“Imagine a city,” writes Rory MacLean regarding Ratchetberg Berlin. Yeah, right. Imagine Berlin…imagine the way we think it used to be. In each decade we all whined that the previous decade was better. (But when we whine today we are probably right!)
The only problem is that when you have been there for an extended period of time–and if you don’t do drugs or drink all the time–you begin to “imagine” that other cities are much the same as Berlin. In fact you begin to think the whole world is just like Berlin. Hint: It isn’t!!
Berlin invades your very last safe spaces–your heart, mind and soul–and begins to turn them inside out. The city–if you are not careful to put up a Berlin Wall around yourself to keep the crazies at bay–will mould you into grotesque shapes of its own choosing, and it will leave you fucked up, strung out and dumped somewhere in some decrepit cubby-hole in Berghain, looking and feeling something like
So for anyone in search of themselves, in search of Bohemia, or love, sex, or a career, or some sort of spiritual fulfillment, or just a better life–all I can tell them is: try Tunis instead. You could hardly do worse!
“Berlin makes the most unfavorable impression on me in general: cold, tasteless, stolid…I already hate Berlin and the Germans so much that I could kill them.”
“i have come to the decision that berlin is the least amusing place i have ever seen. it is the synonym for stupidity. i should be quite happy if i never saw the city again after today.”
–Paul Bowles, June 1931, writing from Berlin
“The city was a gigantic slum, a monstrous agglomeration of uninhabitable buildings. Merely to see its geographic extent and the degree of unrelieved poverty it represented made me feel uneasy. The aura of desperation I had found stimulating suddenly seemed ominous.”
–Paul Bowles, Without Stopping (1972)
“Berlin is a vulgar, ugly, sullenly dissipated city. After the war it plunged into an orgy that the Germans called the death dance. There is nothing attractive nor gay about the nightlife of Berlin. It is altogether revolting.”
–Ernest Hemingway, Toronto Sun, December 15, 1923.
“A stone-grey corpse.”
Matthew Josephson (1899-1978)
“It was a city marked by a kind of dreadful joy, impoverished but hopeful, crowded with an odd but at the same time quite ordinary assortment of people often barely managing to cope. At the same time, it was another, very different city, a city marked by despair and destruction, a city that would soon become, as do the cities in T.S. Eliot’s ‘Waste Land,’ utterly ‘unreal.'”
Peter Edgerly Firchow, Strange Meetings: Anglo-German Literary Encounters from 1910 to 1960
“A disgusting city, this Berlin, a place where no one believes in anything.”
“And now we come to the most lurid Underworld of all cities — that of post-war Berlin. Ever since the declaration of peace, Berlin found its outlet in the wildest dissipation imaginable. The German is gross in his immorality, he likes his Halb-Welt or underworld pleasures to be devoid of any Kultur or refinement, he enjoys obscenity in a form which even the Parisian would not tolerate.”
Netley Lucas, Ladies of the Underworld, 1927
“…a poor, keen-witted, provincial town, simple, dirty, uncivilized, and in most respects, disgusting.”
Henry Adams, 1858
“Berlin of the seventies was still in a state of transition. The well-built, prim, dull, and somewhat provincial Residenz was endeavoring with feverish energy to transform itself into a world city, a Weltstadt.“
Frederick Hamilton, British diplomat to Germany in the late 19th century
“I feel lost in Berlin. It has no resemblance to the city I had supposed it was. There was once a Berlin which I would have known, from descriptions in books–the Berlin of the last century and the beginning of the present one: a dingy city in a marsh, with rough streets, muddy and lantern-lighted, dividing straight rows of ugly houses all alike, compacted into blocks as square and plain and uniform and monotonous and serious as so many dry-goods boxes. But that Berlin has disappeared. It seems to have disappeared totally, and left no sign. The bulk of the Berlin of today has about it no suggestion of a former period. The site it stands on has traditions and a history, but the city itself has no traditions and no history. It is a new city; the newest I have ever seen. Chicago would seem venerable beside it; for there are many old-looking districts in Chicago, but not many in Berlin. The main mass of the city looks as if it had been built last week, the rest of it has a just perceptibly graver tone, and looks as if it might be six or even eight months old.”
Mark Twain, The Chicago of Europe, 1892
Though Twain went on to say considerably more positive things about Berlin in his essay, it’s clear that all the bad things that have been said about this town are all too true. What I wrote concerning Berlin (in 2012) is not only still valid but can be amended with this one fact (among others): that people who live here are becoming increasingly hostile and insane, and most of it–contrary to what I used to believe–has little to do with racism. Berlin racism necessarily manifests itself as casual, stupid and extreme because Berliners are just–dickheads. They always have been. Even in 1775!
MINORITY REPORTS (Opposing views)
Jean Giradoux: “Berlin is a garden.”(1931)
Josephine Baker, 1926: “Lights shine brighter here than in Paris!”
