Getting away to Europe to write: an English confession

eurostarI had to get away from my desk. From the train window, on this nearly last day of April, the sun shone through a basin of mist somewhere in Essex.  Between glances through the thick window, the phrase ‘the ecstases of temporality’[1] brought me up short. It was jargon, but incontestably true. Nature beyond the sealed packet of window-glass was insurpassable by grimy times. A Victorian church with a spire endured its loss of village and dwindling congregation. Parks of red London buses and fork-lift trucks stood in rows on their home patch. The concrete wall beside the Eurostar track threatened a quick death if we diverted. To feel the ecstasies of temporality is to bring death nearer and wish it might never happen.

It’s spring 2009, and I’m dressed urban-safari-style : jeans, trainers, t-shirt, body-warmer, rain jacket, rain -or-sun hat: camouflage colours except for red and white trainers. Who knows what will happen.

Travelling as thinking is a writer’s instinct, not a philosopher’s. Assume a destination and read a lot on the way. Things will happen and accidents and coincidences are often enlightening. It’s not just a question of a different perspective. On this journey – writing retrospectively now – I pass through chapters of a book, A Shoe Story, yet to be conceived.

I’m enjoying bouts of eye-glutting out of the window in between reading Derrida who advises feeling ‘otherness in the midst of self.’ [2] I’m with him today, happily overwhelmed by otherness.

Strangers and Derrida and I are sharing this chilly air-conditioned carriage, linked only by the radio waves from the phones and the laptops. It reminds me of the moment European painting went abstract. Now, here, the human faculties are outsourced to boxes and sources of reflection. Memory, speech, hearing, orientation: we’ve handed them all over to little robots we carry in our pockets. In extremis we may find that our humanity is like a file we’ve copied somewhere else for safe-keeping; but it may also turn out not to be so, and for all my pessimism there have been enough moments, this year, when earplugs have been pulled out apologetically and replaced with an offer to help.

Why I need others is to give a faint outer edge to whoever is me. Everyone else around me, bound for Europe, is sharply dressed for metropolitan interchange, give or take a few tourists in pastels, but I’m in my adventure playground gear.

No more scenery for a while: we’re in the tunnel. I think, when there’s light again, when we come out the other side, I’ll be in a country where they read Hegel. ‘Aigle’, Derrida wittily called him. When native French speakers struggle with that Germanic name it comes out like ‘aigle’: eagle. Three quarters of a century ago, just when Derrida was born, the German eagle was preparing a lot of trouble for Europe. Europe nevertheless, is a place where Hegel is as important as Napoleon, and, besides war, philosophy has also happened. Everyone knows Hegel was just finishing his magnificent Phenomenology of Spirit as Buonparte won at the battle of Jena.

When there is light I see I’m no longer in England, where I was born and had an unusual education. These green fields on the far side of the Channel are culturally different because they have another name in another language. A single word on a road sign in a traffic-less rural landscape insists RAPPEL. Reminder. That’s different too, what has to be remembered, as I’ve already suggested. When houses approach they have recessed casement windows which look out with other eyes than from behind English sashes.

In fact, what I know from that German-oriented education concerns a  Europe passionate about hope and memory. Hope and Memory is the title of a wonderful book by the critic Tsvetan Todorov. Todorov emigrated, which is to say escaped, from Communist Bulgaria in the 1960s to an intellectually electrifying Paris. He became a structuralist and a Maoist before settling into a more circumspect middle age, and he was in his ideological prime when America discovered him and a host of older Paris luminaries including Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan, at a groundbreaking conference in Baltimore in 1966. The thirty-six-year-old Derrida, Todorov’s coeval, also attended, as a rising star.

The power of memory in the younger French generation, and also its uncertainty and its failings, is what did for the older structuralists, who were too confined to their own time and to their own worries about the rampant rise of consumer society in France. They held the surprisingly optimistic belief that mapping the ‘system’ anthropologically, naming and shaming the culture of power and acquisitiveness and credulity and national assertiveness that held sway, would change it. Derrida wasn’t so optimistic because he had seen Nazism at work in Vichy Algeria. Todorov grew up under the Soviet system, and for both men the war, and the Holocaust, were indelible memories of a mass-seduced human selfhood that gave little ground for moral hope.

