Wednesday, 30 June 2010

An American adventure

... my parents were setting off on an American adventure of their own. My idea was that they should fly to Minneapolis, rent a car, and drive to Seattle along the minor highways of the West, taking the better part of two weeks. No interstates, I said; choose dirt roads over blacktops. Use the DeLorme state atlases, with their large scale and full contours. They'd put up for the night in one- or no-stoplight towns. I promised them that they would discover an America rarely seen by Americans. They'd cross the Plains, the Rockies, the Cascades. My plan was that they'd lose their ingrained British notions of ' the Yanks' and see something of the grand, complicated, and hospitable country that had made an immigrant of me. I saw them arriving in Seattle astonished at the country, all their preconceptions and prejudices gone by the board.

Jonathan Raban: A Passage to Juneau

Monday, 28 June 2010

Hyperactive Americans

Americans pride themselves on being active folks. That however is far too modest a claim, rather they are hyperactive. Ever watched a TV-series made in America? Take my alltime favourite, the West Wing: Everybody's constantly running around while at the same time solving problems ...

In October and November 2005, I taught English in Istanbul. One of my students was a university professor. Her English was fluent, she gave guest lectures at American universities. Why did she take classes? I asked her. She wanted to feel more confident when socially dealing with her “hyperactive colleagues from Michigan”, she said.

Or, in the words of an islander in the Pacific (in "Equator" by Thurston Clarke, one of the best travel books I've ever read): "Our only criticism was that the Americans were too quick with their OKs … They were always saying 'OK OK OK OK … Let’s move'. They were in too much of a hurry, that’s why they lost so many men."

And lately, while rereading parts of "Grace and Grit" by Ken Wilber, I came across this one: " ... that her first impression of Americans was how frantic they seemed to her, with all their busyness and rushing around."

Saturday, 26 June 2010

On Captions

Wonder Valley Bicycle 2007
Copyright @ Emelle Sonh

Photographs, in order to be understood, need captions - and these can of course be used manipulatively. Sometimes they are, and, occasionally, they lead viewers on to quite unexpected readings. The captions of a German hobby-photographer, who achieved some notoriety some years ago for having had his picture taken with prominent persons, read, for example, like "Should you have wondered who the guy next to me is, it is the Pope."

On 12 June 2005, the New York Times Magazine, published a cover article by Joseph Lelyveld entitled "Interrogating Ourselves" that, wrote Byron Calame, the public editor of the New York Times, "discussed the 'lies, threats and highly coercive force' being used to pry information out of detainees held in military custody. What caught my attention was the full-page photograph across from the title page of the article.
It was a color photograph with a mid-torso view from the rear of a person with wrists handcuffed. Below the plastic handcuffs, a red stain ran down from one wrist across the soiled palm onto the fingers. The credit at the bottom of the facing page: 'Photographs by Andres Serrano.' But there wasn't any explanation that the photograph had been staged. There was no caption. Four pages later, the same was true for the full-page staged photograph of water torture. The cover picture of a person with a sandbag hood also was identified only as a photograph by Mr. Serrano. For those who scrutinized the photographs, there was one possible clue that they were posed. The coloring of the backdrop in each photograph was similar. And a note in small type at the bottom of the contents page identified the artist who painted the backdrop for Mr. Serrano's cover photograph."

The problem is that hardly anybody ever scrutinises the photographs displayed in newspapers or magazines. And so we are constantly carrying images in our heads of which we do not know whether they depict something real or not. Is that relevant? In press photography it is. So what is there to do? A helpful suggestion was provided by David Travis, curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago in a letter to the New York Times:

"Because photographs by themselves cannot clearly separate reality from appearance, it is good to know as much as possible about how, when, where, and for what reason they were made. This is especially necessary for subjects that may be part of a national debate about the practices and direction of a country at war. The photographs by Andres Serrano that accompanied your recent Sunday magazine article 'Interrogating Ourselves' would have been better described by the simple credit line: 'Photographic illustrations by Andres Serrano'".

