Category Archives: literature

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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Books Most Unwanted II: Lempriere’s Dictionary

It’s been longer before I’m continuing this series than I originally expected. But now, I can’t stand this any longer. This time it’s Lawrence Norfolk’s novel “Lempriere’s Dictionary” that I’m all upset about. The book is Norfolk’s first novel, an attempt at something big, and has received some considerable applause. I fail to quite understand what for, though.

Lawrence Norfolk: Lempriere's Dictionary

Lawrence Norfolk: Lempriere's Dictionary

Believe me, I am really trying to enjoy this book. Maybe I wouldn’t be as upset, if I didn’t. The book itself, I received as a gift from my wife. But now, I’ve been reading it for months and haven’t progressed any further than page 200 and something. Of course, you may say, the book just is no easy read. And I may not be up to the task. — Well, I have read a few difficult books during my studies of “English and American Literature” or “Medieval History”. I also thoroughly enjoy things like Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” (including every single, distracting footnote). This is very different, though.

It all starts with the inner monologue of the protagonist. For pages and pages he wallows in self-pity, almost unbearable. From there, I thought, it can only get better. And it did to some extent, but even later the characters remain hardly credible in their actions. Like when John Lempriere goes to meet with his counterpart in an old inherited contract only to be shown an absurd drinking game and then eventually take part in it rather than smacking Septimus who stole his money to place a bet. Even later, he decides to write a dictionary following the advice of an again completely absurd session with a psychiatrist Septimus organized … Huh? Why does Lempriere even still associate with Septimus? Why does he take the psychiatrist for serious, when he feels it’s a farce?

But what’s probably worse to me, personally, is that Norfolk is just no story-teller. He prefers to indulge in endless often completely unmotivated discourse (for example between Septimus and the landlord of a cafe on the comparative merits of coffee vs. tea) just to sound scholarly. This, I feel, is a lot more to the benefit of the author than the reader.

Anyway, the rest of my sentiments have already been voiced elsewhere. I’ll link to a few review that sum it up, nicely. Fairness, of course, demands to admit that there are favourable reviews, too.

A to Z! About 24 letters too long.

Lempriere’s Fictionary

Light industry masquerading as art

Overwritten pretentious drivel

Rodney Brooks: Flesh and Machines

Been meaning to write this since we returned from our vacation on Mallorca where I, what would you expect, found the time to read a good book, i. e. Flesh and Machines by Rodney Brooks.

Flesh and Machines Cover Image

Didn’t get around to actually doing it due to too many things competing for my attention (why, I just finished a presentation on basic statistics for role engineers, which was really hard for me being no mathematician at all). I only really picked up the task again, today, after I watched a replay of a documentary on 3sat about this spring’s complexity conference and this supported an issue I was having with some of Mr. Brook’s reasoning.

First, it is worth noting that the book as such is very interesting, well written, and thought provoking. It was fascinating to read how Mr. Brooks begged to differ from the schools of thought prevalent at the time by creating robots of simple components. At a time when other people were building robots (and I’m not talking about the ones used in manufacturing) as primarily intellectual entities who would build a model of reality, then sit down and make an action plan, and finally do something purely based on a mathematical model, he was building a robot (Ghengis) made of very simple individual components where each had very limited alternatives for action but which were interacting with each other and with the real world directly (what he defines as being situated.) Through this interaction those very simple building blocks formed a behaviour that appeared like it possessed intelligent problem solution strategies where they, in fact, completely abandoned what some equate with intelligence, abstract thought.

I was a bit shocked when I realized that early scientist of the field of robotics had actually tried to create entities which/who would even try to build an internal model of reality to work on, where (a bit unfair 25 years later) it seemed so obvious to me that the larger part of life (intelligent or not) just does not work like that. Yes, a human being can close his eyes and form a plan purely on the memory of reality. However, that model is so coarse and the plan so rough, that even then the majority of detail is decided on the fly not based on a model but direct feedback from reality. One could not plan how to carry a cup that has been filled too full. When you even look at it, you will spill some of its content. But if you look straight ahead and let your hand do the work, you will get much better results. Or consider how we manage to focus on the same spot even if we turn our head, or how we pull up our leg if we trip on a snag to avoid a fall. A lot (I’d say the vast majority) of our cleverness works without any abstract model. Of course, you may argue, there is a difference between cleverness and intelligence. However, that may be smaller than we all think. Who can say if the behaviour of Ghengis was not a simulation of intelligence but a germ of the real thing? Connect a billion more neurons, and who knows what will happen?

Mr. Brooks continues with a (to me personally) charming side-kick at Creationism. He observes, though, that as yet, robots have failed to achieve the consistent long-term independence we know from real live beings. He then takes a look at other simulations of life, for example simulations of evolution, where given similar evolutionary pressures we observe in the real world, the simulations come up with fascinating virtual beings evolving from much more simple elements. Such simulations have even produced social beings with different sexes. Such simulations have not, however, produced intelligent virtual beings. There were limits to the improvement of species in them. Mr. Brooks discusses various possible explanations for those:

  1. In all of our simulation systems there are some parameters incorrect.
  2. Our systems are build in too simple environments. Everything would develop as expected if we would exceed a certain level of complexity.
  3. We are just lacking computing power.
  4. There is something missing from our biological models, perhaps we do need some “new matter”

To my very great disappointment, Mr. Brooks concludes it must be (4). This, I do not believe. And I find it hard to see why somebody who has given such a good practical example of how a complex arrangement of simple things produces something beyond the sum of the parts, would regard non-linear complexity as an insufficient explanation of a lack of organization we see in a simulation when the non-linear system “The World” displays it. And of course, given that the starting parameters for a simulation matching the the world in complexity would be quite numerous (like the state of every quark in the world, where each state may well be defined by a number of properties), the probability of errors in the starting parameters is rather high. Then, slight variations of starting parameters may make huge differences for systems of non-linear complexity.

So, reason 1 & 2 are more than enough for me to explain that we have not been able to simulate the evolution of life on earth to the same level it has in fact occurred. I would even venture so far as to claim that that is as such impossible. I believe, to accurately simulate a complex system, you need a simulation system that is at least as complex. So to simulate the earth, you’d need another earth. (In other words, you cannot accurately simulate at all, if you are interested not just in the object but the object within its environment). For practical purposes, you may not aim at an “accurate” simulation but an approximation and then statistics/probability may help to reduce the data. But even for simulating problems simple when compared to “life on earth”, like climate prediction, our current simulations are so far from doing the real complexity any justice.

What’s especially fascinating here is that this kind of thought seems to be moving out of the fractal, weather prediction, chaos theory weirdo space into mainstream science, where it evolves to an interdisciplinary form of research and brings about progress in seemingly unrelated fields as physics, biology, neuropsychology. It is probably well worth keeping an eye on the Complex Systems Society.

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