Our period seems to be given over to the demon of speed and that is the reason it so easily forgets its own self. Now I would reverse that statement and say: our period is obsessed by the desire to forget, and it is to fulfil that desire that it gives itself over to the demon of speed.
Milan Kundera, Slowness
Right he is this time, Milan Kundera: Postmodernity is forgetful. I am not so sure that, as he suggests, this necessarily implies an addiction to the demon of speed. There is always the danger of mixing up the two different periods of Modernity and Postmodernity.
Driving through Germany, occasionally one gets the distinct but unexpected impression that nothing around us is as old as it would like us to believe it is. In the Second World War whole German neighbourhoods, even whole towns had been obliterated, disappearing from this earth, so after that war whole towns have been rebuilt, often as a replica of their past.
Flattened by bombardments, such towns had been attacked from the air. Sebald has written a scorching book about this history. The restoration of the towns, however, is only apparent; it can never be anything else but the restoration of what has been destroyed forever.
The effect of such a would-be resurrection is an uneasy cosiness, very much reminding one of Walter Benjamin’s criticism of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois interiors at the end of the 19th century. They seemed to be so over-full and all too comfortable, that no place was left for a visitor, perhaps not even for those who inhabited such quarters… It implies what Benjamin phrased as the poverty of experience, produced by an overload of impressions that do not leave any room for a person’s imagination. One also is reminded of Marshall McLuhan who would later describe this as a hot medium. Instead of a solitary, alienated or rather orphaned object in a room, demanding our gentle attention, we are flooded by their overdose.
When this happens, it contrasts with what Kundera is suggesting: we seem to be witnessing an extreme form of deceleration, as if nothing has happened at all, as if the whole Second World War never took place. Das Jargon der Eigentlichkeit.
In Dresden it was, that I saw a whole church as one single Found Object. Not so much a church, as what once had been a building, wiped away in The Great Firestorm of February 1945. Slaughterhouse Five is what Vonnegut so aptly called it. Next to enormous piles of ruins there was erected a complete archive of stones. In large wooden frames, huge blocks as well as smaller pieces of stone were neatly stored in a certain order. Much in the same way as an archaeologist would, first of all, write numbers on his fragmented finds, then arrange these in the baroque manner of display, the well-ordered tableau.
Much later, when doing some research on Dresden’s history of Romanticism, I saw the same image on an old photograph, this time taken from afar. Only at that moment did the connection of the stone archive, the piles of ruins and that obliterated church became clear to me. Since the day it was taken, long ago, and the day I visited the place not all that much had changed.
When I first saw those stacks, I had no idea that they had once constituted a whole church, the Frauenkirche. At the time, I had come to Dresden to visit Semper’s rebuilt opera building; the rest of what I saw, was mere circumstantial evidence of the British war crimes.
That collection of ordered stones, seen as a whole, was my Found Object, a thing mysterious in its aimless size. There seemed to be no connection whatsoever between the ordered debris in front of me and the ruined piles that lay around. This Dresden was and, by the way, still is horrific. When in the 1990’s I made my visit to the city, at various places a number of grand edifices had once again been fully rebuilt, as if by magic placed almost circularly, a Walpurgis ring of dancing witches. Photos of the town, in glamour folders prepared for tourists, suggest that all of Dresden looks like… a picture.
When the visitor has arrived in its impressive railway station where at two different levels, under three beautiful, enormous hoods, trains arrive and leave, a building by a miracle not flattened during the Great Bombardment, he will leave it to suddenly find himself thrown into a chilly, desolate desert. In the near distance one is confronted with massive battleships of hotels, and all around the ghastly, concrete-grey, extravagant high-rise of East-Germany’s tenement housing obscures the horizon. Everything in that Dresden of the 90’s was too open, too big, too bald, too grey – simple too. Yet, an ideal find-spot for Orphan Objects.
Meanwhile, having grown older, I discover that my own home in Haarlem has also been transformed in an unspoilt ruin of the past. When looking for one thing, I meet with other things that I had completely forgotten, sometimes things of which, initially, I did not know the origin or the meaning. Second-hand Found Objects.
One such find was a forgotten packet of the cigarette brand Gladstone Silk Filter/Gold Leaf Virginia, which according to the little print was imported by Louis Dobbelmann N.V. Holland. It was produced in times when they did not yet know of the vicious connection between nicotine consumption and lung cancer. Provides a cool and smooth smoke. At the time, surprisingly so, 20 cigarettes cost you only 1 Dutch Florin, say less than half a dollar or for that matter, half a pound as they stand now. This packet might well have the same age as I have now.
However, after the little description of Dresden’s Stone Archive not so much this packet is of interest, as its contents. Carefully stored inside, wrapped in the silvery paper that once enclosed the cigarettes, I discover a few small, flat stones.
One thing seems to be certain: these stones are a lot older than their wrapper. I have not an inkling of what I see in front of me. The colour is intriguing, as are the little black inscriptions on a few of them, perhaps signs for people of a strange tribe, codes for a foreign spy… After some pondering, I begin to remember. These are Neolithica, given to me by I know not whom; however, I recall that it was an acquaintance of my father. These are arrow-heads and little cutting tools, found on a spot very much like a miniature version of the area around what was once the site of the Frauenkirche in Dresden. Just as in those German stone archives, a few of the stones have been given a number, even some lettering to indicate their find-spot – Ter, Te, I.
I love to surround myself with such things and little objects, often a riddle, things I find difficult to pinpoint and interpret, quite often so much older than myself that only for this reason do I consider them agreeable companions. Perhaps, for the same reason I prefer the company of people quite a bit older than myself. Anonymous friends they are, those objects that accompany me on my life’s journey, like the trees I love. They must make a much longer journey, from far back, a time when I was not there, yet with a future much longer than mine.
The Thing and I. We exist in asymmetry, as of the two of us it is only I that may bestow meaning on them.
Sierksma, some time ago