Tragedy requires some degree of complicity …

•October 24, 2021 • Leave a Comment
[Recent poem with a nice long title as first line. Maybe one for COP in Glasgow next month. Note: Tiresias was a blind seer in ancient Greece, a 'tanka' poem has five lines with 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. The pandemic painting is Magritte's 'The Lovers' 1928.]

Tragedy requires some degree of complicity on our part in the disaster that destroys us

Simon Critchley argues. Meanwhile back in what passes for reality, it’s 

Your zoom, or mine?
      What shall I wear today, smoke- or plague-mask?
            Shall I book my flight to New Zealand or Mars?
                   Note to self: check toilet rolls left
                       Book that eye-test with Tiresias
                             Write a tanka with a line missing −

how reassuring: 
this late-winter dawn, darkness 
lifting in cold-grey,
magpies still gurgled deep-throat   

The Last Return 43

•October 16, 2021 • Leave a Comment

[This is the final instalment of my travelogue The Last Return – Travel Notes on Memory and Mobility. If you’ve stuck it out this far, thank you and hope you’ve enjoyed the trip. Photo above of West Connex construction taken from hotel window, and of cyclical death-renewal, old-young eucalypts, two communicating trees in the vast Spaciousness of sky, taken in our vicinity here in the southern highlands 160km from Sydney.]

Saturday 1st June

Waking up in my body’s seventieth year on the planet in another Novotel hotel, near Sydney airport. Looking out the window, although it’s early morning Saturday, I am ‘watching and wondering at’ a very busy road and the construction of another 17 billion-dollar urban car disaster, the 33km West Connex motorway, another, grander connecting of the western suburbs and the east, CBD and airport, Australia’s largest infrastructure project.

The insane, destructive logic of this should be obvious to a five-year-old: more roads (even if underground), more cars, more noise, more emissions (even if underground), more respiratory and other diseases, more climate breakdown. Parts of my childhood suburb, Haberfield (originally an early twentieth-century ‘garden suburb’), will be sacrificed to the final Los-Angelisation of an increasingly unlivable Sydney and autogeddon. Here, as everywhere: unquestioned hyper-mobility, unquestioned growth, business as usual, collapse.

I think the wonderful Greta Thunberg and the Friday for Future kids have got it right: this is an unprecedented planetary emergency and everybody should down tools, stop work, go on strike.

In my old-school millenarian way, I would humbly suggest to strike not just passively and on one day a week in schools but actively and everywhere. Organise, sit down and discuss what to do, non-violently occupy the educational institutions, the media, production and distribution and begin the great public debate about how to democratically and justly re-organise society and the economy so that we can fairly transition to a socially just, resilient, low-carbon, lower-energy system that both eliminates poverty (e.g. by a Universal Basic Income unconnected to work) and, at the very least, avoids further global heating and ecocide and keeps the planet livable and civilization viable. The planet and we need a General Strike for Life.  

We walk to the nearest station, Wolli Creek, to catch the train home to Bundanoon using our seniors’ two-dollar-fifty Opal cards, a rare socialist feature provided to the electorally important class of baby boomers which should, short of free public transport, be extended to all. I’m surprised that this new precinct, although containing some high-rise, seems quite humane, with some green courtyards.

Recreational cyclists, joggers, mostly Asian, beautiful native trees (eucalypts, casuarinas, Morton Bay figs) in Cahill Park, thankfully regenerating mangroves at Cooks River, nine motionless seagulls sitting on the concrete edge of the water (I notice I’ve missed seagulls and their feisty reminder of ocean expanse and wildness). Everything is remarkably calm and peaceful in this Saturday-morning One World in Sydney. We get some breakfast at Shanghai Fried Dumplings and some vegetarian wraps and pastry from the Top Impressions café-bakery.

In the carriage a white working-class couple sits down opposite us, about our age. They are also home from overseas, managing suitcases like us. They have a Queensland Tangalooma Island Resort bag but talk of Bali or Fiji. He has bad teeth and a mouth tic. I wonder if his stress is occupation-related or perhaps PTSD (Vietnam vet?). An anxious Asian couple enters and roughly push past with a baby carriage. He, angrily: ‘They just barge through, they don’t care! They’re rude!’ His look seeks affirmation from us co-whites. He doesn’t get it, with B. only answering ‘They’re alright’. He sullenly withdraws. I guess this is the way our rocky road to One World is negotiated on a daily basis.

We arrive back home on our twenty permaculture acres in Bundanoon. It’s the first official day of ‘winter’. Gales have felled four acacias, an old neighbour has died. Walking the wealth of our orchard of 120 old apple varieties, embodied genetic memory from all over the world, some also from Germany and Russia, I, for some reason, look up.

Directly above me, a lone wedge-tailed eagle is slowly circling in the sky.

Somehow, its tremendous, calm, concentrated energy, its silent, contained yet uplifting power, seems to paradoxically embody the sky’s vast spaciousness.

We have returned.    

The Last Return 42

•October 15, 2021 • Leave a Comment

[Photo: the last glimpse of Germany/Europe, taken from Munich airport]

Thursday 30th May: MUC-SIN-SYD

Munich airport. Back in the real semi-virtual reality of globalised mobility, this strange, hi-energy, hi-tech, hi-cost world unrooted in place or time like the internet. Could be anywhere. The same-same luxury wares or duty-free bullshit winking at you like sirens or upmarket hookers, flitting travellers from anywhere pulling their roller-cases.

A late breakfast at an airport cafe provides a rich-world mobility vignette. Couple, late twenties, early thirties. He a parvenu-wealth-exuding, small-eyed German, she a younger, sexy ‘trophy’ girl of non-German, hard-to-place nationality, Melanie Trump type, still a little awkward with each other. Their conversation reveals they’re flying to Mallorca for a whole two days, back on Saturday, and then on to a friend’s house near Kitzbühl in the Austrian Alps. It’s going to be BBQs and watching football on TV, these being favourite German pastimes, as he explains.  

