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The Gregorian, Julian, Coptic, Buddhist, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Tibetan, Zoroastrian, and Mesoamerican calendars—and the Mayan, which predicts that the world will end just days after this issue reaches your hands—all are attempts to turn time’s relentless progress into a cycle, a human model both of the seasons and of the rotations and revolutions of the heavenly bodies. And so the weekly sabbaths and yearly holidays, the semicentennial jubilees and septennial sabbaticals, the fiscal quarters and workaday 9 to 5, which give us a hint of eternity on earth and keep us from a continuous contemplation of death.

Greece was a civilization, Rome an empire—the former maintained dozens of calendars, but the latter established only one, because an empire has to collect taxes. Rome designated the first day of each month, the calendae, as the day when debts were due, and the sums were recorded in ledgers called calendaria. The tacky grids given out as promotions from banks and networked Google calendars followed. Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter’s December (translated by Martin Chalmers, Seagull Books, $20) revives a related tradition: the calendar as history, or the “chronicle.” Kluge’s texts—one for each day of the month—appear opposite images of winter wastescapes by Richter, together forming a stark, disconcerting record of a Germany frozen if not temporally then spiritually.

Born in Halberstadt in 1932, Kluge studied law at Marburg and philosophy at Frankfurt under Theodor Adorno, at whose Institute for Social Research—the Frankfurt School—he served as legal counsel. Adorno’s group of anticapitalist theorists had been dispersed by war; Kluge witnessed its revival. Max Horkheimer was lured back from Pacific Palisades; Jürgen Habermas was a new recruit. (Herbert Marcuse, though, remained in Cambridge, Erich Fromm in Mexico City.) An acquaintance with Fritz Lang led Kluge to his own film experiments. His Brutality in Stone (1960), one of the first cinematic comments on the Nazi regime, laid the foundation for the New German Cinema (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders). Kluge’s best-known films are Yesterday Girl (1966), Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed (1968), Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave (1973), and The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time (1985), which critiques the free-market reforms of postwar Europe and is accompanied by Kluge’s own narration: “Time is what you can measure with a clock. A child, a city, a love, death . . . these are clocks.”

Kluge’s texts, like his films, are non-fiction told with fiction’s techniques. His work in both mediums exemplifies the socialist struggle for an art made for, by, and of its audience, though the texts are indebted as much to Brecht as to Adorno—or to that philosopher’s most foolish dictum, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This was the rallying cry of a generation that had grown up on Nazi lit and the Reich’s perversion of Goethe. The movements that generation developed could all be filed under the heading Dokumentarliteratur (“documentary literature”), which at one extreme produced books of pitiless realism, and at the other merely reproduced and publicized the archives. Kluge’s Case Histories (1962) are biographical indictments of petit bourgeois Nazi life. New Histories (1977) is an atlas and almanac of a divided Germany, juxtaposing the Western rise and Eastern fall of industry and academe. The Battle (1964) is an account of Stalingrad montaged from telegrams, letters, command dispatches, and radiotelephone transcripts.

December features Gorbachev, Putin, Andrei Bitov, and “Alexander Kluge” interacting with chemists and biologists who might be as real as climate change or as fake as Die Glocke (“The Bell,” the Nazi time machine). Its interests include money, hell, and the Scholastic distinctions between tempus (mortal time), aevum (angelic time), and aeternitas (“the duration which only God experiences”). More quotidian is Kluge’s inquisition into the month’s origins, which he leaves unresolved between superstition and prudence: “Until 153 BC, December was the tenth month in the Roman lunar calendar which had three hundred and four days. After that the beginning of the year was put forward by two months but no one dared change the name of the month that marked the end of the year.”

“10 December 2009” is a typical day:

So-called December expenditures: the president of the Audit Office of the Hellenic Republic who is assisted by an advisor from the EU administration in Brussels has already been pursuing the usual “December expenditures” for two days. It was impossible to do anything about them. In every state budget in the world the unspent sums identified are disbursed before the New Year no matter for what purpose. Because if they were saved the budgeted sums could not be reapplied for at the previous level in the following year. It would be better, said the president of the Audit Office, a legal expert who had studied at Tübingen University, if the funds could be transferred to the following year. Then at least they would be spent on something useful. There is no discipline of balance sheets which functions from top to bottom. In Athens, where the Orthodox rite is followed, Advent is less important than in northern Europe. Furthermore, here the twilight hours are absent which in trading cities accompany work on the annual closing budget sheet.

About Richter’s photographs—I’d initially assumed they were paintings, masterly scenes of dull nature. But here Richter has renounced his famous ability to duplicate photography in paint, as if to advertise the perfection of his brushwork or the extent of his boredom with canvas. The result is both interminable and apocalyptic. Beeches hanging icicles over the snowfields will survive us. Calendars will not.

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