Thursday, September 18, 2008

Stommeln/Köln 8.5.05: Celebrating for Celebration's Sake

I awoke to the sound of the church bell chiming eight and doves or pigeons (don’t the Germans call the latter Tauben?) cooing softly outside the window. A nice sound—or, rather, combination of sounds—after a bad night.

I went to bed furious with Steve for various reasons: well, his stolid, never-varying German methodicalness, perfected. All night cars zipped past under the window, going where, I know not. We must be on a main road, perhaps feeding out of Köln.

As I write, peering out the café window (of our Gasthaus zur Trapp), I see branches down in the park, small ones, under a linden. Wind was very fierce at times yesterday. The roadway was white with horse chestnut blooms blown from the trees, flecked with bits of green leaves. The downed limbs in the little park, black and convoluted, look like ribs or horns of some animal that died there and has long since decayed.

I feel very gray today, very much without hope or meaning. Everything seems to conspire to produce such feelings: my weight and lack of sound health, the last U.S. elections, the unbelievable circus around John Paul’s death, and now Ratzinger. And conflict with Steve, above all.

I feel very much like Nick, the protagonist of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel Line of Beauty, which I’ve just finished. Those brutal scenes at the end, where the Feddens, with whom he had lived as family, voice frankly their distaste for him, their absolute dissatisfaction with his performance as a never-quite-acknowledged servant, though the fiction was that he was family (and though he paid them rent to be the unsatisfactory servant).

It’s there in black and white: the lengths to which self-righteous bourgeois society at the end of the 20th century will go to pin all moral failings and corruption on gay men. He’s the worm in the apple, the little parasite who has wormed himself into the family to feed vicariously on its energies since family is denied to him. He’s the hostile observer let inside the gates only to open them to the barbarian hordes.

He’s all that was ever said about the Jews—one of us, capable of incredible mimicry so that we hardly know he’s there as the malicious parasitic presence. He’s all the more frightening because he appears to be so capable of adaptation and imitation. And all this from adulterers and inside traders who are mopping up in the reign of the Lady Thatcher . . . .

And, of course, what he’s blamed for ultimately has nothing at all to do with their real shortcomings, their real travesties, which are exposed by their daughter . . . .

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Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty (London: Picador, 2004): “Something happened when you looked in the mirror together. You asked it, as always, a question, and you asked each other something, too; and the space, shadowy but glossy, the further room in which you found yourself, as if on a stage, vibrated with ironies and sentimental missions” (255).

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Köln: we’ve checked into our hotel, Zur Kupferkessel, and have just walked across to St. Gereon’s church and then down to the cathedral. We’re now having raspberry torte, nougat bretzel, and milchkaffee in a café on Breitgasse, and a band comes by, resplendent, totally unexpected, gloriously meretricious. It’s preceded by slim dark women wearing hats like airline stewardess caps and highstepping. The band, only 20 or so men playing extraordinarily well and very loudly, have black hats like from the Franco-Prussian wars, with bright red plumes bobbing as they play.

What are they celebrating? Steve thought it was a parish group—but if a saint’s festival, why no statue, no priest, no religious regalia? If mothers' day, there’s no sign of that, either.

It’s like a celebration of nothing, celebrating for celebration’s sake. I’m interpreting it as a private welcome to Köln, the city that celebrates to celebrate.

People speak loudly, boisterously in this region. They cry out in the streets in a way that would be distinctly frowned on in other areas of Germany, especially the north.

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Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonder (New York: HarperCollins, 2002): “I’ve spent hundreds of pages, even whole novels, trying to explain what home means to me. Sometimes I think it’s the only thing I ever write about. Home is place, geography, and psyche; it’s a matter of survival and safety, a condition of attachment and self-definition . . . . Homelessness is the loss of community and finally of the self” (197-8).

“Whatever else ‘home’ might be called, it must surely be a fundamental human license. In every culture on earth, the right to live in a home is probably the first condition of citizenship and humanity” (198).

“Home is where all justice begins” (201).

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