Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Monday, December 14, 2015

W. G. Sebald in Memoriam

Sebald Rings of Saturn
W. G. Sebald (May 18, 1944 - Dec. 14, 2001) is my favorite German writer of his (and my) generation. He died on this day 14 years ago in a car accident.

I consider Sebald a soul mate (I hope this doesn't sound too presumptuous). We are both expatriates (I do not use the word "immigrants" because it implies a degree of identification with the country I live in that I do not feel), and neither of us can shake a horrified awareness of the atrocities committed by Germans of our parents' generation during the Nazi period. I do not say "memory" because we were too young to have experienced any of this first-hand, but these events become memories for Sebald's protagonists in search of their past and, through them, for the narrator to whom they tell their stories. Through him, a barely disguised Sebald himself, they become like memories also for us, the readers.

It is not surprising that Sebald's temperament appears to be overshadowed by what reviewers have called a deep-seated "melancholy". But it is also important to note that this melancholy can give way to fits of outrage or be lightened, at other times, by a sly sense of humor. What comes across, in the end, is a profound unease about the world he knows, which resounds powerfully with me and has made reading him one of my addictions.

Addendum (12/18/15). Our affinities extend to reactions to specific authors or artists. Nabokov seems to have had a specific appeal for Sebald—the writer appears, in person, in several of his stories—and Nabokov is also one of my favorite authors. Furthermore, Sebald appears to be as impressed by the painter Mathias Grünewald as I am. This elusive painter is the subject of one of the three poems in Nach der Natur (After Nature), and one of the protagonists in Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants) visits Colmar in France specifically to see Grünewald's masterpiece, the Isenheim Altar. I have been to Colmar for the same purpose, and standing in front of the crucifixion at the center of the altar, I experienced something that I can only describe as an existential shock—it had never happened before and has never happened again when I came across a piece of art.

Carol Jacobs on W. G. Sebald

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Word of the Month: Der Fachidiot

Word of the Month: Index

A Fach is a compartment in a larger container or piece of furniture. In a more figurative sense, the word denotes a specific area of expertise, often acquired through a course of study devoted to this particular field (civil engineering is an example). In the performing arts, Fach denotes the vocal range and related specialization of a singer (for example, lyrical soprano or Heldentenor) or the type of role an actor is particularly suited for (for example, action hero or ingénue).

An Idiot in German is the same as an idiot in English. In combination with Fach, we get a Fachidiot, a person totally focused on or only interested in his special area of expertise while remaining clueless with regard to anything outside that area. Fachidiotin is the female form, but I've heard the masculine form applied to persons of either sex.

Addendum (Dec. 5, 2015). Here's an article that explicitly refers to the German term in connection with one of the hopefuls for the Republican presidential nomination (Ben Carson): The GOP and the Rise of Anti-Knowledge.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Word of the Month: Schmunzeln

Word of the Month: Index

My post on Christian Morgenstern from a few days ago suggested to me the current WoM, which is both a verb and a noun (when capitalized). It refers to a close-lipped smile that expresses good-natured joy, amusement, or satisfaction in response to something just encountered or remembered. Because of that, it is more specific than smile (lächeln in German)—you may bare your teeth when someone takes your picture or when you are kissing babies on a campaign stop without enjoying the situation. English "grin" comes close, but schmunzeln is less in-your-face and usually done without malice—nobody would ever tell you to wipe it off your face. "Smirk" is not the same because it always has negative connotations*, and "laugh" is different altogether because it's open-mouthed and usually accompanied by a sound track.

I have to admit that schmunzeln is somewhat old-fashioned, which is too bad because to me, it is the perfect response to a poem by Morgenstern.

As to its etymology, I had supected that it may have entered German via Yiddish, but Duden Online set me straight—it can be traced back to a Middle High German form.
* A friend on Google+, Laura Gibbs, just commented: "Something about smirk: I've noticed that my students often use it with entirely positive connotations, and they are surprised when I tell them it (usually) has negative connotations. So I think something is happening to that word in English...but I am not sure why it is happening. Smile and grin both seem like words in good health! Hmmm..."

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Christian Morgenstern, Humorist

This is a post I should have written in March 2014 to mark the 100th anniversary of Christian Morgenstern's death. But I missed the opportunity and must be content with this belated homage.

Morgenstern (1871-1914) was a German humorist (yes, such creatures exist!) attuned to the oddities of life. Especially the idiosyncrasies of German and its use inspired many of his poems: For example, he deliberately used bad rhymes for comic effect or to gently mock the rhyming conventions of poetry1; he spun funny stories from figures of speech taken literally; he described invented creatures with names he got by fooling around with the names of existing ones; and in the introduction to a collection of his poems, he skewered the impenetrability of German academic prose. Since all of this is so tightly bound to a particular language, it's basically untranslatable.

