Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Theater-Maker

Last Wednesday Red Baron saw Der Theatermacher by Austrian playwright Thomas Bernhard at Freiburg’s City Theater. This comedy written in 1984 belongs to the category Theater of the Absurd.

Bruscon arguing with the innkeeper (©Theater Freiburg)
Staatsschauspieler* Bruscon has collated a comedy The Wheel of History comprising all other comedies according to him. The premiere shall take place at the depraved dance hall of “The Black Stag”, an inn at a small Austrian village called Utzbach. Bruscon's wife, son, and daughter are serving as co-actors.
*a title the government awards to deserved actors

The guy is a creep tyrannizing both the innkeeper and his family. The first one because he wants to eat Frittatensuppe, a bouillon with strips of pancake, in the early afternoon while the innkeeper and his family are busy making blutwurst (blood sausage). When Bruscon asks him, “Do you have your blutwurst day once a week?” the answer is, “ No, but always on Tuesdays.”

Frittatensuppe (©Wikipedia/RobertK)
Bruscon complains to the innkeeper about the sultriness of the room, fears that the floor will break through, and finds the village of Utzbach to be far too small for his "outstanding" work. He then is starting a fuss about the emergency lighting. He requires total darkness for the last scene of his concoction, a condition conflicting with fire protection regulations. Here he is categorical, “Without complete darkness, there will be no performance.” So Bruscon sends the busy innkeeper to fire chief Atwenger asking for a derogation.

During rehearsals of the play with his children, he is driving out their love of acting. In recurring phrases, he alternately cleans up their acting talent, whereas he always highlights himself as a great "state actor" and demands servant behavior of his children. He often gets entangled in contradictory statements without realizing it, saying to his son, "You are my greatest disappointment, you know that, but you never disappointed me, you are my most useful."

The eerie scene where Lady Churchill meets Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian foreign minister at the time of Napoleon, takes half an hour to rehearse, “Naturally, her hat pin must get loose before the hat falls to the ground.”

Bruscon eating Frittatensuppe in the presence of his family (©Theater Freiburg)
Bruscon’s wife, an apparently cold woman ("your mother invests all her talent in her illnesses"), enters the scene for the first time while he is eating the previously ordered Frittatensuppe keeping him quiet for a moment. Later he continuous attacking his wife, but she never speaks a word.

In the end, with Atwenger’s derogation granting a maximum of ten minutes darkness, the theater group is in costumes peeping through the curtain daring covert glances as the spectators arrive. A heavy thunderstorm passes by and, following a great crash of thunder, the audience leaves the dance hall. A lightning has set the parish house on fire. Good for them for the roof above starts to drip leaving Bruscon disappointed on stage in the rain.

I wish you all a Happy* New Year
*my German friends will read “Healthy”

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Maryam and Īsā ibn Maryam

Mary and the son of Mary, key figures in the New Testament, are important personalities in the Quran too. The title page of Der Spiegel even goes so far to propose: Jesus, the Muslim, although the religious topic in the last edition of 2017 is not at all controversial contrary to articles in previous years. The title story rather is a narrative of common beliefs and differences between Christians and Muslims.

©Der Spiegel
In Islam too, Jesus, called Īsā, is born of a virgin as announced by Archangel Gabriel, but leaving out the cuckolded Joseph: And she who guarded her virginity. We breathed into her of Our spirit and made her and her son a sign to the world (Sura 21:91). Maryam is all alone in the desert giving birth to Īsā. When she presents her newborn boy at the Jewish temple, he starts his prophecies convincing old Zechariah and other attending scribes that he was conceived without a mortal man.

Maryam and her adult baby son (©Der Spiegel)
In contrast, according to the oldest known text of the New Testament written in old Greek* we read in Luke 2:46 how Joseph and Mary were searching for twelve-year-old Jesus in Jerusalem: And it came to pass after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both hearing them and asking them questions. These differences between the Quran and the Bible stories are obvious but not decisive.
*Called Codex Sinaiticus. It dates back to the 4th century and was discovered at the St. Catherine monastery located on the Sinai peninsula only in 1859

At the end of his life, Īsā ascends to heaven from Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. No mention in the Quran of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. For Muslims, Īsā is just a prophet precursor of Muhammad, the latter outshining all previous prophets. How to explain the crucifixion? God told one of Jesus’s disciples that he will make him look like Īsā, and have him crucified. Were both Romans and Jews fooled? The gospel, no glad tidings but fake news?

Der Spiegel article continues describing in length the bloody disputes between Christians and Muslims, the Crusades and the Jihads, the fall of Constantinople, the Reconquista of Granada, the transformation of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and of the Alhambra into a cathedral. How many lives were lost how many objects of art destroyed.

