Doing Write by History

‘Nothing to see here,’ said the cameraman. And before I could even object — ‘But that’s the point!’ — the crew had started their long slog back to the U-Bahn station. Their patience had been overextended one time too many.

They were right.
There was nothing to see.
And I was right too.
That was exactly the point.

The camera crew was there to tape a three-minute segment to be aired on Belgian television on the occasion of my nomination for a literary award (which I didn’t win). I had just finished this big brick of a novel, a web of interweaving stories set largely in Berlin in the 1930s and 1940s (and in Los Alamos and in a barely post-GDR Potsdam). The Flemish Broadcasting Corporation had dispatched a crew to Berlin, the city that forever sings and sighs, and I had schlepped them to the Scheunenviertel, the old and former Jewish quarter, to the spot at the Grosse Hamburger Strasse where the Jewish cemetery used to be. Since its conception in 1672, some 12,000 people had been buried there; in 1943 the Gestapo decided that the presence of these dead Jews in the heart of the city was too offensive to be tolerated – they dug up the remains and threw them out, and reused the gravestones as trench supports. The twenty-eight stones that somehow survived are now set in the wall, and in 1990 a new monument was erected on the site where Moses Mendelssohn’s grave was presumed to be. The rest is an unnamed park, a sorry expanse of grass and mud. Next to the cemetery stood the Jewish nursing home, which became the collection point for the deportation of the Berlin Jews — from here 55,696 left for the flames.

Nothing to see there.
Which was exactly my point.

What I saw, was this. Or at least, this is what I had written in Omega Minor:
Stella and I stand by the window. She tells me about the old Sammellager in the nursing home at the Grosse Hamburger Strasse in the heart of the Scheunenviertel — in the shadows of the golden dome of the Great Synagogue. You could see the oldest Jewish cemetery of Berlin from her window. She had a good view of the grave of Moses Mendelssohn, the great scholar and philosopher from the time of Frederick the Great. Mendelssohn was a big proponent of integration of Jews and Germans. As a service to the gentiles, he had translated the Torah into German.

Her very first night there Stella stood at the window. On an open space in that venerable cemetery with its picturesquely sunken monuments there was much laughter and merriment. A few of the guards had taken off their uniform jackets; they were playing soccer. Four jackets marked the goal posts. ‘The ball they were using must be flat, I thought, it refuses to bounce. Then I had a closer look. The object that they hit and kicked back and forth was not a ball. It was a human skull.’ Stella wipes her eyelids with her thumbs. That window, with its view of her captors toying with death while the fruit trees bloomed, all that was long past — way back in the springtime of 1943.

This happened. That is, somebody witnessed this scene and remembered it long after the war and wrote it down and when I was working on my novel I read that account and reimagining the scene I wrote it down again. And you, dear reader, have now read this scene as well and now you too have a vivid image and you too will see this in your mind’s eye when you visit Grosse Hamburger Strasse in Berlin. When you go there you will be, like me, surrounded by ghosts. Or, more accurately, by ghosts of ghosts.

When the three-minute segment aired on Flemish TV, there was a lot of voice-over; the footage was of the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag and Alexander Platz.

Something to see there, I suppose, something to catch the camera’s eye.

One of the enduring mysteries of humankind is this: Why are we addicted to art?

Addictions tend to be opportunistic artifacts of evolution. Heroin usurps the μ-opioid receptors of our painkilling system and does a much better job at curing life’s aches than our home-made endorphins do. Nicotine tickles the reward centre of the brain and then snubs it, acting just like the fickle lover we cannot leave. And art (music, literature, sculpture, painting, ballet, architecture), it seems, is a byproduct of humanity’s most urgent social need, the need for gossip.

Or so the story goes.

Apes have this grooming habit: they stroke one another’s fur, and so they build their social circle. Make a new friend? Groom. Want to get something done? Groom. Need to apologize? Groom. Humans tend to gather in groups of 150, way too big for grooming.  That is, claims Dunbar, why we grew a large forebrain and that is why we grew the joys of language. Instead of cementing our ties of friendship hands on scalp, we say it with words.

It turns out that evolution’s invention of the word was pure genius.

