Friday 11 May 2012

Berlin notebook: on the existence of Germany

I was well into my twenties before I ever believed in the existence of Europe. Even then I believed only in France. (I also cherished a certain guarded agnosticism about Switzerland; I had been there once, but too briefly to determine if it was real.) It was not till years later that I became firmly persuaded of the existence of Germany.

If this seems surprising, it will be enough to remind you that I come from a remote primordial island-continent known as Australia. Now Australia has many virtues, as everybody knows; but it is a long way from anywhere else, and it is very hard to believe in other places when they are so far away. 

My country's immigration policy is one of the natural extensions of this principle. Our attitude towards our own indigenous population is another. If there were once only indigenous inhabitants in Australia, it suggests that once we did not belong here; but we could not have come from any other place, since Australia is – we feel it deep in our bones – the only place. So the existence of indigenous peoples is an unfathomable abyss. It strikes us as an alarming proof of our own nonbeing, and therefore as something that is best simply ignored.

The same conviction also explains what is called the 'cultural cringe' – one of the most peculiar features of the physiognomy of Australian culture. There are countries in which artistic, literary, and intellectual achievements are paraded as marks of national superiority: think of the way Americans will talk about Mark Twain, or Germans about Goethe. But in Australia we apologise for our cultural achievements. The cultural cringe is the belief that nothing of value can come from a place like Australia; that anything of real worth must be created someplace else, or at least receive the imprimatur of other places. So Australians will be embarrassed of a homegrown novelist: but if she happens to win a British literary award, we will praise her and love her and perhaps even buy her books. 

The cultural cringe comes about when Australians discover, usually quite late in life, that other places exist – and we never really recover from the shock of it. The shock produces an inverted idealism: instead of believing that my country is the only one, I now understand that it is, after all, a disappointing mirage. Only the other places are real.

Australia thus unites two antithetical (but morally identical) ways of relating to outsiders: either we ridicule foreigners for their funny looks and funny accents, or we abase ourselves before the foreigner – so fashionable! so sophisticated! – and lament that we were ever born in a drab uncultivated penal colony at the bottom of the world.

Even when I had been trying for years, with discouraging results, to learn the German language, I still secretly thought of Germany as a country so far away that it does not exist; and of the German language not as an ordinary means of social exchange between ordinary human beings, but as a sort of magic, something that people like Hegel and Heidegger use for conjuring. I learned German grammar the way seminarians learn their Greek: as if memorising runes. I quoted German the way seminarians invoke The Original Greek in their sermons: as if uttering the syllables of an incantation, something that transcends the limitations of ordinary speech. 

But there came a day in my life when I had to admit to myself that Germany exists, and that the German language is really, after all, only – a language. That was a hard day and a hard lesson. For everything in Australia, the whole moral fabric of my childhood world, was premised on the conviction that Australia is the only place, and that any place you cannot reach by the Pacific Highway – radio blaring, elbow out the window, cane fields rushing by – is, strictly speaking, no place at all. 

Nowadays though, I like my country all the better for the fact that it is not the only one. I'm glad there is a variety of places in the world; I'm glad there is even, somewhere, a segregated location for all the New Zealanders to inhabit. But in Berlin whenever I meet a person who has never been to Australia, I immediately adopt the persona that I have learned so well over so many years (and that makes Australian expats such powerful ambassadors of the Australian tourism industry). 'What?' I cry in shock, as though I had just met a fellow who had spent his whole life underground. 'Never been to Australia? Never even visited? What the devil have you been doing all these years? Sit down, sit down – two beers, bartender, quickly! – and let me tell you a few things about a magnificent great island at the bottom of the world…'

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