Dec 2017

Zeitgeist, Weltgeist, Poltergeist

On Self-Fulfilling Prophecies and Other Contemporary Realities

by Frederick A. Lubich, Interim Editor of Glossen

           “The order is rapidly fading
and the first one now will later be last”
Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”

“Zeitgeist, Weltgeist, Poltergeist …”, that was the tentative title for Glossen #43, as we concluded the year 2016 with Glossen #42, which tried to capture the momentous political developments toward the end of that year under the headline “Mauerbau & Mauerschau: Cassandra Calls from Falling and Rising Walls”. In that past issue, poets and academics, former dissidents and today’s civil rights activists, as well as a rabbinical scholar reflected on the meaning of falling and rising walls from Berlin to Jerusalem and beyond, into the New World and its southern border under the imminent presidency of America’s new leader.

The authors of Glossen #42 hailed from both sides of the Atlantic and some of their stargazing into the future from those towering walls – a practice also known as teichoscopy since the fall of ancient Troy – turned out to be quite an accurate prophecy. But before looking at those new horizons, the current issue of Glossen looks back and recalls three of those who had lived through the hardships of history, as exemplified by the story of modern Germany.

Reinhard Andress remembers the life and work of Egon Schwarz, one of the last prominent refugees of the Third Reich, well-known as one of the pre-eminent founding fathers of exile studies here in the United States. If the Holocaust of Nazi Germany was hell on earth, then the Stasi system of former East Germany was comparatively speaking a kind of communist purgatory. Axel Reitel and Utz Rachowski recall the trials and tribulations of the generation born after World War II, including their own incarceration as young men in the so-called “Workers’ Paradise”. Today, the “German Democratic Republic”, a political misnomer par excellence, can serve as a perfect example – avant la lettre – for what has become known these days on this side of the Atlantic as “fake news” and “alternative facts”.

Looking back at the various writings on the wall in the past issue of Glossen, some are worth mentioning for different reasons, as they not only confirm the expected but also adumbrate the unexpected. My own oracle  “Manhattan Menetekel: Access Hollywood-Babylon – From Age-Old Prophecies to Latter-Day Realities” delineated the coming show-down between the “Lose Gun from Manhattan” and the “Rocket Rattler from Pyongyang”. It was a scenario even a blind man could have envisioned, since it was already written all over the wall towards the end of last year, in other words, the topic of countless newspapers and late night talk shows.

The international sensation that both leaders would soon start trading barbs, slinging insults such as “dotard” and “little rocket man” at each other, should not have been surprising at all. But that the impulsive American president would actually soon face-off with his equally unpredictable counterpart in North Korea in a visit close to the Demilitarized Zone, armed to the teeth with more insults and backed up by real military might, that rapid development toward nuclear confrontation with international consequences probably surprised even the most pessimistic doomsayers on both sides of the Atlantic. “Apocalypse Now”? A final scenario ready to go as the world’s ultimate Reality Show!

Rabbi Panitz’ crystal ball gazing in last year’s Glossen was called “And in Her Heart, a Wall. A Jewish Lens on a Walled World” and it turned out to be an even more astounding prophecy. “Next Year Jerusalem”, that millennia old prophecy of the Jewish people scattered all over the world, came true this year – spes contra spem –  as the president of the United States has  indeed recognized Jerusalem as the future capital of Israel. Last year, that writing on the wall was not foreseeable at all. Will that message bring a breakthrough on the road to peace in the Promised Land, the ancient Holy Land of all three monotheistic religions, or will it only lead to more terror, civil war, and ever more refugees?

“Refugees (2016)” was the generic title of three paintings by Jeanne Finkelstein Goodman, which complemented last year’s preface to Glossen. The three paintings depict refugees in various configurations, commemorating their history and anticipating more of their misery, as the new administration of the United States was already announcing new rules and regulations, especially on immigration from the Middle East as well as nationwide deportations across the border in the South West. Finkelstein Goodman’s paintings were also part of a juried exhibition called “Facing Our Fear: Reflections on Our Time” which opened on January 20, 2017 at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

The exhibition was quickly organized to coincide with the day of inauguration of the new president of the United States. It featured the work of roughly twenty poets, scholars, and artists from the artistic and academic community in and around the university who wanted to express their fears and anxieties about imminent policies and rapidly changing realities. In hindsight, some of the visions of these artists turned out to be most revealing and three of them are therefore also represented in chapter IV of this issue and shall be briefly introduced here.

