In Which We Accept Margery Kempe As A Holy Person

iona terrible loss

This Creature

by ALICIA PUGLIONESI

Margery Kempe wrote one of the earliest autobiographies in the English language, except that she didn’t write it. Kempe dictated her life story to a scribe because, like most medieval women, she was illiterate. This resulted in a number of strange effects, the most jarring of which is that the scribe replaced her first-person “I” with the phrase “this creature” throughout the text. It’s possible that Kempe spoke in the third person as “this creature.” Some scholars suspect that she was secretly literate and wrote the book herself, taking pains with the story of the male scribe and the elimination of personal pronouns in order to evade persecution.

Other scholars question whether Kempe existed at all because her story is so profoundly strange.

barely a goewlew

Already this creature leads us into a tangle of difficulties: was Margery Kempe a radical who cannily manipulated religious and social conventions in order to live a life beyond the limits set for women of her time? You wouldn’t think so looking at her. In her book she sometimes seems like a wild, frightened animal in our modern sense of “creature.” Or a creature in the sense of a monster, suddenly strange and frightening to herself, desperately seeking an escape into the divine. All creature really means in the fifteenth century, though, is a thing that God created, and over which he has dominion. The Book of Margery Kempe is about a normal woman who believes that God chose her – because of her lack of any special merit – to demonstrate how his divine love transcends all human conventions. The question, of course, is whether the bulldozing of those conventions was God’s idea or Kempe’s, and whether we could ever tell the difference.

People have wondered what was wrong with Margery Kempe for centuries: was she insane, possessed, divinely-inspired, or incredibly canny? She was known for weeping uncontrollably at inappropriate times – like in the middle of a church service, or while traveling with strangers, or while trying to persuade a local mob that she wasn’t a heretic who should be burned at the stake. Kempe didn’t see her incessant crying as a problem. She thought it was a gift from God – God had chosen her for this form of penance, a mark of difference and divine favor. She seems to have spent a lot of her time sitting or lying down and weeping for the soul of mankind.

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This was the late fourteenth century, a time of some political tension and much religious strife in Europe. The Catholic Church was working hard to bring its authority to bear on heretical sects like the Lollards that claimed direct communication with God. The Church found that communication with God was a particularly slippery thing to regulate. A complex set of rules and hierarchies mediated Catholic access to the divine, but the religion was based on stories of ordinary people receiving unexpected revelations. This contradiction was becoming a sticking point. Margery Kempe is a footnote in the long and messy run-up to an even longer and messier schism; her hedge was that none of her words or actions were her own, a common-enough maneuver for speaking truth to power.

Medieval religious devotion was also passing through a sort of ecstatic sentimental phase around this time. Passion and weeping, fantastic love and impossible longing, became popular expressive paradigms, to the consternation of the Church which just wanted people to behave in an orderly fashion.

Since this “affective piety” was coded feminine, some interesting gender issues surfaced – there’s talk of suckling at Jesus’ teat and quasi-sexual encounters with the godhead. Revelations about the ecstatic nature of God’s love came from a new class of religious mystics, many of them women cloistered in religious orders. Marie d’Oignes, St. Bridget of Sweden, Clare of Montefalco, and Julian of Norwich were popular subjects of the female sacred biography genre – texts usually written by male clerics which authorized the spiritual experiences of holy women. Because these women were nuns they could often read and write, but their stories had to be told by men in order to assimilate material that could otherwise pose a danger to the Church.

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Margery Kempe claimed never to have read any of the mystic texts popular during her lifetime, although she would at least have heard some of them read aloud. She was the daughter of a wealthy merchant in Bishop’s Lynn, a town a hundred miles north of London. The mature Kempe describes her young self as “set in great pomp and pride of the world.” This means she liked to wear fashionable clothes. She was never “content with the goods that God had sent her…but ever desired more and more.” This means that she had an entrepreneurial streak; she ran a brewery and a grist mill. This seems like a medieval approximation of our modern feminine ideal: a woman who runs her own local, independent business and looks good doing it.

