanalysis and the trauma of WW II that had been registered as stolen from my university library for about 26 years, I ended up finding it on my mother’s bookshelf. The department’s seal was still on it. Stolen legacy. Knowledge reclaimed. And I had unconsciously ventured in my mother’s wake.

There she is, black and white in front of her Alma Mater, her red skirt that was my father’s death turned into shades of grey by his camera’s eye. Dreamy, exotic black-haired minx, with a soul longing for truth, searching for her lost Jewish ancestry, another thread cut of. Her eyes are those of a seeker, they look away, into a great distance. Her eyes are my inheritance. When my mother sang it was rather tuneless but with a lot of good will. She only remembered the odd verses and lines. Fragmentation seems a symbol of her generation, passing on to mine its twisted and shattered sense of history. How can one tie on to fragments?

I look to Loreley’s rock, bathed in dazzling sunlight. For all I know, she is still there, an enchantress forever singing her lore, the lore of this land. As long as I can see her, she will be there. I see ghosts everywhere. I always have. When I was six years old, I ran off to the woods close to our house one afternoon. Took my bike and passed the battered playground on its fringe. There was a graveyard there, in the middle of the forest, behind a rusty iron gate. It was grey and forgotten, and very sad. I could feel the sadness whispering to me, luring me in, and so I climbed over and sat between the bleak stone plates, covered with pebbles. The only feature that caught my eye was a Star of David, wrought into the bars of the gate. There were no names. No dates. Only voices in the rustling grass and the wind. I got lost there this day, holding council with them. When my distressed mother found me in the end, all I would say was that “the stones talked to me”. When I asked her about the Star of David, she tried to explain – but how to tell a six-year-old about the genocide committed by its grandparents?

I had found a Jewish cemetery, laid out during the Third Reich, when the Jewish rites and traditions were banished and penalized. And the ones buried there had been the lucky ones. It meant little to me then, but their story was still there, and it was my first rite of passage into the memory of place. This country is ringing with it, especially memories that tell of shame, loss of identity and the shock of how quickly a nation of poets and thinkers can turn into Pandaemonium. At least those are the stories heard and witnessed. But I do not want to content myself with that. Can an unsolved trauma, can 12 years of history truly swallow this country’s richness of story? These 12 years took our roots and genetically modified them, turning the Germanic into a master race, using archaeology and other historical disciplines as a tool of legitimisation. They took the Rhine Gold and the Nibelungs, placating Siegfried slaying the dragon as a symbol for the new Germania conquering the world. And singing German folk songs and telling stories are now mashed together into a glutinous lump by the Nazi’s hypocrisy, hard to disentangle without having the smelly binding agent on one’s fingers. You have to dive deep to find roots here. You will meet the story-keepers on the countless medieval fairs all over the country. The German reenactment movement is not only a form of romanticized escapism, but a place where traditions are tended and invented. My nearly five years working for the publishing press serving this subculture has established everyday how great the need for story still is. The endless stream of music, events, groups and yearning for accessible information has established that every single day of my time as editor, reporter and journalist for "pax et gaudium" and "pax Geschichte." When I started my course in archaeology at university in 2000, tutors and students constantly bemoaned the lack of easily accessible, informative books about the Bronze Age, Celtic and Germanic cultures. Since then, there has been an amazing revival of informative literature about Germany's early history, accompagnied by a mesmerize of exhibitions. So we seem to go back to the wounded places and shed a new light on them, exploring the corpse cave of history, our torches and headlamps more gentle this time and tempered by a sense of our own fraction. German archaeologists and historians as a whole seem fare more reluctant to come up with fixed ideas and theses. They tend to leave space for a lot of questioning. Sadly as this respect for the narrowness and subjectivity of historical interpretation was formed, there are worse approaches to finding memory. Things are moving and shaking, a new generation of archaeologists and historians is our there reclaiming the public attention with new concepts of Living History (e.g. the great work done by the relentless visionaries of EXARC: www.exarc.net) while goths, reenactors and pagans slowly start to network, reclaiming and reinventing traditions. We are far from the rich heritage of tradition that is still so alive in the British Isles or Scandinavia, for example, but the looms are working again, and new patterns emerge, tying on to what the land still patiently holds.


I, too, am finder of stories and memories. It is my thread of Ariadne, leading me all the way from Ireland to Iceland, to Africa and India, and finally to the Isles of Brighid Ana. Episodes that seem not to make sense at first glance are tied together by it. Roots are where I am heading back to, constantly, effortlessly. What causes me effort is braving the now sometimes. I have a Janus face, looking into the past and turning towards the future. It is the now that challenges me at times with its places of cynicism and coldness. I don’t do either, have been ill prepared for it. When I emerged from my safe place and met with it, it drove me into the woods, the raw and wild places of myself. I still have to hide from it sometimes, have to wander between worlds, between countries, unveiling the layers of meaning that cover our lives to feel safe. Make sure there is meaning. Make sure there is memory. And here am I, once more between the borders, left with fragments. Fragments of beauty and meaning. Fragments the fragile fabric of which I have to treasure.

Let’s reclaim our fragments from their sterile glass cases and the dirty debris of WW II. Let's re-enchant them, tend them and amend them. Let's embed them in a new eco-bardic, spiritual and global context, building on our post-war sensitivity to disunity. Let’s not allow the dust to settle.