Saturday, July 10, 2010

Tragedy with a Happy Ending ... is already here

“Americans want a tragedy with a happy ending.”

I like that funny quip, but I am surprised when I hear that some people really believe it.

What the little joke really means is: Americans, being new and young, don’t understand culture, in comparison with other cultures, mainly Europeans. Europeans know what tragedy is. They’ve been doing tragedy for two thousand years. It’s established, you can’t change it, it is what it is and anyone who does things differently doesn’t get it. What the funny saying is saying is that the Europeans have the right of definition when it comes to culture.

I heard the saying recently in a podcast of an excellent podium discussion on American history at Stanford featuring Jack Rakove and Gordon Wood (yes, I’m a fan). It was a toss-off statement, Americans making fun of their own supposed lack of culture. But it surprised me that they took it seriously: They were talking about writing books for a broad public and they accepted the adage that Americans are too naïve (that word was used) in their world view to accept anything but the positive: If you write about tragedies in history, you won’t find a public in America.

It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard and it completely disregards the greatest cultural achievement of American culture: the art of ambivalence.

It’s true, we like “tragedies with a happy ending.” Not because we don’t understand culture, but because it’s a conundrum that accurately reflects the world we live in. It is a world filled at the same time with tragedy and privilege. Though the tragedy hurts, the privilege far outweighs it. People in America (and in the Western World in general) live far better than they ever have. Horrible things still happen, but if you compare them with the horrible things that happened regularly in the past, they are now less horrible and less frequent.

The American love for this conundrum – that both the good and the bad coexist – is not tragedy, it’s not comedy, it’s not something that Aristotle invented two thousand years ago and that Europeans still slavishly adhere to – it’s new. It’s ambivalence.

The best examples come of course from pop culture – America’s greatest and most influential contribution to world culture. My favorite is Bruce Springsteen’s song Born in the USA. I was in Germany when it came out and Germans hated it – for them it was a typical example of flag-waving, ignorant American patriotism. They really complained about it. Of course, that’s what Europeans do anyway, complain about America, and they welcome any new opportunity to do it. And of course none of them listened to the lyrics.
Born in the USA was a highly political, critical and deeply tragic look at our country – written so you could dance to it. That’s ambivalence. That’s good times and bad times at the same time, that’s feel-good and feel-bad at the same time, it’s the tragedy with the happy ending. You could dance to it with tears in your eyes, smiling.

This ambivalence is a great component of American pop culture. You can see it everywhere, especially in TV shows today: 24 and Law and Order are all about the ambivalence of the rule of law, Breaking Bad, Weeds, The Shield are about the ambivalence of morality. You can go on and on: It’s a powerful and highly intelligent cultural revolution that continental Europe, stuck in patterns established two thousand years ago, doesn’t understand and it missing out on. (The exception is England – we inherited the tradition from them, like so many cultural traditions.)

Americans want a tragedy with a happy ending? I say: more power to them.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Always Wondered What We Eat in Hawaii?

Everyone knows how much we love spam in Hawaii, but few people know much else about what we eat there. I'll tell you: Cholesterol.

Here is a video from the New Yorker website about the hip chefs at Animal in Los Angeles preparing a Hawaiian dish known among surfers as "loco moco." It's mainly hamburger, Spam and fried (quail) egg, but for you health nuts they throw in a little rice, too, which in Hawaii counts as a vegetable.



Here's the original story (just a short blog posting).

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

What Yours Boys Will Be Up Against

The Germans are still busy complaining about how women are paid less for the same work as men and seem oblivious to the real trend - that women will dominate the job market place in one generation and men will slip into a place below them financially speaking.

This trend has become obvious in America, where women today already are better educated than men and thus getting the better-paying jobs (and as a result having trouble finding a man who earns more than they do and whom they can respect). Here and here are a few links.

The trend will come to Germany because the school system here has the same problem as in America: It is girl-oriented and boys get bored or antsy and break out and don't end up with the good degrees.

It seems like Deutsche Telekom has recognized that the trend is happening: Recently it installed a "woman hiring quota". They sold it as kind of a broad-minded feminist thing, but in fact it was just an acknowledgment that the times are changing. The press mostly didn't pick up on it.

Nevertheless, it is coming. It is a rightful revenge for women for being underpaid all these years, but boys will be in crisis for generations to come. If you want to know what your boys are going to be up against in the years to come, check out this video:

Monday, March 15, 2010

If Helene Hegemann and Bushido had a baby, would it be theirs?


Thank God for the French!

Whoever thought I would say that one day? After weeks of listening to Germans make excuses for a young, hip plagiarist Helene Hegemann until my stomach turned at the thought of the empty-headedness of the German literary intelligentsia, the French stepped forward and showed the Germans what it’s really all about.

This is what happened: The young, hip Berlin writer Helen Hegemann, who just turned 18, wrote a popular book entitled “Axolot Roadkill.” After a while, websites began mentioning that some passages in her book had been published previously in books of other authors. When she was confronted with the concept of “plagiarism”, she said something like, “Oh no, that’s different for my generation, we recycle everything, it’s a different way of creating art.”

Literary types from Berlin to New York – even the New York Times picked it up - began discussing this new form of creating art, afraid, probably, that if they just stood up and said, “Wait a minute, that’s plagiarism plain and simple,” they would appear not to understand the modern world. So they took the girl seriously. The Leipzig Book Fair even nominated her for an important book prize (she didn’t win).

