I’ve been able to go to Berlin not once, but twice: once in the summer, and once around Christmas time
The first time was during the summer with Chhavi, and we spent a week there exploring (though not very systematically) this and that: Berliner Dom, Check-point Charlie, etc. I’d just gotten interested in black and white film, and I don’t think I took a single color picture the entire trip.
We saw a lot, though I can’t remember the names of all the places we visited. We went to the Pergamom Museum, and I recall being particularly impressed with the main cathedral there, Berliner Dom.
At Berliner Dom C* and I saw the most bizarre Mass — an unexpected and somewhat avante garde performance.
We sat down to take in the surroundings when we noticed a guy in black wandering around the church with a walkman and small speakers, and what seemed to be coming from them was simply sounds of the streets.
About that time someone began playing stuff on the organ and it appeared to be all improv. After about 15-20 minutes a woman in black cam in and walked down the isle with a small camera held in both outstretched hands. She set it on the stairs next to the altar then sat on the first rwo. Then another man came into the church, holding a mirror, walking backward toward the altar, barefoot and very theatrical. He put the mirror down, then joined the lady, and the man with the walkman did the same. At that point the lady rang a small bell and the organ broke into music for a few minutes. When it stopped, the man with the mirror went to the center of the church, took out a table with bread and wine and poured glasses of wine and offered it to all those around.
The man with the mirror explained it all to Chhavi and me: They were bringing the outside world into the church as a sort of prayer, to show God what’s going on outside, “for maybe he’s in prison in here,” he laughed. The mirror was a reference to Paul’s passage in 1 Corinthians 13. I went to the altar and found lots of mirrors with pictures pasted on them. In the pictures one could see the gentleman with the mirror, and all the photos were reflections of the mirror. I guess in essence I (or rather we) took part in a rather unorthodox communion. It was certainly interesting and somewhat thought-provoking.
The second time in Berlin was in 1999, from just before Christmas to just after New Year’s.
We spent New Year’s Eve downtown (that’s the Brandenburg Gate in the at left).
Earlier in the week we went to the National Gallery, which was exhibiting a traveling show of Gaugan (I’m sure I misspelled that, but I’m not going to check now) paintings.
I was struck then by a strange bit of middle-class angst:
While at the new National Gallery I was struck with a terrible sense of the stupid futility of all that I was seeing around me. Here we were, the privileged ten or fifteen percent of the world’s population, paying fifteen Deutsche Marks to look at some paintings (created by someone who was, by his own admission, trying to escape reality) while the remaining eighty-five percent of the world’s population is fighting for survival. We spend so much of our time trying to inject some kind of meaning in our lives while they simply try to live. The significance of the Expressionist movement or the impact of Bach’s music on his contemporaries seems pitifully insignificant when others go to bed hungry every night. Their suffering robbed me of any pleasure I might otherwise have experienced at the gallery. And then I turned this critical light on my own aspirations and once again felt that I would be wasting my life by devoting my time and energy to studying and teaching religion and philosophy. What does it matter whether Berkley is right or wrong about the relationship between perception and existence when people are starving and disease ridden? It’s a simply matter of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — most people don’t get the most basic needs fulfilled while we in the western world scurry about trying to find meaning in paintings and music.
“I can’t stand it, but I can’t do anything,” sings Toad the Wet Sproket, and sitting there in the National Gallery I wanted to scream that. And at the same time yell, “What a weak thing to say!” We can do something about it. More importantly, I can do something about it. I could devote my life to help others. I could do what Schweitzer did and go to medical school for the express purpose of going to the “Third World” to try to affect some change.
Such sillines when I look back on it — unable to enjoy a pleasant exhibition because of Nausea-esque nonsense.