Tag Archives: Germany

Bavaria’s Turn-of-the-Century Golden Rules of Health

One thing I do love about Germany — and the Czech Republic and  Poland (I think I did three posts on apothecaries after visiting Krakow?) — are the way that apothecaries are still everywhere. I know we have pharmacists, but it’s just not the same, is it? But there are also the old signs, the nods back to the glory days with dark, battered wooden shelves full of gleaming bottles and herbs drying from the ceiling, powdered minerals and bits of dried bat and crocodile. Though I do love bats, and prefer them alive. A number also harken back to the superior medical knowledge of the moors — and so I am simultaneously appreciative of that and horrified by the racism inherent in the old figures.

Still, we only saw one of them in Nuremberg. This was by far my favourite:

Nuremberg

I loved most the rules for health from the turn of the last century:

Nuremberg

I have copied them all for you from the website: Counsellor Eckart’s golden rules of health for a prudent lifestyle — but let me highlight my favourite:

Do not dress according to fashion, but rather in tune with the weather. Keep your feet and lower body warm. In snowy, freezing weather, thin tights and shoes are a crime against your health.

I have been thinking that to myself all winter looking at our freezing youth with their strange fashionable dislike of socks.

They are incredibly Victorian, and feel they could have as likely appeared in England or the East Coast of the US. Fresh air, cold water, not too much comfort, not too much good food, and you can imagine no whinging about all of that. I’ve been thinking about health a lot lately, and this kind of framework for how we imagine good living still seems to lurk a great deal in the background.

The golden rules of health from Carl Ludwig Ernst Eckart (1830 – 1911)

Do not burn the candle at both ends: sleep before midnight is of more worth than after sunrise.

Rest your body and nerves. This does not happen when partaking of entertainment or on the dance floor, but rather in God’s free, natural world. Keep the Sunday as a holy day, as it has been designated for our rest.

Pay attention to your daily bowel movement! It is better to eat too little than too much, and to leave the stomach time to digest. A lot of meat and strong spices make the blood heavy and hot; live on a simple and mixed diet and do not reject our natural beverage: fresh water.

Do not load up your stomach in the evening with foods which are hard to digest, and which cause restless sleep and troubled dreams. Leave yourself time to eat, so that your nutrition can be processed more efficiently.

Do not cover yourself with heavy, full bedclothes; your mattress should rather be too hard than too soft.

Do not dress according to fashion, but rather in tune with the weather. Keep your feet and lower body warm. In snowy, freezing weather, thin tights and shoes are a crime against your health.

Fresh air has never hurt anyone; therefore ventilate your rooms well and leave a window open at night. Breathe in deeply, but shut your mouth when walking in the street in windy, dusty conditions; breathing through your nose will suffice.

Get your children used to the frequent use of water. Cold water improves resilience. Keeping your mouth and teeth clean will help to prevent infections.

Always remember that our health is our most precious possession, and do not first start to live prudently when it is too late.

Nuremberg – Nürnberg

Nazi memorabilia, brothels where women stood in windows above their names, local people who, it felt, rather hated us…they certainly hated my poor attempts at German.

But also moments of the sublime.

St Egidien…we walked past and heard the most beautiful music and just sidled in the great doors and sat to listen to a rehearsal.

Nuremberg

An older man who was brilliant but a young woman who was truly one of the best I’ve heard, singing there in a white t-shirt and cut-offs. Not Bach, but of the period I think. We could have, should have, lit a candle to the angel of history in the back.

Nuremberg

And then there was the fairly brilliant bar Mata Hari (tiny basement bar, regulars, DJ playing 70s vinyl and loving every minute of the music, a German whiskey)

Nuremberg

Albrecht Dürer‘s house — quite beautiful, from a time when this was a vibrant centre of politics, trade and culture, one in which Dürer chose to stay rather than be lured away to Venice. He lived here just below the castle, in front of one of the main entrances to the city:

Nuremberg

The rooms are full of light — at least the day that we were there. Beautiful rooms.

