Travelogue LXV: Venice II: I am Venice

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“If one wanted to travel to somewhere incomparable, to a fantastic mutation of normal reality, where did one go? The answer was obvious. What was he doing here? He had gone completely astray. That was where he wanted to travel.”

San Marco.

San Marco.

October 20, 2015 It’s been over a week since I have been back from Venice, and I still don’t know quite how to write about it. The weirdest, loveliest, most contradictory place I have ever been in, yes–but what does that even mean? Venice is the most improbable (unwahrscheinlichste) of all cities, Thomas Mann says.

The trip was the third in my series of Mann pilgrimages (Munich and Lübeck down, Davos still to go!), another working-out of this strange drive to live art that seems to dominate a good deal of my existence. In this case, the work behind it all was Death in Venice, the novella from 1911 that was my introduction to the author. Aging writer Gustav von Aschenbach travels to Venice, falls in love with a beautiful child, and destroys himself: Thomas Mann’s perfect irony played out against a heady backdrop of Nietzsche and Wagner and Plato and, of course, the city itself.

The flag of Venice.

The flag of Venice.

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“Can there be anyone who has not had to overcome a fleeting sense of dread, a secret shudder of uneasiness, on stepping for the first time or after a long interval of years into a Venetian gondola? How strange a vehicle it is, coming down unchanged from times of old romance, and so characteristically black, the way no other thing is black except a coffin….”

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“‘The signore wants to go to the Lido.’ ‘But not with you!’ ‘I row you well.’ True enough, thought Aschenbach, true enough, you will row me well. Even if you are after my cash and dispatch me to the house of Hades with a blow of your oar from behind, you will have rowed me well.”

Sam Marco Doge Venice

Winged lions at the Doge’s palace.

My first impression of Venice was one of beauty, pure and simple. I had the uncanny feeling of walking through a painting, all day, every day, through some stirring landscape of teal-blue water and delicate bridges and white marble facades fading into the morning haze. But it wasn’t unproblematic: in Venice, there is no escape from the aesthetically lovely, and it all therefore becomes incredibly exhausting. In Germany, there is always an escape–you can leave the Old City behind after a few blocks and find yourself surrounded by Aldis and 1950s apartment complexes. You can’t do that in Venice, however, and the constant in-your-face presence of so much gorgeousness is somehow wearing. Human beings aren’t meant for paradise.

And at the same time, too, Venice’s beauty is always backed by the Absurd. The gondolas are packed with baseball-cap-wearing Americans and selfie-stick-wielding Japanese. You can buy knock-off plastic carnival masks and knock-off Gucci bags and knock-off everything else on every street corner for five euros. Loveliness is exploited for money, illegally, and when the police walk by all the hawkers leap up at once from whatever square you are on and run, scattering fake Gucci bags behind them.

Even the aesthetic of the city itself, in the end, is flawed on closer examination: the lagoon stinks, even in October, and the marble facades are streaked with pigeon shit and crumbling into the water. The whole place is sinking.

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“Well, I shall stay, thought Aschenbach. What better place could I find? And with his hands folded in his lap, he let his eyes wander in the wide expanse of the sea, let his gaze glide away, dissolve and die in the monotonous haze of this desolate emptiness.”

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The Grand Canal.

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“Never had he known the joy of language more sweetly, never had he known so clearly that Eros dwells in the Word…”

But I fell in love anyway. Mit Erstaunen bemerkte Aschenbach, dass der Knabe vollkommen schön war. With astonishment, Aschenbach saw that the boy was perfectly beautiful: Where else in the world could that astounding sentence, which I am convinced is one of the most important in all of art, have been written? The breaking-in of beauty and Eros in Aschenbach’s life had to happen in Venice; it’s the only city unwahrscheinlich enough to sustain that level of passion.

And at the same time, Venice IS Mann’s definition of artistic creation, of art itself: beauty and transcendence backed by the suspect, by something just slightly nauseating and improper. Being in the city was like seeing Death in Venice, and maybe the entirety of Thomas Mann’s opus, from the inside out.

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“He fled from the crowded commercial thoroughfares, over bridges, into poor quarters. There he was besieged by beggars, and the sickening stench from the canals made it difficult to breath. In a silent square, one of those places in the depths of Venice that seem to have been forgotten and put under a spell, he rested on the edge of a fountain, wiped the sweat from his forehead and realized that he would have to leave.”

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Goldmund and I couldn’t decide if the water was blue or green, or both, or neither.

