Perhaps self-realization was overrated as a goal, literary in nature but useless in life.
Ames sat splay-legged at a table outside the News Bar Café on Amalianstrasse. It was a rare sunny March spring day in Munich, the sun a hazy smear across the sky, heating the metal tabletop and warming his elbows. He lifted his sunglasses onto the top of his stubbled head and marveled at the way sunlight illuminated his beer glass, unthinking, sparkling through the Weissbierlike gold flakes. Everything was a matter of perception, he thought, but perception could be false. The sun was a giant blast furnace of fire, 11,000 fusion-formed degrees capable of incinerating matter in a moment of milliseconds, but from the perspective of Earth it was a life-giving ball of energy, the orange jewel in the crown of stars, which were also just pinprick smears of flame and dust in the black vacuum of cold space.
He glanced over at the other tables, filled with students from Ludwig Maximillian Universität drinking coffee and thumbing technical texts, or mitarbiternescaped from their corporate cubicles to catch an hour or so of late-afternoon sun, drink a beer or two, and talk about their gardens, a prelude to drunken summer tanning holidays on Mallorca, Ibiza, Crete, or the Canary Islands. The tables were packed together tightly, so that there was no island sense of individuality, only the constant pressure of being in the group, the inescapable group.
No real space here. He thought a lot about space and his place in it. He thought about whatever unknown, superior force had added him temporarily to the black nothingness, that it had also made him aware that he should try to do something special with his life, that by focusing on a quest for understanding and wisdom in a history- and hate-stained old-world culture, he would somehow be initiated into the vocabulary of the real. Everything in his life up until this moment had seemed to him to be the polysyllabic babble of the unreal, every step not a miracle but a mistake. Brentwood High, UCLA film school, then graduate school, that socialist summer camp for the deluded and deceived, a one-year underpaid fellowship reading scripts for one of the big Hollywood studios producing epic celebrations of the stale grandeur of annihilation, an education in everything but living.
And now the Great Global Recession had descended, the Great Media Apocalypse of the 24-hour news channels and the internet; suddenly there were no jobs in Southern California and so he’d decided to make the Great Escape back to the Continent his ancestors had fled from the century before, to teach English and try to survive the crisis.
He’d been here several weeks, weeks of skies the color of concrete, ugly brown, gray or avocado-colored post-war concrete buildings with none of the charm of terracotta Italy or half-timbered medieval France, the corroded green copper of the onion domes topping the city’s churches. He dropped the sunglasses back into place. So far all he’d experienced was scheisseweather, the air trembling not with understanding and wisdom but cold, low-horizoned cold, as it traveled over serrated alpine peaks or across the blank, featureless Siberian peninsula to hover here. A cold infused in most of the people of the city as well.
He took a sip of the wheat beer, the soft, sweet liquid so different in taste and texture from the slightly bitter, watered-down carbonation of corporate American beer, and opened the paperback copy of Cowley’s Exile’sReturn. He read about failure and the crime of being average. Was that why he’d come to Europe, to Germany, to Munich, to avoid being drafted into the army of the failed average? Cowley and company had flocked to France as volunteer ambulance drivers or Spad pilots orbiting the trenches and mass slaughter of Verdun, then later as obnoxious bohemians with dreams of Flaubertian rather than military gloire, drinking wine, reading Proust, screwing whores and each other’s wives, and generally imitating the grace-under-pressure gods of the Hemingway universe. Most had tried to write novels or poems or essays exploring their experiences, and several had succeeded in doing so, but most of them had paid the penalty of oblivion for being mediocre in print. For the rest, membership in the middle-class world hadn’t brought penalties but a prescriptive life of sanctioned and safe rewards, failure in the artistic world erased, for some, by material success.
But now the world was suffering material failure as well, and artistic success had been replaced with celebrity posturing on the media catwalk.
Germany was the only EU country that would issue a work visa to an American without a laboratory rat runaround through the bureaucratic maze. He’d taken a four-week TEFL course in English grammar at a cheap certificate mill in Prague, one of dozens of Americans and Brits who paid their money to learn to be able to explain the difference between past tense and present perfect to Europeans who wanted to speak English, who needed to speak English in order to participate in the failing globalized economy. He’d also come here to look for selfhood in a time that didn’t value the self, that only valued group identities of brand names, media icons, and correct political ideas.
Here he stood outside his own culture, as well as his newly-adopted one, looking for an inner miracle by hoping for an outer one.
He had not come here with some half-formed, half-baked idea of wanting to write, there wasn’t a novel simmering below the skin in the troubled cauldron of his soul, no, he just didn’t want to be ordinary, stuck in the sty of contentment. He’d expected to be swept away by a country infused with a culture of past greatness, people sitting at sidewalk café tables reading Dr. Faustus, The Trial, Letters to a Young Poet, Beyond Good and Evil, or The Phenomenology of Spirit,iPod ear buds vibrating with the tinny strains of the Ninth Symphony, the Brandenburg Concertos, Don Giovanni,or the overture to Tannhäuser, but contemporary Germans didn’t read or listen to such things. Instead, they consumed pop, rap, metal, and Harry Potter books from the cultural sewer of McAmerica. Most of his students had never heard of Thomas Mann. Although there still was a stratum of cultural elitism here, it was more a fascist opera as scored by Helmet Lachenmann, with libretto by Theodor Adorno.
