October 13, 2008


I’ve found the forerunner to the modern sitcom: a cycle of seven one-act plays from 1893 by Arthur Schnitzler titled Anatol. In the act “Episode,” our philandering hero Anatol is bitterly disillusioned when Bianca, a circus-girl with whom he has once had an affair, fails to recognize him on her return to Vienna. In the act “Abschiedssouper,” he gives what he intends to be a farewell supper for the ballerina Annie, whom he’s tired of, only to find to his unjustified indignation that she has come with a similar intention.

The English have always wanted to break up with the rest of the contintent. At last summer's Euro 2008 tournament, England and Europe were officially over. But who dumped whom?

In June, Schnitzler’s country Austria co-hosted with Switzerland the
Eurocup of soccer, which has a higher worldwide following than the Olympics, second only to the World Cup in the gathering of humans for any peacetime reason. One national team with intermittent success and constant participation in the Eurocup is England. During qualification England drew an easy group and took their chances for granted. After all, they had countless superstars on their men’s national team. However, like Anatol, their performance wasn’t memorable and they failed to impress. In a last-ditch effort with home field advantage at Wembley against lowly Croatia, England fully intended to serve their opponents a farewell supper but instead saw themselves dumped in an embarrassing 2-3 loss last November. This year’s Eurocup tournament events had the dubious distinction of being conducted largely in Continental English for the masses of tourists, but lacking any national team from the English speaking countries of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland, or Malta, all who failed to qualify.

September 20, 2008

Lending Support to the Red Devils

It was eerie to see Manchester United sport their usual AIG-sponsored jerseys at this week's Champions League match against Villareal. Manchester United (nickname: Red Devils) played a great draw, bore the seal of failure on their illustrious chests, and lost no irony with the fact that their club owner since 2005 is, like AIG, a debt-jockeying American.

On September 12 the New York Times printed a business column on the question, Why are American moguls investing in the English Premier League? The sad, sad answer:

Mainly because, to a surprising degree, they can act far more like old-fashioned two-fisted capitalists in England than they can in the United States. Go figure.

The financial meltdown only adds to a much-deserved reputation in the soccer world of Americans as debt-fixated. If you aren't averse to debt, what would stop you from buying up more and owning more? What can you do if you're holding a bottomless bag of gold that must be repaid? Let's look at what Adelbert von Chamisso's Peter Schlemihl did.

My favorite story from the German romantics, Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte, 1813, is a socially critical “fairy tale” and the genesis for a really awesome descriptive noun, schlemiel, which persists today in Yiddish as the word for sucker, dupe, or gull. In Chamisso's tale, Schlemihl sells his shadow to a gray man in exchange for a purse of gold that never empties. It seems like a great deal to Schlemihl until he's reviled and outcast as a shadowless freak. The gray man turns out to be the devil, who tempts Schlemihl with the return of his shadow in exchange for his soul. The only way Schlemihl can get rid of the devil is to wise up and remain a freak. He becomes a lonely researcher and tosses the purse into a ditch, thereby ridding himself of the persistent gray man. It's a great story. And I've left out so much.

With all the money being poured into top-flight soccer, one wonders if fans will someday reject bottomless gold purses and pull for the small, local club instead. For that, the lower leagues and their bric-a-brac grounds are an alternative worth considering. But that's not without temptation, because teams with devilish talent like Manchester United are just so fun to watch.

September 13, 2008

All about the Chemistry

The transfer window at most international leagues closes in a week and there's a lot of talk about chemistry and loyalty. Should X leave team Y and take a job at Z? Between Y and Z, where is the better chemistry? There is a pledge to pursue “winning chemistry” at the Aussie A-League's new Gold Coast club franchised by yet another soccer billionaire. Credit was given to coach Pia Sundhage for creating “chemistry off the field” when the U.S. Women defended their gold medal at the Beijing Olympics. And it was due to his “negative effect on team chemistry” when Van Nistlerooy was kicked out of Manchester United's hotel by Sir Alex Ferguson back in '06.

In Goethe's 1809 novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften, Eduard and Charlotte are a married couple dealing with temptation. Each feels better chemistry with another; in Charlotte's case it's the dashing Captain and in Eduard's case it's the young Ottilie.

One day the four have a conversation about elective relationships among chemical compounds. The Captain explains that such opposites as acids and alkalis exhibit a mutual attraction – a tendency to “choose” each other – while Eduard insists that the mixing of compounds is most interesting when this results in a “divorce” and a “crosswise” reunion, so that the mixing of AB + CD results in the new compounds AD + BC. Limestone placed in dilute sulphuric acid is turned into gypsum, and the unstable acid known as carbonic acid evaporates in the form of carbon dioxide and may or may not succeed in finding a new partner. Charlotte finds it a sad commentary that chemists used to be known as “Scheidekünstler” (masters of separation). What is most in need everywhere are “Einungskünstler” (masters of unification). In any case, persons interact at a level above that of the elements. Or do they? Do players really ever switch teams because of the prospect of better chemistry elsewhere? Or isn't it really just about the money?