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“It is well that the world knows only the beautiful work and not also its origins, the conditions under which it came into being; for knowledge of the sources of an artist’s inspiration would often confuse readers and shock them…When Aschenbach put away his work and left the beach, he felt worn out, even broken, and his conscience seemed to be reproaching him as if after some kind of debauchery.”

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And so I walked the city for hours at a time, without a map, entirely lost, in some sort of Mann- and Venice-induced half-stupor. The place was full of tourists even at the very end of the season,  but it was shockingly easy to get away from it all: to take two turns off the beaten path and find oneself entirely alone next to some shady canal, with some black gondola gliding by. They really are silent, as Thomas Mann writes.

On the third day we went to the Lido, the island next to Venice where Death in Venice takes place, and lay on the beach in the sun and looked at the waves and were extraordinarily happy. Even there, though, the atmosphere around us was strange, melancholy somehow: long empty stretches of sand, bathing houses already battened down for the winter, only a few stragglers in the water. We were nearly the only guests at the sea-side café, where we split a pizza and put on our coats and scarves after the sun went down.

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Above, live music in the cafes at San Marco. Below, the Grand Hotel des Bains on the Lido, where Thomas Mann stayed in 1911, fell in love with with the 11-year-old Polish Baron Adzio Moes, and began writing Death in Venice on hotel stationary.

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“The lulling rhythm of this existence had already cast its spell on him; he had been quickly enchanted by the indulgent softness and splendor of this way of life. What a place this was indeed, combining the charms of a cultivated sea-side resort in the south with the familiar ever-ready proximity of the strange and wonderful city.”

On the last afternoon in Venice, which I spent alone, I ducked into a store off of some tiny side-street and found myself surrounded by lace and paper mache and hanging dark brocade: a carnival shop, a real one this time, no plastic here. A young man around my age sat at a work table painting filigree onto a row of masks. Diamond stud in one ear, dark hair, paint-stained apron. I saw the piece I wanted to buy as soon as I walked in: the half-mask of Commedia dell’artes Columbine with the Phantom’s hand over one eye, two figures in one, the coming-together of male and female and dark and light. “Did you make this one, too?” I asked the young man at the table after I had made my purchase. “No,” he said, “that was my father. Do you want to know the story behind it?” And so he spent the next thirty minutes talking to me about making art and living in Venice, pulling down masks from the wall to show me the different techniques, talking about the Commedia and carnival revelries and showing me his tiny boat parked in the canal outside.

“There is nothing for a young man in Venice–nothing for me here,” he said as I was collecting my things to go. “The entire city is for the tourists. If I want to go out or dance I have to go to the mainland and take a taxi. It is very hard to live here; in the past 25 years three-quarters of the population have left.” “Why don’t you leave, then, too?” I asked. “Because I am Venice,” he said, and then a gondola-load of tourists came into the shop, and I took my purchase and got on the vaporetto back to the apartment and Goldmund, and was very much content.

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“A sacred, deranged world, full of Panic life, enclosed the enchanted watcher, and his heart dreamed tender tales. Sometimes, as the sun was sinking behind Venice, he would sit on a bench in the hotel park to watch Tadzio, dressed in white with a colorful sash, at play on the rolled gravel tennis court; and in his mind’s eye he was watching Hyacinthus, doomed to perish because two gods loved him.”

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“For Beauty, dear Phaedrus, only Beauty is at one and the same time divinely desirable and visible: it is, mark well, the only form of the spiritual that we can receive with our senses and endure with our senses. For what would become of us if other divine things, if Reason and Virtue and Truth were to appear to us sensuously? Should we not perish in a conflagration of love, as once upon a time Semele did before Zeus?”

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“He sank down on one of the seats, deliriously breathing the nocturnal fragrance of the flowers and trees. And leaning back, his arms hanging down, overwhelmed, trembling, shuddering all over, he whispered the standing formula of the heart’s desire–impossible here, absurd, depraved, ludicrous and sacred nevertheless, still worth of honor even here: ‘I love you!'”

All quotations from Death in Venice, translated by David Luke.

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Travelogue XLVIII: Johannisnacht

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Cabaret in Mainz  during the Johannisfest.

June 20, 2015 Summer is the time of festivals in Germany. It seems like every town has one, or several, from the tiniest Dorf to the largest city–a weekend of live music and dancing and wine (or beer, depending on which part of Germany you are in) and all sorts of unhealthy-but-delicious German culinary specialties.

In Mainz, there’s the Johannisnacht festival at the end of June. Things are a little different in Mainz than in the rest of Germany, I think–a bit more intensive, all-encompasing, more Dionysian perhaps. The Fastnacht spirit isn’t just limited to a couple weeks in February.

