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Döblin’s Urban Awakening

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»Was meinst du, Terah, was würde geschehen, wenn man diesen Menschen sich überließe, ihn stehen ließe und er würde gefaßt?« Sarug: »Im Grunde, es würde nicht viel ausmachen, ich glaube, man wird ihn so oder so fassen, das ist unausbleiblich. Er hat sich drüben das rote Gebäude angesehen, er hat recht, in ein paar Wochen sitzt er drin.« Terah: »Dann meinst du, wir sind eigentlich überflüssig?« Sarug: »Ein bißchen meine ich es, — wenn es uns doch nicht erlaubt ist, ihn hier ganz wegzunehmen.« Terah: »Du bist noch ein Kind, Sarug, du siehst das hier erst ein paar tausend Jahre. Und wenn wir den Menschen hier wegnehmen und ihn woanders hin versetzen, in ein anderes Dasein, hat er getan, was er hier tun konnte? Auf 1000 Wesen und Leben, mußt du schon wissen, kommen 700, nein 900 Verhinderungen.« »Und was für ein Grund ist denn, Terah, gerade diesen zu beschützen, er ist ein gewöhnlicher Mensch, ich sehe nicht, warum wir ihn beschützen.« »Gewöhnlich, ungewöhnlich, was ist das? Ist ein Bettler gewöhnlich und ein Reicher ungewöhnlich? Der Reiche ist morgen ein Bettler und der Bettler morgen ein Reicher. Dieser Mann hier ist dicht daran, sehend zu werden. So weit sind viele gekommen. Aber er ist auch daran, hörst du, er ist dicht daran, fühlend zu werden. Sieh, Sarug, wer viel erlebt, wer viel erfährt, hat leicht die Neigung, nur zu wissen und dann – zu entweichen, zu sterben. Er mag dann nicht mehr. Die Bahn des Erlebens hat er durchmessen, dabei ist er müde geworden, sein Körper und seine Seele haben sich daran abgemüdet. Verstehst du das?« »Ja.«

»Aber nachdem man vieles erlebt und erkannt hat, noch festzuhalten, nicht hinabzusteigen, nicht zu sterben, sondern sich auszustrecken, zu fühlen, nicht auszuweichen, sondern sich zu stellen mit seiner Seele und standzuhalten, das ist etwas. Du weißt nicht, Sarug, wie du geworden bist, was du bist, was du warst und wie du dazu kommen konntest, hier mit mir zu gehen und andere Wesen zu beschützen.« »Das ist wahr, Terah, das weiß ich nicht, mein Gedächtnis ist mir ganz genommen.« »Es kommt dir langsam wieder. Man ist nie stark von sich aus, von sich allein, man hat schon etwas hinter sich. Stärke will erworben sein, du weißt nicht, wie du sie erworben hast, und so stehst du jetzt da, und dir sind Dinge keine Gefahren mehr, die andere umbringen.«

“Terah, what do you think would happen if we left this man alone, left him to himself, would he be captured?” Sarug: “In concept it would make no difference, he would be captured one way or the other, it would make no difference. He saw the red building over there. He’s right, in a few weeks he’ll be on the inside.” Terah: “Do you mean that we’re actually superfluous?” Sarug: “I mean that to some extent, since we’re not permitted to take him entirely away from this scene.” Terah: “You’re still a child, Sarug. You have witnessed this for only a few thousand years. And if we had taken this human away and placed him in another existence, would he had done what he might have done here? Out of 1000 creatures and lives, you should know, emerge 700, no 900 avoidances.” “Then what is the reason to protect this human?, Terah, I don’t understand why we are protecting this ordinary person.” “Ordinary, unusual, what does that mean? Is a beggar ordinary and a wealthy man unusual? The wealthy man is a beggar tomorrow and the beggar a rich man. But this man is close to opening his eyes. Many come as far. But he is also close to becoming sentient. See, Sarug, he who experiences much, who witnesses much, soon has the inclination to withdraw, to die. He wishes for nothing more. He has measured the path of experience, and has become tired in the process. His body and his soul have been exhausted by the process. Do you understand this?” “Yes.”

“But after a person has recognized and experienced much, if he strives to hold on, not to descend, not to die, but to submit, to feel, not to avoid, but to present himself with his soul and take the consequences, that is something. Sarug, you do not know how you were made, what you are, what you were and how you came to be here, to walk with me and to protect other creatures.” “That is true Terah, my memory has been taken from me entirely.” “It will come to you slowly again. A human is not born with strength, not from himself, he must have something behind him. Strength must be acquired – you do not know how you acquired it, but suddenly you stand there and things that would kill others suddenly present no danger to you.”

Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz. Die Geschichte vom Franz Biberkopf bk viii (1929)(dialogue between the angels Terah and Sarug) (S.H. transl.)


When I first visited the then capital of the German Democratic Republic, Berlin, in 1977, I crossed at Friedrichstraße and then went immediately to Alexanderplatz. I had just read Alfred Döblin’s novel and wanted to take in this urban landscape directly. But when I arrived there and surveyed the square, it was nothing like Döblin’s description. The Communist overlords had transformed “the Alex,” as the locals called it, into a totally soulless place, modernistic and sterile. There was no evidence of the bustle and grime of Döblin’s Berlin. But then I paused and thought—that was in a sense his point. He described a place where change was the one true constant, a city which had assumed its own life apart from that of its inhabitants. It was not coincidence that the novel bore the name of a square at the heart of this vibrant city; the story of Franz Biberkopf–that was only the subtitle.

