Monday, April 04, 2011

‘difficult to translate’: The German Genius by Peter Watson

BB mentioned The German Genius in his blog, and, always glad to hear of some interesting new non-fiction, I borrowed it from the library here in the Yellow Tavern quadrant. Glad I did, even if I did have to renew the doorstop sized (964 pp.) thing.

Part of my fascination is language. Profs say English is from one kinda Deutsche or another;swell until a word like Bildung comes along. It is not just a word: it is a concept, very important to understanding Germany. Which is important and really needs to use a lot of pp. to tell you why. One word does not equal one word in another language. Several word/concepts like that. When you see italics, start paying attention.

Watson's basic tenet is this: from 1750-1933 it was the Germans. They transformed themselves, assembled a country, and dominated the cultural and academic scenes. Ask the average citizen to name 3 ‘classical’ composers: chances are they will mention at least 2 German musicians. Sociology. Psychology. Painters.My old Penguin pb copy of Also Sprach Zarathustra uses Friedrich’s "Wanderer above the sea of fog" on the cover. That is the sole piece of German art I can recall. Well excpt Bierstadt, but he was American.America has benefited by steady influx of German people, for many reasons. They invented Expressionism.The book has 849 pp., plus a list of “35 Underrated Germans”; goes quick in spots. Watson is thorough in his coverage of German culture (and Kultur); being Germans, there is a difference. I looked forward to the post war sections and was rewarded. We learn why 1968 was an important year for modern Germany. I enjoyed reading about science and chemical industries; copious notes with bibliographic citations can help one pursue topics. Dyes. IG Farben, which is Thomas Pynchon country. Rocket science, theoretical physics.Practical physics, for example the electron microscope. How the Germans invented the seminar and research was institutionalized by the universities with the development of the modern PhD. It is all in there. Dealing with WW2. Why Germans are such good recyclers.

Each chapter is like another term paper: Watson uses many direct quotes, and not always in a supportive of his thesis role. He will occasionally use a quoted adjective; I found this irksome. It gets slow at philosophy; Germans have been at work there too. Never knew of the philosophical link to the music, the notes, of Wagner, who frequently (along with his erstwhile pal Nietzsche) pops up. The section on German film was satisfactory for a book of this size. I never quite wanted to put it down. Watson has a conversational style; a plus over the long haul. One has to be interested in Germans, very much, or in intellectual/scientific history to read this. I am glad I did.


Barrett Bonden said...

Speaking as one who passed through formal education like a wraith, I found myself uncharacteristically wolfing down the early chapter (s?) on how the German education system evolved. As Watson suggests, this is what the sustained national achivement is based on and good luck to them. You're right about words being untranslatable. The trouble with those Lego-like German structures is that you're tempted to believe you've got a handle simply from knowing the meaning of the individual parts. Thus vorstellen could mean "placing in front of" but actually means "introducing"; you can see the link but it would be a hell of an achievement to get there in one jump. Going beyond that you come up against the words you cite and realise there are whole philosophies contained in a few letters.

However, my main reaction to the book was that we consistently underrate the Germans and Watson goes a long way to proving how ashamed we should be about this. Hope your wrists were up to the job.

Relucent Reader said...

Thank you for the comment, BB.
"Wraith": I like that. My career was very non-wraithlike,m full of noise.
Twain has a take on German, if memory serves, and essay called 'The Awful German Language' or such.
I have had this fascination with Germany for years: I remember grilling some poor diplomat who came to our Jr. High school with repeated questions.
Then there was Alfred and Gerlinde; he was a machinist who came to my father's company to either troubleshoot machines or to study American style machining. The reason is lost to me. I do remember, however, Alfred admiring one of my Aurora (American model firm, similar to Airfix in modeler's memories) FW190's.
In re: wrists. This would have been a good time for an e-reader, I think, less bulk and/or intimidation.

The Crow said...

Just checking in to say hello, and to express my hope that all is well with you and Missus RR.