This should apply to all press photographs for without knowing that we are looking at a staged photograph we often cannot see that. Or, we might think a picture to be staged when it is not. To me, for example, the "Wonder Valley Bicycle" by the San Francisco photo-artist Emelle Sonh, shown above, seemed staged — however, it was not, as she wrote in an email to me

"It would be interesting to see if most people would say it is staged. My guess is that people who have lived for some time in the desert, for example, are familiar with such views, and would recognize it as quite likely not staged ... this is not to say someone at some time did not put that old bicycle in that spot but that is different than the photographer setting it there for the purpose of making a "staged" photograph. People have different capacities to believe the improbable ..."

I do not disagree ... yet, since most people have not lived in the desert for some time it would be helpful to include this information. For without being told what we are looking at we can only see what we already know.

Excerpt from my essay "Pictures with words", Soundscapes, Groningen, October 2008

Thursday, 24 June 2010

We are not condemned

... we are not condemned to expect from the world what our culture has told us.
The culture we grow up in is not a static entity, neither is our identity fixed once and for all. We get older, might decide to live in foreign cultures, might even acquire knowledge that teaches us that some of the things we were once taught are quite possibly wrong in themselves, not only wrong in a given context.

Hans Durrer: Ways of Perception. On Visual and Intercultural Communication, White Lotus Press, Bangkok, 2006, ISBN 974-4800-92-5

Tuesday, 22 June 2010


Die Menschen, die immer von der besseren Zukunft schwatzen, sind die grössten Verderber der Welt. Der Glaube an eine bessere Zukunft, er vor allem, muss den Menschen genommen werden. Denn schliesslich haben wir es ihm zu verdanken, dass wir uns ewig im Kreise drehen. Die Namen wechseln, die Institutionen wechseln, die Sache, nämlich der Mensch, bleibt immer derselbe. Es kommt aber gerade darauf an, dass der Mensch ein anderer wird. Die Fortschritte der Wissenschaft, der Institutionen sind daneben eine gleichgültige Spielerei.
Hans Albrecht Moser: Vineta

Sunday, 20 June 2010


A idéia para uma crônica me vem sempre como uma experiência de alegria, mesmo que o assunto seja triste. Ela aparece repentinamente, nos momentos mais inesperados, como a visão de uma imagem. O que tento fazer é simplesmente pintar com palavras a cena que se configurou na minha imaginação.

Sou psicanalista. Meu trabalho se baseia na escuta. Cada cliente fala e, ao fazer isso, me permite andar nas paisagens da sua alma. Ao escrever uma crônica faço o contrário: sou eu que ofereço as paisagens da minha alma aos olhos dos meus leitores. E eles, sem o saber, são os meus psicanalistas ...

O escritor não é alguém que vê coisas que ninguém mais vê. O que ele faz é simplesmente iluminar com os seus olhos aquilo que todos vêem sem se dar conta disso. E o que se espera é que as pessoas tenham aquela experiência a que os filósofos Zen dão o nome de "satori": a abertura de um terceiro olho, para que o mundo já conhecido seja de novo conhecido como nunca o foi.

Rubem Alves: O retorno e terno

Friday, 18 June 2010

Portrait of an Addict

"This is the story of one of the most gifted, charismatic and successful young literary agents in New York and his catastrophic fall into full-blown crack addiction ...", the publishing company lets one know. For somebody like me who is not into such ridiculous superlatives (how would one measure such attributes anyway?) this is a bit hard to stomach. Then I looked at the back cover where Andrew O'Hagan (whose "Our Fathers" I had admired) is quoted as saying: "Anybody who knows anything about addiction will feel morally altered by this book." Well, it's probably the other way 'round for reading books will definitely not morally alter you. However, since nobody really knows what makes an addict change, I might of course be wrong and Mr O'Hagan's claim will revolutionise the treatment industry. Zoe Heller's judgement in The Independent is probably more to the point: "And it is hard for me to believe that anyone who knows anything about addiction will not be slightly bored by this book".