I’m thrilled to see two sparrows hopping on the ground cleaning up in Terminal 2: all power to these wily, adaptable generalists that have penetrated the antiseptic hi-tech fortress! I take a last shot from the grey metal-roof platform towards two distant, white church or abbey towers spotlit on the horizon.

Completely unremarkable, un- photogenic, but perhaps there’s more to it: my last glimpse of ‘Germany’, of ‘Europe’, is one where the postmodern foreground infrastructure of airport mass mobility cannot quite blot out the memory of premodern meaning-making. Memory and mobility, cathedrals and cars, the paradoxical, complex layering of premodern and modern/postmodern both ex- and internally, seem to have been the recurring theme of this Last Return.  

The plane lifts off, ascending through three very different horizontal planes from landscape to clouds to above the clouds. ‘Germany’, ‘Europe’ is now a memory, a narrative, a travel blog, no more. Ears are filled with the loud, windy sounds of kerosene burning us back to the other side of the planet inside our metal tube serving us up the distractions of regular food and drink, 600 TV shows, 290 movies, none of which I really feel any real need to watch.

Out the window, gleaming in the waning sun, I catch a glimpse of the western edge of the huge Black Sea. Only another nine and a half hours to Singapore. Drinking lots of water, stretching, sitting cross-legged, trying to keep the body resilient to this technological rape of its inherent biological rhythms…

Night, seven and a half hours from Munich, I look out the window to see, north of Mumbai, the awe-inspiring, endless jewelled patterns of India’s city lights spread out like Indra’s infinite net, that marvellous Hindu-Buddhist metaphor of our total interdependence in which each individual jewel mirrors all the others. Interdependent, I wonder how many thousands upon thousands of peasant farmers may be looking or dreaming up to our jet lights or scratchings in the sky, silently vowing to move to the city, find work, and join us middle-class consumers of the planet, exchange their low-footprint bare feet and flip-flops for the energy-intensive unsustainability of our rich-consumer jackboots.

This has always been the trajectory within industrialization and modernisation so far. Now it’s India and China’s turn, regaining the global economic ascendency they only lost as recently as two centuries ago.

The logical consequences of this fact are radical: our global rich- and middle-class levels of energy- and resource consumption cannot be generalized to everyone on the planet without destroying it. If this fossil-fuelled trajectory is not to be the final tipping point into the horrors of total climate and ecological breakdown and an unlivable planet, then these rural and urban poor (both inside and between nation states) must be helped to raise their living standards out of poverty by other means than fossil-fuel-driven economic growth.

These other means can, logically, only be a radical wealth re-distribution and ecologically sustainable technologies. ‘The rich must live more simply so that the poor can simply live’. The unsustainable consumption of the global rich 20% must go down (some say by 90%) so that the sustainable consumption of the global poor 80% can go up. There are various ways of achieving such outcomes.

At their current and expanding rates both long-haul and short flights are part of this rich-world unsustainable energy consumption.  We know that just one long-haul flight causes as many carbon emissions as people in dozens of low-income countries emit during a whole year. Oxfam has found that the richest 10% of people (that’s 770 million people, i.e. most of us reading this) produce 50% of the world’s carbon emissions, while the poorest 50% contribute just 10%. Rich households within countries also produce at least five times more emissions on average than poor households. One recent study found that jet-setting celebrities cause 10,000 times more flying emissions than the average person.  

Would a rational, socially just and ecologically sustainable system mean no more international travel and all its many benefits? Of course not. I could envisage a combination of low-energy technological innovations (e.g. postmodern airships, hi-tech sailing ships, hi-speed rail) and democratically decided quotas or equitable rationing of allowable carbon emissions per person (e.g. perhaps two or three long-haul flights a lifetime).

Most of us world-consuming global middle-class are complicit in this. I personally have had eight return flights Australia-Germany, one single long-haul flight Germany-Australia, and two long-distance flights within Australia over my lifetime, all together producing, just for myself, a massive 150 tonnes of CO2. My car driving probably adds another 17 tonnes or so every year, which could add up to about 850 tonnes over fifty years, making the total climate cost of my fossil-fuelled, middle-class mobility about 1000 tonnes of CO2 so far. The fossil-fuel energy embodied in the household electricity and gas, food, clothes, material, cement I’ve used must also be added to my total carbon footprint.

Let’s put this into a global perspective. The global average carbon footprint in 2007 was around 5.7 tons CO2e/per person. The EU average for this time was about 13.8 tons CO2e/cap, whereas for the US and Australia it was over 25 tons CO2e/per person. The footprints per capita of countries in Africa, India and other low-income countries were well below average.

To set these numbers into context, assuming a global population of around 9-10 billion by 2050 a carbon footprint of about 2 – 2.5 tons CO2e per person is needed to stay within a 2 °C target, less to stay within a safer (or less disastrous) 1.5 degree target. So average European carbon footprints are at least seven times above the ‘safe’ level, while Australian and US carbon footprints are at least twelve times above the ‘safe’ level.

By what right have I had this privilege over perhaps 80-90% of the rest of humanity? Like it or not, I am the beneficiary of a capitalist global system that is structured so as to channel over 80% of energy and resources to perhaps 20% of humanity, leaving 80% of humanity to survive on the remaining 20%.

We all know, at some level of our consciousness, that this deeply unjust system is now driving climatic, ecological and civilisational breakdown. These deep inequalities are the rational basis of my ‘flygskam’, my personal ‘flight shame’.

The plane is flying over Australia. Visibly the oldest continent, Mars-like, brown, red, rocky, dry, its disappeared snakes of water visible in the flutings, ridgings, meanders they left behind millions of years ago. Now climate shift and breakdown is adding its added rhythm of desertification to this soil-impoverished, driest inhabited continent. How livable will even the populated fire-triangle of south-east Australia remain in the coming fire-storm Pyrocene?

To keep mentally and psychosomatically oriented in time and space, I keep one eye peeled on the flight information screen tracking the plane’s progress across the seas and continents. Suddenly, the shock of realisation: as the landscape and its human namings moves and rotates, the little white plane itself in the centre is utterly still, motionless!

