PART ONE: THE DARK WOOD
CHAPTER 6: A SEASON IN MUNICH
Isadora’s friend, Susie, was small, dark-haired, pretty, talkative; she made me think of a fox terrier. She claimed to have once faced down two men who wanted to snatch her purse just by turning around and glaring at them with her hands on her hips. Her apartment door had a police lock, a crowbar stemmed between door and floor. Her first topic of conversation was the difficulty of finding a man in New York. Isadora had not found much contact in Freiburg, which she described as “a little town where everyone looks and dresses the same and stares at you if you don’t.” In her unruffled way, the smile not leaving her face, Isadora mentioned that her French roommate had attempted suicide midway through the year but had later recovered her spirits: “It was terrible. I felt very guilty.” What I contributed to that part of the discussion, I don’t remember.
We then fell to consulting omens. Isadora did not have her Tarot pack with her, but I had a paperback copy of the I Ching. Its answers were vague and unsatisfactory. I think I consulted it twice, the second time concerning the interview with Paul Celan that I saw looming before me. The answer to this question stuck in my memory: Hexagram 62, Hsiao Kuo, The Small Get By. Isadora read aloud: “The Superior Man now acts with too much reverence, experiences too much sorrow from bereavement, and is overtly thrifty in satisfying his needs.”
“‘Too much reverence’?” I repeated, wondering. Was the oracle deliberately telling me to act in a manner which I would later regret?
“That’s what it says,” said Isadora, with her composed, indulgent smile.
Isadora said that she had seen Paul Celan. He had come to give a poetry reading in Freiburg. She had come in late and had heard only the last half, which consisted of translations; but she had gone up and gotten his autograph. “I had him write on the other side of your German poem,” she said.
“Oh, no, Isadora, how could you?” I cried. I had sent her a scrap of poetry in German, inspired of course by Celan, some time in the last year; it began:
Ueber deine Landschaft erbrauste (Over your landscape there surged)
O Dichter, der Heer unseres Schweigens (O poet, the army of our silence)
I was horrified to think that the eye of the greatest living poet of the German language could have rested on these lines, with their embarrassingly presumptuous diction.
“He didn’t see the poem,” said Isadora. “I had him write on the back.” She told me further that she had spoken to the people who had driven with him from the train to the university; they had told her that he had said it was really wonderful writing poetry now that the language of advertising had invented so many new words. What was I to make of that? Well, it was common to inveigh against advertising. Maybe he just wanted to say something unexpected, to jar people’s assumptions, break the image people had formed of him. But it gave me an uneasiness lest he might after all be just toying with the language, experimenting. It called my whole system of responses into question. I had taken his work as an expression of sorrow: did I wish him unhappy? Of course one cannot build very much on a remark someone repeated from others who may not have gotten it right, if indeed they did not make it up! In Munich I would meet a student who said she had heard him read. She described him as tall and thin and stated that he had said “Nichts – nichts – nichts – nichts – nichts” over and over. The impudence of this produced in me a state of shock, in which I continued numbly to interrogate her as though unaware she was lying. Yet I have a feeling that he did say that about advertising. It is amazing how the words carry, and bring with them not only the shadow of a voice but a picture of the interior of an automobile, as though I had dreamed it.
Isadora showed us pictures from Freiburg and an elaborate piece of jewelry she’d bought in Turkey; I sang them my two Walther von der Vogelweide songs. Ever since setting those poems to music I had looked forward to this moment, thinking how Isadora would like them. But she only nodded and smiled in her regal manner. Susie said, “It sounds so spiritual!” Isadora and I exchanged glances of amusement. “It’s rather physical, actually,” said Isadora.
Isadora and I visited The Cloisters, photographed each other on the parapets; we also visited the Museum of Modern Art. There was an exhibit there of drawings by an artist I had never heard of before, John Graham. They were mostly diagram-like portraits, accompanied by astrological and mathematical symbols. The subjects seemed to exist in some extratemporal realm, beyond death and life. Like in “Visions of Johanna.” Isadora pronounced the drawings repellent and walked through the room hastily. When I insisted on returning to the room after we had been through the museum once, she waited, disapprovingly, outside.
