Something About Histories in Berlin
“Ah, that dome, that ageless, well-rubbed dull bronze, that splendid burden of time…”
—Vladimir Nabokov, A Guide To Berlin
1. IN BERLIN
Five years ago, I tried to kill myself. At least I think I did. I was very drunk; I had taken a lot of pills. When I think about it now, looking back, I think about those who succeeded not only in killing themselves, but also in becoming artistic heroes of a person like me. I wonder, were they completely lucid at the penultimate moment? Kurt—probably not. Ernest—drunk, at least. Sylvia—calm as a cow, I’m sure (as I recall, she took careful steps to keep her children safe from the oven fumes, towels under the door jambs and such). Today I’m thinking about this, standing on a stone bridge before the Bode Museum in Berlin, beneath its great dome at the tip of Museum Island in the city’s central Mitte section. The river runs lazy and silent below, ashen and gray, a dirty version of Paris and the Notre Dame Cathedral. I wonder what the world will look like after my eventual self-inflicted or natural death. I’ve left dark funerals, stepping into harsh sunlight, like leaving a bar in the middle of the day, and been struck by the utter unchanging-ness of the cars on the street, the people walking by, the oblivion to the death of whom ever’s life we were just celebrating. Shusaku Endo writes in The Sea & Poison about a medical school intern in World War II Japan experimenting on condemned American soldiers. Under his superiors’ instruction he becomes part of a surgical team that cuts away at the lungs of a sedated red-headed soldier to see how long the human body can last before it gives way to a kind of surgical drowning. This is useful in the study of tuberculosis, his superiors convince him. After the first experiment, the intern climbs to the roof in a daze, staggering at the realization that, for the rest of the world, everything is exactly the same. He’s just killed a man, and yet still the sun rises out of the Pacific, the war continues. He, the killer, is still breathing. Now I stand and look down at the river, and then up and out towards the Unter den Linden where Leni Riefenstahl filmed marching Nazis, where the former headquarters of the GDR is being torn down, brick by symbolic brick. Berlin is a city that has adapted well to moving on, and the short memory of Berliners is palpable as they walk the sidewalks drinking Starbucks, like everyone else. These last nine days in the German capitol I have sat in bars in the former East and thought, These men and women in their mid-twenties, like me, these men and women here grew up in Communism, their grandfathers fought my grandfather in World War II, fought in the same war as that Japanese doctor on the medical school rooftop. My grandfather once told me a story, in the last years of his life, of having been twenty years old and entering a German village after one of his friends had just died. My grandfather told me: I saw a dead man on the ground. He had been dead for a long time. But I was mad and I kicked his face with my big boot, and it fell apart like—like paper. Just fsshh. Sitting in a Prenzlauer Berg bar in East Berlin last night with new friends, I wondered if the world was small enough that one of these new friends’ relatives had known that paper-faced corpse. Were they that paper-faced corpse? And now standing here on this bridge, Germany’s 20th century history is like a pungent smell in the air, wrapped around me like a cloud or an invisible wet sheet. I can’t help but think of things like death and time. They’re inextricably linked by history. One moves, carrying the other, unstoppable, like the sun setting into the ocean, or the way I knew even before I took all those pills five years ago that, one day, I would take all those pills. Whether I was drunk or not doesn’t matter. It would have happened eventually.
2. THE SEA & POISON
Depression is like this.