Josephine Baker, 1928: “Don’t say anything. I disappear. I run away.”
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN KONCH MAGAZINE, JANUARY 2013, under PHILIP HENDERSON.
“Home” was a one-room, 35 square meter sublet on Hasenheide. From the outside it looked fairly glamorous; the walkway was lined with stately tenement houses, old-fashioned gas lamps, and chestnut trees. The marvelous 19th century Südstern cathedral was within close walking distance; overall the ambience was one of understated Gothic elegance.
From inside the flat was cursed with dim lighting, a non-existent kitchen, and faulty electrical wiring. “Fire hazard” was an understatement. The cheap Ikea bed was right next to the table on which I feverishly worked, digging myself deeper into an aesthetic hole. The “bathroom,” if one could call it a “bathroom,” was just a cheap shower stall with a toilet jammed next to it. Hot water was non-existent. The toilet itself was one of those horrible things with a built-in porcelain plank in place of the watery hole—one in which you could not only see your shit, but smell it, too.
Two years ago, I found myself stuck in this Kreuzberg hole with a disappointing realization. I had hoped for the better of three years that things would improve, that my financial fortunes would turn around, and that I would finally meet somebody special—the last being one of the main reasons why I came to this city. The realization was that—unfortunately, and for the foreseeable future—none of this was going to happen.
And another realization: that aside from an unfinished (and unfinishable) novel I had nothing to show for my being in Berlin.
It sounds like a corny cliché—just like something that would have happened anywhere else in the world, to anybody else—maybe in Paris, or even Harlem, where I originally wished to live. It was not heartening to know that in Harlem or Paris a flat similar to mine would have gone for four times its going price. Payday had been dragged out for over a week, and when I last checked my bank account, I had considerably less than the 420 euro it cost to rent it per month.
Nothing else that I had planned, either in my art or my writing, had been completed. I did not write a single one of the short stories I imagined I would write. My play—if you could call it a “play”—did not get beyond the basic sketch. There were a few minor poems, and a larger one that had just been published earlier that year; it turned out so far to be my only publication in Germany. The unfinished morass of a novel I had been slaving on for over five years.
Today, my situation is the same; only the dwelling has changed. It is considerably larger, yet considerably older, too. The bathroom is better constructed, although ice-cold in winter time (the flat is coal-heated). The rent is less than half of the old dwelling. My novel, thank God, is finished. But there is no publisher in sight, and absolutely no money to my name.
Even by the sorry standards of my expat friends, my case may be somewhat extreme. I can’t say for certain that I was “happy” to be in the hole. But I was certainly glad I was there, and not in a youth hostel—or, worse, back home in Maryland. I came to Berlin because I found it impossible to function there as an artist and an individual. In the U.S., in spite of having won an American Book Award I had the nagging suspicion that my ambitions were misguided, that I was devoting my life to a false vocation. “Real people” didn’t do art: they pushed papers in an office or, at least, lawnmowers. In America, real artists don’t need to be censored or imprisoned, because no one ever sees us. In Berlin—so we believe—people like ourselves are an integral part of the city’s cultural life. Although this notion is certainly open to doubt, it is true that Berlin as a rule is more congenial to the artist than New York, or Los Angeles. Rents are significantly lower than anywhere in New York or Los Angeles. Crime is also significantly lower, as is the police presence; one can walk most streets at any time of the day or night without fear of being killed.
For an African American expat—especially for one coming from a crude, philistine “urban” America—this may sound especially appealing. Adventuresome U.S. black artists must be surfeited with America’s overwhelming social problems, its lingering racism, its adolescent notions of “authentic blackness” gleamed from Hollywood and hip-hop; Berlin may well offer these artists a way out of such mindlessness. The space to create, to broaden one’s mind, to meet with other like-minded souls from all walks of life, still exists here—it has been eradicated in New York—and for that one can be thankful for the existence of Berlin. But unless one is already well-established upon coming here, financially or otherwise, the poverty and neglect one will face will not necessarily be less than that which one is already experiencing say, in New York, or Los Angeles.
In America, real artists don’t need to be censored or imprisoned, because no one ever sees us.