In the end, Andrew Thomson, pastor of the Anglican church in Abu Dhabi, formulates an allegory, “It is the same God, but there are different entrance doors”.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Body and Soul

It is a tradition that Germany’s weekly magazines write about religious topics around Christmas time. So Die Zeit titled, Where does the soul reside ?” We are searching for it.

©Die Zeit
Greek philosophers located the soul - only humans are supposed to possess - in the heart, the brain, or even in our blood. That is what Mephistopheles meant when he said in Goethe’s Faust, “Blut is ein ganz besonderer Saft” (Blood is a quite peculiar juice).

For the monotheistic religions, the human soul is God’s Odem (breath of life) that we receive when we are born and that will leave our bodies at the moment of our deaths. More poetically said, “the soul is a droplet of a divine nature”, a definition acceptable for those who have their problem with a personal, fatherly god. In nearly all cultures the individual soul is something that will stay beyond death.

The soul is the place where we experience love, perceive happiness, discover beauty, have hope, feel pity, and desire another person. We suffer together with other people, donate on Christmas or for victims of an earthquake, and love our pets. May robots be more intelligent in solving problems or perfect in producing goods; they do it mechanically and are only intelligent electronically; they are without a soul.

Maybe we should consult Goethe on the meaning of soul. He wrote the following poem in 1779 while contemplating the Staubbach Falls at Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland:

Gesang der Geister über den Wassern

Des Menschen Seele
Gleicht dem Wasser:
Vom Himmel kommt es,
Zum Himmel steigt es,
Und wieder nieder
Zur Erde muß es, ewig wechselnd.

Und Goethe lässt sein Gedicht enden:

Seele des Menschen,
Wie gleichst du dem Wasser!
Schicksal des Menschen,
Wie gleichst du dem Wind!

Song of the Spirits Over the Waters

The soul of man
Is like to water;
From Heaven it cometh,
To Heaven it riseth,
And then returneth
To earth, forever alternating.

And Goethe is ending his poem:

Soul of man mortal,
How art thou like water!
The fate of man mortal,
How art thou like the wind!

Did our national poet belief in transmigration?

On the lighter side; here are some pictures of this year's Christmas Market. Due to the poor light conditions I employed the HDMI technique for the first time.

The Market seen from my dentist's practice on a late and somewhat foggy morning.
Veterans of the Parnerschaftsmarkt know the site well.
In the back from right to left: St. Martin's church, and the two town halls,
built in Renaissance and in Historicism style, respectively.
In the background: St. Martin's church

Mulled wine in a simple and in a fancier cup

Santa and I wish you a Merry Christmas 

See also this.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Atoms for Peace

Red Baron happened to be in Geneva when in 1958 the United Nations hosted the Atoms for Peace Conference and Exhibition. During semester breaks I used to serve my father as a driver on his business trips. So we visited the exhibition and we were both impressed.

When I was looking for an illustrating picture - the slides I took at that time have long since faded - I came across a citation by Frederick Reines. He was awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize in physics for his detection of the neutrino in experiments he had conducted together with Clyde Cowan in 1956. So he surely had given a paper in Geneva in 1958. In 1996, following his Nobel Prize award, he came to CERN and gave a lecture that Red Baron attended.

Atoms for Peace had started with President Eisenhower’s speech at the United Nations in New York on December 8, 1953, expressing the conviction that from then on atomic energy would solely be used peacefully under the auspices of an atomic energy agency.

He said, “The atomic energy agency could be made responsible for the impounding, storage and protection of the contributed fissionable and other materials. The ingenuity of our scientists will provide special safe conditions under which such a bank of fissionable material can be made essentially immune to surprise seizure.

“The more important responsibility of this atomic energy agency would be to devise methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind. Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.

How far did we get? With respect to the first paragraph, the checks and inspections of fissionable material by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)* in their member states are thorough and efficient.
*established in 1957

Red Baron still remembers the nuclear inspectors visiting CERN to check the quantity and quality of the tons of depleted uranium (DU) the organization kept on its premises. Due to its high density, the material was and is still used in particle detectors as absorber or shielding material. Proudly the inspectors demonstrated their ingenuity showing that the degree of depletion of 235U was smaller in DU acquired from Russia than in material coming from the States, proving that the extraction of fissionable 235U from natural uranium was more efficient in the US.

These inspections were peanuts and fun for the men from Vienna, but what about checks in countries operating nuclear power reactors breeding fissionable plutonium as a by-product? There are states that meticulously grant IAEA inspectors access to all their nuclear stock, but a few countries are less open. The situation does not look so bright with Iran although the government agreed to inspections but is absolutely somber with North Korea openly building the hydrogen bomb.