Nuremberg

Not so beautiful, perhaps, how he and these rooms were reinvented to the greater glory of Nuremberg and Germany. A lot feels reinvented here for those reasons somehow, though I loved the sausages and the dark wood paneling and the wine — and wished I could still drink beer. The Golden Postern was delicious and friendly, couldn’t really say the same for anywhere else.

Mark giving a lecture and doing a class at the University in Erlangen, and we deciding to stay in Nuremberg. It is a beautiful town to be honest, and one where life can be lived with grace I think — wide pavements, well maintained buildings of flats, lots of colour that I love. Lots of timber construction, a vibrant market in the centre, brilliant public transport. Also a number of people rough sleeping. Addictions — though they felt of a different kind than those so familiar in Manchester or London.

Statues that were bewildering:

Nuremberg

Some terrifying (though I confess I rather liked the latter)

Nuremberg
Nuremberg

Yet I think we will not be going back to Bavaria, at least not to stay.

It didn’t leave me with the physical sick to the stomach feeling of Bayreuth — the visit to Cosima Wagner’s Wahnfried and Winfred Wagner’s home next door, where Adolf Hitler felt at home, sneaking in after dark in the days after the 1923 failed putsch and then openly feted after his rise to power.

But this was ‘The most German of German Cities’, a centre of Hitler’s support and where they planned to build the massive and monumental Nazi Party Rally Grounds.

A map of what would have been, had not World War started and been lost:

There is a museum in part, it was alright. The building for party rallies still looms monumental, sitting at one end of the two-kilometer road for marches and parades:

Nuremberg

I read Speer’s autobiography many years ago when he writes about designing this, the great outdoor rally grounds with the massive banners, the use of floodlights to create the cathedral effect. It is almost down to foundations now, called the zepplin grounds because a zepplin once landed here in happier days.

It made me happy to see this there though:

Nuremberg

Most of this complex still serves as just another park.

This is also the city where Kaspar Hauser appeared on 26 May 1828, claiming to have been held prisoner, rumours ran rife of his parentage, especially after he was stabbed and killed.

Nuremberg

The castle was interesting, the transport museum — I loved seeing the train carriages of Bismarck:

Nuremberg - Bismarck's train

And Ludwig II, I love trains and these were absolutely brilliant.

Nuremberg - Ludwig II's train
Nuremberg - Ludwig II's train

I’m glad to have seen all this, also more happy than usual to be home.

A half-hearted look at a biography of Albrecht Dürer

We’re going to Germany! Nuremburg. The great keynote tour begins (not mine, you understand, I just tag along). And I found time somehow to read one solitary thing to prepare, and sadly very sadly it was this.I’ve already read Albert Speer, long ago, I am prepared for the massive architecture of awe and power. I’m more excited about Albrecht Dürer, still I’m sad to find there is a whole industry around him. I know I should have re-read Arendt, but instead…

A few fun facts about Nuremburg first.

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II, said upon visiting Nuremberg in 1444 in the Imperial train:

What a splendid sight this city presents! What brilliance, what lavish views, what beauties, what culture, what admirable government! … what clean streets, what elegant houses! (6)

Luther called it ‘Germany’s eye and ear.’ I’m not entirely sure I know what that means. But it is the middle point of Europe, at the centre of European trade — amber, furs, salt fish from the Baltic; gold, silver copper, horses from Hungary and Bohemia; spices, silks, luxury goods from Venice, woolen cloth from the Netherlands. I love these ancient lists, the sense of distance and far away lands and precious things. Nuremberg itself made scientific instruments and metalwares — rather a splendid trade for a town.

This was a principal town of the Holy Roman Empire for a while, the city at the foot of the medieval fortress, a ‘free’ city directly under the emperor, the Emperors rarely there though — it wasn’t so comfortable the castle, especially in winter even though the Imperial coronation regalia was kept there. So effectively it was a City State, run by its own city council, and had reciprocal toll-free trade with seventy cities despite a lack of most things needed for a succesful city.

Albrecht Dürer was born here in 1471, his father a goldsmith, his godfather also. Anton Koberger though he shortly became a publisher, the most important in Germany with 24 presses.