One day when Isadora was busy with other friends I visited the Central Park zoo. At about quarter to five I happened to come upon the stone gate in the Children’s Zoo, over which there is a large clock with two little doors beneath it. From a bronze plaque set into the side of the gate I learned that at five o’clock the figures inside the clock would come out. I took a seat on the park bench nearby. Other people started to gather: mothers with babies in strollers and children with balloons in their hands, lovers, tourists, old people with their canes, passed through the gate or came up to it and lifted their faces toward the dial of the clock. There was a moment of complete stillness and unanimous attention, and then the clock struck five. The doors opened, and a little parade of bronze animals and people began edging out of the door on the left, round their track to the door on the right. A tune was chiming which I happened to know; from somewhere its old-fashioned words had stuck in my memory:
There’s music in the air
When the infant morn is nigh,
And faint its blush is seen
On the bright and laughing sky.
And many a harp’s ecstatic sound
Thrills us with a joy profound
While we list enchanted there
To the music in the air.
The last figure passed through the door on the right; the doors closed again; the tune ceased; and the little knot of people dispersed till the path beneath the gate was clear again. I felt touched and delighted by the way in which the people coming to watch the clock strike unwittingly became part of the mechanism. The scene had a kind of grace which was inseparable from its mechanical quality. One of the more curious documents of German literature is an essay by Heinrich von Kleist, from the first decade of the nineteenth century, entitled “Über das Marionettentheater.” Kleist finds the movements of animals and puppets more graceful than those of humans, and thinks this is because we are made awkward by self-consciousness. He believes, however, that we will return to a state of grace not by returning to unselfconsciousness but by a greater heightening of self-consciousness, perhaps by seeing through ourselves as mechanisms. There is a spookiness about the essay which is typical of those products of Romanticism in which the possibilities of humans reproducing themselves by scientific means is first contemplated – like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or that tale of Hoffman where the heroine turns out to be a doll. The John Graham watercolors had a touch of that same spookiness.
While in New York I also went to visit Jason’s parents, who lived in the Bronx. An elderly Jewish couple, very kind and friendly. Jason’s mother showed me pictures of him and his brother as small boys, little Mozartean elves in skull-caps. Maybe Marsha, to whom Jason was beautiful, could still see that in him. After dinner Jason’s father put on a record of Oistrakh playing Beethoven’s violin concerto. The record player was not the best, and the record was old and had obviously been played a great many times; but they listened with rapt attention. I thought of various acquaintances who attached great importance to having the best stereo equipment, and felt sure that Jason’s parents heard more.
Finally it was time to sail for Europe. In those days it was still cheaper to cross by ship than by plane, and the entire second class of the Amsterdam was occupied by Fulbright scholars bound for Germany. I had been looking forward to the voyage as a time for meditation on the open sea; I had brought along Finnegans Wake. But as beneficiaries of a government program we were subjected to a series of pointless “orientations” which I did not have the nerve simply to walk out on, and someone had also decided that we should be jolly. And when I did have time to look at Finnegans Wake, I discovered it was not for me. I am not good at guessing riddles in general; it has to be something I want to know. I was not physically, but perhaps psychologically a bit seasick; I felt as though despite the weeks with Ismene and Luke and Gabriel, despite Jason and Marsha and therapy, no progress had been made, nothing was resolved, I was as much the ignorant stranger as ever. How does Goethe put it in Iphigenie: “Again at sea/ The rocking billows grasp you; dull and anxious,/ You fail to recognize the world and yourself.”
After a few days, however, I discovered that one of my three roommates, Kyra, was a poet. She was a Midwesterner, blond, with blue eyes that gave off a cold intelligence; she had a careful way of moving, as if afraid she might break herself. I imagined that Plath might have had a similar presence. Like Plath, Kyra knew a lot about science and had a propensity for violent imagery and a sense of the physical properties of words, so that her best poems were symmetrical explosion. But she didn’t have the formalism Plath had to start from, and her bad poems were just chaotic. She had had a grim childhood, and the hard feelings carried over into her poems to her fiancé. Another roommate, Ellen, was very lovely, with deep golden hair, deep-set eyes and high cheekbones; she dressed in flowing clothes that she made herself and talked about Buber. She was not a poet; but one evening she came back to the cabin with a boy named Bob, announced with perfect articulation that she had drunk seven scotches, got out her guitar and proceeded to sing folksongs in a small, clear soprano, ending with a stunning setting of Yeats’ “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” When I asked her where on earth she had heard that melody, she said she had written it. Once, as a child, she had heard an old Irishman sing that poem. She couldn’t recall how it went, but she had had to sing it, and so she made up some approximation. I made her teach me the song, but of course could never sing it as she could. After lights out the three of us would talk about men; that is, Kyra and Ellen would talk, and I would listen, increasingly disheartened. Neither felt fully committed to anyone, despite Kyra’s engagement; but neither knew the void in which I was suspended. They were actresses; I was in the pit, with no ladder to reach the stage. Sometimes we would talk about poetry. I read them one or two of Celan’s early lyrics, which for once I did not have to translate.