Naturally, one doesn’t think of such things in the very beginning. One is taken away by the euphoria of merely being in Berlin, of being free to take off one’s masks, to dress, walk, talk, or simply be any way one wishes. Now—unlike the South Bronx—you can walk the streets without perpetually looking over your shoulder for a thug, or cop, or both. Now you are free to seek out all those thousands and thousands of like-minded spirits who are said to be congregating in the innumerable bars, cafes, and bookshops across the city. You have been warned about the Neo-Nazis but you already know not to go too far out East. All the action, anyway, is in “Kreuzkolln,” a vague geographical sliver encompassing Kottbusser Damm, Mariannenstrasse, Planufer, and other connecting streets. And among the crowds of young students at the terraces and bridges are, mercifully, faces of color. You hear Spanish spoken—not merely the Spanish of Spain but also of Cuba, Mexico and Puerto Rico. And naturally, you hear American English—not merely that of American whites, but also, if one listens further, of American blacks. The scenery—most notably, around Chamissoplatz—makes you wonder just what it was you saw in Brooklyn. The buildings’ fancy façade work puts to shame everything you had ever seen in Boston or Philly. The upright street lamps are, indeed, gas lit. The streets are largely cobbled; the corner bar, which evokes in Americans many romantic notions of Europe, still exists. And of course there is an abundance of alcohol (which no one minds drinking out in the open), drugs (one can smell it wafting through the air of various Kreuzberg streets), and sex: love affairs of all kinds proliferate, prostitution is legal, and as the back-pages of Bild or B.Z. amply illustrate, anything one would want is literally available, for a price. There are galleries opening up, readings in abundance, and hoards of buskers—most of them “gypsies” from Romania or Bulgaria, whose jaunty music fills the summer air with the rhythmic blasting of horns and drums. (And as in virtually every other Continental nation, they are perceived as a menace.)
The first scale to fall from one’s eyes may take some time. You are too busy ambling along the streets of your new neighborhood, enjoying your new sublet or—if you are lucky—your new flat. While filling it up with furniture, or picking up stuff shipped over from the U.S., you notice that the faces of the employees at Postbank or DHL do not necessarily correspond to those in your neighborhood. Of course, one could have seen this the moment one’s plane landed in Tegel. There are no faces of color working on the tarmac; exceedingly few ones exist behind the desks at the airport. Berliners have found it easier to put colored faces on a poster than in any position where they may wield influence, or even, for that matter, earn a living wage. So far I have personally counted exactly six black bus drivers and about twice as many Turkish ones; there may be Asian bus drivers, I have yet to see them. (I have counted about two Asian cab drivers.) Black, brown and yellow faces are equally difficult to find behind cash registers in Kaisers and near non-existent in Aldi, Netto, Reichelt and other Berlin grocery stores and shopping outlets. There are exceedingly few transit employees or construction workers who are black, brown or yellow and virtually no black, brown or yellow cops, no black, brown or yellow executives, and no black brown or yellow faces in the halls of so-called Berlin culture. In virtually every respect—right down to Germany’s conspicuous lack of adequate civil rights legislation—Berlin reminds one unpleasantly of America fifty years ago.
Personally, I have no illusions as to what Berliners think of blacks—I had been to Berlin before taking up residence here, and have heard “nigger” used more frequently on these streets than in Richmond, Virginia. I have had confrontations with Nazi scum, as well as Turks, Arabs or Africans who despise black Americans. One doesn’t come to Berlin to escape the overwhelming racial tension that exists in, say, New York, the way that black expats came to Paris to escape the overwhelming tension of pre-Civil Rights America; one comes because one imagines it’s better to simmer in the German pot than to roast in the American fire.
Yet to simmer in the pot still means you are being cooked. The cooking is slower, more leisurely, but the end results are the same. James Baldwin wrote that the “weight” of New York City was “murderous.” Berlin’s weight seems lighter in the beginning—before you realize just how difficult it is for a foreigner to get a permanent flat in this extremely xenophobic city; before you realize that, even for Germans, jobs are impossible to come by, or before you have ever experienced winter-time Berlin: the longer one prolongs his stay in this city, the closer one gets to the unsettling truth about the city’s true spirit. “There’s a bold breed of people living in Berlin,” Goethe has written, “for whom delicacy means little. One must have hair on one’s teeth and be a little rough sometimes in order to keep one’s head above water (Goethe 127).”
Berlin is not a new Prague, let alone a new Paris. Berlin’s equivalents of Paris’s old Left Bank, Montparnasse or Montmartre don’t really exist. Paris, like Berlin, is a Northern city, yet with a distinctively Latin flair; Berlin’s Prussian hauteur is leavened with Yankee silliness and Slavic spunk. The names of some city boroughs (“Treptow,” “Pankow,” “Stralau”) and streets (Paul-Robeson Strasse) bear this out—even the very name Berlin itself; contrary to local lore it does not mean “Bear” but “swamp” in an old Slavic tongue. Perhaps this is no accident, for spiritually Berlin bears all the hallmarks of a human swamp: full of crabby people, constantly snapping at each other and pulling one another down to the same mean level.
