Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Personal Is Political

So Emmanuel Macron and Frank-Walter Steinmeier embraced the other day over the graves of the WWI dead. Physical demonstrativeness has been part of the Franco-German relationship for a long time now. De Gaulle didn't embrace Adenauer--not his style--but he did invite him home to Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, the only world leader ever so honored. Mitterrand and Kohl famously held hands. Sarkozy kissed Merkel, to her apparent annoyance. Hollande bussed her cheek. Macron swerved from Trump to Angela, who received his heartfelt accolade. All this touchy-feely-ness is meant to say, "Never again!"

Scratch the surface, however, and you find that deep suspicion remains, for all the convergence that has taken place. At some level, France and Germany are destined not to understand each other. Perhaps it's the Catholic-Protestant thing, which Macron evoked in his Der Spiegel interview. I'm inclined to think that the religious difference is secondary to a linguistic difference. I've been reading Der Zauberberg, slowly, over the past few months. German rewires the brain. It doesn't come naturally to the Latin mind. As a native speaker of English, I should be wired both ways, but I've been deformed by too many years of immersion in French.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dear Art:
Let's be optimistic about the potential of the Franco-German partnership. Bruno le Maire is bi-lingual in German, and he is not the only German speaker in Macron's cabinet. Remember, too, that the father of Academicien Jean d'Ormesson was French ambassador to Berlin, and that German was, in fact, d'Ormesson's first language. They are not many, but Frenchmen and women who are comfortable with German, and even see in Germany's post WWII progress a model for France, do exist.
I concede, however, that the split infinitives* in German are, to put in mildly, a real "kopfschmerz"!

*e.g., "Ich muss nach di Hause vom meine Mutter gehen!"

Robinson said...

An interesting observation. I think that German culture has been and remains more distant from Anglophone and French culture than either is from the other. I have no statistics but I'm certain that there are far more French speakers than German speakers in the Anglosphere (and of course fewer and fewer French speak German and more and more speak English.) German philosophy and scholarship remain important in the university setting, but who reads any German novels, Kafka excepted? (Among more recent writers maybe Gunther Grass and Sebald; in France they used to read Jünger, an author who does not exist in the USA or the UK.) Proust is ten times better known than Mann, and I think every non-German I know who has read Effi Briest or anything by Goethe besides Werther had some academic connection to the German language or German philosophy.

All this to say that German culture is much more foreign to the rest of western Europe than we may realize at first glance. The political convergence between France and Germany coincides with a certain cultural *divergence,* I think. To Art's point about language: the French and the Germans knew each other better in 1914 than they do now, in part because nowadays English is everyone's second language. De Gaulle and Mitterrand both knew German better than they knew English.

Anonymous said...

@Robinson: You have a point about German novels. In every country I know French, Russian and English novels are the ones most widely read by educated general readers. This includes Germany: nobody there reads Wilhelm Meister for fun. (I wish Art luck with Der Zauberberg!)

German culture, however, continues to be appreciated in "the West." Jürgen Habermas is the most famous philosopher in the world, Marx and Nietzsche are as influential as they have every been, people still listen to Bach, Beethoven and Wagner, etc. The language barrier between France and Germany is real, and the fact that everyone nowadays studies English as a second language has made it greater than it was in the past. Nevertheless I think that German culture looms larger in France than in the UK or America. Macron may know English better than German, but he wrote a graduate thesis on Hegel!

bert said...

Sebald ended up semi-English. Same part of the country as Ishiguro. South-east, facing across the water, the continent beyond. Strongly UKIP these days, sadly.

bernard said...

As a French who never reads any German novel, I highly recommend "Ein Jahr in das Leben der Gesine Cresspahl" (several volumes) which I have always put on a level comparable to Thomas Mann and way higher than Gunther Grass...

Anonymous said...

@bernard: what a wonderful book that is! A book, I'll note, that is fully translated into French but not into English.

Marta Varela said...

I recommend to anyone interested in a better understanding of German philosophical currents of the late 18th and early 19th century, the recent biography, Goethe: Life as a Work of Art by Rüdiger Safranski and translated into English by David Dollenmayer. The German influence in U.S. academic institutions was once enormous --philology developed in Germany in the 19th century was an arrow in the quiver of literature professors at all the Ivy League institutions until WWIi, when anti-German feeing made the approach much less popular. However, the French are well aware of the German contributions to philosophy and literature, even if the language eludes most of them.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments all around. I would add that German philosophy and literature were familiar to a cultivated French public (a small minority) from the period of the French Revolution (Mme. De Staël) right up to WW II---from the birth of German nationalism and Romanticism down to Husserl and Heidegger. And vice versa: think of the importance of Rousseau to Kant and Hegel.. The period after the Franco-Prussian War was both Germanophile (Renan) and Germanophobe (Barrès), which is no doubt the right attitude....

