Dreaming of Utopia at Berghain: a Log of Digressions through Nights in Berlin — or, Some Reflections on the Productive Powers and Destructive Potential of Social Delirium

Utopia: the a-topos, the non-point, the no-where…

Hieronymous Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights. Public Domain
Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490–1500). Public Domain.

In this painting by Bosch, three scenes are set up side by side. Looking from left to right, we can make out something like paradise, worldly pleasure, and damnation. The relationship between each scene, however, is not clear. It’s not specified whether one is meant to follow or precede the other, whether one is an aspect or antithesis of the other. They are just images that exist in simple parallelism, simultaneous possibilities of an overdetermined world.

The portraits that emerge out of this essay can be thought of in the same way. Rather than make a statement or arrive at a conclusion, I’ve simply sought to elaborate to the fullest the images that occurred to me. What the order of these images is, what sum they add up to, whether they express political insight or personal delirium, are things which perhaps cannot be decided. I can only add that, in recording my experiences, I have pursued a deliberate confusion of suggestion and reality, of the similar and the same, willingly allowing myself to blindly chase after every comparison that occurred to me. I want an extravagance of similes, an excess of images, hyperbole and grotesque, but neither for its own sake alone, nor in order to make a point. No, I don’t want to make a point, but simply to point, that is, in the direction of something.

 

I.

I’m coming home from a club in Berlin. It’s about 5:30, which is relatively early by the standards here. The S-Bahn station is populated here and there by a mix of ravers, some looking for yet another party, some struggling to stay awake, and dazed construction workers, still waking up, off to an early shift. What’s strange about this scene is that if it weren’t for a few differences in fashion you could almost confuse the two. They both look worn down and used up. The creases in their faces stand out prominently in the harsh fluorescent light. Their clothes are visibly soiled, and they seem either to fail to notice or to have stopped caring.

It’s a strange irony that hedonism and unrestrained self-indulgence can destroy a person just as much as the inhuman drudgery of labor. The relationship to work is the exact opposite: one accepts a position of servitude with resignation and forfeits the claim to a life of one’s own; the other commits itself to a radically egotistical lifestyle, always taking as much as it can for itself and violently refusing compromise in every instance. Both, however, are forms of nihilism. You could say that one is all out of hope, while the other doesn’t need any. But, then again, is there really that much of a difference?

These are some of the thoughts, still unfinished and inarticulate, that pass through my head as I’m sitting at the station, waiting for the train to arrive, and trying to organize the chaos of impressions that I’ve collected over the past months of living in Berlin. And what strikes me on this occasion is the utter strangeness of this situation which, in the modern urbanized world, has become so unremarkable and banal: people occupying the same space and yet not acknowledging the presence of the others — in fact, not only failing to acknowledge the others, but actively seeking out ways to simulate an experience of privacy. And perhaps it’s a kind of hallucination triggered by sleep deprivation (I’ve been up for more than 24 hours at this point), but I can’t help but feel that there is a kind of invisible tension between these people, between the people going to work and the people coming from the party, that they are like two sides of a single human, which has become estranged from itself, split off from itself, and atrophied into a grotesque deformity of what it once was, or what it could be. On the one hand, the melancholic lassitude of the aging construction worker who slouches in his seat, turns his head away from the others, and stares vaguely out the window of the train, seeming to see nothing. On the other hand, the seething impatience of the kid high on speed, chewing his gum with a kind of subliminal aggression, checking his phone several times within the minute, and looking up challengingly at everyone who walks past. They could be father and son — but it’s all too much to think about. Maybe the broken pieces of the world can’t really be put back together again. I get home, pass out, and the next morning the whole night seems like a strange dream.

Seen from a certain perspective, life in a big city is largely an act of pretending not to recognize each other. Every day we are forced to constantly disown a part of ourselves. We stand in the stream of faces that all look like people we once knew, and we pass by in complete indifference. It is like a discomposed image of our past. We recognize something, but we don’t say anything, reassuring ourselves that it is just a resemblance. The modern world celebrates anonymity, perhaps it has no other choice. But it is worth wondering whether it is really possible, in the end, to avoid recognition.

Why is the music in all the clubs here so loud? Why is it that it’s almost impossible to speak? What is it that people don’t want to hear? Is it language, mundane and superfluous, which stands in the way of recognition? Or are we, in allowing ourselves to be carried along by the music, disowning the only thing that we would ever be recognized by, the only voice which is uniquely our own?

