Nihilism for Optimists

Life lessons from dead Germans.

Johann Heinrich Füssli, Gunther’s Wedding Night, 1807. Public Domain

I believe we should read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us with a blow to the skull, then why are we even reading it? So that it will make us happy, as you write? My God, we’d also be happy if we had no books, and the kinds of books that could make us happy, we could write ourselves if we had to. We need books that affect us like an accident, that hurt us like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, as if we were lost deep in the woods, far from humanity, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us. That is what I believe.
—Franz Kafka, letter to Oskar Pollak, 1911

Almost exactly one year ago, as the United States unceremoniously handed the mantle of Western Democracy With its Shit Most Together to Germany, I wrote my first installment of Deutschland über Us, and thus began a weekly investigation of German current events, translated and parsed, often misspelled, complete with dubious pronunciation guides that some people still take way too seriously.

Now, as the Internet prepares to swallow up the Awl network and the world becomes just that much more stupid for it, I find myself writing the penultimate contribution to what I only half-jokingly wish to call my Gesamtkunstwerk (guh-ZOMT-koonst-VAYRK), the total work of my life. For the past twelve months, I have had the good fortune to combine all of my great loves—Germans, getting yelled at by Germans, cursing, digression—into one thing. It has been great. (For me. I don’t know how it’s been for you. Hopefully not terrible.)

So today, you guys get my unifying theory of the world. Here it is. Everyone, including and especially me, should read more books and less outrage porn—and the sort of books we should read in place of that fiftieth hot take on some shit we already agree with and are mad about? Well, today I make my case for the books that punch you in the fucking face.

You might be saying: Well, Schuman, what if I don’t WANT to be cold-cocked by my books? What if I have no interest in unleashing the frozen sea? Well, in the words of three wise German children’s rappers, we can’t always do exactly what we want all the goddamned time, young man. But, also, Kafka was like 28 when he wrote that, and as such did not know anything. Or, alternately, he was preternaturally wise, but that interpretation still leaves room for a redemptive reading. Literature that works correctly should, to bastardize Nietzsche, work like a hammer: Anything in us that cannot withstand its blow shouldn’t have been there to begin with. If a Kafka work destroys you for a few days—as it should—the you that grows back in its place is a you with a more refined and probably much more interesting Weltanschauung (VELT-ansh-OW-oonk), or world view.

All right, yes, fine. German literature is lousy with death—so much, and such varied methods: drowning; needles piercing the head; decapitation; firing an old-timey gun at yourself and not dying right away but dying later; jumping onto a torture machine that malfunctions; jumping off a bridge that functions correctly (as a mechanism for jumping off). But winding around all of this demise are also a few radical insights on how to live a better life, Even Today In Modern Times, as a high-school senior in search of some sort of project might be happy to know.

Modern Times Today, you say? What-ho? How can this be? I demand an example.

Cool, let’s do this, motherfuckers! I don’t know if you’ve noticed it recently, but there has been, like, some stuff in the news about sexual issues—specifically, the notion that someone who engages in sexual activity should, you know, want to. One of the reasons this discussion has been so fraught—and one of the reasons certain opposing viewpoints spiral off into the archetypal RoipheMerkinFlanagan hydra—is that the treatment of female sexuality in the so-called Western world has been fucked up as shit since literally the beginning of time. And, no surprise, there’s been complex written record of this in the German-speaking world since at least the Middle Ages.

If you suspected this was my cue to start talking about the Nibelungenlied, which you probably did not, you were correct. You are probably at least a little bit familiar with some aspects of this 13th Century Middle High German epic, thanks to the versions of it that have appeared in Wagner operas, Bugs Bunny cartoons and Tarantino movies.

As the first of its bajillion stanzas promises, the “Song of the Nibelungs” does indeed deliver wonders many told/Of heroes rich in glory,/of trials manifold, not to mention the requisite weeping and woe. There’s a dragon and a golden boy named Siegfried who bathes in its blood and it makes him (almost) invincible; there are knights, some honest and some scheming; there’s betrayal, and murder (literal back-stabbing, SPOILER ALERT!), and, not least of all, a whole lot of sex.

And that’s what’s particularly interesting—and Relevant To Our Times Now, students: the poem’s treatment of female virginity, as the characters’ different reactions to the loss thereof drives every important event, by which I mean murder.

For example, when we meet her, the character Brünnhilde is so superhumanly strong that she can lob boulders with one hand—and so unimpressed is she with her new groom, Gunther, that he spends their wedding night hanging from a nail by his drawers. It’s only with the (eventually ruinous) assistance of Gunther’s best bro Siegfried—who enters the marital chamber unbeknownst to Brünnhilde and helps “subdue” her so that Gunther can do the dead and “take” what rightfully belongs to him—her virginity.

The second this happens, Brünnhilde falls deep in love with—and submission to—Gunther, and her superpowers are gone. Siegfried thinks that the solid he’s apparently done his friend is the extent of his involvement in their marriage, but it is not; he’s married to Brünnhilde’s more subservient and better-looking sister, Kriemhild, and when the siblings are in the middle of a fight, Kriemhild decides to lord it over Brünnhilde that Siegfried fucked her without her knowledge on their wedding night. (This is Olden Times, so the “fact” that her husband raped another woman is cause for…bragging rights?)

This isn’t actually what happened—Siegfried didn’t rape Brünnhilde, but he helped Gunther do it. But Siegfried is also an inveterate dumbass, so he stole a token from Brünnhilde’s room, and when Kriemhild saw it, she came to certain conclusions. This misunderstanding—a misunderstanding between women who are both family and enemies, about a sketchy sexual encounter that has fundamentally changed one of them—precipitates Siegfried’s murder, which itself precipitates the Kill Bill-style revenge bloodbath plot for the entire second half of the story.

The high-stakes arguments between women, about what does and does not constitute inappropriate sexual behavior; the equation of a woman’s sexuality with superpowers; the man’s apparent duty to take those powers away for, I guess, the good of humanity? That shit should sound pretty familiar to everyone, and the evolution (but persistence) of these conceptions of heterosexuality tell us more about why, for example, Aziz Ansari might have felt compelled to do those awful things to that young woman than a bajillion think pieces could dare to try.

And this, friends, is why I am largely retired from the morally outraged quick-take game, and prefer instead to write about FKK beaches, and guys who play the recorder, and the great 2016 Apple-Queen Scandal, and, apparently, about the Heinrich von Kleist novella Michael Kohlhaas six times in a row.

I am profoundly indebted to Silvia Killingsworth, Alex Balk and the rest of the Awl crew for giving me a place to do this.

I wonder, sometimes, what Franz Kafka would think of the modern internet, which definitely does a terrific job of making almost everyone who spends any time reading it miserable—albeit not, as Kafka might insist, miserable in the right way. I often feel, after about ten minutes, as if I’ve had the shit beat out of me, but that the me that will heal (if I ever heal) will be a decidedly worse person.

I think, in the end, that is my most enduring case for the dead Germans: They will make you miserable, sure, but they will do so in a way that actually matters.

This, I guess, is what I believe.