One can sense this during any time of the year—certainly during the summer, when the celebrated Kufurstendamm fills up with the most obnoxious tourists in Western Europe. Yet even the sheer vulgarity of a Berlin summer is no match for the unspeakably raw meanness of a Berlin winter. It is not just the brusqueness in so many Berliners taking on a harsher edge, or even the Berliners bringing your own ugliness out of you. It is—as Henry Miller once wrote in Tropic of Cancer about Paris’s cold spells—a winter of the soul. Ernst Jünger, writing to Gottfried Benn said emphatically “one simply cannot be healthy” here. Elias Canetti also writes, in his autobiography, “… (H)ow quickly Berlin used up people. Anyone who didn’t know how to arrange things for himself was doomed….If you had awakened to your own animality before coming here, you had to increase it in order to hold out against the animality of other people; and if you weren’t very strong, you were soon used up (Canetti 294).”
One does have the feeling here that one is perpetually navigating through a vast, unruly jungle. Berlin does not have a spectacularly high homicide rate like, say, Detroit, or Moscow, or even a moderately high one like London or Madrid. Gun possession is relatively rare; what homicides do occur happen usually with a knife, or a club. Berlin has more understated ways of destroying an individual; its weapon of choice is apathy.
Passive-aggression is another. Recently neo-Nazis marched in the very heart of Kreuzberg, beating and stomping anything that wasn’t white. Locals certainly saw the march coming; few, however, cared enough to prevent it. Nazis had even gathered in heavily-Turkish Hermannplatz (which also has a considerable number of blacks) with little or no opposition. My guess is that the residents of “Kreuzkolln,” so called, thought themselves too cool, hip and “sophisticated” to bother with trivial things like violent racist attacks. (By contrast, the planned Nazi march in ultra-square Leipzig was quashed: anti-Nazi demonstrators prevented them from exiting the train.)
Berliners have found it easier to put colored faces on a poster than in any position where they may wield influence, or even, for that matter, earn a living wage.
It is this utter incivility and moral chaos—however low-key—that inevitably leads to bitter disillusionment. We had naively hoped the city would provide a refuge from the sickening vulgarity of Boston, or Baltimore, or Birmingham. Unfortunately Berlin’s boroughs have no shortage of philistines; in fact they tend to be in the majority, particularly in the impoverished East. Two years ago, or even six months ago, one might have blandly accepted these flaws as a part of Berlin’s local color. Now they are simply a major headache. Berliner “Schnauze”—the churlishness of a parochial people stuck in the 19th century—is as ubiquitous and hopelessly ineradicable as the bad weather, bad food and dog shit. We realize this after living in their dingy flats and riding the U-Bahn with them; shopping alongside them in Karstadt, Kaisers, Kaufland, and other stores; barhopping along Bergmannstrasse, Oranienstrasse, Prenzlauer Allee, and other so-called “bohemian” streets. And we begin to note details about local life that we, in our earlier enthusiasm, overlooked. You note that the next door neighbor who has seen you come and go for years has yet to acknowledge your presence; or that people of color in Berlin—perhaps more so than any other city in Europe—generally tend to avoid each other. You also note the Turkish kids hanging on the corner, perennially unemployed, dressed in fashions copied precisely from Jersey Shore, the popular reality TV show; you also note that too many seem to have copied precisely Italian-American racism. You see, of all things, “darky donuts” offered at the local bakery; you see the bullet-holes still in the dainty facades, the U-Bahn rails eternally under repair, the overabundance of broken glass, the ugly graffiti scrawled everywhere, the indescribable rudeness of store clerks and metro workers, the trash cans either burned or haphazardly opened by bored teens. In Ernst-Reuter Platz, a well-known comedian has a “political” poster of himself—in blackface. And above the old-time gas lamps, new NPD posters we never paid much attention to screaming for racial purity, promising to fly the “niggers” home on a carpet or, God forbid, “GAS geben!!”
It gets worse. There are the everyday events, the absurd happenings that occur anywhere but somehow shock deeper when they happen here. Coming out of the Yorckstrasse S-Bahn one night, ones eyes follow a trail of splattered blood all the way down the stairs to an ambulance outside, where an obese man lay inside with a knife buried in his chest. A confrontation in a Kaiser’s on trendy Bergmannstrasse one night ends with a man being hurled physically out of the store and into a woman on a bike, who strikes her head on a curb. In another Kaiser’s, a “wigger” wanna-be roughly kicks your roller bag and shouts obscenities at you—for kicks. You board a bus from Gesundbrunnen back to Kreuzberg one happy night and run into the most virulent Spanish fascists. A woman walks down the street on a clear spring day with a radiant smile on her model’s face which, shockingly enough, has been scarred with a razor blade. A friend of yours—a twenty-something white guy from Minnesota—comes to Berlin to be a writer and performance artist and winds up shooting heroin; another friend, German-Turkish, born into a high station in life (his father is quite wealthy and living in Sydney) nevertheless finds violent crime as his only recourse for securing the funds to complete his education. And yet another—a cheeky, twenty-something Latina from Seattle who also wished to be a writer and to taste Berlin’s “outré” vibe—wound up getting brutally stomped by her German boyfriend in front of all their friends who, not surprisingly, were also German. (Their “friends” simply sat and watched.) This is, unfortunately, but the tip of the iceberg, and not to make mention of your German friends who simply turned up dead one day in the bathtub or on the toilet bowl, having been burnt out by their own excesses, or simply years of hard-ship and scuffling.