Hieronymous Bosch, detail from Garden of Earthly Delights center panel
Hieronymus Bosch, detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights center panel. Public Domain.

 

II.

“If one had to expound the teachings of antiquity, with utmost brevity… it could only be in this sentence: ‘They alone shall possess the earth who live from the powers of the cosmos’.” – Walter Benjamin

In his book on the mystery cults of antiquity, Walter Burkert explains that the most important word for “ritual” in the context of the Dionysian mysteries was orgion, from which the modern English “orgy” derives. Orgion derives in turn from ergon, meaning “work”, “force”, or “product of labor”. A further relative is energeia, from which stems the modern English “energy”.

The correspondences suggested by such linguistic kinships — tying together sexuality, labor, and collective religious experience — are further articulated in the cults themselves. Although sources on the practices of the mystery cults are frustratingly limited, it is clear that much of the symbolism they made use of in their artifacts and rituals centers around procreation and the productive forces of nature. Ears of grain appear repeatedly, either as objects borne in ceremony or as depicted on reliefs. A few reliefs contain bizarre, overpopulated, almost surreal scenes that center around bulls’ genitals. One in particular depicts a bull’s “semen being collected in a krater, a scorpion grabbing at the testicles, and the tail turning into ears of grain” (106-107) [1]. Whatever the basis of this image, for which we lack a corresponding text, we notice a repeated thematization of the vital forces of life, the process of generation, the kernel of nature’s energy.

I’m reminded here that Berghain is located in a former thermal powerplant of East Berlin. In other words, at the site of this modern orgion, a kind of post-industrial energy generator.

Walter Benjamin has described the first World War as a failed attempt at staging a worldwide ecstatic rite organized by modern industry. Technology, as the channel through which we receive and direct the powers of nature, stands to bequeath to humanity a virtually unlimited supply of creative energy. And yet, if the origins of this energy are not respected, it threatens to turn in the direction of destruction. Humanity, according to Benjamin, cannot live from the cosmos without periodically honoring its debt in the form of collective communion. Modern civilization ignores the ritual aspect of history at its own peril:

The ancients’ intercourse with the cosmos had been different: the ecstatic trance. For it is in this experience alone that we gain certain knowledge of what is nearest to us and what is remotest from us, and never of one without the other. This means, however, that man can be in ecstatic contact with the cosmos only communally. It is the dangerous error of modern men to regard this experience as unimportant and avoidable, and to consign it to the individual as the poetic rapture of starry nights. It is not; its hour strikes again and again, and then neither nations nor generations can escape it, as was made terribly clear by the last war, which was an attempt at new and unprecedented commingling with the cosmic powers. Human multitudes, gases, electrical forces were hurled into the open country, high-frequency currents coursed through the landscape, new constellations rose in the sky, aerial space and ocean depths thundered with propellers, and everywhere sacrificial shafts were dug in Mother Earth. This immense wooing of the cosmos was enacted for the first time on a planetary scale—that is, in the spirit of technology. But because the lust for profit of the ruling class sought satisfaction through it, technology betrayed man and turned the bridal bed into a bloodbath. (103-104) [2]

I find it impossible to believe that it is only for the sake of pleasure and enjoyment that some people spend days at a time in a single club without rest dancing to what is essentially the same beat. It is impossible not to see that the party is also work, an end in itself, like the maximization of profit, and that the people here are workers, coming to punch in for a shift. At the same time that the party creates a kind of energy, it feeds on the energy of the people, many of whom, when they aren’t dancing, lie collapsed on benches in the back. Looking at these wasted bodies I’m reminded of the empty beer bottles that are constantly being kicked around the dance floor. They’ve been drunk up and tossed as soon as their contents are emptied. Now they litter the building like the broken glass that is everywhere, the human fallout of a production process that has taken on a life of its own.

 

III.

At the Volksbühne a few weeks before my first trip to Berghain I heard Jean-Luc Nancy give a talk about the state of democracy in the contemporary world. Like many of the Enlightenment thinkers whom he’s influenced by, Nancy is concerned with the question of the ideal community and of the fundamental basis of the ties between people, a set of concerns which one could call utopia. For this discussion that meant that, rather than drawing attention to promising forms of practical political engagement for the present, Nancy preferred to follow his imagination and speak indirectly about a society that seemed to lie somewhere between fantasy and reality, history and myth.