It’s like sitting in a car looking forward through the windscreen, seeing the road and landscape rushing towards and past you at great speed while ‘you’, at your first-person point of observation, is not moving at all, is utterly calm.

I realise another, deeper, seemingly paradoxical, level of this Last Return. Travelling across the world to Europe and back, this last journey to ancestral Germany and Belarus and its many rich, sometimes uncanny and synchronistic, experiences – all have occurred while I, the first-person I that calmly observes everything including my changing, active body, third-person ‘personality’ (‘he’) or ‘self’ (‘me’), has throughout all this activity remained completely still, gone Nowhere, its only Home. Here’s a little triolet poem I tried to write about this:

I am not the me or he

I am not the me or he

that struts the stage of every day

I am the I where they can be

I am not the me or he

No-thing out there for you to see

no object, subject in the Way

I am not the me or he

that struts the stage of every day

Another favourite poet, Walt Whitman, has also memorably expressed this first-person I-am in his ‘Song of Myself’:

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,

Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,

Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,

Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,

Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it. […]

Today, the 31st May 2019, is the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth. Tomorrow is the 70th birthday of the person writing this, ‘both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it …’

The Last Return 41

•October 12, 2021 • Leave a Comment

[Photos: the ‘real’ non-picture-postcard Germany – outskirts of Hallstadt on the way to the Ertl strip-mall, at the mall (carpark and pop-art poster below says ‘I’m going to Ertl and getting something for my headache’), AfD poster for European elections].

Tuesday 28th May (Continued)

Driving back from Ebrach and the Steigerwald, I catch, with a slight sense of shock, the flipside shadow of this rural idyll: a sign at the entrance to a village saying ‘Migration tötet’ (migration kills).

This seems like another human ambiguity and historical dialectic: the rural and semi-rural ‘backwoods’ in industrialised countries, often aesthetically beautiful, are often also the seat of ‘rural idiocy’ (Marx), a fearful, often xenophobic, form of premodern and conservative (but seldom conservationist) thinking, while the capital-dominated, aesthetically often brutalist, modern and postmodern cities are not only more humanly fragmented, anonymous and alienated but also more cosmopolitan, tolerant and creatively open to high human diversity and constant change. Rural gentrification may then bring not only rising real-estate values, increasing wealth disparities and suburban uglyfication but also some of that possible urban openness and creativity to the countryside.

But, beware Theory I tell myself: sociological generalisations like this can too easily slip into stereotypes that never do justice to the unique, complex individual human being that can never be put into any neat and tidy box. ..

Back in Hallstadt in the afternoon, I decide, as a conscious contrast to our excursion to the premodern and natural beauties of Ebrach and the Steigerwald, to take a long walk from Seebachstrasse to the huge Ertl strip-mall and retail precinct on the edge of town. In a kind of ambulatory summary of our trip to Germany and Belarus, I want to see what it feels like to move from the premodern and natural to the postmodern and artificial. The fact that I am walking and not driving there is I guess already a kind of premodern statement quietly interrogating the postmodern fetish of hyper-mobility, one of the themes that has crystallised during this Last Return.

An overcast, grey day. Past the last houses, it’s high-voltage powerlines and open weedy wastelands waiting for inevitable construction. The footpath soon ends and I am forced onto narrow roadside verges keeping a watchful eye out for the many cars whizzing up from behind, then under and along a raised railway track for freight trains. Unlike with trucks, there’s something both sad and exhilarating about freight trains.

At the Leicht machine factory, the first European election poster I see for the anti-migrant, extreme-right-populist party AfD (Aktion für Deutschland): large photo of the neat-and-respectable male candidate wearing a tie, slogans appealing to nationalism/patriotism and populist ‘freedom’: ‘Für ein Europa der Bürger, Aus Liebe zu Deutschland Freiheit statt Brüssel’ (For a Europe of Citizens; Out of Love for Germany, Freedom instead of Brussels). Probably no coincidence it’s been placed outside the factory. Before the mall complex, a few remaining wheat fields edge the autobahn.

At the mall, the carpark is the main feature. No cars, no greenfield mall. Then the few words, all ‘cool’ and English, global lingua franca of consumerism. Similarly, pop-art, in its Warholian form always linked to marketing, comes full circle: Roy Lichtenstein-type comic art is used to sell the mall. Warhol would be pleased.

Inside, first impression is the food-and-coffee cocoon again, the warm, softly-lit, temporary consumerist refuge from our lives dominated by consumerism that precedes the brightly-lit chain stores of uniformity mostly selling clothes and shoes made with the cheap global labour of exploited workers also seeking escape from poverty and entry into this shiny world of material abundance and promise. Here the consumers are also mostly workers on the other end of global supply chains, a few in hijabs pushing prams.

Then that mall paradox: you immediately feel, amidst the plenitude of all this glittering stuff, a certain agitated hollowness or emptiness. It seems similar to the feeling you get from the purchase and consumption of non-essential commodities in general, those image-dominated icons of which the Mall is the great temple: a temporary excitement followed by emptiness and another marketing-driven cycle of buying, consumption and unfulfillment. No wonder the Stones’ ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’ was such a hit.


The Last Return 40

•October 11, 2021 • Leave a Comment

[Top photos: art work on old prison doors by young inmates at Ebrach youth detention facility, the old abbey orchard/garden wall with perfect placement of door, tree and bench. Bottom photos: ‘wabi sabi’ buildings around Ebrach village, banner reads ‘Conserve Beauty – only in a National Park’, beech forest near Ebrach, cereal field with insect-friendly wildflower verge to road]

Tuesday 28th May (Continued)

The impressive Baroque abbey buildings were turned into a prison in 1851, and since 1958 this has been a youth detention facility. In the courtyard there is a ‘Kunst & Knast’ (Art and Clink) exhibition of inmates’ artwork called ‘Geschlossene Gesellschaft’ (pun: ‘Private Gathering/Locked-up Society’): old prison doors have been painted over with their own words – ‘Where were you?’ Kunst & Knast = ‘Kunst-Koffer-Kaffee-Kiffen’ (Art-Suitcase-Coffee-Dopesmoking), ‘Pension’ (Guesthouse), ‘Gitterblick’ (View through Bars), ‘Ebrach: das Grab meiner Jugend’ (Ebrach: The Grave of my Youth).