Anonymous said...

My relatively educated impression is that, in spite of Mme. De Staël, Heine, Cousin and Marx, German philosophy didn't really come to be appreciated in France until quite late: a specifically French form of Kantianism took root in the universities in the last quarter of the 19th Century; Hegel only in the 1930s. German music and literature crossed the Rhine earlier. The English-speaking countries (as well as Russia and Italy) came under the influence of German culture much sooner than France did. (If - as most Germans do - we take modern German culture to be something that started with Kant and Goethe.)

In the 20th Century, however, German philosophy, idealist and phenomenological, had a decisive influence on more or less every developed in French philosophy and social theory. Only lately has the tide receded, as both France and Germany have begun to import ideas wholesale from the Anglosphere.

Unlike Art, I think that the French are in fact more receptive to German culture than Americans and the British, in spite of the linguistic similarities between German and English. Heine and Nietzsche thought this too, so this argument has pedigree!

Anonymous said...

Since the commenters on this blog seem to know a lot about German culture and its reception abroad, I have a question to ask. Why is post-war German cinema so under-appreciated? I think that the German "new wave" is as good as the French: however it is not as celebrated in the United States, France or even Germany.

I have asked this question to a few German friends, and they say that Herzog, Syberberg, Reitz and Fassbinder are all considered "politisch verdächtig" (as Mann's Settembrini says of music) in their home country. Herzog has fled to America and been adopted by part of the film culture there (mostly ignorant of his political reputation in Germany); Fassbinder died young has gained some reputation as a pioneer of gay cinema; Syberberg and Reitz are non-entities. In the US you can't even buy a DVD of Reitz's "Heimat," to my mind the masterpiece of contemporary German cinema. Wim Wenders is all that stands for the post-war generation.

I know that Michel Foucault deeply admired all of these directors. Evidently when he invited Habermas to Paris in the 1980s he spent most of their time together defending them from Habermas's censorious objections to their politics. I feel as though the word ignores Germany's cinematic heritage because Germans themselves neglect it. Post-war French cinema is adored in America because the French care about it and make efforts to promote and preserve it.

Anonymous said...

In my narrow field of political theory, the major figure most influenced by German thought is Charles Taylor, who is from Quebec and as close to being French as an English-speaker can be. Excepting Marxists & the Frankfurt school, which is a big exception I suppose. The non-Frankfurt Marxists at least are more influenced either by one or the other British or French neo-Marxist traditions than anything German, en plus.

Anonymous said...

In case anyone is interested: "Home from Home" (Die andere Heimat) is currently playing on Netflix streaming here in the U.S. The other Heimat titles are not available, not even on Netflix DVD . They did play on Mubi . Thanks for the recommendations.

Anonymous said...

Judging by this comments section people interested in French politics certainly know a thing or two about German culture!

Anonymous said...

Heimat! I haven't heard that series/film discussed for years! I never comment on blogs, but when somebody praises Heimat I can't restrain myself from making propaganda for it. Even though it came out in the 1980s, it is as pure an example of a "neglected masterpiece" as I can think of. Michele Foucault, Werner Herzog, Perry Anderson and Stanley Kubrick have all acknowledged it as a work of genius- Kubrick rightly said it was the 20th Century's "Buddenbrooks." Still, nobody talks about it. There is a lovely Criterion Collection DVD of the Berlin Alexanderplatz series (which I admit I find a bit tedious), and contrary to the commenter above I think Fassbinder has as big an audience in the US as his work is ever likely to appeal to. Reitz is unknown and his films are unavailable. You'd think that the vogue for "prestige" TV in America would lead to a rediscovery of his work. It bears comparison both to Faulkner and to "The Wire" or "Mad Men." The subject matter - the inhabitants of a small rural town in Hunsrück before, during and after WWII - is at least as interesting, and the cinematography is superior to what American TV turns out even now. As I recall the sequel, about how a boy from the main family who moves to Munich in the 60s, is also excellent (I haven't seen the third series & reviews of Die andere Heimat were discouraging). I feel like I've written a letter to the editor of the wrong publication- if I knew how to encourage the Criterion Collection to make a DVD of Heimat I would.

I also recall, when I lived in Berlin, seeing on TV a DDR produced series on a similar theme (how a rural village succumbed to Nazism.) It was clearly intended as the eastern "response" to Heimat. Do any Heimat fans here remember the title of this series, or what it was about? I remember that there was a fire in the corrupt local landlord's mansion and that his artwork is stolen by some shady characters (presumably destined to become Nazis), and that the pre-Nazi Prussian police harass a virtuous KPD farmer who has a portrait of Lenin on his wall. It was no "Heimat," although I was impressed by the mis-en-scene. Anybody recall this? Or know a forum where I might find somebody who does?