Though I’m not sure what to ultimately make of the talk, two things he said are circulating in my mind as I’m writing this article. First: that techno is currently taking the place which rock and roll once occupied in Western society. Second, and in a different connection: that any true democracy has to be a musical democracy…

I wonder what kind of music they would play in a musical democracy. My sense is that it would not be techno. For that you would need another political form, something less tepid and open to compromise. Nevertheless — or perhaps, for just this reason — I can’t help but feel that there is something vaguely utopian about a place like Berghain. There is a longing for an intensity of experience, a relationship to other people that is not (as so often happens in the modern world) simply based on indifference. And there is something about this longing, I think, that is very closely bound up with the nature of the music. The music is inescapable, loud, and repetitive. It is like a leveling force that destroys the distinctions between people. It pushes language out of the space and with it the possibility of articulating a distance to what is happening. Who you are, where you come from, what you think, are all irrelevant. Like the removal of alienation through a kind of collective amnesia, unity achieved through self-forgetting. Almost as if it were all specifically designed to continuously disrupt the capacity for reflection.

Many of the classical conceptions of utopia are careful theoretical constructions written out in a tenor of determined sobriety and governed hypothetically in the same spirit: from Plato’s vision of a truly just community ruled over by a single philosopher, to Thomas More’s island of knowledge-loving peasants, to Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis centered around a council of scientists. They may disagree about how much weight to give to one or another institution, or they may have differing opinions on the most efficient division of labor. But what they all aim for is a community that is well-thought-out, the best conceived and most sound form of organization, a community based on the accumulated wisdom — and not the errors — of humankind. What’s usually lacking in this tradition of thought is a sense of intoxication, the unique pleasure of delirium, the freedom of blindness and forgetting. If utopia is where political theory meets poetic fantasy, then this fantasy has often taken the form of the sovereign reflection of the individual and rarely the ecstatic immersion in a feeling of collective unity.

In other words, what the classical conception of utopia excludes is music. It appeals only to what Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy — a text deeply concerned itself with the spirit of music — has described as the Apollonian sensibility. It is perhaps first with Rousseau that we encounter a utopian imagination influenced as much by festival as by philosophy — Rousseau, who, in addition to his more widely read works on social theory, also wrote extensively on music. [3]

Hieronymus Bosch, detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights. Public Domain.

For Rousseau, one of the most fundamental problems of life in civilization lies in the progressive cluttering of culture that arises over the course of history, the piling up of arts and sciences, the accumulation of knowledge and experience, to the point that all collective life is pooled into an indiscriminate heap of finished things, in which the original impulse that motivated human activity is no longer discernible. Civilization strives to move beyond the errors of the present, and its projections of a future society reflect in transfigured form the distant memory of a natural harmony, lost long ago. And yet, because this image of utopia arises always out of a contemporary imagination, it risks being contaminated by the corruption that characterizes the present. This is why revolutions often repeat, and in some cases even exaggerate, in grotesque manner, the brutality of the regimes which they were supposed to transcend. In a fallen society, where nothing is not touched by depravity, and a history, which never terminates in an original state, it seems impossible to arrive at a true picture of authentic community. In the preface to his Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (1754), Rousseau describes the dilemma as follows:

Like the statue of Glaucus, which was so disfigured by time, seas and tempests, that it looked more like a wild beast than a god, the human soul, altered in society by a thousand causes perpetually recurring, by the acquisition of a multitude of truths and errors, by the changes happening to the constitution of the body, and by the continual jarring of the passions, has, so to speak, changed in appearance, so as to be hardly recognisable. Instead of a being, acting constantly from fixed and invariable principles, instead of that celestial and majestic simplicity, impressed on it by its divine Author, we find in it only the frightful contrast of passion mistaking itself for reason, and of understanding grown delirious. [4]

