Literary Lessons: What I learned from the axe-wielding murderer, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov

The End

In a recent post, I reviewed Graham Green’s The End of the Affair, which I added to my list of “profoundly impacting novels“. A commenter on this post, one Peter Galen Massey, remarked my inclination toward rather, uhm, “unstable” characters. One such character is Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment. This got me thinking—navel gazing, of course, of which I am want to do while whistling away at work—and my thoughts lingered first on why am I attracted to these more reckless characters? and, furthermore, what does this reveal about my own character?

Once I came to the conclusion that I don’t revere Raskolnikov for his axe-wielding abilities, I set out to undertake an explanation as to why nearly every other year I come back to such a large and engrossing novel, such as Crime and Punishment. But to explain this phenomenon, I have to quickly summarize C & P. Alright, here it goes.

The novel is a reverse crime novel, i.e. we know who dunnit. In fact, we are privy to the murderer’s thoughts and actions both before and after the deed is done. There are six parts of the novel, and the first part is the murder. The rest is how Raskolnikov atones for this murder. Along the way there are some amazingly beautiful characters (including the Marmeladov family—who were actually the basis for the original novel of C & P, entitled The Drunkards—, Raskolnikov’s buddy Dmitri Razumikhin, and Porfiry Petrovich, to name just a few). Raskolnikov is a poor law student, and happens to follow a bit of Nihlism that is popping up around St. Petersburg at the time—Russian Nihlism, German Nihlism‘s uglier, angrier, and drunker sibling. Raskolnikov murders a pawn broker, Alyona Ivanovna, whom he has convinced himself, after hearing a conversation in a bar, is worthless and that the world would be better without her in it.

The first portion is Rodya not only plotting the murder, but convincing himself that it is okay. Now, here’s where the book becomes something more than just a run-of-the-mill, mystery-thriller-dime-store-novel stuff. CSI does this stuff to death, right? (excuse the pun): someone is murdered, and they have to find not only the killer, but his/her motive as well. Well, here’s the deal with Dostoevsky: we get to actually watch and imagine Rodya justifying murder—an act no normal individual can reasonably justify. Yes, murders are everywhere. Go ahead, turn on CNN, I’ll wait… but being inside the thoughts of someone who is convincing himself that murder is permissible is absolutely insane. It is raw, ugly existentialism.

Stuttgart StrasseSo, what I learned from Raskolnikov is that one must justify ones actions to two sets of peoples. First there is yourself. You simply must justify yourself each and every day you exist. And most of you, and me, have a preexisting justification for our daily lives. For example, why we eat bacon, why we wear jeans, why we take 10 minute showers, etc. The next set of peoples are the society in which you live. There are laws, both subtle and pronounced, for which each of is responsible for the sake of a peaceful existence. Such as, Thou shalt not steal, murder, worship false idols, and stopping at red lights, paying taxes for wars we protest, pirating music, etc. The weird (and beautiful) part is that both of these conditional clauses are dependent upon environment. In example, let’s say, in Germany, jaywalking is a huge no-no, but it is mostly enforced by social conditions. Whereas in New York, jaywalking is a part of the environment and one can and will justify their right to jaywalk with the proverbial, “Hey! I’m walkin’ here!” This response would not fly in Deutschland.

What is unique about Raskolnikov is that he overcame the most important person who kept telling him no: himself. Once he overcame that… well, that’s only the first part.

The rest of the novel is whether this “overcoming of self” is justifiable within societal norms, laws, and customs. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Rodya confesses in a populated square in the middle of St. Petersburg after an interesting scene where Sonya Marmeladov reads the story of Lazarus to him. And another scene where he confesses to the police, but they don’t believe him! (Ugh, that is a tough one to read). It should be no surprise that Christianity is impetus for Raskolnikov’s confession. It is personal guilt that eventually overcomes him, and guilt is the driving force behind Roman Catholicism, not to mention Christianity as a whole. Suffering is purposeful and personal for Raskolnikov. But atonement is not only personal, it is societal—which is why his confession is performed in a public square. Raskolnikov has overcome personal guilt to become this übermensch, or so at least he thinks (what is ultimately played out in C & P, is that the übermensch is an impossibility, if not a strict rarity, because of civilized norms).

