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A Traveller's 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.

There 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 peak 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 Friedrich's 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 in 1993, 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 days went by I was startled to discover how much I was enjoying the sober elegance of Hamburg's 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 place, moreover, 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 travel 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 about 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 of place: a traveller's tale that also offers an account of the rather ramshackle genre to which it belongs. Each of my chapters enacts a dialogue between 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 language in travel writing. Another starts in a Hamburg bookstore and ends by enlisting Walter Benjamin in a reading of the city's shopping arcades.

Travel books 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 than 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 Friedrich's 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 Through Germany, to be published in May by Princeton University Press ($24.95).

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