Alexander Kluge - Aphoristic, anecdotal, not-quite-fictional cinematic "stories"; commentary on love, war, the Devil and the cosmos - the devil as an unlikely ally of enlightenment; how to reproduce at new sites a caricature of a classic and fascistic feudal capitalism
Alexander Kluge, The Devil's Blind Spot, Trans. by Martin Chalmers and Michael Hulse, New Directions, 2007.
"At once a genuine story-teller and a literary documentarian, Alexander Kluge's genius lies in the very special way he makes found material his own. Each of the miniatures collected here touches on "facts" and is only several pages long. In just a paragraph he can etch a whole world: he is as great a master of compression as Kafka or Kawabata.
Arranged in five chapters, the dozens of stories of The Devil's Blind Spot are condensed, like novels in pill form. The first group of stories illustrates the little-known virtues of the Devil. The second explores love from Kant and opera through the Grand Guignol. The third is entitled "Sarajevo Is Everywhere" and tests how convincing power is. The fourth group concerns the cosmos, and the fifth ranges all our "knowledge" against our feelings. In each piece, Kluge alights on precise particulars: on board the atomic submarine Kursk, for instance, we are marched precisely step by step through a black comedy of the exact, disastrous stages of thinking that lead to catastrophe. Sample titles include "The Devil in the White House," "The Development of Iraq as a Case for the Files," "Intelligence of the Second Degree," and "Love's Mouth Also Kisses the Dog."
"Alexander Kluge, that most enlightened of writers." - W.G. Sebald
"Funny, scary, ironical, inspired, wild, and worth every moment of your time." - Ignacio Schwartz
"More than a few of Kluge's many books are essential, brilliant achievements. None are without great interest." - Susan Sontag
"Smart, entertaining, and challenging... these stories are fascinating for the risks they take, and dazzling when they succeed." - Philip Herter
"In a work that intentionally defies categorization, the elderly German polymath Kluge, a film director as well as writer, offers commentary on love, war, the Devil and the cosmos, from the stars to the oceans, using myth, fables, the historical record and invented dialogues.
Guided in spirit by Kant, Walter Benjamin, and Adorno, Kluge (The Battle, 1967, etc.) has assembled dozens of little essays and anecdotes, the idea being to stimulate the reader through unexpected perspectives. Thus Kluge looks at the sad life of Christina Onassis and sees a person who has attained maturity in the Kantian sense; then Kluge broadens the picture to show Soviet interest in its shipping fleet, and the way the heiress becomes a pawn of geopolitics; inserted into the narrative are thoughts on another victim, the Queen of Carthage. Why? “History moves in waves... narratives that are not causally connected may still be related.” Kluge amplifies his point by turning to Sarajevo 1914 and the First Gulf War, reaching the startling conclusion that the only antidote to Sarajevo (shorthand for a world-war trigger) is for a nation to protect its own worst enemy. Elsewhere, he indulges in the puckish notion that the Devil has been spotted in a White House group photo by German Intelligence: Read this as a catcall from “old Europe.” A section on homecomings after WWII is backlit by the world’s most famous homecoming, that of Odysseus; the Chernobyl rescue operation brings to mind a poem by Schiller. Kluge’s accounts of military planners supping with the Devil are mostly on target, whether it’s a Pentagon “adventurer” trying to harness the spiritual powers of a rabbi or the Nazis’ search for a “primitive warrior type.” Still, a longish section on 9/11 fails to get a fix on the catastrophe.