Recently I reread this masterwork. It is a marvel first in its construction and vision. Döblin gives us a strong sense of Berlin in the twenties by capturing countless details. He describes the hardscrabble life of an urban environment in hard times: the street corner vendors hawking their kitchen wares; the newspaper vendors; the Nazis and other fringe groups; the din and rattle of the street cars; the smoke and clatter of the beerhalls. And also the life of a city in its records: the notice issued by a police office to a convicted felon released on parole; advertisements in the newspapers for consumer goods; political speeches. It is a meticulous recounting: the pain and agony associated with an amputation, the symptoms of scarlet fever—the vision and experience of a medical doctor, which, of course, Döblin is. All of this swirls by the reader with little ostensible relationship to the “plot” in a conventional sense. But it is the other plot, the story not of a person, but of a city.

But there is also poor Franz Biberkopf. A transit worker who is, as the novel opens, just released from Tegel, the city’s red-brick prison, after completing a sentence for manslaughter connected with the brutal death of his common-law wife. He is resolved to do “the right thing,” though the circumstances seem to join together to make this difficult for him. Biberkopf tries his hand as a street corner merchant, and even as a vendor of the Nazi newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, before turning back to petty criminality. Franz is a hulking and violent, but also remarkably kind-hearted man. He has a number of relationships with his bartender, his criminal accomplices, and with several women, including the fateful relationship with his girlfriend Mieze upon which the plot hinges. Mieze is, as she says, “from Bernau,” and in a stroke typical of the nuanced historical layering Döblin works into the text, her fate will match that of the famous Bernauerin. One could of course call Mieze a prostitute and Franz her pimp, as the law certainly would. But Döblin’s narrations always present the facts and let the characters speak for themselves. He never raises a voice of condemnation.

Döblin’s tale may have much to say to us in our current precarious economic situation. It shows the corrosive effects of a collapsing economy on humanity–the sense of quiet despair that sets in, and the appeal of simplistic political solutions to masses convinced they are not being treated fairly. Berlin in the twenties was a time for nutty conspiracy theories of the left and the right which slowly came to dominate an increasingly shrill political debate and which ultimately suffocated Weimar’s democratic institutions. With political extremism came a quick resort to violence and a turn to vilify minority groups which quickly became the scapegoats for society’s woes. Döblin documents all of this brilliantly, though it is hard to say that this is the core of his work.

At times Döblin’s scenes and dialogue strike an uncanny resemblance to Bertolt Brecht, especially to works like the Dreigroschenoper and Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, both of which date from the same years as Alexanderplatz. Brecht presents the dilemma of the simple man at the bottom of society. Can he live a meaningful life? Will he be forced by social circumstances into a series of moral compromises? There are parallels, certainly, but there are also significant differences. Brecht is a Marxist and Marxism forms the backdrop to his writings and the spirit that animates much of them. For Döblin, Marxism is a spirit that moves actors on the stage of his writings, just as others are Nazis, and many more are materialists out for self-advancement. But Döblin merely describes and having done so, passes on. He does not subscribe to any of these political tendencies; he sees them as part of a vast mural, part of a time and place he is describing. Döblin spent the war years living in Southern California and working at MGM, where he was set to work on Mrs. Miniver and then Random Harvest–which would seem quite a waste of his considerable talent. His own works far exceed them.

But what, exactly, is Döblin’s perspective; what is he trying to do with this novel? It is to be sure a work of art, and hardly in need of further justification. But there is also something of a physician’s diagnostic notebook about this novel: it meticulously records symptoms, but it is on the persistent quest to diagnose a disease and prescribe a cure. Döblin’s writing is marked by the confluence of the artist and the physician; and it is the latter element that tells him to strive hard to understand his patient, to do no harm to him, and to effect, if he can, a cure. And we see that in one of the novel’s strangest, but ultimately most significant passages—the discussion between the two angels Terah and Sarug that comes in book eight. This is the first point in the novel in which a world beyond Berlin in 1929 suddenly appears. Is it a hallucination? No, in fact Biberkopf is unaware of the angels. They are studying him and protecting him. They are a vehicle for the expression of the author’s own spirit. The few lines of this dialogue gives us a great deal of philosophical perspective—starting with those fundamental questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Why are we here? Where will we go? The angels sense these questions about themselves; but they also let them sound around the frail “ordinary” Biberkopf who is the subject of their attention. He is, we learn, on the verge of an awakening; he will learn to feel and for all the wearying things he has experienced, he will crave engagement. That is something wondrous, we learn. Strength is something that the human acquires through experience, Döblin tells us. And the novel tells us the same thing, that quiet, careful, meticulous observation can give us wisdom, and strength. He challenges us to develop the will to understand, and to care.

Berlin Alexanderplatz seems at times chaotic, at times cold and clinical. That accounts for most of an altogether ingenious work. But then in one miraculous second, that cold heart opens, giving us a vision of the potential in man, even the meanest, vilest creature. Döblin the doctor is dispensing his medicine. Can anyone read this work today and not be strengthened by it?

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