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

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Word of the Month: Der Wiedergänger

Don Giovanni Wiederganger
Word of the Month: Index

A dark winter night, a fire in the fireplace illuminating with its flickering light an otherwise dark room—the perfect time to tell a ghost story, perhaps one that involves a Wiedergänger.

Wieder is an adverb meaning "again", and a Gänger is a person who walks. In combination, the two words refer to someone who "walks again", i.e., rises from the dead to take care of some unfinished business. Perhaps the most famous Wiedergänger in literature is the ghost of Hamlet's father.

One could also view the Guest of Stone from the Don Juan legend as a kind of Wiedergänger: He is a statue on the grave of a man slain by the libidinous Don. The statue comes to life and appears as a dinner guest at the Don's castle to send him to hell as punishment for his sins. Mozart's opera Don Giovanni tells the story in unforgettable music (my drawing on the left depicts the climactic scene).

Note that a Wiedergänger is not the same as a zombie: He has a mission and will disappear once this mission has been accomplished, whereas zombies, or the undead, represent a more general menace.
Remark 1: The adverb wieder (again) its not to be confused with the preposition wider (against). Even many Germans are not aware of the distinction and misspell wider as wieder, an understandable mistake as the two words are pronounced exactly the same. Note also that both can be used as a noun or verb prefix. For example, wiederholen (literally "to bring again") means "to repeat", whereas widersprechen (literally "to speak against") means "to contradict".

Remark 2: Gänger appears only as part of a compound noun, never by itself. An example is Doppelgänger, which has made it into English as a psychological term. Other examples: Fuß means "foot", and Fußgänger is the German word for "pedestrian", while Kost means "food", and a Kostgänger is a person who shows up regularly at some place to be fed.

When my wife and I lived in what was then West Berlin in the 1970's, the bell rang one evening, and when we opened the door, there were two boys out there, not older than 10, who asked for dinner. We gave them what was left of ours and let them stay over night. When we told the story to a friend, he called them Trebegänger, a term we had never heard before. It refers to children who ran away from home, or from a home, and are living on the streets. The origin of the word Trebe, which indicates a state of homelessness for children, is not known.

I dedicate this post and my drawing to my late friend Bernd Kraneis, who introduced me to the world of opera. Don Giovanni was one of the first operas we went to see together at the Deutsche Oper in West Berlin.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Friday, November 25, 2016

Word of the Month: Dolchstoßlegende Revisited

Word of the Month: Index

After the election of Barak Obama in 2008, I introduced Dolchstoßlegende (blaming a defeat on backstabbing at the home front) as Word of the Month. My examples implied that this type of pseudo-explanation is used primarily by the political right as an excuse for a defeat. But the recent election, in which Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump, shows that the right has no monopoly on Dolchstoßlegenden (that's the plural).

Two days after the election, Clinton claimed that her defeat was the result of interference by the FBI, whose director, James Comey, had sent a letter to Congress eleven days before the election stating that new e-mails had been discovered which might be pertinent to the Bureau's investigation of whether Clinton had mishandled classified information. The timing of the letter was indeed suspicious—early enough to have an impact on undecided voters, but too late for the Clinton Campaign to weather the storm.

However, we'll probably never know if and to what the degree the letter had an impact on the election—the polls have simply been too unreliable in the last days of the campaign. But even if it influenced some voters, it should not distract from the fact that Clinton simply ran a flawed campaign that failed to read the mood of a significant portion of the electorate correctly. In the words of Sen. Chuck Shumer, a Clinton supporter, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in Western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin." This turned out to be a miscalculation and provides a much better explanation for why Clinton lost.

There is also a second form of the Dolchstoßlegende at work in the reaction of some Clinton supporters. This one blames Clinton's loss on the 1% of voters who voted for Jill Stein, the candidate of the Green Party. Yes, if these voters had voted for Clinton, she may have won. But why single them out? Why not blame the Democrats who voted for Trump (9%) or Hispanics (a whopping 29% in spite of Trump's anti-immigration rhetoric)? It makes no sense to arbitrarily blame a particular segment of the electorate when there are other segments Clinton did not reach either. Her campaign simply did not produce a majority in the swing states she needed to win, and this should be blamed on the campaign, first and foremost, and by implication, on its candidate.

But admitting mistakes is hard—I know this from my own experience. It's much easier to blame others and resort to a Dolchstoßlegende, i.e., an excuse disguised as an explanation.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Public Architecture in China Today

In this month's Word of the Month, I pointed out the similarities of public buildings built in China in the 1950s and 60s with those built in Nazi-Germany and the former Soviet Union. But I cannot leave it at that—things have changed, and they have changed dramatically in China. Readers may know the skyline of Pudong, the new financial district of Shanghai, which has become a veritable architectural vanity fair, where each new tower added to the skyline tries to surpass its neighbors not only in height, but also, and especially, through its daring design.