The English title for Die Wahlverwandtschaften is Elective Affinities, a term the field of chemistry borrows from the social sphere, which in turn was borrowed back by Goethe for his novel. It's a story about adultery, but whether or not it's an adulterous story is Goethe's little twist. Read it and find out.

September 06, 2008

Soccer Diplomacy, Meet Jousting Diplomacy

The U.S. Men's National Team plays a World Cup qualifier in Havana, the first time the U.S. team has been to Cuba since 1947. Today's game is special to me for two reasons. First, I need the U.S. MNT to qualify so I can buy a discounted follow-your-team ticket at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and, second, my parents are from Cuba and I'm Cuban American. The broader reason why the game is special is that both countries are baseball countries, yet they'll be meeting today at a soccer match. Soccer is a sport both general populations know little about.

Despite sharing baseball as a national pastime, a national U.S. baseball team hasn't been to Cuba since the revolution. “Baseball diplomacy” never happened, though the potential has been there. (For non-American readers: The United States has had a trade and tourism embargo against Cuba since Castro's alignment with Krushchev forty-six years ago. But you, dear non-American reader, get to go as you please, drink Havana Club rum, and smoke a Cohiba without reproach. Vale entonce, as we say in the diaspora.)

In the Middle Ages a form of sports diplomacy punctuated the politics and intrigue of daily life. It was a great festival, known in Middle High German as hôchgezíte. Notice the word's resemblance to the New High German word for wedding, Hochzeit. Knights from different territories and families accepted invitations to compete against each other in games, sports, and poetry competitions.

In the Nibelungenlied, a collection of 39 books from the 12th century about the sword-wielding Lady Kriemhild, a sports festival honors the dubbing of Siegfried as knight. It's the first festival scene in the Nibelungenlied and the last in which all participants are at peace with one another. Happiness-to-grief is a running motif.

“mit leide was verendet | des Küniges hôchgezíte”

Here's hoping today's soccer diplomacy doesn't foreshadow more grief between the two countries. There are some tough times ahead for Cuban and American relations, if past examples are any indication. The activist in me would love to see the embargo lifted and relations normalized. The philosopher in me doesn't mind the embargo, because lifting it will mean a Starbucks on every corner, hordes of tourists, and aggressive neocolonial business dealings. Therefore, here's to the Nibelungenlied – with its mix of emotional sensitivity and martial brutality – it makes for propaedeutic reading in uncertain times.

August 31, 2008

A Bildungsroman Kind of Summer

Johann Wolfgang Goethe wrote the first European Bildungsroman in 1796, titled Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Bildungsroman is probably best translated as “novel of development.” You can also think of it as “novel of education” or “novel of formation.” But actually (and pretentiously), Bildungsroman is a universally used word for the genre. So, like many loanwords of German origin in English, we can now slap a lowercase letter onto it and sound sophisticated, like schadenfreude, gestalt, or zeitgeist.

To best explain what a bildungsroman is and what Wilhelm Meister is about I’ll recount the recent trials of soccer star Samuel Eto’o. First, Eto’o went on a journey this summer to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where the soccer club Kuruvchi was offering his current employer FC Barcelona forty million euros for his transfer. Goethe’s protagonist Wilhelm also went on a journey while conducting business and joined up with a band of carefree actors.

Barça reported that Eto’o was redundant and he could vamoose, for all they cared. Faced with a career at a low-tier club in Central Asia, Eto’o journeyed on to Barça’s training camp in Scotland, crestfallen and undesired. Wilhelm was also scorned, or at least his paranoid mind thought, by the actress Marianne. He destroyed all his writings and carried on, feeling rejected by the art world.

In preseason training for Barça, still barely hanging on to his job, Eto’o collided with a reserve player and suffered a blow to the head. Wilhelm, after finally landing the young male lead in a play, was ambushed by robbers and badly wounded.

Suddenly, after weeks of a miserable summer, Barça reported that five big European clubs were interested in signing Eto’o. Meanwhile Barça claimed they never really wanted Eto’o to go. Likewise Wilhelm experienced unexpected fortune. He enrolled in a new troupe, learned about an inspiring playwright called Shakespeare, and discovered he had a bright three-year-old son by the now-dead Marianne.

In August Barça’s new coach, who in June said he could see no role for Eto’o on his team, changed his mind and called Eto’o “one of the world’s best.” He now starts each game for Barça and has already scored a few goals. In the eighth and last book of Goethe's long novel, Wilhelm finds out that his entire journey had been watched over by the Turmgesellschaft, a secret society. He weds the beautiful woman who nursed his wounds after the ambush, the secret society declares his “apprenticeship” over, and he can enter the bourgeois world as a tried and tested artist.

The stories of the tumultuous summer for Eto’o and the years of wandering in Goethe’s Wilhelm contain four elements typically found in a bildungsroman: a journey, a major setback, rescue or deliverance, and becoming an adult with a role in society.

August 24, 2008

Of Titillating Team Titles

The Merseburg Incantations were written sometime around AD 900 on a type of medium that all medievalists today are grateful for: a spare page within a Latin religious codex. Every now and then, in a busy scriptorium, an overworked monk would get bored of copying the sixty-six books of the Bible, flip the page, then start scrabbling something probably sung by a minstrel the night before in front of an exalted audience. Today we call that Old High German literature.