We live by gossip; dish is the preferred food of the human mind. The Daily Mail fulfils a much more ancient need than the Times; without Paris Hilton or Britney Spears there would be no Shakespeare; slap the sobriquet ‘Based on a True Story’ on any book or movie and folks will flock.

A well-groomed chimp’s brain is soaked in opiates. So is yours when a fellow human being engages you in banter — any banter. You will get positively giddy when that person shares the utmost gift with you: the gift of gossip.

The gift of story, in other words.

Or put still differently: our need for gossip is primal, the world of ideas and chiseled prose and Freudian analysis is a freebie, a side effect, the dust of cocoa on the morning latte.

Words, sentences, stories. String enough of them together, and you have the world. Read all of them, and you know the world.

Many of us are embarking on that project right now. To read. Because we cannot experience everything. Reading is not a substitute. Reading is experience.

Omega Minor started exactly that way. With a stutter of unknowing, a craving for the story. On a cold February day in 1995, when I, much younger, emerged from a subway station in Berlin on to a vast expanse of neo-classical square — the Mitte station, because Mitte means ‘centre’ or ‘heart’, and the heart of the matter seemed as meaty a place to start my explorations from as any — and was greeted by a faint glow emanating from the pavement. When I approached, I found a small underground chamber, lined with empty white bookshelves. Next to the hole a plaque with a Heine quote: ‘That was only the beginning. It starts by burning books, soon human flesh will burn.’

Of course I knew the history; of course I had heard of the book burning of 1933. I knew the history — I did not know the stories, and at my feet now lay a well of them. The void underneath that glass pane was never merely an absence of books. Again, from Omega Minor:

Righteous Jews so respect the name of God that they do not dare pronounce it or write it down without at least censoring the vowels, and they never throw away even the smallest slip of paper for fear it might carry the Lord’s name and that they thereby are destroying a piece of YHVH Himself. In the Jewish archive in Cairo everything gets saved: marriage contracts, love poems, bookseller’s catalogues, everything, including shopping lists. In the shtetl, in the eastern lands, every synagogue has a big wooden vat in the back where the faithful deposit their old books and newspapers. The vat is emptied from time to time but the paper is stored indefinitely in the temple’s basement. Read all those old stories from the Talmud and the kabala and the folktales from Poland and Russia: long-lost books reappear in hidden caves, letters rise up from the page, names are etched into foreheads. The correct pronunciation of a word can make the difference between heaven and hell. Burning a book means more than giving up a part of one’s possessions: it means selling one’s soul to an evil spirit. From now on, all personal quests into the roots of the world and all free research into the limits of morality will be illegal pursuits.

The void in the heart of Berlin is not just the absence of books, or even of their owners or their writers. It is the chilling absence of  God Himself.

Young writers are often told to write about what they know.
That advice is solid.
Except that it is often read as: write about what you already know.
Nine times out of ten, that leads to something utterly dead.
I say: if you want to write, go out in the world and get to know something.Then write, with wonder, about your fresh discovery.

Nothing trumps the need to know.

Or rather: the need to remember.

History is the memory of a society and memory equates identity. We are not what we’ve lived through; we are what we remember we have lived through — there’s a difference. Alzheimer’s disease is a prime example: every Alzheimer’s patient has her past intact; what is happening is that the memories of that past fade away until the patient is awash in an interminable present. That present makes no sense, for there is nothing that precedes it. There is still a temperament, a personality; there are motor memories and gestures, the end results of lifelong conditioning: a frame if you will, but the portrait that once hung inside it is irretrievably lost.

The memories that make us are not the facts of our lives. They are not lists, not words, not even sentences. They are a tangle of episodes, a mess of hyperlinks, the self-perceived arc to our human years. Our memories are stories.

So too it is with societies.

I am not speaking here of the oft-proclaimed requirement to keep the past alive so we can learn from it. (Or, more sinister, the powerful attempts by totalitarian regimes to bury it so that the regime can feel exempt of history’s rules.) One of the lessons from the past is that we never heed the lessons of the past – Rwanda, Darfur, the invasion of Iraq: it’s all déjà vu.