The point is that all of this, all of this life, needs justification. It needs, nay requires, a reason. Not just breaking the law, but adhering to it as well. And it is not only oneself that one must reason into submission, it is also you and everyone reading this blog. And everyone driving on the road. And everyone on the subway staring into their new iPhone 5s. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to explain to people that each of us justifies our lives and actions in some way, shape, or form. Most people do NOT want to hear that their actions are conditional responses based upon profound and unfathomably numerous cultural signals and cues. Most people want to hear that each and every time they do something, it is a result of a choice. A rational choice plucked from the blooming flower of infallible logic. But that was Dostoevsky’s point! He thought that man was irrational! Such was the basis for existentialism. In fact, Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky’s 1864 novella, is a philosophical response in favor of irrationality against Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel, What is to be Done?

Boston CrowdI read Crime and Punishment and understand millionaires. I understand their wanting more. I understand crooked criminals. I understand the bribers and the bribed. I understand the takers and the givers, the makers and the destroyers. Because each and every one of them has justified their existence and their actions. Whether it be purchasing sliced bread or a new bed, each and every single one of us justifies our actions so that we can sleep at night—with full stomachs and on soft sheets.

I hope that I am not misunderstood in this post. And I hope that we can all learn something “good” from Raskolnikov. What we should learn is that we are all here for one another. No one exists alone. Not even Raskolnikov, not even the übermensch, not even the genius or the tyrant, the hero or the villain, the thief or the prosecutor. We are all responsible for the well being of one another. So, thank you for my well being, dear readers. I am truly thankful for yours.

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Halt Your Enthusiasm!

I am here in Germany visiting my gf, and I happen to be here when the city of Mainz is celebrating their annual Johannisnacht festival. Last night was the final night, and it was celebrated in style with a 15-minute firework display, which my gf and I watched from Theodor-Heuss Bridge that links Wiesbaden and Mainz.

Johannisnacht 1On the first night of the festival, Friday night, my gf and I walked to the city center where the festivities were held and ate a bit of food and had a beer or two. That was the night I learned my first lesson in Germany enthusiasm: Wait until the song, event, phenomenon, is completely finished before celebrating. I am quiet serious. That Friday night we enjoyed a few songs from an all too impressive Black Sabbath cover band playing at one end of the festivities. Being a Sabbath fan from my teenage years, I sang along and cheered whenever I was struck with excitement. And for this, I received some good ol’ fashion German upbraiding: the stare! First, yes, I was the only one clapping… of which my gf informed me I was, um, premature in my celebration (soooo American, she says). And then I got a stare. The stare from an older German gentleman whose fun I was apparently ruining. Lesson learned.

Three night later and I am about to test my new found knowledge at the final celebratory night. It was tough. It was tough for this red-blooded “didn’t-know-how-American-he-was-until-fireworks-came-out” guy NOT to “oooh,” “aaah,” and cheer every time some pretty colors burst over the Rhine. So, I was quiet. I stood and listened to some sparsely hasty, yet hushed, German excitement over the larger fireworks. But for the most part, the collection of citizens in the photos below didn’t make as sound during the whole fiery procession.

Only one dared to make a sound. As an acute cluster of fireworks dissipated, one promisingly remarkable firework shot forth into the sky. As the dormant firework traveled upwards, I heard from a man on my right as the rocket shot high, a barely audible remark; a lovely admission of the pretense of excitement echoed in the most German way possible. A small, yet significant, word was uttered in an almost official tone: “Jawohl…”.

Fireworks 1Fireworks 2

Fireworks 3Fireworks 4

Jawohl. You’re damn right, “Jawohl”.

Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in TehranReading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was surprised that I enjoyed this book. It was recommended to me by a reader of an essay I am writing, and after reading a few Goodreads reviews, I had my doubts. But I found the writing to be articulate, emotional, and intelligent; and it was an enjoyable read.

Azar Nafisi’s memoir is structured as a memory, with the beginning and ending containing a framing structure of a present tense private course she is teaching out of her home for seven promising female students. The middle two chapters (“Gatsby” and “James”) contain past memories leading up to Nafisi’s leaving her academic position in 1995, and, thus, teaching this literature course from the sanctity of her home. I felt that the structure of the story is quite engaging, and Nafisi’s oft-pedantic nature concerning various literature to be quite refreshing against the critical discourse of women’s rights, freedom, tyranny, and such. I think it would be too easy to make this a story only about the antipathy between Iran and “the West,” and the lacing of literatures and literary criticism offers a layered approach to these contentious themes.

As you might presume, my criticism does not contend with the story, its structure, or its popularity. Instead my criticism considers something close to my own sensibility: this content regarding the innumerable influences upon the Iranian government and its revolutionary subjects: namely, who and how those individuals are represented by Nafisi throughout her story.

The difficulty is clear: when criticizing a non-fictional memoir, whom, or what, is one criticizing? Usually it is the author and that author’s real life experiences. It is illogical to criticize any individual’s real life experience, because they will retort with the infallible, “but you weren’t there,” “you didn’t experience it” rejoinder. And, they are verily right to do so. So, as I have no position on these things regarding Iran or Dr. Nafisi’s personal experiences with Iran, I will assume my criticism of a representation. That of the various revolutionary groups in the story, and the students who are given the most prominent voices for these groups: Mr. Nyazi, from Chapter 2; Mr. Ghomi, from Chapter 3; and Mr. Nahvi, in Chapter 4. These are the classroom voices (all male) denouncing Western literature as “decadent, vile, corrupt, imperial” and therefore un-Islamic and a decrepit influence upon Iran’s holy culture, politics, people, etc. (290). I want to promote a shocking argument with these representations in mind: they are correct.

Let me explain.

Dr. Nafisi is writing a book in English for an English audience about reading Western literature in a country that is attempting to eradicate, through criticism and more obvious and violent means, the influence of said literature and culture. Against this argument, a few in the story articulate that literature is innocuous in its ability to cause change, revolution, or independence. It is first voiced against Mr. Nyazi, who possess the fault that he “‘can no longer distinguish fiction from reality’,” and must be reminded that “Gatsby was a work of fiction and not a how-to manual” (128, 120). The presumption is that Mr. Nyazi, et al are taking literature to literally and bestowing it too much power. The counterargument is that literature has little or no power, or is rather, not a “how-to manual,” as voiced by a student of Dr. Nafisi’s, Zarrin, who argues, “Did people all go on strike or head west after reading Steinbeck? Did they they go whaling after reading Melville? Are people not a little more complex than that?” (135). No. But they did commit suicide in droves after the publication of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s The Sorrows of Young Werther and Selected Writings. To this extent, the social purpose of literature is to communicate, reflect, and inspire. And to this even Zarrin concedes that Gatsby is “an amazing book… It teaches you to value your dreams…” something the Islamic Republic cannot afford (ibid, my emphasis).

In order to consider this argument, one must accede that literature is influential; it’s form, language, illustrations, chapters, structure, everything; all of this informs and mirrors a culture. Whether you read or not, reading influences our culture in the very form of the solipsistic and silently contemplated novel. Mr. Nyazi knows this when he argues that the West and its literature is a “‘sinister assault on the very roots of our culture'” (126). The problem, the very sincere issue here, is where a person departs from knowing how important literature is to a culture and uses violent means to annihilate its influence. Mr. Nyazi, et al, are far to busy criticizing and violently eliminating a supposedly antithetical literature to be busy doing what he should be doing to combat this “sinister” culture he depicts: creating his own literature. In fact, this is voiced by a student during Dr. Nafisi’s class who states to Mr. Nyazi: “‘Why don’t you write your own novel?'” (133). But that’s the point: how could he? where would he begin?