Kluge’s frequent interrogatory dialogues on all these episodes throw up an array of talking-points that make his work ideal for an avant-garde reading group or post-graduate seminar, though less so for the solitary reader." - Kirkus Reviews
"This book is difficult to analyze but we must try to be alert to its design. Once we breathe deeply, we can discern the fact that Kluge gives us 173 stories; these stories are in effect signals (metaphysical, occult) that flash and disappear and then flash again. The foreword suggests, "From the days of the silent movies, there is a recurring scene, in which the backdrops - the horizons - placed on rollers, are moved toward the actors. The space the actors occupy contracts. Aware of a change, the viewer cannot make out the reason for it and feels something disturbing is going on" (my italics). The book, like the silent movie, requires our need to make patterns (of imagery, of metaphor, of puns); at the same time it denies a comfortable position. The very titles of chapters are electric. Look for example at "Flying Blind" or "Sarajevo, No Matter What the Place Is Called" and "Love in a Foreign Language." These are brilliantly chosen; they suggest that names - words themselves - are blinding us. We must be aware that "reality" - a word or place or the marriage of concrete and abstract material? - is always mysterious. I look at the title "The Luck of the Devil." I try to make sense. Isn't the Devil (he? Or she? Or he and she?) in some other place not ruled by luck? Doesn't the Devil's existence - open to question - prove there is chance? Historical figures meet (Hannibal, Hitler, Kleist, Proust, Adorno, Bellini), but they seem random or distorted. The collection is itself a distortion of pattern - or a pattern of distortion. It is chilling, contemplative, fierce, beautiful. It is, simply, unforgettable. It reminds me of Pale Fire. It insists that we must adapt ourselves to our "new century" of rapidly shifting (political? romantic?) alliances, of certain uncertainties." - Irving Malin
Matthew Miller: Critical Storytelling and Diabolical Dialectics: Alexander Kluge and the Devil's Blind Spots
("Abstract: Does dialectical method induce clairvoyance or blindness? Alexander Kluge's Die Lücke, die der Teufel läßt probes this question by exploring the theoretical interests of the Frankfurt School on literary terrain. In his experimental storytelling, Kluge suggestively and playfully deploys the devil as an unlikely ally of enlightenment. This enables him to redress the relationship of enlightenment to contingency and its blind spots as well as investigate the spaces of human action at the beginning of the twenty-first century. A diabolical dialectics of the kind found in Kluge's short prose texts proves adequate to the spatiotemporal complexities of the new century's power constellations. In his transformation and expansion of the lessons of his Frankfurt teachers, Kluge reorganizes the architecture of Frankfurt School dialectics along spatial coordinates. This article demonstrates Kluge's narrative spatialization of dialectics by addressing Die Lücke, die der Teufel läßt's strategic constellations of devil tales, analyzing selected stories in detail and providing an account of Kluge's use of the chiasmus.")
Read it at Google Books
Alexander Kluge, Cinema Stories, Trans. by Tim Brady, New Directions, 2007.
"The thirty-eight tales of Cinema Stories combine fact and fiction, and they all revolve around movie-making. The book compresses a lifetime of feeling, thought, and practice: Kluge—considered the father of New German Cinema—is an inventive wellspring of narrative notions. "The power of his prose," as Small Press noted, "exudes the sort of pregnant richness one might find in the brief scenarios of unknown films." Cinema Stories is a treasure box of cinematic lore and movie magic."
"His aphoristic, anecdotal, not-quite-fictional "stories," most less than a page long, seek to encapsulate film's enigmatic essence. At one moment, Kluge finds that film, like music, inveigles an audience into believing in a larger world. At another, he quotes the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in suggesting that the cinema offers "an indication of 'blind happiness'": as the news spread throughout the first part of the 20th century, "the indication that there could be such moments at all is sufficient to justify the founding of a new medium." The mysterious drug death of silent superstar Olive Thomas, Kluge's 1950s meetings with Fritz Lang (the "blind director") and an envisioning of the end of cinema are all here. While not on par with Robert Bresson's Notes on the Cinematographer, Kluge's book will appeal to anyone interested in 20th century film." - Publishers Weekly
"Kluge's genius is for exposing those little interruptions, those moments that escape totalizing systems, whether national Socialist, Stalinist, or star." - Ben Lerner
"A bold, galvanizing hybrid of fiction, interview, film theory, German history, scientific inquiry, and his cosmology of cinema." - Kendra Sullivan