Don't get me wrong: Mr. Clegg is a fine writer (in fact: his prose alone merits reading this slim volume) and does a very good job describing the addict's mindset - the paranoia, the manic sociability, the hallucinations, the perpetual anxiety about getting the next fix, and so on - but the persistent repetitions of his drug-taking preparations and subsequent clean-ups: "I let my stem cool and wrap it in a wad of tissue paper. I gather two rocks and the remaining crumbs from the ashtray and put them in the mini zip-lock bag they came in. I ditch the towel, scramble into my clothes, and shove the pipe, bag and lighter into the front pocket of my jeans" are (Zoe Heller is right) rather tiresome - yet this book is still an excellent read, not least because it makes one (yes, I speak of myself) at times want to grab him by his coat, pull him back and shout: "No! Don't!"

Moreover, there are quite a few things to learn from this book: about New York City gay life - Clegg, who has a boyfriend, picks up guys by asking whether they party or orders male hookers; that crack use makes your contact lenses dry out, so that they pop right off your eyes; that there are - what a joke! - Harm Reduction Counselors ("which is another way of saying someone who helps you plan your alcohol and drug use, to get it under control."); that addicts "have antennae that can sometimes detect the kindred frequency of other addicts ..." and and and ...

But let me quote Zoe Heller (whose writing I love) again: "Thanks to a substantial savings account, he never had to steal or prostitute himself to finance his habit. He was never beaten up, or raped, or robbed. He lived out the grimmest period of his debauch in a series of expensive, modish hotels in downtown Manhattan. And when his money ran out, he entered rehab and got better. (He has since regained his health and will to live and is back to being one of the most gifted, charismatic, etc at William Morris.) The absence of any particularly exotic or extraordinary element in Clegg’s story is not, in and of itself, a mark against it. On the contrary, in an age in which the writing of memoirs seems to have degenerated into an atrocity contest, there is something rare and refreshing about an author who is content to confess such unexceptional miseries."

True, Clegg's rock bottom was still a somewhat comfortable one (if there is such a thing) but to call his miseries "unexceptional" seems, well, a bit of a stretch. The amount of crack he uses, the quantities of vodka he drinks, the erratic behaviour he shows, the anxiety he experiences, and the panic attacks he suffers, are undoubtedly extraordinary.

What drove Mr. Clegg to crack? Dwight Garner's guess ("a towering inferiority complex") in the New York Times is as good as any other guess ... but it is not more than a guess. Yes, a plausible one yet what we human beings think to be plausible needs not necessarily correspond to the complexity of human behaviour. Actually, Clegg himself comes up with a much better answer than Garner: "Why did I drink so much at L'acajou three nights ago? WHY, oh, Jesus Christ, WHY? I've asked myself the question hundreds of times in the harsh light of hundreds of mornings and, as always, there's no answer." As the biologist J.B.S. Haldane once penned: "The universe is not only much queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose".

In sum: this is a most captivating book, and I highly recommend it. Not least because Clegg's descriptions of his drug-induced paranoia - he feels followed by men in cheap suits, cabs, and helicopters - are still, even days after I finished reading his memoir, vividly with me.

Bill Clegg
Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man
Jonathan Cape, London 2010

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Guaraná & Perception

One of my Brazilian discoveries is Guaraná, my now favourite soft drink. Until recently I thought that it was only available in Brazil. Then I saw it on supermarket shelves in Portugal. I felt so pleased that I bought quite some cans and took them along to Switzerland. Now imagine my surprise when, a few days later, in a Coop (a Swiss supermarket chain) in Rorschach, I noticed Guaraná on the shelves. It was my first time in that Coop and this is very probably the reason why I spotted the Guaraná for in the one of my hometown (which I visit almost daily) I had never seen it. They couldn't possibly have it, I said to myself, knowing full well that this was not very probable. Nevertheless, next time in my home Coop I asked one of the employees whether they had Guaraná. Yes, we do, she said. And since when? A few years, she responded.