When she was twenty, Kempe married a local merchant and quickly got pregnant. The pregnancy was rocky – she was sick and bedridden, and after a difficult birth she “despaired of her life, thinking that she might not live.” Fearing death, Kempe called for a priest and tried to confess to him a dark secret. Keep in mind that matters of Catholic dogma and heresy were very, very serious for ordinary people in the Middle Ages: Kempe’s dark secret was that “she was ever hindered by her enemy, the devil, evermore saying to her that…she needed no confession but could do penance by herself alone, and all should be forgiven.”

She had arrived, on her own, at the heretical belief that one could deal directly with God without the church as an intermediary. This was so heretical that the priest wouldn’t even hear Kempe out – he cut her off in the middle of her deathbed confession. Without a confession Kempe knew that she was doomed to Hell for all eternity. At this point, she went completely nuts.

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Or as she describes it: “This creature went out of her mind and was wonderfully vexed and labored with spirits for half a year, eight weeks, and some odd days. And in this time she saw, she thought, devils open their mouths, all inflamed with burning flames of fire…and [they] bade her that she should forsake her faith…she slandered her husband, her friends, and her own self…she knew no virtue nor goodness…she would have killed herself many a time with her stirrings, and have been damned with them in hell…save she was bound and kept with strength both day and night so that she might not have her will.”

Kempe was tied up in the basement for six months. This was a common medieval strategy for handling what we would call mental illness – modern readers have diagnosed her with everything from schizophrenia to postpartum depression. Finally, one day she had an ecstatic vision in which Christ appeared beside her and ordered her not to forsake him, “and anon the creature was stabled in her wits and in her reason as well as ever she was before.” Kempe’s servants untied her and she vowed to devote her life to piety and prayer in thanks for her miraculous recovery. Except that she really liked nice clothes and money, and having sex with her husband. She basically went back to business as usual.

Only after her brewery and grain mill failed and she’d given birth to ten more children did Kempe have another mystical vision ordering her to forsake the things of this world and devote herself to Christ. She interpreted her commercial failure as God’s punishment for pride and covetousness. And she wanted to interpret the voice in her head as the voice of God. This time, perhaps with less to lose, Kempe embarked on a mystical odyssey that would take her from Bishop’s Lynn to London to Jerusalem, often penniless and at the mercy of suspicious strangers.

When she started weeping uncontrollably in public and preaching about the joy of heaven, her neighbors suggested that she was either mad or possessed by the devil. Kempe, herself fearing that this might be the case, sought explanations for her strange experiences. She consulted the female mystic Dame Julian of Norwich and many other ecclesiastical experts, all of whom reassured her of the authenticity of her visions. She worked her ecclesiastical connections hard – perhaps aware of the precariousness of her position, she shored up support wherever possible.

The biggest obstacle to Kempe’s career as a mystic was her status as a married woman. At that point, the Church was advocating celibacy as the highest ideal for all of its followers – everyone who wanted to win God’s love and forgiveness was supposed to give up sex. Previous female mystics had been celibate nuns, or widows who became celibate nuns, or virgins forced into marriage who got their husbands to take vows of celibacy before the deal was consummated. Virginity was the centerpiece of female holiness, but Kempe had been popping out babies for years and wasn’t able to stop as long as her husband claimed his legal rights over her. She cut a deal that epitomizes her strange intermingling of sacred calling and worldly savvy: she got her husband to sign a vow of marital chastity in exchange for her paying off all his debts.

Even with a piece of paper certifying her (renewed) chastity, Kempe was a tough sell for many of her countrymen. People complained about her flamboyant weeping and wailing, accusing her of overacting. Kempe considered their hatred another test that God wanted her to endure – the more people scorned her, the more highly she would be rewarded in heaven. It seems like she was genuinely difficult to be around – her fellow pilgrims ditched her on the way to Jerusalem, and clerics back in England kicked her out of services because of her disruptive weeping. Her chaste husband, a remarkably loyal supporter of her work, tended to make himself scarce when Kempe started a scene in the public square.