Art is not created in a bubble. It is not created without the appreciation and understanding of art that comes before or beside it. When eliminating Western literature, Mr. Nyazi has eliminated his people’s own ability to truly triumph over Western literature: with “Eastern” literature. The problem would be for Mr. Nyazi that he would have to engage with the literature itself before overcoming and creating his own works. Hmmm… for example. Nikolai Gogol is considered the first “Russian novelist”. But before him, Russia had a great poet and producer of written art: Alexander Pushkin. The difference between the two? Pushkin imitated and mimicked French style and art, which was necessary to gain influence at the time due to the French influence in Russia’s aristocracy, and Gogol wrote Russian stories with his own Russian style. In other words, Gogol used Russian folk tales to create his stories, where Pushkin used French novels and poems to create his. The point is that Mr. Nyazi is so busy destroying and condemning an influential Western literature that he is unable to become Gogol—in fact, he can’t even be Pushkin! And it is made apparent by a conversation between Mrs. Rezvan and Dr. Nafisi that a national literature is needed because “[t]he state of literature in this country could not be any worse, and the state of English literature is most hopeless of all” (179, my italics).

I wrote earlier that Dr. Nafisi agrees with me that literature and reality often intertwine and heavily influence one another, although many of her characters and her own statements contradict this statement. In the final chapter, Nafisi writes that “Fiction was not a panacea, but it did offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world—not just our world but that other that had become the object of our desires” (282). Yes. This is the pursuit and love of fiction: that other world. And when Mr. Nyazi, et al, destroy and burn all books that hold those other worlds, then he will finally have incinerated the desire to see and experience a world other than the one he has created. His war against literature is not against Western decadence, etc., but against outside influences in general. Because Power, unlike Art, can exist and flourish inside a bubble.

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Who Has Choice?

There is currently a wonderfully written article on The Atlantic Monthly‘s website entitled, “Put Your Shirts Back On: Why Femen is Wrong,” by Uzma Kolsy that I urge all of you to read. But my post isn’t about Uzma’s writing. It is about the comment section.

First cover of The Atlantic Monthly magazine. ...

First cover of The Atlantic Monthly magazine. November 1857.

I love reading articles from The Atlantic—possibly because they are free and often deal with topical cultural/gender/racial issues. But what is often times more revealing, and interesting, than the articles themselves are the comments made by The Atlantic‘s readers. First, let’s acknowledge something: all of those leaving comments must sign in somehow; whether that is through Facebook, Gmail, or whatever online system the kids use these days to remember their friends’ birthdays. They must take the time to sign in and leave a comment. So, it is with some effort and time that they devote to their often inane and dimwitted comments. Okay. Have I lost you yet? I’ll get to my point in a moment.

The article concerns Femen‘s activity regarding Muslim/Islamic culture—and their assumptions about a monolithic, oppressed Muslim female who must be represented, spoken for, and rescued (if you do not know who Femen is, please follow my .org or wiki link). Uzma argues that Femen’s “core flawed presumption” is that “Muslim women are oppressed because Islam is inherently oppressive” (Kolsy). She goes on to write that instead of removing their shirts and presumably speaking for, i.e. representing, Muslim women, they should donate their time to Muslim charities and social organizations. Her bulk argument is that the Femen organization is not helping Muslim women by considering them “unfree” or “oppressed,” but rather they are, first, bringing negative and fallacious attention on Islam, and secondly making Orientalist, racist and sexist presumptions about a women’s right to “choose” the hijab, or any other clothing.

Now, I have “cherry picked” two incendiary comments from the article to diagnose, and I realize that not all people think this way, but I wanted to mention that I am aware of that bias. I would also like to acknowledge that by highlighting these quotes I realize I am bringing a type of promotion or fame to these ideas—which I certainly do not promote or champion. Here are two comments made by readers of the Atlantic article in question:

1) “Muslim women are not making choices. They are making choices within a very limited set circumscribed by men, or by their mothers or other women who have a vested interest in the system.”