In response to this dilemma, in which the activity of civilization has become divorced from its origins in nature, Rousseau calls for a self-reflexive reason that would be capable of seeing through its own ways of seeing. In order to pierce through the nearly endless chain of distortions wrought by history and arrive at that which is most essential in humanity, we need to look into the past with the utmost caution and clarity, continually guarding against the danger of confusing a present wish with a past reality. Whatever we may think of such an idea, it is impossible not to notice a profound irony between this call for resolute sobriety and the tone of blind enthusiasm in the dedication that directly precedes it. In the dedication, Rousseau paints an extensive portrait of his hometown (the then city-state of Geneva) in such hyperbolically idyllic terms that, even taking into account the obvious sentimental value it holds for him, virtually no one could mistake it for a faithful depiction of reality. After addressing the rulers of the city (“Most honourable, magnificent, and sovereign lords”), he sets off on a hypothetical journey through an alpine paradise, populated by rows of smiling women and honest, upstanding citizens, and governed over by a group of enlightened leaders. At one point he compares it to a “peaceful and happy Republic, of an antiquity that lost itself, as it were, in the night of time.” We read this description wondering, however, whether Rousseau has not temporarily lost himself. In this juxtaposition of poetic idyll and scientific treatise, we perceive what is perhaps a fundamental ambiguity in the road to utopia: whether it lies in the direction of clarity or delirium. Although we are told that fantasy can only divert us from the goal, the true path of scientific inquiry appears endlessly long, with the destination perpetually receding into the horizon. As Rousseau himself admits, his own work is far from complete and can at best only prepare the way for others:

Let not my readers therefore imagine that I flatter myself with having seen what it appears to me so difficult to discover. I have here entered upon certain arguments, and risked some conjectures, less in the hope of solving the difficulty, than with a view to throwing some light upon it, and reducing the question to its proper form. Others may easily proceed farther on the same road, and yet no one find it very easy to get to the end. For it is by no means a light undertaking to distinguish properly between what is original and what is artificial in the actual nature of man, or to form a true idea of a state which no longer exists, perhaps never did exist, and probably never will exist…. [5]

And yet, we have just seen that such a state does in fact exist, in the form of Rousseau’s vision of home. Ironically, it is only in moments of lapse, only when he loses his focus and defaults on his responsibility to science, only when he seems to have completely forgotten where it is he had set out to go in the first place, that the reality of utopia comes into sight.

 

IV.

In Germany there is not the same customer service hysteria that you see in the U.S. You don’t hear employees speaking in an artificially cheery tone or asking you questions which they don’t care about simply because they are obliged to gauge customer satisfaction. It is a more honest attitude. People are more honest about their indifference to the fate of their fellow humans. In the absence of any distracting, sham hospitality one begins to feel a bit more starkly the spiritual barrenness of a society in which the fundamental relationship between people is the transaction.

As a paradigm for human relationships the transaction comes to predominate in a fallen world in which the unbearable superfluity of life can only be overcome through the temporary intoxication of incessant consumption. Everything is designed to enable the uninterrupted discharge of energy. Money must be realized, desire must be spent. And it is all executed in the most efficient manner possible with every extraneous element eliminated. In some sense it is a wonderful invention: to finally dispose of the outdated dream of community, whose death-throe stammerings find expression in cash-register small talk. Why carry on with the feeble pretension that people care about anything but themselves? Why not streamline the exchange and do away with all the formalities?

Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights detail. Public Domain.
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights right panel detail. Public Domain.

I am trying to place the peculiar coldness of the people I meet at Berghain. Where have I seen this coldness before? It is the coldness of the sales worker on a long shift, no longer capable of recognizing human faces, only processing the bills he is being handed. The brutal single-mindedness, the empty stare, the latent aggression towards everything that does not help to close the transaction. It is a world in which there is nothing that does not have to be paid for. Nothing is free, and everything is a potential source of debt. At the bar they even try to scam you into paying for water.

It is the kind of world that Bresson sought to depict in Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), this strange film in which the main character, a donkey, is himself a piece of property traded from one house to the next. There is a party scene in this film in which the donkey is tied up to a post in front of a bar, periodically startled by the sound of firecrackers and shattering glass inside. A man wanders through a crowd of young people and taps on the back of a girl he recognizes. It’s not clear what his motivations are, but the guy she’s with intervenes and says, “If you want her, you have to pay.” As the party dissipates and night turns to day, the owner stands in the middle of the bar holding a broom amidst overturned tables and piles of trash and broken glass. He is handed several large bills and is left alone to clean up the destruction. A world in which spirit is constantly being reduced to capital, the weightlessness of what is free to the heaviness of what is owed.

 

V.