There was still suspicion that Kempe “had the devil in her.” She carried on extensive conversations with God, Christ, and various saints, who she describes as speaking directly to her mind or soul, but the trick of medieval demonology is that demons could masquerade as holy figures in order to plant seeds of evil. Most of the ecclesiastical experts who Kempe consulted chose to interpret her visions through the lens of divine revelation, but many laypeople assailed her motivations as selfish, and her voices as demonic. Madness wasn’t off the table either: one friar banned Kempe from his sermons on the grounds that she was not having visions, but rather suffered from a mental disease.

The thing is that Kempe could be awfully convincing. Claiming illiteracy, she impressed religious authorities by reciting obscure Biblical passages and offering exegeses. She made accurate prophesies and fielded theological queries. Many ordinary Catholics accepted Kempe as a holy person and paid her to weep (copiously) for the salvation of their souls. Kempe won for herself freedoms and intellectual possibilities that were completely off-limits for most women of her time. Just in terms of mobility, she made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and visited scholars and mystics all over England, when most women weren’t allowed to leave their villages without the permission of husbands and church officials. At times she publicly criticized the Church for corruption, and urged women to leave their husbands and become brides of Christ.

To call Kempe’s career subversive, though, would be to overlook the very real affective power of faith in medieval life. Maybe she got something she wanted – freedom to think and travel, freedom from endless childbearing – but she was also tormented by desire for what she had given up. The “things of this world” were the things that had offered her the most satisfaction; she particularly struggled with the demands of chastity. Her visions were sometimes terrifying and visceral, and she describes these traumatic episodes as tests of her love for God. Perhaps the deeply Catholic worldview of her age drove Kempe to a life of torment and self-denial, perhaps it equipped her to make sense of destabilizing psychological experiences.  For a lowly creature who had surrendered her will to God, she managed to leave a highly personal record of her interior world – Kempe’s voice is incredibly rich, simultaneously familiar and strange. This richness of voice may be all we need to know about her.

Alicia Puglionesi is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here.

“Giorna” – Jeremiah Jae (mp3)

“Fallen Saints” – Jeremiah Jae (mp3)

In Which Mr. Robot Feels Especially Insecure

Watching You

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Mr. Robot
creator Sam Esmail

Sam Esmail directed a small romantic comedy featuring goofy Justin Long and wretched Emmy Rossum in major roles. 2014’s Comet was not a success by any measure, and watching it made feel like you wanted to destroy from space anyone who thought these two smug millennials were sympathetic or interesting in any way.

In his USA series Mr. Robot, Esmail has magically used his talent for writing characters that are insensitive and annoying to his advantage. It is hard to know even why Mr. Robot is so bizarrely joyful in the way it sees its dark, dangerous settings and maladjusted set of characters. Mr. Robot never cringes at clichés — the show simply runs head-on into them.

Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) is an employee at Allsafe, a cyber security firm that is pretty terrible at its job. Like any fictionalized depiction of computer crime, Mr. Robot segues into some lame hacking sequences to describe for laypersons what Elliott is doing in his free time when he uses backdoors to penetrate private networks. This is the least interesting part of Mr. Robot, since it duplicates the issue all such dramas have had since Sandra Bullock’s seminal 1995 film The Net: watching characters intently stare at screens gets a bit dull.

Irwin Winkler directed The Net when he was 64 years old, and certainly had no idea what was possible or even feasible about hacking or identity fraud. Then again, The Net was silly, but it also featured a basic kind of truth to how easy it made this type of thing seem. If stealing secure documents was so difficult, then it wouldn’t be happening every single day, especially to governments.

Mr. Robot presents the schizophrenic Eliot as a kind of hero, since he wants to subvert existing power structures through nonviolence, unlike the rest of his hacker group fsociety. Under the advisement of older man who calls himself Mr. Robot (a horrendous Christian Slater), Elliot explains how fsociety can infiltrate a secure facility in upstate New York that contains the data backups for an Enron-esque company termed Evil Corp by its adversaries.

