Wednesday, September 09, 2009


by Francis Levy

Big German compound words radiate authority. They’re verbal weapons guaranteed to neutralize your opponent.

Vergangenheitsbewältigung (reckoning with the past) and Gesellschaftsgeschichte (the history of society) are the big guns. But even smaller ones can be quite useful, like Fehlleistung (Freudian slip), Wissenschaft (knowledge), and Leidenschaft (a passion of the kind that engulfs Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde). It’s truly wonderful how these German compounds produce meaning in the manner of a Hegelian dialectic. Gemeinschaft (society) carries a certain weight, especially when offered up as part of a double barrel, as in the classic sociological text Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft.

Vergangenheit means the past, but it sounds like something the Hells Angels might do, or perhaps that’s Vergangenbang.

Then of course there’s Latin. Lucretius wrote De Rorem Naturae, which is translated as The Order of Things, and Seneca’s only comedy is Apocolocyntosis, or The Pumpkinification of the Emperor Claudius on His Way to Heaven (a long-winded translation if there ever was one). Another favorite is apologia pro vita sua, which means defense of one’s life.

As for the French, only faute de mieux (for want of something better) or the overused plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose (the more things change, the more they are the same) and Louis XV’s famous après moi le déluge come to mind.

Latin has mystique and French is pithy, but the German compound words convey entire ideologies and philosophical systems. Who can ever forget the Nazi’s infamous Lebensborn (fount of life).

In 1066, when William the Conqueror invaded England, he made French the language of the upper classes, leaving the Anglo Saxon of Chaucer, with its German roots, as an indigenous language whose most famous word is still fuck. In Bohemia, the Slavic language that became modern Czech was relegated to the demotic culture, while German became the cosmopolitan language of writers like Franz Kafka. Peter the Great attempted unsuccessfully to Europeanize Russia by adopting French as the language of the aristocracy, though neither Pushkin nor Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy or Gogol were ever tempted to write their masterpieces in French.

Still, there is nothing like the roar of a German howitzer to perk up someone's ears. It’s like answering “Harvard” when someone asks where you went to school. When conversation drags, a well placed Weltanschauung or Verfremdungseffekt can get things rolling again. The late Pina Bausch founded Tanzteatre Wurpertal—the very name inspires reverence. Then there was the Princess von Thurn und Taxis, whom some people referred to simply as the Princess von buses and taxis.

Several years back, in the TLS, the critic George Steiner breathlessly invoked the Festschrift, commemorating the work of Mircea Eliade, the famed historian of religion. Festschriften are real conversation stoppers in otherwise mundane sentences. One can almost hear some vested scholar with pince-nez at Marburg, Freiburg, Heidelberg or one of the other great German universities whispering somberly, "Und jetzt kommen die Festschriften."
Francis Levy is the author of Erotomania: A Romance.

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