The Merseburg Incantations comprise two charms, one to liberate prisoners and a longer one to cure a horse. The god “uuodan” (Wodan or Odin) and the goddess “friia” (Frija) make an appearance. Rusty with your Teutonic/Norse mythology? It’s hard to keep the pantheons straight. But Wodan and Frija should look familiar, especially on a Wednesday or Friday.

One noticeable difference between verses in Old High German and verses in the later Middle High German is the change from alliteration (begin-rhyme) to rhyme (end-rhyme). The Merseburg Incantations exhibit a little of both kinds of rhyme, but are much more alliterative than the modern reader is comfortable with. I recently griped to poet Paul Spinger that alliteration had all but disappeared in Western literature, perhaps too hastily. He replied with an alliterative poem he wrote twenty years ago. Lucky for us, he’s allowed me to share it. Students of German philosophy will especially appreciate Paul's inclusion of "Das dämmernde Dasein":

Das Glas

Weil Wein mit Wasser
Sanft säuselnd
Kühl die Kehle kitzelt
Schlaf Sanfte, schlaf
Sinne singen süß
Sonnen sengen schwer
Schwere säumt Süße
Sinne sengen sanft
Schlafe Selbst, schlafe
Kühl kitzelt die Kehle
Das dämmernde Dasein
Ist immer

(Paul Spinger)

Soccer fans might guess that my tie-in to the Merseburg Incantations would be the rampant cases of juju at stadiums worldwide. Instead I'm sticking with the alliteration. Its very memorable effect can best be seen in the alliterative names of these soccer clubs:

Wolverhampton Wanderers (England)
Alemannia Aachen (Germany)
Figueirense Florianopolis (Brazil)
Seattle Sounders (USA)
Cracovia Krakow (Poland)
Kemi Kings (Finland)

August 19, 2008

Duplicitous Hats

In AD 1280 Wernher der Gärtner penned Meier Helmbrecht and gave the world a medieval (late medieval for us hairsplitters) update of the prodigal son. A peasant farmer’s son named Helmbrecht is given a hat that signifies nobility to the public. This wakes desires in him for the easy and comfortable life of a noble knight, and a new name, because who would want to have the name Helmbrecht. The one he chooses for himself is even worse: Slintezgeu – go ahead, say it out loud. Right? Slintezgeu-née-Helmbrecht runs away, puts together a band of thieves, plunders and marauds as a noble knight is wont to do, and all the while mimics noble greetings and sayings.

Werder Bremen’s star player Diego is also a runaway. He’s gone to the Olympics in Beijing to play for Brazil’s national junior squad. Diego was banned by his club from leaving his job for the Olympics. At first he agreed to stay, but then he absconded and Bremen are now taking legal action against him.

Like Helmbrecht, Diego has run off to play something he’s not. Helmbrecht’s hat signified nobility; Diego’s Olympic hat signifies amateur youth sport and up-and-comer status. But he’s already a multimillionaire in the Bundesliga, the league with the most fans per game on average in Europe. It appears that Diego is a noble who has run away to play the humble peasant.

Hopefully the outcome of Diego’s getaway will also be the inverse of the outcome for Helmbrecht. Helmbrecht was easily caught, had an eye gouged out, returned to his parents for scorn and derision, then hung by a mob of other peasants. By inverse logic Diego will return to the good life in Bremen.

August 11, 2008

A Second or Third Chance

In 1929 Alfred Döblin wrote Berlin Alexanderplatz, the first great, modernist novel in German not by a guy named Kafka or Hesse. The plot is pretty straightforward; the protagonist is a construction worker released from prison after a four-year sentence for an involuntary murder. (Involuntary murder - Did someone say modernist?) Fate deals him blow after blow despite his firm intention of becoming an honest citizen in bumpin' Berlin. He becomes an alcoholic, joins a gang of criminals, ends up a pimp, loses an arm through treachery, a jealous thug murders his new girlfriend, and he’s re-arrested and thrown into a psych ward.

Another recent release from prison is Joey Barton, who returns to his role as midfielder at Newcastle United in the English Premiership after serving part of a sentence for assault. He was caught in a drunken late-night fistfight in Liverpool, then while on parole he was re-arrested for beating up a former teammate at the training grounds. Before he disappeared behind bars last year, Barton was a fantasy owner’s dream. Now few clubs are interested in him and the media criticize Newcastle for the huge risk in taking him back.

Redemption is not a popular theme nowadays. Novels from the intervening war years of the Weimar Republic are likewise cynical, but they often end with the typically expressionist motif of rebirth and renewal. Döblin’s protagonist has had it rough, but with every setback he gains new insight, and he can make a final comeback of sorts. At the end of the novel we find him working as an assistant caretaker at a factory, unbothered by any crooks. Newcastle’s manager Kevin Keegan apparently also believes in redemption. He said about signing Joey Barton to his team this year, “People have opinions, and you must respect those, but mine is to give him another chance and back him” (AFP July 29, 2008).