Sometimes one needs a change of scene to discover what has been always in front of one's eyes.

Monday, 14 June 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness

A republic founded on the “pursuit of happiness” seems a culture destined for disappointment, if only because it’s pursuing something that, by definition, doesn’t come from being sought; a culture founded, however inadvertently or subconsciously, on the First Noble Truth of Buddhism – the reality of suffering – seems better placed to deal with sorrow, and be pleasantly surprised by joy.
Pico Iyer: The Global Soul

Saturday, 12 June 2010


Es gilt eine Entdeckung anzukündigen: "Ausradiert" von Percival Everett, ein facettenreicher Lesegenuss erster Güte.

Die Rahmenhandlung geht so: dem Schriftsteller und Afroamerikaner Thelonius "Monk" Ellison wird vorgeworfen, dass seine Bücher nicht nur schwer verständlich, sondern vor allem nicht schwarz genug seien, zu wenig Ghettoliteratur eben. Ihm selber ist genau diese (von Kritik und Publikum begeistert aufgenommene) total widerlich. Da er jedoch mit seinen eigenen, reichlich abgehobenen Texten kein Publikum findet, setzt er sich eines Tages hin und schreibt, unter einem Gangsta-Pseudonym, selber einen äusserst erfolgreichen Ghettoroman (den man übrigens unter dem Titel "Mein Ding" auch in diesem Buch findet), den er als Parodie versteht.

Eine originelle Idee, sicher, und auch gut umgesetzt, und schon deshalb lohnt die Lektüre, doch was das Buch für mich so aussergewöhnlich und empfehlenswert macht, ist was anderes: dass da nämlich eine Vielzahl ganz verschiedener Geschichten erzählt und trotzdem die Spannung bis zum Schluss durchgehalten wird (nein, es ist kein Thriller, es ist einfach gut erzählt). Hier ein paar Stichworte zu dem, was auch in diesem Buch vorkommt: Gedanken über Holzarbeit und über's Schreiben, Kurz-Dialoge zwischen Rothko und Resnais, Rauschenberg und de Kooning, Wilde und Joyce, Betrachtungen zum Literaturbetrieb und und und ... Und das alles soll zusammengehen? Ja, das tut es. Weil der Percivel Everett nicht nur wunderbar schreiben kann, sondern auch was zu erzählen hat. Dazu kommt, dass das Buch auch noch witzig ist.

So beschreibt sich der Protagonist selber (aus Anlass seiner Aufnahme in die Jury einer Literaturpreises):
Autor von fünf Büchern. Weitgehend ungelesene, experimentelle Erzählungen und Romane. Als anspruchsvoll und oft unzugänglich betrachtet. Bekannt für seinen Roman Das zweite Scheitern. Ein einsamer Mann, der offenbar alle Freunde verloren hat. Besucht täglich seine Mutter, auch wenn sie vergessen hat, wer er ist. Kann nicht mit seinem Bruder reden, weil der ein Idiot ist. Kann nicht mit seiner Schwester reden, weil sie tot ist. Zu verwirrt, um tatsächlich depressiv zu sein. Mag Angeln und Holzarbeit. Sucht nach einer allein stehenden Frau mit ähnlichen Interessen. Lebt in der Hauptstadt.

Und so charakterisiert er den Jury-Vorsitzenden: Autor von sechs Romanen. sein letztes Buch war ein erzählendes Sachbuch mit dem Titel Die Zeit verrinnt, über seine Frau, bei der Krebs diagnostiziert wurde. Am Ende ist sie nicht gestorben und ihre Geheimnisse, die er offenbart hat, haben dazu geführt, dass sie sich scheiden liess, sodass die Literaturwelt mit Spannung sein kommendes Buch, Mein Fehler, erwartet. Er ist Professor an der Universität von Alabama.

