Photo by Christina Schmidt
GERMANE GERMAN: A LESSON IN DISSPELLING
Three days after the bird died in the attic, the whole house reeked of rotting meat. The rooms seemed to change color; a brown, speckled, feathery odor pressed against the floors. Even photographs on the walls of children and grandparents seemed to be turning up their noses, a subtle shift. For two days, the dead bird’s grief burst and purged the air with its dusty baptism, sweeping his sour breath against our cheeks as if he were playing some sad, unheard music for the first time and crying out loud for us to hear. It reminded me of a child beggar, hands held out—a hunger for what would bring him back to life.
The German language is an army of words. You know, one word stands for a whole battalion of words in English. Words like Zeitgeist—say, well, that’s the spirit of the age that lights us up. You can imagine the entire population as eyes in a cave, watching a screen where all of us say, “Yes, that’s right. Melancholy and mundane in a nutshell, that’s the world now.”
The words in German describe the totality of the condition—it has a history and a future that guarantees nothing will come of it. It must be accepted as the truth of the times. Like a grain of sand in an oyster enduring the times in which the collective mind keeps turning it over and over, suffering its logic. At night, the mind wakes up and tries to make sense of that precious center. That pearl simply gets larger, taking the consequences for granted, and eventually gets plucked out; then the oyster dies. And the pearl? That’s called the History of the Zeitgeist.
Zugzwang sounds like a kid’s word, doesn’t it? One of those onomatopoeic words—the sound of a boomerang just as it hits a wall. Or what happens when a kid who is twice your size and weight bullies you into a fight, and you with strict instructions from your mother to tell the bully when next you see him, “Come and get me. I dare you!” He comes to get you, and with the first blow—Zugzwang. Part of the charm of the German language is that the sound of the word and its meanings deepen the sense of irony, mentally and physically. How does it work, then?
Well, say you’re crossing the street where there are no traffic lights, and you’ve gotten midway across, but cars and trucks are barreling through at thirty miles an hour in both directions, and you don’t see any let-up for blocks. You stand there rigid, only your head turning from side to side with merely six inches preventing you from becoming a hood ornament. That’s the way it works—being forced to move but doomed by moving—fearing the danger but more, the move.
Or say, you meet a man. You’re both married; both of you have kids. Neither of you is looking for anything or anybody. Seemingly, it’s just happenstance that you have been thrown together. Wrapped in commitment and peppering each other with jokes, you meet, talk, and laugh. Nothing to it. Then something happens.
It’s not the emotion that is the trigger, but the lack of self-control in the face of a tidal wave of emotions. You can’t control yourself, you say, and so much depends on control. But no. One of the words that has no place here is control. It is capriciousness that lights up and mercilessly blocks any control. Now whoever moves loses, seemingly. But truth be told, both lose.
Have you ever noticed that you only see lightning streaks when lightning is far away? When it’s close, really close, it’s not a streak; the whole sky opens up like a faulty light, then burns out. Still, all it lights up is a kind of lush, shadowed chaos.
Just when you think you are about to understand something, you know, one of those problems that all of civilization has been working on for the last ten thousand years, for example, how men and women can’t have a simple uncomplicated friendship, then boom, crash, one of those lightning streaks splits the sky in half, and sure enough, you don’t know what hit you.
There you are again stumbling around in the dark, trying to remember what it was you saw just before the lightning disappeared. So you navigate through a series of tests of your sight, tracing a trail of memory backward to see if what you just saw was real or mere delusion.
Winter night: clear, cold, snow-spattered, starry night, no moon, no way out, the end of the trail. Pier to lakefront, the waves, mumbling discontent underfoot, flinching, embarrassed.
We walk up to the wire railing, nothing but water between us and the city lights, fireflies whose lights are left on, drunk, or high, or stubborn, or just lost.
“Look at the waves,” I say.
“Swarming,” he says, “swarms of them, watch out, they might snatch….”
“Who am I to you, then?”
Pause, stumble, fumble, retreat, and advance.
He says to the waves, “My leg. I would miss you like I would miss my leg,” he says.
Holding his hand out toward me, he starts to limp.
“Where are you? I miss you,” he says.
More than comradery, I think. More.
He got chills that night, he said, not the kind you get when it’s cold and you beat your arms together and stomp your feet to get your blood going, but the kind that makes you hug your body tight, curl up your legs to your chest, sink your head to your chest, and try to stop shaking. Blankets. There weren’t enough in the house to stop the goose bumps that came in waves, first down one side of his body and then the other, or the pain in his knees and elbows as they were drawn up tight, aching and pinched. Even the shadows under his chin and on the back of his legs, and under his arms where they accumulated were frosting over as if his bones were pipelines of ice freezing him from inside out.