How fitting this juxtaposition of ex-abbey modern prison and premodern cathedral, of high culture and human suffering, a sudden reminder of the usually hidden class, gender and/or racial oppressions embedded in the very foundations of all the great monuments, pyramids, museums, works of art, that fatal dialectic of all civilizations that Walter Benjamin so succinctly formulated: ‘There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’

By contrast, there is a feeling of great well-being as we walk through the walled abbey garden, a true old ‘hortus conclusus’. The feeling is a little unexpected because the garden is not in any way a biodiverse ‘Streuobstwiesen’ humming with insects as we saw in the Wetterau (which may contain an astounding 5000 faunal species) but consists only of a lawn and a few remnant fruit trees evenly spaced, neatly pruned, whitewashed stems.

Somehow, it’s the old wall itself, that ‘wabi-sabi’ patina of age, the sense of security and warmth, the old tree and bench next to the one door all perfectly placed … A simple door, yet somehow utterly mysterious. I’m reminded of T.S. Eliot’s passage from the beginning of his beautiful Four Quartets (one of my favourite long poems), although his door leads, again, into a rose-garden: ‘Footfalls echo in the memory/Down the passage which we did not take/Towards the door we never opened/Into the rose-garden.’

The rain sets in, and we drive on to the nearby Steigerwaldzentrum, a public forest education centre within the famous Steigerwald forest itself. Pedagogically well-made exhibits, including for kids, re the history of the original primeval mixed deciduous (beech, oak) forest in the waxing and waning stages of its ancient and medieval settlement, the importance of ecologically informed sustainable forestry.

At the counter I discover and buy eco-forester Ulrich Mergner’s book ‘Das Trittsteinkonzept’ (The Stepping Stone Concept) and learn of German eco-forestry’s shift from ‘ecological management’ (thinning out ‘defective’ trees etc) to leaving at least 10% unmanaged and connecting up these islands (or ‘stepping stones’) of wild self-regulation throughout the larger forest also being managed for some timber production. Unmanaged forest means some damaged, ‘second-rate’ or ‘defective’ trees, old and gnarly ‘misfits’, and it is precisely these that harbour much higher faunal biodiversity than even selectively thinned and ecologically managed forests (not to mention the ecological deserts of industrially managed, monocultural tree plantations).

I now look at my own remnant patch of ecologically endangered Southern Highlands Shale Woodland with quite different eyes, not thinning out ‘second-rate’ trees and happy about every bracket fungus, mistletoe, broken-off branch, heap of rotting old wood or stag. The Taoist wisdom of wu-wei (non-action) and ‘going-with-the-flow’… Of course, as a blanket dogma, this becomes wrong again: Australian fire ecology and management also necessitates a certain amount of gentle fuel load reduction…such are the complex ecological balances and trade-offs we have to constantly navigate as stewards of the land…).

All such ecological policy is of course always socially hotly contested all over the world. As we later walk through the village of Ebrach with its beautiful old houses and trees, we see various banners and signs on houses expressing these conflicts. One camp seems to want a valuable old-growth section of the Steigerwald declared a completely protected National Park, also attracting ‘eco-tourism’, while the other camp wants it left as a ‘Naturpark’ (Nature Reserve) allowing for forestry and ‘wise use’.

And of course, words are weapons, and as long as the radical social, economic and psycho-spiritual implications of the limits to growth and consumerism are not honestly faced on all sides, the buzzwords used in these conflicts can simply be euphemisms for business-as-usual: ‘eco-tourism’ can mask unsustainable realities and ‘wise use’ just mean more unsustainable extractivism.

Like the old stone wall around the abbey garden, the houses and barns have the wonderful wabi-sabi patina of the simple, old and ‘rustic’, a few modern buildings not brutalist or instagrammably garish but sensitively adapted to this traditional aesthetic in their designs.  

We then walk through the beech-dominated mixed forest near the village. It’s the first time I feel really ‘in nature’ on this trip, a deep stillness and ‘forest bathing’ far from the constant background hum of our much-overdeveloped infrastructure of mobility, the roads and autobahns and train tracks and flight paths, so present almost everywhere in Germany. Grey, slightly drizzly skies, and we breathe in the subtle life of the pure forest air free of the toxic fine particles our vehicles and wood fires emit. Not only our liberated lungs widen.

Beech trees are one of my favourite trees for some reason. Premodern Europe of course may still lurk in our minds somewhere when we look at them, and as I feel a strong affinity to both books and the Norse/Germanic god Odin (a god also of inspiration and poets and whom the Romans identified with Mercury), perhaps it’s not irrelevant to know that the word ‘book’ itself (German: ‘Buch’), actually comes, like ‘Buchstabe’ (letter, literally ‘beech stave or stick’ = on which runes were carved), from ‘Buche’ (beech), and that in order to ‘find’ or decipher the first runes or letters hidden in the tree trunks Odin self-sacrificed himself for nine days and nights by hanging himself on the World Tree. Premodern folklore also ascribed a high sensitivity to beech trees: prayers uttered under them would go straight to heaven, while any foul language would elicit a protesting leaf rustle or even a branch falling onto the person cursing.

The Last Return 39

•October 9, 2021 • 2 Comments

[Top photos Ebrach Abbey: contrast between Early-Gothic ‘Church militant’ simplicity and Late-Gothic and Baroque wealth. Bottom photos show details of the intense devotionalism in Baroque paintings inside the cathedral.]

Tuesday 28th May

Early morning in our attic bedroom (originally that of our hosts’ son), I find a mirror behind the bedroom door to shave in, and then next to it an image and text: a golden fish is swimming against a current of shadowy fish, the text underneath saying ‘Zu den Quellen gelangt man gegen den Strom’ (You get to the springs/source (by swimming against) against the current).

Again, I choose to interpret this as another small synchronicity: if one’s ‘source’ or ‘spring’ is also one’s biographic and genetic origins, then going back to them or seeking them, as in this last return to Germany and Belarus, is also a going back in space-time and into the past, a temporary ‘swimming’ against both the shallow, busy present-without-a-past and the merciless current of the material universe that we call the arrow of time and that leads only to dissolution, death, entropy.