At 13 Dürer created this in silverpoint — a process of chemical etching in which nothing can be erased:

I have little sense, though, am failing to understand Dürer here. Maybe because there are sentences like these”

Dürer’s sypathetic portrayal of his father, and his largely positive memories of his childhood are in remarkable contrast to Martin Luther’s recital of brutal beatings at home and at school…There can be little doubt that Albrecht Dürer must have been a more agreeable child that then great Reformer… (21)

We all know children are only beaten because they are not agreeable, they bring it on themselves really. Dürer instead seems a bit spoiled, possibly because almost all of his many siblings have died (and will die). Still, in 1490, his dad sends him off on what the author calls ‘a bachelor’s journey’. She tries to trace his movements, he may have been apprenticed, it is detailed guessing.

He did this, one of my favourite self portraits of all, in Paris. Albrecht Dürer with a pillow, age 22.

From the Met’s description:

Among the masterpieces of European draftsmanship, this iconic self-portrait study evokes the awakening artistic consciousness of the twenty-two-year-old German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer. Probably produced with the aid of a mirror, the head and the hand were preparatory for his painted Self-Portrait of 1493 (Musée du Louvre, Paris), considered one of the earliest independent self-portraits in Western painting. Durer’s exploration of self-portraiture in several drawings and paintings is characterized by an arresting directness that was highly unusual at the time. The artist’s calligraphic precision and expressiveness of line is also found in the study of a pillow at the bottom of the sheet, a subject that he continued to explore on the reverse.

It was preparatory for this:

But what the author writes is how it is is:

showing the first tentative half-dozen hairs of what was soon to become Europe’s most famous and anachronistic beard. (Beards were not normally worn by young, or even by middle-age men in Dürer’s day–even the majority of elderly men, as Mark Zucker has shown, were clean-shaven.) (39)

I’m glad that’s been documented. Ever since Mark won my heart with the Engels’ moustache letters I have had a bit of a thing for historical facial hair. Still. I hoped for more.

On his marriage?

Neither the bride nor the groom had a great deal to say about their marriage, which was arranged, as was proper in the fifteenth century, by the two sets of parents to suit their own purposes. Such businesslike arrangements may often have been loveless, at least to begin with, but were in the long run at least as satisfactory in most respects, and a good deal more permanent, than those contracted by modern methods. (40)

No fear feminism will get in the way of the story here, then.

His fatherin-law was Hans Frey:

reported to have been a clever and charming man and the best harp player in town, as well as a good singer, had formerly been the city’s official gauger of honey and nuts. (40)

Within two months of the marriage, Dürer was off again, to Italy this time. Was he called by the Renaissance? Was it the marriage? Was it the plague, that had broken out in 1494? She asks but does not answer, maybe someone who read a different book might have a better idea.

I can’t imagine the plague, I feel like it fills all of his work. Death always seems close, no? Even when it’s not staring at you as a skull or a starving man or the horsemen of the apocalypse. Even then.

But back to the book. It doesn’t really go there.

She  goes on about the guilds, whose provision of increased security could limit an artist’s intellectual and social aspirations…we wouldn’t get on I don’t think, me and this author. Something tells me.

There are some uncomfortable passages on the expulsion of the Jews from Nuremburg in 1499, where Pirkheimer — patron and friend to Dürer, hired an armed escort. She notes it was to protect them as they left but could also be argued it was to ensure they were leaving. People did, of course, benefit from their leaving. Houses suddenly empty and that kind of thing.

Not that there aren’t interesting facts that deserve to be simple asides never to be explored further (unlike the explulsion of a large portion of the city population, the fear, the mob response, the plague). Like the fact that Pirkheimer had to leave law school BEFORE he won his degree, so he could remain eligible for the Nuremburg City Council. Like the fact that he opened a School for Poets, which lasted from 1498-1509. She writes:

Albrecht Dürer’s own authorship of quite a large quantity of truly dreadful poetry, all written in the years 1509-1510, he may perhaps have begun to attend this ill-fated institution, which was the distant ancestor of the more famous Nuremburg School for Poets of the seventeenth century. (55)

She does print some here, and for once we agree, it is truly terrible.