One may have better luck with poems that simply tell a story without linguistic tricks, and that's what I tried with my translation of Morgenstern's poem Der Hecht (The Pike), which can be read as poking fun at vegetarians, or religious orthodoxy, or both (see illustration on the right). The link below will lead you to the German original together with a literal translation and a rhyming Nachdichtung.
Der Hecht: Original and Translations
1He shares this predilection with Wilhelm Busch (1832-1908), another master of German comic verse.
Morgenstern The Pike

St. Anthony preaching to the pike family

Addendum (one day later): Since I posted this, I discovered a poem that
(a) illustrates Morgenstern's penchant for taking figures of speech literally; and
(b) uses a phrase that has an almost exact equivalent in English, a happy coincidence that motivated me to attempt a translation.
And so I added Die beiden Esel to the first poem:
Die beiden Esel (The Two Asses): Original and Translations

Addendum 2 (Nov. 25, 2015): I tried my hand at a third poem, Der Lattenzaun, dear to me because an architect plays a leading role:
Der Lattenzaun (The Picket Fence): Original and Translations

Addendum 3 (Dec. 3, 2015): It seems I'm on a roll:
Das aesthetische Wiesel (The Aesthetic Weasel): Original and Translations

Morgenstern Mondkalb

The moon calf talking to Morgenstern about the aesthetic weasel

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Word of the Month: Die Schwippschwägerin, der Schwippschwager

Word of the Month: Index

If you are married and your spouse has a sister, it's your sister-in-law; if it's a brother, it's your brother-in-law. The Germans have single words for these relations, Schwägerin and Schwager, respectively (I won't go into the etymology). So far, so good. But what about the relationship your marriage establishes between your brothers or sisters and your brothers- or sisters-in-law, i.e. between your siblings and your spouse's siblings? I'm not aware of an English term expressing that relationship—well, the Wiktionary has "co-sister-" or "co-brother-in-law", but I swear, I have never heard these terms used in common speech, or seen them used in literature, for that matter.

The Germans, of course, have terms for these relationships: Schwippschwägerin and Schwippschwager: They simply prefix Schwägerin or Schwager with Schwippe (the flexible end of a whip or fishing rod), shorn of its final e (to ease pronunciation), and bingo! you have the relationship expressed in a compound noun (see the top diagram on the left). Note that the terms can also be used to express the relationships between the spouses of siblings (second diagram on the left). In my family, though, we drop the Schwipp in these cases: My brothers' wives call my wife simply Schwägerin and vice-versa.

Why use Schwipp(e) to coin the term anyway? One source suggests it's because the relationship can be flipped; i.e. it works in both directions, from the wife's siblings to those of her husband and vice versa [Bastian Sick, Oct 23, 2015]. A cynic may suggest, in contrast, that it's because a Schwippschwägerin and a Schwippschwager find themselves caught in new relationships without having given their consent (just kidding!).

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Word of the Month: Die Geschichtsklitterung

Word of the Month: Index

Source: Wikipedia article "Geschichtsfälchung"
Soviet officials were notorious for falsifying historical records by removing references to persons no longer in favor. An example is shown in the photos on the left. The original (top) is from 1897 and depicts the members of the Revolutionary Club of St. Petersburg, with Lenin in the center. Below is a version from the 1930s with one member removed—he had fallen out of favor with Stalin.

The falsification of history is not restricted to totalitarian regimes. In the US, for example, Christian fundamentalists unwilling to accept the constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state try to rewrite history by insisting that the Founding Fathers had intended all along to ground the new nation in the "Judeo-Christian tradition". Another example is the claim (since retracted) made in a textbook for Virginian 4th-graders that thousands of blacks fought for the South in the Civil War, "including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson". (Washington Post, Oct 20, 2010; see also the current controversy in Texas about the role of slavery in the Civil War).

All of this involves falsification with a purpose, and the Germans, of course, have a word for it: Geschichtsklitterung. The first part is a shortened version of Geschichte, which derives from the verb geschehen (to happen, come to pass). Geschichte is used in two distinct meanings: (a) Like English "story", it may refer to a tale told by someone; for example, the English "short story" is called a Kurzgeschichte in German. (b) Like English "history", it may refer to the events that formed a political, geographical, or cultural entity as well as to descriptions of these events. It is in the latter meaning that the term appears in our current WoM. The second part, Klitterung, is a noun derived from the (rarely used) verb klittern (to cobble together; take out of context and misrepresent). Taken together, these components refer to an intentional falsification of history for political or ideological reasons.