Most of them are unabashedly modern, and this is also true for public buildings. We got a glimpse of this new architecture in 2008 during the Beijing Olympics, where the "bird's nest", the main athletic venue, became an icon of the games. The Beijing Opera, or more accurately, the National Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2007, is equally modern in its design (top left). On my recent trip, I was particularly taken by the Grand Theater in Chongqing, completed in 2009, which occupies a prominent location on a headland overlooking the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers and appears to be Chongqing's answer to the Sydney Opera House: A building with a unique shape, sitting on an exposed platform jutting into a body of water and destined to become an icon of the city (center and bottom left during the day and night, respectively).

It is true that foreign firms are still dominant in the design of these buildings (for example, the French architect Paul Andreu designed the Beijing Center and the German firm van Gerkan, Marg und Partner the Chongqing Theater). But this may change as Chinese architects rise to greater prominence (like Wang Shu, winner of the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 2012). In any case, Chinese authorities appear to be eager to demonstrate to the world that they are as modern in outlook as their Western counterparts.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Word of the Month: Die Herrschaftsarchitektur

On a recent trip to China, I visited Tiananmen Square in Beijing and was struck by the similarities between the buildings flanking it on the east and west and those built in Nazi-Germany or the Soviet Union to house state functions. The similarities between the latter two were already skewered by Osbert Lancaster in his collection of architectural cartoons Pillar to Post (1938; top two drawings on the left). The Great Hall of the People at Tiananmen Square (bottom left) would have provided him with a third example.

All of these are instances of Herrschaftsarchitektur. Herrschaft is a general term that can refer to any situation in which someone is Herr (in the sense of "master" or "lord") over someone or something else, like the rule of a certain party or the reign of a certain leader. And Architektur is, of course, a cognate of English "architecture".

Herrschaftsarchitektur, then, refers to the buildings a ruling class or party erects to accommodate its operations and, at the same time, express its power and dominance. The latter characteristic is essential: To become Herrschaftsarchitektur, it's not enough that a building be used by a ruling power. It must be intended to symbolize its might and will to rule, often in combination with an attempt to intimidate its subjects.

Follow-up: Public Architecture in China Today.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Word of the Month: Zersiedeln, die Zersiedelung

Word of the Month: Index

Like English, German allows for the creation of new verbs by adding a prefix to an existing one. In fact, German offers a broader range of prefixes that can be used to this end, and I will dedicate one of my next posts to this topic.

For starters, let's look at just one of these prefixes, zer-, which has no real equivalent in English. It indicates an action that destroys something. It is particularly expressive because of the sharp z-sound it starts with. For example, reißen means "to tear", and zerreißen means "to tear apart" or "tear to pieces". Our current word of the month is another example. It's formed by adding zer to siedeln (to settle) and means literally to degrade [a countryside] by settlement. Zersiedelung is the noun formed from the verb. The term originated with urban and regional planners and is usually translated as "urban sprawl". But Zersiedelung is somewhat more general—it can happen far away from urban centers.

The image used in this post is a good illustration. It shows how the second-growth forests covering a good portion of Connecticut often look like moth-eaten carpets from the air. Roads through such areas are typically flanked by a monotonous succession of cookie-cutter houses sitting on grounds that have been cleared of all trees, producing, in the worst case, a barren "moonscape". A frequent consequence is habitat destruction. And when the cleared land is covered by a vast lawn that needs regular watering to stay green, there can be a noticeable effect on the water table (I know of a mansion in a neighboring town that needs a second well just for watering more than one acre of grass!).

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Word of the Month: Der Tatendrang

Word of the Month: Index

Taten is the plural of Tat, which means "action" or "deed", and Drang means "urge" or "drive"—it refers to a strong inclination to do something. In combination, the terms indicate a pronounced psychological disposition towards action. But note that this state of mind is not the same as mindless activism: Yes, people full of Tatendrang get fidgety when something can be done to remedy a situation or when adventure beckons. But that does not mean that they plunge headlessly into action, no matter what the consequences are. Rather, they prefer an active over a contemplative life style, but may well be able to keep their impulses in check when the situation demands it.

Drang is perhaps best known to English speakers in the combination Sturm und Drang, a German literary movement of the late 18th century. The name is usually translated as "Storm and Stress" in English, but that is really a mistranslation because Drang does not mean "stress": a Drang comes from the inside and is not imposed from the outside. So, why does this mistranslation prevail? I don't know. Yes, "Storm and Urge" sounds strange and does not have the catchiness of the German original, but what's wrong with "Storm and Drive"?

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Sevenstar Contest Cup 2016

Photobook by Ulrich Flemming et al.
Two exciting days on board the Amica Agrippina in Medemblik, Holland

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Word of the Month: Der Hassprediger

Word of the Month: Index

Hass is the German word for hatred, and a Prediger is a preacher (derived from the verb predigen-to preach). Taken together, the two compounds refer to someone who, in his function as preacher, calls for hatred and violence. Hasspredigerin is the female form.

