THE BELLS IN THEIR SILENCE: Travels Through Germany

Buy this book from Amazon.comMichael Gorra
Princeton University Press ($24.95)

by Leland de la Durantaye

Early on in Michael Gorra's The Bells in Their Silence: Travels through Germany, the author says of his wife that, "she is skeptical enough about my own slipping and sliding between the personal and semi-scholarly that she might prefer not to appear in this book at all." If it had been given a voice in the matter, the country Gorra is traveling through might well have preferred the same. This is not because the travel narrative that Gorra knits together is a particularly damning one. Though the author clearly feels no elective affinity between himself and Germany, the book is not an indictment of the banality or evil inhabiting the people or the place. The problem is simply that so little that is singular about the place, its people, their nature and their culture is presented.

To give an idea of its aims, it is worth noting that Gorra chose a model for his book—and a mighty one at that—Goethe's Italian Travels. As is well known, Goethe's travels were passionate ones. Though he first made his Italian pilgrimage relatively late in life, the idea was with him from earliest youth. His father came back from a trip through Italy in 1740 and through nightly telling and retelling of stories fired the young boy's imagination. A motherly friend from Weimar said of the poet as he was at last underway in Italy in 1786, "from earliest youth was the idea of visiting Rome was impressed upon his very soul, and I can so vividly imagine the pleasures he is now experiencing in the presence of antiquity's masterpieces. His friends will doubtless much profit by these travels as he has the gift of vividly and livingly representing that which he has seen." Once he reached Italy, Goethe's energy and curiosity indeed seemed to know no bounds and his reports back to Germany consistently registered his impressions on morals and manners, antique art and architecture, culinary specialties, soil composition, botany—and much more.

Gorra's enthusiasm for the land he is traveling through is markedly less intense, and his curiosity less wide-ranging. His travel book charts a sabbatical year spent with his wife in Hamburg (the author is an American Professor of English Literature, one of whose areas of academic specialty is the genre of travel writing), and which culminates in the birth of their daughter. An excellent example of Gorra's manner of proceeding is provided in the book's first chapter, "Cultural Capital." Therein, the author does what most travelers to Germany normally do—he visits Weimar. This is an excellent place for him to start the story of his travels as it was home to, among others, the Goethe under whose aegis he is writing (though he is careful to note—in glib terms—his limited familiarity with his model—"I haven't sorrowed with young Werther and remain innocent of Faust"). He arrives by train from Hamburg. His trip is without incident. He eats a Bratwurst near the train station, which he carefully describes for us. He then makes the traditional tourist rounds. Everything is idyllic. And it is at this point that a telling turn takes place in his narrative—an academic as well as programmatic turn. The author begins to ask himself what he is doing. "What possibilities, and what problems, does Germany hold for the traveler, and the travel writer?" he asks. The author asks himself if, from an ethical point of view, he should even allow himself such an idyllic visit to Weimar given the fact that just outside the city's idyllic limits lies the former site of the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald. The frightening proximity of the two iconic places—Weimar as monument of German high culture, and Buchenwald as monument of the most brutal and senseless barbarity—is something which would and should occupy anyone visiting Weimar, or interested in Germany, and in exemplary fashion the author avows that from his point onwards he can no longer "maintain the light ironic tone" employed thus far.

What takes the sting out of this observation is the same thing that robs the book's preface of its pathos. In that preface, the author describes himself standing before Caspar David Friedrich's "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog," and in which painting he sees his own befuddlement mirrored back at him. There, the author tells us: "So I began to wonder about what it meant to have fun in a place where so much wrong had happened." This daring and intelligent thread is, however, lost in the following pages, and is lost because of the author's reliance on tried and tired clichés like seeing modern man aloft and alone in Friedrich's painting, or the paradoxes of history reflected in the proximity of Weimar and Buchenwald. The novelty of the question is hidden by the terms in which it is couched. The book's weakness lies not in the author evoking these common places and inviting the reader to reflect upon them, but rather in presenting them with an earnestness and a naïveté which is unlikely to spur the reader on to new reflection. The author claims that, "this wounded land has not been allowed to heal." One can hardly, however, imagine that a catalogue of commonplaces will facilitate this process.

Of Rome, Goethe wrote that, "one sees and feels there . . . that that which has been destroyed is monstrous and through no strength of imagination to be visualized." And yet, he continues, "that too which has been restored is just as monstrous." The word Goethe employs, ungeheuer (literally 'unheard of'), he uses not with its habitual negative valence, but to denote that which defies imagination. The place where he finds himself standing has seen wave after wave of history sweep over it and the wages of time and war are beyond what he finds himself able to imagine. For him, Rome possesses such a power of fascination in its consolidation of the beauty and brutality of the past. For Gorra, Germany fascinates in similar fashion—as the place where that which has been destroyed defies imagination. What has been built in the place of the destroyed is no less shocking and, often, no less difficult to grasp. It is then to be expected that Gorra will so often evoke what he calls, "the blinding darkness of the Nazi period, that neutron star into whose bitter gravity all German history seems to fall."