2) “If the Muslim women of the world did remove their hijabs in solidarity, you know exactly what would have happened to most of them: they would be beaten, if not murdered. Whipped back into compliance by men who are cowards and cannot trust their own wives to fend off the advances of another man.”

Now, here comes the controversy: I agree with point one, but on the condition that it be changed to “no one is making choices”. “Choice,” for me, is a highly contentious term. Many of us take it for granted that we have “choice” or that we feel the necessity to exercise some conception of “choice” on a daily basis, e.g. I “choose” to write this late at night instead of sleeping, even though I know I have to get up early (I will refrain from using ironic, and rather annoying, quotes from now on). But the problem is that a division wedges itself between those who have choice, i.e. those free to act, think, vote, etc., and those without choice, i.e. those oppressed by some larger force like culture, class, religion, etc. But the thing is: we are ALL influenced by immutable social forces, such as ulture, class, religion, gender, etc.; these things ALL enforce our decisions, actions, and lives.

Let’s be obvious for a moment. Do you wear glasses? Yes? Then you have a different mindset than someone who does not. Thought about corrective surgery? Investigated the price? Someone with 20/20 has not. Think about your glasses? Their care and cleanliness? Do you think about wearing contacts when you pick out sunglasses? A person with 20/20 has not had these thoughts. “Sure,” you say, “that’s biological”. Right. Okay… Guys, where do you buy your underwear? Target? Walmart? Is it Hanes? or Fruit of the Loom? Have you ever bought a single pair of Calvin Klein underwear at Macy’s for the price of four pairs of Hanes? No? You should. Because you have that choice.

Choose.

Choose…

Here’s where it gets sticky. You don’t have that choice, but you think you do because a nice mix of consumerism and late capitalism is an empowering and entitling narcotic. The danger is when that entitlement bleeds over into politics, ethics, gender, sexuality, etc. That you think you have choice is all that matters to Ronald McDonald, underwear factory owners, or managers at Target or Walmart. Even if you try to prove to me that you have choice, you are doing so out of a condition—sure, go buy the Calvin’s, gentlemen, you will love them! That condition is that you are trying to prove something to me, so the action is a necessary one, not chosen. Even a seemingly random act has a causal condition. But when we use the term choice, we are isolating a phenomenon in order to distinguish that act from others as important. We are telling a story. You are selecting, most often unconsciously, what information to exclude and what to include based on your experiences and the inherit desire for social acceptance. And that story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning isolates and solidifies the cause, the middle is the detail-y bit, and the end, well, the end is our moral justification—”I may have done something wrong, but here is why I did it. Do not condemn me“.

I find the use of the term choice abhorrent and despicable when used to distinguish one group from another as those possessing choice and those not possessing it. In its most casual and vulgar form it is employed to justify personal morality, and isolate and punish the other individual’s failure to achieve—”I have been able to do this, therefore you are able to do this. If you do not, then that is your choice“. This example ranges from arriving to work on time, living a healthy lifestyle, to earning a degree. Rather than choice, I prefer the terms desire and decisions. These terms allow for social influences and a range of numerous possibilities—as opposed to the either/or of choice. As far as I am concerned, choice is an absolute: either everyone has it or no one does. There is no way to clearly distinguish between those who have choice and those who do not. By creating that distinction to judge others lives of which we often know very little, we reveal the forces that have shaped our own morality; and more often than not, we reveal our bigotry, our fears, our hatred, and our ignorance. Just as some of those individuals making comments on Uzma Kolsy’s article have done.

The Aura and the Art Museum

This post has been inspired by a fellow blogger, one Peter Galen Massey. Recently, he and I had a reply-style discussion that mentioned the value of art and Walter Benjamin‘s interpretation of “aura”. This discussion has inspired my reconsideration of Benjamin’s work, and my own recent visit to the Art Institute of Chicago—where a Picasso exhibit is currently featured.