There seems to be general agreement that the term originates with Affentheurlich Naupengeheurliche Geschichtklitterung, the pun-laden and therefore untranslatable title of a book by Johann Fischart published in 1575. It is considered one of the first language experiments in German and sometimes called the Finnegan's Wake of the 16th century.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Word of the Month: Die Profilneurose

Word of the Month: Index

German Profil means, first of all, a side view of something, especially of the head of somebody. In that sense, it's very similar to English "profile" (The image on the left shows a detail of John Singer Sargent's Portrait of Madame X). But there is a second, more figurative meaning that comes into play in our current word of the month: The sum of the (positive) characteristics that uniquely identify someone and differentiate him or her from their peers. This derived meaning is probably a reflection of the fact that the unique shape of a person's forehead, nose, chin, and ears appears most clearly in a profile view. The "profile" applications like Facebook ask us to fill out hints at that second meaning, but doesn't have the heft of the German term.

Neurose is, of course, the German form of English "neurosis". In combination with Profil, it indicates a fear that one's standing among peers is not properly recognized, leading to deliberate efforts to correct the situation, which more often than not backfire because the motivation is obvious and observers are more amused than impressed. The publicity stunts politicians sometimes resort to are very often examples of a Profilneurose in action.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Word of the Month: Das Bauernopfer

Word of the Month: Index

Here's another term that originated in chess and made it into wider usage from there (cf. Zugzwang, Jan. 2009). Bauer generally means "farmer" or "peasant"; but in chess, it's the name of the piece called "pawn" in English. An Opfer is a sacrifice, and a Bauernopfer is a move in which a player deliberately lets a pawn be taken in order to gain some other advantage. Outside of chess, the term has come to refer to the firing of someone in a subordinate position in order to blunt criticism of someone higher up. It pops up frequently in German discussions when officials are relieved of their duties to cover a superior's you-know-what.

The meaning of Bauernopfer is similar to "sacrificial lamb" in English, but owing to its origin in chess, it has stronger strategic overtones, while lacking, conversely, the religious connotations of "sacrifical lamb." The closest term in English is probably "fall guy."

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Word of the Month: Der Korinthenkacker

Korinthen are very small and dark raisins (named after Korinth, German for Corinth, the town in Greece that gave those special raisins their German name). Kacker is a noun derived from kacken, a slang term for moving your bowels. Taken literally, then, a Korinthenkacker is a person who produces nothing more impressive than raisin-like turds when going to the bathroom. Figuratively, and that's how the term is used exclusively, it's a pedant who hides his inability to see the larger picture behind an obsessive focus on small details. I say "his" because Korinthenkacker is masculine—Korinthenkackerin would be the feminine form.

The most recent time I saw the term used was on a German blog, where a commenter was called a Korinthenkacker because all he or she had to say was to correct another commenter's spelling. And my Facebook friend Richard Caldwell pointed me to a very instructive blurb on the etymology of kacken .

Word of the Month: Index

Monday, March 30, 2015

Word of the Month: Der Dünnbrettbohrer

Word of the Month: Index

It's time to up the ante and introduce a word consisting of three compounds. In the present case, they are dünn (thin); Brett (board); and Bohrer (driller, from bohren—to drill). In combination, they give us a "driller of thin boards," indicating a person who tends to choose the path of least resistance—especially in terms of mental exertion—when dealing with a task. I've heard the term used, for example, to characterize a PhD candidate who has selected an easy topic and has treated it in a way that's just (barely) sufficient to pass. Dünnbrettbohrerin is the female form.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Rumpelstiltskin: The Initial Version

Following my post on parallels I saw between Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Rumpelstiltskin, I dug a little deeper into the origins of the Grimm Brothers' tale and discovered that there exists an initial version in manuscript form, which has survived by sheer accident: The Grimms had lent a handwritten collection of tales to their friend Clemens Brentano, who was keenly interested in folk tales, and expected it to be returned. Well, Brentano never did, and the manuscript was found in his bequest—it's known as the Ölenberger Handschrift (Ölenberg Manuscript). This collection contains, among others, the original version of Rumpelstiltskin, who is called Rumpenstünzchen there. The link below will lead you to a translation.
Rumpenstünzchen - My translation
A comparison of this initial version with the published one is truly startling. It shows, first of all, the lengths to which the brothers went in editing the tales they had collected, which went well beyond embellishments and involved, in the present case at least, a substantial reworking of the plot.