August 04, 2008

Two Sons, One Gold Ball

Every year a player is chosen for the Ballon d’Or prize and dubbed “World Footballer of the Year.” This year two possible laureates are backed by increasingly heated debate among managers, retired stars, and fifa bureaucrats. One side is for Cristiano Ronaldo, an attacking midfielder at Manchester United with more goals than most strikers in any league. The other side is for Iker Casillas, a goalkeeper at Real Madrid who only allowed two goals in the Euro 2008 tournament.

The situation is a singularly Schillerean dialectical dead end for both players. Let me explain using Schiller’s Die Räuber, a play in five acts, 1781.

But first, some information about the play's plot line. Karl and Franz are feuding brothers. While Karl is away at school, Franz falsifies a letter to their father listing off a bunch of entertaining ways that Karl is supposed to have sinned. Ashamed, the father writes Karl out of the will. Long story (written in tense, impassioned prose) short: Now Franz is expecting the inheritance, rebuffed Karl joins a band of thieves, Franz hides his father in a dungeon, Karl commits a lot of crimes he will soon resent, Franz commits suicide, Karl turns himself in to the authorities, and Schiller foreshadows his Classicism period during his Storm-and-Stress period. Fin.

C. Ronaldo is like Karl – tradition dictates that an offensive player should get the Ballon d’Or, just as primogeniture guarantees that Karl will get his father’s wealth. If he wins, people will see the outcome as tradition upheld; a goalkeeper hasn’t won the Ballon d’Or since 1963. Which brings me to Casillas, who is like Franz. Franz breaks moral and civil conventions to ascend to his father’s throne. If he wins, people will see it as an unfair, undeserved affront to a stable world (soccer) order. It’s the kind of metanarrative binary opposition of one revolution against the other revolution, one kind of self-individuation against the other kind of self-individuation, a failure to achieve harmony, all of which is totally Schiller’s niche in world literature.

July 28, 2008

Silly Gestures Out in the Open

28-year-old Northern Ireland striker David Healy mimicked a Protestant Orange marcher during a friendly for Fulham FC in front of visiting fans from Celtic Glasgow, a team whose supporters are predominantly catholic. Healy is coming off of a good year; he was recently awarded The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. It’s a title apparently bestowed on those who don’t know how to pick a scuffle, because Celtic Glasgow have around nine million fans worldwide. During his apology, Healy said, “I made a silly gesture, which I regret.”

Silly gestures have a way of causing unintended flare-ups. In Franz Grillparzer’s 1823 tragedy in five acts, König Ottokars Glück und Ende, Rudolf and Ottokar are constantly at it. Rudy is the king of Austria, an upstart Hapsburg who keeps on winning, while Otto is the king of nearby Bohemia, a wise pilsener drinker who keeps on losing wars to Rudy. Finally, they agree to a fragile peace accord (see “Tenuously linked allusions to Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement 1998”). Otto has to fulfill one tiny condition, a silly gesture in the privacy and seclusion of the imperial tent, where he will kneel before Rudy and receive a ton of fiefs in return.

As he kneels, Zawisch, an unfaithful servant (who’s sleeping with Otto’s young wife), opens the tent ever so slightly to publicly expose King Otto’s silly gesture. Unable to bear this humiliation Otto goes apeshit and, surprise!, surprise!, renewed aggression between the armies ensues.

I give Healy the benefit of the doubt. He was probably trying to be funny or light-hearted, and soccer professionals aren’t known for being bright. But the English Premiership and the Irish Football Association don't see humor in it – they are investigating Healy for bigotry and sectarianism.

July 21, 2008

Manners for Romantic Liaisons or Stadium Beer

Manners haven’t always been old-fashioned. They were cutting-edge in the heyday of the Enlightenment. (Maybe I shouldn’t use “heyday” for the Enlightenment. How about, “at the sensible and sagacious midpoint of the Enlightenment”?)

A great lesson in manners is a 1771 novel-in-letters called Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim by Sophie von La Roche – whose protagonist is also named Sophie. Lord Derby feigns benevolence to the poor in order to impress the virtuous Sophie, a self-proclaimed anglophile. They have a sham marriage, Derby gets tired of her, he marries another woman, he doesn’t tell Sophie but does try to kill her in the Highlands, she is saved by crofters, and the bad-mannered seducer croaks. Later, Sophie bumps into the guy she’s liked all along, a real mister good-manners named Seymour. They marry and live happily ever after. Their partnership is an enlightened one, based on politeness and mutual respect, which offers Sophie the scope to act upon her convictions: “Gesinnungen müssen Handlungen werden,” translates as, sentiments must be turned into deeds, which is an advocacy for virtue based on education – or, learn some manners, people!

Manners were progressive in the eighteenth century, but today they seem truly misplaced. Case in point, this advice from Austria’s etiquette guru Thomas Schäfer-Elmayer for the Euro 2008 tournament held last month:

Anyone with a ticket to see a game is likely to spend several hours next to a complete stranger and there too appropriate behaviour is required.

"It's not the done thing to introduce yourself in the stadium. But at first, one should address other adults formally." [Referring to the “Siezen” format in spoken German.]

And if a fellow fan, overcome by joy, was to spill his favourite drink on you: "I would urge him to be more careful and then keep my distance."