MonetSo, let’s start with the basics. Walter Benjamin, an exiled German Jewish philosopher, critic, historian, etc. wrote a significant essay entitled, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. (Here’s a link to the pdf). Benjamin defined something he called “aura”. This “aura” is a work of art’s unique presence in time and space. So, one would feel this “aura” if one viewed Monet‘s original Lily Pad paintings. It is akin to authenticity, except “aura” is a thing (for lack of a better term) that the original art work possesses (due to its history, its changes in ownership, its chemical changes, etc.). The thing is that this “thing” that the original work of art possesses can not be felt/interpreted/experienced by a subject, e.g. you, if it is a copy. So, that Mona Lisa on your coffee mug does not possess “aura”. You dig?

You know why? Because, as Benjamin states, “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (221 of Illuminations). So, any replica loses this “aura”. Only the original possesses an “aura”. (In an exchange of letters between Georg Lukács and Benjamin, Lukács told Benjamin that he was (paraphrasing here) not Marxist enough. I totally understand that now). And with that, let me make a bold statement: that aura stuff is bull**it.

Works of art are locked up behind gates, guarded by numerous security guards, and under constant surveillance. You know why? Aura. Those paintings represent a movement, a theory, a statement, a something; but, Man must eat first, before he or she contemplates art. So, we set aside our earned $30 and stand in line to enter our local Art Institute that houses works of art that should make us feel something (aura, perhaps?). And we see said art, and, lo and behold (!), it produces this feeling! “Yes, I am inspired! I will paint! I will draw! I will siiiiing!” But what inspires this inspiration? Is it aura? No. I will not grant mysticism to oil on canvas, nor charcoal on paper. What inspires us is our own expectation: the room, the lighting, the locks, the guards, the waiting, the entrance fee, etc.; that is what produces this so called “aura”. We don’t need to know about aura to feel this feeling. It is already in our collective consciousness simply by the fact that these works of art are placed in special spaces that are reserved just for them. This grants them an “aura,” not some mystical pronouncement or terminology. It is a collective will to place a value on certain objects (reification…), a value that does not exist, that is what makes these objects special and elite.

PicassoInside the Picasso exhibit, housed under a long wooden table with glass mounted on top, there were roughly a dozen early sketches of Picasso’s before he began painting a series of portraits featuring the infamous Minotaur. These sketches were unfinished and meant to be understood and valued as such. As I walked around the table, I noticed that I was in a room full of people looking at drawings of a Minotaur f*cking a lady, or sometimes two ladies. And I thought this odd. My second thought was: this Picasso guy is a hornball! Drawing pictures of bestiality and such. What a silly fellow! I laughed a bit out loud and caught the eye of my gf who was earnestly studying the sketches, as though she was imagining the burgeoning genius that was Picasso furiously creating this bestial sketch. She shook her head at me and walked on.

After the museum we stopped at ye old coffee shop and discussed “art”. My gf called me cynical due to my slight scoffing at Picasso’s Porn. I took offense. The last thing I am is cynical, my dear reader (a philistine, most likely. But, cynical? far from it). Her defense to my above accusation of Picasso is that he is a genius. My reply was that Picasso was a man. And the sketches of porn he was drawing proves that he eats, sh*ts, loves, f*cks, and drinks just like any other man. Period. He does not possess a gift or genius, he is a man with significant artistic skill, important social connections, and the right social conditions provided so that he could develop that skill and those connections. Punkt. Full stop—as my lady would say.