One may think that at least Eisenhower’s hopes expressed in the second paragraph were fulfilled, i.e., applying atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities. Today the euphoria of 1958 has considerably faded. Yes, there are powerful diagnostic tools in medicine based on radioactive tracers, but the use of radioactive materials in the therapy of cancer is already being more and more replaced by effective and more specific chemotherapies.

Finally, the use of nuclear power has developed into a major problem for future generations. The energy is not clean, producing radioactive waste for which we cannot guarantee safe storage at present. Red Baron has reported on this.

Three weeks ago the University of Chicago celebrated the 75th anniversary of Enrico Fermi‘s first successful nuclear reactor experiment in a structure beneath the viewing stands of a football field on December 2, 1942.

Enrico Fermi's reactor set up
During my professional life visiting Fermilab I made a pilgrimage to the site that is honored by a Henry Moore sculpture symbolizing an atomic mushroom - and a skull.

It is this mushroom, the portent of the atomic age, that Cai Gu-Quian, a 59-year-old Chinese artist who lives in New York and stages ephemeral art based on fireworks and gunpowder, wanted to simulate. About the event we read in the press:

Cai Guo-Qiang said: “In the 1990s, I used black gunpowder to create mushroom clouds, humankind’s most iconic visual symbol for the 20th century. These mushroom clouds formed part of my Projects for Extraterrestrials. Today, the color mushroom cloud symbolizes the paradoxical nature of employing nuclear energy: Who is it for?”

“The work dramatizes the creative and destructive forces of nuclear fission,” said Steward*. “It takes the iconic shape of nuclear energy’s most destructive form and animates it with color as a profound symbol of creativity and peace.”
*Laura Steward, curator at the Smart Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Chicago

Wosh ... (©UChicago)
Ah ... (©UChicago)
The mushroom (©UChicago)
Sorry, this event was just macabre and not at all colorful!

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Shielding Democracies?

A selfie of Red Baron in front of the Carl-Schurz-Haus
 perturbed by the poster announcing the lecture
On Monday, Red Baron went to the Carl-Schurz-Haus to listen to a luncheon talk by Laura Daniels, “Shielding Democracies From Hacking and Disinformation.”

The Director of the CSH, Friederike Schulte, introduced the speaker. Laura currently is the German Chancellor Fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI) in Berlin.

Here is the first paragraph of her abstract: States have long tried to influence one another, at times through subversive means. Today, reports of hacking and leaking, “fake news” propagated by bots and false accounts, rumors of foreign funding to extremist parties, and other similar tactics have caused alarm in Western democracies. These methods have elicited comparisons to Soviet “active measures”—or subversive operations—which appear to be back in business and benefitting from a technological upgrade.

While Laura was reminding us about Soviet subversive activities during the Cold War, giving many examples of Russian interference in recent years, and elaborating on her research on the present situation when Russia has possibly influenced US, German, and French elections, my thoughts strayed.

Do not our own governments blur information we are entitled to? For me, Afghanistan is one of the continuing bad examples. As an ancillary of the US forces, German troops are sent to the Hindu Kush and meant to educate local forces in their fight against the Taliban. Have we seen any progress? Let's face it. Over the years the military situation in Afghanistan has not improved; it has remained stable at best.

The Obama administration slowly started withdrawing troops from the region in 2011, but this was not sufficient for Donald Trump who tweeted in January 2013: Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.

In December 2014 he became more aggressive: Now Obama is keeping our soldiers in Afghanistan for at least another year. He is losing two wars simultaneously.

One year later he tweeted: A suicide bomber has just killed U.S. troops in Afghanistan. When will our leaders get tough and smart? We are being led to slaughter!

Wikipedia reports: In the middle of June 2017 newly elected U.S. President Donald Trump gave the U.S. military decision making authority over troop numbers for U.S. military operations in Syria, Iraq. and Afghanistan. The new authority includes increasing the current troop level cap beyond the 8,400 U.S. troops authorized as of July 2017.

POTUS confirmed his about-turn in August 2017, tweeting: Important day spent at Camp David with our very talented Generals and military leaders. Many decisions made, including on Afghanistan.

Germany wholeheartedly followed in the wake of the U.S. with respect to a reduction of its troops; it will now be difficult to increase the German quota again, in particular when we still have no government.

Why does nobody officially tell us that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won? Remember the British moved out a first time in 1842, came back later, and definitely left in 1919. The Soviet Union moved in in 1979 and gave up in 1989, leaving Afghanistan in turmoil. When eventually the Taliban had taken over the region the U.S., later reinforced by NATO troops, intervened in 2001 but they will not stay either. So why not regard the Education Mission "Democracy" as finished and bring our troops home?