There was another woman on shipboard who was studying Celan. I spoke with her once. She was Jewish, thin and dark. I can see her in my mind’s eye, but cannot recall her name. I think she talked about the importance of Jewish themes in Celan’s work. She was not pretty, nor was her manner ingratiating; she had an air of deep anger and settled suffering. In fact, she looked like the kind of person I was trying not to be. I was not anxious to continue the dialogue with her. She made me uneasy, and the thought of sharing that poetry with someone who could really understand it roused a kind of possessiveness in me. And perhaps in her as well.
My twenty-seventh birthday – September 10, 1968 – passed on shipboard. I did not tell anyone about it until evening. During the afternoon I went out on deck. It had just rained and no one else was around. I lay down in a deck chair and let my gaze go out to the gray clouds astern: if this were a story, there might be an omen. I felt the sad falsity of it. And then I saw two black birds flying. They were the first from Europe; we did not see others till the next day. Later I told Ellen about it. The last thing she said to me in Bremen was: “You’ll find your dark falcon.” The image of falcon-taming as a symbol of love occurs in two medieval passages I’d tried to translate; I’d probably shown Linda one of them.
During the voyage a long-forgotten image floated up from the depths of memory, a picture I’d seen at the Fogg Art Museum during my freshman year at Radcliffe. I had walked around the museum alone, looking at the pictures, which left me cold; I possessed no understanding of the art of painting, no criteria of judgment, and nothing spoke to me except one small painting of an angel by Lucas van Leyden. It showed just that one angel, standing on a hill, with a typical landscape in the background. The angel had beautiful wings, but his eyes met mine somewhat wearily from a middle-aged face. I bought a print of the painting in the museum shop and tacked it to my wall. The next year my roommate, Selma, tried to teach me to appreciate Art; other images replaced the angel, it got lost in one of my moves, and I had not thought about the picture for years. In the weeks after the voyage, my memory of the picture took verbal shape as follows:
(on a painting by Lucas van Leyden)
he has to rise, slowly, pulling
himself upright on remembered
ladders of muscles,
only the feet
are heavy and drag the ground
like a puppet's, the puppeteer
under the eyes, learns
the wings: two great
evenings of darkening azure surmount him
limned with feathers:
as a man, all his sleep, can count
I still have an image of that face in my mind, and it seems to me there is a slight resemblance to the first photograph of Paul Celan which I was to see a few weeks later. Perhaps just the expression.
That poem took shape in the apartment of the S. family, where the Fulbright program had lodged me for the month before classes started. The chance to spend a month with a family of the host country was supposed to help you get into the culture. Luke and Ismene had encouraged me to take advantage of this option, which appealed to my tendency to attach myself to others' households. But it quickly became clear that this introduction to contemporary German culture was not going to be a pleasant one. On the drive from the station, Herr S. and I began talking about literature. For some reason I mentioned Emily Dickinson. He hadn't heard of her. I said that she was a great poet, and he said that I could not go by my own judgment in these matters but had to accept the judgment of those who know. My jaw must have dropped slightly, but I said nothing. I had come up against that famous German authoritarianism. I hadn't encountered it in the Berkeley German department, where my three main teachers were Jewish; even in Bonn, on my first stay in Germany, I had not met with anything quite so ham-handedly categorical. Frau S. was of the same stamp; I remember her telling me how important it was for her daughter to have only gold jewelry. The remark might have been directed at my own predilection for jewelry made of beads and beach pebbles. I should have got out immediately. But there is a tendency sometimes when one meets with a reality that is contrary to expectations and completely unacceptable, to go on acting as though things were otherwise. Sort of like brakes locking on an icy road. Very bad mistakes can occur in this manner. The mistake with the S. family wasn't fatal, just mortifying, and I suppose in its way instructive. Curiously, the daughter, Claudia, was a sweet child, not like them at all. She was puzzled when they threw me out, which they did without any provocation, after letting on that they hated Jews and had basically supported the policies of the Third Reich.
But on the first evening, while a surface friendliness still prevailed, one curious thing happened. Herr S. took showed me an antique bronze helmet someone had brought him from Greece. He said that no one they knew had been able to put it on. I reached for it and put it on without difficulty. My head happens to be long and narrow, like the typical skull-form of the ancient Greeks, whereas the heads of the S. family were broad. Or perhaps it was just that no woman had thought to try it on before. As I handed the helmet back to Herr S., I could see on his face an unmistakable expression of dislike.