Along the concrete-walled river below—my map calls it the Spree—a man and woman walk with a dog. Dressed in matching shades of black they seem apart from the rest of the city, their gaits in simultaneous syncopation, their shaggy black dog trotting along beneath their joined hands. They enjoy a colorless contentedness, like goldfish swimming in the dumb happiness of no memory. Above them, on the concrete balcony of an apartment overlooking the river, a green plastic chair rests. It’s the kind of form-molded furniture that’s stacked and sold in five dollar pieces at suburban hardware stores throughout the States. Disposable furniture, temporary, lacking any sentiment. I stand and let myself breathe the cold smell of a different country; but suddenly there’s a shift, some mechanism clicks and the sun peeks out from behind the pale, opaque clouds, warm, and Berlin is cast in yellow gold. It lasts just a moment, before the return to a colorless, melancholic shame, and I’m staring at the surface of the dark Spree and caught wondering why dark water seems infinite. I try to breathe slowly and imagine jumping, the cold water climbing in the instant of a splash over my groin-heart-head in a numbing gulp. What will it feel like? I wonder if maybe it will be a black hole, a teleporter—I wonder if through the faith of my leap I will be transported to a different place, a different time, to a place with no uncertainty or confusion or sense of anachronistic disappointment. I remember my life five years ago, exploring the sea floor of what must have been some sort of imbalance, living a Manifest Destiny of wanting to understand the slip of paper that diagnosed me with depression. I remember learning to anticipate the fall, the feeling of the sinking, the preparation for hitting the bottom. It was important to know where to go to be alone—where I could go to explore this new thing, in all its thingness—away from those who weren’t seeing what I was seeing, hearing what I was hearing, smelling what I was smelling; they all wanted me to tell them about the thing—they wanted to think they were helping—but this was knowledge that must be earned. And then the panic attacks, the medications. And then the skipping of the medications when it became obvious the pills were just some sort of buoyancy capsules, life vests designed to keep me from sinking too far, designed to keep me away from the thing that I knew then and know now is a part of me (the real me) and something I needed to understand, to connect with. Then more panic attacks. Harder, brighter, deeper forays toward the thing. A curiosity—mixing the pills with liquor—(why not?)—and monsters found lazing, performing chemical experiments on bright, red-headed GI Joe’s in the deepest parts of the sadness, the sea-creature cousins of Grendel whom only appeared in the most intense depressions, when I was closest to the truth about the thing. And then one night I lunged for it, and because I was so deep when I reached for that extra knowledge, later I was not quite sure if I had meant to. When I woke I had mud on my boots, pieces of tree in my hair, an empty pack of cigarettes in my hand, and a pain like the fist of God in my head. It was 1943 and the sun was rising out of the ocean. Now it is 2009 and I could leap into this Spree and do it again, call it all back. You can’t step into the same river twice, they say, but they forget it doesn’t matter what river you step into; what matters is what you find at the bottom, in the murky silt. Some people who have gotten as close to the thing as I have can’t help but go back and, eventually, the thing kills them. Others take their medication and float at the surface long enough that they’re able to forget the thing even exists. The dark surface is all they see; it is as if they’ve paved over the ocean with concrete, whereas people like me struggle to live with the knowledge that this thing is a part of us, that just understanding it won’t make it disappear. It’s something about psychotherapy that’s never comforted me, understanding something doesn’t make it any less frightening, and so some of us stray into the deep every now and again, carrying our bottles and our needles as far as we can before turning back. With time we learn how to turn. We learn to control our curiosity about the thing, to enjoy in some small way the journey, the daring of it. And we don’t want to cover it all up with concrete, to seal up the past’s demons and pretend they don’t exist. Because that would mean living without having the choice to die.
3. "GROUND CONTROL 2008"
I’ve come to Berlin with my girlfriend for the 5th Berlin Biennial, an international art exhibition showcasing works by artists unrepresented by galleries, the newest of the new, the lowest of the up-and-coming. Nothing is for sale; like the Whitney Museum’s biennial in New York, this week is meant to be only a tasting of the current state of art, a status check. That said, most, if not all, of the artists featured will find representation based solely on their inclusion in the show. This will be their big break, if things haven’t broken for them already.