Still, you can see that it’s a bit hard to understand from all this where exactly the four horsemen came from between 1496 and 1498, though she does note some believed 1500 would usher in the end of the world:

The 1496 Prodigal son returning to kneel among the swine.

And look at those buildings… she makes the point that German architecture made these prints exotic in Italy and France, giving them cache on top of the incredible skill and splendour of the art itself. But surely there is more here.

I’d rather just look at his work…he loved his paintings and colours. Me, I confess I love the prints the most. He carried copies of them with him everywhere to sell in the markets, as did his wife. Imagine.

But I think I am going to stop here, because I couldn’t find what I wanted in this particular book. Not like Caravaggio. Maybe one day I’ll have time to read another, maybe the great book remains to be written on Albrecht Dürer. I don’t usually choose so badly. I confess, though, some of those terrible passage are rather enjoyable. Her apoplexies on his dirty letters to Pirkheimer are pretty awesome, but I am too tired to keep going…

Cosima Wagner: Lady of Bayreuth

This biography of Cosima Wagner was very difficult to read on many levels. Mark was being flown to Bayreuth for a workshop and I picked it up as part of my tradition of exploring a place — I confess I was utterly ignorant of Cosima Wagner’s history, or Richard Wagner’s history or the role that this city where they made a home played in the formation of Hitler’s pseudophilosophy, his social circle, and his base of power.  Because this family made a home here in Bayreuth at Wahnfried.

That I found most difficult.

But there was also the author Oliver Hilmes… his tone, what he singled out, his commentary were all quite contrary to my own style and feeling. This can hardly be a criticism of course, because we do not all think the same. I thought it best to signal it — and that said, numerous times I think he did actually let the family off the hook for some fairly vile little foibles of theirs.

So from the beginning I felt that while I might perhaps agree broadly that Marie d’Agoult was not the nicest of women or very present for her children, yet my critique of her would be directed differently. I would have made more of her support for women’s equality, I might have mentioned her wider friendships with other women such as Georges Sand, and my sympathy would certainly have been much more engaged. Cosima’s father Franz Liszt did simply take the children away from Marie after Paris followed her mother in rejecting them all from polite society (their ideas of free love being greatly frowned upon then but thank god they fought for them), and he did refuse to let her see them. Hilmes then describes Liszt as under the sway of his new life-long lover and companion Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein — and that kind of language always worries me. Yet at her direction Liszt’s three children were removed from the home they had made with Lizst’s mother Anna and placed under the care of a horrible governess of the ancien regime, Madame Patersi de Fossombroni and her sister. Here is Cosima standing.

It’s as though 1848 never happened, in this book. I found that curious. But Madame Patersi had been a governess for many princesses of soon-to-be-relegated-to-history principalities, and so I imagine in that house even the gains of the French Revolution were steadfastly ignored.

This book also and again reinforced the realisation that the education of European aristocratic youth consisted (and still consists to some extent) of breaking children into small pieces to rebuild them as heartless, stony-faced, charming individuals who know much about etiquette but have had all feeling for humanity destroyed. How better to maintain power and obscene privilege as though it were right and natural? Reading about such upbringings you are almost sorry for them.

I was sorry for Cosima too, in reading Hans von Bülow’s official request to Liszt for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

It is more than love I feel for her… Rather, the idea of drawing even closer to you, whom I regard as the principal instigator and animator of my present and future existence, sums up all the happiness that I can expect to feel here on earth. In my eyes Cosima Liszt towers over all other women not only because she bears your name but also because she resembles you so much and because so many of her qualities make her a faithful reflection of your own person. (39-40)

The creepiest declaration of love I have ever read, and hardly a solid foundation for a happy marriage, though she did marry him.

She did very much resemble Liszt. He met his end in Beyreuth, in her home. She made it a hard and painful one refusing medical help for him at the end and refusing to allow anyone in to see him as she would be the one to nurse him — and then finding herself too busy to nurse him. Liszt’s pupil watched through the window from the bushes after being expelled from the sickroom, heard his dying groans. Almost you can feel sorry for him. But I get ahead of myself.