Without being aggressive, one should be able to prevent further unwanted interaction.

"I would give him a look to dampen his enthusiasm and put an end to all conversation," says Schaefer-Elmayer.

(AFP; June 4, 2008)

And with that, we've learned that Herr Schäfer-Elmayer has never been to a soccer game.

July 14, 2008

Shhh! I'm Spying Here.

Sepp Blatter, president of Fifa, has inexplicably closed an investigation into spying launched by Danish women’s national team coach Anne Dot Eggers during the Women’s World Cup. (Blatter is also a member of the International Olympic Committee; the olympics will be held in Beijing next month.) Here’s one of the many strange incidents that happened to Denmark’s team, which had a match against the host team China, during the World Cup in 2007:

“The day before their game with China they planned a tactics talk in a seminar room at the Howard Johnson hotel.

‘Our officials saw a black mirror on the back wall and were joking, do you think something is going on in there?’ recalled Anne. They looked hard and saw movement. The hotel manager was called to unlock the door and inside were two men with video cameras.

‘They tried to get out with their cameras and had to be held back by our officials. Then policemen turned up and got the two guys away. It seemed they were protecting them.’”
(from reporter Andrew Jennings)

Here’s an embarassing video of that incident:

Sepp Blatter’s termination of the investigation is a typical retreat into silence when it comes to past spying. Monika Maron takes on the issue with ambivalence in Stille Zeile Sechs (English title, Silent Close No. 6), novel, 1991.

The protagonist Rosa Polkowski met Herbert Beerenbaum, a veteran communist of her father’s generation, by chance not long before his death. Beerenbaum was a communist party functionary responsible for the programs of ideological education at universities, which ruined careers out of mere suspicion. Rosa agreed to type his memoirs per his dictation in twice weekly sessions at his residence in the Stille Zeile, a road reserved for the party elite in the former East Germany. Irritated by Beerenbaum’s self-righteous pride and inability to honestly acknowledge his past of spying, she vents her mounting hatred by confronting him with his guilt. The old man suffers a heart attack he can’t recover from.

July 07, 2008

A Cure for Arrogance

In Hartmann von Aue’s most famous non-Arthurian work, Der arme Heinrich (AD 1195), nobleman Heinrich is struck with leprosy at the height of his prosperity. His life was too indulging, too focused on the here-and-now, and not directed at all on the hereafter. At the peak of his arrogance an incurable disease sends the party-boy in a frenzy to find a cure. He visits a specialist doctor in distant Salerno who claims to have a remedy for leprosy: Find a child who’s willing to die for your cure.

Today the current greatest soccer player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, undergoes surgery on his ankle at a specialist in Amsterdam, not at his home in Manchester. The party-boy plays beautiful soccer with a noticeably stiff and upright posture, contrary to the crouched athletic pose we’re usually told to use to prevent injury. Ronaldo is at the height of his fame and spoils the tabloids with his arrogance and exploits. Maybe they’ll insert a modicum of modesty during the operation and hopefully he’ll be back to playing awesome soccer again soon.

In Hartmann’s work, Heinrich finds a peasant’s daughter willing to sacrifice herself for him. They travel to Salerno together; while the girl lies naked on the doctor’s table, Heinrich peeks through the operation room door’s keyhole and gazes upon her. He suddenly changes his mind. The girl protests because she wanted to see what heaven was like, but Heinrich can’t allow her to be killed for his sake. On their way home, Heinrich is unexpectedly cured. He experiences a new way of being good (in Middle High German, “eine niǔwe güete”), and lives a more modest and still prosperous life as the peasant girl’s husband. The story contains one of the common instances in the Middle Ages of marriage between different familial ranks, which has probably become more uncommon today.

July 03, 2008

Where Discord Is Good

Bayern Munich introduced their new coach to the media this week. He’s none other than my favorite Californian, Jürgen Klinsmann. According to the AFP, “some 20 photographers walked out of the press conference in protest over Bayern's insistence they had just three minutes to photograph the new coach.” There’s obviously strife between the institution trying to manage its public image and the reporters expressing dissension, at least among photographers.

That’s good! Bad things happen when there’s accord and collusion between institutions and the media.

In Heinrich Böll’s 1974 novella, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, the police leak expurgated evidence about an innocent protagonist to the Zeitung, an allusion to the real-life Bild Zeitung, the most widely read newspaper in the country. Katharina Blum is a cleaning lady whose friends call her “the nun” because of her prudishness. During a drunken carnival party in Cologne, she has a one-night stand with (unbeknown to her) a suspected RAF terrorist. The press humiliate her, incriminate her, brand her a dangerous communist, and eventually instigate her murder of the vulgar and insensitive reporter Tötges. Why does she become violent even though more reputable newspapers are out there exhonerating her? The answer lies in the fact that everyone only reads the Zeitung in Katharina’s world, the working classes and the petit-bourgeoisie. Böll’s novella is a fitting warning for American society and the ascendancy of Fox News, which recklessly colludes with the military and White House.