Elliot’s next-door neighbor is a sweet young woman named Shayla (the phenomenally talented Frankie Shaw). She sells him drugs and solicits his protection against her abusive dealer boyfriend. When its cliffhanger serial about corporate destruction is not unfolding, Mr. Robot concerns Eliot’s technological advantage in creating revenge for his friends in the real world. It would be white knighting if Malek’s glue-faced Elliot were not an Egyptian-American.

Elliot’s major adversary is an executive at E Corp named Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström). Mr. Wellick is a Patrick Bateman-esque sociopath, and his morally bereft character is so fun to watch that he is on the verge of becoming Mr. Robot‘s secret protagonist. Encouraged by his sadistic wife, Wellick has gay sex to commandeer a rival’s phone for information, and seduces the wife of his superior by telling her how boring her husband is. Elliot is the only character in this reduced world over whom he has no power.

Wellick is major part of what makes Mr. Robot like nothing else on television. It is so tiring to watch shows where every scene is the exact same length. The peripatetic switching back and forth between characters at an identical pace never allows the viewer the satisfaction of not knowing where she will go next. Mad Men and The Sopranos succeeded partially based on their avoidance of this patterned structure, and Mr. Robot features long, ambitious set pieces that measurably heighten the drama and suspense.

Esmail’s signature visual style also represents a refreshing shift. Instead of putting human faces in the direct center of the screen so that they can still be viewed comfortably on standard-definition televisions, he uses the entire widescreen canvas on offer, often displaying the action from low or high angles. This strategy always places the individual characters of Mr. Robot in contrast with their disparate environments, giving Mr. Robot an authentic feel it desperately needs among its silliness.

Michael Mann released his own hacking movie Blackhat earlier this year, and it was a tremendous failure for the same reasons that Mr. Robot emerges as a triumph. It had no fun with the absurdity of the world it inhabited — it made cybersecurity seem like any other field rife with criminals and greedy thieves. That isn’t what is entertaining or true about the subject at all. The compelling part of internet wars is that they attract people for reasons other than money, showing how little finance means to us. People are motivated by so many more interesting things.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

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“Drunched In Crumbs” – Albert Hammond Jr. (mp3)

“Power Hungry” – Albert Hammond Jr. (mp3)

In Which We Come Up With A Plan For The Ages

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to justhardtosay@gmail.com or by dropping us a note at our tumblr.

Hi,

My stepsister Joann recently got married to a wonderful man and is pregnant with her first child. The two are planning a wedding before the baby arrives. With the prospect of a baby shower, an engagement brunch (no clue what that is), a bachelorette party, bridesmaid dress and other incidentals, Joann’s fertility is probably going to cost me in four figures. I don’t have the kind of income where I can absorb these expenses; on the other hand I don’t want to let my stepsister down. What should I do?

Kate T.

Dear Kate,

Marriage is a wonderful institution, except when Lauren Bacall married Humphrey Bogart: that was completely gross. 

Whatever you do, do not bring this problem up to Joann. Create an entirely independent drama that requires your attention. For example, your car broke down and needs a new hamburglarator. She has bigger issues on her mind, she’s not going to check if it’s actually part of a car. For a more plausible excuse, humbly reveal that you have to take a weeklong trip during her bachelorette party to accomplish a continuing education bonafide. For some reason, using the word “education” justifies any expense or behavior.

Failing that, is there the possibility of suggesting Joann’s fiance may not be the father? Because that could really shake up this loathsome set of obligatons on your plate. Also, when you lie, don’t touch your face.

Hey,

 

My boyfriend Kyle and I have a great relationship. We spend almost all our free time together and we rarely argue or fight. He’s really supportive of me and never criticizes anything I do. 