Hier noch ein paar weitere Kostproben:
Früher suchte ich in allem eine tiefere Bedeutung, dachte, ich würde mich wie ein hermeneutischer Detektiv durch die Welt bewegen, doch als ich zwölf war, habe ich damit aufgehört. Auch wenn ich es damals nicht ausdrücken konnte, ich habe seither erkannt, dass ich jede Suche nach einer Erklärung dessen aufgegeben habe, was man subjektive oder thematische Bedeutungsschemata nennen könnte. Stattdessen habe ich sie durch die reine Schilderung von spezifischen Fallbeschreibungen ersetzt, aus denen ich zumindest Schlüsse ziehen konnte, wie vage diese auch immer waren, die mir erlaubten, die Welt, so wie sie auf mich einwirkte, zu verstehen. Mit anderen Worten, ich habe gelernt, die Dinge zu nehmen, wie sie kamen. Mit noch anderen Worten, mir war alles egal.

Eine Männerstimme sprach zu Bill (des Autors Bruder) und er antwortete, nannte den Mann 'Liebling'. Ich konnte nicht verleugnen, dass es mich schaudern liess, dies zu hören, und ich fühlte mich schlecht wegen meiner Reaktion.

Marilyn goss Kaffee ein ...
"Es tut mir leid, dass ich gestern nicht angerufen habe."
"Ich nahm an, du seist beschäftigt", sagte ich.
"Clevon und ich haben uns jetzt offiziell getrennt."
Diese Neuigkeiten gefielen mir, aber ich war unsicher, wie ich reagieren sollte.
Nach einer kurzen Pause sagte Marylin: "Ich muss dir trotzdem sagen, dass wir in jener Nacht miteinander geschlafen haben."
Warum musste sie mir das sagen? Ich musste es nicht wissen und konnte auch ohne diese Information ganz gut auskommen. Hätte ich es nicht gewusst, es hättte mich auch nicht gekümmert, doch nun musste es mich kümmern. Es kümmerte mich, was er für sie bedeutete, was ich ihr bedeutete, ob sie oben gelegen hatte oder er, ob sie einen Orgasmus gehabt hatte oder mehr als einen, wie gross sein Schwanz war, warum sie es mir gesagt hatte. Ich betrachtete den abgenutzten Holztisch, verzogene Kiefernlatten mit einem auf Gehrung gesägten Rand aus Ahorn. Eine merkwürdige Zusammenstellung. Ich liess meine Finger über die abgerundete Kante vor mir gleiten. "Ich nehme an, solche Dinge passieren einfach", sagte ich.
"Ich habe erkannt, dass er mir nichts bedeutet."
Ich nickte. "Eine gute Erkenntnis." Wenn auch spät.

Percival Everett
Jens Seelig Verlag, Frankfurt am Main

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Drugs & Harm

... by any known measure the number of people who are not harming themselves or others as a result of using drugs exceeds by a wide margin the number of people whose drug use actually causes harm. Much drug use is relatively harmless. This fact helps to explain, though it does not entirely explain, why so many people use drugs and in some cases go on using them.
Drugs – facing facts
The report of the RSA Commission on Illegal Drugs, Communities and Public Policy, March 2007

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Socks & Photography

On a recent trip to San Francisco, the widely unknown Swiss photographer Trigger Bore didn't know that he would discover what soon was to become the defining project of his photographic life: the socks-series.

Trigger had come to San Francisco to visit his friend, the photo-artist Edna O'Look. One rainy morning in the Richmond, the two friends were heading towards Geary when Edna pointed to something that lay on the pavement on the corner of 25 Ave and Geary and, as it was her habit, exclaimed: Oh look! Trigger Bore did not look for Edna O'Look constantly pointed out totally unremarkable objects wherever they went. Yet this time it wasn't that easy to ignore her for she had come to a complete standstill and thus blocked Trigger's path.

She looked inquiringly at a piece of wet wool that to Trigger looked like an abandoned sock and not really worth his attention, especially since it was raining and he had to urgently pee. Yet Edna was thoroughly oblivious to such mundane occurrences — her latest project had revolved around water and since then everything in liquid form did not bother her anymore. Moreover, she was rather big on awareness: to be aware of whatever seemed to her something positive in itself. To Trigger this appeared an obvious compensation for Edna slept between ten and twelve hours every night so no wonder did she need to make up for lost time by making an extra effort to be extra-awake — or, in her words: aware.

