New German Nachdenklichkeit, or: In Defense of Melancholy

On Monday, I watched the latest issue of the magazine Bauerfeind on 3Sat and was shocked. Not by the host Katrin Bauerfeind who was as charming and witty as ever. Nor was it the interview with Katrin Müller-Hohenstein, even if it nagged me a little that neither of the Katrins ever once said that it was wrong of the sports journalist to use the phrase “innerer Reichsparteitag”. It is bad enough that the phrase is not completely uncommon in casual talks, and I am ready to forgive that kind of blunder. But I like to hear people admit it was wrong to say it, generally is but esp. on TV. It is people’s regret that moves me towards forgiveness. I know, people use that phrase and it is human to err. Hey, let me tell you about one of my own more embarrassing blunders: Chocolate marshmallows, in Germany, used to be called “Negerkuss”, i. e. “Kiss of a Neger” where “Neger” is considerably less offensive but still derogatory German variant of the English “nigger”. “Negerkuss” used to be the usual term until it was changed to “Schokokuss” (chocolate kiss) for a more politically correct expression. Now, I always use the new term. Even though I’m among the first to find attempts to govern language with rules ridiculous (“Freedom Fries” instead of “French Fries”? You must be kidding), when it comes to making myself not casually disrespect people, to not perpetuate prejudices, I’m all for it and I seriously mean it. Then, the one time out of a million when, in a slip of the tongue, I do say “Negerkuss”, it is in the presence of a coloured colleague. Normally, I’m quite immune to embarrassment. That time, I was waiting for the ground to crack open below me. I’m not too angry at myself, though. It was human, enough. But I still think, it was wrong to say it. I am sorry I did. But I wasn’t even on the bloody telly. But anyway, that actually was not what shocked me.

It was the report about a new wave of young, male musicians in Germany playing singer-songwriter style music (the likes of Felix Meier, Tim Bendzko, Max Prosa) and how their music seems to bespeak a new kind of German, male thoughtfulness, German Nachdenklichkeit, if you will. What was said about those was not exactly very enthusiastic of flattering. I can totally see how those musicians may seem shallow to the majority of people, say, older than twenty-five. I can, also, totally see how people may wonder why we need another album on which every song basically says “I’m a teenager, life’s problematic.” I share the sentiment and keep wanting to pat the singer’s shoulder and say things like “You’re just young. Don’t worry, that’ll pass.” I’m not sure I agree with the assessment, though, that it’s a case of post-emancipation-man finally having arrived, striking a nerve, and selling well. Seriously, I have no reason to see any other mechanism at work here than what has pushed boy-bands in the past or what makes young girls freak out about the vampire Edward. Bluntly stated, adolescent girls are interested in men but afraid of testosterone. They want a vampire. But please let it be a harmless one, one that is so far removed from the animal inside that it is only allowed to shine through where it serves the purpose of decoration. That’s not an issue, though. It’s been a long time since teenage girls have been recognized for their buying potential and have been offered their own line of products. Old people, such as myself, don’t have to like the Twilight saga, nor Max Prosa’s music. So, that part still was not what shocked me. Even less so, when the report went on about how this new thoughtfulness is confined to private-life matters, with no political statement whatsoever. Max Prosa, for example, sounds a bit like Bob Dylan. In fact, when I first saw him, I thought he was a Dylan look-alike. However, where Dylan commented on politics and society, Mr. Prosa relates how a philosophy course taught him, that it’s hard to even find your own opinion! What in the world are they teaching kids, these days? But I cannot really blame him. Cocooning is not such a new phenomenon. And it really should come as no surprise to anybody that we’re in a new Biedermeier. Take even a recent punk-rock band like Blink 182 and compare their lyrics to those of just slightly older bands like The Offspring or Bad Religion. I mean, I do like Blink 182 and am considering going to their concert in Frankfurt in June (even if they have SEATS!!!!), but I would cherish a political statement from them, like The Kids aren’t Alright or Atomic Garden. So, how can I blame a pop singer?

What really got me was when the (female) reporter carried on and explained, how all those guys are making more and more women fed-up with melancholy, and as proof showed a couple of graffitis reading “Swap wimp for man”, “Brooding causes impotence”, or “Fuck melancholy”. Not even talking about how this kind of evidence hardly seems conclusive, I kept going, “Whoa, wait a minute. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.” Melancholy! None of those new kids have any claim to melancholy. And if a song is bland or boring, that’s not because it’s melancholic, it’s because it’s a bad song. I will gladly recommend artists like The Bravery, The Verve, Placebo, or Trent Reznor for some of the most brilliant, magnificent songs that melancholy has given us. And when I listen to The Bitter End by Placebo, I just cannot agree to melancholy always producing soft, mushy dribble. It can go RAWWWRRR, it can growl and snarl.

True, my definition of melancholy is rather special. I chose to ignore the medical perspective and distinguish melancholy from depression, even if that’s a rather recent distinction (and I’ll get to where I draw the line). My view on melancholy has largely been influenced by Sturm-und-Drang or Romanticism. Or by what a former teacher of mine used to say about strategies of dealing with the ice cracking underneath you, while walking across that frozen lake. Some people will go all stiff with fear and by inadvertently putting all their weight on a small bit of ice race towards the catastrophe. Others, he used to continue, may lie down flat on the ice to spread their weight. Those may prolong the time the ice holds, but will fail to get off it before it eventually does break. Another set of people will see the ice crack and start to dance.

Sure, that way of thinking is still somewhat inspired by the old theory of humours. Also, there are a number of kinds of reactions missing from the simile. But what it says about the nature of melancholy, I think, is just so great: (1) Melancholy is perceptive. It doesn’t close its eyes. Maybe it’s more ready to see the bad than the good, but at least it doesn’t look away. And (2) there is always a dichotomy. There is always something bad and something good, something bitter and something sweet, love and hatred. And the interplay between the two is what holds this vast potential for poetry. The melancholic is not somebody who just says life is crap. He is somebody who says life is crap, because he loves life so much that the issues he has with the parts that are crappy drive him towards the brink of despair. He can oscillate between self-loathing over his own inability to cope and anger at those who make things as bad as they are. He is somebody who walks a road even without hope of it making a difference, somebody who has next to no hope of succeeding, but keeps on trying because he forces himself to believe that it’s not no hope, at all. It’s where he fails to convince himself that the path towards depression lies.

There is a depth of emotion in there that may not be suited for everybody’s everyday-life, but I appreciate my doses of melancholy in art.

Maybe I should not be closing with a quotation from Woyzeck, after trying to make the point and distinguish melancholy from the pathological state of depression, but hey, there’s always a dichotomy 😉 … and it’s just such a nice quote:

“Wir haben schön Wetter, Herr Hauptmann. Sehn Sie, so ein schöner, fester, grauer Himmel; man könnte Lust bekommen, ein’ Kloben hineinzuschlagen und sich daran zu hängen, nur wegen des Gedankenstrichels zwischen Ja und wieder Ja – und Nein.”

Or as translated by Gregory Motton (a translation of which I’m not very fond, I have to say):

See what a beautiful solid grey sky, makes you want to knock a nail in and hang yourself. All for the difference between yes and no.

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