What was it worth to be a human self? Not necessarily much. Because of that crisis some of us in the 1980s and 1990s felt that we too had to go through a Vergangenheitsbewältigung, not because we were German accomplices to Nazism, but because we held the view that all humanity was capable of what the Germans had done, and that art and books should speak of that terrible legacy as common human sin. It seemed to us our recent European history was the greatest lapse from grace since the Garden of Eden, a permanent stain on our potential to be good. The sense was vivid because the Holocaust was so recent.

My friend the artist Duncan Higgins was painting into the new century on the related theme of ‘the assassination of memory’. He wanted to face up to the totalitarian past on behalf of those who were not doing so. Russia was singularly bad, in its post-Soviet years, not finding anything amiss in its past; or, if there was something wrong, it swept it arrogantly under the carpet. So Higgins went to Russia first and foremost and most often.

duncan-higgins-unloud-02 Since the problem of violence in the past and violence done to the past by not remembering it grabbed him by the throat he’s produced some richly textured and haunting work. Art seems to him the right place to deal with something so urgently human and simultaneously elusive as the failure to remember, and that’s right, and why German artists of European memory like Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer have in the last decade or so begun to be hailed as among the greatest of their time in the world. Their work builds up of layers of the past, and is shot through with a lament for the very materials that help them as artists record the passing of time.

What Duncan and I have spent the last couple of years discussing is how, alongside art and in tandem with it, continental philosophy also insists on dealing with memory. The systems of classical Reason that philosophy once generated – two and three hundred years ago, say, and above all in the work of Leibniz, Kant and Hegel – are now seen as having forced inchoate Life into an alien mould. Reason has come to be seen as a tool for the colonization of the mind by an imperial power insisting all men and women think in terms of unity and harmony, to keep the empire of Reason together.

Metaphysical Oneness, beginning with the stable identity of all things in existence, seemed to Derrrida’s generation to have committed a sin against the tree of Life; and I took it that the combination of sparsely inhabited nature Higgins filmed in real time, and the mysterious staircase  abandoned from Soviet times, which he filmed himself walking up, and the obscure, encrusted occasional sign of a Gulag State punishment machine not long over, were an artist’s illumination of that philosophical crisis; as if he the artist were once again the scribe decorating the capitals and adorning the irresistible empty space in the margins of our new text of disaster.

To which my tentative contribution is the shuth of A Shoe Story.  Not a true story, but a shoe story, which is to say, one of materiality, rather than abstraction. Shuth then, not truth: not pretty, not pure, not elegant, rather contaminated, but the real condition of how we live.shoes cover

As compared with Outre-Manche, the history of ideas on the English side of the Channel associates Derrida with a dangerous undoing of ‘traditional values’. He’s not the equal of Nietzsche and Marx and Freud, but just as wicked. During the war a very English-minded New Zealander, Karl Popper, wrote two volumes entitled The Open Society and its Enemies in which he attacked these alien minds, and somewhere way back in history, he attacked Plato as their ultimate inspiration. Popper’s two volumes are historically interesting because they convert Britain’s experience of war into a critique of continental philosophy. Popper alleges that Plato and Hegel, and Nietzsche and Marx and Freud are something like wrong ingredients that have gone into the making of the West. Out with them! Whereas poststructuralist Europe engages with these thinkers as great minds who share the difficulties. It takes the view that these multivalent troublesome philosophers are historical fixtures; events that happened. For the power of what they understood they can’t be forgotten or brushed aside, any more than events can. Moreover in their critical reach they can, more than ever now, help a better reconstruction of society after the mass seductions of the twentieth century.

As we glide to a halt beside me a Dutchwoman and an Englishwoman are worrying whether Brussels Midi is the same as Brussels South. None of my business. I’m glad to be here.