It's a sock, Trigger said. Interesting, innit? Edna responded. It's just a sock! Trigger exclaimed. What is interesting about a wet sock on the street? Well, I noticed it, Edna said. I wouldn't go as far as to attribute special meaning to that but the story behind this sock could actually be quite fascinating. Trigger still needed to pee and so he said: Can't we talk about it over coffee. Sure, Edna said.

When Trigger had finally emptied his bladder, he said: I can't believe that a wet sock on the street should arouse your interest. Don't you look at a sock differently when it is not in its usual place? Edna replied. What do you consider the usual place for a sock then? On a foot or in a closet. I agree, Trigger said, but what about a wet sock? Its proper place would be on a line hung to dry. Right, Trigger replied, but I still don't get it. I mean I simply don't care about a wet sock on the street. Well, Edna said, it allows you to look at the sock and at the place where the sock lies differently. If no sock were there, you probably wouldn't even have paid attention. Well, Trigger said, I hadn't paid attention despite of the sock lying there. That's the difference, Edna retorted, I pay attention and you don't. And because I do, I develop alternate view-points. And that in turn allows me to connect the dots differently. Which is precisely what fascinates me.

This whole paying attention thing did not make much sense to Trigger for he often wished he were less aware of people, places and things than he was. To him this awareness crap seemed completely overrated. What good was it, for instance, to be aware of one's toothache? Or of one's tinnitus?
On the other hand Edna's sock awareness also intrigued him. During the next few days he caught himself looking out for wet socks wherever he went. He never saw one. Edna however did. Wet socks? Trigger inquired. Yes, wet socks.

Trigger tried harder. But there were no wet socks where he went. But then, one day, he saw one. A wet red sock. On Fulton and 32nd Avenue. He felt excited, took out his camera and started shooting. From all angles. He beamed with pleasure when he told Edna. Being Californian she shared his pleasure and felt happy for him.

Two days later he detected another one. This time it was a dry black one. On Cabrillo. He could hardly believe his luck. But he was also slightly suspicious for Cabrillo was almost a bit too close to where he and Edna lived on 32nd Avenue. And Fulton of course was also suspiciously close. Could it be that Edna had planted the socks? Possibly, he thought. But come on, he said to himself, now that I've found my calling I'm not willing to give it up for such an unlikely possibility.

I'm missing two of my socks, Edna said two days later. A red and a black one. You seen them?

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Purpose & Pleasure

We do not ask for what useful purpose the birds do sing, for song is their pleasure since they were created for singing. Similarly, we ought not to ask why the human mind troubles to fathom the secrets of the heavens. The diversity of the phenomena of nature is so great and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh enrichment.
Johannes Kepler

Friday, 4 June 2010

The Alcoholic´s Mind

Recently, while researching the literature for a longer essay on whether AA works, I came across Understanding the Alcoholic's Mind by Arnold M. Ludwig, one of my most enjoyable reads ever on addiction: Here are some excerpts:

There is no general agreement about the nature, cause, or treatment of alcoholism. What is an alcoholic? Where does one draw the line between problem drinking and alcoholism, between alcohol dependence and addiction? Is alcoholism one disorder or a collection of different disorders? Is it a moral failing, a bad habit, or a disease? Do alcoholics have distinctive personality features? Is alcoholism hereditary or learned? Does excessive drinking represent a symptomatic expression of an underlying conflict or is it the primary problem itself? Which treatment approach, if any, is most effective? Who is best qualified to help? The questions can go on and on. There are no scientific answers. In the absence of facts, opinions and beliefs tend to prevail. Sometimes they seem paradoxical and inconsistent. Consider the following.
  • "Hitting bottom" is presumed to be a necessary step for recovery. even though being in dire straits, for all other illnesses, usually indicates a poor rather than favourable diagnosis.