Yes, it’s true. Berlin has its own ugliness which often rivals—and sometimes surpasses—that of the cities and towns we fled. We realize now that its streets and allees offer no true liberation of the spirit. This very flat city—much unlike Paris, or even Prague—does have its romanticism in choice areas (like Chamissoplatz, for example) but even these somehow unsettle with a bombastic glumness. It is not obscene and foreboding like New York so often is, but something cold and Gothic, sinister as a haunted house; it precipitates a certain unease in the spirit. Paris (according to rather unsubstantiated rumors) was a city of romance; Berlin, a city of cheap, tawdry sex, is where romance comes to die.
Naturally one’s resentment towards the city grows in proportion to one’s increasing awareness of its all too obvious flaws. And the main target of our exasperation will not be what we imagined we had escaped, but very thing we came here to embrace. Berlin’s much-touted “bohemia,” as it turns out, is an insufferable fraud, a mere middle-class pastiche. We were fooled by the proliferation of café terraces along Kreuzberg’s Bergmannstrasse or Oranienstrasse, or Prenzlauer Berg’s infamous Schonhauser Allee; the infestation of loud bars along Wiener Strasse, or the rash of hippies in Gorlitzer Park, where the stench of dope is stronger than the exhaust fumes. The truth is that where Paris had its Picassos, its Henry Millers, Chester Himes’s, Milan Kunderas and James Baldwins, Berlin merely has snarky, thinly talented young “hipsters” from Williamsburg. There are rare exceptions, of course, but nearly all of these new “artists” are white, over-privileged, thoroughly middle-class and thoroughly reactionary. The “Ex-Berliner,” a ridiculous rag which recently ran an article about a bike thief from Detroit (!), exemplifies what these privileged buffoons imagine “culture” to be. Few of its writers or artists would make the grade anywhere else outside of Berlin—not even in Williamsburg.
Add to this an unrelenting stream of German yuppies from Swabia (Germany’s Rhode Island) and Bavaria (Germany’s Texas), and you have a Berlin today that scarcely resembles the Berlin of even five years ago. German, Scandinavian, and Irish yuppies above all eroded the true bohemian spirit of 1990s Berlin, by buying most of the decaying flats and tenements in which this bohemia flourished. (In Kreuzberg, they were often bought from Turkish owners eager to sell their property and return to Turkey as wealthy men, rather than continue to live marginalized lives in a country that despised them.) Kreuzberg’s new bourgeois residents wished their new kiez to resemble their hometowns of Baden-Baden, Ulm or Ulster as much as possible. One by one, the notorious Berlin squats of the 1980s were killed off, sometimes violently; punk clubs began to wither and die, or—like Schokoladen—forced to clean up their outré acts.
And unfortunately, the cultural and political outlook of these new yuppie residents is no different than that of Ronald Reagan. It is a bitter experience (saying you are a person of color) to walk along Bergmannstrasse and Oranienstrasse, not to mention Prenzlauer Allee, and watch them snatching their purses away, or hastily locking their car doors, or to overhear disparaging remarks about your race, or “auslanders” in general. It is nauseating to enter a reception in some supposedly “hip” neighborhood in Berlin and find oneself a source of amusement or contempt. It is nauseating to have to sit at a döner shop and endure the scornful stares of Germans and Turks alike. One can only build up a tolerance for such rubbish by developing a skin as thick as an elephant’s hide. Or do what so many other people of color do to survive in Berlin: forget you ever heard or saw it, or simply get drunk.
Of course, the typical Berliner Schnauze answer to the above dilemma would be curt and simple: why stay if you don’t like it? And, above all: why did you even bother to come, if you don’t like it? I know I am expected to answer such questions, which after all are posed by people who assume that it is acceptable to treat others with contempt—simply because they happen to be outsiders, moreover, of a different hue. For me, the questions are moot: given Germany’s history, and given that racial tolerance in Berlin was considerably higher before the collapse of the Wall, one need not answer them. A better question would be: where in hell is Berlin’s legendary Left when it comes to dealing with gentrification and rampant racial discrimination?
The truth is that Berlin’s so-called “leftists” have done nothing but waste a lot of words about “yuppie scum” and “revolution” while allowing this same “yuppie scum” to buy them out of their neighborhoods. On the other hand they’ve burned a good deal of trash cans during Berlin’s traditional May Day riots—a kind of political Mardi Gras where the alienated and frustrated let off steam for a day. Ideally, they should have been more tenacious in their resistance to yuppie incursions; burning their cars or, better yet, kicking their behinds would have helped (if they truly were as “leftist” or “radical” as they claimed they were). But that would have required of the Berlin left a political integrity they never truly possessed.