"Neue Deutsche Film godfather Alexander Kluge has repeatedly stated that he makes no distinction between the varied pursuits that constitute his vast creative output--a body of work spanning the last half-century, and including fiction, filmmaking, and cultural criticism. As only a fraction of his writing has been translated into English, and given the unavailability of his films on this side of the world, American readers have till now been denied the opportunity to test Kluge's word as to the unity of his practice; but here at last is a concrete example: a slim volume of his peculiar analytical fictions, devoted entirely to cinema. Kluge's short stories--whose indeterminate grounding as either clearly imaginative or dearly documentary writing, along with frequent use of archival photographs, are known to have influenced W. G. Sebald--focus on film's infancy, before sound leveled the mediums early genius and before the apparatus of film screening (the movie theater itself: the process of distribution and exhibition) was perfected. Much as these years represented a flowering of unrealized possibilities, a proving ground for the geniuses, foot soldiers, and also-rans of the infant technology, Kluge's stories--filled with facts and fabrications in equal measure, and with a tone of pedantic bonhomie that puts him among contemporary literature's most instructive and misleading authors--are also proving grounds for his own restless and continuing inquiries into the construction of fiction, as well as some very practical experiments: a short piece included here about the elderly Fritz Lang's blindness lent its title, "The Blind Director," as well as many of its preoccupations, to Kluge's last film made for theatrical exhibition in 1985; and this film, in turn, being a collection of vignettes linked only by thematic rhymes, seems a precis of Kluge's methods as a fiction-writer: he is a collector as much as a fabricator. Though the New Directions edition of Cinema Stories contains only a fraction of the material in the German version, this very slenderness, as well as the book's singular focus, make it an excellent introductory text for readers who want to dip their toes into the Klugian oeuvre, which in its multiplicity, humor, and idiosincrasy begs comparison with the work of Viktor Shklovsky." - Jeremy M. Davies
"One of Germany's top filmmakers for several decades (he was born in 1932), Kluge nonetheless does not regard film as a discrete art form. 'Film and music are like cousins...[in that] each moves us inwardly'. He has also received Germany's top literary award, the Georg Buchner Prize. Even so, as confirmed in the 39 pieces about 'cinema'--'older than the art of film'--Kluge nonetheless possesses a singular, precise, revealing grasp of film. 'The stories in this book are subjective.' They're concisely anecdotal, seemingly random in unpredictably, somewhat whimsically ranging over subjects as diverse as the architect Rem Koolhaus, a waiter in a German restaurant, Walter Benjamin's famous essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', costuming, acting styles, filming in Africa, and the cosmos as cinema. (Regarding the last topic, you see what Kluge means with his careful use of the word 'cinema' to denote a species of experience.) The vagariousness of the topics actually discloses the intellectual and material sources of cinema as they display the keen directorial and artistic eye of a master filmmaker." - Henry Berry
Read it at Google Books
Alexander Kluge, Learning Processes with a Deadly Outcome, Trans. by Christopher Pavsek, Duke University Press, 1996.
"Fiction writer, internationally known filmmaker, critical theorist, Alexander Kluge is perhaps postwar Germany’s most prolific and diverse intellectual. With this translation of Learning Processes with a Deadly Outcome, a novella first published in German in 1973, one of Kluge’s most important literary works becomes available to an English-speaking audience for the first time. Written in a quasi-documentary style, this fascinating hybrid work combines science fiction with modernist forms of montage and reportage to describe a future in which Earth has been almost totally destroyed following the catastrophic Black War. The planet’s remaining inhabitants have been driven underground or into space where the struggle to establish a new society rages on.
Whether describing the scene in China where the devastated landscape is reconstructed according to old paintings, or in the galactic realm of the Starway where giant, turf-battling, corporate colonizing forces exploit the universe’s resources, Kluge tells his tale by inventing various forms of “evidence” that satirize the discourses of administrative bureaucracy, the law, military security, and the media. He gives us some of his most bizarre and hilarious characters in this peculiar world in which the remains of the past are mixed with the most advanced elements of the future. The cast includes highly specialized women workers who have adapted to the massive gravitational field of their heavy-metal planets, a commander with lethal foot-fungus, and ex-Nazi space pioneers who, in their lonely exile from the conflagrations on earth, spend their time carving enormous facsimiles of operatic sheet music in the forests of uninhabited planets.
With parody, and humor, Kluge shows how the survivors of Armageddon attempt to learn the art of civilization, and, despite the disaster they have suffered, how they set out to reproduce at new sites a caricature of a classic and fascistic feudal capitalism."
"Kluge’s Learning Processes with a Deadly Outcome is less successful than his earlier Case Histories because he decouples the human element from his reportage style. In Case Histories, the portraits of ordinary people corrupted (easily or with some difficulty) or destroyed by circumstances resonated because they so resolutely represented the ordinary in times of crisis. Here, the stars are four old Nazi war criminals who, in the near future, mastermind humanity’s expansion into space and the mass exploitation of, well, pretty much everything.