There are a number of brilliant quotes here. I thought this one very telling.

‘What she says is almost always intelligent,’ recalled one contemporary, ‘in other words, it is well thought through; but one has the feeling that it has been thought through for a long time in advance, so that the ideas are inflexible and fail to adapt to the actual conversation.’ (49)

Hilmes blames this on the limitations of her otherwise flawless German, but seems more a characteristic of mind perhaps. In her younger years she wrote for a monthly magazine, though always under pseudonyms and this memory not encouraged by family hagiographers — not something for women to do. Her mother had fought long and hard for women’s rights to be authors.

Cosima met Wagner as a child as he was a friend of Liszt — they moved in the same artistic and often radical circles as did Liszt’s student Hans von Bülow. Wagner, however, did not notice her until her marriage brought her within his orbit, and his failing marriage left him without the feminine support he believed he needed. This book fails to mentions Wagner’s time on Dresden’s barricades in 1849, his arrest.  I learned that at Wahnfried… a fact hard to guess because some of Wagner’s quotes? Wow.

Mine is a different kind of organism, I have sensitive nerves, I must have beautify. radiance and light. The world owes me a living! I can’t live the miserable life of an organist like your Master Bach! Is it such as outrageous demand to say that I deserve the little bit of luxury that I can bear? I, who can give pleasure to thousands?
— letter to mistress Eliza Wille (65)

He had many many mistresses. And a wife, named Minna. She had a hard time I believe. I know I am doing none of them justice, I apologise.

There are Wagner’s terrible letters to King Ludovic II, who was utterly smitten with him and known to be gay. Every age has its idiom and this may be reflected here, yet if they weren’t lovers this could be worse, as Wagner must have known very well what he was about in using such language to get land, money and influence. This is only a taste.

‘My beloved has often wanted to know more about my political views. I have already divulged certain things. Would my beloved know more?’ … Ludwig begged the ‘light of his life’ to inform him of his own opinion … (70)

Wagner did inform him, in the form of journal entries, and they were distributed as policy documents to Ludwig’s ministers.

I’m not saying that his obsessive fashion sense and his extreme care in interior decoration says anything definitive about the breadth of his sexuality, but, well. He loved pastels, loved to wear silk and satin and velvet (who doesn’t, I know), and here is a description of Wagner’s interior decoration sense from his villa in Munich bestowed upon him by Ludwig:

To the right a door led to the composer’s holy of holies, his ‘satin chamber’. The select few who were permitted to enter this study were generally overwhelmed by what they found here, for the room’s furnishings — entirely Wagner’s own creation — were a riot of light and colour and an orgy of velvet and satin. The walls were lined with yellow satin, while the pink silk curtains in front of the windows bathed the room in a roseate glow. Through the room were draperies, artificial roses and decorations made from precious fabrics such as damask and satin. In the middle of the study was a couch covered with a floral moire fabric. (77)

The von Bülows moved to Munich, just around the corner, in 1864. in April, 1865 Wagner’s first daughter Isolde was born to Cosima. Hilmes notes that it is not certain that von Bülow knew it was Wagner’s child — which could mean Cosima was sleeping with both at the same time! I almost laughed at the shock implied in the sentence discounting such as thing.

It is impossible to laugh, however, at the letter she wrote in November of 1867 to protest Ludwig hiring Paul Heyse as artistic director of his theatre company.

My objections to him are as follows: 1) his Jewish extraction — in this respect I beg our august and dear friend most humbly not to see a harsh prejudice but a profoundly well-justified fear of a race that has caused the Germans much harm … (90)

Meanwhile Wagner was about to cross the line with old Ludwig… you’d have thought that journal escapade would have done it, but no. Or that time he called Ludwig ‘my lad’. But after glorious days in which Wagner organised concerts in the morning then read to Bavaria’s king from his memoirs after which the two of them would head off to sport in the countryside, Wagner went so far as to demand the resignations of the cabinet secretary and the prime minister. And so, Hilmes describes it as involuntary exile.