There is one problem though. Kyle fancies himself an amateur gourmet. He is always planning some recipe composed of farm-to-table ingredients. Once he smiled at a lobster he was about to boil, which was a little strange, but the larger issue is that Kyle can’t really cook. His meals are so adventurous that they’re frequently inedible. He consumes them with aplomb and never seems to notice my lack of enthusiasm. How can I make him stop without getting in leg-deep shit? 

Angela D. 

Dear Angela,

Just come up with some strange diet plan that requires cooking things that even this Julia Childish can’t screw up.

Preface your lie by saying that you had an allergic reaction to one of his terrible meals (preferably rabbit, since humans should not consume rabbits except as a direct fuck you to Beatrix Potter). Explain that you were tested for allergies and it turns out you have some rare condition which involves never consuming the worst of his preparations in any form whatsoever.

NB: We’ve received some electronic mail recently complaining that our solution to every problem is to lie. This is an untrue accusation. When a lie is for someone’s own good, it’s just called a compliment.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.

“Without Me” – Mac DeMarco (mp3)

“My House By The Water” – Mac DeMarco (mp3)

In Which It Is More Difficult Than You Think

Orange Blossoms

by ELEANOR MORROW

Fort Tilden
dir. Sarah-Violet Bliss
95 minutes

“The criminal mind always sets its own traps,” a man screams at Allie (Claire McNulty) as she peels off the down a Brooklyn street on a bike after hitting a child. Her friend Harper (Bridey Elliott) is even worse, hitting up her greasy ex-boyfriend for drugs and writing a check for iced coffee. They live in the most magnificent New York apartment I have ever seen:

Sarah-Violet Bliss, a writer for Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer series, is like an even meaner Nicole Holofcener. Her satire of her peers is savage — at first it seems like there is nothing redemptive in Fort Tilden. Bliss’ debut film takes place in an area of New York City where everyone wants to live: children, families, dogs. Fort Tilden makes it look like an unrelenting nightmare of posturing and whining, persistently disgusting gentrification.

In one scene the two women are shopping in a thrift store when they see a small Asian teenager stealing their bikes. Instead of stopping him or trying to intervene, they just observe him pedaling away. A woman behind them in line wonders aloud, “That boy just took your bikes, and all you did was watch him do it.” Things are immaterial to a certain type of person, captured effortlessly in Bliss’ writing. They can be replaced. Everything can.

White people are especially disgusting, Bliss argues in her satire, and they are incapable of ever understanding their privilege. Their power comes from their ignorance of what power is. Any attempt at recognizing the racism of cultural norms just transitions into appropriation. This goes for underrepresented minorities themselves as well. “You have to let these people do what they are going to do,” Allie ironically explains to Harper at one point. “You just have to take punches.”

It emerges that the origin of Harper’s casual lifestyle is her father’s imperialist Indian business. He takes advantage of his position in the country and sends her money to continue her lifestyle. “It’s not my fault that I am his daughter,” she explains after being thrown out of a cab by a Indian immigrant. Fort Tilden‘s attempt at constructing real drama to underlie Bliss’ brilliant one-liners is disturbingly insightful, making me wish that she would shelve some of the Broad City-esque humor and make something that reaches even deeper than the story of two shallow Brooklynites.

As Allie, McNulty projects a saucy innocence that you would expect of a blonde girl about to be sent to Liberia by the Peace Corps. Bridey Elliott (daughter of comedian Chris Elliott) carries Fort Tilden with a retinue of facial expressions that express every conceivable emotion as the girls try to make their way to a beach date with two guys they met at a party the night before.

After these two find a quartet of stranded kittens, they begin to argue over which one of them posted a picture on the internet. The fight escalates, and one of the women says that the other isn’t an artist. This is the worst thing one person can conceivably convey to another at this time in our lives.