The trick is in the telling, full of vague pictures, recorded dialogues, and all sorts of obfuscatory tricks to frame the science fiction concepts in blandly “objective,” “scientific,” and “rational” phrasings. Kluge’s goal, as far as I can tell, is to produce enough distance from those mechanisms by means of the science fiction content to expose them for the manipulative forms of speech that they are. The technique is fairly effective, but Kluge overplays his hand by making the material too grand-scale and not giving enough insight into how the forms of reportage are being consumed. It’s propaganda without an audience." - David Auerbach
Alexander Kluge, Case Histories, Trans. by Leila Vennewitz, Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1991.
"The style of this book of stories is conspicuous, consisting of interrogatories, short passages under descriptive headers, and lists: lists of debts, of personality traits, of neuroses. The use of this sort of style as a way towards detachment goes back to Tristram Shandy, where it’s ironic, and you can see it in the flat descriptions of the contents of drawers in Dashiell Hammett. But Kluge’s use of it is most similar to the penultimate chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses. In Joyce, it served partly as a pathos-generating device, racking up details that etched Bloom and Stephen in momentary bliss and eventual sadness. Kluge uses it in a historical sense, using an inappropriately objective voice to create dissociation and dissonance between the material and the narration.
The forced (and, like in Joyce, there are intimations of its dishonesty and bias) neutrality turns it into the voice of history more than of fiction; damning moral judgments come out in its generalizations, but seem detached from any moral judgment of the person discussed. They are mostly apolitical; many are ineffective. So the historical treatment of people who are mostly incidental is jarring. When it’s deployed against the Eichmann-like Rudolf Boulanger, who helped “measure” the brains of Jewish scientists during the war and now lives freely in Cologne, the effect is numbing. Hannah Arendt made it seem as though the war criminals she treated were mindful administrators; Kluge goes further by giving him doubts and stumbling blocks absurdly inappropriate for the historical context.
Most of the stories are subtler. The prodigal Mandorf lives an uneasy existence on Crete under German occupation and wants to “let his personality unfold,” but can’t. After some of the local residents are executed by the Germans during an evacuation, Mandorf tries to save some of the others, but fails. In the process, under the title “An appalling discovery,” he realizes “he was indifferent to everything that had happened or was happening…Mandorf’s personality lay unfolded: it contained nothing.” He is one of the more moral of Kluge’s characters, but he is unable to cope with his impotence, and his better side is relegated to footnotes. The objective narration breaks more explicitly:
Mandorf the expert
Actually Mandorf was not an expert in anything.
Kluge is very respectful of the ambiguity between Mandorf’s inherent drive towards action, which he can never fulfill, and the horrible circumstances that drive him into resignation and isolation. Mandorf is doomed in his small way, but the extent of the exacerbating impact of what happens on Crete is unknowable, Kluge implies. Mandorf himself does become numb and regrets not gaining his professorship in 1939 more than anything afterwards, but the historical facts paint him as a nearly sympathetic person, even if this is, as Kluge indicates, totally, completely irrelevant to his emotional state.
Mandorf is much more respectable than Eberhard Schincke, an intellectual and researcher who turns vehemently anti-Nazi after several years of embracing it. But his reversal only stems from a cold day sitting on a horse in the reserves, which he spins into an argument against it. His academic nature and “aversion to topicality” lead him to reject Nazism on abstruse and meaningless ideological grounds, and his career is ruined not out of any real resistance but only a deep narcissism.
It’s difficult to work arbitrariness deep into the determining factors of stories’ characters, especially without some bias informing the direction. For Celine, it was contempt that underpinned his random horrors; for Christina Stead, it was an architectural drive to classify a certain personality type’s behavior across any situation.
But Kluge is remarkably equivocal, and the lack of a definitive orientation is often in danger of deflating the collection. These figures would not stand up to novel-length treatment; even over a dozen pages each one becomes dreary, because they are either rote and predictable or subject to drastic, unpredictable changes in direction. The style saves it, because Kluge manages to produce a different result in each story by contrasting the flat, historical reportage with brief implications of how the characters see themselves. Sometimes the result is irony, sometimes horror, sometimes forgiveness, sometimes disgust. That he produces so much without varying the style at all is the core achievement of the collection." - David Auerbach
Alexander Kluge, Alexander Kluge: He Has the Heartless Eyes of One Loved above All Else: 100 Notes, 100 Thoughts: Documenta Series 031, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012.