  • Recovery from alcoholism - at least according to Alcoholics Anonymous - depends upon admission and acceptance of helplessness by the alcoholic. To gain control over the disease, the individual must relinquish his personal will to that of a Higher Power and to the community of fellow alcoholics. In effect, the acceptance of personal weakness becomes the basis of strength.

  • Along with other addictions, alcoholism is unique in the extent to which the individual is blamed if the treatment fails. If the alcoholic does not remain abstinent, therapists and staff presume that he is unmotivated for or unreceptive to help.

  • In many hospital treatment settings, alcoholics are immediately discharged from the program if they are presumed to be uncooperative, unmotivated, setting poor examples for others, or if they are found to be intoxicated or drinking on the premises. In other words, they are not regarded as suitable for treatment if they show evidence of their sickness; namely, an inability to control their drinking. The catch-22 is that they must remain sober in order to receive help.

  • Alcoholism represents a disorder in which alcoholics presumably cannot refrain from drinking, yet most therapeutic programs expect them, once abstinent, never to consume that first drink.

  • Alcoholics are regarded as "sick" - at least for purposes of hospitalization or treatment - but society tends to hold them responsible for their transgressions or crimes.

  • Alcoholism as a disease is still presumed to exist even when an alcoholic has been sober for years. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic, as the saying goes. Even with cancer, the prognosis is not that grim.

  • Because alcoholism is regarded as a "disease", certain therapeutic agencies do not hold alcoholics responsible for the harm caused by past drinking, but they do regard them as responsible for their present and future behaviors, an important and interesting distinction.

  • Alcoholism is the only "disease" for which communion with a Higher Power is regarded by many as an essential element for recovery. Even physicians who are otherwise wary of the role of religion in medicine and rely primarily on drugs and procedures of proven, scientific merit for the treatment of serious illnesses, endorse participation in Alcoholics Anonymous, which has a strong spiritual emphasis, as an importnat component of therapy.

  • Alcoholism is a "disease" in which characteristic symptoms, such as urges and cravings to drink, can appear mysteriously at certain times, for example, during evenings and weekends, and be absent at others, as at work or at church. With the exception of other addictions, what medical diseases are so dependent on the mental expectations of the sufferers and the physical settings in which they exist?

  • When uncomplicated by medical problems, alcoholism is assumed by many to be better treated by those who have suffered from it than by trained professionals who never have. Alcoholism is the only "disease" about which the recovered patient is presumed to know more than the doctor.

  • Alcoholism is the only disorder for which the label of "alcoholic" is regarded as a stigma or a moral condemnation by some and a badge of honor by others, the qualification of automatic membership into a fellowship of like-minded sufferers. Unlike individuals with cancer, hypertension, or other medical diseases, alcoholics tend to become defined by their disease, which presumably obliterates their individuality, putting them on the same footing as other alcoholics. They are alcoholics first and foremost, even when sober, rather than individuals with a drinking problem.
With all these paradoxical claims, it is not surprising that so many claim expertise in this area.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Der Eremit von Peking

"Der Eremit von Peking" ist bei Eichborn in Frankfurt am Main erschienen, und zwar in der von Hans Magnus Enzensberger begründeten und heute von Klaus Harpprecht und Michael Naumann herausgegebenen Reihe "Die Andere Bibliothek". Das wird nicht zuletzt deshalb erwähnt, weil Michael Naumann diesem ausserordentlich schön ausgestatten Band ein Geleitwort beigegeben hat, worin er treffend festhält: "... Geschichtsfälschungen gehören selbst zur Geschichte; doch nicht immer sind ihre Aufdeckungen so spannend und vergnüglich zu lesen, wie in diesem Buch." Übrigens: Trevor-Roper, der Autor, ist selber einmal Opfer einer Fälschung geworden - er hielt die Hitler-Tagebücher von Gerd Heidemann und Konrad Kujau für echt.