After much passionate recrimination, Cosima finally obtained a divorce from von Bülow, and married Wagner in 1870. She would dedicate her life in his service, and in service to her son…an oddly dictatorial service to be sure, or to their myth as she interpreted it. How better to summarise the role she saw for her life than this picture?

There is a quote here that is fairly terrifying from her private journals (though she wrote them as testaments to her service, and they were always meant to be read by her children, particularly Siegfried):

Spoke very seriously with the children, wept and prayed with them, brought them to the point of asking me for punishment. (107)

Hilmes ties her strange streak of self-sacrifice to her husband’s myth and her sadomasochism that emerged from her upbringing to her anti-semitism. I find his psychoanalysis a little simple perhaps, but the roots of it are all here. It’s not surprising that Wagner reissued a little pamphlet he had written about the Jews the year of their marriage in 1870 — I haven’t yet read it. I suppose I will. I am curious. But all of it brings on nausea.

In 1871 they moved to Bayreuth, gifted land and money to build a home by Ludwig it was known as Wahnfried (from wahn and fried which mean roughly delusion and freedom), and written upon it Wagner’s motto:

 “Hier wo mein Wähnen Frieden fand – Wahnfried – sei dieses Haus von mir benannt.” (“Here where my delusions have found peace, let this place be named Wahnfried.”)

Oh the delusions that this home would help spawn.

Gifted land from the council they built the Festspielhaus, a new opera house for the festival they would begin — Wagner found the town’s incredible baroque opera house too small for the orchestras he needed.

I think for me, one of the most terrible substories in the book is that of Hermann Levi, an enormously gifted conductor (poet, composer) who was court kapellmeister to Ludwig in Munich, and whom Ludwig himself insisted be first conductor for Wagner’s recently finished Parsifal. The book is clear that Wagner objected, on the grounds he was a jew, only to be overruled. Hilmes writes:

Among Wagner’s less attractive qualities was his insistence on repeatedly tormenting his new in-house conductor with anti-Semitic barbs. (145)

He notes Levi tried to break his ties to the Wagners many times. Yet in spite of this, Levi is referred to consistently thereafter as a family friend… it seems to me that whatever this complicated relationship might have been, friendship is not quite the right term for it. His relationship with Cosima far less so, it hurts my soul to read of it.

In 1883 Wagner died while in Vienna. There were scenes of operatic horror as Cosima lay by the side of his decomposing corpse and refused to be removed, kept slipping in to be with his body, cut off all of her hair and sewed it into a pillow to be buried with Wagner. From here she would dedicate her life to his myth, his music, and his festival in Bayreuth. Everything was sacrificed to that cause, but only as she defined it and controlled it. She never released power, and she never forgave those who challenged her. Wahnfried in Bayreuth became a shrine to her dead husband and the family and to Germany as she imagined it. She placed glass over Wagner’s desk to keep it always as he left it, people described the chair that could not be sat in, the many ornaments and the piano that could never be touched. This is what she tried to do on a much grander scale across Germany itself, making of his life, work and thought a kind of museum performed over and over again through the festival, yet at the same a living force in music and in German nationalism. She tried to control it all, keep Wagner at the pinnacle of musical achievement (a strange madness for anyone who loved music) as well as relevance for the ideal of the German people. It is terrifying how effective she was.

I loved this quote about the Beyreuth festival from Brahms’s pupil Elisabeth von Herzogenberg — and of course I had forgotten that Brahms and the Wagnerians were sworn enemies, I like Brahms even more now. But this sums up the feeling that you get from all of this — Cosima’s relentless rule in the house, her children’s desperately unhappy lives in service of her will and Wagner’s myth and the way that any one and everyone was also pulled into that service who could be of any use:

People like that go to Parsifal just as Catholics visit graves on Good Friday, it has become a church service for them. The whole bunch of them are in an unnaturally heightened, hysterically enraptured state like Ribera’s saints, with their eyes raised aloft so that one can see only the whites of them, and under their shirts they all have carefully tended stigmata. I tell you, the whole thing has a really bad smell to it, like a church that has never been aired or like a butcher’s display of meat in summer: a blood-thirstiness and musty smell of incense, a sultry sensuality with terribly serious gestures, a heaviness and a bombast otherwise unprecedented in art weighs down on one, its brooding intensity taking one’s breath away. (194)

