Thursday, November 20, 2008

Braunschweig 25.7.1998: Amber Skylights and Clacking Hedgehogs

To Braunschweig yesterday to see the Dom—again, since Mareile took us on a tour of it the first time, we were here. I wanted to see the famous Imervard crucifix again.

As cathedrals go, it’s . . . engaging? I don’t have a cathedral language, because, despite all my attempts to appreciate them, cathedrals still simply leave me cold. I can’t connect to this expression of medieval faith—to medieval faith insofar as it’s embodied in cathedrals. Nothing I experience as faith seems reflected in those high cold spaces glittering with jeweled glass, echoing with sound, commemorating noble men and women, but, nowhere, those built these palaces.

Even as art, I just don’t quite get them. It’s always as if I’m reading a language I’m supposed to know, but don’t quite.

What appealed to me in Braunschweig: the austere chalkstone, with its soft marl and muted lights; the clear windows in the walls—an innovation, but one to my taste, modifying the gloom of most cathedral interiors; and of course the crucifix.

Not quite sure why I like the latter. Perhaps because I’ve been told to marvel at it, I try to do so, without ever being sure what makes it marvelous. I like the austere, no-nonsense, Saxon way its massive height and breadth are displayed against a plain white wall. I like the face, which seems simultaneously rapt away to heaven and fully aware of all those who gaze on it, all those it lifts up to God in its act of obedience. And the flowing, highly stylized robes seem to me both to prefigure humanism, and—somehow—to reinforce the hieratic mystery of the crucifixion, as those flowing lines in Celtic iconography are said to bespeak the numinous power of the saint around whom they flow.

Mareile took us to sit in front of the crucifix for about 10 minutes, saying not a word—just the right way to do it. She has such class: that overworked and slightly ridiculous phrase out of a 1940s film is the only way I know how to describe it. I wasn’t at all surprised to find yesterday that she’d gone to a finishing school in England run by the Madames de Sacre Coeur. That erect carriage, the intelligent, ladylike piety, the cultivated air, say it all. Was it they who taught her to forgo escalators, to climb stairs without touching the banister, to shudder at the very idea of eating ice cream on the streets (which Steve and I boorishly did after the cathedral tour)?

Not at all a surprise, then, to hear that not only is her son T. married to an aristocrat; so is P. It’s actually the latter who married a von Buhlow. T.’s wife B. is a descendant of the Austrian royal family, of Elizabeth wife of Franz Joseph.

After hearing of these connections, I asked Maria last night how it happened that two of her brothers married aristocrats: do Mareille or Walter have noble blood? No, Maria said, we’ve just a very special family. It’s that special, aristocratic, quality in Mareile I’ve tried to describe—a natural aristocracy.

After the crucifix, a tour of the eerie crypt of the Dom, full of the coffins of dukes and duchesses of Braunschweig. Mareile took us into a passageway leading to the tombs of Henry the Lion and Matilda, built by Hitler when he sought to legitimize National Socialism by appealing to luridly romanticized notions of the German past.

The place was eerie to the extreme: all heavy black squares of rock glinting with feldspar, with black grouting. Vents here and here had crosses atop crosses, the bottom ones turned upside down. Over the tombs themselves, a skylight of amber seemed to flicker like fire, like an implacable fiery eye. I didn’t like the place, and wanted out immediately. My flesh crawled.

Mareile had told us on our last visit to the cathedral that Hitler had used it for mystic rituals designed to access the power of Henry. He was evidently disappointed when he opened the tomb and found Henry to be a small man, and not the giant Teuton of the master race in its Ur-days. A brochure in the crypt said that Hitler used the Henry myth to justify his Lebensraum policy in the Slavic lands, claiming that Henry had Christianized these, and hence it was fitting that a Reich founded on him should take these lands over.

After Braunschweig, home for a pizza and pasta supper on the terrace with Maria, while Mareile attended a party—Steve’s birthday supper. A nice evening, ending with the coming of a hedgehog to the rhododendrons around the terrace. We heard it rustling and clacking against the leaves, and saw them moving. Finally we got up and peered in, and there it sat, very docile, watching us. Maria put out a bowl of milk for it, and I went to bed, to dream horrible nightmares.

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