Jul/Aug 2007 Fiction

Excerpts from "Astilbe bis Bismarck"

by Joachim Frank

Photography by Kawika Chetron

The sixth edition of Meyer's Konversations-Lexikon, published in 1908 by the "Bibliographic Institute" in Leipzig and Vienna, came in twenty volumes that were on display behind a glass door of the tall, mahogany cupboard that stood in our living room. Each volume was bound in dark-green cloth with a black leatherback and contained between 900 and 1,100 pages. As a boy I read those 20,000-and-odd pages and believed every word contained in them.

"Meyers Konversations-Lexikon" appeared embossed in gold on each leatherback, along with the volume number and the first and last entry. For instance:






It is those mysterious words, the from's and the to's on the spines of the volumes, that continue to ring in my mind, conjuring the vastness of everything that is known in this world, exactly up to the year 1908 AD. The subtitle of the lexicon was "An Encyclopedia of General Knowledge." The title page proudly spoke of 16,800 illustrations, 1,522 plates, maps and diagrams, as well as 160 tables. The term "Konversations-Lexikon" meant that the possession and use of these books was absolutely necessary if one wished to conduct a meaningful conversation and avoid getting caught in ignorance.

The idea of an encyclopedia, sprung up in the 18th century, was in full bloom at the end of the 19th. With the body of knowledge considered complete, the time was ripe for a dispassionate display of its splendor. Ironically, the publication of the sixth edition almost coincided with Albert Einstein's publication of his seminal paper on the photoelectric effect, which showed that energy is quantized, the first of an avalanche of studies that led to the formulation of quantum mechanics. Perhaps there is a natural law to the effect that just before a major revolution, there is always a sense of satisfaction with the status quo. It is like the self-righteousness of the burghers on the eve of the conflagration that will consume their proud city.

A cyclopic giant kept Ulysses and his companion prisoners in his cave. We understand one-eyedness as a limitation of depth perception; with it comes narrowness and single-mindedness, and the terrible, practical disadvantage of having only one eye to lose. (By blinding that single eye of the Cyclops, Ulysses improved his chances to escape, although the giant still had his hands and his sense of smell.) At the other extreme is the monster that has many eyes, the encyclopedia. I suppose this might be seen as a plus, because the views multiply with the number of eyes, but a peculiar thing happens: many of those views are in conflict with one another, never to be reconciled. From my own experience I can say that a person educated by an encyclopedia winds up with a vast number of pieces of disconnected knowledge, but without opinions about their ranking and importance, and often with no opinion at all.

As a child, just beginning to read, I was confronted with those mysterious ciphers, such as "Erdeessen bis Franzen, Glashütte bis Hautflügler."

Erdeessen--soil-eating--was a word I had never heard before, but I recognized it at once as an entirely valid construction, sanctioned by the German grammar, which accepts concatenations of arbitrary words as immediately meaningful, as though they are expressions of Platonic ideas. This particular word meant the habit of eating soil, a habit I did not know existed outside my own personal experience, and that I had been talked out of early on by adults with expressions of extreme disgust. But here it was prominently displayed, and the astonishing thing was that nobody took offense. Franzen, in German, were fringes of carpets, or anything hanging off outworn clothes, or the greasy, tossed fringes of hair. The word stood for gross disorder, invoking the images of germs, infestations, and long-simmering sicknesses, and it was certainly not worth being embossed in gold on the spine of an encyclopedia. Gypsies had franzen, and the Meggesers--poor local outcasts living in barracks on a treeless, artificial hill nearby made of slag from 19th century iron processing--had lots of them. Glashütte conjured something like the poor cousin of the proverbial glass house, in which it is unwise to throw stones. But the "hütte" part referred to a cabin, which was always made of wood, so the word was a disturbing oxymoron. Hautflügler literally meant some type of flying animal whose wings were made of skin. No animal I had ever come across used such an improbable material for locomotion, though I wondered if bats might fit this description.

