I first approached these doors from the other side nearly three years ago. Berlin was a strange choice as a place of refuge, but that was where I found myself in the depths of the winter of 2007, alone and burdened with an all-too-vain sense of melancholia. But that was then – and through those doors a warm and verdant summer now beckoned. I hoped Berlin’s bright streets might figure as point of a reclamation, where those personal demons might await their excorcism quietly amongst the incomparable din of a city still haunted by memories of metal and terror and sickness.
Whereas on my previous visit the U-Bahn was a haven from the sub-zero temperatures, it was now an ally of the cloying heat that enveloped the city above. Unlike draconian London, the consuption of alcohol on the underground was positively encouraged in Berlin; to the extent that because I was on this occasion beerless, I felt somehow self-conscious, as if I could almost hear the other passengers murmuring: “well, Englishman, where is your beer?”
Apart from the odd aural hallucination such as this, the short journey from Kotbusser Tor to Weinmeisterstrasse passed without incident, except for noting the position of my feet in relation to those of a woman sat opposite, which to my mind now somehow suggests a relationship where none existed:
Weinmeisterstrasse station affords quick access to a rather salubrious area of central Berlin, where the streets are lined with elegant bars, art galleries, cafes and chichi boutiques; where commercial life flourishes and people breathe easily. But the station only reopened in 1990; before this, from 1961 to 1989, it was in the old East and remained out of use, known only as one of a series of Geisterbahnhofe, or ghost stations.
Crossing Rosenthalerstrasse onto Gipsstrasse my own consuming eye was caught by several pairs of fine bespoke shoes in the window of a store. They ranged in price from 250-400 Euros. I stood for a while, imagined wearing them and thought briefly of the girl on the tube and the elegant symmetry our feet – here was a suggestion of intimacy, of objectification and fetish, like in Bunuel’s L’age d’or or Diary Of A Chambermaid, but also of self-definition. I recall being preoccupied with the size of my feet whilst growing up, and the types of shoes I owned were of the greatest importance to my adolescent mind, as if the personality somehow started at the very point of connection with the earth, upon which we stand and walk and do all the things that make us what we are.
I was reminded of Primo Levi’s description of meeting the Greek refugee, Mordo Nahum, from whom he learnt that in war you must first think of shoes and only then of food. Without shoes you cannot go after food; without shoes you will die. What a discrepancy, then, so often exists between value and worth – across the war-torn Europe of only two generations ago cheap shoes could become priceless items – the difference between living and dying. I could not but help reproach myself for coveting those in the window of the boutique, for it seemed so grossly inappropriate.
The summer heat was growing in intensity as noon approached and I made my way onto Auguststrasse which runs east to west through the heart of Mitte and retains an air of cultural haughtiness, or as close to it as is possible in Berlin.
Language had become somewhat lost to me on that previous winter sojourn and the direction of my thoughts had been pointed very much away from the abstract and toward the physical. The absence of poetry was filled by a disproportional amount of reflection upon the body – which, if I’m honest, verged on the hypochondriacal. Sleep came easy in the day but ever so difficult at night, so that I would miss out altogether on what little sunlight there was. Berlin became a city of darkness, its streets, vistas and locales impossible to properly define. The words found their way to me, not from within but from without, so that reading became more important than ever. I reread The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter and Virginia Spencer Carr’s biography of McCullers – an odd textual rupture given my geographical location – that saw my mind drift away to the heat and dust of the Deep South and the strange and sad lives of the people that inhabited her world: tiny shoeless children, watchful cafe proprieters, alcoholic labour agitators, the dumb, the lonely and the dispossessed.
My sense of time, sat alone in that small room in front of the coal-fire, reading of Carson’s short, painful life, became disetended so that the four weeks I spent there seemed much longer. I barely spoke to another person in that time, so that John Singer felt like the most apposite of acquaintances. How long is now? I’m never really sure of that – apparently everything that one sees is in the past, such is the time that the light reflecting off or emanating from something takes to reach the eyes and brain. If I’m looking across a room at a person, I’m actually seeing them a matter of nanoseconds ago – the greater the distance, the further back in time the object of perception is – which is why the distant galaxies seen through the Hubble Space Telescope are portraits of the universe billions of years in the past.
