Tale from Germany
By Michael Gorra
Professor, English Language and Literature
Rain again, and
wind, so much wind that it drives the water sideways and
makes my umbrella useless. I had known it would rain when
I went out for a late-afternoon walk, but though there's nothing
unexpected about it, I'd still rather wait out the storm inside,
and so I splash another hundred yards along and into Hamburg's
art museum. Shake myself dry, check my coat. And then I climb
the stairs to wander through
a dozen rooms of old masters, stopping only at the pictures
I already know I like, until in the end I reach my favorite.
he stands, Caspar David Friedrich's 1817 Wanderer Above the
Sea of Fog, a solitary figure looking out over a mist that seams
to foam like the ocean
itself. His sandy hair tosses in the wind and he keeps his back turned to us,
so that we don't look at him so much as at what he himself sees. In the
middle distance, a ridge breaks through, a mouth of broken teeth against which
the fog seems to smash itself; far away behind looms something indistinct, a
shape like the Sphinx, and then, beyond, the shrouded mountains rise.
It is the
most iconic German painting since Dürer, a picture that seems
to encapsulate its age, and I had it to myself for a few minutes that afternoon.
Yet still it held its secrets tight. Is the sky misting or clearing, the fog
coming or going? And what, after all, does it hide? Lakes, villages, sheep,
an approaching hiker, an impassable crevasse? What about that wanderer -- what's
he doing here? Any chance he'll jump?
Friedrich's work speaks always
of the longing for something just beyond our understanding, and this particular
painting has always seemed to me an emblem of the idea of travel itself. We
stand above the fog of a foreign place, trying to figure out the shape of that
or this valley. If only the clouds would break! Then everything would become
quite clear -- or would it?
That mist hangs with a special weight over
own country. The Nazis spoke of masking their actions in Nacht und Nebel,
night and fog. They
did not succeed, and yet the fog endures. Germany is a land about which we
all have questions, but where answers remain elusive. I first went there
as part of Smith's regular faculty exchange with the University of
Hamburg. My sense of its history had been shaped by Hollywood, and I didn't
know more of the language than would help me order a sausage. Yet as the
by I was startled to discover how much I was enjoying the sober elegance
streets and the nervy edge of its nightlife, and so I began to wonder about
what it meant to have fun in a place where so much wrong had happened; a
that I was perfectly free to avoid.
Or was I? I don't mean that question
in any kind of large historical sense. No, I simply mean that you don't
really choose the objects of your own fascination, and almost everything
about Germany intrigued me. So I jumped at
the chance to return during the academic year 1997-98, when my wife,
Brigitte Buettner of Smith's art history department, was asked to
direct the college's
Junior Year Abroad at the University of Hamburg.
The Bells in Their Silence is a record of what I learned that year, and one of the first of the
many things I discovered is that nobody writes
books about Germany. There are works of reportage, like Jane Kramer's
The Politics of Memory, in which the writer takes the temperature of
The German Problem as
it exists today. But not travel books, not the kind of highly subjective
and impressionistic works of literary nonfiction that Bruce Chatwin produced
Argentina with In Patagonia or that Mary McCarthy wrote in Venice Observed.
So in writing this one I have had to ask
why, and doing that has made The Bells in Their Silence into
a work of criticism as well as a description
a traveller's tale that also offers an account of the rather
ramshackle genre to which it belongs. Each of my chapters enacts a
my hours in a library and the ones I passed on the ground itself, taking
some aspect of
our stay in Germany and bouncing it off a wall of other texts. One
chapter, for example, uses Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities as
a way to approach both the old Holy Roman Empire and the role of figurative
in travel writing.
Another starts in a Hamburg bookstore and ends by enlisting Walter
Benjamin in a reading of the city's shopping arcades.
are about process -- the process of movement and of understanding
too. They tell the tale of the journey toward knowledge and play
up the delights of discovery, and the voyage itself matters more
any one destination. In
this they have long anticipated the attempts of some postmodern forms
of scholarship to foreground the search for understanding, to shift
our attention to the quest
for knowledge and away from its final fruits. In my own case, that
search is a double one: an attempt both to understand the nature
of the genre to which
this book belongs and to pierce the fog of the country over which
wanderer so mysteriously stands.
Michael Gorra has taught English
at Smith since 1985. This essay is adapted from the preface to The Bells in Their Silence: Travels
Germany, to be published
in May by Princeton University Press ($24.95).