Tuesday, February 06, 2007

"Irony was no laughing matter for him"

The quote is Peter Gay's description of Thomas Mann. Weimar Culture, Gay's slim monograph on the subject is, while full of such witty performative prose, (unfortunately) sleep-inducingly dry for readers who haven't already found a Weimar primer (almost rhymes!) elsewhere...

So I glossed over the parts that made my eyes glossy, but I still took away quite a few useful tidbits. Some choice quotes, which struck a chord of interest with me for a variety of aesthetic, theatrical, literary, personal, and political reasons:

  • On the widespread violence that followed the November Revolution which ushered in the Republic: "Everyone was armed, everyone was irritable, and unwilling to accept frustration, many had been trained and remained ready to kill..."
  • On the independent journalists who attempted to reign in the political violence: "[They] fought the assassins with facts and sarcasm."
  • On the sociopolitical efficacy of art: "But for many, even in Weimar, poetry and the theatre were entertaining or civilizing forces, with no, or only indirect and subtle, effects on conviction and conduct...the kind of poet the Germans seemed to love the most lent himself to conflicting interpretations, and could be recited with approval by members of many parties."
  • On political instability in the period: "...in the less than fifteen years of Weimar, there were seventeen governments."
  • On the party press: "...millions of voters read only the newspapers of 'their' party, thus hardening attitudes they already had."
  • On Heidegger: "What Heidegger did was to give philosophical seriousness...to the love affair with unreason and death that dominated so many Germans in this hard time."
  • On Weimar's destruction of the Empire's popular mythology: "By its very existence, the Republic was calculated affront to the heroes and cliches that every German child knew..."
  • On the Bauhaus' pedagogical principles: "...it was not an academy where the great teacher reproduces little editions of himself, but 'a laboratory,' where 'students stimulated teachers' and teacher, students."
  • On Dr. Caligari: "Caligari continues to embody the Weimar spirit to posterity as palpably as Gropius' buildings, Kandinsky's abstractions, Grosz's cartoons, and Marlene Dietrich's legs."
  • On the Weimar artists' reactions to the war: "Poets, dancers, composers, sculptors, even cartoonists, tried out new techniques to rescue the world from itself, or at least to express their disgust with what had happened."
  • On the surge of Weimar playwrights: "These plays had much life, little elegance, and absolutely no humor."
  • On the mirroring of art and life: "Expressionism dominated politics as much as painting or the stage."
  • Willy Haas, film reviewer, on Berlin: "I loved the rapid, quick-witted reply of the Berlin woman above everything, the keen clear reaction of the Berlin audience in the theatre, in the cabaret, on the street and in the cafe, that taking-nothing-solemnly yet taking-seriously of things, that lovely, dry, cool, and yet not cold atmosphere, the indescribable dynamic, the love for work, the enterprise, the readiness to take hard blow--and go on living."
  • On sexual licentiousness: "Young ladies proudly boasted that they were perverted; to be suspected of virginity at sixteen would have been considered a disgrace in every school in Berlin."
  • On Berlin's appeal: "In those days 'one spoke of Berlin as one speaks of a highly desirable woman, whose coldness and coquettishness are widely known'...but she was the center of everyone's fantasies and the goal of everyone's desires."

I learned quite a few German words, my favorite being "Bildungsroman," a literary trope which followed the education of a young man. I also learned about director Leopold Jessner's stock staging device, the Jessnertreppe, "a jagged arrangement of bare steps" on which the actors sat, stood upon to declaim lines, or fell behind to die.

In sum: while I think I've certainly enriched my understanding of the political, literary, and artistic movements that gave rise to the peculiar creature that was Weimar, the book didn't really add too much to the toolkit. I'm excited to read Alexia's copy (hurry up, Lex!) of Mel Gordon's Voluptous Panic, which probably covers similar ground as Gay's book, but sounds, from its description, to devote more attention to the variegated worlds of Weimar performance.

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