Auf dem Grunde des Rheines. The figures in the principal fountain of the little village of Goldscheuer, just across the Rhine from Strasbourg, are a reminder that, for more than two millennia, gold which had been washed down with other ores from the mountains of the Aar region of Switzerland was extracted from the river, as suggested by the title of Wagner’s opera cycle: das Rheingold. It was won by the old practice of shovelling and sifting masses of sand and gravel, ‘gescheuern’ being the old German expression for panhandling: about seven hundred tons had to be worked through to yield a piddling 3.5 ounces of gold. Strabo mentions the practice in his geographical writings, and the Romans made regular shipments south. According to David Blackbourn in his book The Conquest of Nature, ‘the Baden census of 1838 listed four hundred gold-washers on the right bank of the Rhine alone’.
When the Rhine was rectified and canalised in the 1840s, the profession died out, since the new hydrological conditions made it impossible for goldbeds to form and be exploited: the floodwaters came and went in the spring, and the river no longer meandered at different speeds in a way that allowed deposits of quartz and mica and the occasional nugget of gold to sediment out in some of the side channels and wetlands that used to sprawl the breadth of the Rhine valley. Wagner’s opera with its four-minute opening drone in E flat major was presented at the National Theatre in Munich in 1869 just as the Rhine goldwashers were disappearing from European history to stake their claims in the wilds of California, Ballarat or South Africa.
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The other Germany. With the publication of WG Sebald’s A Place in the Country (Logis in einem Landhaus), with its separate essays on Robert Walser, Gottfried Keller and Eduard Mörike, and given its author’s known lifelong affinity for lesser known Swiss and Austrian writers, it becomes possible to see what German literature (and perhaps even German culture) might have resembled had its centre of gravity not shifted from the Rhine Valley in the sixteenth century to Saxony, under the dramatic impact of Luther’s translation of the Bible into Saxon German. Perhaps the most interesting essay in Sebald’s book is on Johann Peter Hebel, who is best known for his poems in Alemannic – the middle high German spoken around the Upper Rhine, and which finds contemporary expression in the dialects of Baden, the Swiss city of Basel and across the Rhine, in French-speaking Alsace.
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Echo of the universe. I distinctly remember, as a young boy, sitting, in moments of distress or worry (and there were plenty of them with the world about to end any day soon), on the bathroom floor, with my head propped on my hand, close to the toilet bowl. Was I praying? Or just lost in a daydream? With two brothers and an infant sister in the house and exasperated, fearful Brethren parents at the end of their tether (they were expecting the end of the world too, only even more so) the bathroom was the only place in the house I could find peace and quiet.
One of Peter Handke’s essays – Versuch über den stillen Ort (‘Essay on the Place of Stillness’) – is about visiting the loo, known in the ancient German euphemism as ‘the still place’: his narrator sees the toilet as a place of refuge where he can wait until the gales of unhappiness that are creating havoc elsewhere in the house blow themselves out. ‘Were my quests for those places of stillness,’ he wonders, ‘in the course of my life, all over the world, so often without a pressing need, perhaps an expression of – if not a flight from society – at least a resistance to it, a social exhaustion?’ The john is where he goes to recuperate from his initial muteness the powers of speech – and even the wish to speak.
The parallel is not lost on me now, unburdening infant worries and black dreams in my middle years to the receptacle reserved for lower uses, for physical purging. The Shanks is a large porcelain ear that never spills the secrets it hears. It drones in the key of E-flat major, that deep pewter-coloured sound which for Rimsky-Korsakov conjured up fortified towns and battlements and Wagner put to use as the cosmogonic drone setting in motion the four-day Ring cycle, the elemental stirring of the Rhine as it becomes the giant mythic river in motion: he elaborates a single chord over 136 bars. E-flat major rumbles deep in the ‘mystic abyss’, as the orchestra pit in Bayreuth is sometimes called. Wagner wasn’t the only composer who liked to imagine the Creation must have been audible before it became visible.
That must have been the pacifying ground-bass of a melody which Sir Thomas Browne in 1642 states is an echo of a harmony that ‘sounds intellectually in the ears of God’.
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Migratory instincts. I was doing the washing up in the kitchen when I realised that the bird on the lawn was a striking one I hadn’t seen before. It was a solitary hoopoe, with its crest and striking black and white markings. It strutted around the lawn for half-an-hour while I tried to photograph it stealthily from the back door. My ornithology guide tells me it is seen on rare occasions in the Rhine Valley. It has certainly not been seen on our lawn since. This was the bird that Solomon sent to the Queen of Sheba.
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An etiolated idyll. German literature has many instances of a genre that hardly seems to exist at all in English literature: the idyll. The presupposition of the idyll (which derives from the Greek image) is Arcadian: man exists in harmony with the nature around him and desire is never more than reason will allow. Goethe’s experimental fiction in Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years and Conversations of German Refugees provides, I believe, the deep model for Sebald’s stories, an impression which becomes stronger when it is remembered that Goethe’s loose collections of stories and adages are themselves parodies and travesties in the manner of Laurence Sterne. These miniatures established the novella as a reputable literary form in German.