If he’d been disappointed by the Germans, in the past few weeks the other Americans he’d met were some of the most unremarkable people he’d ever encountered. Most of them were fellow TEFL teachers who spent their days crisscrossing the city by tram or U Bahn to work ninety-minute chunks of time preaching the loopy gospel of English grammar to people whose own language was the logical acme of grammatical achievement, and their nights locked up hiding from a foreign culture in the colonized space of their small flats.
The worst, though, were those who’d gone native, in the hope that they could remove themselves from the land of Whitman and become German. As if national identity could simply be shed like the dead skin of a snake, and the ingestion of enough schinken and käse, bretzenand bier, sauerbraten and semmelknnodeln, and a controlled, orderly German lover could render the transformation from colonial to continental complete. A couple of them published an English language magazine called Munich Monthly, dedicated to the dissing of their former homeland from the superior, enlightened position of superior, enlightened expat.
The girl next to him kept tapping his right forearm with the tip of her elbow, stretching for room, unconcerned with politeness or his presence. Like many German girls she was slim and pretty, her blonde hair knotted back in a short ponytail, this one with narrow gray eyes, wide mouth full of oversized teeth and a large, sharp, crooked nose like a shark fin. A sprinkle of sun freckles dotted her forehead. When her elbow rested against his arm once again, he pushed it away with a slight pressure. She turned to him with a hard, blank stare, blinked once, then turned back without smiling or even frowning. Her handyrang and she came alive in conversation. Even though he could only understand a few words, her tone suggested a stern scolding of husband or boyfriend at the other end of the phone connection.
Perhaps self-realization was overrated as a goal, he thought, literary in nature but useless in life. What good did it do to master yourself when everyone else was focused on mastering each other?
He looked back up at the blue sky, the Schwabing district mostly free from the webs of electrical tram lines crisscrossing the city. Schwabing and LMU had been the birthplace of the NSDAP, Professor Karl Haushofer and his students Rudolf Hess and Hermann Göring, the failed artist Adolf Hitler, whose apartment on Prinzregentenstrasse put him within walking distance of LMU and the hundreds of students cashiered from the Kaiser’s army into an academic world obsessed with geopolitics, Lebensraum, and all aspects of the state forming a single identity, an identity based on Blut und Bodenand the assembly line extermination of outsiders and misfits. He thought of crammed cattle cars, now transformed into sleek red S Bahn trains crammed with commuters, destination signs flashing “Dachau” in lime green dots without reference to history or irony.
It was nearly impossible to walk through Munich and not be dogged by reminders of the past. There were few visible markers or memorials, and most of the architecture of the Third Reich had been bombed into rubble and swept away, but the ghosts were there, shimmering at the edges like a solar corona. A dozen years had defined the country and continued to do so, and there was no escape for the Germans or for him.
The other day, for example. One of his students, a lawyer with an office on Briennerstrasse, just down the street from the Carlton tearoom where Hitler had stopped in for his afternoon tea and strawberry torte, had said to him in English with a thick Bavarian accent during a discussion of the recession and Germany’s failing economy, “for example, take the Jews. They keep one third of their money in banks, one third in stocks and one third in gold. That way, when they have to flee a country they are well set up.”
He thought of the lawyer and five or six of his other students, trapped in the silence spaces of German offices, eight or ten hours a day, laboring for the payoff of a BMW and the far-off shimmering oasis of socialized mediocrity in retirement. By coming here he’d found a way to avoid a stable, settled future, and even though he had no intentions of becoming an artist he did have free time to decide how to define himself. That was the problem.
An old man, cheeks wind-chapped purple, face fallen like melted candle wax, hair and beard as white as alpine frost, crossed Schellingstrasse and slowed while passing in front of his table. He leaned forward on his cane, two fingers missing from the middle of his right hand, small half-hidden eyes coming briefly to life. “Sie sind zu glücklish,” he said, his voice high-pitched and scolding, “zu glücklish! Das Leben. Es wird Sie drücken! Drücken Sie!”
The girl next to him disconnected her handy. Although he didn’t understand what the old man had said, by the slight curving at the corners of her mouth she had. The old man leaned back, caught his balance and then tottered off, muttering muted umlauts and harsh consonants into air. The crazy old bastard, he thought, the crazy son of a bitch.
As clouds started moving across the sun, brief snow flurries appeared and danced in the air, crystal patterns reflecting light. The blonde girl finished her latte macchiato, milk foam sliding down the glass rim into her mouth. She stood, picked up her purse, and turned to walk away. He noticed a small diamond stud in the opposite side of her nose, when she swiveled back in his direction for a moment. He thought she was going to speak to him, had decided to decipher the old man’s words, but after a slight pause she made her way across the street.
He thought how he missed finding a lover, the start of a relationship more like tourism than the torture of the ending, how after these weeks in Munich he’d not even had a conversation with a woman except for his students. For him, women were more than just partners, or friends, or even teachers — they were representatives of Fate. Each new face turned his way, each new set of eyes that met his, each random meeting could be the next step in revealing the course of the future to him. What about this one? That one? Which one? This sense of a miracle trembling just out of reach always haunted him. He would never be able to shake the feeling of premonition that stayed with him, whether in America or abroad, and watching as the other customers started to pack up and leave as the snow fell, he wondered if his search for living space in Munich would prove to be another dead end.
After everyone else had left, he sat and waited.