Germania

It occurs to me that I never exploited the opportunity to talk about my trip to Germany this past summer. Like Tacitus before me, Germany and its inhabitants made quite an impression on me.

To recount the trip chronologically would be to discount the really amazing experiences; as humans we have no choice but to experience life chronologically, but our minds recollect the highs and lows of an experience, and tend to cut out the tedious passage of time.  In that spirit, I’ll try to cut out the tedious parts.

The lasting impression I have of that trip is the sense of belonging.  Totally contrary to the fact that my family left Germany over a hundred years ago, and little mention is made of it among my family, I felt as if I had grown up there, and I was as much a part of Germany as it was of me.

Of course, there are the more ephemeral day to day experiences that I can only now recall through photos.  Even if it’s only a snapshot of Charlemagne’s chapel, all of my senses remember the moment I took this picture.706 The glittering mosaic inside, the musty air, my fingers tracing the 1300 year old stones, worn smooth by 13 centuries of curious visitors just like me.  It’s not just the place that looms large; it’s the feeling of closeness to an ancient European monarch whose accomplishments shaped the modern world in ways I never thought possible.

Maybe that’s why I feel a closeness with Germany- 5 years of studying German language and literature grants me a more profound understanding of Germany than my own country.  My studies began with Germania, a text by the Roman historian Tacitus (mentioned above).  His goal was to understand the Germanic tribes, while his contemporary Romans wanted to conquer them.  Both Tacitus and Roman generals found the Germans to be worthy enemies, and to this day the score still stands Germanic Tribes 1, Roman Empire 0.

Next, the Oaths of Strasbourg, a document from 842 whose historical importance can’t be overstated.  The oaths taken were between the grandsons of Charlemagne, specifically two jerkwads who happened to rule what is modern day France and Germany respectively.  They agreed that they should kick the crap out of Lothair, who ruled the territory between France and Germany, now called Alsace-Lorraine.  Brotherly feuds aside, the Oaths are the earliest written example of three distinct European languages: Early French, Early German, and Latin.  The two conspiratorial brothers vowed in each other’s language to protect one another and gang up on Lothair using exactly the same vow, which had the result of three different languages presented alongside one another for future linguists to drool over.

Fast forward to the Middle Ages, a period of great literary development, despite the undeserved moniker of the ‘Dark Ages’ (their age being no less dark than our own).  German folk tales and cautionary stories are at once witty and gruesome, my favorite example being Till Eulenspiegel, noted for farting, stealing shoes, and skinning dogs alive to trade their fur to the blind owner of an inn.  Of course, he always got his just desserts, usually in the form of some public humiliation.

A couple hundred years later, the Reformation happened.  Reformationist literature is extremely interesting, not only for its strong arguments against the Catholic church, but particularly for being wildly anti-semitic (looking at you, Martin Luther).

Then, the nationalist period began to pervade the literature of the 18th and 19th centuries.  A little known fact about Germany is that it didn’t officially become a country until 1871, almost 100 years after the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain.  Up until that time, it was a loose coalition of kingdoms, fiefdoms, and other sorts of doms.  Thus, there was a pervasive feeling of inferiority; neighbouring lands like France, England, Spain, and even Russia had been unified for hundreds of years; Germany was a day late and a dollar short.  Unfortunately, this led to a super-charged nationalism that would start two World Wars and drastically alter the course of human civilisation.

The literature of 20th century Germany is immensely depressing.  It reanimates the suffering and grief of those who lived and died during both World Wars, and the uncertainty between them, with chilling clarity.  I think anyone who reads and comprehends the stories of this time would be a lifelong pacifist.  In many ways, reading from this time period is like a hallucinogenic drug- a little is safe, and can conjure up thoughts and emotions beyond your own experience.  Too much, however, can be poison and alter your reality permanently.  A favorite of mine is Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan, by Bertolt Brecht.

Covering 13 centuries of German literature is only a beginning to understanding Germany- it took me five years, and I’ve only dipped my toe in.  If you’d like to learn more about German Lit, consult your local librarian!

The Poetry of Google Voice

This is the result of a voicemail transcribed by Google Voice.  Try not to get too freaked out by its digital prose:

Wanted to email us at the Global voice thing that’s weird. Anyway, she says houses andlet’s see. It’s all but the fire department is going to come over after I get off work andso I might be a little bit late picking you up if you can end up being a ride, because I’mgonna happen fast and see if you have a common monoxide bleak. I was just time. Ican’t ever breathe exhausted because I’m outta shape, and I a bad things. I’m hopingthat’s the truth. But anyway, hope you having a good day.