This is the antisemitic and German nationalist atmosphere that drew Houston Chamberlain here in quest of one of Wagner’s daughters — he ended up marrying Eva. He is perhaps best known for writing the innocuous sounding Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century), a favourite of Hitler’s. While de Gobineau had been long in favour in Wahnfried circles, Cosima and others felt that Chamberlain had updated these outdated ideas of race with more modern understandings of race for the new century. She was ecstatic at snagging such a mind to be in service to the family’s task and Germany itself. Meanwhile Siegfried had married Winifred, another English woman raised in Germany and friendly to the cause. She described Hitler’s first open visit in 1925. He continued to visit in secret over the next few years while still widely seen as the nasty little man he was, up through his successes in 1933, so as not to compromise the family. Hilmes writes:

Generally Hitler would turn up at Wahnfried after dark, Friedelind Wagner recalling that ‘late as it was, he never failed to come into the nursery and tell us gruesome tales of his adventure. We all sat up among the pillows in the half-light and listened while he made our flesh creep.’ Chamberlain too, could scarcely wait for Hitler’s flying visits: ‘Visits by A.H. highly enjoyable & enthralling, eyes wide open & directed at him.’

Joseph Goebbels came along to visit the great man Chamberlain as well, though he was already very ill. He would die in 1927 — very possibly of late-stage syphilis. One can only hope, it is most unpleasant. Cosima died in 1930, Siegfried followed soon after, Winifred was left to run the festival which she did most ably with great support from Hitler himself until the end of the war.

It is hard to say what I feel finishing this… horror certainly. Amazement at what have always seemed to me to be such different times, such different worlds spanned by Cosima’s life — from the rebellion of Liszt and d’Agoult and the romantic period and 1848 smashed against an ancien regime governess’s rocks through to Wagner and Brahms and then to the rise of Hitler in Germany … it is almost inconceivable really. Yet her life shows how these things tied together, how far Nazi Germany was from being a strange bubble, shows the depths of its roots. She was such a force. I need to read more of Wagner to get a better grip on how much she shaped his legacy, but I’m not sure I have the stomach for it.

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Novels as Written by Cats: Hoffman & Sōseki

A year ago we traveled to Hamburg, and in looking for what to read to learn more about the town I stumbled across the extraordinary book by E.T.A. Hoffman (1766-1822): The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr. Hoffman was a splendid author of books filled with horror and fantasy you see, and he created a character, a musician, called Kreisler who was a favourite of both Schumann and Brahms (who did grow up in Hamburg). I wrote more about the romantic ideals of genius and music here, based on the chapters about the enigmatic Kreisler found within The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr. The tomcat, however — whose autobiography sits ensconced within the Kreisler manuscript given the cat recycled the papers for his own purposes — Murr himself I saved for later. Because at almost the same time I started reading Hoffman, I received as a gift Sōseki’s I am a Cat, a rather wonderful coincidence. It did take me a year to get through the second — a novel read just before going bed and put aside during my many travels and travails of 2016. But having some overlap between the two was rather wonderful, as they share similar views of just what a cat might say when it is granted the ability to write and use them in similar ways to satirise human society. From Murr’s own introduction to his work:

With the confidence and peace of mind native to true genius, I lay my life story before the world, so that the reader may learn how to educate himself to be a great tomcat, may recognize the full extent of my excellence, may love, value, honour and admire me — and worship me a little.
— Berlin, May 18–

Above all I loved the playfulness of the language, the mockery of the romantic sublime:

My new friendship had made a deep impression on me, so that as I sat in sun or shade, on the roof or under the stove, I thought of nothing, reflected on nothing, dreamed of nothing, was aware of nothing but poodle, poodle, poodle! I thereby gained great insight into the innermost essence of poodlishness which dawned upon me in brilliant colours, and the profound work mentioned above, to wit, Thought and Intuition, or Cat and Dog, was born of this perception.