Worum geht's in diesem Buch? Edmund Backhouse, ein aussergewöhnlich sprachbegabter Engländer, schreibt 1910, zusammen mit dem Korrespondenten der Times in Shanghai, John Otway Percy Bland, den Klassiker "China unter der Kaiserin Witwe", der über das dekadente Leben am kaiserlichen Hof berichtete, doch es handelte sich um eine Fälschung, denn das Tagebuch von Jing Shan (einem Mandschu-Gelehrten aus vornehmer Familie, der mit der Kaiserinwitwe verwandt war und in enger Verbindung zu allen wichtigen Persönlichkeiten des Kaiserlichen Hofes stand), auf dem das Werk beruht, erwies sich (jedoch erst 1973) als grandiose Erfindung.

"Der Eremit von Peking" ist ein äusserst anregendes Buch, das einem nicht zuletzt vor Augen führt, wie es bei der Geschichtsschreibung zu und her geht - zumeist machtbesessen, eitel und ziemlich niederträchtig. Nicht zuletzt die Schilderungen der Rivalität zwischen Bland und dem Times Chefkorrespondenten in Peking, Morrison, illustrieren dies besonders schön.

Man liest dieses Buch auch deshalb mit Gewinn, weil man lernt, wie unser Bild von China zustandekommt. So erfährt man etwa, dass der einflussreiche und instinktsichere Morrison gar kein Chinesisch sprach oder dass John Jordan (natürlich ein "Sir"), der britische Gesandte in Peking, "schonungslos, fast undiplomatisch, voller Verachtung für orientalische Heuchelei" und "aufgrund seiner langen Erfahrung, seiner Detailkenntnis und seiner Ehrlichkeit zum angesehensten Mitglied des diplomatischen Corps in Peking geworden" war.

Verdienstvollerweise führt Trevor-Roper im Vorwort die Quellen auf, auf die er sich bei seiner Forschungsarbeit stützte. Dabei erwähnt er auch, dass Backhouse keine persönlichen Papiere hinterliess und es über die Familie Backhouse keine Unterlagen gibt. Trevor-Roper stützte sich auf vier Manuskriptquellen: den Briefwechsel mit der Bodleian Library über die Backhouse Sammlung, die Schriften von Morrison und Bland, den im Besitz von Reinhard Hoeppli in Basel sich befindenden Memoiren (Hoeppli hatte Backhouse angeregt, und dafür bezahlt, seine Erinnerungen zu Papier zu bringen) und schliesslich ein weiteres Dokument, aus dem hervorgeht, dass Backhouse offenbar auch Geheimagent gewesen ist.

Fragen kann man sich allerdings, wie realistisch eine Biografie, die sich hauptsächlich auf Dokumente stützt, eigentlich sein kann. So zeugen etwa Sätze wie "Es verdross Morrison stets aufs neue, wenn er an jenen ungelegenen Jagdausflug nach Kwantai zurückdachte" oder "Bland war zwar geradeheraus und extrovertiert, aber nie anmassend und arrogant" wohl vor allem von des Autors blühender Fantasie, denn woher will er solches wissen?

"Seine Schriften zeigen ihn als freundlichen Mann, der, auch wenn er sehr aufgebracht ist, sein widerspenstiges Gegenüber geduldig, höflich und rücksichtsvoll behandelt", schreibt Trevor-Roper. Na ja, von der Art, wie einer schreibt (und sich darstellt) auf seinen Charakter zu schliessen, ist schon ziemlich spekulativ und lässt nicht gerade auf einen ausgeprägten Realitätssinn schliessen.

"Spekulieren wir ruhig noch ein wenig weiter", schreibt der Autor (augenzwinkernd, wie man annehmen darf) an anderer Stelle und zeigt in der Folge auf, wie und weshalb er welche Schlüsse aus einem Brief zieht. Solche Geschichtsschreibung lässt man sich hingegen gerne gefallen.

Hugh Trevor-Roper

Der Eremit von Peking
Die Geschichte eines genialen Fälschers
Eichborn Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2009