And if desire shapes us, then what is it that we desire, but as F Scott Fitzgerald so beautifully articulated, something already behind us, in the great green fields of the republic, rolling on under the night. I’ve always thought this was the state of non-being, but I can’t be sure this is what he’d intended (although doesn’t Gatsby’s death give us a clue?). The present is forever shifting and eternally illusive. Now becomes something only describable in the past tense. It is only through memory that I can grasp what any given “now” was like and what it meant – although of course such attempts are subject to the interpolation of misinterpretation, fiction, forgetfullness, lies and endless revisionism.
Walking past Tacheles on up Friedrichstrasse and then onto Chausseestrasse, I neared Dorotheenstadtischer Friedhof, the resting place of, amongst others, GWF Hegel and Bertolt Brecht. Passing through the gates, I noticed the sun suddenly obscured by a cloud causing my shadow to disappear; by the movement of the trees I could tell the wind was gaining strength above me and yet at ground level everything remained still.
The grave of German industrialist August Borsig lies to the south-west of the Dorotheenstadtischer Friedhof. Borsig founded his steam engine factory in 1837 a mere quarter of a kilometere from the site of his eventual burial, near to Oranienburger Tor. He produced the first German locomotive in 1840, which, in July of that year, competed with a Stephenson-built model, winning by ten minutes and proving the efficiency of German engines. His endeavours were in no small part responsible for the development of the railway infrastructure and therefore the wider industrialisation of the country.
He died at the age of 50 (the same age as Carson McCullers) in 1854 at the height of his wealth and power, shortly after the completion of his grand villa in the Moabit district of the city. His son Albert took over the company and continued its succesful expansion. It must be Albert who sits at the base of his father’s tomb, holding in his hands a portrait, I assume, of his mother, Louise, whilst above the patriarch’s head a starry firmament is painted. Albert, too, died before the age of 50.
I walked on through the narrow pathways that lead me around the cemetery, as the light diminished and then became brighter as the sun re-emerged for a few minutes from behind the gathering batteries of cumulus clouds. One such eruption of luminosity occurred just as I passed a grave out of which grew a great rose bush, the redness of its flowers startling me for a second after an hour or so of dim greens, browns and greys. I was reminded of a time I was taken to a rose garden in Regents Park in London, where similarly I felt overcome by the brilliance of the flowers. I think I may have slept there for a short time on a bench, while a beautiful girl held my hand – but that may have been a dream.
Published after the Great War, but written just before its outbreak in 1914, Heinrich Mann’s novel Der Untertan (often translated as Man Of Straw) attempts to unravel Germany’s descent into conflict. Through the portrayal of its morally bankrupt protagonist and his slavish devotion to authority and the state, Mann’s work stands as a scathing critique of Wilhelmine bourgeois society, and helped earn its author the contempt of the Nazi regime years later. Mann fled Germany in the Thirties and eventually settled in America, where his literary career faltered. He died poor and lonely in Santa Monica and his remains eventually found their way to the Dorotheenstadtischer Friedhof, where I now stood and gazed at his memorial.
But it was Mann’s younger brother, Thomas, who made the greatest impression upon me after the girl in the rose garden bought me a copy of his greatest work, The Magic Mountain. She would often photograph stoneworks and statues, collecting the images in beautifully bound albums, which she kept under her bed. She was particularly fascinated with their feet, which drew her lens more frequently than other body parts; the feet of angels, rooted in the earth, were of greater import to her than their wings, spreading toward the heavens. In a concealed corner of the cemetery I found this stone relief of an angel with a face not disimilar to hers:
If my fantasies bore any relation to Hans Castorp’s idealisation of Claudia Chauchat, this was no accident. Claudia was responsible for Hans’ decision to remain at the sanitorium, at least in his mind – whereas of course it was something else entirely that drew him there and rendered him incapable of leaving: thanatos? I felt much the same way about Berlin… but this necessitated the existence some sort of mythical Circe figure: the angel in the rose garden.