As I’ve expressed a wish to perhaps see another of the old cathedrals or abbeys dotting the Franconian countryside before our departure (I had researched them a bit before leaving Australia), our hosts A. and L. have kindly offered to drive us out west of Bamberg to the Steigerwald forest and the cathedral of Ebrach, a former Cistercian abbey church founded in 1127 by monks from France.

To get to the premodern, however, you have to submit to the ambiguous conveniences of the postmodern: L. drives us along the autobahn at tense, breakneck speed always above 125-130 km/h. The maximum speed on motorways in Australia is 110 km/h, which also saves on fuel and emissions, but in total car-land Germany (with Hitler of course the inventor of the autobahn and the Peoples Car, the VW) even the ’Red-Green’ government of 1998-2005 could not dare to set a speed limit for fear of a popular insurrection. As Ivan Illich pointed out in the 1970s, higher speeds of course mean more congestion, and thus, in the end over the whole life-cycle of a car, lower speeds. In Germany this can now be empirically experienced.

On this trip to Ebrach the car radio is automatically programmed to deliver an hourly congestion report, with traffic jams routinely reported as 3 to 7km long, with waiting time of 30 minutes or more. (Some drivers then calculate whether it’s worth their while to wait out the jam or else take various backroads, which then spreads out the air and noise pollution over a wider area). All this this seems the reductio ad absurdum, the total self-defeat, of the whole system of hyper-mobility consumption: total hyper-mobility leads, in the end, to total immobility. In some cities, it is of course now faster to walk.

In Germany, as elsewhere, ‘Autogeddon’ seems to have arrived. It seems that, here as elsewhere, many little individual conveniences and freedoms offered us by market capitalism lead to collective bondage and ecological collapse, another form of market capitalism’s proverbial ‘private wealth, public squalor’.

Ebrach cathedral, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, St Nicholas and St John the Evangelist, has the usual historical layerings clearly visible in its structural and decorative features, ex- and internal differences. This was the first Cistercian monastery east of the Rhine, engaging in viticulture, sheep grazing, pond aquaculture and forestry, and becoming one of the wealthiest landowners in Franconia, at one time owning over 700 properties. Ironically, the Cistercian order was initially a reform order of the Benedictine order, wanting to return to the original voluntary poverty prescribed by Benedict’s ‘ora et labora’ (prayer and work). It became one of the main economic developers of Germany. Like many monasteries all over the world, including Buddhist ones, money and power eroded and perverted its initial impetus of voluntary poverty and mindful simpler living. This development is mirrored in the layers of the cathedral’s architecture.

The twelfth-century Late-Romanesque/Early-Gothic St Michael’s chapel still seems to speak of the small and simple ‘church militant’ converting the local pagans and also has an unpretentious, small circular rose window with plain glass almost like a porthole in an embattled warship. The thirteenth-century High-Gothic main section, in contrast, has a large replica rose window with some coloured glass inspired by that of Notre Dame, an impressive over-7m mandala centring the contemplative viewer into its central point from his/her own busy surface/circumference. The rose is of course a complex symbol of unity-of-opposites in the west, with the Christian rose (and lily) perhaps paralleling to some extent the symbolism of the lotus in the east.

The third historical layer on top of this late-premodern is the seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Baroque/Rococo inside the cathedral and in the stately abbey buildings: here both the abbey’s wealth and the psycho-social crisis of the seventeenth century and the Early-Modern are all there in the ornate white fake-marble stucco, the depictions of intense devotion, the angelic multitudes, the glaring spotlight on Christ’s suffering body against dark backgrounds, all the open mouths and eyes imploringly turned heavenwards or towards the passion of the suffering Christ.

It is like one last fling of intense religious longing seeking to dam up all the doubt surfacing in post-medieval modernity, the mad religious wars of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the devastating Thirty-Years War, the Scientific Revolution: the abbey was burned down in the Peasants War of 1525 causing the monks to flee, the Swedish army occupied it in the Thirty Years War 1630-34 (the abbot having to flee to Cologne), the Napoleonic army finally occupying it and abolishing the abbey in 1803, the town of Ebrach itself then being founded as an independent market town with the cathedral as its parish church.

The Last Return 38

•October 7, 2021 • Leave a Comment

[Top photos: the reliquary of a ‘true nail’ from the Cross in the Bamberg Cathedral, and beneath a Tilman Riemenschneider relief on the tomb of King Henry and Queen Kunigunde showing Kunigunde’s trial of walking across hot irons to prove her innocence of infidelity; bottom photo a detail on door at the seventeenth-century Residenz]

Monday 27th May

Waking up in Hallstadt, the stillness of mornings in Belarus and even the Westend is a only a memory as it’s back to the constant background noise of cars and trains, and looking out the window, the scratched skies of many jet contrails, also such a feature in the skies of Frankfurt. The intense, overdeveloped hyper-mobility of the Anthropocene, a key feature of our climate crisis, is not a theoretical abstraction: here we can all quite empirically, sensuously, hear, see and feel all this.

We catch a bus into Bamberg: it’s a last walk around the old town, and B. also has to sign the official documents giving up her family grave in the town cemetery. The grave, now too costly to maintain from distant Australia, contains nine family members, and will not be added to. B. has made arrangements for its inscribed cross and crucifix to be transferred to the grounds of a nearby monastery. At the cemetery we notice many other now empty gravesites.

I peek over the wall to the adjoining large Jewish cemetery; it’s full of shiny black headstones, and I can’t see any empty gravesites; two workers speaking Polish or Russian are busy among the gravestones. We make a last visit to Kesslerstrasse and its Holocaust ‘stumble stones’ where we first stayed, the central ‘Gabelma’ fountain and at the open market buy some last white asparagus and strawberries for our evening meal.