It starts with a reversal in the premise under which the heroine is introduced. In the original, she cannot spin flax properly and always produces gold. In the later version, she cannot spin gold from anything. Subsequent modifications of the plot result from this reversal, as summarized in the table below. (Note that because of the terseness of the original version, the reader has to make assumptions about gaps in the plot, especially when it comes to motivation—it may well be that other readers will interpret the text differently from me, but the table shows my currently best guess.)
Original manuscript Published version
The girl always spins gold from flax. The girl cannot spin gold from anything.
Her predicament is, apparently, that this is not considered a useful talent. Her predicament is that the king expects her to spin gold from straw, as promised by her father, and threatens to kill her if she can't deliver.
Rumpenstünzchen helps her by marrying her to a prince. We must assume that this solves her predicament because either the prince does appreciate her talent or does not expect his wife to engage in lowly chores. Rumpelstiltskin helps her by spinning the straw into gold for her.
The king is impressed and marries her, and the two plots proceed more or less in parallel from here, except for the ending.
Rumpenstünzchen's punishment consists of his not getting the child. Other than that, he escapes unharmed. Rumpelstiltzkin not only does not get the child, but also dies a horrible death.
The Grimms not only rewrote the plot, but embellished it with details, and it's these details that suggested to me the parallels I saw between Rumpelstiltskin and Shylock. In the initial version, we have only the actions of the girl and Rumpenstünzchen, with a guest appearance by the maid—there is no societal context. In the published version, we have interactions between the various protagonists from which a context emerges, a hierarchically-structured society in which everybody has a proper role to play and against which Rumpelstiltskin remains the outsider: As is the case with Shylock, his services are sought to get a member of that society out of serious trouble, but he is denied his mutually agreed-upon compensation, essentially by a conspiracy of the insiders against him

It's fascinating to speculate if the Grimms were, at least subconsciously, influenced in their rewriting of the tale by Shakespeare's play—after all, Shakespeare was extremely popular among the German romantics—among them were A. W. Schlegel and L. Tieck, contemporaries of the Grimms, who completed (with other collaborators) the monumental task of translating all of his plays into German, making him a "German playwright."

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Word of the Month: Die Wortklauberei

Word of the Month: Index

Wort means "word" and Klauberei is a noun derived form the verb klauben—to carefully pick over or sort out something (not to be confused with glauben—to believe). The verb is neutral in its connotations, but Wortklauberei is decidedly not: It stands for a pedantically narrow interpretation of a word or expression, conceived in the most literal sense. The nouns referring to people perpetrating Wortklauberei are Wortklauber (masc), Wortklauberin (fem) and Wortklauber (plural); wortklauberisch is the adjective.

Here is an example. A recent New York Times crossword puzzle had as its theme "Where's Waldo?", represented by four theme answers containing different anagrams of WALDO. A crossword blogger complained that these answers did not "hide" Waldo because "he's not hiding so much as he is dismembered...If I accept this puzzle's premise, then the word 'hiding' just loses all meaning." I consider this Wortklauberei: If the name "Waldo" would appear unchanged in the answers, it would not be hidden, but visible in plain sight—in the realm of words, where crossword puzzles reside, anagramming a name is an elegant way of hiding it, to me at least.

Here's another, more substantive example: Article 1(1) of the German Constitution (Grundgesetz—Basic Law) declares
Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar. Sie zu achten und zu schützen ist Verpflichtung aller staatlichen Gewalt. (The dignity of a human being is inviolable [literally, "untouchable"]. To respect and to protect it is the duty of all powers of the state.).
I've heard remarks to the effect that these two sentences contain a contradiction: If human dignity is inviolable, it does not need protection. Really? If an area is off-limits, doesn't it need protection nevertheless, or rather, because of it? The same is true for Article 1(1): Its intent is clear enough, and I find it wortklauberisch, and annoyingly so, to take the authors of the article to task for the language they used.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Word of the Month: Die Mutti

Word of the Month: Index

Mutti Angela Merkel
Mutti is not a compound word, and there are perfectly fine equivalents in English. That is, the WoM for January does not satisfy any of the criteria I usually apply when making a WoM selection. But I decided to make an exception, motivated by a recent, remarkably nuanced portrait of Angela Merkel, the current chancellor of Germany, in the New Yorker (George Packer, "The Quiet German"). Merkel is known by supporters and opponents alike as Mutti, a diminutive of Mutter (mother), which is used in Germany like "mom" or "mummy" is used in English-speaking countries. For my brothers and me, for instance, our mother has always been Mutti.