I found myself perplexed by the concepts expressed by these words, which did not correspond to anything I had ever seen in real life. The whole sequence--A, Astigmatismus, Astilbe, Bismarck, Bismarck-Archipel, Chemnitz, and so on--sounded like an incantation invoking a vastly sophisticated world. One day, when I would be old enough to grasp its meaning, profound secrets would be revealed to me, and I would be finally admitted into the order of the grownups. It was as if I'd been walking through a forest listening to birds, waiting for the time when I would be smart enough to understand the lyrics of their songs. But nothing ever became of it; the song remained without meaning, and I got the idea that the words on the spines of Meyer's volumes were simply picked from a huge trove of words. I still had difficulties believing that the selection could be entirely arbitrary. There had to be a system of some sort in picking the words that were meant to shine and stir up curiosity in every burgher's living room. In only one instance it was obvious that the randomness was broken: the choice of "Bismarck," some 40 years after the bearer of this name forged the German Reich into existence, seemed preordained. And so he was honored not once but twice: in volume 2, his name featured at the end ("Astilbe bis Bismarck"), in volume 3, at the beginning ("Bismarck Archipel bis Chemnitz").

Another, related problem that bothered me was that of the transitions. Convinced that the alphabetic order in the Lexicon had to reflect a continuity of concepts, I was thrown off by many oddities. Take "Nonne" (nun), for instance: it was immediately preceded by "Nonius," or vernier, the ingenius mechanical device that makes it possible to measure very small distances. Did I miss something? Or was the encyclopedia a coarse sampling of language laid out in much finer grain? The gap to bridge between vernier and nun seemed stupendous. What could be the transition? I could not even conceive of a tiny step from one to the other. But there had to be an entire world in between, much like the inexhaustible supply of real numbers in Calculus that can be squeezed between two successive cardinal numbers.

I grew up with the firm belief that a copy of Meyer's set of twenty volumes existed in every house. This was, after all, implied in the "conversation" part of the name--the encyclopedia could fulfill its purpose only if all possible interlocutors were briefed equally well. Then, as time went by, the exceptions became apparent: my friend Bömbes' house was without one, but I rationalized this exception, reminding myself that he was an orphan and lived with his aunt and grandmother in a tiny clap-trap house, so tiny that it would have been difficult even to find the ten required running feet of shelf space. The apartment where another friend lived proved to be equally devoid of an intellectual center, but in that case only one of the parents had died--the father, in World War II--and it left me thinking that perhaps it took a father's earning and curiosity to furnish a home with such a large compendium of knowledge. The neighbors next door, two elderly spinsterly sisters, invited me along with my mother into their house, and sitting stiff-backed on the formal, lace-draped couch in their living room, I noticed at once the absence of what I had regarded as a conditio sine qua non for a cultured home. By and by, I came to discover that among all our relatives and friends of high and low standing, there was not a single one in possession of Meyer's Konversationslexikon. The exception was in fact the rule. Evidently, the conversation the editors had envisioned could not take place. Those few in possession of it were separated by vast distances, if my sampling could be a guide, and were confined to a depressing, nerdy monologue.

Then came the time when I began searching for pictures of women and female anatomy. By then I had grasped the concept of encyclopedic as all-embracing, but I also understood there existed universal taboos, so the world I grew accustomed to had the topology of Swiss cheese: unreachable holes within a substance of a vastly complex shape. Those unreachable holes I associated with my grandma's grim expression, which early on made me understand that transgression into this forbidden territory was a mortal sin. My grandma was no longer alive, and so I started to keep a list of volumes and pages where women were depicted in the nude: marble statues, reliefs, pictures on ancient vases--all images of women rendered in esthetic perfection. With my index, I could go back to the photo-engravings right away in my next session, without leafing through thousands of pages. The perfectly chiseled forms of those breasts made it difficult for me later, when I was confronted with the real things, to accept the wide range of shapes and consistencies they came in: the sagging, wobbling varieties along with the firm, and the vastly different forms, sizes and colors of nipples.