Nonetheless, Berlin’s true Bohemia is still very much alive. Truthfully it is mostly a musician’s bohemia, a direct carryover from the Paris expatriate jazz scene of the forties, fifties and sixties. Some of these musicians are undoubtedly brilliant, even geniuses, which is all the more shameful to see them—after so many years—reduced to playing in the street, or still passing the hat in fifth-rate watering holes, still playing the same trite arrangements of “Summertime” or “Mustang Sally” and, needless to say, completely unknown outside of Berlin. The sordid details about their everyday lives—drugs, drinking, infighting, arguments, the failed and failing relationships with lovers and spouses, the constant withering of old friendships and partnerships, the hot air about new projects that usually comes to nothing—I won’t mention here.
Any artist here serious about creating must be prepared to build another Berlin Wall—around oneself.
The rest of this bohemia is typically in dire straits. There are street performers, many from Spain, Italy, the United States, and Latin America, who have found it more lucrative to deal directly with the crowd than to slog it out on stage. There are actors, acrobats and dancers of all persuasions, a few whom are known, most of whom are not. There are painters here, who—unless they have gained a degree of fame from outside—do not fare particularly well; even street artists fare poorly here compared to other cities. (However, this is understandable in light of Berlin’s obvious material poverty.) Most of the new fly-by-night galleries feature new art that is less than mediocre: color Xeroxes of donuts, cassette tapes (which I have actually seen in Neukölln), and other junk referencing the bored, cushioned lives of Berlin’s art hipsters. The situation for writers is scarcely better. From this writer’s perspective the scene was far more lively and open in the late 90s when, according to the late Erich Maas, “a lot of second-rate artists (were) fucking around on the scene.” Unfortunately, it has worsened: the second-raters have become a new Berlin literary establishment, cranking out hermetic little poems and short stories about—you guessed it—the lives of the bored and cushioned. (Anybody who writes of anything else is routinely marginalized.) There is no “writer’s district;” though tiny, picturesque Friedenau once boasted the likes of Günter Grass, Uwe Johnson and Rainer Maria Rilke, they can hardly be found there today.
Berlin’s appreciation of the schriftsteller is a mere two steps above New York City. I believe this is only because Berlin does not have a Madison Avenue culture that thoroughly marginalizes writers. One thing you quickly realize is that you are not respected more because “schriftsteller” is scrawled into your visa—so long as you don’t write in German, of course. German audiences at German literary institutions generally ignore the speaker if the reading is not in German—this regardless of whether or not they can understand English; their ingrained chauvinism prevents them from even acknowledging your presence. It is made uglier by an equally ingrained cultural arrogance—the German audience pretends it knows more about the reality of the auslander than the auslander knows about his, or hers.
And there are virtually no publications that take good writers seriously. A few very small magazines (such as Sand) have appeared, all too briefly, and disappeared through lack of funding or interest. The Ex-Berliner doesn’t count; their “writer’s series,” hosted at Kaffee Burger is limited to the usual quirky Rick Moody schlock, with as much depth and taste as a soy bean café latte. And unless they are grinning exotics from Martinique or Zimbabwe—something charming, humorous, and above all, irrelevant—black writers are generally ignored.
However, I think it is still possible to actually create in Berlin. The aspiring artist will note that the French flaneur tradition can still work here, for there is certainly a lot to observe, much of it amusing, more of it tragic and ridiculous. (Berlin, above all, is a city of grotesques.) Such a person will not be held in much regard by Berliners (who don’t seem to hold much of anything in regard) but at least, one won’t be so relentlessly questioned by landlords as to one’s ability to pay; nor are the police going to stop and question you, as they might do in modern-day Manhattan. Nor are your friends as inclined to drag you through the coals for your not having a job—most likely your friends themselves won’t have jobs—for being on Hartz-4 in Berlin does not quite carry the same social sting as Welfare does in the United States. (Many years ago, on the super-hip, super-swinging Lower East Side, I casually admitted to being “lazy” to a friend of mine, an art dealer, who had spent a good deal of time in Berlin before the Wall collapsed. His response was typical of a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker. “Lazy!?” he shouted in my face. “Why the fuck would you even SAY such a thing? Don’t you know other people have to get up to work in the morning?”)