June 25, 2008

Competing for the Grail

In Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, AD 1190, the grail makes its second appearance in world literature. Wolfram tells the tales in sixteen books of the world-traveling knight Gahmuret, the despondent queen Herzeloyde, the vainglorious Gawain, the tactless Arthur and his flawed court, the beautiful Condwiramurs, the hermit Trevrizent, and of course Parzival the bumbling bubele who was never taught his own name, much less how to be a good Christian knight. Parzival sets out on aventiǔre and along the way learns his name, his heritage, and how to live in the courtly world. He makes it from a secluded childhood in the forest to finding the grail at last. He achieves this by reconciling the Arthurian earth-based society with the spiritual grail society or, more to the point, by asking the wounded grail keeper Anfortas a magical question: "Uncle, what ails you?"

In the lecture series Where There Was No Way comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell calls Wolfram's romance the greatest work of Western civilization because it perfectly demonstrates the monomyth. The monomyth is found in almost every popular European and American epic from The Odyssey to Star Wars. But what is the grail? You can believe the Holy Blood, Holy Grail hoax of 1982, one of the coolest pranks in the twentieth century and the story bootlegged by Dan Brown in 2003. In fact, there are countless "Parzival Scholars," and each has a different explanation for what the grail symbolizes.

But what is it, as in, what is the actual thing, the object? In Parzival the grail is simply a stone. It gives those gathered around it plenty to eat and assures its protector of the highest title on Earth - along with a nifty castle that no one can find unless they chat it up with the Fisher King or let their horse wander off the path… Keep in mind we are talking about the grail, or graal in Middle High German, not the holy grail. It's called holy much later in gratuitous nineteenth century European works. It first became a cup of sorts in the thirteenth century. That shape is how the legacy of the grail continues today; just look at the trophies from some soccer competitions:

Perhaps the best grail-like trophy is for the winner of the German Bundesliga, because in the grail's first-ever appearance in any romance, Chretien de Troyes's Perçeval (AD 1180), the grail is simply a dish:

If you happen to know of a trophy that is in the shape of a stone, please let me know!

June 20, 2008

Das Runde auf dem Eckigen

Look! The architectural representation of this blog:

Notice the names and busts of Lessing and Goethe (further to the right was the Austrian playwright Grillparzer). On top, a massive soccer ball. This is the Wiener Burgtheater. I took this photo from the Fan Zone in Vienna (June 12, 2008) during the ongoing Eurocup tournament.

June 05, 2008

Gorzow Wielkopolski or Bust

In Christa Wolf's 1983 Kassandra, the Trojan War is retold slightly differently. In her version, Paris fails to steal Helen, but the royal family pretends that Paris succeeded, a circumstance the Greeks are happy to play along with because it gives them a pretense to attack Troy for its gold. The pre-war has started; Kassandra witnesses the slow disappearance of matriarchal structures: the queen loses influence in politics and is banned from meetings because "Krieg ist keine Frauensache mehr" (War is no longer a woman-thing). Kassandra comes to understand that her father is weak and allowed his kingdom to slip from the relative freedom of a society at the intersection of matriarchy and patriarchy into a police state.

We are in the pre-war of the Eurocup 2008. Is it a patriarchal police state? Not at all, but countless suits-and-ties do crowd the mega sports broadcasts and remind us at least visually that this isn't Frauensache. I am on my way to Poland, currently on a layover in North London, and I've already read my fair share of headlines on upcoming international "battles" and the inevitable proclamations by every guy in a Camdentown bar that "Spain will win this year!" FYI, Before every major tournament people always say Spain will win and they don't.

Why am I off to Poland? One of Saturday night's two matches is Poland versus Germany and I don't want to miss the public viewings and the crowds for that one. I love being a neutral observer while fans watch great matches. More poignantly for this blog, I'll watch the game from the town of Gorzow Wielkopolski. That's the birthplace of Christa Wolf, my favorite author from communist East Germany. When she was born it was a bilingual town, known as Landsberg by German speakers. It will be great to visit her normally monotonous birthplace on such a celebratory night. As for the Eurocup representing a patriarchal war, the good news is that tournaments between international teams (nations as opposed to clubs) draw the most mixed gender crowds of any type of soccer audience.

On that note, Wolf's Kassandra isn't all humdrum pessimism, she does put forward a matriarchal/patriarchal compromise in Kassandra's genuine relationship with Aineias. He is her "elixir of life." Two individuals predestined for an intimate, reciprocal relationship of equals. Consequently, their love is not a relationship of domination. Read the novel to learn how they do.

May 29, 2008

Thieving for Greatness?

This week’s Thursday post is brief, since I wrote a long one for Fifa’s birthday yesterday.

Two FA Cup medals were stolen during a celebration last week from a hotel where this year’s winners Portsmouth FC were staying. The FA Cup is an annual knockout tournament in England that runs concurrently with the regular leagues, culminating in May. It’s the oldest soccer competition in the world and one of the most coveted medals.