He’s quite an author, Murr, reflecting on the purpose of life, the limitations of friendship, and of course, love:

‘I have made inquiries,’ continued Kitty, ‘into your circumstances, and learnt that you were called Murr and that as you lived with a very kindly man, you enjoyed not only an extremely handsome competence but every other comfort of life, comforts you could well share with a pretty wife. Oh yes, I love you very much, dear Murr!’

Poor Murr, she would, of course, betray him. It is a brilliant counterpoint, however, to the grand tragedy of the figure of Kreisler and the aristocrats surrounding him.

SōsekiSōseki Natsume (1867-1916) wrote a different sort of book, more focused on the banal philosophies of an eccentric band of friends centered around the middle-aged figure of teacher of English literature (just like Sōseki). It, too, mocks the characters and the mores and fashions of the times fairly remorselessly as they are related through a feline indifference.

Nor does it fail to highlight the self-esteem and self-centredness of cats:

However, by virtue of felinity, I can, better than all such bookmen, make myself invisible. To do what no one else can do is, of course, delightful. That I alone should know the inner workings of the Goldfield household is better than if nobody should know. Though I cannot pass my knowledge on, it is still cause for delight that I may make the Goldfields conscious that someone knows their secrets. In the light of this succession of delights, I boldly dare to believe my brain is delightful as well. (103)

Sōseki I am a catThe cat has adventurous with friends and lovers, but above all it is satire on the very human condition. Here a laugh at his master:

every evening he makes a point of going to bed with a book which he does not read. Sometimes he makes a positive beast of himself and shuffles in with three or four boos tucked under his arms. For several days until a little while ago, it was his nightly practice to tote in Webster’s whacking great dictionary. I suppose this behavior reflects some kind of psychological ailment. (154)

His friends:

And who should it be but our old friend Beauchamp Blowlamp. With his arrival the entire cast of the eccentrics who haunt my master’s house was gathered on stage. Lest that should sound ungracious, perhaps I could better emphasize that sufficient eccentrics are gathered to keep a cat amused… (213)

But still, I know that what I love most is the absurd voice of the cat. This, I confess, made me laugh out loud:

Postponing my sea bathing to some later date, I have anyway decided to make a start on some sort of exercise. In this enlightened twentieth century, any failure to take exercise is likely to be interpreted as a sign of pauperdom. … [a long list of absurd cat activities] … Perhaps my most interesting exercise is jumping suddenly from behind onto the children’s backs. However, unless I am extremely careful about the method and timing of such exploits, the penalties involved can be uncommonly painful. Indeed, I derive so very little pleasure from having my head stuffed deep in a paperbag that I only risk this splendid exercise three times, at most, in a month. … Yet another form of exercise is clawing the covers of books. (225-6)

Stuffing a cat’s head into a paper bag! Rare punishment indeed. In these pages there is a mockery of fashion, nudity, masculinity, marriage, neighbour rivalries, love, wealth, ambition, the exploits of school children at the neighboring school and more. Through it all the cat remains above looking down, supercilious:

If we don’t watch out, even cats may find their individualities developing along the lethal crushing pattern forecast for these two-legged loons. It’s an appalling prospect. Depression weighs upon me. Perhaps a sip of Sampei’s beer would cheer me up. (467)

There is even a delightful tribute to Hoffman:

I have always thought myself unique in my knowledge of mankind, but I was recently much surprised to meet another cat, some German mog called Kater Murr, who suddenly turned up and started sounding off in a very high-falutin’ manner on my own special subject. … If such a feline culture-hero was already demonstrating superior cat skills so long as a century ago, perhaps a good-for-nothing specimen like me has already outlived its purpose and should no more delay its retirement into nothingness. (467)

But this foreshadows the — in retrospect the only possible and maybe rather funny — ending, which I found so horrifying to read I do wish I had not read it at all, only read about it. Which is why this sort-of spoiler is here, in case you are thinking of reading it yourself. It’s not a book of dramatic arc so this hardly ruins any of it.

Anyway, two amazing books by cats. Seems that cats offer a good mirror through which to observe ourselves.

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