Eventually, the publisher had to print a 6-page list of all the “cut and paste”-sources she “borrowed” from and call all the publishers involved, and there were no legal repercussions.

It’s not about Hegemann herself – she’s a good writer, and inexperienced in “borrowing”, which everyone does, so she didn’t think of thanking her sources in the book and she said stupid things t the press. It’s about the reaction to her.

What turned my stomach was the passive, naïve way the German literary world accepted her childish “everybody’s doing it, you don’t understand”-excuse. The gutlessness of the German literary world has bothered me before too… hm, let me think… Oh yes! When the Danes got into trouble in the Muslim world for printing the Mohammed caricatures, an awful lot of German intellectuals stood up and bravely said: “Well, you shouldn’t insult other religions like that.” What a minute – that wasn’t the first time, either. There were similar things said back when a fatwa was put on Salman Rushdie.

What does that have to do with Helene Hegemann? It’s about copyright and free press, which go together. A writer – and these wuss-ass-commentators I’m talking about are writers – lives from copyright and free press. Without copyright and free press, he could not live from his writing. Copyright and free press should be holy to a writer. But these guys are so soft-headed they believed the crap served to them by a (then) 17-year-old girl.

Well, all that’s fine when nothing’s at stake. In German literary terms, Hegemann’s book is just another flavor of the month book that barely took in what it cost to print it, and the scandal is just another subject to while away the boredom with. It’s not about money.

Pop music on the other hand is - thank God for that - about money.

Bushido is Germany’s foremost rapper and a million-seller. When the French gothic band Dark Sanctuary discovered their work plagiarized on no less than 13 Bushido albums, they didn’t sit down and discuss art in the age of the Internet, they sued. Now, the court has decided: Bushido has to pay, and some of his albums have to be taken off the market.

There was no talk about cut ‘n paste or a new generation or a different way of creating art or any other kind of nonsense. It was about real theft, of the kind that, when something has been stolen from you, you notice that it’s gone and you want it back. I like that.

I also have a suggestion for Bushido: Now that he’s lost his source of inspiration, he can ask Helen Hegemann to write his songs for him. I’m sure she’ll come up with something.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Out now! The new Erica Fischer!



My friend Erica Fischer, the Bestseller-writer of "Aimee and Jaguar", has hernew book about, a dramatic love story called "Mein Erzengel" (My Guardian Angel).

Knowing Erica, I'm assuming there's a certain amount of irony in that title.

More here (in German).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Sci-Fi/Fantasy writers in their natural element


Photographer Kyle Cassidy has a great gallery of science fiction and fantasy writers in their workrooms. If you like science fiction and fantasy you will like this. And I happen to like science fiction and fantasy. Here's the full gallery of photos and here's his website with lots of other great photos.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Out now: The new Van Leuwen!



"EizHeart" is the title of my friend Claus Cornelius Fischer's new murder mystery featuring the Amsterdam detective Bruno van Leuwen. More here (in German).

Good luck with the new masterpiece, Claus!

Sunday, March 07, 2010

And I thought the Germans were sleeping



I'm surprised: someone went out and did something.

When a while back Maxim Biller's novel Esra was forbidden by the highest German court - the constitutional court - my heart sunk. It was a serious blow against freedom of speech. The novel is a thinly veiled autobiographic love story between Biller and his ex-girlfriend, an unnamed Turkish actress, and there is some graphic sex involved and most likely (Biller is that kind of guy) the girl didn't come away looking that good.

The girl and her mother (who was also in the book) sued for violation of personality rights.

There was certainly some merit in the suit, and Biller was willing to tone it down a bit, but by absolutely forbidding publication, the court set a precedent that is deadly for journalism and literature: Writers are becoming more and more afraid of simply portraying the world they see around them. That may or may not protect the individual (it's still legal to gossip about someone, it's just not legal to write about how life in Germany works if any character you portray has any similarity to any real person) but it certainly limits German writers' ability to describe their world.

There was a lot of excitement and dismay when the court made the decision, but that was it. No one stepped up to the plate and really protested, and I thought, Hey you guys, are you asleep?

Ah, but finally someone is doing something. Two now plays have just hit the stages in Berlin: "Adam and Esra" and "The Case Esra." (Article in Spiegel here) They put the forbidden book on stage - where it is easy to walk around the forbidden scenes while clearly referring to them - and they discuss the case itself.

Good work, people.

Just out now - new word!


According to a NYT article, the word "sokojikara" was coined by the Japanese scholar and professor of international relations (I can find out very little about him on the Net) Fuji Kamiya and means “a reserve power that allows (a nation) to overcome both the inadequacies of its leaders and the foibles of its citizens.”

Does Japan have it? Yes. Does Germany have it? Yes. Does America have it? Yes.

I have to think of it because the Germans all around me tend to look at things very negatively. They don't know themselves how resilient and able they really are. Then there are moments when my own country America falls into despair, as now, in the crisis. But it's worth trying not to forget the strengths we have and may not always be aware of.

This is a word we should get used to - there is a strength within us that we often do not see ourselves, and blind to it we underestimate ourselves and lose faith in ourselves - a faith we in fact deserve.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

For the Love of Science

I love this. A series of poetic and poppy love songs to science featuring Sagan, Feynman and other popular scientists - beautiful and true. More on the website: Symphony of Science.