“Ground Control” (2007), a work by 27-year-old Turkish artist Ahmet Ögüt, dominates the exhibition. Ögüt was given reign over the largest gallery space at the Kunstwerken (the central location of the Biennial) to pave over the floor in rank, black asphalt. Viewers sink into the 400 square meters of floor, and are enveloped in a wonderful conflict of blank walls versus black underfoot stickiness. We’re forced to wonder what is under the floor, and we’re pushed into questions regarding the environment, urban sprawl, the definition of art. I walk across “Ground Control,” my shoes making popping sounds as they stick and unstick, sink and rise. The gallery reeks of asphalt, so strong I can taste it; and I begin to feel the old sinking feeling, descending into the dark asphalt as I would the Spree, being sucked down into Germany’s paved-over past. I climb the stairs out of the space as fast as I can, Ögüt’s success stuck in my mind as I walk-run out. Was that the murky silt at the bottom of depression? Was that the blood and shit of the thing? No—that was the surface of something someone was trying to hide. That was trying to pave the ocean in concrete.
Ten minutes of running and I am at the Unter den Linden, facing Riefenstahl’s great promenade stage set, and across the rows of red ghosts I see the former headquarters of the GDR being torn down, gradually, floor by floor, a bit shorter than yesterday, a bit taller than tomorrow. I shut my eyes and feel the sinking feeling. I don’t need to sink to know what’s down there: I open my eyes.
Since college and the last days of medication I’ve learned to control my buoyancy in terms of sinking into depression. Knowing, for instance, when to exit an art exhibition, has enabled me to spend less time feeling bad and more time just feeling. The desire to write something of artistic merit remains like an albatross hanging around my neck, one that will not let me forget that in order to create something that will live, as I youthfully put it, beyond my own death, I have to remember what it’s like to die. Because, while I’m not certain that I was trying to kill myself that night five years ago, my curiosity about the new feeling it might have given me hasn’t gone away. I remember the first day I visited the counseling office, having been required to go for some reason I don’t remember. But I do remember how much it felt like any other doctor’s office—they took a Polaroid of my depressed face so that when the grad students working at the front desk pulled the file they could consult the picture and make sure they had the right history before handing it to me. Then I would carry it to my counselor’s office, staring at the “Before” picture. It reminded me then of the photos at my orthodontist’s office in Seattle, where I could look at my ten-year-old self and a mirror and see how much my teeth had straightened between the two. I remember thinking, So in this new office I will have my head straightened. I went for almost a year before the thing happened and I decided I was done. I remember the counselor would ask me what I wanted to do in life, why I had decided to be an English major. It sounds like you’re spending a lot of time alone, the counselor would say, and I would give her the best answer I could, hating how pretentious I sounded, but not knowing how else to get out what it was I was feeling: I want to write something that lives longer than I do, I would say. And she would ask: Are you afraid of death? and I would answer, No, I don’t think so. I believe in God and I believe in Heaven. But I am afraid of dying and not having done anything first.
And here I would shrug, cry. She would hug me, say it was okay, and then I would trade places with someone else carrying a file, their own picture paper-clipped against the manila. And I would go get drunk as soon as possible.
4. LAGERBIER HELL
Wandering the streets near the Kunstmuseum, my girlfriend and I stumble upon a synagogue. The red façade glows, the sun hitting it at such an angle that our view feels unique. My girlfriend paraphrases aloud from a book she carries:
The Rykestrasse synagogue of Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood was built in 1904, but set on fire during the Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass, in 1938, when the Nazis systematically attacked Jewish businesses and synagogues. It survived the night thanks to the bravery of a single guard, but was eventually pillaged during World War II. The synagogue has been restored in the last decades, after being ignored by the GDR government in Communist East Berlin, and was re-dedicated in August of 2007. Today it can hold over a thousand of Berlin’s Jewish population.
We stand and look. She puts the book down. After a few minutes the sun moves behind clouds and the synagogue is no longer so remarkable. We keep walking, not saying anything, but thinking about the previous night, when we sat in the former East with the new friends, laughing and drinking, having menus translated for us. We traded stories as new friends do, embellishing already-embellished stories of how the couples round the table met, or hyperbolizing how much we love or hate our careers. By our third or fourth pint of Augustiner, a beer I’d enjoyed not only for its taste but its label—Lagerbier Hell (“hell” meaning, approximately, “amber” as far as I could tell)—I asked what had been on my mind: So what was it like, I ask, growing up under the GDR? You were in grammar school, right? And everything became silent. The conversation shut down, became awkward. I might as well have asked if any of them descended from Nazis, if their corpses had been kicked in the face by an engineer named Riippi in 1945. Finally, one of them reached for my Lagerbier Hell. He pointed at the label, the number 1328. Did you saw this? he asked. 1-3-2-8! You do not have beers this old in the U.S., yes? Impressive, yes? He was proud of his country.