The route to Mons toured defunct zinc and copper works on the edge of the city. My destination was the old Belgian coalmining area of the Borinage.  In the draughty, empty train with its practical plastic interior it was still only eleven in the morning as twenty-first century London receded, to make way for a vague, willed, experience, on my part, of the mid nineteenth century. What it might have been like to be alive in Van Gogh’s day. Along the canalside and the railway track the buildings once owned and worked by Brussels factory owners still retain their stencilled names. But in fact these sites of redundant industry, not yet converted to new use, don’t mean anything any more, in a way Heidegger brilliantly pinpointed:

Individual objects get used up and worn out; and with that the practice of using them declines, loses its shine and becomes banal. Something that existed for a purpose now rots away; sinks back into being any old thing. When something that once existed for a purpose declines into purposelessness its reliability vanishes from sight.

Heidegger used the word Verläßlichkeit for ‘reliability’ and normally it would apply to a moral individual choosing to be dependable. But Heidegger reconfigures it as a bond between human beings and the world they build for themselves, allowing them passingly to survive and flourish. All worlds come to an end. To know that is to exist as a Heideggerian human being. We are here and gone.

Beyond the disused factories the land itself was flat as flat can be, with red roofs and the complementary green of spring. As we progressed at workmanlike speed, all any traveller needs, the scenery slipped back and forth between semi-urban and semi-rural, throwing up the usual mixture of old and new and botched and middling and careless and occasionally thoughtful. Someone had made a tower into a dwelling. A twist of ivy on the façade suggested some private battle with aesthetic severity. In half-sun, as we passed a quarry fronted by giant granite cubes, the mud took on a silvery shine.

The name is Mons, with a nasal ‘n’ and an unvoiced ‘s’, otherwise native speakers respond with blank looks. It doesn’t look much from the modern station. Yet its centre on a hilltop – the only hill for miles around – is a grand cobbled square on a slope, with significant buildings from four centuries, and intimate backstreets. English visitors come, generation upon generation, to visit the war graves. Four thousand British troops lost their lives in two days at the start of the Great War. This was also a town the Germans occupied in both wars, because of the fatal hilltop setting, but this history is inscribed on half-hidden memorials, as if it were now only of local interest. After the first war the inhabitants put up a plaque commemorating their losses and their liberation, which the Germans removed when they arrived in 1940, only for Mons to replace the record and add to it in 1948.

Across the far side of the square, next to a branch of a famous upmarket Eurobakery with gorgeous lemon tarts, my Internet-booked hotel was tucked into a side street. It was so acceptable I couldn’t have had a better start. The entrance was through a quiet courtyard and in the small room there was even a table and chair and somewhere to make coffee. It took some resistance to dump my physical baggage and not to sit down and write but to set off.

underpassI paused at the neglected feet of a dozen concrete pillars, my ears blasted by the roar of indifferent traffic overhead. A potentially dodgy underpass was the only way of crossing the wide and busy main road out of town. A lone schoolboy ahead of me put his head down and charged like a bull. I would have liked his company. Back above ground a dingy ribbon development of old terraces, with those new plastic windows which are so disfiguring, drew a ruler-straight line out of Mons. This is where the last miners lived, their places now taken by a variety of low-paid owner-occupiers fond of low-maintenance window frames, and by a pizza shop and a dentist.

You can read of my encounter with the place where van Gogh went for a year to live among the Belgian miners in an early chapter of A Shoe Story. The walk out to Cuesmes, pronounced ‘Kem’,  wasn’t pleasant, but it had to be done, for the sake of being there, in that space. You don’t have the same relationship to the space around you in a car. Space is not abstract and not opposed to us. We are in it and it is in us: another aspect of our Heideggerian being-here.

At the van Gogh museum there was no coffee because I was the only visitor, so I headed for Ceusmes itself.