By the end of Fort Tilden there is actually only disappointment. This sadness comes not from the massively entertaining and humorous film constructed by an exciting new voice who spent too much time watching Broad City. The real let down of Fort Tilden is the world that is being satirized. There is not really much to it, and the movie culminates like the sad, disturbing end of a wet dream.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

“I Got That Feeling Once Again” – The Memories (mp3)

“Love To Break Your Heart” – The Memories (mp3)

In Which Ve Indulge In All Ver Most Potent Fantasies

Ash Factory

by DICK CHENEY

Kissing a woman on the forehead is the literal kiss of death unless you are a nun or a pimp. As this season of True Detective spirals to a close, Vince Vaughn smooches his wife on the head way too much for my liking. He does it in his creepy bar, in his mediocre apartment, at the movies. A man kisses a woman on the head for one reason and one reason only: because he does not want to kiss her on the lips. Lynne says it is because Kelly Reilly’s mouth tastes like ash and lotion. It is dangerous to assume that other people put the same things in their mouths as you or I or Michelle Obama does.

That is what I was thinking when a woman sprayed ecstasy into Rachel McAdams’ face cavity at the Eyes Wide Shut sex party. Rach did not like it, primarily because the drug could not make the woman happy, which frankly suggests that nothing can.

You’re going to a cool party with all the right people. Why aren’t you psyched?

I took ecstasy for the first and only time in 1997. I then read some Leo Strauss and masturbated. One was about as good as the other.

There is this New Zealand novelist who invented a whole set of gender neutral pronouns because she herself is a declared asexual. Ve and vis and ver are used pretty interchangeably, although sometimes they refer to biological gender. McAdams’ haircut and new wig reminded me of their utility.

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Can Vince Vaughn even grow a beard?

In her stupor McAdams dreamt of ver childhood molestation, where ve was tempted into a van down by the river by a man promising rare animals and delicious treats. All unicorns are sterile and suffer from low testerone. The unicorn is ver spirit animal, the same way that Carly Fiorina’s spirit animal is an opossum and Bernie Sanders’ spirit animal is a turkey sandwich.

Even the pimp went to great pains to emphasize her age. Rachel McAdams’ agent has been in Cabo for the past year is the only explanation for all this.

I think Rachel McAdams thinks gender is probably just a construct. She probably reads Judith Butler when she isn’t watching her sister strip on the internet.

Colin Farrell is undecided. He gets really drunk and really high on last night’s True Detective. He is so messed up that he no longer even enjoys constructing models of airplanes. (His son explains that they are killing machines.) There was also a long scene where he threatened to puncture the balls of a man awaiting his sentencing in a local jail, but I didn’t really understand the point of it or who the guy was.

They should have just sent this guy to the Wall.

Under the influence of drugs we can acquire an otherworldly courage, Pizzolatto is saying. This pro-drug messaging has been heard from Boulder to the PCH. Given the moral at work here, I would be surprised if the man isn’t addicted to some substance. That vice is clearly not alcohol, given that it is merely a lingering percussion in the symphony of drug abuse we suffer through on the show.

His spirit animal is a lasagna.

It was hard to understand the connection of a masked robbery during the L.A. riots to all this, unless Casper was one of the thieves. Perhaps the children recognized his face and decided to murder him — it doesn’t seem to be the evil hosts of the party who murdered Ben. The killing strikes me as more personal, and they had nothing to gain from the death of the city manager in their employ.

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Taylor Kitsch’s acting in this scene consisted of nods and murmurs. It was somewhere between completely awful and career-ending.

The culprits are therefore a formerly well-to-do brother and sister who were dropped into the foster system. The now-deceased Latina described a cop, so we can assume the perpetrators are police officers. The male child looked suspiciously like McAdams’ ex-partner played by Michael Irby. By encouraging the subordinate she did anal with to file charges against ver, he planned to keep ver away from the truth. I have no idea who his sister is, except that I demand she be portrayed by Kelly Ripa.

That is a very natural way to stand.

Now that I have solved True Detective, I feel at peace. I went around all day kissing Lynne on the top of the forehead and watching Key & Peele. Boy are those guys deft, very very deft, when it comes to dealing with America’s tarnished, racist past. I also didn’t realize exactly how awful the title sequence of True Detective was until I saw their parody of it.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording.