As I was accumulating knowledge on every aspect of the Universe prior to 1906, the remaining forty years remained entirely blank. Meyer's was silent about Verdun, where my father had lost part of his hand, and offered no explanation for the cataclysmic events that had set our house on fire, flattened the house next door, and killed both parents of my best friend. Those years were an abyss that perhaps defied neat categorization. It seemed that the lofty project of Meyer's itself had come to an end in the trenches of Verdun.


Volume 1: A bis Astigmatismus

A, a, lat. A, a, the vowel richest in sound (see phonetics). This sound occurs with extraordinary frequency in Sanskrit, where it makes up 27 percent of all sounds. A was called aleph by the Phoenicians and Hebrews, who put it in the first place in the alphabeth. The Greeks made aleph into alpha. Alpha privativum (lat., "robbing alpha") is used in Greek words to denote a negation, as the German "un", e.g., apathie ("Unempfindlichkeit" ["insensitivity"]). The English a has four different pronunciations; most frequently equivalent in sound to the long or short ä.--The German Ä (ä) is a sign that originated in the Middle Ages from an a with an e written over it, which initially served only to denote the Umlaut (see Umlaut), for instance as in Männer [men], but which has since invaded other words, such as Bär [bear] and Käfer [bug]. The current usage makes only a distinction between the long ä and e, e.g., lähmen [to render lame] and nehmen [to take]; while the short a is pronounced in the same way as e, e.g., fällen [to fell] and bellen [to bark]. The Swedish å sounds dark, similar to o.--In Mathematics, one uses a and in general the first letters of the alphabet to denote known or constant quantities, while the last letters x,y,z are used to denote unknown or variable quantities.--In common expressions, A expresses the idea of the first, for instance from A to Z, meaning from the beginning to the end. In the Revelation of St. John, following the Greek alphabet, A (alpha) is the first, and O (omega) the last, and both together designate the idea of the all-embracing, eternal.

The Germans have a perfect way to explain the importance of sticking to principles to their offspring: by means of fairy tales. Right at the beginning of Hänsel and Gretel, there is a passage that says "who says A must say B." The saying is compulsiveness set in stone. Since the father did not object the very first time his wife sent out her step-children--his own children!--Hänsel and Gretel into the woods so that they might find their death, he is condemned to being complacent from that day on. Those are the rules. His saying A, timidly repeating his wife's saying A, has cast a spell on the rest of his life. With some courage, he might have said P (for phooey!) to his wife and stood his ground. He might have recognized her evilness and chased her out of his house. But no, he dutifully repeats her A, a sign to her that he has no spine and never will. So when Hänsel and Gretel unexpectedly reappear, guided by the pieces of gravel they have managed to plant along their way, their stepmother is able to laugh away her husband's renewed objections. She admonishes him to stick to his principles as she sends the children away again, this time for good. So he says B, since B comes after A, as every child knows--what would become of the world if he were to follow A with a different letter?--and his wife is able to appeal to his sense of thoroughness and honor. Later, when more time has gone by, and the reasons for the initial choice may have been forgotten, the fact that he stood by that choice even in the most extraordinary circumstances will be something he is proud of, and believes he deserves credit for, even now that he is sure his children have perished--he has no reason to believe otherwise. We all know that they survived, but this fact is of no substance in this matter.