While still at the S. apartment I started writing a poem called “Foehn,” which I tinkered with throughout that year. The Foehn is the south wind, which produces an oppressive atmosphere.
Why is the wind ransacking the bay of trees,
torturing them with his senseless questions?
They turn up their leaves to him, dead
fishbellies, little shimmerless mirrors
backed by a sullen summer.
The sky wants no part of this.
Its underside is whitish, like leaves,
the sun, caught in albumin,
coated, like the tongues that begin
uttering and uttering
that speechlessness where a thought walks,
turning and turning the images
not here, not this one, not that one,
as a wind,
changed in the night, drives
other clouds over the bowed forests.
I recognized, of course, that this was an echo of Plath. “The Munich Mannequins” ends:
Glittering and digesting
Voicelessness. The snow has no voice.
I’ve always rather liked “Foehn,” even though or precisely because it is so imitative. It seems to me the one occasion on which I “got” something of Plath’s voice. Certainly Plath was a presence for me that year. In a bookstore on the quiet street back of the University which was the one place I liked in Munich, I bought Ariel and The Bell Jar, and read the novel for the first time. Writing this account, I even wonder if “The Munich Mannequins” had something to do with my choice of Munich. Perhaps I took the poem, unconsciously of course, as a guide to the setting where I would feel the maximum alienation, the isolation I must on some level have wanted. When Frau S. threw me out I went to the student housing bureau and took the streetcar to the first address that was given me. The room was in a starkly functional apartment house across from a cemetery. Without considering whether I had choices, I closed with the landlady and had my things brought from the S. apartment. Then I went out and bought a cheap phonograph and played “Blonde on Blonde” in the stark German night. The landlady kept a florist shop on the ground floor. Plath, again: I can vouch for “The baby lace, the green-leaved confectionery.” I remember the cyclamens, lipstick pink, like nothing the earth would have produced voluntarily. The same went for the color that was fashionable that winter, a poisonous bright green. The two German women students with whom I shared the apartment were natural and pleasant enough, and I was on good if distant terms with them. But on the streetcar to the university each day (for one couldn’t stay in that place during the day), I had to look at the older people (“The thick Germans slumbering in their bottomless Stolz”), in whose stolid manner I divined a frozen hatred. It seemed to me that what had happened was still in the atmosphere; I could feel it almost physically. The broad avenues and grand architecture of the city only contributed to the impression of radical emptiness. The newspaper headlines were of a ghoulishness I had not yet encountered, and the student protests did not freshen the air. On the contrary, it often seemed to me that the protestors mimed the violence they were ostensibly protesting. They had a slogan: “Kill German literature dead,/ Paint the blue flower red.” The blue flower is from a novel by Novalis, one of the German romantics, whose influence can be felt in Celan’s early poems. I thought of Celan’s “Psalm” in which the rose is colored red by the song of the sufferers. But nothing beautiful was of any interest to the protestors, except to violate it. I went to an evening of “folk” music and was treated to an obscene parody of "Under der linden."
I registered with the Germanistik department and got assigned a Dozent, who proved to be a younger, toned-down version of Herr S. He did not exactly admit to hating Jews, but he made a nasty crack about "diese Celan-Jüngerschaft" (these disciples of Celan). He also made snide remarks about scholars who wrote poetry, citing the example of one colleague who had written poetry for decades and kept it in his desk drawer, never feeling he had written one line to equal a line of Goethe. A waste of time. His intellectual equipment seemed to consist in a belief in Literaturwissenschaft ("literary science"), which I mentally translated “acceptable drudgery.” Probably he did not dislike me personally but was just one of those people -- the German educational system seemed to produce them in large numbers -- who felt that their mission in life was to deaden everything around them. I went to the graduate assistants’ office, but did not feel welcome; there was another woman there who was writing on Celan, and who seemed a little anxious that I would take her material. Most of my contacts thereafter were with other foreign students. I audited a seminar on modern British poetry, and somehow fell in with a group of British students, with whom I felt at ease though there were no deep exchanges; I had a slight crush on one of them, a decent chap of the tall, lanky type that appealed to me, but nothing came of it. There were a couple of joyless physical encounters that winter, which I gravitated into out of sheer passivity, but there was nothing in these to disturb my solitude. Toward the end of that semester I tried computer dating again; the computer connected me with a tall young man, very correctly dressed, probably intelligent, but so utterly lacking in spontaneity that conversation with him was impossible.
