When my German uncle came to Australia he thought it necessary that he cross the continent, that he see, for himself, what lay in the vast interior. He caught the Indian Pacific from Perth to Sydney, spent a week on the train, stopping to collect rocks, like Goethe did, photographs and memories from the ‘empty’ burning landscape. He thought that he could learn from Australia’s nature, that he could divine the spirit of the place without mediation by its inhabitants. Australians were peripheral to his conception of the land down under. There was, quite simply, no culture here, so why bother with uncultured people? Of course he had illuminating conversations, but the work of criticism, the labour of interpretation was left to him as he witnessed nature. The people were part of the scenery. He was a member of the polis, a citizen in an ancient definition who had journeyed to the home of the barbarians. He was Ovid in exile. He was cultured. He was a high modern at the remotest corner of the world.
My uncle grew up in Bauhaus country, right in the aorta of the heart of it. His father was an art curator and historian who worked closely with Walter Gropius and was a senior staff member of the school who was dismissed from his position by the Nazis in 1933. Kandinsky painted a painting for my uncle when he was born. Paul Klee made him intimate, iridescent Christmas cards each year. The remains of that era are evident when you meet my uncle. In his comportment, his dress, his language a high modernist, albeit politically engaged, aesthetic reigns. He wears black 501 jeans and black turtleneck skivvies under primary coloured, button down shirts. He has a pinky ring he inherited from his mother and glasses that make you think of architects of a bygone era. He is an accidental geriatric hipster. The space in which he lives confirms this. The desk, chair, shelves and curated objects that adorn his neat, homely, spacious Berlin apartment feature Bauhaus originals and careful selections from all over the world. There are plants throughout and from the living room you can look north to the Charlottenburg bahnhof. It is all very bourgeois and pleasant.
My uncle started his career as a writer. Celan, Grass, Adorno and Horkheimer sat in the front row of his first book launch. He has signed copies of Pounds and Eliots that sit on his shelves next to the complete works of Thomas Mann and the canon in English, French, Italian and Spanish. He reads continuously and not only his contemporaries, but also the work of younger poets, bloggers and theorists. He spends his mornings on the computer keeping up to date. On his desk, next to his collection of pipes, there is a photo of him in Australia. He is not smiling but standing in the arid redness, rocks in hand, squinting beneath his new Akubra. He is the Voss of my family. Everyone has a Voss somewhere, but he is exceptional in his high modern-ness.
I went to stay with my aunt and him for months on end after I dropped out of graduate school in mid 2008. I would spend the morning reading Wittgenstein, the afternoon at cultural monuments and most evenings in conversation with him. Occasionally I would spend nights with friends in the East, in an altogether different Berlin, one of squats, co-ops, polyamory and rallies.
When I was with my uncle we spoke in English. He had a doctorate in American literature and the first job he had been offered upon completion of his studies was at Princeton. But he stayed in Germany and went into publishing. Writing was his aim but according to him he lacked discipline and patience.
‘I had no dedication’.
After a single book of short stories, the one where the canon sat and watched him at a reading, he turned to television, working for the state as a documentary maker in the early days. His claim to fame was making the last piece about the Wall, flying over it in a helicopter only months before it was torn down.
My uncle’s main concern when I stayed there was my lack of education. He wanted me to be better read, to know more, to carry myself in a way that demonstrated knowledge. I had a different rhythm, a different cadence, a different set of pre-occupations. He was irascible and curmudgeonly; he was passionate about politics; but above all he was cultured. My learning, even from the Ivy League, was compromised by my very being, by my ‘Australianness’. My habitus spoke ignorance: how could I not speak French? Did people notice me at galleries and museums wearing baggy pants with sunglasses on my head, an Australian tourist so obviously trying to learn about art without a hope in the world of saying something intelligent and meaningful about anything at all?
I asked myself if I was overcompensating for my ignorance by continuing to read German philosophy when I was no longer required to by professors. I suspected so. I suspected I was living in a particular cultural moment, betraying my colonial tendencies with every step. It was inescapable. I cringed for my lack of culture and I imagined my uncle cringed at it too. He, ascendant though he was, was being assailed on all sides however. The weight of idiots was a weight that lay on his chest. It was crushing his heart and all he could do was push it up every now and then, hoping against hope for relief against it, hoping for breath.