“Saw the Light” – Seapony (mp3)

“Bad Dream” – Seapony (mp3)

In Which We Would Like To Explain To The Citizens Of West Germany

Perestroika

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Deutschland 83
creators Anna Winger & Joerg Winger

Germany in 1983 was a very special time and place to be a part of. Sundance Channel’s Deutschland 83 begins where last season of The Americans ended — Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire speech. No one takes Reagan the least bit seriously in East Germany, if they could even watch the speech, which was mostly about the evil of women aborting their children. Enlisted East German soldier Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) has bigger problems: a blonde named Annette (Sonja Gerhardt) whose sexuality is a beacon in this grim time.

Martin doesn’t take communism very seriously. Annette is more devoted to the cause. When she finds some banned books in the house of Martin’s mother, she immediately takes them to the Stasi. “That’s a good book,” Walter Schweppenstette (Sylvester Groth) tells her upon seeing a paperback copy of 1984. “But it’s not permitted in East Germany.”

Martin is deployed by the Stasi as an aide to a West German general named Edel (Ulrich Noethen), the disobedient son of a Nazi officer. Edel is the real hero of Deutschland 83, a man trying to unite his country in a good faith democracy and turn back the communists. Every single person around him, from his wacky wife, to his commune-residing daughter, to his turncoat son Alexander (Ludwig Trepte), seems focused on impeding that goal.

Martin is not much of a spy. At an important NATO meeting he is almost killed by an American operative. His sloppy work leads to a floppy disk no East German computer can access. Tasked with seducing the secretary of a NATO representative, Martin can’t bring himself to let her drown when a cleaning lady finds a microphone he has placed under her desk. (Another agent runs her over with a car.) It is precisely because Martin is so goofy that the West Germans don’t suspect he is endangering all their lives.

Nay only has three or four main facial expressions, but he vacillates between them at a moment’s notice. He is blackmailed into his service by his aunt Lenora (Maria Schrader), who insists that his mother will be moved up on the kidney transplant list through his continued service with the Stasi. Martin continues his work even after his mother gets his own kidney, recognizing that he is in too deep with these people to simply abscond.

Filming Deutschland 83 in the native language of the period adds a lot to the diegesis. The German language is gorgeous and practical in the right tones, but screeching and inhuman when elevated through anger or pain. Unlike English, it very quickly ceases to make sense when stress is put on it — a facile metaphor for Germany’s national character in the late part of the 20th century.

Deutschland 83 presents a nuanced view of the country. No one comes across very bad: the worst thing you can be in a serious time is silly, and no one has ever accused the Stasi of that. There is a lot of humor here, but it is always a broader comedy, never at the expense of the individuals involved. The German state is ridiculous — the people that comprise it are only doing their best.

The husband-and-wife team behind Deutschland 83 marches the German versions of 80s music over the proceedings like it is the first time anyone has thought of using “Boys Don’t Cry” ironically. It’s actually the millionth time, but there is a certain triumph in the innocence of Deutschland 83 — nothing here is especially new, but the series doesn’t do its viewers the insult of assuming you have seen and heard it all before. It is more important to be in the spirit of a period that may have never really existed, than to get it all down right.

Despite the fact that he believes she is carrying his child, Martin becomes disillusioned with Annette. Instead he begins a relationship with General Edel’s daughter Yvonne (Lisa Tomaschewsky). Yvonne is a backup singer who has escaped her society by taking up with the nonviolent Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh worshippers. She is the most beautiful thing in the entire world, so it is not a surprise that Martin is drawn to her after his fourth or fifth murder.