And yet—in the 22 years since the Wall has collapsed—there have been absolutely no artistic movements in Berlin. In fact there has been in the main a serious shortage of genuinely challenging, groundbreaking Berlin art. A probable cause for this began to dawn on me, shortly after my seventh or eighth trek to the city, after I had settled into an apartment in a cozier, quieter section of Kreuzberg. I found myself unable to produce anything of any real value my entire time there. Maybe it was because, having recently left America, I needed a necessary “time of isolation” to start seeing the world through my own eyes again, and not those of my family, friends, or CNN. Yet just the same, I felt (in spite of my relative ease) somehow distracted by my new surroundings, the readings and concerts I felt obliged to attend, the parties I felt obliged to crash, the lure of too much wine, weed and of course, too many dates with too many needy women. Any artist here serious about creating must be prepared to build another Berlin Wall—around oneself.
But there are more concrete causes for Berlin’s artistic stasis. Aside from the chronic laziness and lack of focus on the part of their artists, Berliners are simply disinterested. This cheeky, inward-looking, blue-collar bunch is simply not keen on seeing all these foreigners in their city, invading their corner pubs and occupying their apartment houses. Whatever they think of art in general, they really do not care at all to hear some spade woodshedding on violin or piano or tenor sax, or some spic typing away in a third-floor, one-room wohnung he managed to sublet from a German. Berlin is keen on one thing only—gentrifying: gentrification meaning corporations who can pump money into a city which remains, after all, very poor by Western standards. The rents are low for a reason, of course. The unemployment rate stands at a sobering 25%. The hoards of junkies congregating at Kottbusser Tor, the drunks gathering at Viktoria Park and Hallesches Tor station are also there for a reason. They are Berlin’s “block boys,” as are the gel-haired, leather-jacketed, uptight Turkish youth, who kill time on street corners, in internet cafes and hookah bars. Most of them collect Hartz-4 or Arbeitslosengeld. Corporations, not third-rate artists, bring in cash; so does mass tourism, which means that Berlin’s image must be scrubbed squeaky clean. Bergmannstrasse has become indistinguishable from any East Village avenue. Dunckerstrasse, once the center of East Berlin’s radical culture, looks like any street in Georgetown, District of Columbia. The club scene has also significantly deteriorated. People with brains generally avoid Yorckschlössen and similar clubs, leaving them to ugly, middle-aged tourists (or ugly, middle-aged Germans). Night after night, one hears nothing but the same junk played by the same lazy musicians, largely ex-military blacks, who have been clowning since 1980. The night-club owners are largely to blame for the situation; they should be put in the dockets at Nuremburg. After all, who in one’s right mind wants to hear “Summertime” played until one can’t even see?
The yuppie, of course, wishes to hear nothing. He doesn’t need a “night club”; he can listen to his iPod and stay at home, or in his Mercedes. So inevitably the clubs will shrivel up and die. Yuppies don’t want any “scenes,” any wild punks, any bohos. And as the city grows more gentrified, the former punk/bohemian centers are forced to uproot themselves (along with people of color, now currently pouring into Berlin at unprecedented rate) to Wedding; and when Wedding shows signs of gentrification, possibly to Adlershof, or Lichtenberg. And of course, it won’t end there.
So it dawns on you that Berlin—in spite of its having saved your ass—is merely a stepping stone, a halfway house. You also realize that you are staying in Berlin not so much because you love it, or even like it, but because you are simply afraid of moving on. In some instances, there may be no other stones left. So you stay on the Berlin stone and find a tolerable (if not entirely comfortable) niche; you further enmesh yourself in the illusion that you are doing something (or going to do something) significant. If you are lucky you stumble into a relationship with a German that ends in marriage; with marriage comes an unbefristet visa, and with an unlimited visa comes Arbeitslosengeld, and with Arbeitslosengeld a slackening and loss of determination. You are going under—not dramatically, in the New York fashion, but gradually, piece by piece, in the understated German manner; it shows in the increasingly shriveled look your face gets with each passing year. Even if you do leave—as many of us do, sometimes for years—you inevitably find yourself coming back, drawn in by memories of a Berlin that now exists solely in your head.
Or finally the last scale will fall from your eyes the day you realize you are even more obscure and unheralded than the day you first landed at Tegel; that all of your relationships have ended in failure; that you are denied the flat you wanted, or denied a gig, or laughed at or beaten up in the streets of your favorite kiez simply because your skin, or even your hair, is too dark. And then—stones be damned—you finally leave for good.
I’m merely flexing the muscles in my head today. It has been so cold over here in Berlin I can barely even think, let alone write. And yet I have a mountain of literary work prepared for this year; in fact I’ve been preparing this novel for the past six or seven years.
