There it is again, this embarrassing, exhausted, spoiled word: smelling of kitsch, it has almost disappeared from our private and public discourse. Whether in sacred, secular or political matters, we–pardon me, some of us–are afraid it could remain unrequited, becoming debased and stained. Who says nowadays, without blushing, “I love you” to a woman, or to a utopia, or to a God written off as dead? Reality has taught us doubt and given us bitter gall; the so-called heart has been encased; “one loves, the other is loved,” there is nothing left remarkable beneath the visiting moon.Order now
This word–L-O-V-E–is now my theme, spoken without fear, albeit with some embarrassment. Because my profession is not only (as the actor Olivier would have said) an act of love, it is also an embarrassment pure and simple, whether the subject is Desdemona’s handkerchief, Hamlet’s unbraced doublet or Woyzeck’s knife.
Since love, like truth, must be concrete, abstractions are useless to the lover. I don’t love “Germany;” that word is like a map, useful and informative, but untouchable. What I love could fill a volume: a window in Bremen along the Bismarckstrasse, a particular walk along the Alster in the evening, the unforgettable oaks in Schoneberg, the list is endless.
And I also cannot love “the Germans” I wouldn’t know who they might be besides a collective with a label and that comes from the only useful piece of political education that I ever received from the first and last time my father slapped me across the back of my head, when at age 10 I told him what I had just learned in the classroom: namely, that all Rumanians are homosexuals. After apologizing, my father explained that this was a time of disgusting nationalism which objectifies humanity into categories of “us” and “them” in order to exterminate them more easily. In the first place, all Rumanians are not homosexuals. Second, there would be nothing wrong if they all were. And third, there isn’t such a thing as “the Rumanians.”
Since that day it has been hard for me not to encounter people one-on-one; I couldn’t put Faust, Kleist, Heine and Boll–the list is endless–into the same teutonic pot with Himmler simply because they all are named Heinrich. I don’t know many Germans; most of the ones that I know I love, because they offered me understanding, help, protection, loyalty or a silent embrace; one that I didn’t know saved my mother from the Holocaust; another, who was my boss in 1933, kicked out the little Nazi who objected to my presence.
And I love this language, even though I never mastered it, and that is good for the stranger who wants to stay a stranger in order to retain his “third ear,” so that he can, with the stranger’s curiosity, take words at face value and thus continually dig around in the viscera of the language. When up there, bathed in golden light, the “Liebestod” is being sung, the stranger must ask himself in joy and pain how he would explain this untranslatable word to his American grandchildren “Is it the death of love or the other way around, the death of death in love?” I heard my first German word as a newborn, “ein Junge |a boy~” cried my grandmother; and my father spoke his last German words–with the grandeur, with the civility of heart that in the face of barbarism represents a kind of resistance–when, at the door to the gas chamber, he bowed to a colleague, saying, “Nach Ihnen After you, Herr Mandelbaum.”
The stranger is not necessarily a foreigner, but more often than not an emigrant searching for asylum in autonomy and grace. If he doesn’t search in silence, he can, from time to time, become a poet. This kind of stranger is, as the German-American Gertrude Stein once said, like a detective who, in these criminal times, stalks the victim and the culprit and tries to understand both by refusing to resist finding something of each within himself. And he is especially apt to be a prophet; it is no coincidence that prophets from John the Baptist to Dante, from Euripides to Buchner (the list is endless) all lived in exile, chased out into their truest element the desert in order to experience the prophet’s fate: namely, that not a soul is listening. In spite of the Trojan Women, women and children continue to be slaughtered; the Four Horsemen keep thundering on around the corner; and despite Danton’s Death, the dear wise victims in their shacks continue to turn into evil stupid criminals as soon as they move into the palace.
The stranger, like me, already smells gas, and smells the confused, estranged old man on the heath, who keeps fighting off tears until he finally howls, howls, howls at humanity turned to stone and over the dead child in his arms; also over all of our children, dead or alive, who can’t hear such declarations of love, or still worse, don’t want to hear. All that remains is the silence of collapse, a terrible silence that filled Pascal with dread in his godless void.
But for us the task still remains, whether administered with paternal slaps or poetic kisses, to shatter this silence, to keep singing, which means not keeping our mouths shut. “Happy love does not exist,” Wolf Biermann sings, which must not keep us from falling in love again, be it with a beautiful thought or a word to play with as long as it pricks and bites, expecting the worst yet remaining optimistic, because the worst has still not happened.
George Tabori is a playwright living in Vienna. This article is based on a speech given in Darmstadt last October, when Tabori won the prestigious Buchner Prize.