"In this notebook German author and film director Alexander Kluge (born 1932) outlines, in his much admired succinct style, the tale of a woman named Gesine who is unhappily in love with a man who has long since lost interest in her."
Alexander Kluge, December, Trans. by Gerhard Richter and Martin Chalmers, Seagull Books, 2012.
"In the historic tradition of calendar stories and calendar illustrations, author and film director Alexander Kluge and celebrated visual artist Gerhard Richter have composed December, a collection of thirty-nine stories and thirty-nine snow-swept photographs for the darkest month of the year.
In stories drawn from modern history and the contemporary moment, from mythology, and even from meteorology, Kluge toys as readily with time and space as he does with his characters. In the narrative entry for December 1931, Adolf Hitler avoids a car crash by inches. In another, we relive Greek financial crises. There are stories where time accelerates, and others in which it seems to slow to the pace of falling snow. In Kluge’s work, power seems only to erode and decay, never grow, and circumstances always seem to elude human control. When a German commander outside Moscow in December of 1941 remarks, “We don’t need weapons to fight the Russians but a weapon to fight the weather,” the futility of his struggle is painfully present.
Accompanied by the ghostly and wintry forest scenes captured in Gerhard Richter's photographs, these stories have an alarming density, one that gives way at unexpected moments to open vistas and narrative clarity. Within these pages, the lessons are perhaps not as comforting as in the old calendar stories, but the subversive moralities are always instructive and perfectly executed."
The Germanic Review, Alexander Kluge Issue
"To even the casual observer of German culture today, Alexander Kluge is difficult to overlook: his contributions range from now-classic films that inaugurated the New German Cinema in the 1960s to programming for late-night television since the mid-1980s, from the short stories collected in his book debut Lebensläufe (1963) to the two-volume Chronik der Gefühle (2000), from tomes of social theory and philosophy such as Geschichte und Eigensinn (1981) to recent forays into digital media and a web-presence on www.dctp.tv. To date, this work has been crowned with the award of virtually every cultural and book prize that Germany has to give. And as of September 10 of this year, visitors to Berlin's version of Hollywood's “Walk of Fame,” the newly inaugurated “Boulevard der Stars,” can even find Kluge's name inscribed in gold letters alongside the names of such luminaries as Marlene Dietrich or Romy Schneider on the red carpet that now graces Potsdamer Platz.
What has begun to change in recent years, however, is the increasing availability and visibility of Kluge outside of Germany. His literary work has been appearing in translation, with an English-language edition of Geschichte und Eigensinn currently in the works and projected for 2012. Thanks to an impressive, federally funded collaboration among the Munich film museum, the Goethe-Institut, and the publishing house Zweitausendeins, Kluge's films and works for television are now available in two affordable box-sets of region-free DVDs, subtitled in Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish (Johannes von Moltke reviews the recently released second set in this issue). This is to say nothing of the multilingual net presence of dctp.tv's “Garden of Information.”
The present issue of Germanic Review takes this increasing, and increasingly global, accessibility of Alexander Kluge's work as the occasion for a series of essays, interviews, and reviews that explore the aesthetics and politics of Kluge's cultural production. Among the most recent of these is the intriguing project entitled Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike (News from Ideological Antiquity)—a multi-disc DVD issued by the prestigious Suhrkamp publishing house, in which Kluge tackles with Sergei Eisenstein's plans for producing a film of Marx's Capital. In an in-depth interview, Gertrud Koch queries Kluge on the motivations and aesthetic strategies of this digital return both to Marxism's master text and to the history of cinema, in which Kluge has always argued that das Unverfilmte, i.e., those projects that remain “unfilmed,” constitute a silent critique of the films commonly thought to constitute that history.