Astigmatismus [astigmatism] (Greek, "pointlessness"), the property of lenses to render a point in the image not exactly as a point, but--depending upon its distance from the screen--as a small line, an ellipse, or a circle (circle of smallest confusion). Line-shaped images are obtained at two different distances, and such that the two lines are perpendicular to each other. Only a beam of rays that intersect the middle of the lens is anastigmatic, i.e., it gives an exactly point-shaped image, but it does so only if the lens is bounded by spherical surfaces.--A. is also the name of a defect of vision, in which objects appear distorted and their contours blurred. It is caused by an asymmetry in the diffracting apparatus of the eye, initially by an irregular curvature of the surface of the cornea and of the crystal lens. Even in the healthy eye, these parts are not built in a completely symmetric way, but the resulting asymmetry is so small that it is not accompanied by perceptible problems. The objects are seen as distorted, and with their edges blurred, without sharp boundaries. A point of light appears as a horizontal or vertical stripe. As a rule, A. is inborn, and it often proves to be inherited. It seems to occur more often in males than in females. It normally affects both eyes, albeit not always to the same degree. The vision defect characteristic for A. is usually not discovered until the child is older. As long as the accommodation of the eye is easily accomplished, the defect is not prominent, and it may be entirely overlooked. However, as soon as, at mature age, the range of the accommodation is diminished, even small degrees of A. are experienced as unpleasant. If only one eye is affected by strong A., then the inflicted individual usually neglects this eye, paying attention only to those perceptions that come from the healthy eye. The A. can be acquired through inflammatory processes, in the course of which the cornea undergoes either protrusion or flattening. ...The A. can be corrected by glass lenses, so-called cylinder glasses, through which the asymmetry of the optical apparatus can be compensated. If the A. is accompanied by short- or long-sightedness, then lenses of the combined spherical-cylindrical type are used, i.e., glasses whose cylindrical surface is designed to correct A., while the other, spherical surface is designed to deal with the other defect.

Here Meyer's whispered to me about things that seemed exciting but entirely outside my grasp. Terms such as "defect" and "inflicted individual" alarmed me. The closest I came to imagining the infliction was by thinking of Peter Slawinski, my class-mate in elementary school, a notorious liar. Peter suffered from a nervous condition that made his eyes flicker constantly from one side to the other. He made up for it by moving his large head in the opposite direction, yet when facing him, I couldn't help feeling he tried to avoid looking me into the eye.

I had no idea that one day I'd be struck by A. Among the curious effects of A is that it duplicates an image, and the two copies can overlap to create entirely new objects. The thin ends of the moon sickle would dissolve into a blur, but when I tilted my head by 90 degrees, I could make them sharp as a knife blade. In an advanced state of my infliction, the Donna Anna I watched in the Opera had three eyes: one on the left, one on the right, and one in the middle. Her additional, cyclopic eye was half-closed as she sang. It is known as the eye of foresight, of wisdom. During her aria such a sharpened instrument is clearly not required. In normal mortals it is hidden behind the vault of the forehead, shrunk to the size of a pea, and utterly incapable of vision, lest you call vision the perpetual gaze of the diminished organ at the inside of a wall. The gods in their jealousy have made sure their divine faculty is not too widely disbursed. It is astonishing, still, that they have overlooked this beautiful well-bosomed primadonna. I never managed to see the real Donna Anna during that performance of Don Giovanni in Heidelberg, since I had left my glasses at home. Donna Anna's middle eye, located squarely on the bridge of her nose, was fuzzy as though she was using it as an instrument not of sight but touch, and I found I could make it move up and down by something as innocent as tilting my head.


Volume 2: Astilbe bis Bismarck

Astilbe Hamilt. (Hoteia Morr. et Decne.), family of saxifragacees, shrubs with large, two-or threefold divided leaves and small white, reddish or greenish flowers arranged in large clusters of ears. There are six species in Asia and North America. A. japonica Mig., from Japan, is a widely distributed ornamental plant, which is also appreciated here.

