Saturday, July 9, 2011

Neue Sachlichkeit und andere Geschichte

Weimar's New Woman:
short-haired, smoking, thin, intellectual.
August Sander photograph of Sonia Schad, wife of
Neue Sachlichkeit painter Christian Schad
(photo credit)
Darlings, let's have a flashback. Look there. Yes, just there, through the glass of the closed-door private study room on the second floor of the Juniata College Library. That's me, head bowed near the desk lamp, which creates a deceptive halo of light in my short blonde hair. I'm in a blue hooded sweatshirt and a pair of black jeans I've worn since eighth grade (so ripped in places that it is necessary for me to wear red or mustard colored tights underneath to remain socially acceptable).

Yes, okay. Sure, I'll admit it. I have added to the graffiti on the wooden desk inside this closed carrel. I come back each evening and find there is more to the animated graffiti conversation I'm having with some sports-obsessed wanker. Anyway, I'm done studying for the night, or maybe I'm taking a break. I have left the carrel for a moment, gone to the stacks, and pulled out a book on Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). This is the way I reward myself after I have to study something especially tedious, like biology.

On the cover of one of these books is a painting by Otto Dix of the German Journalist and Poet Sylvia "Sy" von Harden. I find the image vaguely revolting but also entirely fascinating. It is this regular visual communing with paintings, like the ones below, that marks the beginning of my obsession with what I consider (at the time) to be German Expressionism, although this was not Expressionism. It is the antedote to the emotion associated with Expressionism. It was a new kind of perspective, a perspective gained on the back side of the Treaty of Versailles, on the back side of starvation and horrible inflation. Gone are colorful representations of idyllic Primitivism. In their place is a representation of humanity's terrible imperfections, rendered with technical virtuosity and Duerer-like precision.

Otto Dix, Portrait of Sylvia "Sy" von Harden
This painting was recreated in an opening scene of
the film Cabaret.
And then, there are allegories, visual allegories on the perils and outcomes of war, like Rudolf Schlichter's "Blind Power" (below). Other paintings depict the almost syphilitic post-war excesses (and privations) of the politically precarious Weimar Republic. In November 2002, I wrote an article on this for the European Journal of Cultural Studies. The article considered three books dealing with three vastly different facets of Weimar. They were universally scholarly subject references, but ones which discussed vital period themes: 1) The New Woman and how she was shaped by popular literature, 2) The Culture of Spectacle, 3) the reciprocal relationship between the faltering economy and the culture it supported (and sometimes failed to fully support...the black market was wild in 1920s Germany).

I'll admit that I'm still entirely blown down by this period in history. And I'm blown down specifically by Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, not as much by America and its era of Prohibition and speakeasy culture. Our media outlets talk about the dire circumstances of contemporary society. But think was it must have been like for those who came home from inhuman (and inhumane) front experience, their feet likely rotting from weeks of immersion in water. Some were maimed, while many others were yet in a constant state of alert and fear that would never truly abate. And then they come home to what? Brown shirts, violent power struggles, a worthless currency. And almost complete chaos and degradation, thanks to the Versailles Treaty, a punitive tool that only made things much worse.

But I realize, yes, I'm rambling. I know. Over the past week, I've been working on a series of different things. I finished the Elgin story and have submitted it to Weird Tales. I've got another venue lined up once it's rejected, which it surely will be. This is the way of all literary things for me, it seems. It doesn't mean that I'll stop trying. Tonight, in Barnes and Noble, Michael pointed out to me the book A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I laughed a little when I saw this because I remember what happened to Toole, or more accurately what Toole did to himself in the face of such universal rejection. It's definitely not that I find it funny; I find it sad beyond words. I sympathize with him more that I care to go into here. We're all yelling into the wind, while the world blows crap in our faces. I feel that every time I sit down to write something. Sure, A Confederacy finally made it into print, but only after Toole's suicide and through the dogged determination of his mother, Thelma, and to Loyola University Professor Walker Percy. And then, low and behold, it won a Pulitzer. Now, why, publishers, was that so freaking difficult to accept? No, seriously.

Anyway, since it really might never see the light of day, here's a teeny tiny slice of Elgin:
"When it became necessary for the frieze to come down in smaller segments, Elgin suffered a blinding headache that lasted three days. Hunt came to his temporary quarters, where Elgin had asked for thick fabric to be drawn over the windows to block out the light. Hunt related the details in solemn whispers. “I suppose,” said Elgin, his thin palm over his damp forehead, “if it must be done to get them out, then it must be done. Try not to disfigure them any more than is necessary. Save them as best you can.”
Athena did not appear in Elgin’s dreams again. As he lay still in the swelter of his small Athens apartment, waiting for the sun to set, the heat to abate, for his the headache to lift, he experienced ocular fireworks, the flashing of strange geometric shapes, and a disturbing delusion that there were snakes around the base of his bed. But there was no ivory-skinned goddess. He longed for her approval. At one point, in the cool clamminess of night, he woke to shouting, but realized, on fully waking, that it was his own voice he heard. The words still filtered through his consciousness: Have I done right by you? Have I done right?"  -- from "The Metope Prophecy"

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