On the face of it, Merkel is as unlikely a person to be called Mutti as you could find. She has no children. She obtained her PhD the old-fashioned way—she earned it, and in a hard science to boot (as opposed to some other members of her party who had their titles taken away after charges of plagiarism turned out to be true). But she abandoned her academic career when she became interested in politics after the unification of Germany and has pursued her new career with single-minded determination ever since. Her husband is a highly-respected university professor with his own career, and the two are hardly seen together in public. In other words, Merkel is not exactly Mutti material.

But the name has stuck. Merkel won her third election in 2013 (the third chancellor of the Federal Republic to accomplish this feat) with a campaign that was remarkable for its absence of big themes or grandiose visions. Her point was, "Stick with me and you're safe." Clearly, a large number of Germans bought it* and do not hesitate to call her Mutti, in a half-mocking and half-admiring way (that she looks the part, in a particularly dowdy fashion, may also play a role, particularly for those who use the moniker more derisively).

And there are many of those, if the comments I read on political blogs are in any way representative. In fact, there seems to exist an almost visceral hatred of her in parts of the left. Some of it may stem from old-fashioned snobbery—anything that's popular cannot be good by definition. But the hatred seems to sit deeper, and I find a clue why this may be so in a quote by a Social Democrat cited in the New Yorker article, "Merkel took politics out of politics." And that is anathema for those to whom ideology is the only thing that matters in politics; for those who are against a measure when it's ideologically incorrect, even if it works in practice, and conversely, are for a measure when it is ideologically correct, even if it does not work in practice. So, the common complaint against Merkel is that she has no vision and is just "muddling through" (durchwurschteln in German).**

I'm too far away to have a definite opinion on this (and would welcome comments from people closer to the action). But there are two traits of her I admire from my distant perch. It's first of all her ability to remain unaufgeregt ("unperturbed"), even when faced with attacks and insults of the most vile kind, as they happen routinely in countries unhappy with her fiscal policies and having a press that appears to be in a state of permanent hysteria. My favorite cartoon of 2014 (which I cannot show here because of copyright issues) was sent to me by my friend Volker Sayn. It shows a row of spectators looking after a group of politicians that just passed by, with a dowdy-looking woman in a pant suit in the center. Says one spectator to his neighbor, "That was Merkel? I did not recognize her without the Hitler mustache."

And she does not make a mistake twice. In her first election, she had run on a platform calling for continuing the economic reforms initiated by her (social-democratic) predecessor and had made an economics professor a member of her advisory team. He, in turn, used the occasion to introduce one of his pet projects, a flat tax rate, into the debate—and this in a country that firmly believes, across the political spectrum, in progressive taxation and despite the fact that absolutely nobody else regarded this an issue. The electorate was confused, and Merkel almost lost the election. She never again ran on a platform calling for significant reforms in any shape—her supposed lack of vision may be based on this experience.

A second example: When the Euro crisis started for good with Greece going practically bankrupt in 2010, Merkel called for leaders of the Euro Zone to get together and work out a general solution "in solidarity," only to learn that nobody wanted to follow her lead because it would inevitably imply the loss of some sovereignty for the countries involved. Merkel never suggested this again and has been trying to muddle through the crisis ever since. [If there's one principle she keeps in mind, it's not to "throw good money after bad" and to protect the German taxpayer from having to bail out countries that got into the mess they are in through their own fault (and many Germans love her for it).] I think she knows that when other countries call for Germany to assume more of a leadership role, it's a euphemism for asking the Germans to write blank checks for everyone asking for them—when German politicians suggest something else, like the need for some structural reforms, they are invariably chastized for "trying to tell other people what to do." [What's positively infuriating to some Germans is that at the same time, everybody feels perfectly fine lecturing the Germans about what they ought to do.]

If there is one issue where I believe leadership on the European stage is urgently needed (at no immediate cost for anybody), it's to impress upon the generations that have not grown up in the immediate aftermath of WWII that the European Union is an achievement of singular historical significance for a continent that has seen the type of bloodshed Europe has experienced for thousands of years. But alas, Merkel is not suited for this role—as the article mentions, she is an awkward public speaker, which is a polite way of saying charisma is not her forte.
*This astonishing map shows how sweeping her victory was—her party won 86% of the electoral districts (the black areas in the map—click on the "Wahlkreise" tab if the map does not appear immediately). If Germany had a system like the UK, Merkel's party would have controlled 86% of the seats in parliament. But since the final distribution of seats reflects the percentage of votes obtained by each party overall, Merkel had to form a coalition government in order to gain a parliamentary majority.
**Lindblom's The Science Of 'Muddling Through' (1959), a manifesto of Anglo-Saxon pragmatism, has never made an impression on "principled" Germans.