Fred Freeman’s sculpture of a mournful Mother Earth with the subtitle “World Weary of Being Wary” is a foreboding prefiguration of the new environmental policies of the current government that has been in denial of global climate change from day one with worldwide consequences after its withdrawal from the international Paris Agreement. The president’s ecological va banque strategy, heading towards a potential “Scorched Earth” reality down the road, certainly goes hand in hand with his hazard game of nuclear warfare, which he shares with his counterpart in North Korea.

Clearly, Mother Earth, whom the ancients had venerated as the Goddess Demeter, is not only world weary and potentially in more and more trouble, but she is also figuratively speaking increasingly angry and furious. There is no doubt that this fall the wrath of the Goddess was written all across the American continent, as some of its worst hurricanes and firestorms in recorded history have been ravaging it from shore to shining shore. Make America Great Again?

Jenny Windsor’s painting “Persephone” adds to this environmental perspective an important additional gender narrative. Not only is Persephone the daughter of Demeter, she has also been according to myth Hades’ object of perennial wantonness. Since time immemorial he has been abducting her every fall into the underworld, from where she was not allowed to return until the following spring.

Coincidentally, it was not until the end of this year that this ancient rite of fall, this perennial robbing of Persephone by the Lord of the Underworld, in other words, patriarchy’s subculture of rape, was systematically challenged, when Persephone’s modern daughters began to expose in rapidly growing numbers the timeless horrors of Hades and its latter-day perpetrators. And as we ring out the old year 2017, the media is calling it more and more and most appropriately “The Year of the Reckoning”.

Manuela Mourão’s creative installation with the title “To Grab and to Hold” might have appeared at the beginning of this year to some visitors as nothing more than a somewhat enigmatic assemblage. However, in hindsight it turned out to be the conceptual culmination point of this exhibition and its Demeter-Persephone trajectory. In other words, it reflects and represents arguably – as will hopefully become transparent in its accompanying commentary – the zeitgeist of the year 2017 as a virtual Gesamtkunstwerk.

Or to put Richard Wagner’s late-romantic concept of a total work of art into a more timeless vernacular, one could argue that the three above mentioned pieces of art are all part of worldwide Cassandra calls that evoke that looming “Dies Irae”, that ominous “Day of Wrath”, just as the eponymous poem from the time of the Middle Ages used to evoke the Old Testament and above all its much touted “Last Judgement”. And by the same token, one could make the case that the “Day of Reckoning” not only alludes to Saint John’s “Secret Revelations” but also vice versa to all the dirty secrets of man’s sexual abominations which his descendants have been trying to hide throughout history. Or, to update their chronology a bit: From Exit Hollywood to Exit Washington, D.C. … some of them still might have a blast … but remember our latter-day prophet laureate … “the first one now will later be last”!

Dies irae, dies illa, solvet saeculum in favilla! That day of wrath, that dreadful day, shall heaven and earth in ashes lay. That is how one of the translators of this final farewell to our world put it. Heaven forbid such awful destruction, such awesome reckoning! But what about all those high and mighty who thought they could abuse their power for their own personal pleasure, trying to grab and hold on forever? Lo and behold, day by day more and more of them are coming down in shame and disgrace. For them, life on earth will never be the same again. Or to put it differently, from the silver screens of modern Hollywood to the walls and towers of mythic Babylon … mutatis mutandis … sic transit gloria mundi.

Summa summarum: For more on those recollections and latter-day reckonings, see the pertinent commentaries and subsequent chapters in this current edition of Glossen #43. They are all further explorations and investigations of the spirit of our time, the world spirit in all its dialectical contradictions, including some of its past and dark realities as well as some of its future and much brighter opportunities.

Zeitgeist, Weltgeist, Poltergeist: After all its spirited manifestations, its patriarchal and matriarchal realizations, after all the continuing breaking of silence and the increasingly outspoken protestations,  if we keep looking for the good in our world, if we keep searching for the best of all worlds, in short, if we listen to the better angels in all of us, those fallen angels who still can rise and soar, those legendary angels of our history …, in other words, if we keep following Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”, then hell will have no chance and Hades will be no more.




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