Astilbe, to me, sounded like some elevated kind of Milbe, or mite: an aristocratic variety of a bug. That a volume that culminated in the biography of distinguished statesman Bismarck would start with a lowly life form seemed another reminder of our humble origin and destiny: even he, the Iron Chancellor, had once started as a tiny speck before reaching world fame, but then, by the time this encyclopedia was issued, he had already returned to dust. But this raised again the question about the nature of the transition between the two concepts: what about all those words that fell in between? What about all those Augenkrankheiten--eye sicknesses, Autographensammlungen--collections of autographs, Balkanhalbinsel--Balkan peninsula, Bauchspeicheldruese--pancreas, Beugung des Lichtes--light diffraction, Bildhauerkunst--sculpting? Were these words not trying very hard to bridge the immense gulf that yawned between Astilbe and Bismarck, the Great popular Man? And if I didn't see the logic in the progression along the smallest steps, was it not true that the encyclopedia had to sample vast territory, so that the smallest step might resolve again into a hundred even smaller ones, finally producing continuity?

Actually, I was wrong about the idea that Astilbe had anything to do with small parasites. It is, if we follow Meyer's authoritative pronouncement, a saxifragacee shrub, and, as such, much closer in stature to the uniter and father of the German fatherland.

Bismarck, Otto Eduard Leopold, Duke of Lauenburg, first chancellor of the new German Reich (see plate "Bismarck portraits"), b. 1st April 1815 in Schönhausen, d. 30th July 1898 in Friedrichsruh. His father Ferdinand von B., Prussian horse captain, administered his estates Schönhausen, Kniephof, Külz and Jarchelin in Pomerania, married in 1806 Wilhelmine Luise, intellectually outstanding daughter of Privy Councillor Mencken. This marriage resulted in six children, of which B. was the fourth.

. . .

When his father died, B. was given the Kniephof estate and the much diminished (because of debts incurred by his father) estate Schönhausen, where he lived from then on and was first elected dike-reeve and then assemblyman in the Saxonian provincial parliament. In this last position he also became a member of the federal assembly in 1847, where he fought against the common liberal views and demands with great determination. He emphasized the independent position of the kingdom and the voluntary nature of its concessions, and declared himself opposed to the admission of Jews to civil service positions.

. . .

With the creation of the German Reich, he was appointed Chancellor, and was given the hereditary title of Duke, which entailed a grant of a large holding of land in Lauenburg.

. . .

After B.'s speech on Feb. 6, 1888, which is famous for his words "We Germans fear God, but nothing else in the world," the conservative-national liberal majority approved all demands for increasing the defense budget.

. . .

A peculiar kind of honor was suggested by the German student movement: following the example created by W. Kreis in Dresden: Bismarck columns were to be erected in numerous locations. On the upper platforms of these columns, bonfires were to be lit on B.'s birthdays and other national holidays. By October 1902, 91 of the planned 150 columns were finished and 24 were in construction.

Beside the twenty volumes of Meyer's Lexicon, there was a large bound volume of Kladderadatsch, a magazine of political satire. On the gray cover of it, in a mad gesture that always fascinated me, there was the broad-nosed, oblate, sardonic face of the journal's mascot, or perhaps the alter ego of the founding publisher, who stared squarely out of the confinement of the book, reaching out with his arm, pointing with his perspectively enlarged index finger at whatever was in front of the book. Opening the book up, I discovered my first cartoons. For some reason, the drawings invariably depicted people with big heads and tiny bodies, always engaged in fights, with speak-bubbles coming out of their mouths. Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, always stood out as the tallest, with a square face and little patience. In one cartoon he is seen standing at a buffet, eating little squirming, shrimp-sized people from a platter. It seems he aims for their heads, which he bites off with delight, as a puddle of black blood accumulates on the platter. Some of the little people are escaping, running away from the bloodbath over the tablecloth, though without leaving bloody tracks, probably through an oversight of the artist. The buffet symbolized one of Bismarck's countless annexations and war skirmishes. If it is often said that politicians send the little guys to war, while remaining unscathed; the book dealt out some poetic justice and put the thing right: here it was the politicians who were eaten and mutilated, while the foot folk were nowhere in sight, seemingly unharmed. But the one who appeared to enjoy himself thoroughly was Bismarck, clearly at the top of the food chain.

