Comfortable among the clouds

I’m reading Joseph Roth’s What I Saw, a collection of his finest newspaper feuilletons. These short form ‘colour’ pieces capture his impressions and observations as he wanders Berlin in the years between the two World Wars. Roth reconstructs the city before the reader’s eyes. But it’s very much his Berlin – one moment a hard reality of stone and traffic, the next a floating world of dizzying shapes and elusive symbols.

We meet a diverse cast, from politicians to shopkeepers, beggars, the homeless, refugees, passengers with heavy loads. He notes a war cripple picking up a nail file from the street and remarks: “Of course he starts filing his nails – what else is he to do?” I’m reminded of Ian Breakwell’s diary about life around Smithfield and Clerkenwell. We see that urban space is increasingly a surface for communications, a development Roth appears to find both exciting and exacting. The section below on typography and advertising shows him struggling to separate material and immaterial, assertion and actuality.

Roth builds his understanding of the world around him by writing about it. This is writing as thinking. And what a dynamic world, with new buildings rising as quickly as he can report. I particularly like his piece on skyscrapers, with its combination of poetic imagination and progressive humanism. I think about it every time I walk into the City. Of course, the atmosphere in What I Saw darkens as the decade turns, and in 1933 we start to hear ‘the terrible march of the mechanized orangutans’.

Skyscrapers (1922)

A skyscraper is the incarnate rebellion against the supposedly unattainable; against the mystery of altitude, against the otherworldliness of the cerulean. The skyscraper stands at the summit of technical development. It has already overthrown the cold sobriety of “construction,” and has begun to approach the romance of nature. The cloud, that remote, wonderful puzzle of creation, God’s blessing and curse, two-handed mystery bringing life and destruction, prayed to and dreaded by our ancestors, is now to be made habitable, even cozy. We will make ourselves comfortable among the clouds… It will be a sort of return of the evolved human to the primordial forces of nature… Because the invention of the airplane was not a declaration of war on winged creatures, quite the opposite: It was fraternization between man and eagle. The earliest miner did not barge his way sacrilegiously into the depths, he returned home to the womb of Mother Nature. What may have the appearance of a war against the elements is in fact union with the elements; man and nature becoming one.

Going for a Walk (1921)

Seeing an advertising kiosk on which facts such as, for instance, Manoli cigarettes are blazoned out as if they were an ultimatum or a memento mori, I completely lose my patience. An ultimatum is just as inconsequential as a cigarette, because it’s expressed in exactly the same way. Whatever is heralded or touted can only be of little weight or consequence. And it seems to me there is nothing these days that is not heralded. Therein lies its greatness. Typography, to us, has become the arbiter of perspective and value. The most important, the less important, and the unimportant only appear to be important, less important, unimportant. It’s their image that tells us their worth, not their being. The event of the week is whatever – in print, or gesture, in sweeping arm movements – has been declared the event of the week. Nothing is, everything claims to be. But in the face of the sunshine that spreads ruthlessly over walls, streets, railway tracks, beams in at the window, beams out of windows in myriad reflections, anything puffed up and inessential can have no being. In the end (led astray as I am by print, by the presence of typography as an adjudicator of value) I come to believe that everything we take seriously – the ultimatum, the Manoli cigarettes – is unimportant.

Both passages are from the Granta Books edition of What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-33, translated (beautifully) by Michael Hofmann.


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