I’d like to think the thieves were troubled children who now feel like heroes. In Günter Grass’s Katz und Maus, an outsider named Mahlke is unable to resist the temptation of stealing the Knight’s Cross, which a visiting military captain to the school has left unattended in the changing room. The audacious theft gives him a profound, momentary sense of contentment and earns him the nickname, Mahlke the Great. The medal, or “coveted lozenge,” acts as an exact counterweight to his enormous, freakish, restless Adam’s apple, perfectly concealing his otherness for the first time. There’s much more to read about the troublesome pupils in Katz und Maus. I won’t spoil it for you.

May 28, 2008

Fast Approaching 95 Theses

This vehement, anti-Fifa editorial has been distilling for years. (F-I-F-A is from the title in French for soccer's world governing body.) Fifa has done some bad, foul, egregious, and completely fucking unacceptable things.

Bad: One of Africa’s best national teams, the “Lions” from Cameroon, were absent from the 2006 World Cup. Why? Fifa deducted Cameroon nine vital qualification points, the equivalent of three wins, for wearing sleeveless kits (jerseys) at a 2002 exhibition match. Cameroon fans liked the kits because they resembled native outfits. Fifa banned them.

Foul: Last week the Iraqi government disbanded the national soccer committee because it was run by too many wealthy Iraqis living abroad. In response Fifa vowed to cancel the national team’s upcoming World Cup qualifier against Australia. That drastic punishment will mean Iraq has no chance at the 2010 World Cup. Keep in mind Iraq is on a roll; they won the 2007 Asian Cup, which was the only cheerful thing to happen to the country since the invasion/occupation.

Egregious: In 2007 Fifa ruled that no international matches could be played above 2500 meters. That means Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia will no longer host games between national teams in their capital cities. Bolivian president Evo Morales has been awesome in fighting this ban, calling it “an aggression, a provocation, and an intimidation from the FIFA president [Sepp Blatter] against our country and against South America.”

Completely fucking unacceptable: In 2005 Maribel Dominguez was signed to a Mexican club in the minor leagues, FC Celaya. The Mexican national soccer authority announced it had no problem with a woman playing for the team. Fifa did. In a curt statement, Fifa halted her career and ended mixed teams forever. Dominguez was even banned from playing in exhibitions. Then Fifa stopped plans by Italian club Perugia to sign two stars who happen to be women, Birgit Prinz and Hannah Ljungberg. Yep, Fifa, based in Zurich, is more chauvinistic than pro sports teams based in Italy and Mexico. That says a lot.

In German literature there are plenty of examples of injustice owing to absolutism, most poignantly in dramas from the Enlightenment and Sturm-und-Drang. But I need to find a real world example that interrelates my problems with Fifa. Weirdly enough, a tract from 1530 by Martin Luther called Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, on the art of translation, does the trick. Luther wasn’t the first to translate the Bible into a modern language, there were plenty of translations of the Bible before his. So why does almost everyone know about the Luther Bible? Because of the idiomatic prose style. He interpreted the meaning, direct and apt, not the lexical vocabulary. Luther’s translations marked the beginning of a new age in the history of printed language.

In Sendbrief Luther explains,
“One shouldn’t look at the letters in Latin and ponder how to say them in German, like an ass would, one should ask the mother at home, the kids in the alley, and the commoner in the market how they’d say it, and interpret according to that.”
Soccer’s world governing body is out of touch, dictating the beautiful game to the world instead of interpreting it with the affections its players and fans feel. Fifa’s ban on mixed play is a case in point. It’s counterproductive. In the United States especially, soccer has a mixed makeup (our word for that is “coed”). The standard proportion in urban, recreational adult leagues is eighty percent men and twenty percent women.

It’s no surprise to most fans if an awesome player, man or woman, seeks out better paying contracts in professional leagues. But to the old, laddish, stubborn douchebageoisie who have never done anything coed in their lives (that’s you, Fifa), it must be verboten. The likes of Sepp Blatter (pictured), Franz Beckenbauer, and 23 other men who sit on Fifa’s executive committee reign from Zurich like Rome in Luther’s time. Today Fifa observes its 104th anniversary. They are a tax-sheltered institution with plans to govern for centuries. Here’s hoping for a Reformation.

Postscript. Instead of me grumbling on, fortunately you can read about two other Fifa issues from better sources. Der Spiegel explains the patronizing way Fifa is behaving in South Africa, even demanding new stadiums be built next to perfectly adequate ones because of steepness - a requirement that some stadiums in Germany’s 2006 World Cup didn’t meet. Lastly, The Economist explains how Fifa’s idiotic response to English league dominance is to limit foreign players and lower standards, rather than fairly distribute windfalls or limit foreign investment.

May 22, 2008

Foreboding on Neutral Grounds

Canada’s national team has announced fixtures for two upcoming international friendlies. I know, that really isn’t the most exciting news item. But the locations for the matches are noteworthy. Canada will “host” Brazil in Seattle on May 31. Then they “host” Panama in Ft. Lauderdale in June. The match against Panama is, for whatever reason, closed to the public. I can’t find any articles explaining why they're playing their "home games" abroad; North American soccer rarely piques anyone’s interest. Nevertheless CONCACAF, a FIFA-demarcated region for World Cup qualification, is getting more competitive. Baseball countries like Panama and the United States are improving in soccer, while soccer countries like Mexico, Guatemala, and Costa Rica have restless fans with rising expectations. Only three countries from North America, Central America, and the Caribbean (there are 40 countries in CONCACAF) can qualify for the World Cup. Canada hasn’t fared well. The national team didn’t qualify for the 2006 World Cup, though Canadian athletes are active in competitive leagues abroad. Providence could grant the team good results when they host their friendlies in a neutral country, however some examples in literature suggest trouble on the horizon. Festivities on neutral grounds are usually the high point before a heartbreaking denouement.