There was something odd about this man: in each cartoon he was depicted with exactly three hairs on his otherwise bald head. The hairs were black and pointed and stood up like bristles. In the mythology created by the magazine over the years, they may have come to symbolize the provinces he added, or the powers he drew his authority from--I can only speculate, since I read the book with the literal understanding of a child, far removed from a grasp of the machinations of power.


Volume 3: Bismarck-Archipel bis Chemnitz

Bismarck-Archipel (previously New Brittania Archipelagos, see map of "Bismarck Archipel and Kaiser-Wilhelms-Land"), German group of islands in the Western Pacific, belonging to Melanesia, north-east from New Guinea, between 0 40' - 6 30' Southern latitude and 142-155 Eastern longitude, 47,100 square kilometers in size, comprises the island Neupommern [New Pomerania] (24,900), Neumecklenburg (12,950), Neuhannover (1476), the Admirality Islands (2276), the French Islands (820), Neulauenburg (58) and many other larger and smaller islands. Almost all of them are long, narrow, and high (Neumecklenburg up to 2000 m), in part of volcanic origin and with still active volcanos; the latest eruption took place in 1878 on Neupommern. Climate, vegetation and animals resemble those in New Guinea. During the Southeast monsoon from May till September there are fierce rain storms, which are also not absent during the Northwest monsoon for the rest of the year. The unhealthy land breeze causes violent fevers, even among the natives. The islands are amply covered with forests, rich with water, and generate a plenitude of copra; recently started plantations of coffee, cotton and cinchona have also been doing well. There are few mammals but many birds on the islands, among the latter is the casuar. The inhabitants are Melanesians, hostile toward the Europeans, of which a number have been killed and eaten, which made several punitive expeditions necessary. The foreign population numbered 332 souls (96 Germans), of which 259 (79, respectively) lived in Neupommern... The English Protestant mission owns outposts on Neupommern, Neumecklenburg and Neulauenburg, and has converted a considerable number of aborigines to the Christian faith; the Catholic mission is also doing well.

The distance between the reality depicted here and the Germany I was born into could not have been greater. By the time of my childhood, the punitive expeditions had been expanded to the rest of the world. Bismarck's idea of uniting long-hostile tribes had been carried much further in two world wars. Now it had turned into the idea that the whole globe should be united under the German flag. His ban of Jews from holding civil servant positions had been over-interpreted, or shall we say extrapolated, by a zealous Austrian-born fanatic with the help of the Volk. The Jews were now banned from life altogether. (When I was a toddler, in 1942, Hitler met with his aides in his Garmisch retreat to plan the strategy of the Final Solution.) Twice since Bismarck's time, the German war machine had tried to grab more land within Europe and outside, then the annexations, protectorates and exotic holdings had shrunk to nothing. All 96 German souls of the Bismarck Archipelago (the souls of such people as the prefect, his secretary and staff, his gardeners, cooks, maidens, chauffeur, as well as the members of the military guard) had dispersed, as though into thin air, and it is unknown what happened to the casuar and the up-to-then successful Catholic mission. Of German's colonial times, all that was left was the exotic name of grocery stores: Kolional-Warenhandlung--"store of colonial goods," which of course carried nothing from overseas anymore in those frugal post-war years: no bananas, pineapples, coconuts, oranges. One by one, as the austerity gave way to a more normal, though still parsimonious, economy. The reappearance of these fruits was greeted with disbelief. We children had never seen, touched, nor tasted a banana. Coffee, the quintessential of colonial goods, arrived by catalogue order from Bremen. How the family crowded around the package, eagerly awaiting the moment when Mother would open it--she was the only one authorized--and take in the first whiff of the exotic air! "Real coffee!" she would exclaim, in the same voice that had declared "real butter" a synonym for paradise.