His dog, he said, would come to the edge of the bed and rest his head on the pillow momentarily, where nose to nose they stared at each other, wondering at the other’s condition. Licking the tip of his nose, his dog would wait for a response, then turn away and head for the warmth of the kitchen where the sun glazed the floor.
He dreamed, he said, he was being buried under snow and couldn’t yell out. “Punch me, punch me,” he tried to tell me. But I just stood over him like his mother did when he had a 106 degree fever, his mouth full of the white crystals that felt like yarn unraveling.
Later when I asked him what he thought was wrong with him, he said, “Chills, you know, those guilty, pleasurable chills you get when a friend’s in trouble.”
Falling in love. Have you ever noticed how if you substituted pit for love, you would be closer to its effects? In other words, you don’t climb up to love, take an elevator, spring, leap, jump, fly, soar—none of the more elevating words describes what gets you to love. The construction of Falling in Love is a place below you, and the only way you get there is accidentally. You trip, tumble, fall, nosedive, plummet into it, if you will. I mean if you did it on purpose, you might say something like “I dove into love.” But we don’t say anything intentional about the initial act of recognizing love in the other.
So imagine this as the vocabulary: Love is a hole, a pit, some call it a trap. It’s a bright, sunny day, and you’re walking along minding your own business when you trip, stumble, grope, then fall headlong, no control here, completely at the mercy of the elements, in this ditch. No way to get out. What do you yell? “Help! I’m in love!” No one can help. In fact, a few experienced bystanders may even stand at the edge of that hole and say “I told you so,” or “It couldn’t happen to a nicer person.” No matter how foolish you act—and you do, I mean you can’t sleep, chew your vegetables, remember your mother’s telephone number—everyone understands. It’s like being drunk: “Oh, she’s in love.”
When you are married and then fall in love, it’s different. Then you’re sick, you’re going through menopause, pre-menopause, midlife crisis, pre-midlife crisis. Everything but what it is: home, children, husband, accountability, and mutual bonds.
The Greeks were right: Whom the gods want to destroy, they first make mad. Quite mad.
“I thought I’d never see you again.”
“I can’t think clearly when I see you.”
“Can’t we just meet once in a while?”
“I would if I could. I can’t.”
“It’s been so long.”
“I thought you didn’t notice those things.”
I was trapped, and I knew it. Two choices; neither worked—Zugswang.
In this movie, a woman turns into a cat—not just any cat, but a black panther—when she falls in love with the zookeeper. He wants her. He imagines her haunches undraped under his, a distracted intensity in her eyes—the kind that hunger leaves as it intensifies—a fine yearning. To protect him, she tells him to bind her hands to the head of the bed and her feet to the foot of the bed. Legs spread, she eyes him cat-wise as he tenderly ties her fast. Of course, once he’s aroused her, she turns into a sleek-furred feline with fangs. He doesn’t change, but then not many do. He has to keep her in a cage. They can’t get married—it’s too dangerous. But this way they can continue to see each other.
It was an awful dream. Empty the way visions usually are, full of excesses, nothing at the bottom of it, gripped by the surreal, bizarre, and inexplicable.
I dreamed of two Victorian mansions side by side. I was between them, deciding which to go in. I couldn’t make up my mind. Finally, I went into the mansion on the right.
I couldn’t stop myself. I started to steal: crystal ashtrays, ebony pens, stationery, embossed gold trays, a pocketknife, a watch, and a red velvet settee. I put them in my pockets, down deep. I could hardly breathe.
I ran next door, somewhere high, again. I started to steal again. This time I stuffed jonquils down the front of my blouse, a hand mirror carved in ivory, handfuls of pearls, blue sky, snowcapped mountains, the moon, and stars that scraped my skin.
I heard the door bang open, and I ran out into the street. Night and the white houses glowed behind me, and for a time, I didn’t know what to do. Sirens. They were coming to get me. Ghosts in my pockets. I had to destroy my notebook, the secret ledger I kept of my accounts. All I could do was swallow the evidence, page by page. I tore out sheets, crumpled them in my hands, and shoved them into my mouth. The paper cut my mouth with tiny paper cuts, and all I could taste was salt and a thick paste of blood running down my chin. Sirens.
I had been crying out in my sleep. It woke me up. The only way I escaped was by waking up. Scared.
After the dream, I knew I was living between two towers of Victorian sensibilities—Zeitgeist. One tradition was full of institutional meanings—Weltanschauung, and the other, ritual herd instinct—Herdentrieb. My marriage and its social security—Gemütlichkeit, and my desire for nature and its mystery—Schwärmerei. Torn by that choice, I was doomed—Zugzwang. I couldn’t make a choice, if there was a choice to make. It was in the in-between without choice that doomed me—Weltschmerz.
The fear of this choice still haunts me. I want both, and seemingly, both strongholds stand. I had to willingly renounce what I never possessed—Entbehre gern was du nicht has.