As I enter my thirteenth year as a “visitor” to Weimar, I’m finally comprehending the splendid woods of Europe instead of gawking at its disparate trees! Take today’s little story in BILD (10/19/11,p.2 col.8) about the former German chancellor Helmut Kohl just getting the Polish decoration (The Golden Bridge of Dialogues) for his work in reconciling the two countries after World War Two. The triangle staffs of adjacent Germany, France, and Poland are constantly organizing conferences, exhibitions and awards under their corporate title “Die Drei Ecke” (The Three Corners). Serious Europeans are obsessed with avoiding a repetition of their destructive twentieth century. And Germans are still regretting the scandal of Nazism, long after they have adopted more civilized habits.
Take the new exhibit in the Weimarer Kunsthalle on Goetheplatz, ”Kampf und Leid” (Battle and Grief), of 110 items(out of 50,000)from the Museum of the First World War in the tiny French village of Peronne near Amiens. I asked their director at the press opening why so small a place would have such a large collection. The answer was simple: their proximity to the Battle of the Somme, that most destructive event, analogous to the Battle of the Bulge in the Second World War. Paintings and drawings, posters and engravings, soldier to soldier weapons, a helmet with artillery damage, an American gas mask!
(My then twenty-eight year old father was a captain in the American Expeditionary Force, and he was gassed in that war. He abandoned his family when I was three, a victim of Paris whorehouses returned to marry a Catholic virgin, so I never talked to him about the war, until aged 45, I made a surprise Las Vegas visit where he had become a millionaire selling real estate.)
The diverse imagery touts the Germans as fighters, and losers. Ditto the French. No one wins in such carnage. That is an insight more significant than the current spat over the Euro. Americans could emulate them by communicating with Cannucks to the North and Mexis to the South, not to forget all of Central and South America almost all of whom have at one time or another felt the baton of our Marines and the perfidy of our banks. And inside America we could stop the pseudohistory of Civil War battles and really join US into one nation, with liberty and just us for all!
The exhibition was borrowed from France by a new Weimar “Club” called “Rendezvous with History” which will hold a conference during the exhibition on the “meaning” of the War. Not to be confused with an idiotic recent replaying of Napoleon’s battle here in 1806, an event repeated every five years! By the way, the French sent “soldiers” to make this farce more “real”. Incidentally our greatest writer Goethe didn’t have the balls to counter the French when they tried to break into his house. But his blue collar mistress stood up to the Frogs! Real history is ambiguous.
A mere 30 minutes by fast train from Weimar lies the medieval city of Naumburg , now simultaneously exhibiting the architecture and sculpture of the Naumburg Master. (He identity is unknown—I call him the Mystery Meister—because the legal papers on his thirteenth century work burned.) In the first two weeks, 150,000 visitors have crowded into these ecclesiastical grounds to savor a complex presentation. This most expensive exhibition is cofunded by the German chancellor and the French president—a current investment against future follies. A most touching minifilm (there are many such visual aids replacing traditional captions) concerns the German military’s joy at having destroyed Reims cathedral at the beginning of World War I, the place where French kings were crowned!
I have just spent two days exploring their explanations of how German medieval cathedral builders learned how to do it, like the Naumburg Master, by apprenticing at Reims and other innovative French churches. But the two-volume catalog (a steal at 50Euros)is so physically heavy and metaphysically complex, you may get a hernia from the first and have to retire to comprehend the second. However, the captions are trilingual (German, French and English)and there are splendid simplified and cheaper brochures to tantalize you over the medieval exchanges between the cultures who later would try to destroy each other (and inadvertently themselves.) I have petitioned the Naumburg management to let me publish the English language captions as a book for my semi-literate, monolingual countrymen.
And I must tell you an astonishing crosscultural development: BILD, the tabloid best known for its front page bulbousbusted broads, has just published a twenty volume collection of novels by Nobel Laureates translated into German.(For 99 Euros, in a box for your mantel! I’ve just bought it for my Ossi librarian Frau’s forty-fifth birthday Friday.
And I’m beguiling the Anna Amalia Library’s brass here to do a similar but bilingual collection on Nobel Laureate poets, beginning with Seamus Heaney. Geared to Friedrich Schiller’s December 10 birthday. Every year a new Laureate, with a party like the one I organized at Arcadia University in Philadelphia for Emily Dickinson’s 150th birthday in 1980, where couples came dressed as two lines from an ED poems (Two lesbians won first prize, an all expense paid lark in Amherst on Walt Whitman’s birthday, May 31.) We read all 1767 of her poems overnight! Great literature is for joy, not drudgery. Ditto medieval cathedrals. We all need to be healed!
Another version of this essay appears at Broad Street Review.