Sorry, this was not the topic of Laura‘s talk. In the last part, she elaborated on the application of modern methods and techniques used to interfere with democratic elections (U.S.?) and political decisions (Brexit?). From experience, it seems that the „attacker“ is always one step ahead of the „defender“.

The ensuing discussion was lively, and the curry luncheon opened the way to many individual conversations.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Lead Us Not into Temptation

Our Lord’s Prayer is something all Christians have in common. In Germany Catholics and Protestants pray the same text, „und führe uns nicht in Versuchung“ (and lead us not into temptation).

Already as a kid, I felt uneasy, "How is it possible that Our Father in Heaven leads us into temptation?" Year in, year out I am saying the same text in German, English, and French, in Catholic messes, Protestant services, at funerals, and baptisms almost mechanically but I am still hesitating when it comes to, „and lead us not into temptation.“

A better translation into modern Lower German?
"Let us not come off your law and make us free from all that hurts us."(©Wikipedia)
This is why I was electrified by Pope Francis‘s praise for the French bishops when they changed the text „Ne nous soumets pas à la tentation“ into „Et ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation“ (And let us not fall into temptation).

Francis’s argumentation goes like this, „God does not tempt you. The Lord only tries you with good gifts to draw you to Himself. You misinterpret the words when you think that God is leading you to a temptation, to try you. No. The gracious Father in heaven admits evil, but he does not create it. He is the good, from which all goodness springs forth. But there is evil. It exists since the moment Lucifer rose up against God. It is up to you to make good out of evil by defeating it and asking the divine Father for the power to defeat it.

I am the one that falls, but it is not Him who leads me into temptation. A father does not do such a thing. A father helps you to get up again. The one who leads you in temptation is Satan.

What a Protestant view! Luther would have been delighted for he was obsessed by Satan. Whenever something went wrong in his reformatory drive it was the devil himself who was fighting him. The revolting farmers had Satan in them and the obstinate Jews were young devils and therefore condemned.

So finally from now on, we will pray the Lord, “make that we do not fall into temptation and deliver us from evil. Amen.“

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Sein Kampf

You are reading correctly: His Struggle and not My Struggle. Why this is so will become clear below. Red Baron wrote about Hitler‘s Mein Kampf before. In Germany, it was forbidden to print this infamous book until 2015.

Following my retirement in 2000, I decided to read Hitler’s book because I wanted to understand why my people had been following such a rabble-rouser. What I found was an electronic copy in German on an American website and I read the downloaded text.

I was disgusted but part of Hitler‘s writing remained incomprehensible since I did not understand the historical context. I remember that I had been in the same situation as a student when I was reading an un-commentated copy of Bismarck‘s autobiography Gedanken und Erinnerungen. Even worse was my experience with Goethe‘s Dichtung und Wahrheit. In all these books much of the text remains cryptic without knowledgeable footnotes or comments by competent historians or literary scholars.

This was the reason that in 2010 the Institute for Contemporary History (IfZ) in Munich, financially supported by the Freistaat Bayern, decided to publish a commented and critical edition of Mein Kampf assuming that only libraries and history specialists would acquire this book. The result of the work were two volumes for the price of 135 euros that the institute published on January 8, 2016. Red Baron immediately ordered a copy but had to wait three months before the second edition had been printed. In the meantime, the institute has sold 85.000 copies of the 2000 page volumes. The revenues are for the benefit of victims of National Socialism.

Last Saturday the Badische Zeitung titled Affirmation of Antisemitism related to the contents of a book by Jeremy Adler, scholar and professor emeritus at London’s King’s College, “The Absolute Evil.” The author violently criticizes IfZ’s editing work of Mein Kampf, e.g., for not commenting on negative sentences regarding the Jews.

For me Hitler’s phrases, “Jews are belonging to a race and are not defined by their religion, they pillage their fellow human beings, and are driven by naked egoism”, are clear statements of hate and need not be commented even for today’s readers. They clearly prove Hitler’s brutal antisemitism. That these statements are not negatively commented does not at all compromise the careful work of the IfZ.

Adler continues his struggle (seinen Kampf), “In Mein Kampf Hitler mixes the theory of state with Darwinism, Enlightenment with political Romanticism, and the ideal of education with racism in an unbearable way.” This is exactly what makes Hitler’s book so indigestible and where the IfZ has focused on with its meticulous source study.

Adler culminates in the statement, “Absolute evil cannot be edited.” This remark only shows that Adler has not understood the work of the IfZ. Its task was not to evaluate Mein Kampf that hundreds of historians have done before but to comment the book in such a way that future generations will still find access to its contents.