PD Smith

Culture clash

Times Literary Supplement, August 17, 2007

Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism, by Erhard Bahr (U California P), 358 pp. ISBN: 978-0-520-25128-1.

By P. D. Smith

In 1966, Erhard Bahr stopped his VW Beetle at a petrol station in Westwood, a suburb of Los Angeles. He was en route to take up his first lectureship at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the car’s back seat was piled high with his books. On top was a collection of Thomas Mann’s short stories. This caught the eye of the pump attendant who then engaged Bahr in a lengthy discussion of The Magic Mountain. “I took it as a good omen”, says Bahr in the preface to Weimar on the Pacific, the fruit of thirty years’ research into the West Coast’s exile culture. Later, he found out that, until 1952, Mann used to have his hair cut in Westwood. “Nach Westwood zum Haarschneiden” (to Westwood for a hair cut) is apparently a regular refrain in his diaries.

coverEdward Said argued that the 20th century was “the age of the refugee, the displaced person, mass immigration”. Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 provoked a haemorrhage of talent from German-speaking Europe. As fascism spread in the 1930s and 40s, as many as 15,000 refugees found a haven from persecution in southern California. Many headed for Los Angeles, a city that has traditionally occupied a space somewhere between an acquired Arcadia and a man-made utopia in the American imagination. Among them were Arnold Schoenberg, Fritz Lang and Max Reinhardt from Vienna, Franz Werfel from Prague, Billy Wilder from Poland, actor Peter Lorre and film director Michael Curtiz from Hungary, Heinrich and Thomas Mann from Germany itself. It was, says Bahr, “one of the largest emigrations of writers and artists recorded in history”.

The exiles were the cream of Europe’s intelligentsia, many of them “hard-boiled intellectuals” like Bertolt Brecht and Alfred Döblin (author of the modernist classic Berlin Alexanderplatz, 1929), who had felt “at home in the sin city of Berlin of the 1920s”. In Los Angeles, Döblin complained about having to spend so much time “in the greenness”; I’m not a cow, he kvetched. Brecht, who arrived in Los Angeles from Vladivostock in 1941, was scathing about the city in his poetry, comparing it to hell. It was a city full of “luxuriant gardens / With flowers as big as trees” and “houses, built for happy people, therefore standing empty / Even when lived in”.

But according to Bahr, the contrast between the old and new world created a unique artistic potential: “perhaps it was this startling contrast between the city’s paradisiacal setting and the awareness that the most brutal warfare ever had been unleashed that made Los Angeles the most appropriate locale for art that dealt with both the reality of fascism and World War II and the hope for a better future”. Out of this clash of cultures, says Bahr, grew a uniquely dialectical mode of thinking that led to a renewal of modernism and a “second flourishing of Weimar culture”.

Theodor Adorno once said that “for a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live.” He and Max Horkheimer both re-located from New York to Los Angeles in 1941. Their classic study Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) provides Bahr with both a hermeneutic tool and a paradigm for the dialectical approach of “exile modernism”. Horkheimer and Adorno’s conclusion that the enlightenment project contained within it the seeds of the “new kind of barbarism” that had gripped Europe was one that the exiled modernists of Los Angeles were reaching independently in their own fields as they tried to resolve the crisis of modernism provoked by the rise of fascism. Brecht’s play Galileo, originally written in 1938, then translated and adapted in Los Angeles with the British actor Charles Laughton, is (Bahr argues) “an extension of the discussion of modern science in Dialectic of Enlightenment”. He is right, however, to qualify this by adding that the play, which was performed at the Coronet Theatre in Beverly Hills in 1947, “takes the debate to a new level” by asking the audience to make a decision about the role of science in the atomic age.

Despite the fact that Brecht once referred to Horkheimer as a clown, Galileo (and epic theatre generally) clearly lends itself well to Bahr’s argument. For lapsed modernists such as Döblin and Franz Werfel, however, Bahr’s thesis that there is common dialectical ground between the exiles is less convincing. He sees the religious turn in both writers’ works as evidence of what Horkheimer and Adorno describe as a “regress to mythology”. Nevertheless, Bahr’s perceptive and not unsympathetic analysis of their late works contributes greatly to what is an immensely impressive survey of exile modernism, one that extends beyond literature to include philosophy, film and architecture.

The architects Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler, who arrived in the 1920s and who founded the “California Modern” style, exemplify a modernism untroubled by the crisis that tormented the later émigrés. Thomas Mann found Neutra’s modernism too avant-garde for his conservative taste. He hated what he called that “cubist glass-box style” and ignored Neutra’s persistent overtures while looking for an architect to design his Los Angeles home in 1941. The resulting building at 1550 San Remo Drive, Pacific Palisades, was, said the architect J.R. Davidson (another Berlin immigrant), “nostalgic German” in inspiration. Photographs of the exiles’ homes as they are today add a fascinating extra dimension to Weimar on the Pacific, providing a geographical locus to complement the intellectual history. Mann’s home is a sprawling and rather showy mansion; by contrast, Brecht’s (at 1063 Twenty-sixth Street, Santa Monica) is a simple weather-boarded house; hard-up Döblin, who failed to find a US publisher willing to print any of his books in exile, had to make do with a rather plain cottage, now dwarfed by the exotic palms in the front garden.

With typical modesty, Mann described Dr Faustus (1947) as “a novel to end all novels”. Bahr’s chapter on this is quite superb, and it is here, as well as in the following discussion of Schoenberg – the model for Leverkühn and, as Mann said, the “true modernist” – that the themes of Weimar on the Pacific fuse most successfully. In the novel, Leverkühn (Mann’s last great artist figure) becomes “a representative not only of the German soul and its musicality…but also of the historical progress of European art during the 20th century”. Bahr explores the parallels between Adorno’s notion of art’s articulation of the “memory of accumulated suffering” and the centrality of suffering to Leverkühn’s new aesthetics.

Although Leverkühn’s compositions (modelled on Schoenberg’s 12-tone system) may be inspired by Nietzsche’s aesthetics, “in their ultimate crisis and defeat they are marked by Adorno’s concept of art”. Equally, it is Adorno’s dialectical concept of the “Identität des Nichtidentischen” (identity of the non-identical) that lies behind Zeitblom’s reference to the “hope beyond hopelessness” evoked by the final resonant tone of Leverkühn’s last composition, "The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus". This cantata, writes Bahr, is “a work of agony that does not deny the suffering of its century”. By offering what Mann calls a “miracle that goes beyond faith”, Leverkühn’s music transcends modernism and heralds a new age of art.