Ever since coming to Berlin I had promised myself to complete a whole laundry list of literary works, including a book of poems and a play, of all things. Very few of these things have actually been completed or even started. I still have the play in my head and an outline for it on paper (or to be more precise, on the hard drive). But anybody who has lived in this fucking city for any amount of time knows that it is extremely easy to get sidetracked into petty shit that has little or nothing to do with art. Worse yet, the city is full of so-called “artists” who spend much of their time hanging out in cheap dives (no, not “cheap” in regards to the food and drinks, but the decor and attitudes), generally just going through their phony shit. Ever see “Fritz the Cat”? (I mean, the animated movie, not Crumb’s cartoon.) The opening scenes dealing with those spaced-out, pretentious potheads in their “pads” having orgies and talking pseudo-left pablum are Berlin right down to a “T,” only I don’t see too many orgies. (Or maybe I’m not invited to them. Anyway, it doesn’t matter if I get invited to an orgy at a Berlin loft or not; I don’t find these hipsterettes, with their Mary Poppins clothes and 29-inch hips, to be all that sexy.)
So if I want to write, I simply don’t go out, I shut off the cell-phone (called “handies” over here) and, preferably, the internet. And since I’ve picked up the bad habit of composing music as a way of avoiding literature, I put my scores and midi files away. However, I can’t avoid the art. Most of it, admittedly, is not really serious art, but quasi-kitschy pinup art. I’ve been drawing these things for the past seventeen years and quite frankly, I’m tired of it. It’s boring. But people like this stuff a lot, and it brings in the bread.
The creative stuff I do in the daytime and the grunt work I do at night. Or vice versa. When I begin the new series of novels I will have to get the grunt work (ie., pinups) out of the way during the day so I can write at night–I usually write at night, sometimes until 3 or 4 in the morning. I said series of novels. In reality what I’ve planned is a very large novel on the order of Hermann Broch’s Sleepwalkers. I would like to give out details but I do not want anybody stealing the fucking plot, so I will let it go at that.
Die Schlafwandler is actually a trilogy of novels dealing with the disintegration of values in pre-war Germany from 1888 to 1918. I like Broch’s idea, but not necessarily his approach; to me his writing is very detached, very dry, shorn of emotion, to the point where much of the novel reads more like sociology than fiction. One could call it “objectivism” in novel form. (I would use it sparingly, only where needed, when writing my own series of books.) But I like the idea of presenting the current American “disintegration of values” in book form, particularly over a series of books–maybe as many as five or six, but most certainly four. I like the idea of highlighting this disintegration through several different points of view, from various people from varying backgrounds. AND THAT’S AS MUCH AS I’M GOING TO SAY, THANK YOU. WAIT TILL THE BOOK COMES OUT.*
Berlin Asylum, the 673-page book I completed four-and-a-half years ago, will be published as a Kindle Book this fall. I have already designed a cover for it. I planned on something a little different, but as I was playing around with this design on CorelDraw last year I came up with something striking. I don’t think it’s too amateurish, don’t you? It’s a lot better than the “NATE” cover, which did not help in selling copies…
Coincidentally, it is the 10th anniversary of the publication of my second novel, Nate. Between 1993 and 2016 I’ve only published two novels. And back in the late 80s I naively imagined I would be a famous, rich and well-published novelist and pundit by now.(If I had only known!!) However, I think Berlin Asylum will do surprisingly well. I think. I would assume that people are finally fed up with the same old middle-class, semi-respectable voices detailing their tired semi-privileged lives in the redneck version of Paris.
*I already know the publishers won’t be much interested in some darky analyzing America’s own disintegration of values and destruction of ethnic identities in favor of a false multiculturalism that claims to celebrate Afro-Americanness, Asian-Americanness, Latino-Americanness–but is really keen on appropriating our identities and defining FOR THEMSELVES what a black, brown or yellow person is. But fuck the publishers, anyway.
Another note: the older I get, the more I find myself completely disgusted with every aspect of contemporary American culture, especially African-American culture. I no longer have any patience for these black idiots who keep on whining about how horrible Hollywood is when black America quite literally doesn’t need either Hollywood or Madison Avenue or Silicon Valley. Black America is stuck in a mental and spiritual time-warp; they seem to think it’s still 1962 or 1972 or 1982–whether that’s B.C. or A.D. is debatable.
It doesn’t matter a damn whether white people have a culture or not, or if they are basically still stuck on Plymouth Rock (especially regarding their religious or sexual mores). The fact is that it is increasingly clear that we do not need to put up with any more of their primitive and self-righteous shit. Black Americans are worth 1 TRILLION dollars a YEAR, for fuck’s sake. Rather than try to take over NBC, they would do better and create at least two or three completely independent media stations. But they don’t. They’d rather sit around and whine about “thug rap” (which I have already talked about and analyzed to death and will reprint the article shortly) rather than stop listening to that crap. After all, nobody is forcing them to watch “rap”. Nobody is holding them back from creating their own industries, AND IF THEY CAN’T DO IT IN AMERICA THEY CAN JUST AS WELL DO IT IN THE CARIBBEAN OR AFRICA.
After all, the first step towards a genuine revolution (providing that’s what Black America wants) is economic independence, economic autarky. Trying to buy NBC or trying to be the first African-American head of Mutual of fucking Omaha is not revolutionary.