While the music and dialogue might feel a bit familiar, the wonderful sets, striking color and wildy different scenarios of Deutschland 83 all add up to an experience not previously possible in television. The series brings a sense of absurd fun to historical events that has evaporated from dull jaunts like The Hour and Aquarius. There is really nowhere to go with the show from here except to explore darker and more horrifying avenues, and that may ruin it. The Wingers seem intent on preserving the history itself, reminding us that it is more important to remember things as they were, before going on and on about why they ceased to exist.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

“Unstoppable” – Lianne La Havas (mp3)

“Green and Gold” – Lianne La Havas (mp3)

In Which Walter Benjamin’s Troubles Possessed Far Simpler Remedies

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A Genius of Dwelling

by ELLEN COPPERFIELD

Walter Benjamin’s father Emil was something of a dilettante. His major focus was the Berlin villa he purchased for his wife Pauline and their growing family. It was basically the house in The Royal Tenenbaums with nothing rotten or outdated; the culture it recalled had long since vanished from the earth.

At a very tender age Walter Benjamin was ensconced in a custom of indoor and outdoor living. If there was something to take lessons in – butterfly hunting or ice skating, for example — he joined with all the aplomb he could muster. Each room of his father’s house held a different sort of emotion, and could be inhabited completely or discarded with the closing of a door.

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Emil’s favorite place to be was on the telephone — this way a part of himself could be elsewhere, and a part with his family at all times. The self Emil Benjamin sent out, angry and forceful, was often different from the one they got back. His moustache was ranked either excellent or nonpareil depending on the humidity or time of day.

In a new biography from Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, Benjamin’s younger days are given a reverent kind of attention as though they’re depicting a young man either recovering from or developing a psychosis. In reality, Emil’s disturbing utopia was all the more perplexing because it anticipated the complete destruction of the German residence, which perished during the war.

Walter’s mother Pauline was thirteen years his father’s junior. She called Walter “Mr. Clumsy” because he never lived up to her idea of decorum.

His brother and sister were both separated from Walter by age, Eiland reports, so that they each experienced life as an only child. When Walter was finally divested of his private tutors and send to class with other pupils, it may not surprise you to learn that he did not fit in whatsoever. He was sick so often that other arrangements had to be made; it was good to get those illnesses out in the open air.

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In a country boarding school called Haubinda, Benjamin found a love of learning that separated him from all else — nothing was closer to him than that pedagogy. Upon his graduation from high school, his father gave him a trip as a gift. The family had already traveled around Europe at their leisure, this was Walter’s first trip to Italy on his own, the first where he determined the direction and purpose: Como, Milan, Verona, Vicenza, Padua. Among the masters he never cowered.

This temporary elation passed, a miasma of longing mixed with a desire to survive persisted. At University Benjamin found himself again outside the times, and eventually he returned to the villa to live at home while he pursued his studies. He had one friend of any import, a painter/novelist named Philip, and he steered clear of everyone else.

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University, Eiland and Jennings say, was Benjamin’s first introduction to his Judaism. Really, it was only his first introduction to Zionism, because although the Benjamin family was entirely secular, the boy’s upbringing was hardly divorced from some bare essentials of the European Jewish experience. He now fancied himself the quintessential Jew, and all of his friends were similarly disposed financially and ethnically.

Unsuccessful liasions with women would depress him, but their troubles never superseded his intellectual ones, and indeed possessed far simpler remedies.

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His friend Charlotte Wolff wrote of the man he became:

He had not the male bearing of his generation. And there were disturbing features about him which did not fit with the rest of his personality. The rosy apple-cheeks of a child, the black curly hair and fine brow were appealing, but there was sometimes a cynical glint in his eyes. His thick, sensuous lips, badly hidden by a moustache, were also an unexpected feature, not fitting with the rest. His posture and gestures were ‘uptight’ and lacked spontaneity, except when he spoke of things he was involved in or of people he loved.

He held, always, a part of himself back from those closest to him. Even his first amorous relationships with women never mention his body or theirs, as if he were describing two minds touching at the brainstem. All of Walter’s friends felt this dissonance in their relationships with him: from the time he left home, he was far closer to ideas than people.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. She last wrote in these pages about the life of Jules Verne. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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