Nowhere was this clearer than when we watched the news about America. Contemporary America seemed to him an abomination. The food, the music, the art, but above all the politics raised his ire. George W. Bush’s stupidity was a personal affront. That a man who was so stupid could run America only betrayed to him that Americans were idiots without peer. If they voted him in, they deserved him. But the reach of America, the imperial manoeuvres that made it a geopolitical beast, were of great concern. It was not only about the rich-poor disparity, police brutality, African American suffering. The Middle East, war, climate change were all issues that you could not escape, not even here in haute bourgeois Germany. America, afterall, was not Australia. America mattered in the world and ‘it was fucking it up’.
Yet there was a paradox. Like an ant to sugar water, my uncle was attracted to America. He loved New York. He loved the idea of America. He loved the West and the frontier and this was, I suspect, where Australia came into the frame. Australia was America’s America – more wild, more entrepreneurial, more idiotic. Australia had none of the grandeur but it was not small when it came to landscape. It was a tabula rasa, a vast interior where men were men and somehow women were too. My uncle could go there and be a man of culture able to educate and lacerate and evade and lampoon.
My uncle was glad I had come to stay because it meant that Australia, in my embodied self, had come to him. He was glad not only because I had escaped the mesmeric mirage that was America, but also for the chance that he had someone to school. He was getting long in the tooth and needed an audience for his rants and photographs. Each afternoon he would go for a walk around the neighbourhood; perhaps it would be up to the Ku’damm or over through the park. He always took his camera. His latest obsession was photographing mannequins through shop windows. He would be reflected camera to eye in the glass, a self-portrait to be sure, but the plastic, mute body displaying its clothes was the object of attention. It spoke volumes about what he saw as a defining characteristic of the city, of his modern life. It was a very long way away from the Indian Pacific and what he thought I counted as home.
I was writing at the time and he would read some of my work. Most often he would say ‘this is rubbish’ or ‘what bullshit’. The best compliment I could hope for was ‘this is quite interesting’. I was writing for myself and had no desire to be published. I didn’t think my work was good enough. I was embarrassed by it in terms of quality but also because it would mean I was being a writer, which to me seemed an abrogation of social responsibility. This engagement with him, this feedback, was as close as I got to validation, as close as I came to being heard even as it meant having to defend myself for what I had written. It was an education by anyone’s standards. There were no easy compliments, no blithe assessments, no masters-by-coursework featherbed criticisms. My uncle both took me seriously and was dismissive.
Through him though I came more deeply into Paul Celan. Only months prior had I been introduced to Celan through Jerome Rothenberg and now here in Berlin I had access to every first edition of his work and someone who knew him intimately. But Celan was simply the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps inevitably, I learnt about Bauhaus, albeit only when I pressed my uncle who resented to some extent his father’s scale and scope. I learnt then about Oedipus. I learnt about abstract expressionism and when not to cough at the philharmonic. I learnt about Philip Glass and Gottfried Benn. I learnt how to shuck oysters and pick cherries. I learnt how to look at art and pretend to consider it in a way that approached intelligence. I learnt how to wear slim pants even as I avoided pastels and hair gel. I learnt in short how to be my uncle’s nephew; how to be related to high moderns.
In thinking about Australia now there is a residue of wilderness, of frontier in the imagination. Nature seems central to myths of national character even as those myths circulate in other settler societies too. Afterall, Ned Kelly is not so far away from Billy the Kid, the Kimberley not so different from the Drakensberg. It is as if we are all living in Frederick Jackson Turner’s America, whereby
This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.
So it would seem to people who gaze at Australia, who cross it on the train. Our national character is defined it seems by a vast uninhabited interior. There is an emptiness in the centre of Australia according to the high moderns, my uncle amongst them. But that might be true of the not-mittel-Europe taken together. What to do with ‘Siberia’, ‘Africa’, ‘the Amazon’?
In the Australian case the cultural conversation seems reluctant to turn its attention, in a sustained or speculative or poetic way to the mundane and common material at hand. There is no suburbanism of which to speak for example. Despite the mainstream political and television fixation on the suburbs, new journals are more likely to be dedicated to the eco-poetic or some specific location and refuting the myths like terra nulls. And well they should. But we need suburbanist intellectuals to boot.
When my German uncle came to Australia he stayed longer in suburban Perth than he did in the desert. The suburbs, unreflected upon though they were, seemed resilient even as they are temporary and illusory. Seeing him there on the dry brown grass taking photographs of the bore water stains on yellow brick houses from the seventies I learned that the suburbs are where I was educated. The suburbs are where I learnt how to read and write in the most basic sense, where I learnt to tell left from right. If he was here for a holiday I was here more permanently. I was here to uncover the archaeology, the genealogy of a suburban life. And that was my frontier, my Bauhaus, my German education.