The emphasis in the articles, by contrast, tends to fall not on the most recent or most networked of Kluge's contributions, but rather on his literary production. This has to do with the relative neglect of his prose work by Kluge scholarship to date. Attending to a selection of specific stories or textual constellations, these essays analyze some of Kluge's literary strategies: Stefanie Harris explores the ways in which Kluge's texts offer “exit strategies” (Auswege) from the impasses of contemporary discourse and politics; Matthew Miller zooms in on the figure of the devil to analyze how Kluge translates Critical Theory into literary practice; and Cyrus Shahan locates the significance of the body in Kluge's prose. We begin the issue with Richard Langston's article on what is perhaps the central device in Kluge's sprawling work, intimated in his earliest films, honed in his television interviews, and adapted in numerous prose texts: the dialogue, a hallmark of philosophizing from Socrates to Habermas, and a central tenet of Kluge's emphatic commitment to enlightenment, as Langston demonstrates in his reading of Negt's and Kluge's “Kantian Dialogues.” - Johannes von Moltke
Richard Langston: Toward an Ethics of Fantasy: The Kantian Dialogues of Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge
Stefanie Harris: Kluge's Auswege
Cyrus Shahan: Less than Bodies: Cellular Knowledge and Alexander Kluge's “The Air Raid on Halberstadt on 8 April 1945”
Gertrud Koch: Undercurrents of Capital: An Interview with Alexander Kluge
Johannes von Moltke: KlugeTube, or Auteur Television
Michelle Langford: Alexander Kluge (Senses of Cinema)
Interview by Gary Indiana [1989.]
Tara Forrest, ed., Alexander Kluge: Raw Materials for the Imagination (pdf of a book)
Peter C. Lutze: Alexander Kluge: The Last Modernist (read it at Google Books)
Mr. Kluge, why do people wear masks?
That’s like asking why people don’t run around naked. Why do we wear clothes? Why do we have skin? Why is there external protection even at the cellular level? The answer is that life itself isn’t naked, and it’s for the same reason that you can’t transport water in the desert just by cupping your hands: you need a proper container. All forms of life need a house, a shield, a casing. It’s a basic human need to have a cave or an acre of land that belongs to you and you alone. In the end, there are only two kinds of human beings: cave-dwellers and prairie people. If the prairie person is denied mobility or the cave-dweller is denied protection, they’re badly able to survive. It’s a natural human tendency to light candles in the cave for comfort in winter, and let the sky to be your roof in summer. All poetry is about these two states of being.
You once said that the reality that human communities construct is like a second skin that makes life bearable.
And I stand by it. Our first skin serves us to hold us together physically; if our organs were exposed, we wouldn’t be able to survive. Skin is a casing that, first and foremost, protects us. But in order to survive socially, our physical skin is not enough–and that’s why people construct a second skin called “reality”, something that’s constantly changing. My grandparents had an entirely differently constructed reality than my children. We build our realities according to our personal, social and political circumstances … and we do it in order to survive. Human beings are simply unable to deal with an unadorned reality.
Is the second skin you call reality a kind of mask?
I would say the face itself is a mask. It has over two hundred different muscles that we can manipulate in order to form the most varied and illusory expressions. We’ve been able to use our facial muscles like this since our evolutionary forefathers and early man discovered language and the ability to deceive. That’s why every human being is a walking, talking mask. With the advent of language, deception and disguise became part of the game of survival. It reminds me of an interesting scene in Heinrich von Kleist’s Cathy of Heilbronn, where the princess visits a fountain at night, disrobes under the moonlight, and is revealed as a skeleton. She stands in stark contrast to the protagonist, Cathy, who is vital, rosy-cheeked, and made of flesh and blood. In theatre terms, the princess’s skeletal frame implies that she’s incapable of love–an aspect of her true identity she wants to conceal at all costs. Her clothes ad jewellery–conventional symbols of dignity and splendor–are nothing but masks for death. In Kleist’s attempt to distinguish between truth and deception, masked death becomes a woman’s false beauty.
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
That’s Oscar Wilde–and what a fitting aphorism. Ancient Greek actors and actresses were called “Personae” or “Masks that can be heard through” because they said things through the openings of their masks that they would otherwise never be allowed to say offstage. Even the oracle at Delphi spoke through a mask. Historically, people are better able to sort out their egotisms from behind masks. When free of the burden of their own conceits, they can speak certain truths. Man is undoubtedly a creature of illusion.