Review: Uglies and Pretties

One of my favorite memories snuck into the present this weekend- the memory of being so absorbed in a book that I barely notice outside stimuli.  I read the 2nd book in the Scott Westerfeld Uglies series (which is in fact titled Pretties).  Westerfeld panders to all my literary indulgences: post-apacolyptic visions, the inhumanity of humans in danger, speedy plot and character development, and a tender (but not overbearing) romantic plot filled with betrayal.  Most of all, reflection on what brought about the collapse of civilization as we know it.

The latter is a tricky thing- it can only be hinted at, never fully grasped in order to be satisfying.  Too much science fiction ends up reading like a history book- a long string of events leading to an inevitable end. I lust for mystery, not history – the less details, the better.  That said, it still has to be plausible; plausible enough for me to think about how my personal actions would contribute to the downfall.  Uglies exceeds my expectations on almost every mark, and was so satisfying that I regretted having finished it so quickly.  Then I bought the 2nd book, Pretties, and finished in on a single sunny Monday, mostly while lying in the grass on the University of Illinois quad.  So much for making it last longer.

Getting ahold of that first book was mostly serendipitous- April’s taking a master’s course in Young Adult literature, and I just picked it up one night on a whim.  Just like that, my faith in modern science fiction began to return.

There are only two books left in the series, and I hope it takes me longer to finish them.

A month of Margaret Atwood

I finished two Margaret Atwood books in May- the first being Oryx & Crake, and the second being the more famous Handmaid’s Tale.

I’ll start by saying that I enjoyed the former more than the latter- I’m a sucker for plausible sci-fi.  Oryx and Crake is a story about the future of genetic alteration, which I feel is an inevitable outcome of the current pursuit of the human genome.  Of course, what makes it an interesting topic is the horrible, dystopian society that comes from genetic manipulation gone too far.  Too far is an interesting concept, in that it is only apparent after the event, which makes me wonder what will be the real ‘too far’.  Will it be designer humans, who’s lack of physical flaw makes them shallow and uninteresting?  Or, will it be a more sinister development, like a disease that infects people with certain genetic traits?

In any case, genetic tampering is destined to have an amibiguous impact on our species, sort of like atomic fission.  The technology has the potential to ensure our survival for centuries, but in practicality brings us even closer to annihilation.

The other book, The Handmaid’s Tale, is less science-fictiony.  It’s the story of a society that has slipped into a strict male hegemony, where fertile women are forced to copulate, so that they might reverse the negative birthrate that is crippling society.

What struck me about the style of both books is that they stay focused on the human emotions, and how they are affected by the events of the story.  Stories that just focus on some grim, dystopian future can get pretty boring without emotional depth.  I think that’s what I used to like about The Simpsons- the first couple of seasons had plausible events, real emotional texture, and rough production values.  Now, the picture is sharp, and every episode involves a robot or a trip to the mountains/ocean/moon.

What happened?

The Golden Compass

In spite of the trials of the last few weeks, I really enjoyed reading The Golden Compass.  For me, reading fantasy is one of the most immersive experiences you can get.  In comparison to fantasy, reality-fiction or even movies are a bore.  Why should that be?  I’ve heard that the more difficulty people have dealing the world the live in, the more likely they are to embrace alternate realities.

Whatever the case, I relished every page of the book, and dreaded having to finish it.  The story takes place in an alternate universe, similar in many respects to our own; the most intriguing difference (in my opinion) is that every human has a daemon, which is an animal companion that is the equivalent of a soul.  A daemon is consciously bound to it’s human, and vice-versa.  The story stresses how comforting it is to have a constant companion who can share your thoughts and emotions- an interesting concept.  Whatever the nature of love is, I don’t think love attains the level of complexity and closeness that this bond represents.

I was also interested to uncover the purported anti-clerical motives in the book.  Specifically, I’d heard that the book railed against the abuses of the Catholic Church, portrayed by the sinister Magesterium that stalks the main character Lyra.  Frankly, I don’t see what the big deal is- the book is no more critical than a thousand other anti-Catholic texts, all of which contain a kernel of truth about the historical misdeeds of the Church.  I guess it’s the time we live in- the book was published around 1995, a time when the eternal religious hysteria combined with a newly-developing hysteria that criticism (justified or not) of any single group or belief was wrong (I recently read about another manifestion of this hysteria- a row over the Q’uran being on a low shelf in the library, next to the Bible and Torah.  Evidently, Islam dictates that their Holy Book must be placed above all others.  Pragmatic librarians and Christians disagree, for different reasons).

The story was well-crafted and the characters were complex, but I was confused by the writing at times.  Some things I had to re-read 10 times, just to make sure I understood the meaning (and sometimes I couldn’t understand even then).

Anyway, it’s a good read that I heartily recommend.