Like English, German has taken over the Latin “Festivus” which in both languages has turned into the modern “Festival.” Beside the Latin “Festival”, however, German has retained another word, “Feier”, which, though similar in meaning, carries a slightly different range of connotations. There is an unusual tension in this word “Feier”, which describes on the one hand a situation of levity, ease, and celebration, and on the other a sense of weightiness, concentration, and solemnity. For example, if someone asks you what your plans are for the weekend, you could use the verb form of the word to say that you are going out partying with your friends (“wir gehen feiern”). But as soon as “Feier” appears as the adjective “feierlich”, it means something rather different. “Feierlich” cannot really describe the mood at a neighborhood bar, for example, but it could describe an indoctrination ceremony or initiation rite. Both forms of the word have something to do with “Festival” in the sense of collective ritual, but the types of ritual each describes express, at least on the surface, contradictory emotional content.

I want to linger for a moment on this tension and pose the question of the relation between these two meanings of “Feier”. What kind of experience is reflected in this word? It is the same question to ask: what kind of experience is reflected in a place like Berghain?

It feels at first very strange to go to a party and find yourself in a long line of people in which no one talks above a muted whisper. You have the feeling that they did not come here to have a good time but appear almost out of compulsion and that a very serious decision is about to be made concerning their fate. There is something very disciplined about this crowd, the people behave themselves and seem to fear what could happen if they don’t. The few outliers, usually tourists who seem to have been bar hopping most of the night, are clearly recognizable and turned away immediately. Those who stand a chance of getting in have to pass through an inspection more intense than what I faced upon entering the country. When you finally arrive before the door you are sized up for a prolonged moment by a group of bouncers, who likewise seem to speak only in whispers among themselves. Then you go through security. Here there is a vague sense of nervous disorder similar to that of an overcrowded customs office: the people stumble in as if entering a foreign country, not knowing in which direction to go; you stand in a jostling crowd before several queues running simultaneously, while several people shout different orders in several different languages. You don’t know exactly what is going on, but somehow you are funneled through. You are patted down, your bag is searched, the box of cigarettes in your bag is searched. Finally, you pay. And then you’re in.

What is it about the discipline of this crowd that seems so suggestive? Is it the discipline that you find at a national border, the discipline of asylum-seekers trying to prove their worth as citizens, as workers? A discipline of state authority? Could it be the discipline of soldiers as they are screened for combat? A military discipline? Whatever the case, for a split second I have the feeling that I am standing before a strange ceremony in which each individual has come to apply for membership in a kind of mystical bond of the sovereign collective. As if it were not so much the bouncers deciding who is admitted as the club itself. This authority of the collective, the apparent manifestation of an unseen, subliminal power, is perhaps what lends the scene the ambiguous quality unique to the word “Feier”.

 

VI.

When I was first getting ready to move to Berlin and still on the lookout for an apartment, a friend suggested that I subscribe to a mailing list called WOLOHO, where, among other things, you can find postings for open rooms throughout the city. The name stands for work, love, home – three words which, considered abstractly and out of context, one might expect to find as chapter headings in a text of philosophical anthropology. In this context, however, they are the working categories for a catalogue of anomie and social incoherence. A single 40-year-old writes a love letter to a stranger she observed last week in the park, an artist who’s new in town looks for an affordable room in a centrally located apartment of like-minded people, a former student struggling in the career world asks for someone to tell him what he should do with his life – in short, everyone searching for something which doesn’t exist.

Strange, the power of unreal things. Strange the simultaneous excess and modesty of human wishes. As if they were just asking for the rudiments of a possible life, for that which would simply allow them to go on, and this were at the same time an absurd demand which no one could ever fulfill.

Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights center panel detail. Public Domain.
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights center panel detail. Public Domain.

Next to impossible wishes, impossible promises…. One posting that I regularly come across through this mailing list reads “Eros (infinity love) Medicine.” A list of one-word soundbites, punctuated by emoji sparkle icons, moves progressively closer to the point: “Healing”, “Togetherness”, “Exploration”, “Desire”. Judging from the frequency of these and similar posts, the market for new-age sex cults is undergoing a minor boom in Berlin. People pay a few hundred euros to join a retreat outside the city where they are encouraged to reconnect with themselves by having lots of sex. Of course, the groups themselves don’t usually put it so bluntly, but instead have thrown together a kind of ideological amalgam made up of buzzwords from eastern spiritual traditions, contemporary social justice movements, and western esotericism in an effort to give some sense of depth to what they’re doing. This philosophy ranges from fairly sober therapeutic maxims, such as “everyone deserves pleasure in life”, to wildly extravagant visions of sexual messianism. One of the founders of the group, for example, describes herself as an “ecstatic facilitator” engaged in “transitioning towards the Next Culture and heavenly existence on Earth.” On the website you can learn about what it means to get in touch with your life force, to reawaken ancient energies in yourself, and rediscover your natural birthright to ecstasy.