It had a van Gogh brasserie in the main square and an impressive First World War memorial. Not far away a giant Davy Lamp in the middle of a traffic island paid tribute to yesterday’s miners. The long rows of well-maintained terraced cottages were both more interesting and sadder than any memorial, because their own relatively recent rural peacefulness was ruined by the passing traffic. When they were built they were the tokens of what was to come: the end of the countryside. Now they seemed worth rescuing in themselves. Although the intact countryside wasn’t far away, Cuesmes wasn’t a place to linger, even in the intermittent sunshine, without a philosopher to transfigure it. But then as I walked back towards Mons something fine happened. As I dodged through the stationary queue of homeward traffic, a huge terril loomed into view between the outlying houses of Ceusmes, around the mouth of the industrial estate. It was called l’Héribus and it was a local landmark. The slag heaps of the Borinage are grown over now. Only their name, les terrils is a memorial to what was. And already no longer is, because under protection this terril has reemerged as the local landscape with its own unique vegetation. This accident of the industrial past is now a boon to the flatland and makes one see it anew. Reddish-violet today in one large patch, and green in another, with a long plateau, l’Heribus faintly recalls to my eyes Provence, where Vincent ended up. It suggests Cézanne’s paintings of Mont St Victoire, also the object of a couple of late holiday-pilgrimages by Heideger, and it transforms the less eventful northern landscape. But that was already Vincent’s point, when he juxataposed the two in his head, remembering the Borinage from sunny Arles. ‘J’aime tellement ce triste paysage du Borinage qui toujours me sera inoubliable…C’est en somme dans le Borinage que j’ai, pour la première fois, commencé à travailler sur nature.’[3] ‘I so much love that sad Borinage landscape which I’ll never forget…After all it was in the Borinage that I began for the first time to work on nature.’

‘When did coalmining stop here, Monseiur?’ ‘After the war, but not long after. Early Fifties.’ ‘And you remember it well?’ ‘I do. My father was ten years down the mines and had an office job as well.’ I had got talking to a kindly man in the bus.  I’ll call him Alphonse. Since he was eighty, Alphonse’s father and Derrida’s must have been the same generation. I thought.[4] Both were heirs to a century that worked too hard. Derrida remembered his father, who was a travelling salesman, coming home exhausted in the evenings. ‘That’s true, Madame,’ said Alphonse. ‘My father barely had time to rest. He was always exhausted, poor man.’

The bus was broaching open country now: Alphonse pointed out the slag heaps and the former mining villages as they passed. In fact within a mere fifty years nearly all the visual evidence of the age of labour had gone.

‘Is this my stop?’

‘O la la, madame, it’s long past.’

What both town and country had, to a practised local eye, was more evidence of the last war. The railway stations were flattened, as here at St Ghilaine, and that must account for the unprepossessing approach to Mons. Both were surrounded by too much space, as if they were wearing clothes too big for them. As we sped, at last up and down a fewl hills, through the best part of the countryside, there the house where the German Commandant had lived, now the private home of a former mayor.

So informative was my companion that I stayed on the bus and rode all the way to the French border at Quiévrain, where, there too, the railway station had been closed, and boarded up, this time by the economy-seekers, and, as the big square stayed empty, another world began to slip away.

‘The 17.55 is the best I can do for you.’ That was a friendly way to put it, after I’d been queueing for information at Brussels Midi for twenty minutes. Bureaucracy in Europe has got kinder in my lifetime and the tone successful officials take indicates that they’re up against it too. Information was a space off the main Brussels station concourse, located behind partitions of glass and picked out by bright lights. Would-be travellers were sighing and looking at their watches as if they’d been asked to act the part, and suitcases cluttered every retreat. Successful people management has become ‘We-talk.’ ‘You and I.’ against a common foe. I suspect it’s modern management’s debt to the philosophy of Martin Buber, to the effect that all our relations with the world should be intimate, I-You, and none of them as if between an I and an It, but I won’t press the point. If I can see the movement of ideas in the bizarreries of daily life I’m usually satisfied. That’s postmodern life for you. I settle into a two-hour coffee in the dark catacombs of the station mall. Derrida is a poet really. He writes about understanding the world, pursuing the truth of being, as like spending time lining up a photograph and then not pressing the button: ‘What I would rather cultivate is “holding off abidingly” [retardement a demeure],’[5] he wrote. It’s a spiritual sentiment, I think.