In Würzburg, for instance, the yearly Kiliani Festival takes place outside of town, on neat and properly contained fairgrounds. In Mainz, the Johannisnacht takes up half the dang town, with the bus schedule screwed up for days and the entire Inner City full of stages and lights and stands selling cocktails and bratwurst. And the Meenzers know how to throw a party–some 250,000 people attend the festival over the course of four days, despite the pouring rain and semi-arctic temperatures this year.

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One of the hundreds of local vineyards who set up a stand for the weekend...

One of the hundreds of local vineyards who set up a stand for the weekend…

Schlager behind the cathedral.

Schlager behind the cathedral.

Music plays an enormous role at the summer festivals. At the Mainzer Johannisnacht, there are four main stages and dozens of concerts over the course of a long weekend–from oldies and brass band to rap and hip-hop, and everything in between.

And Schlager. The Schlager concerts are inescapable. The genre is distinctly German–kitchy, danceable, inescapably catchy pop ballads with roots that go back to the operettas of the 1920s and 30s. Many of the songs sung today date from the 1950s or earlier and have been re-written and re-mixed and re-sung hundreds of times in the ensuing decades. Like Country Music in America, the texts are mostly about drinking and falling into and out of love, but also about the simple, unadulterated joy of being alive. The world of Schlager is full of schöne Tage (beautiful days). In the words of one Fastnacht hit, Eins kann uns keiner nehmen und das ist die pure Lust am Leben. There is one thing nobody can take from us, and that is the pure joy of life…

And everyone knows all the words, it seems. During the Johannisnacht, one has the feeling that half of Mainz is standing in front of the stage, young and old alike, singing and crying and smoking and drinking beer and dancing in that awkward-but-infectious way that only Germans can.

I suppose part of me will always be the snobby operagoer who drinks champagne in the intermission and can talk for hours about a particular interpretation of Mahler’s 2nd. But every once in a while, you just need to link arms with a bunch of crazy Meenzers singing “Traum von Amsterdam” and let it all out.

And anyway, you can’t dance at the opera.

This guy managed to wear lederhosen, drink beer, twerk, and sing all at the same time. That takes skill, folks.

This guy managed to wear lederhosen, drink beer, twerk, and sing Schlager all at the same time. That takes skill, folks.

Despite the pouring rain...

Despite the pouring rain…

80s Rock in the pouring rain.

80s rock.

Cabaret. In some past life, I'm pretty much certain I was a Kabarettistin--coattails and lipstick, glass of red wine in one hand and cigarette in the other. 

Cabaret. In some past life, I’m pretty much certain I was a Kabarettistin–coattails and lipstick, glass of red wine in one hand and cigarette in the other.

Travelogue XXVIII: Hier bin ich Narr -or- Hermine ist in der Hölle

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An explosion of color after four months of gray.

February 17, 2015 I am fascinated by the Apollo-Dionysus dichotomy–it’s one of the most pervasive themes in German literature, brought to philosophical expression by Nietzsche in his Birth of Tragedy from 1872. Apollo, he says, is the Greek god of sun and lyre, reason, clarity, self-control, thought, sanity, the Word. Dionysus is his opposite: darkness, sensuality, insanity, debauchery, intoxication, unbounded ecstasy. German literature asks, How to bring the two together? How to find a balance, a Gleichgewicht, a middle road between two extremes? Too much of the one leads to sterility and lifelessness, too much of the other to insanity and dissolution. Look at the works of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, for instance: so many of their characters fail or succeed, live or die by their ability to bring Apollo and Dionysus together without destroying themselves and others.

The famous Tanz auf der Lu (Dance on Ludwigsstreet). A live band, thousands of costumed revelers of all ages dancing on the streets, from Schillerplatz all the way back to the cathedral.

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Karnival–Fastnacht–is the working-out of that dichotomy in German society, on the streets instead of in art. Five days of pure Dionysus–it’s the balance found, the other half of the equation. Most of the time, as the stereotype goes, German society is driven by Apollo: reasonable, orderly, efficient, rigorous. But then there’s Fastnacht, when all that goes out the window. For five days, the whole city goes mad–no holds barred, Dionysus is Joker und Bacchus, and all the rules are broken. It’s what the Greeks experienced during the great national performances of their tragedies: ekstasis, catharsis. The Self as a rational, autonomous element dissolves into the Whole.

And it is not just the students, the young people who would be out partying anyway–it’s everyone. The four-year-old with his hair dyed green screaming “Helau!” at the parade, the 70-year-old couples in the Weinstube in the Old City, singing and beating on the tables. And everyone else: there’s thousands of revelers on the streets at night, dancing and drinking and throwing the wine bottles on the ground instead of in the recycling bin. You see it in the city, too, normally so neat and orderly: the bus schedule is hopelessly screwed up, everything is color, and the streets are covered in streamers and glitter and green glass Jägermeister bottles.