More vividly than the human encounters that winter, I remember the theatrical performances. It was almost as though the life I could not live was projected on a theatrical screen before me, while I sat silent in the audience. In November, perhaps, I saw Mozart’s “Magic Flute” at the Marionettentheater. They played the Deutsche Gramophon Gesellschaft records, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Pappageno. The puppet stage was larger than the usual and deeper than it was wide, seeming at times to recede to infinity, the puppets were half life-size, and a real artist had designed them. When Tamino sang his wondrous aria, “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön (This likeness is enchanting fair), ” the face of Pamina, came into soft focus on the background screen. A laugh escaped us, for the face was that of a doll. But such an expression of melancholy innocence had been molded into that doll-face that the knowledge of its being only a doll somehow added to the pathos. There was a gracefulness about the whole performance that human bodies could never have achieved. I felt as though I had witnessed a demonstration of Kleist’s thesis about the grace of mechanical bodies.
And I saw several performances in the Munich Opera House, its red and gold baroque interior restored since the war. I saw Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, which has always been one of my favorite works. The production was done in severe classical taste, and a change had been made in the ending, cutting out the finale where Love comes to the rescue after Eurydice’s second death and the chorus sings the praises of Love in the style of the French court. Instead the lights dimmed out on the scene in the underworld with Orpheus embracing the body of Eurydice, and came on again to show him embracing her coffin, as in the opening scene, while the chorus repeated its opening dirge. Thus the journey to Hades, the vision of Eurydice in the other world, the return journey interrupted by a tragic dialogue, were just the fantasy of distracted grief. According to the program notes, the repetition of the opening chorus closed a cycle of keys in the opera; the happy ending had doubtless been substituted for the true one to please the court. But I must admit that although my mind admired the ingenuity of the solution, I was not moved by the ending and missed the original one, whose very absurdity seemed to me truer to the nature of grief. Like mourners saying the Kaddish (it was to occur to me years later), which praises God and doesn’t mention death.
And I saw, too, The Flying Dutchman. Many years earlier I had heard it on records; and though Wagner in general is unsympathetic to me musically as well as for other reasons, I had learned by heart Senta’s ballad and the meditation – “As out of the distance” – in which the Flying Dutchman concludes that the feeling Senta inspires in him is not love but the longing for redemption. But it was a lot more powerful on stage when, after Senta had sung the song about the wanderer who cannot rest till he finds a woman “faithful under death,” and had broken off the song and declared her willingness to undertake the trial, the door opened and the Flying Dutchman entered.
Likewise in the story of the Ring – I sat through the entire cycle – there was much to ponder. On a huge stage, largely dark and empty, with only minimal indications of scenery, a circle of light was projected, within which the figures moved and sang. Their gestures were stark and simple. The gods wore draped garments, and over them and their garments was a faint gleam, as of bronze. The spare unforgiving light from the stage encouraged reflection on the allegory rather than immersion in the music; the music was perceived from outside, like a distant conflagration’s calligraphy of flames. In the scene where Brünnhilde defied Wotan and is condemned to a mortal existence, I saw my arguments with my father writ large. As the cycle wore on I thought that the process by which the power of the ring, the power gained by renunciation of love, corrupted the world, was something like radioactive decay – one atom changing, then another. In this performance Hagen, the son of Alberich by a woman he hired after renouncing love, did not arouse hatred. Instead in the scene where Alberich says to Hagen: “Sei treu (be true),” I felt a shudder of self-recognition. The compulsion of the nature one has been given. I felt something similar that winter when reading an article on a figure whose name I prefer not to write here; the article said that during the early 1940's that person had been in constant physical pain. Perhaps those high-pitched, maniacal speeches were, precisely, the voice of something in pain. I felt an unexpected pity, not for the person as a person, may his name be blotted out, but for the human flesh inhabited by all those demons. I knew, of course, about Wagner’s opinions and the uses to which his work had been put. But the performance put me in touch with a more interior terror, with some deep ambiguity in creation, the magma underlying human existence.
All this, the Munich scenery, the sparse conversations, the evenings at the theater, the still-unwritten letter to Paris, were just the backdrop for an encounter which, in this isolation, became more virulent than before... A fellow-poet who had been reading The World’s Last Rose: Sonnets to the Prince of Twilight wrote to me recently: “Is it supposed to be clear how well you and he actually knew each other – I mean, how well in the dreary world of fact?” It depends, I guess, how you define a fact.