Mann was at work on his epic at the same time as his brother was writing Der Untertan, but Mann junior’s ambition far outweighed that of his older sibling, stetching – in terms of its realism – to a portrayal of Europe and its discontents in the build up to war, and symbolically to a far greater mining of the human soul. Castorp was to spend seven years on the mountain in all, but most of the book deals with his first year, whilst the further six occur narratively over a much shorter space – a profound distension and then contraction of time. In this strange and rarefied world he encounters an ideological opposition that posits the secular humanism of Lodovico Settembini (was he modelled on Heinrich?) against the reactionary extremism of Leo Naphta – a prognostication of the very real battle that was to tear Europe apart in the years of the second war.
There is a sense in the novel (acknowledged by Mann) that Hans must pass through a state of illness and near-death to achieve a higher form of health – a kind of purification and enlightenment derived through the process of suffering. I felt like I understood this, and perhaps many do – but it is important to be aware of Mann’s persistent and sweeping irony… that despite his revelatory journey Castorp is destined in all likelihood to be fodder for the machine guns of No man’s land.
Amongst the host of grand and well-tended graves, like that of Borsig, there were many that had received less attention; stones that jutted out from the ground, partially obscured by the thriving and vigorous ivy that carpeted much of the site. And in another part of the cemetery I came across a crypt made sinister by the addition of a heavy, metallic door, designed, it seemed to me, as much to keep the dead inside as it was to keep the living out. It was just as I passed this place that the skies darkened further and I felt the first drops of rain on my face. Despite this, I retired to a bench to gather my thoughts, make a few notes and arrange a small totem to my presence:
It was just as I passed through the gates of the cemetery back out onto Chausseestrasse that the rains finally broke and so I had to run back amongst the graves to find some shelter under a large Cypress tree. I noticed that the rain had washed away the leaf-eye I had made moments before, but my attention was now more on the heavy, grey sky which by this point looked so impenetrable that it was difficult to imagine the presence of the sun beyond it.
I’m not sure how long I stood there in a kind of reverie but by the time I had resolved to resume my walk the rain had stopped. I made my way down the great length of Friedrichstrasse, which runs north to south back down into Kreuzberg. By the site of Checkpoint Charlie groups of tourists were gathered in great huddles snapping photos. I walked by them, entered what used to be the American Sector and turned left onto Kochstrasse which then runs into Oranienstrasse, which leads into the area of the city I knew best, where I tended the coal fire in my room on Naunynstrasse and communed with McCullers’ coterie of misfits; and from where I first crept around the cold, unfamiliar streets of Kreuzberg and Neukoln.
By this point my feet felt tired and I had no sense of how long I’d been walking, so I went and ordered a beer at Wurgeengel on Dresdenerstrasse. The name of the bar translates as “Angel of Death” but is meant as an allusion to Bunuel’s late Mexican-period classic The Exterminating Angel, in which a breach of social etiquette transmutes into the symbolic destruction of civilised society and the brutal and savage nature of mankind is revealed. In the film a rift in time is created so that a group of bourgeoisie cannot leave a dinner party they are attending.
The film is peppered with repetition and narrative disjunction, echoing his earlier work – but here the effect is even more ferocious. As if visited by Azrael (whose body was said to be composed of eyes… and with every blink another human life was extinguished), the fearful guests take refuge in sacrifice, magical thinking and invocation in order to placate death – a stark revelation that such things remain within the core of humanity and can resurface at any time. The chimes between this and Naphta’s anarchism ring long and loud through the twentieth century… and Berlin has more than often proved to be the unwilling locus of mankind’s eternal struggle with itself.
Walking back towards my room, I caught site of a church fronted by a large, dark cloister. I rather tentatively entered this gloomy space and walked toward the only patch of light I could make out. Moving closer, I could see that it was obviously a doorway of some kind – and as I got nearer still I could see that it lead into a brightly lit garden… into which I stepped for a short time.