The term goes back to the end of the 19th century. But the Duden, the official German spelling guide, lists it in 2006 for the first time. This reflects an increased use in the early 2000s in connection with the activities of certain radical imams who used their pulpit to sow hatred against Western liberal societies and to call for a Holy War to overthrow them. [Source: Wikipedia article "Hassprediger"]

Since then, the term has assumed a wider meaning. It is now being used to characterize anyone who, in some public function, attempts to instill in an audience hatred of some group on the outside, be it for ethnic, political, or religious reasons, even instigate violence against members of that group. For example, the leaders of some xenophobic movements on the far right in Germany have been called Hassprediger (like other nouns ending in –er, the plural is the same as the singular). The term also comes to my mind when I listen to Donald Trump's tirades against Muslims and Mexicans.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Euro 2016

Euro 2016 has started, with 24 national teams competing for the cup. For the intial group phase, these teams have been placed into 6 groups, where each team plays 3 matches, one against each of the other members of its group. The first- and second-placed teams in each groups and the 4 best third-placed teams overall will advance to the round of 16. Here are the groups:
Group A
Group B
Group C
N. Ireland

Euro2016 fever in Cologne, courtesy of kidbrother

Group D
Czech Republic
Group E
Group F

The mood in Germany is guardedly optimistic. Since they won the World Cup two years ago, the Germans have hardly ever played at the level they had shown during that cup. But then again, that just fits the pattern: They typically enter a tournament with a mixed record and then improve as they advance through the rounds.

The great strength of the Mannschaft is that it works as a team, a collective in which every player can, in principle, be replaced without an apparent drop in performance of the team as a whole. At the opposite end are sides whose performance depends on and is geared to a single dominant player. Such teams can be beaten if the dominant player can be neutralized—the Germans demonstrated this during the 2014 World Cup when they beat Portugal (with Ronaldo) in the group round and Argentina (with Messi) in the final. More about this in my first comment.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Word of the Month: Der Persilschein

Word of the Month: Index

Persil was the first commercially available "self-activated" laundry detergent (i.e. a cleaner containing both soap and bleach). It was introduced in Germany in 1907 and has remained popular to the present day. The name derives from two of its original ingredients, sodium perborate and silicate. [Source] The text of the vintage poster on the left means in English "For the love of laundry".

A Schein, in this context, is a certificate, and a Persilschein is a document confirming that somebody is "clean" in the sense that there is nothing in the person's past to disqualify him or her from pursuing a career or occupying a position of influence in a certain field. The term is often used ironically, even sarcastically, when there are indications that the certificate has been obtained by means that are not entirely above-board.

There is a reason for this connotation. People who remember the fifties in Germany or know her post-war history still associate the term with the denazification program, efforts initiated by the occupying powers to rid the German bureaucracy and professions of former Nazis and war criminals. A Persilschein obtained under the program was a document confirming that one had never committed a war crime, was not a member of the Nazi party or, at worst, a fellow-traveller. The program was plagued from the start by (i) inconsistencies in its administration across the occupation zones and (ii) a lack of enthusiasm for it on the part of the Germans. As a result, quite a few people got their Persilschein undeservedly.

As to Persil, the detergent, it's now sold in many countries, including the US, in spite of the fact that the name is not always easy to pronounce for non-German speakers. In addition, persil means "parsley" in French!

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Rainer Maria Rilke: Das Karussell (The Carousel)

Rilke's "Carousel" (1906) is one of the most charming poems in the German language. It tries to capture, through its rhythm and imagery, the fleeting sense impressions a spinning merry-go-round produces—it has become a classic of impressionist poetry. I was reminded of it when I visited yesterday the New England Carousel Museum in Bristol, which motivated me to try my hand at a line-by-line translation:

The Carousel—Original and Translation

This is not an exact literal translation. Rilke uses iambic pentameters consistently to render the movement of the carousel. Note especially how it picks up speed in the last stanza, and how the impressions get more blurry—this is masterfully done. Since inflected endings are rarer in English than they are in German, English words tend to be shorter than the corresponding German ones so that a literal translation often produces several stressed syllables in a row; that is, Rilke's iambic line gets lost. But I consider it important that English readers get a sense of the poem's rhythm and therefore added a little padding to recreate it (although I had to be content sometimes with fewer than five feet—adding more padding would have created distortions of its own by making the text wordier than the original).

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Word of the Month: Der Gernegroß

Word of the Month: Index

Gern(e) is an adverb that has no exact equivalent in English. It can sometimes mean "gladly" or "readily", as in Ich helf dir gerne – "I'll gladly help you". At other times, it may have to be replaced by a form of to like followed by an infinitive, as in Ich trinke gerne Bier – "I like to drink beer". Note that this is very different from "I gladly drink beer" (when no wine is available)! Groß is an adjective meaning both "big" and "great". For example, "my big brother" becomes mein großer Bruder in German and "Frederick the Great" Friedrich der Große.

Combining the two words, we get a noun (!) indicating a person who has ambitions that his capabilities don't live up to, or a person who sees herself in a better light than others do. A "show-off" or "braggart" comes close, but these terms refer more to the way a person behaves, while being a Gernegroß is, first of all, a state of mind.