Volume 5: Differenzgeschäfte bis Erde

Erde (lat. Terra; see map), the celestial body inhabited by us, a planet in the solar system. The study of the E. as a member of the solar system teaches us about the position of the E. relative to the sun and to the other members of the solar system, about its motion, etc. In studying the E. as a special celestial body, we seek to find out its shape and size, and to determine the positions of specific points on its surface by means of astronomic methods. Both disciplines form the astronomic (or mathematical) geography. The determination of the density and temperature of the E., its magnetic properties, the distribution of solid, liquid, and gaseous on it, the different surface topologies and geognostic composition, climate, distribution of plants and animals form the subject of the physical geography.

The Greek in ancient time regarded the E. as a flat, circular disk, surrounded by Oceanos and arced over by the dome of the sky, which rested on columns, whose Western one rested on Atlas. But already Anaximander and Pytagoras taught that the E. had a spherical shape, and Eudoxos (350 B.C.) made this point very strongly, while Archimedes attempted to give an a priori proof for this property. The water, according to his reasoning, always assumes the lowest point, ergo should all points of the ocean be equally deep, and equally distant from a common midpoint. Since this is a property only known to hold for a sphere, the ocean, and hence the whole E. must have the shape of a sphere. Later there was no doubt about the spherical shape of the E. among all educated, for instance Cicero, Plutarch. Only at the start of the medieval there were repeated attempts to ascribe another shape to the E., and particularly the Early Fathers were opponents of the idea of a spherical shape of the E., and as late as the 15th century, this idea was attacked based on a contrived interpretation of several sections of the Bible. The most important and popular reasons are as follows: the circular shape of the horizon that we see whenever the view is unobstructed; the expansion of the horizon--which remains circular--upon elevation of the viewer, along with the fact that as one approaches tall landmarks, such as church towers and mountains, one sees their tops first, and of an approaching ship, one sees first the tip of the mast; the fact that one can travel around the E., the lunar eclipses, which show the shadow of the earth as a circle; the different inclinations of the stars at different locations, along with the fact that as one travels from north to south, some stars gradually disappear under the horizon in the North, while new ones appear on the horizon in the South. If we add to these facts the argument already formulated by Archimedes, which invokes the laws of attraction and the properties of liquids, according to which liquids always assume the spherical shape of water drops, unless prevented by some force, then we have a purely a priori proof which, if scientifically conducted and rigorously combined with the theory of revolution around an axis, yields not only the spherical shape of the earth but also its modification, the slight flattening into an oblate ellipse.

To me, the earth was round because Meyer's said so. In my dreams, I used to travel for months along the Western coast of Africa, but it was the sensation of being in a fast-moving cocoon of glass, seeing the endless variety of topography below me like in a panopticum. There was the curved purple sea, the beaches--the white, narrow sand-seam of the lush land--the majestic rivers with water flowing so slowly since I hovered so far above. The dots along the river might have been animals, large game, turning their heads up to take a break from their drinking and look at the apparition in the sky. But beyond Africa, there were places so far away, like Antarctica, that it would take me years to get there. They were colored patches on the horizon, with a peculiar texture that told me the rules of traffic, of grammar, even the very rules of thinking were so different from those I was used to, would I ever arrive there, I would be utterly lost. But waking, I saw everything shrunk back to the familiar contours of the furniture in my room against the dimly moon-lit walls: the table, a parallelogram shape that I could change by closing one of my eyes, then opening it and closing the other; the lamp, which I'd made myself by winding 100 feet of sisal string around a metal basket; the poster showing Picasso's fifth lover, who had four eyes and two noses, all in blue.


