In Dante’s Inferno fortune tellers are confined to the second lowest level of hell. Their heads have been twisted backwards so they stagger about, “silent and weeping,” bumping into each other for all eternity. In a particularly wicked example of Dante’s sense of poetic justice or contrapasso, these figures who had dared to glimpse the future, to steal a glance of God’s blueprints, are doomed to never again see where they were going. Divination was the stuff of Greeks and heathens, or at best restricted to long-dead mystics like Saint John the Divine or biblical patriarchs like Ezekiel. The Church had come to banish such pagan rituals. There would be no more oracles or soothsayers, no casting of bones, reading of entrails or the flight paths of birds and arrows. Such deeds would be heresy. In place of conjecture, there would be only the Law and, to transgressors, the threat of eternal damnation.
We’ve cast a cold eye over claims of premonition ever since, though the reasons today are more due to postmodern cynicism, an adherence to reason and an awareness of the duplicitous techniques involved than fear of any religious diktat. We can recognise even in a figure as well known as the apothecary Nostradamus the tell-tale signs of charlatanism; ‘shotgunning’ a wide spread of information in the hope that some of it sticks, the so-called Barnum statement of speaking in vague generalities or observations that are so cryptic, universal and malleable that they could potentially apply to anything. Our reasons for scepticism may be philosophical; a refusal to believe that everything is preordained, or more esoteric as in the possibility of infinite divergent possibilities (the multiverse theory) that arise with every choice we make. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards” Kierkegaard wrote in his journal. Meaning is often attributed post-mortem in the comprehension of events. Any attempt to reverse this process, risks placing yourself alongside the Mystic Megs or Francis Fukuyamas of this cruel world. We have the benefit of hindsight and can pick and choose, even mould, the pronouncements of the past to fit certain events much as, in the process of Pareidolia, the mind will perceive shapes in clouds, sphinxes on grainy monochrome photographs of Martian soil or backwards messages on a record. The mind wants to see patterns in chaos, links that are not there. It’s how we’ve survived on an evolutionary level; distinguishing the markings of predators in the undergrowth or deciphering different types of sound at night to distinguish intruders. It’s also how we discover in terms of correlations in science and mathematics. With hindsight, we can choose, deliberately or subconsciously, to acknowledge only the predictions which happened to come true, ignoring those that didn’t. As Mark Twain put it, “Prophecy: Two bull’s eyes out of a possible million.”
Yet the human capacity for superstition is hard to shake off however advanced we think we are. We rightfully mock astrology as drivel yet many of us still find ourselves, with some secret degree of shame, drawn to our star signs in the daily rag. And more highbrow examples of what we might call orphic literature are plentiful. There’s the deliberate often remarkably prescient futurist predictions of Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells and Karel Čapek; foretelling, amongst other things, global communication networks, skyscrapers, satellites, lasers, space travel and robotics. Less attention is paid to the skyships, space elevators, invisibility cloaks, antigravity and time machines that sadly have not come to pass, yet at least. There’s the celestial cosmology of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the cyberspace and cybernetics of William Gibson, the dark dystopias of Harlan Ellison and Philip K Dick, the usual candidates Huxley’s Brave New World, Burgess‘ A Clockwork Orange, Orwell’s 1984 and Zamyatin’s often-overlooked We. The best examples of the latter focus not just on particular architectures and technologies of repression but also the resultant grubbiness and daily debasements inflicted on the individual and the effect of power on language, identity, thought. Not just how grim the future is but how dour, how squalid, how violent and how distracted, contented, glib. Yet these works seem, for all their astonishing forethought, the product of following existing threads in terms of technology, politics and sociology. Orwell could write of doublethink and newspeak because he saw the seeds of it daily in the English press, to say nothing of the likes of Pravda. “Keep heading in that direction”, they warn, “and this is where we’ll end up.”
Though they have their fair share of horrors and pertinent insights, the dystopias lack a certain contemporary eeriness now that the original Cold War has evaporated and it’s the invisible free hand of the markets that is wringing our collective neck rather than any totalitarian Man of Steel. Closer to our present concerns, with a sad nod to Fukushima, would be Andrei Tarkovsky’s superlative Stalker (with a script by the Strugatsky brothers adapted from their novel Roadside Picnic). Somehow the film seems to have predicted the Chernobyl disaster seven years before it happened; the military-exclusion area, the deserted already decaying city, the mysterious undisclosed disaster and some malevolent semi-mystical force silently, invisibly at work. Such was its chilling accuracy, the doomed clean-up crew sent to the irradiated sarcophagus were nicknamed ‘stalkers’. The area they were sent to decontaminate and receive their fatal dose of gamma radiation was known as ‘the Zone,’ as in the film. The desperate operation to try and contain the fallout was filmed by the Ukrainian director Vladimir Shevchenko. It would be released under the name Chronicle of Severe Days but the filmmaker would not live to see it. He, like the stalkers he accompanied to the roof of the reactor, had gotten too near and, unprotected and woefully misinformed by the authorities, he was fatally exposed to the radiation. You watch the film scenes in the Zone and you are witnessing the death sentence of each person filmed. In a morbid twist, it is said that Tarkovsky himself died (as well as his wife Larisa who was assistant director and the lead actor Tolya Solonitsyn) due to his filming of Stalker. Within the fictional Zone (made up mainly of derelict hydro-electric stations and functioning chemical plants), they had breathed in toxins from streams polluted with industrial effluent and would all develop the same form of terminal lung cancer. Tarkovsky would die at the age of 54 just after completing his apocalyptic The Sacrifice.