A noisy and expansive group of men with big bellies and gaping jackets turn out to be Brits going home on the Eurostar. It’s difficult to concentrate. Beyond them in the middle of the mall some Belgian soldiers have stripped to their underpants for a reason I can’t work out.

The platform number finally goes up on an old-fashioned mechanical board  where the numbers turn fruit-machine fashion to record arrivals and departures. The train by contrast is rather smart, the enclosed carriages for six like small well-furnished rooms walled in glass. In first class, an open coach at the head of the train, with light streaming in from front windows like upstairs on a London bus, and both sides, there are extra-large seats for over-stuffed people and free hands-on newspapers like the Züricher Zeitung and the Frankfurter Allegemeine and Le Monde. Unable even to steal one because of my upbringing, I slip back into one those second-class glass rooms, nothing inferior about them. It soon fills up. The language shifts from French to German. I speak French to someone in the compartment and German to the ticket collector. The young man by the window exclaims that he doesn’t know which language to address me in and I have a feeling of taking up my true but insecure position in life, between languages. Retardement a demeure. ‘Holding off abidingly.’ Or perhaps never quite understanding and never perfectly communicating. There’s no power to be had in holding off abidingly, but I remember that in the City of God St Augustine said God gave men many tongues in order to disperse power, so perhaps my lot is to feel directly the advantages of that divine intention.

I’m not perfect in any of the languages I’ve learnt now. I can sound the part, but it causes confusion. I’ve seen it in people’s faces in almost every country I’ve ever visited.

There are four of us in a little group on the Frankfurt platform, struggling to hear the message over the tannoy. An affluent middle-class couple returning from holiday with suitcases and a pleasant young man with a backpack. The tannoy message is half-intelligible like most of life. I hazard a guess. Perhaps they’re ‘apologizing’ that our train won’t have a dining car. Everyone seems satisified with that interpretation. But hold on, the woman is staring at me in a suspicious way. I’ve given something away. I’m not German, and it makes her uneasy. People who don’t manifest a clear and present identity cause anxiety these days. Politics has taken over the criteria of the great rationalist systems of philosophy in the seventeenth century. Everything must fit. Everyone must be identified and prove they are identical with themselves.

When we get into the warm, busy, clean train, and are still settling into our seats, the first tannoy announcement is for the dining car. The young man grins at me appreciatively over the seat-tops, as if I had planned the joke all along.

It’s a a six-hour journey from Brussels south to Freiburg-im-Breisgau, but it passes quickly with the Frankfurt stop and before I know it I’m out in the fresh cool air where rain is falling in the dark. Freiburg is a city but it feels like the countryside. The underground departs from above the mainline, and it runs late. Coming up to 1am, drunken Frenchmen dominate the carriage, standing by the door, and I’m struck by how no one dares to say anything, even in orderly Germany.

As the night ticks by, my stop seems to be situated in semi countryside. I’m clutching printed instructions, trying to read them under a streetlight. The rain is pouring down and it’s an epiphanic 2km walk uphill to where I have the promise of resting my head. The peaceful suburban way leads past a branch of the university, and past a large statue of Christ on the Cross, past villas of the same late nineteenth-century vintage, and newer houses, right up to the end of the metalled road to the edge of the forest. The grand narrative of the Catholic church, which formed Martin Heidegger, is still much in evidence in this part of the world.

Tomorrow it will have some odd competition from what looks like an art installation on some small trees opposite the university building. Someone has hung them with (unused) tampons on strings, like upside-down white candles on a Christmas tree. There is a scattering of pantiliners on bushes round about. What is this? An artistic moment, to get us to see certain daily objects anew? Or a cry for help from someone with confused ideas about intimate female hygiene? The emptiness empty or filled with something meaningful, in response to the burden of freedom? I’m always willing to take art seriously.