In Theodor Fontane’s 1887 social novel Irrungen, Wirrungen, two people of different classes, the humble Lene and the Baron Botho, fall in love. The highlight of their courtship is a party at Hankels Ablage, a waterside locale outside Berlin that serves as a neutral setting. After that their relationship sours. Botho realizes from the party that he can’t be normal with her in front of the other aristocrats. Lene realizes she’s better off with the factory owner Gideon, who is in any case less pathetic than the Baron.

Another pair of young lovers is Sali and Vrenchen from Gottfried Keller’s 1856 novella Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe. Entrenched enmity between their fathers means the two Swiss farmers’ kids can see no future together. They decide to spend one day happy together, enjoy a meal at an inn, and dance at the neutral grounds of the Paradiesgärtchen. They spend their bridal night on a barge and at dawn slip into the water to drown.

May 15, 2008

Yodeling in Denglisch

I’ve found the forerunner to the modern sitcom: A cycle of seven one-act plays from 1893 by Arthur Schnitzler titled Anatol. In the act “Episode,” we see our philandering hero Anatol bitterly disillusioned when Bianca, a circus-girl with whom he has once had an affair, fails to recognize him on her return to Vienna. In the act “Abschiedssouper,” he gives what he intends to be a farewell supper for the ballerina Annie, whom he’s tired of, only to find, to his unjustified indignation, that she has come with a similar intention.

The English have always wanted to break up with the rest of the contintent. At the upcoming Euro 2008 tournament, England and Europe are officially over. But who dumped whom?

In June, Schnitzler’s country Austria co-hosts with Switzerland the Eurocup of soccer, which has a higher worldwide following than the Olympics, second only to the World Cup in the gathering of humans for any peacetime reason. One national team with intermittent success and constant participation in the Eurocup is England. During qualification England drew an easy group and took their chances for granted. After all, they had countless superstars on their men’s national team. However, like Anatol, their performance wasn’t memorable and they failed to impress. In a last-ditch effort with home field advantage at Wembley against lowly Croatia, England fully intended to serve their opponents a farewell supper but instead saw themselves dumped in an embarrassing 2-3 loss last November. This year’s Eurocup tournament events will have the dubious distinction of being conducted largely in Continental English for the masses of tourists, but lacking any national team from the English speaking countries of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland, or Malta, all who failed to qualify.

May 08, 2008

The Parvenus versus the Old Guard

On May 21 European soccer reaches its finale after 13 acts in the UEFA Champions League, a tournament featuring the top teams in every league from Portugal to Israel. The finalists this year happen to be both from England’s Premiership league: Manchester United and Chelsea London. I despise Chelsea. They are owned by an oil oligarch who is always televised sitting next to a different supermodel each gameday in his shadowy executive box. He's Roman Abramovich, a billionaire from Russia who bought the team five years ago and infused it with cash for star players explicitly to buy trophies, the highest of all trophies being the Champions League. The fact that a billionaire’s money can in only five years subvert other factors like team morale, long-term stability, community support, and entertaining play – and still lead to success – excites such vitriol in me that I should change the subject.

In the 1784 tragedy “Egmont”, Goethe thematizes the occupation of the Low Countries by Catholic Spain. The Dutch governor Egmont spends five acts ignoring everyone’s suspicions that the Spanish king will execute him for being too kind to protesting Flemings. In the final act his lover Clärchen takes to the streets trying to arouse the citizenry in Egmont’s defense. When this fails, she takes poison. Egmont finds out about Clärchen’s death, sleeps well in his jail cell, has an epiphany that Holland will be free from Spanish rule, and is later executed.

The political issue in “Egmont” is one of the local nobles’ inherited rights versus a new power, the strong centralized government in Madrid. It’s not really about an underdog. It’s often pointed out that the uprising in the Netherlands was conservative in character. Liberation was its aim, but it was essentially concerned with restoring ancient privileges and freedoms.

I intended to cheer for Manchester United on May 21, or actually, hope for Chelsea to lose. I wish it was as simple as cheering for the underdog. United have won far more trophies throughout their history than Chelsea. United even have a corrupt owner of their own, a fat Floridian named Malcolm Glazer who has sent the team into debt. Chelsea is an upstart. They were recently a small club in a big town losing to plenty of other London teams. Then they got bought up and started winning, whereas United have always been rich and have always been winning. Maybe in following this tragedy I was originally pulling for Egmont and his revolution, but who would want to pull for aristocrats and their inherited rights? One outcome no longer feels better than the other. Soccer fans will pay tribute to either champion on May 21 and accept their fate with reluctance, then serenity. And Goethe wouldn’t have it any other way. The wheels of the gods grind slowly but exceedingly fine.