I turn from the river and lean against the stone ledge to look up at the Bode Museum’s grand dome. The architecture is as magnificent as any landmark museum, and in this way it becomes unimpressive. I’m lucky to have seen the Notre Dame, the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., the unreality of Paris’ Left Bank; I live a short walk from New York City’s Metropolitan and Guggenheim museums—architectural achievements do not astonish me as perhaps they should. But this museum’s façade is different: it seems to speak: I have heard the shots and sirens of fear, it says. The city will tear me down, only to help me grow again, like a starfish rebuilds a damaged arm. A gray-bearded man in a bright green coat shouts to someone in German and aims his lens up toward the sky, stopping at the dome of the now silenced Bode museum. He clicks pictures, first horizontal, then vertical. A woman rushes past, chasing a little girl. They are smiling and laughing, speaking something that sounds like German, but may be something else. Swiss-French, I think, and walk across the bridge back the way I walked yesterday, passing a woman in a blue shawl playing a small accordion and looking straight ahead, at no one in particular. I walk that way, and as I cross her line of vision I realize she is playing the theme to Star Wars. I think, What this woman’s dreams must be like.
I’m tapped on the shoulder and turn to see the man with the camera, gesturing for me to take a picture of him with the woman and girl who’d run past. I oblige, the camera flashing white light over them for an instant, and freezing their future memory there in the viewfinder of the digital camera. I imagine them looking at it years from now, remembering in their own language. Some American? they might say if they were pressed to remember who took the photo. I wonder if I will be alive then.
It starts to rain lightly and I walk away, looking for the black-clad figures with the dog from before, but they’ve disappeared. The edge of the river is empty. I hum along to the accordian.
6. VLADIMIR NABOKOV (1899-1977)
I walked to Löwenbräu, a pub with the same name as one in Nabokov’s short story, “A Guide to Berlin.” I gulp large amounts of lager and let the alcoholic warmth fill me. I think of that admired writer, who, his pub gone—or at least changed to this strange, EPCOT-ish place—wrote in his story of watching a child sitting and playing in the corner, the child eyeing his father, the bartender, as he tended bar, and thinking how that child, years later, will remember “the blue-grey cigar smoke,” the narrator’s “empty right sleeve and scarred face.” The writer’s image endured—Nabokov wrote about that, and here I am thinking about that, looking for the smoke, for an empty sleeve and a scar. I wonder what he would have thought, to have known while writing those words that someday I would come here with a thick book in my backpack and drink the same beer he drank and turn to that page just so I could reread those words, here, in this place. It would be a happy moment, I think, to learn that a person in the future has gone to that stone bridge in front of the Bode museum and thought about “Ground Control” and depression and suicide, and read this. It would mean that what I’ve learned has somehow mattered beyond myself.
So I am sitting here at the bar writing in a notebook and wondering about the family on Museum Island and the picture I took of them. I am wondering about Endo’s surgeon staring out at the sea, and how long it will take for the GDR building to come down. I am wondering about the Polaroid from the counseling center, archived away somewhere in a cardboard box buried in a basement. I wonder if they hide the suicide attempts somewhere special, so the parents of future students don’t mistakenly come across them. I doubt we are considered that important, but all the same I scribble these notes in a notebook, which is all I really know how to do anymore, which is all any of us can really do.
Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, March 2008 – NYC, May 2009
JOSEPH RIIPPI is the author of the novel Do Something! Do Something! Do Something! (Ampersand Books, 2009). New writing can or will be found in Ep;phany, The Bitter Oleander, KNOCK, La Petite Zine, PANK, and others. He lives in New York, where he is finishing his MFA.