Up the hill, in sodden trainers, to the Waldhaus hotel, an elegant belle epoque villa, perfectly named and placed for my mission. Water from out of the blackness drips from huge old monkey-puzzle trees. My key nestles in the safe deposit box along with the message: Welcome, Frau Chamberlain, Have a good sleep.                                                                                                     black forest map

I’m travelling, in sunshine today, past a grove of rowan trees so thick with buds it seems as if a haze has settled over them. Translated literally, the place names through the train window hover between ‘the free fortress’ and the ‘kingdom of heaven’ and there is something fairy-tale, after the cramped tawdriness of the northern city, and refreshing, about the Black Forest. Of course I’m thinking principally of London, where I live, and of which I hear it more and more often said, ‘London’s finished’. The infrastructure can’t cope, people are starting to live nineteenth-century lives again, albeit with a mobile. I survive this neo-Engelsian London mostly by walking everywhere and seeing it as locally as I can, each area with its multiple paths and its concealed histories. But sometimes I’m afraid of being caught in the earthquake of daily need. So, yes, it’s good to be away, in a restful, open place like this.

Today’s mode of transport is a local train, three of them in fact, and the carriages are full of suntanned people and bicycles, because it’s a bank holiday. I wish I could draw, to sketch quick mementos of town squares and odd buildings and the shape of the landscape. Great looming towers of evergreen growth, dark insensate columns at base, fragile and animated at their tips, dominate for the first half hour, as the iron way leads out of the Upper Black Forest. The drama diminishes until the trainline skirts Lake Constance: a reliable place, Heidegger might say, for swimming and walking and sailing. The land is flat and the mood serene. Hard to believe but Heidegger enjoyed messing about in inflatables.

I’ve written a lot about him, articles in the TLS, and Standpoint, about his life and about his thinking, not to present him as a nice man but because he happened, to philosophy and to Germany, and actually, as I explain in A Shoe Story, he helped change all our lives with a view of art not as object but as event.

‘Is this the famous Feldweg?’

‘You want to see where Martin and his brother tickled trout, eh?’ I choose a man with a suntanned open face to ask for advice and he repays me with a sense of humour. He’s polite, but I can see he’s not keen to be mobilized in the service of Heidegger-worship. Messkirch, Heidegger’s birthplace, is a normal small town with all mod. cons. today.

‘I do want to walk along the Feldweg, but I have to see the museum.’

‘And the cemetery perhaps?’

‘I should do that too. Will the Feldweg take me long?’ Not the right attitude, but there’s only one bus back this afternoon. The trainline was axed some time ago.

‘Not long. Heidegger’s Feldweg goes through the middle of a housing estate now. But you can walk to the end of the palace garden. That’s pleasant enough.’

We’re standing in the courtyard of the calm, elegant Renaissance palace which houses the Heidegger museum. In a pleasing ensemble with the later church it dominates Messkirch.

The castle garden which contains the remnant Feldweg is a formal oasis in the unseasonal heat. Under leafy arcades along sand-coloured paths and past a modest fountain mostly women wander through the castle garden in pairs, talking quietly, as if we were caught up in an eighteenth-century court play rather than enjoying a quiet afternoon free from work early in the twenty-first. When I hoist myself up on the grand perimeter wall, a metre thick and with a thirty metre drop onto the occasional traffic below, it’s warm as a cow’s flank and densely walllike.

I’d like to move on but I can’t. There are pictures of the war here. I describe them in A Shoe Story.  They remind me of talking to Alphonse in Belgium. ‘I was ten when they declared war,’ he had volunteered as the bus turned into the town of St Ghilaine. He read my thoughts. ‘All flattened in a night by the Germans. Tout rasé.’ The station used to be a lovely old building. Boff! Les Allemands!’

