Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger step arm-in-arm through the main doors of the Arnhold Villa on the shore of Lake Wannsee into the salon’s fuss, where they catch a glimpse, above the heads of the other guests, of the scarlet traces threading the sky over Lake Wannsee through the large windows on the far end of the room. Hannah instinctively presses Martin’s arm tighter.
Down the block a train bedlams through the Wannsee Station on its way into the city. Johann Pfeiffer, en route to enroll at the university, shuts Passionate Journey, Frans Masereel’s wordless novel in woodcuts, and looks out the window the very instant Berlin’s trashed backsides start rushing past.
Across from him sits the no-longer-thin, no-longer-hirsute Walter Gropius, making notes for the party he will throw upon his return to Weimar next week. Whenever the regularly smoldering tensions among his Bauhaus faculty spark into conflagration, Walter always throws a party. In his leather-bound journal, he writes: 2 naked women / 1 naked man = painted silver to slither. Eerie music / flashing lights. Silver paper to cover walls + large chute from ground floor to basement to end in — rubber mats? pillow mountain? Many white pellets to be thrown.
Walter doesn’t notice out the window a young woman, Anna Handke, gently lay her infant down in the middle of the street and depart. Anna will refuse to pick it up again, telling the two policemen who materialize she can no longer figure out how to feed it.
[[ a radiant system ]]
Max Liebermann, the eighty-year-old Impressionist painter, scrooches down in the back row of the packed Marmorhaus theater, glaring at the newsreels before the feature begins, sorely aware this is what the last pterodactyl must have felt like — forlorn, hopelessly out of step with its time, dead in some absolute sense years before the reaper actually visits. I think I’ve heard of Max Liebermann — I wonder who he was, people in fifty years, Max knows, won’t ever say.
[[ bounding for birds ]]
In town from Paris to visit Hannah Höch’s new exhibition and catch up with old friends, Otto Freundlich steps off the U-Bahn into the ruckus of the Kurfürstenstraße platform. The idea for his next painting gyres in. Its title, he comprehends without warning, will be My Red Heaven, and it will consist of an abstract flurry of quadrilateral shapes forging three color-strata down a large canvas: reds at the top; grays, greens, whites, and blues in the middle; blacks at the bottom. Otto doesn’t know it will take another half decade before he can plunge in. Other ambitions will broil into his life first, including the vision for what he believes (although this isn’t the case) to be his masterwork: a highway lined with non-figurative sculptures stretching from Paris to Moscow that shows what peace and brotherhood could look like. A decade, and another work of his will be featured on the cover of the catalogue for The Degenerate Art Exhibition staged in Munich. A sculpture called The New Man, it will stand nearly one and a half meters tall and resemble a modernist rendition of one of those stone heads on Easter Island. Four years later it will disappear, as will most of Otto’s art, as will Otto himself. First, though, he will go into hiding in the Pyrenees, be denounced and arrested in Saint Martin de Fenouillet, a tiny mountain village about two hundred kilometers southeast of Montpellier, having with a misconstrued sense of faith in reason written a personal letter of protest to the highest local authorities when told he must register as a Jew under the Vichy regulations. On 9 March, 1943, sixty-four, with achy feet and bum knee, Otto will hoist himself up into train No. 907, which will babel him to the Lublin-Majdanek extermination camp in southeastern Poland, the first to be discovered by the Soviet troops eighteen months later. The last thing Otto will see before the cattle-car door slams shut and bolts is a little buttery-blond boy with slingshot launching a frail white paper glider into the bluewhite dawn. Exhaustion, not Zyklon B, will claim Otto before the sun sets on his first day at his new home, yet now, walking up the stairs from the U-Bahn onto the nattering street, nothing exists in his head except one question: Did I just take the wrong exit again?
[[ skin waving goodbye ]]
Standing at her kitchen table, aproned Adina Kleid takes in her husband, Chaim, and two boys, Amir and Alim, with affectionate pride tinctured with churning resentment as she leans forward to light the candles and welcome Shabbat into their home. Baruch atah, Adonai, Eloheinu, she commences, deciding this might be a good night to trim her toenails.
In the flat across the hall from Adina Kleid’s, Stanisław and Halina Banaszynski sit stiffly at the foot of Krystyna’s — their fifteen-year-old daughter’s — bed, looking on while the doctor searches the girl’s wrist for a pulse, but less and less, Krystyna’s shiny eyes slitted open, the muscles in her face relaxed beyond life, her mouth wide and startled by what has pounced her fewer than five days after that sickly man in the U-Bahn sneezed, sharing with Krystyna influenza’s coughs, sweats, shaking chills, and dry heaves, how if she had stepped into a different car, or into the same car through the other door, or decided to walk rather than train home from school, or stayed behind with friends that afternoon to struggle through a few more lines of Latin in a nearby café, or been born on a Thursday rather than a Monday, or turned her head away from that man a second earlier, or believed more firmly in God, or less firmly in the devil, or planned to be a nurse rather than a teacher, a teacher rather than a baker’s assistant, something else might have come to pass, who could say what, a nice handsome soldier in a crisp uniform walking into her hopefulness, a simple happy marriage, a complicated unhappy one, an uneventful union where she never quite followed through with the plans she made, although she was always making them, one after another after another, yet it didn’t matter because Krystyna came to believe everything occurred for a reason — except this storm that tore through her flat adolescence.
[[ twenty-seven seconds ago ]]
Robert Musil strolls cheerfully down a gravel path in the Tiergarten, light ashing everywhere, past a man in threadbare blazer sans tie propelling himself quickly in the opposite direction (a journalist? a young professor?), past a meadow circulating with baby prams, chuffing dogs, cuddling couples, and a late game of football. Robert was in town just a few months ago for Rilke’s memorial service. Now he is here from Vienna six days to continue research on his novel-in-progress, tentatively titled The Man Without Qualities, which he has been buffeting against for six years, and whose end — a point of light no bigger than a match specking the midnight horizon — he has seriously started worrying may never draw nearer. The more he pens, the more characters and ideas surge up around him and it all gets unconscionably out of control, like the simple act of beheading a chicken sometimes can. Robert has never made a steady income, has thrown his family into financial crisis more than once … yet right now he believes more than anything (taking a deep breath of candied night air flowing into the city from the west) it isn’t we who do the thinking. It is life that does the thinking all around us. Let life think. Let morality be a profusion of life’s possibilities.
[[ a chair is a very difficult object ]]
[[ the heat of our thoughts ]]
On his balcony with a hand-sized view of the Tiergarten’s treetops, a tram driver leans back in his wooden chair, feet propped on the banister, arranging comfort and a cigarette, illumination pervading him: One regret I am determined not to have on my deathbed, Silvia, is that I didn’t kiss you enough.
Adolf Hitler pops another chocolate-covered marzipan square onto his tongue as his plane taxis toward the runway. He is busy behind his forehead reliving this morning’s event with his supporters and the press, savoring how easily he handled those pain-in-the-ass journalists with a combination of force, obfuscation, and strategic deception. Engines revving, Adolf senses his eyes beginning to close, his consciousness beginning to unbuckle. A few seconds later, he is reliving nothing at all.
[[ a hundred different movies ]]
[[ the noise knowledge makes ]]
[[ mother eating her own uterus ]]
[[ we have come loose from ourselves ]]