My point here is not to argue that art and its value is good or bad. No. Our esteem for art reflects our own cultural value. And our culture values art. It shows that despite decades of simulacra, postmodernism, mechanical reproduction, Mickey Mouse, far too many Transformers films, and thousands of $10 Monet Lily Pad prints adorning hundreds of college dorm walls so that some girl will think some boy is smart yet sensitive in the hopes that she will have sex with him, we still value art. It is one of the best ways in which we know how to reproduce and share the human experience. It is one of the best ways to demonstrate to past and future generations that creativity is valued in our society. It is one of the best ways to inspire passion, beauty, love, hate, honor, envy, morality, sex, lust, war, happiness, frustration, etc. And it is one of the best ways to communicate our Truth. Even if it is a sketch of a Minotaur f*cking a lady… or two.

Cultural Mythology at the German Laundromat

“At the end of drying time the laundry is very fluffy and flat.”
-English drying instructions posted in a German laundromat

First off, the laundromat down the street from the apartment I am staying at with my gf in Mainz, Germany until Oct. 17th is pristine. I’m from the American suburbs. I haven’t the need to go to laundromats. But in my mind there lurks a very specific image of what a laundromat must be like: dirty, smelly, unkempt, with pushy people lounging around smoking cigarettes or blabbing away on their cellphones. Not in Deutschland.

Before you start to think this is some First World rant by some privileged, white, suburban male who decided to use the dryer at a laundromat, let me draw your attention to the purpose of this post: the German-English translation. It is a beautiful thing that causes riotous laughter on my part, which often shocks the average German standing next to me.

Example: To the immediate left is a photo of the Drying instructions in my local German laundromat. On the wall to its left is the Washing instructions, which I will get to in a bit. Don’t get me wrong, these instructions are very helpful; but they are often hilarious.

I’ve blown up the photo and made a vignette so you can better see the area to which I am referring. The last red bullet point above the “Safety advices” reads: “At the end of drying time the laundry is very fluffy and flat. You can obey crinkles, if you will get out laundry at once and fold it directly. Oftenly you can spare ironing of this laundry.” Huh? 😀 Even through the translation, the point is clear, and yet I can’t help hearing a very loud German man in mauve green lederhosen yelling at me “You must obey crinkles!” whenever I read this passage.

The washing instructions carried a similar translation, but in its silliness revealed a difference between the cultural responsibilities of American and German citizens. I’ll let the picture explain.

On the immediate left is the vignetted  image of the Washing instructions, highlighting the area of interest. The fourth blue bullet point above “General washing advices” reads: “Please do not use more detergent than issued. The washing machine will foam too much, which will bring out a bad washing output and of course a worse washing effort.” Now that we are past the whole ‘this is a crazy-bad-funny translation thing,’ let’s look at these two words: “of course”. I’ll ask this question: upon first read, what do you think of those words? My gf and I were engrossed in conversation about these words all the while our clothes were drying. We agreed that the words “of course” signify a level of personal responsibility that is mitigated by overall good of the German state.

The “huh” you say!?! At first, I thought “of course” was an inherent condescending insult to a person’s intelligence. I then realized I’m American, and I think I already know everything. I relaxed and considered that the “of course” was a sweet pat on the head by the German state saying, “Of course you know this my child, but we want to make it perfectly clear for your own good and the good of Germany.” The American label, if it was still legible from cigarette burns, graffiti, and the bored peelings of the teenage mind, would have clearly stopped at the action and its consequence. “Don’t do this, or this will happen!” Beyond that simple message, it is up to you.

Gratuitous Patriotic Cookie Image

In America, we don’t really care if your overloading the machine results in a “bad washing output” or a “worse washing effort,” as the translation relates. Your clothes, once they go in the machine, are your problem. It seems here in Deutschland the simple fact that possible mistakes are considered and, hmmm, not exactly, prohibited, but simply stymied from occurring is a metaphor for what distinguishes American culture from German culture. The German state does not want its citizens to fail, while America could care less. One could even argue that American mythology is based solely on the overcoming of odds by a single individual against a larger, more powerful entity. Falling from grace and getting back up is America’s mythology, while ensuring that a citizen will not fall is Germany’s mythology.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think.

And remember to “obey your crinkles! Jawohl!”