Loss is the deepest emotion we have, and war concentrates it. Wherever I travel, most often these days in Spain, Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, Holland, the Czech Lands, within minutes of walking through a town I see wall tablets remembering the victims of the second world war, and, especially, in Belgium and in Britain, to the first. There are many memorials to the Great War of 1914-18 in British villages and towns, with 1939-45 tacked on. But our British experience of war was so different, because there was no German occupation, and no Jews were sent to their deaths, and no members of the Resistance were shot in the streets. In Amsterdam when I get there on Sunday there will be more memorials to dissident Dutchmen shot in the street, and while several thousand people queue in the rain to see van Gogh another 600 will form an orderly queue to see the house of Anne Frank, the Jewish girl who kept a diary while her family tried, unsuccessfully, to escape deportation. In Germany, in a Freiburg office window there will be the pictures and life stories of half-a-dozen Ukrainians brought to Germany as forced workers in 1939-45 and then repatriated to Stalin’s Russia. Some survived to return as guests of the city and their accounts of their return round out this display.

If you look back to run-of-the-mill German responses immediately after the war, to personal statements and private letters, and when Heidegger privately felt shame but refused to apologise publicly for his role in what went wrong, the general clamour was ‘Hitler punished us’, ‘We suffered too.’ But the world rejected this self-pity. No equivocations were possible, and especially not after the Holocaust, the full impact of which would not begin to be publicly registered in any country until the late 1960s. The famous Historikerstreit of the 1980s. the ‘quarrel among the historians’, took up the issue of how to face the past, and whether Germany could ever move on, on what terms.

Actually they have moved on, and have become, in the twenty-first century, one of the most respected, humanly and culturally, countries in the world.

So now to return to my base in Freiburg. On the bus where I am the only passenger the driver is the same one who drove me this morning from the last train stop beside the lake at Ludwigshafen. ‘You’re Russian, aren’t you?’ We spoke German and I could hear the accent. I had lived in Moscow. He had lived in Kazakhstan. He had married one of the ethnic Germans from the Volga region whom Stalin forcibly removed to Kazakhstan during the war and after 1991 they decided to make a new life in Germany. He liked this country where his grown-up sons were thriving. He only regretted having to drive a bus.

Sergei was moved by his emotional memories. He got louder and louder. I remember him saying, I’m not a drunkard, but I like a drink or two. I was moved too. I wanted to tell him how Soviet Russia, that monstruously irrational place, but with a golden heart in it aspiring to the Platonic good life, its nineteenth-century Tolstoyan toughness, close to Being, totally took over my life three decades ago. Not as politics from any standpoint, but as the glamour of austerity. Give me a sack and a blanket and a pair of van Gogh boots to walk in. Oh and a computer. The empty bus grew wings. It would either fly me back to Freiburg or skip a bend and goodbye, in an ecstasy of temporality.

The next day’s trip, described in A Shoe Story and also in an essay I wrote at the time, was to Heidegger’s retreat in Todtnauberg.

Some scholars treat the hut as a shrine. Hugo Ott, who wrote his groundbreaking political biography of the philosopher in 1988, noted the unnamed American scholar who, when Ott clarified the extent of Heidegger’s flirtation with Nazism, accused Ott of sullying the holy name. Nothing like that for me. But still there’s so much to learn from being in the place itself. I found too that  Martin’s only other luxury in the hut, after electricity, was the purchase of a transistor radio in 1962, to follow the Cuban Missile Crisis, when it seemed to him the Russians really were about to unleash nuclear war. Here’s a letter he wrote twelve years earlier to Karl Jaspers on the same subject.

The business of evil is not over. It has only just appeared on the world stage. In 1933 and before that the Jews and politicians on the Left, as those immediately threatened, saw things more clearly, sharply and with more foresight. Now it’s our turn. I’m not imagining anything. I know from our son in Russia that once again my name is on top of a list and that any day the threat can become a reality. Stalin has no need to declare war. Every day he wins a battle. But ‘people’ don’t see that. On our part too we’re not going to give up. And every word and every piece of writing is in itself a counter-attack, even if none of this happens in the ‘political’ sphere any more, that realm having long ago exhausted itself and been reduced to a shadow existence.