It’s easy to read these sorts of ads with a condescending smile, and I admit that I’ve developed a habit of laughing at them on a semi-weekly basis. And yet, it’s also worth considering whether the superciliousness of society at large is anything more than a mask which covers up a deeper impotence of the imagination. Perhaps the excesses of New Age cults are a reflection of a general cultural sterility. This suggests an ironic situation in which the ridicule that we heap on the dreams of others is the expression of a kind of envy — envy of those who are able to live life with such passionate naivety. Beneath the hilarity of these spectacles, we can almost hear a quiet despair at having to know better. Rather than address the social longing, it is disowned in the caustic, self-hating contempt of the work-day world.

On the other hand, it is not always the naivety alone of such groups that elicits our skepticism, but also a sense that they may not be totally benign. There is something creepy about them. Why are they so eager to promise so much? Why do they talk only of what they have to offer and not of what they want from us? In this case, our laughter is a reaction to the grotesque, the hilarious juxtaposition of the sinister and the harmless, like a clumsily designed disguise, which exaggerates malevolence as much as it conceals it.

What to make of all this? In the matter-of-fact columns of these and similar newsletters, squeezed inconspicuously between the usual formulas of pulp-quality classifieds, we can find traces of utopian impulses, garbled and encrypted through the codes of culture and subculture. We note a twofold danger in our stance towards these impulses: first, that we dismiss them as meaningless dreams, and second, that we blindly buy into them as realities.

 

VII.

In his documentary Black Sun: Cult Sites and Esotericism of the Third Reich, Rüdiger Sünner quotes Ernst Bloch as saying that a culture which doesn’t take seriously the power of myth is bound to be haunted by it from behind. Towards the end of this film, Sünner travels to the Externsteine of Teutoburg forest, an unusual rock formation in western Germany to which certain new-age groups attribute a mystical significance. Though the archaeological evidence is inconclusive, some neo-pagans and mystics believe that the rocks were once the site of ancient rituals carried out by Germanic tribes from pre-Christian times. On solstices and other pagan holidays these groups hold gatherings by the rocks and try to restage the ceremonies which they imagine took place there thousands of years ago. Sünner seems to see something irresponsible in these practices and their apparent indifference to historical truth. Over images of German hippies playing didgeridoo-like instruments inside the caves, we hear the narrator read,

The lack of evidence for such a Germanic cult site interests hardly anyone. Young people who have no way of relating to Christianity dream themselves back through vague ideas of a primordial pagan era and satisfy their longing for mysticism, intoxication, and community. Instead of trying to arrive at a real understanding of Germanic religious practices, the site has itself been transfigured to a mythos, in which people project every possible personal wish about what it might have been. They prefer to pursue the allure of nebulous and hazy situations instead of investigating the archaic world of images with a waking mind. [6]

Sünner rightly points to the peculiar obstinacy with which such groups cling to their traditions — whatever you might say to these people, it seems somehow beside the point (we can recall here the etymology of utopia as a “non-point”). In this split, he clearly takes the side of science in considering this obstinacy pernicious. It is not clear, however, whether he has appreciated the experience which motivates such rituals. If we want to approach this experience, we need to recognize the existence of certain spheres of social life where the rigor of scientific veracity is not the reigning value, where truth resides not in “what is,” but in “what might be,” “what could be,” “what I want to be,” or even “what is not.” In this respect, the perspective opened up by such experiences is not dissimilar to an aesthetic relationship to things, which succeeds in apprehending the phenomena of the world in their sensuous immediacy by removing them from their real historical context. It is in their way of floating freely and unattached, just above the surface of the familiar world — in their constant multivalent play — that such phenomena derive their suggestive power and gesture towards infinity. The aesthete, in common with the initiate to a rite, does not expect to understand what they are seeing but to drown in a welter of images, in which neither beginning nor end can be discerned. We therefore miss the point of myth when we judge it as a faithful record of discrete events. We misunderstand it when we see it as having anything to do with the past. It is almost the exact opposite: the spilling over of the dreams of the present onto the traces of a reality which exceeds them. The expression not of a will to remember, but of a will to forget, to drown out the memory of that which is lost and simulate an experience of wholeness to which there is perhaps no scientific counterpart.