We decide to visit the Dom for the last time, the spiritual centre of premodern Bamberg. There are less tourists this time but the cathedral is still being loudly renovated. Inside I now discover the Nagelkapelle, the Chapel of the Holy Nail. Signposted as meant for silent prayer rather than tourist visiting, we have it to ourselves, and finally the silence is there, thick as water. There is a reliquary supposedly containing a nail from the cross of Christ’s crucifixion, a belief that only arose, like the more extensive cult of the Virgin Mary, in the turbulent fourteenth century, the gradual ending of the medieval period amid famine, plague, war, loss of Church authority.

I guess most times of crisis, turbulence and transition, like ours today as well, provide ample conditions for the simple premodern certainties of hysterical cults and their magic thinking, some concrete fetish or authoritarian ‘big man’ to worship and/or paranoid projections such as in anti-Semitism, wacko conspiracy theories (elite paedophile rings, elites as alien lizards, microchip vaccines etc), Q-Anon.   

In a far corner on the other side of the cathedral we discover a small unmarked door; opening it, we enter a cave-like vaulted chamber containing the crowned skulls of King Heinrich and Queen Kunigunde, the early eleventh-century founders of the original cathedral. It all feels pretty archaic. At the other end of the cathedral their large marble tomb of 1513 is decorated with a frieze by Tilman Riemenschneider depicting one of the popular soap-opera stories around the couple: Kunigunde was accused of infidelity and had to prove her innocence by the painful trial of walking across fiery hot irons without getting burned, a feat (no pun intended) she of course successfully accomplished (unlike many women later accused of witchcraft).

Now, a thousand years later, her chubby, very maternal figure is still a recurring phenomenon in Bamberg, her statue for example also casting a benevolent eye on the young people hanging out, listening to music and drinking beer on the lower bridge over the Regnitz. A popular Franconian rhyme about her is ‘Kunigund, dei Arsch is rund’ (Kunigunde, your arse is round).

We move on across the cathedral square to the Rose Garden, part of the seventeenth-century Residenz, the huge prince-archbishop’s residence and admin building. The Rose Garden is an eighteenth-century addition, now with over 4000 rosebushes of 50 varieties, all tight Enlightenment order neatly box-hedged and focussed on a central fountain with clipped linden trees. Lots of garden labour needed here to please the originally only aristocratic eyes. In the café, a Rococo pavilion, we indulge in coffee and the usual fine strawberry torte. I guess this kind of layered cultural ambience expresses the history-rich Europe I love. 

Here the first red and white roses are blooming, the old Yin-Yang polarity also present in the seasonal white asparagus and fresh strawberries we have often been enjoying here, the competing colours of the Russian Civil War and also the traditional colours of Belarus. According to J.C. Cooper’s Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, red and white rose together may symbolize the union of fire and water, the union of opposites, Christ’s Passion and Mary’s Purity, and, as in the St Nicholas Convent at Mogilev too, the Rose Garden is a Paradise symbol and the place of mystic marriage, the union of opposites.

Speaking of which, that night I have quite ‘archetypal’ dreams of young lovers looking quite like the wonderful Adam and Eve figures over one portico of Bamberg cathedral but we (for my wife and I are involved in the love-making) are all in ‘Russia’. It seems the German and the Russian, maternal and paternal, female and male psychic elements have been unified, fused, renewed. At the same time there is a nocturnal shift in the weather: rejuvenating rain smatters our attic bedroom window.

In the morning I had also received a reminder email from the airport hotel we had booked in Sydney for our return on the night of my 70th birthday. The hotel had changed its name from Mercure to Novotel. In another wild interpretation I see this as a symbolic shift from Mercury, my ambiguous Gemini-god of travel and crossroads, to the novel, the new, to renewal. ‘No symbols where none intended’ (Samuel Beckett).

The Last Return 37

•October 4, 2021 • 2 Comments

[Top photo sky in Frankfurt scratched with jet contrails, the main contribution of aviation towards increasing global heating. Second photo a sticker in Frankfurt Westend saying ‘His country exports cereals that feed the animals for your steak.’ Bottom photo the view from our attic bedroom in Hallstadt and a neighbouring front yard in Seebachstrasse in Hallstadt].

Sunday 26th May

I accompany T. to cast her vote in the European elections in the secondary school almost opposite her residence. Usually of no great interest, now, perhaps due to concerns about the resurgent right, voter turnout is the highest ever in Germany, rising from 48 to 61%. The right-wing populist AfD increases its vote by 4% but is kept to 11%, coming at the expense of the mainstream centre-right and centre-left parties (minus 6.5% and 11.4% respectively), while the Greens greatly increase their vote by 10% to over 20%. In these less ‘bread-and-butter’ elections the right-wing populists are the strongest parties in Great Britain (Brexit Party 32%, Labour 14%, Greens 11%), Italy (Lega 34%), France (RN 23%, Greens 13.5%) and Poland (45.6%, pro-Europe 38.5%).

While, in my view, the passive political consumerism of mere voting and elections can never result in the deep system-change needed for more democratic, participatory, egalitarian and ecologically sustainable societies, voting patterns may sometimes provide interesting indications of certain shifts in average mass consciousness within the system of business-as-usual.

After voting, we again wander through the Westend streets on our way to a Thai restaurant for lunch. Again, I’m struck by both the beauty and stillness, right here in the middle of Frankfurt. Mature trees, old elegant buildings, less car traffic, although it is Sunday of course. I can’t help feeling that urban beauty and stillness should not be cornered by the rich and powerful but should be a human right for all, a core criterion of a more socially just and ecologically sane society. As the old anarchists used to demand: Bread and roses for all. However, what even the rich and powerful cannot corner is clean air. Their mostly black 50,000-euro cars lining the Westend streets are this quiet Sunday morning covered in a thin layer of fine dust.

I farewell T. at the Hauptbahnhof and take the Reggio train back to Bamberg. I meet up again with B. in Hallstadt, her now ‘developed’ and ‘modernised’ hometown of about 8,700 people on the Main river about 4 km north of the old town centre of Bamberg. The town has the usual deep historical layers now mostly invisible under its dominant postmodern veneer of three factories, concrete and autobahns: seven thousand years ago a site of Neolithic peasants, around 800 CE one of Charlemagne’s court sites including a still extant church intended to help convert the local Slavs, destruction by Czech Hussite rebels in 1430 and then again in 1633 in the Thirty Years War, the plague rages in 1630, 53 women killed in witch trials 1618, several occupations by Frederick the Great’s  Prussian army in the mid-eighteenth century.