The debt is perhaps most obvious in Sebald’s The Emigrants, which, in its four intertwined stories of individuals displaced by the Second World War, echoes the tales of those noble families who ‘abandoned their property in the region and fled across the Rhine in order to escape the afflictions threatening everyone of any distinction’. This bickering, aggravated, mutually inconsiderate world on wheels shuts out the threat of revolution yet seems on the point of disintegration itself, and its members have to learn to repudiate their personal interests if they want to survive. Good manners are the basis for a potential new society. But even in the early nineteenth century these novellas must have evoked a strong sense of nostalgia for a social order that was being eradicated by the new industrial order. It is not for nothing that Goethe’s subtitle to Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years is The Renunciants: part of what is being renounced is the big idea.
The displaced persons of Sebald’s stories, on the other hand, have already renounced too much of the world to leave them with anything more than a vestigial attachment to their own lives.
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The hydrological budget. ‘The River of Lethe,’ Bacon remarks in Of Vicissitude of Things, ‘runneth as well above ground as below.’ That notorious river will be found underground certainly, where it is sludgy and slow, and even as the upper river infiltrates into riverbed the hidden groundwater percolates up to the surface through rock and sand, as crystalline as spring water.
We observe this phenomenon right next to us, in the various pools and tarns that are the residues of the meandering old Rhine: in one spot you can watch the currents laughing up from below to disturb the surface. (‘Lachen’, the word for laughter, is also the term for a large puddle in German.)
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Decusate. I was reminded that the first thinker I sought out when I finally gained my student-reader’s card to the university library at Glasgow (this was the very best reason for going to university after all) was Nicholas of Cusa, the philosophical originator of ‘learned ignorance’. A Rhineland mystic, of whom there have been many.
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Being an extra. On a balmy Sunday evening last August, my wife and I sat outdoors in the shadow of Strasbourg’s famous St Thomas church with about forty other people to watch an open-air projection of films and documentaries of local interest. The second film on the bill – L’Homme qui aimait les images – was a fifty-minute documentary made in 2002 for Ana Films by Jean-Marie Fawer; it featured a local actor Michel Rapin, who had made a name for himself, at least in audiovisual circles, by playing as an extra in over seventy mainstream French and German films, musicals and TV series in a career lasting thirty years. Rapin was a cook by trade, but he had made a career out of being an extra or as the French say figurant, without whom, as he remarked in the documentary, it would be impossible to make very convincing films at all.
Here was Rapin turning up in a film eating choucroute in a scene shot in a tavern with Gerard Depardieu in the foreground. Here was Rapin marching out as a recruit with the French 2nd Army Corps in one sequence, and returning to barracks with the Prussian Third Army in another. And here he was turning up as a nineteenth-century cleric or major in SS uniform or detective in leather raincoat; what these films had in common was that he almost never said anything very much at all – at best a command, a greeting, a request. He showed Fawer the contents of his archive, which went back to Fernandel and other wartime stars of French cinema. It contained signed photographs from almost everybody he had met on set: André Bourvil was his favourite actor – ‘un vrai gentil’homme’.
Now in his seventies and still living in the Krutenau, Rapin was in the audience, and fielded questions once the film had ended. As soon as he began to speak, it was clear why he had never been allowed to say more than a few words in all those films in which he had been an extra: his voice was high-pitched and nasal. He remarked on it himself. Then he quoted Truffaut in La Nuit Américaine: ‘Je suis amoureux des images, mais pas de la réalité.’
But it was his reality that suggested to me this was really a film about Alsace itself: the region as the eternal bit-player in history, the region with ideas above its station, the region self-conscious about its accent, the region called upon to show its mettle and colours when events bigger than itself were going on around it – l’acteur de complément. And what was the outcome? It could only be the passive aggression and pronounced depressive tendencies observed by Frédéric Hoffet in his now classic Psychanalyse de l’Alsace.
In fact, this film reminded me of one of my early experiences here, just after arriving in Strasbourg, when I paid a visit to the old-fashioned barber’s shop – long gone now – in the rue Boecklin. As I waited my turn, I heard the barber, Alsatian born and bred, say to his client, ‘Pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés.’ To live happily, live hidden. He was quoting Descartes’ epitaph, which he had taken from Ovid: bene qui latuit, bene vixit…
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River voices. Today it was so still while I was walking on the dyke along the French bank of the Rhine, the ground dusted with snow, the atmosphere subzero and cloudless and a weak sun oozing over the silhouette of the distant city that I could hear a couple of men talking to each other on the other – German – side of the river.
Then I recalled the old Chinese story about the man who could hear the noise of the fish swimming in the river.