However, as Sünner’s film makes clear, the relative autonomy of the ritual dimension of social life is not just a question of philosophical distinction but also one of profound political consequence. Sünner’s main concern is, after all, not the new-age movement but national socialism, and he has traveled to the Externsteine not only to explore their contemporary significance, but also because they were the site of a shrine established by the Nazis to commemorate the alleged existence of an ancient Nordic sun cult. Although the rocks were more likely used as a meditation site in the early days of Christianity, they were declared after incomplete investigations as evidence of a pagan heritage unique to the Germanic tribes and were believed to legitimate the myth of a continuous racial lineage stemming from the north. In further ritual sites, erected as memorials for fallen soldiers, the Nazis emulated the style of these pseudo-pagan structures. At one such site, massive boulders were lined up side-by-side and consecrated to the sound of bizarre looking bronze horns known as “Luren,” reconstructed according to their ancient models. Sünner shows a picture of Heinrich Himmler blowing one of these things — which looks a bit like a tuba out of a Dr. Seuss book — standing in concert with three other officials next to a bonfire supposed to emanate the spirits of the ancestors. The scene trumps by far all new-age eclecticism in its ridiculous kitschiness — and even more in its monstrosity.

Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights hell detail. Public Domain
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights Hell detail. Public Domain.

When Sünner goes on to describe the baffling theories of Alfred Rosenberg, chief ideologue of the Nazi party, that the mythical utopia of Atlantis was actually the “Urheimat” or primordial home of the German race, we have to stop and ask ourselves what is really going on here. We wonder whether there is not a willful anachronism at play in this mythology, a deliberate drive towards the untenable and the discordant. Such beliefs, based on an arbitrary superimposition of multiple heterogeneous traditions, seem to bear no more relation to historical truth than does a surrealist collage. It is almost as if they had meant to put into political practice the aesthetic principle of Max Ernst, who describes “the mechanism of collage” as consisting in “the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them.” [7] The compelling effect of such images is thought to derive not from their faithfulness to some pre-established model, but from the tears they make in such models, from their boldness and extravagance, from the unresolved contradictions which they set up. In fascism as in surrealism we seem to observe an enigmatic power of the non sequitur, a release of energy initiated by the free play of symbols, liberated from the responsibility to historical truth. Both are forms of delirium, one unquestionably destructive, the other more ambiguous.

 

An open-ended conclusion

“Humankind loses the courage to live with all its discoursing and conceiving and knowing.” – Robert Walser

Despite some similarities, it would be too simplistic to dismiss a place like Berghain by calling it fascist, and my goal here isn’t some facile comparison of this sort. Neither — it should go without saying — has my intention been to claim that Berghain is a kind of New Age sex cult, although a lot of sex happens there in more or less open eyeshot. It is definitely not a Rousseauian utopia, even if seems to rely on a similar kind of amnesia, and it is not a revival of the Dionysian mysteries, despite the myths and secretiveness surrounding it. Rather, it is just one among many examples of an experiment in social delirium, and as such it takes part in the many dangers and potentials inherent to them.

The political question, then, which deserves to be posed with total sobriety, is: How much ground should we concede to this experience which we have been calling delirium? Is it better to let it out when it arises, in the hope that it can run its course in a contained space? Or do we risk in this process the unleashing of forces which don’t stop until they’ve destroyed everything around them? What happens to longing when it has nowhere to go? And will it carry us to paradise or damnation, if we set it free?

[1]  Burkert, Walter. Ancient Mystery Cults. Harvard UP, 1987.

[2] Benjamin, Walter. One Way Street and Other Writings. Translated by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.

[3] See Starobinski, Jean. Blessings in Disguise, Or, the Morality of Evil. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Caimbridge: Polity P, 1993.

[6] Schwarze Sonne – Mythologische Hintergründe des Nationalsozialismus. Directed by Rüdiger Sünner, 1997.

[7] Ernst, Max. “The Mechanism of Collage.” Max Ernst: Beyond Painting and Other Writings, Wittenborn, Schultz, Inc, 1948.

 

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