…Despite all that, dear Jaspers, despite death and tears, horror and suffering, need and torment, despite no ground beneath one’s feet and banishment, it’s not that nothing happens in this homelessness; an advent is concealed there, the most distant sign of which we can perhaps still feel in a gentle breeze and which we must seize, in order to preserve it for a future, which no historical construction, and above all not today’s technological way of thinking, will be able to puzzle out.[6]

In 1950, with Nazism defeated, Heidegger was almost unhinged with worry about the Soviet threat. He interpreted it as the most enduring of the twentieth century’s mechanized applications of instrumental reason to all forms of life, and it would continue to nag him for the rest of his days.

Big names came to visit him up here after the war: the theologian Rudolph Bultmann, the writer Ernst Jünger, the physicists Heidenberg and Carl von Weizsäcker, the poet Paul Celan, the philosophers Adorno and Gadamer. The hut became a moral meeting-place, like Belfast in the 1990s, or Ramalah today. The question for the physicists and the theologian was, in the 1950s, the atom bomb, against which Heidegger’s attacks on technology could be marshalled. Famously Celan, whose parents had been murdered in Auschwitz, came to see if he could prise a word of sympathy or apology out of Heidegger, who failed to offer it. But then it was an awkward, set-up business on both sides, and no one in private life wants to be manipulated by the publicists who deal in political images.

Todtnauberg is a place with many kinds of snow. Today the varieties are slushy, crisp, glistening, speckled with pineneedles like a Spekulatius cake, grainy and stodgy as wet sugar. Today at the end of April there’s so much water running, gurgling, spilling down gulleys you might think you’d discovered what water was, or that you were back with van Gogh at Cuesmes.

Derrida said rightly of The Origin of the Work of Art, written up here that it was a meditation on art and place, and a potential source of rejuvenation for art. That said though you can’t read Heidegger’s rather philistine ideas on art without a sense of what has also been lost.

The Waldhaus, my bed for the three nights at the heart of my trip, was a charitable refuge: a grand, turn-of-the-century villa in beautiful, peaceful surroundings, with a mission to broaden knowledge and human contact. The sun sliced through the fir trees the morning I left. There was just time for a health-giving German breakfast out on the terrace among the viola da gamba players who had been serenading me in the evenings, and I was off. The wind turbines across the valley waved their balletic arms and I waved back.

There was a huge queue for the bakery at the modern, light-filled station and I just manage to take something flaky and sweet with me on the 0903, destination Amsterdam. ‘Not exactly round the corner, is it,’ joked the ticket clerk. But I love trains, and I was looking forward to the next nine hours.

An hour out of Freiburg, as the line followed the Rhine on its journey towards the North Sea, was Mannheim, an industrial city reaching out across the broad river to its neighbour Ludwigshafen. I was 14 when my school sent me to Mannheim. I lived with a family in a small high-rise flat where my job was to find out, in the year 1965, that Germans were people too.

U.S. troops tackling snipers in Mannheim on the day of its capture, March 25, 1945. I arrived as a schoolgirl 20 years later.

U.S. troops tackling snipers in Mannheim on the day of its capture, March 25, 1945. I arrived as a schoolgirl 20 years later.

The emotional idea of post-war Europe is about as old as me and I’m not ready to give it up and I’m sorry it’s become politically so fragile.

Via Amsterdam, another Shoe Story episode, I make my way back to London.

A Few References

[1] Costas Douzinas, ‘Derrida’s Eulogy’, Adieu Derrida (2007) p.8: a phrase written in memoriam for a unique performer.

[2] Ibid. p6.

[3] Letter to Eugene Boch, Arles 1888.

[4] Aimé Derrida was born in 1896.

[5] Derrida Counterpath 104-5.

[6] 24 April, 1950

 

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