How would you say the practice of confession fits into that scheme? Is the partition in the Catholic confessional also a type of mask?
Of course! Without a partition that provides a certain degree of anonymity, there’s no way to confess so freely. As soon as people look each other in the eyes, they start measuring their words carefully, and that’s entirely natural. Whoever says that people should be totally open and honest with each other is operating under a false understanding of what it means to be human. Nietzsche said that man is a manufacturer of illusions–an illusion-making machine, so to speak. That’s why our basic human desires aren’t geared towards the discovery of truth per se. Sincerity and openness are byproducts of other more basic human needs.
But isn’t the mask-wearer potentially motivated by truth? Isn’t the mask a tool for producing knowledge?
That depends on your understanding of what constitutes knowledge. I think that lovers put on masks when they want to reassure each other of their love–something they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do in light of the reality of an unknowable future. I suppose this holds not only for lovers, but also in assuming any given role and the responsibilities that come along with it. By being “in character”, people can assess the reality they’re engaged with. But to know what these roles are, we need various forms of fictional narrative–specifically the novel, because, historically, that’s where these roles were made most explicit and played out. I don’t think there would be love without certain kinds of explorative fiction or literature, regardless of genre. Or should I say: there would be no love without roleplaying and no roleplaying without masks.
You believe that fictional narratives have such a strong effect on our behaviour?
Not our behavior, but rather our communication. Fiction allows us to communicate about our behavior. It’s similar to when people used to speak from behind fans: you could speak your mind and not be caught in the act. If you blushed, nobody would be able to tell, because, as a mask the fan is opaque. In contrast, the blush is a revealing mask. One is worn over the other.
You’ve mentioned the novel as a source of information on various roles we play. Opera is considered one of the most coded and artificial forms of the performing arts. What can it tell us about communication and disguise?
Opera has a stronger, more emotional thrust that the novel; or, for that matter, most literature. Take for example The Pretend Garden Girl, which Mozart wrote when he was still very young. It tells the story of a Count who stabs his lover, Violante, in a fit of jealous rage. Violante survives and realizes she still loves the Count. To heal her broken heart, she disguises herself as a simple gardener’s girl in an attempt to win him back. She succeeds, but only by masking her true identity. The story demonstrates the importance of masks and disguises in communicating love in circuitous fashion. Contrary to popular opinion, love doesn’t always function magnetically or on terms of a direct attraction. The masks in literature and opera tell you exactly that. In fictional narratives, the mask is a medium of communicating emotion. It’s not for nothing that the novel was popularized as an art form at the same time as garden labyrinths. In a proper labyrinth, nothing is really grown; lovers get lost only to find each other again. And this is why they epitomize love: because they have no express purpose! Love that only serves reproduction or upward social mobility is sad and lonely. Love that allows for detours and impracticalities also allows for a certain luxury we call freedom. Its artistic expression can be found in music and opera. And let’s not forget techno–an art form dominated by the power of bass and the movement of dancing masses. Techno is also a type of opera, in my opinion.
Would you say that the club is the new opera stage–a modern masked ball?
Indeed. I remember being in the old Tresor in Berlin during the nineties and thinking to myself: what’s happening here in the old basement safe of the Wertheim department store is nothing other than twenty-first century opera… all night long.
What would the opera be like without masks?
It wouldn’t exist. Don Giovanni is one long masquerade, Cosi fan tutte even more so. You see, the important thing is that the audience knows more than the actors on stage. If that’s not the case, opera becomes incredibly boring. The characters have to be ignorant of their own demise; that’s one of the main appeals in opera. It’s a labyrinthine art.
In Aristotle’s writings on the etymology of tragedy, he traces the word back to ancient springtime festivals involving goat sacrifices. “Tragos” is actually the Greek word for “goat song”. During the celebrations, men wore masks and sang songs about social issues that would otherwise result in conflict. The participants all assumed prototypical social and political roles. These festivals were a way for people to vent: instead of mass brawls, conflicts were resolved on stage. This is the original form of theater and, therefore, of opera as well.
A sort of war by proxy set on stage?
Yes, just like in the Old Testament: Isaac was supposed to sacrifice his own child, but in the end, an animal did the trick.
What about the functional masks that people use for protection? The images form Japan’s recent nuclear catastrophe are ingrained in our collective consciousness–especially people wearing white surgical masks.