I found it all incredible. This, the presence of Fastnacht in society, is the balance, the Gleichgewicht, which Faust and Gustav Aschenbach and Harry Haller tried and failed, perhaps, to find.

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“Here I am a fool”–spoofing on Goethe’s Faust. “Hier bin ich Mensch”–“Here I am human.”

It all reminds me of the famous scene from Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, “Hermine ist in der Hölle”–Hermine is in hell. Harry Haller the Apollonian gives himself over to Dionysus for a night of excess, frenzy, and sweat-soaked dance in the pit of hell. It’s not an entirely untroubling scene, but it is a moment of transcendence, and the Steppenwolf emerges with a sort of redemption.

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Ludwigsstreet, before the start of the dance.

I was on the tram headed into the city on Saturday afternoon. It was full to bursting, and the sun had come out for the first time in what felt like weeks. Someone had brought a boom box, and the entire train turned into a party, giddy people jumping and dancing and trying to pour shots of Jägermeister and singing at the top of their lungs:

Eins kann uns keiner nehmen, und das ist die pure Lust am Leben. There is one thing nobody can take from us, and that is the pure love of life.

Of course Fastnacht has problematic aspects–the police presence in the city skyrockets by necessity, and my main concern on the bus on the way home Monday night was not getting barfed on. But moments like the one on the tram transcend.

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Kreppel, aka Berliner, aka Jelly Doughnuts. Only available in Mainz during Fastnacht.

Naturally, though, it is not all insanity and merrymaking. Like the theater in Germany, nothing here can ever be merely entertaining. A key element of Fastnacht in Mainz is politics–political commentary, critique, satire. The floats in the big Rosenmontag parade are all of a political nature, some quite scathing. Many of them I didn’t understand fully, since my knowledge of local politics is not exactly up to snuff. But international politics featured as well….

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Obama the sitting duck.

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Invasion of the Chlorine-Chicken. Lol.

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The Rosenmontag parade.

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And there it was. Fastnacht in Mainz, in all its Dionysian glory. I was downtown this evening, and the city crews were already at work, sweeping thousands of pounds of glittery trash off the streets and taking down the stages. It was entirely melancholy, actually.

I don’t think I could take more than one carnival a year, but it was very good while it lasted.

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Selbst Johannes Gutenberg hat mitgefeiert!

 

Travelogue XXVII: Fastnacht I: Altweiberfastnacht

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February 12, 2015 When I arrived in Mainz, I had no idea I had landed in one of the biggest PAR-TAY centers in all of Germany. At least, it’s a party during Karnival–or Fastnacht, or Meenzer Fassenacht if you really want to sound like a local–the Thursday through Tuesday directly preceding the start of Lent in the church calendar. Mainz’ celebration is rivaled only by Cologne in Terms of all-around grandeur–six day of partying, uninhibited foolery, and dissolution of all sorts.

It all kicked off this morning at 11:11am. Eleven is the number of the fools, cheeky, sinful, and askant, positioned between the orderly numbers 10 and 12. Ten commandments, 10 fingers on a perfect human body, 12 months in the celestial year, 12 clockwork hours in a day–so much structure and elegance has no place during carnival.

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Helau helau helau!

In the official Fastnacht calendar, Thursday is Altweiberfastnacht–the Old Ladies’ Carnival, in memory of a stubborn group of German washerwomen who staged a rebellion in 1824 and broke into the male-dominated celebrations for the first time. Traditionally, women are given full political, social, and sexual reign on Altweiberfastnacht–crossdressing is permitted, the mayor hands over the keys of the city, and women claim their dominance over men by cutting off their ties (Freud would have a hay-day with the symbolism behind that one, let me tell you!).

Another vitally important part of Fastnacht is the music. Specifically, the Schlager–the incredibly catchy, incredibly annoying German Party music which everybody hates when they are a more rational state of mind, but apparently can’t get enough of during five days of the year.

Due to my huge camera, people assumed I was from the newspaper, and practically threw themselves at me trying to get me to take their picture.

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Steampunk FTW. So much dapper, I can’t even.

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“Are you from the newspaper??!! Hold on hold on, I gotta pose.”

And there it was: the opening moments of one of the biggest events of the year, on a gray Thursday morning, in downtown Mainz. It was a PAR-TAY, I tell you.

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Booooze! A very important part of just about any German festival….

Stay tuned….