We are staying as guests in the house next door to what was her mother’s house, three storeys once shared between members of the extended family. The street is called Seebachstrasse (Lake-Stream Street), i.e. the small lake and its surrounding heathland is now the site of factories and there once was a stream flowing along here, then piped and put underground in the 1970s. This is the period of rapid growth and development when the then federal transport minister pledged that no German town would be further than 20km from an autobahn (a popular, auto-delerious goal that seems almost achieved), and also when these houses were also built, all cold concrete, tile and frosted windows.

The new ‘ecosystem’ replacing heath and stream in Seebachstrasse and Hallstadt is perhaps encapsulated in all its arid surrealism in a neighbouring front yard: a plastic pond embedded in a gravel wasteland, and looking at it in eternal consternation are a metal heron and a ceramic frog with a crown on its head no doubt waiting for that proverbial princess – an eco-cultural revolution − to break the spell of ‘progress’ and kiss it back into a prince.  

The houses with their three apartments are kept locked. We’re told this is because, as the police tell them, ‘we’re only one minute from the autobahn and one hour from the Czech Republic, an ideal situation for Czech thieves.’ Is there a feint historical memory of the destructive Hussite rebels of 1430 perhaps? In any case, welcome to the new Europe and its national wealth disparities; it seems without their radical reduction, no chance of ‘One Europe for All’ (and ditto for global wealth disparities if we are to ever realise the cooperative One World we need to solve our great global crises).  

The Last Return 36

•September 30, 2021 • 1 Comment

[Top photos Frankfurt’s ‘twin towers’ of self-reflective finance Capital edging the Westend district, and Clara Schumann’s house in the Westend; bottom photos in Frankfurt’s lovely Botanic Gardens with the ‘meadows for insects’ sign].

Saturday 25th May

Another beautiful sunny day. We walk through the Westend on our way to the Botanic Gardens next to the Palmengarten. In Myliusstrasse we pass by Clara Schumann’s mid-nineteenth-century house – I wonder if this is where she both composed her underrated music, assisted her troubled and more famous husband Robert in his compositions and most probably had an affair with Brahms, seventeen years her junior? Nearby Friedrichstrasse is almost dark with the density of mature linden trees shading these elegant old Gründerzeit buildings, and I’m not surprised when T. tells me it is one of the most sought-after residential streets in Frankfurt.

In the Botanic Gardens there is a small signpost saying ‘meadows for insects’ (perhaps German insects are literate) and we stand by a large pool heaving with millions of fat tadpoles and floating, loudly croaking frogs, some attempting copulation. So good to see nature still so strongly there in its fecund spring randyness.

Looking at these frogs, you can’t help but feel that so much of nature would simply bounce back resiliently if we just stopped our mad over-exploitation and just got out of her way. This would be part of our wise ‘Human Age’ (Anthropocene) rather than the present capitalist business-as-usual one which is taking us ever closer to the abyss of ecological and thus civilisational collapse.

In the afternoon I treat myself to an expensive piece of raspberry torte and a cappuccino (9 euros) in the Café Laumer in Bockenheimer Landstrasse. There is only mild traffic and it is so pleasant to sit in a slight breeze and the welcome shade of the chestnut trees, watch people, write these notes.

And then there is the historical, nostalgic aspect: Café Laumer was the café of choice for the Frankfurt School and the university’s leftist intellectuals of the 1960s and 70s, now a long-gone era engaging in both different and the same debates, debates that still counted on a late-industrial, however transformed, working class, that still saw themselves as part of a, however modified, free, anti-authoritarian socialist tradition, ‘Western Marxism’ or Kritische Theorie (Critical Theory). Some called Café Laumer ‘Café Adorno’, after the leading figure of the Frankfurt School (besides Horkheimer, Marcuse, Fromm).

With these thoughts in mind, I then walk down to Kettenhofweg 123 to pay my last respects to one of my cherished intellectual ‘mentors of the book’, T.W. Adorno himself. This is where he and his wife Gretel lived in an apartment from his return to Germany from Nazi-induced exile in the US in 1949 until his death in 1969.

On the way I wonder what role, if any, a Critical Theory in the Frankfurt School tradition may have now in our twenty-first century deep evolutionary crisis and Anthropocene. The role of the old Marxist transformational agent or ‘historical subject’, the working class, had already been questioned by the Frankfurt School itself after the catastrophes of Stalinism, the Nazi Holocaust and new post-war affluence and consumerism.

Rather than any one class, could this transformational agent perhaps now be a newly globalised humanity itself? It’s a long arduous way to humanity’s self-realisation as a consciously global civilization, as One World on One Planet. How many catastrophes do we need before we finally realise this as a species, I wonder?

Adorno’s whole philosophy was premised on total working-class defeat and the trauma of the Holocaust, and still speaks to many of us today. But, despite its radical post-Marxian critique of industrial capitalism’s ‘instrumental reason’ and its domination of nature, it could, of course, not yet incorporate its horrendous specifications as global ecocide and climate chaos. His philosophical aesthetics was focussed on the modernist revolution and could not yet know of postmodern cultural self-dissolution or the ambiguous ‘global mind’ of the culture industry and now the internet. Second- and third-generation Critical Theory (Habermas, Honneth) takes it in new directions, providing welcome critiques of vulgar postmodernism but also seems to largely ignore the deep social, philosophical and spiritual ramifications of galloping ecocide.

At Kettenhofweg 123 I am standing looking up at a small memorial frieze of Adorno when a little girl, who obviously lives in the building, looks up at me in surprise, wondering at this stranger’s presence there. In the mesh of these reciprocal gazes, I wonder what the hotter, more chaotic world will look like when she is old enough to understand who Adorno was and what this stranger might have been doing there all those years ago looking up at his memorial plaque.