First and foremost, people wear those kinds of masks to protect themselves form radiation. But I also think they wear them to mask their own fear. Fear often takes control of facial expressions; fear exposes.
The nuclear disaster in Chernobyl figures prominently in a number of your books. How have you been affected by the images form Japan?
The disaster in general has affected me strongly. Nature once again has reminded us of the scope of her power. The last eathquake and tsunami of that magnitude in Japan occurred some fourteen hundred years ago. It sometimes seems that this is how nature confers and communicates with man. But because nature resists being “understood”, we sometimes speak of “nature’s mask”–which comes off when Vesuvius blows or a huge earthquake shows its destructive power. Of course, “nature’s mask” is just an illusory invention of man. There are plenty of nuclear power plants in areas we know are potential sites for natural disasters. Clearly, planet earth doesn’t wear a mask on its own. Rather, we mask the planet because we haven’t been able to solve nature’s puzzles.
We’ve recently seen television images of “masked”uprisings in Egypt and Libya. There, protestors have been veiling themselves to protect their identity.
The circumstances in North Africa are indeed unsettling, because the masked demonstrators make it even more difficult to determine of agent provocateurs are in the mix. Here’s an instance where masks create as much confusion as they do protection. I mean, Libya is in the middle of a civil war and neither the sides nor the fronts can be easily determined. Not even during the Third Reich was there such an intense atmosphere of ignorance and insecurity. It’s extremely eerie. Libya’s former Foreign Minister defected to England and also became a kind of shapeshifter. I’m sure he brought with him dozens of masks he’s created through diplomatic experience.
Would you be surprised if, say, club-goers in London’s Fabric or Berlin’s Berghain were suddenly wearing these functional masks as a fashion statement? Crowds dancing in surgical masks or the veils and turbans North African revolutions?
Not only would that not surprise me, I think it would be a highly sensible reaction to a really disturbing series of event. You can make whatever scares you less threatening by wearing it–it’s a natural way to get over your fears. Every child puts on a ghost costume at some point and, in doing so, makes the ghost harmless.
Historically, people have worn masks to cast out demons…
And they continue to do so! Just look at Carnival, Halloween or Walpurgis Night… But there are also more everyday examples, like COSPLAY, where people dress up like their favorite Manga characters to free themselves from the shackles of the daily grind. They’re developing new, creative rituals. I recently had the chance to film two Manga girls going to a COSPLAY convention. The one girl introduced her friend with the words, “That’s my dog!”–even though the girl wasn’t dressed like a dog, but more like an vil fairy. I appreciate that the Manga movement allows for these kinds of bizarre masquerades and surreal role-playing scenarios, because each individual possesses all sorts of different identities: we’re beings of a thousand characters. The fact that we can express them with masks–by putting on different faces–is a great thing.
Can you give me an example of a “fake”mask?
The “honest” banker in the television advertisement who tells you, ”Come to our bank, your money is in good hands.” That’s the epitome of deception.
To what extent is Facebook a virtual masquerade or even a form of deception?
Playing more than one role in life isn’t something that’s exclusive to Facebook; it’s part of the essence of life itself and has been since man has been able to think. And why shouldn’t we live these roles out? In a metropolis, most people have multiple identities.
Is it a lie when somebody knowingly discloses false information on Facebook?
Not necessarily. Sometimes things become true when you invent them for yourself. What’s truth? Think about the modes of flirting popular in Europe between the 14th and 18th centuries. There was so much disguise and affectation involved in the communication between partners in order to determine whether one person loved the other. Of course, there was a big difference between the two genders. But even back then, men always promised the world when seducing a woman, just in “Don Giovanni.
How do we look past the seducer’s mask to see what he or she is really like?
Do we really want to? Do we need to know what kind of person he was in the past? How she grew up? Who his parents are? What she loves? How he lives? What she’s afraid of? Today, everything can be accessed on Facebook. Maybe after studying somebody’s profile, you can see behind the masks they wear in the physical world. Walter Benjamin once said that an actor can’t pretend to be truly terrified. If you really want to scare him, you have to fire a shot next to his ear–then you’ll really have him flinching for the close-up.~
This text appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 26 (2011). Read the full issue on issuu.com: