Suffering the unsufferable

“(..) it is healthy to look at sadnessin the world, and in yourself, and to dwell on it for a little while. (this work is ballast to that obsession……about happiness)”

Nicole Eisenman

For most of my adult life, I believed being happy was what was important. Then at some point, I felt maybe, peace or some kind of inner calm was what I should be striving for. Now, I sense that this comes and goes and I just want to live, whatever that is – a kind of direction without destination is how Elisabeth Grosz describes it (Becomings).  Life is a struggle. I am misleading myself by believing it is anything else.

Berlin is a city that knows suffering. Evidence of it is everywhere: stories, monuments, museums and remnants. In a new patina of constructions, graffiti, posters and old scars, the city rejuvenates. The wall dividing it for decades came down in 1989 and is now an almost invisible double row of zig-zag inlaid bricks running down the middle of roads and across sidewalks. Artists from around the world have been coming here to experience the renaissance and to see if and how they can be a part of it. Its grittiness reminds me of Montreal.

By far the best exhibition in Berlin was Coping by the American artist, Nicole Eisenman. We went to the opening of her new paintings and drawings at Galerie Barbara Weiss. What I enjoyed the most was a tiny room of gouaches and monoprints – gestural sketches of people’s faces crying. Tiny painful drops to floods of dark water bodies squeeze out of surprised eyes and brightly coloured faces. Brilliant and sad. The paintings showed people in various stages of coping: crying with outrageously puffed eyes and noses lieing on the psychiatrist’s couch, beer drinking festivals and dreamscapes of disconnected people mired in streets full of mud. Humourous and sad renditions of our times.

How do we suffer the unsufferable? At best, we suffer with tears and anger and at worst, if pushed too far underground, we suffer poorly with stimulants and violence. Evidence is also there in the people of Berlin. Accompanying a 20% rate of unemployment, Berlin has a solid hard-living core of drinking, smoking, drugtaking and sex tourism. Pushers hang out in parks and join joggers to offer their wares, beer is half the price at home and available everywhere. Smoking is allowed in some bars, otherwise – outside, but cigarettes are advertised on billboards throughout the city. Police are almost invisible. The night is lit with the gentle glow of gas lighting and it feels like night a hundred years ago. The parks are dark. The stars are there.

Impossible to see where I am, from where I’ve been, but being in Berlin has helped me see more clearly, who I come from and where. It gave me several of those AHA! moments.  In a flash, I understood why Protestantism is so dry and why Iraq continues to be demonized. It happened at the Babylonia, Myth and Truth exhibition at the Pergamon Museum. In the early 1900s whole sections of Babylonian sculptures and mosaics were brought to Berlin and installed in this giant complex. The reconstitution of the giant, blue ceramic Gate of Ishtar, the goddess of Babylonia is stunningly beautiful, with its ceramic reliefs of dragons, bulls and lions. This, the Truth section of the exhibition so engrossed me, that I almost forgot the other half of the exhibition. What myth about Babylon could overlook the tower of Babel. I saw images of it looking strangely like the Roman coloseum. And, don’t forget the great mythical allegory of the ultimate queen of wickeness. Bible after Bible is opened to hand-painted images of the whore of Babylon riding her seven-headed monster. They must have really loved her! Painting after painting of Jerusalem, the good, Babylonia, the bad. Add the puritanical zeal of the Reformists, led by Calvin and Luther and everything Roman and Catholic is painted with the same critical brush of Babylonian decadence. A case of hard Reformist advertising I guess, but with all those portrayals of dens of iniquity, it begins to look a lot like pornography for Bible thumping, lip-licking cowards. It is difficult to imagine so much vilifying, all because someone had a hard time dealing with the human body and sexual pleasure.  A lot of the first wave immigrants to North America were from these Reformist groups seeking freedom from religious persecution. Little wonder, the overzealous misreadings of Babylonia are still visible today in our mistrust and fear of Iraq. I’ve been reading Rolland Barthes, Empire of Signs and the following seems so appropriate, ” aux États-unis, c’est le contraire (du Japon) : le sexe est partout sauf dans la sexualité. (in the United States, it is the opposite (of Japan): sex is everywhere except in sexuality. 

We visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Memorial to the Homosexuals persecuted under the National Socialist Regime. Another is also in the works for the Sinti and Roma. There is absolutely no room for hiding behind a name like that. The pamphlet describing the memorials give the reason for their construction as follows, “acknowledging the uniqueness of this crime and historic responsibility is central to the Federal Republic of Germany’s self-understanding.”  Germany has looked hard at itself.

There are two cultures that we can openly make jokes about without being considered racist: German and American.

It takes a lot of courage to deal with one’s past in such a public way, but if our conscience is a vital organ as suggests Martin Amis, (in conversation with Eleanor Wachtel) it needs to be cared for or we suffer the consequences. He compares the vitality of Germany with the extreme high rates of suicide currently affecting the Russian peoples and the refusal of its government to examine past horrors. For me, this highlights the importance of us as Canadians to examine our own sorry history with First Nations Peoples, hopefully a step towards finding accommodating ways for living together. My father’s mother was third-generation Canadian with family origins from Dresden, Germany, making me a strong one-quarter German. I grew up with the lights of Kitchener-Waterloo, formerly Berlin a blurry haze in the western night sky. Her Germaness was never discussed and I now understand her quiet shame. But, we grew up making sauerkraut and my father always planted kohlrabi. I am impressed with the German people’s courage.

Paul and I attended a friend’s performance at a sculpture and performance event in a park in Darmstadt, some four hours south of Berlin. Originally from Germany, she now lives in London and teaches dance and performance at the University of Brighton. When Paul mentioned that he was surprised to see the subway functioning on an honour system, she suggested that it was precisely this need to do the right thing without question that got the German people into trouble -this part of their character leading them to follow a man, persuasive enough to make them answer his call ‘for the good of the Fatherland.’ All her youth, she said she sought to escape everything German. As a result, she has acquired four other languages and lived in several other countries, including Canada.

In preventing repetitions of similar genocides, what seems essential to me is that a nation encourage the development of  an independently thinking and individually responsible citizen? How do we make this happen?

It happens in school, with the arts, with philosophy, with learning how to ask questions…learning that we can ask questions.