Steven Ozment begins an equally recent book on Germany, his exemplary A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People, by employing, like Gorra, a gravitational metaphor: "even today a tour of German history can be a circular journey around a magnetic Nazi pole." Ozment endeavors to look at German history in a more broad and balanced fashion—ceasing to see it as the "anteroom of Nazism," but as something far more rich and complex. As becomes especially clear in a section from the book's final chapter entitled "Fear of Germans and German Fears," he has written his "new history" in part to promote a more informed understanding of such fears and to suggest ways that they could be, with time, overcome. His evaluation of today's Germany is optimistic and there are aspects of its democracy which he finds of greater exemplary value than American of French versions. He ends with a warning: "Today the canary sings in the German mine, assuring everyone that the mine is currently safe. One development that might stop that song is criticism intent on making National Socialism and the Holocaust, with their attendant war guilt and reparations, the book-ends of German history."

The Roman historian Tacitus had a famously low opinion of the Germans his people were fighting (to chose a single of his cultivated barbs: "The Germans display a reluctance to accumulate slowly by sweat that which could be gotten quickly by the loss of a little blood"). Ozment aptly coins the phrase "the Tacitus challenge" to denote the difficulty of seeing Germany in its historical complexity without falling prey to the barbarity hypothesis proffered by Tacitus. As to today's Tacitus challenge, Gorra doubtless travels under the pall cast by the more recent barbarity in Germany's history and this is by no means to be held against him. It is only to be regretted that his travels did not lead him to paint a more varied portrait of the ways in which what he calls "that neutron star" has affected the form today's Germany has taken. The author remains respectful and balanced, but never arrives at something one would be tempted to call a position.

The title The Bells in Their Silence is a reference to a monument in Lübeck's Marienkirche (Lübeck is the home town of Thomas Mann—a fact of great importance to the author). It consists of the crushed church bells which fell during the Allied bombing of the city: "Two bells, with their clappers rusted...One bell had lost its top, pulverized in the fall, so that a metal knob the size and shape of a human head poked out. The other seemed more intact, if only because one whole face had survived while the rest of it was in fragments . . . The bells lay over crushed memorial tablets that had once been set like paving stones in the church floor." In the final chapter of the work, Gorra writes, "I myself want—sometimes I want—to see the bells as a silent scream, a German recognition of German culpability, of the curse that the Nazis laid upon their own house"—but later adds, "I distrust the way in which I am brought to sorrow by their [the bells'] mute sublimity, and then in turn I distrust that distrust and want simply to mourn with this city, with Germany, not because of it."

Goethe was a great writer of maxims; one of these was "each glimpse in a book should be balanced by two glimpses at life." Though Gorra adopts much from his model, he does not adopt the spirit behind this maxim, and it is in this that his book's weakness lies. During this time abroad, Gorra glances often and intelligently into books; where his narrative disappoints are in its glances into life. The epigraph which Gorra chose for his work is: "We ramble about in open country so as to learn how to ramble about in the singularly dusty world of books." While Goethe aspired to ramble through the shadowy glades of books so as to better explore through the sunny countryside of life, Gorra's book—beginning with this epigraph—seems to see things the other way around, and what results is, in many respects, a predictable product. The author calls forth the departed spirits of Bruce Chatwin, Walter Benjamin and W. G. Sebald, and experiments with idiosyncratic associations, personal revelations and the art of the fragmentary. The result, however, remains superficial and for no reason more than that the author is so little inclined to complement his glimpses into books with glimpses into the life around him. He indeed recounts meetings with friends and strangers met during his year abroad, but the conversations which ensue shed little light on the land. His conversation partners are, as a rule, the usual suspects—other academics he encounters at this or that institutional crossroad. The image which ensues is not a diversified one. One need only to read Anne Funder's recent Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (2003) to see how much can be learnt about the Germany of not only today but of the last 70 years by simply traveling and talking—and how insightfully and elegantly such traveling and talking can be presented. The conversations which Gorra recounts, however, be they ever so intelligent still have something perfunctory about them and are generally confirmation of the rule that one finds what one seeks. These meetings with people are rarely more than an occasion for new meetings with books.

If one might find fault with Gorra's book, it should not prevent the reader from losing sight of the ways in which it is innovative and enlightening. A reflective travel book on Germany in this day and age is a singular undertaking—and not an easy one. Just as Adorno asked if poetry was still possible after Auschwitz, Gorra asks whether the travel narrative is still possible after Buchenwald. For the posing of this question, as well as for his novel endeavor of blending a travel narrative with reflections on the limits of such narratives in those places most torn by modern history, his book merits attention.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004