When Primo Levi wrote the first instalment of his Holocaust memoirs in 1946, no serious publisher wanted to have anything to do with them. Nobody wanted to read that depressing stuff, they said. They were right, for a while. The first edition sold a mere 1,500 copies. Levi’s was a tale we were not ready to face, back in 1946. It finally reached us — like Wiesel’s and those of countless others. Because it had to.

There are many such artists. Kurt Vonnegut forced America to deal with the massacre of Dresden. He had to, he felt: he had lived through it. But living was not enough, the detailed description insufficient. Vonnegut refused to write about the fire bombing until he got the form just right; it took him almost 25 years. He needed to invent time travel first, and a planet where everything happens simultaneously so that there are no unknowns but only inevitables, and so that his book was as little anti-war as it was anti-glacier. So it goes, he famously wrote on almost every page. In other words: this is who we humans are — there is no nobility in us, and no learning. Our time is up. Now go and deal with it. Francis Ford Coppola reincarnated Conrad’s Congo story in the mad chaos of the Vietnam War where America was fighting for the ‘biggest nothing in history’. The ease of transposition should have warned us that the story was more timeless than its setting suggested. Toni Morrison insisted on keeping slavery alive in her nation’s awareness; she did so with the simple story of a single woman killing her child. Solzhenitsyn showed the world what the Whiskered One was really up to. And so on. Each of these writers and artists managed to take a breathtaking subject and do something even more breathtaking with it, something that could not have been conveyed through however many newspaper clippings or however many stacks of professorial treatises. When I want to learn about, say, America in the 1920s, I turn to F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos first. Berlin at that time period? Alfred Döblin. Like newspaper journalists, writers squeeze the juice of details out of life, but they pour it into a wider river; like historians, they insist on the overview, but they also follow each individual leaf of grass as it tumbles down the stream. And then it all meets the ocean. Evaporates. Condenses. Precipitates. Repeat.

Here is another metaphor: storytellers spin their tales inside those silk cocoons lie the biting worms of truth.

Take Stella — you met her in the opening paragraphs. I based her on a ‘real’ woman, Stella Goldschlag, who although  Jewish worked as a ‘catcher’ for the Nazis: she made her living pointing out fellow Jews to the Gestapo. For every person she brought in, the Gestapo paid her 20 Deutschmark. More importantly they promised her that for every catch they would not kill one person of her choice. That was a lie. When Stella found out, she decided to keep up her gruesome business, if just to save her own life and that of her fellow-catcher boyfriend.

Clearly, Stella is not a person any of us would want to be. But her story haunted me all the years I carried my novel around in my mind and in my heart. Stella kept asking me the same question, over and over again: what would I have done? Would I have betrayed countless nameless strangers to save my mother? And when my mother was gone, would I have done the right thing and placed those handfuls of nameless lives above my own? Then it hit me that I would never know. We cannot fully know a fellow human being unless we are them, unless we are placed in the exact same circumstances. A trite lesson, but a lesson nevertheless. In my book, I let her be. I had to. She appears, she plays her part, she is who she is. I left the worm gnawing.

When I sank on my knees to peer down into the glass pane on what used to be Opernplatz, I did not know what I was going to see. Empty bookshelves and my own reflection, darkly, those were to be expected — but there also appeared an unknown host of folks behind me. Stella, it turned out, was one of those coinciding with my mirror image on the milky glass. She came unbidden and unwanted, but her story became one I needed to tell. Her ghostly presence and that of so many others — 55,696 and more — did not make Berlin a more beautiful or a more inhabitable place to me. But it did make the Berlin in my mind truer to itself.

That is the magic of writing: to make, by creating, the world more like itself.

The Grosse Hamburger Strasse has many authors, Josef Goebbels among them. His fever to make Berlin Judenfrei extended even to the cemetery; even dead Jews were an affront to the Aryan nation. Maybe he took a walk there in the early snow of November 1943, hands folded behind his back, murmuring both happily and sadly to himself: ‘Nothing to see here’.

I see his hunched back in the retreating back of the cameraman.

Paul Verhaeghen is a cognitive psychologist. His novel Omega Minor, translated from the Dutch, won the 2008 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Paul Verhaeghen will be appearing at Jewish Book Week 2009

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