Volume 6: Erdeessen bis Franzen

Erdeessen, the habit of many peoples to eat soil of certain consistencies. This habit exists for instance in the sandstone quarries of the Kyffhäuser and in the Lüneburg region, where the workers put a fine clay, the so-called stone butter, on their bread. Other areas of Europe where E. is found are the Steiermark, Upper Italy (Treviso), Sardinia, where soil is being sold on the market just like any other kind of food, the farthest North of Sweden, and the Kola peninsula, where soil ("mountain earth") is mixed in with dough to make bread. In Persia, soil is still appreciated as a delicacy despite a ban issued in more recent times. In the bazaars one buys a white, fine clay of a somewhat fatty consistency and white, irregularly shaped, firm bulbs, which feel like fine soil to the touch and taste slighly salty. The ladies, too, of the Spanish and Portugese aristocracies once regarded the soil of Ertemoz as a great delicacy. Besides this habit to enjoy soil as a kind of food, which is found in all countries of the tropics and many subtropic regions as well, and widely practiced in America and Africa, soil is also used as a medication, e.g. in Nubia. In other places this habit is accompanied by religious motifs, and in yet other ones it is a purely religious ritual, as for instance in Timor.

There are probably many different reasons for the widely accepted practice of E. It cannot be ruled out that soil may have an acceptable taste; moreover, many kinds of soil contain salt, so that the consumption of soil could be considered as a substitute for that of salt. In addition, E. occurs in the course of several diseases mostly found in the tropics, such as the anemia caused by the parasite Anchylostomum duodenale (see under this heading). Characteristic for the pathological soil eater is the hanging belly, the general emaciation, and the swelling of liver and spleen. Pathological E. in childhood occurs most frequently in childhood. Finally, E. could represent a perverse urge to eat, as found among anemics and hysterics, also among young girls (Pica chlorotica), who for instance take into their mouths such things as crayons, slate, and stylus, to chew on, or eat old mortar.

Dirt is on the other side of a hysterical divide. It is the small, unclassified, unclassifiable, disordered matter: the leftover from incomplete cleaning of containers of perfect food, potential for pestilence and other epidemics, microbial menace and fungal fright; the gooey stuff that accumulates beneath refrigerators and within cracks, dead organic matter such as dandruff, lint fresh out of navel, and hair. By extension--but without justification--the earth outside, the very mother soil that nurtures roots and feeds us all, is called dirt as well, but here the housewives clearly transgress, their categories askew. We cannot fault them. They see it as their duty to protect the house and its inhabitants from ill health, and faced with the myriads of inventive forms that dirt can take, they apply the stigma to all other substances dispersed and unknown.


Volume 7: Franzensbad bis Glashaus

Encapsulated in this volume, between the innocent words for a health spa (Franzensbad) and nursery (Glashaus), is Geschlechtsorgane, or sexual organs. Volume 7 was my absolute favorite, even though the illustrations included to explain the organs were of children, a boy and a girl, sawed in half, not of full-grown mature specimens of each gender. There appeared to be no plausible connection between the tiny thing that dangled from the sectioned boy and the receptacle of the little virginal girl--the scale was off, like in the odd size pairings one finds at seven-grade school dances, with girls overtowering boys. Nevertheless, the plates offered X-ray vision, going beyond skirts, panties, pubes, even labiae, right into the heart of the matter.

The German word for gender, Geschlecht, is close to that for bad, schlecht. Sexual organ is Geschlechtsorgan, organs that appeared, from their etymology, to be made for the sole purpose of doing evil. Finally, the word for making love is Geschlechtsverkehr, which might be freely translated into "trafficking in badness," like some wicked occupation of outlaws. But even when the flavor of wickedness was set aside, the "traffic" part of the word took any romantic notions away, conjuring a demeaning, technical act on the Autobahn, in the flare of neon light.

In search of a picture that would now be called "frontal nudity" in the lingo of American film censorship, the only thing I could find in all of Meyer's 20,000-and-odd pages was a plate with photo-engravings showing four men and four women of different origins, all naked but wearing fig leaves. They differed in hairstyle, posture, demeanor, and--in the case of the women--shape of their breasts, and in the style of their fig leaves. The German woman was the only one with a friendly expression on her face; the others displayed furrowed eyebrows, as though resentful of being dragged in front of the camera. In the case of the men, the fig leaves were clearly too small to hide the male member, and one had not to stare at them for too long, to escape the macabre idea of castration.


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