In the evening T. has invited me along with an old female friend of hers to go to the national Grand Poetry Slam in the Opera House, about a ten-minute walk from her seniors’ residence. The last time I was inside there was almost forty years ago, a Frank Zappa rock concert, my wife heavily pregnant and wary of the possible effects of the loud music on the developing baby. It is a full house, about 2400 people.

The featured French-Algerian rapper-poet, who speaks some German, is brilliant, the German contestants and MCs less so. The two MCs talk in high-speed ‘cool’ jargon, their jokes seem forced and don’t raise much response or laughter. The four male and two female performance poets produce some good word-art jokes and rhymes, but the women seem to have little sense of build and timing while the men, by forcing syntax into rhyme schemes, often sound almost like the clunky traditional doggerel popular at most ‘uncool’ German Carnival/Fasching events.

The whole competitive nature of the poetry event seems suspect to me, and audience acclamation quantity as a criterion fraught with danger. There was certainly no Kate Tempest among these young poets. In the interval I seek and find the French-Algerian poet among the crowd at the bar and congratulate him warmly on his performance, which, to my surprise, he genuinely seems to appreciate. Maybe he’s not too used to accolades from septuagenarians?

The Last Return 35

•September 28, 2021 • 2 Comments

[Top photo a last shot on the way to Minsk in Belarus, second photo a street in Frankfurt Westend. Bottom photos the view from the guest room of the seniors’ residence in the Westend and a heat-/water-stressed linden tree].

Friday 24th May

O. has prepared a lovely Russian breakfast of bliny pancakes with sour cream. As a farewell gift, V. presents us with his USB containing videos and photos of our journey together and says he will send the link to the Mogilev TV news program if and when it broadcasts our interview in the museum.

Driving to the airport, we again pass the President’s compound, and this time there are several men scything in the same field near a horse decked out in an old Russian-style high wooden collar-harness. Maybe they’re making a PR movie of the President. In any case, the area is now crawling with black security cars and soldiers checking along the road for explosives. We joke that perhaps the commanding officer might put out a few empty boxes along the road just to check if his bored soldiers are really checking or just going through the motions …

Driving through a village, I see two storks flying over a field and then a stork’s nest on a high pole which seems to contain hatchlings. Now rare in Germany, storks are also one of the ubiquitous national emblems of Belarus. Can we venture another ‘synchronistic’ interpretation of these avian ‘coincidences’, perhaps almost in the premodern spirit of ‘omens’? First two circling eagles on approaching Veremeiki, then two spring cuckoos in Veremeiki and Lachi, now two storks while leaving Belarus: first the soaring symbols of nobility, the spiritual, predation, war, then of both spring and parasitism, and now the avian ‘bringers of babies’, new life, of spring and renewal. Has this been the beginning and the end of the trajectory of our journey, our last return?

The plane lifts off at Minsk International. I look out. I will never see this land again. Yet now, even should I go blind, it is with me, in me, as memory, ‘pamyat’, as the feel and smell of its soil, its forests, waters, churches, houses and huts, museums, food, people, as a multitude of sometimes dream-like images. No matter how verbally attenuated or reprocessed, our discoveries and stories will hopefully pass on some of all this to our grandsons as they grow up in far-off Australia, and the world heats.  

This time the flight is directly back to Frankfurt. S. is flying on to visit a friend in Zurich, I am staying in Frankfurt a few days with an old friend in a guest room in her Seniorenwohnanlage (Seniors’ Residence) in the Westend. The latter is a low-cost self-care place built by the Protestant church in the 1970s to counter old- age loneliness. I last saw T. sixteen years ago. In her one-bedroom apartment she has, to my surprise, kindly prepared a Jewish poppy seed bagel with a salad of tomato, basil and mozzarella, a meal which may be served on Fridays before Jewish sabbath. I tell her I’ve very recently learned that I may have a small 6% Jewish DNA, a total surprise to me, whereupon she surprises me by saying she always thought ‘I knew she knew I had Jewish ancestry’. (T. teaches yoga, and believes in knowing her past lives and psychic powers).

In the evening we walk in the beautifully empty nearby Palmengarten, now breathing a warm summer evening’s stillness, the plants much more present than in harsh daylight, each standing out in its own special form, beauty, being, preparing for the night. I smell the roses, feel the smoothness of the bamboo. Everywhere various kinds of geese roam around, including the alien Nile geese, their young goslings chipping at the grass, no doubt out-competing native species.

T. is 73 and still works as a yoga teacher because her pension is only c. 600 euros a month, not enough to get by on. She says she is lucky she got into the Protestant church-subsidised seniors’ residence meant for those on a low-income, paying only 350 euros a month rent in the Westend where a four-room apartment can cost 1.2 million to buy or 1500 euros a month to rent. Obviously there is still significant gender discrimination and social injustice even in the German welfare state. A divorced single mother, she has worked lower-income and part-time jobs all her life, working as a secretary for the construction company building Frankfurt’s underground train system in the 1970s. The company had wanted to cut down all the beautiful old horse-chestnut trees along the Bockenheimer Landstrasse, the avenue through the Westend to the university, but she had protested and won the argument.

The Westend and its beautiful bourgeois Gründerzeit buildings were the site of radical sponti-student-led protest against gentrifying development in the early 1970s with house occupations by students and some migrant workers and street-fighting resistance against attempted police evictions. At least the bank skyscrapers were kept out of the core Westend itself. Cohn-Bendit and Fischer were prominent participants in this ‘Haüserkampf’; rock-throwing militancy not my thing, I watched from the sidelines. Now, in the usual historical cycle, many of us are more or less ‘property-gentry’ ourselves.

On a wall in the small common garden, T. puts out trays of water for the thirsty birds and squirrels, and the trays are emptied in a day. She says blackbirds in Frankfurt died of thirst and starvation in last summer’s heatwave and drought. She is happy to see the return of the swallows but numbers are down from once thirty or forty to now six or seven. She shows me linden trees in the aptly named Lindenstrasse where the stress of heat and dehydration has caused profuse suckering at the roots. Welcome to the climate crisis.