The more millenarian of mindsets on the interweb have also attributed great significance to the etymology of Chernobyl itself, asserting that it comes from the Ukrainian for ‘wormwood’, a plant (the source of absinthe no less) that appears as a harbinger of the end of the world in that most understated of biblical texts The Book of Revelations; “And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and a third of the waters became Bitter; and many people had died of the waters, because they were made bitter.” It’s a theory perhaps too far into tin-foil hat wearing territory but one intriguing feature of the disaster’s aftermath has been how nature has been reclaiming the area particularly the abandoned city of Prypiat. Trees growing up through cracks on classroom floors. Rusting ferris wheels, cranes, tanks. Deer scuttling through hospital wards. A forest scorched red by radiation but now flourishing with wildlife. This is the world after humanity. Postcards from a possible future.
Another prelude for our times is W.H. Auden’s poem ‘September 1, 1939’. Ostensibly about his despondency at the outbreak of the Second World War “in one of the dives / on Fifty-second Street,” the poem gained a second life following the fall of the Twin Towers. It’s prophetic sentiments and setting were widely discussed and circulated around the globe as an internet meme, encapsulating something of the prevailing mood “uncertain and afraid / as the clever hopes expire,” the “unmentionable odour of death,” the “psychopathic god” and the “blind skyscrapers,”, the pleading “We must love one another or die” later revised to the fatalistic “We must love each other and die”.
Might we see in the ramblings against usury in Ezra Pound’s ‘Canto XLV’ (and his damning assessment of the victory of commerce and materialism over culture in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley) some kind of unhinged Jeremiad predicting what happens when the control of the supply of money falls into private hands (though it’s corporations rather than ancestry or race) and the current economic death-spiral the West seems locked in? If, and it’s an impossible if, we could excise the fetid anti-Semitism from Pound’s verse, would there remain some kind of prophet? Or merely the greatest mind in modernism fallen into fascist lunacy, rambling conspiracy theories about Confucius and the Rothschilds, the reproductive capabilities of Gold and how Bolshevism springs from the Talmud, sprinkled with literary allusions and anecdotes (“as Wyndham Lewis once said…”) on Radio Rome? Was he still in there, the young Pound, in that wild hermit locked in his steel cage under the Pisan sun, like Blake’s fallen Nebuchadnezzar, that shock-haired crone who we’ve come to pity and despise but never really understand? As with W.B. Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ and Ayn Rand’s stone tablets of corporate nihilism, we don’t have to agree with or like the messengers to acknowledge that what they saw coming really was on its way, god help us all. In Pound’s case the text may be barely coherent, in Rand’s case barely readable, both seem morally despicable to any half-decent human being. Yet none of these factors would prevent what they predicted from happening. The nihilists on Wall Street and the City of London won long ago. The recent furore over the trader Alessio Rastani’s interview with the BBC was surprising for only one reason; not what he said or the casual sociopathy with which he said it but the incredulity with which it was greeted. That was the truly terrifying thing. People still don’t get it. It had to be a Yes Man, this couldn’t actually be real. Wedded to our disbelief, in fact needing our disbelief, we’d rather shoot the messenger than face the truth. National sovereignty, the welfare state, what flawed democracy we had is finished. We could use all sorts of analogies to describe recent politics since the greatest ever heist from public wealth into private; sleepwalking towards the abyss, rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic but Henry Miller said it best in Tropic of Capricorn, “He was like the dodo which buries its head in the sand and whistles out of its ass-hole.” This is a time when the wolves (the investment banks and their fellow kleptomaniac supplicants in government and ratings agencies) are in high ascendancy. Whether we want to believe it or not doesn’t matter, they don’t care. We can try and cling on, in Camus’ old adage, which is what the disbelief effectively was, but as the man said soon there will be nothing left to cling to. And that mad old racist bastard Pound may just have glimpsed it, or would have were he not supping with devils and blaming the weak, as we will no doubt continue to do.
Mortality is the big question, bigger even than money (though it’s tied to it of course). It’s the one question fortune tellers aren’t supposed to answer, though there are online death clocks aplenty that will do that for you, should you be inclined. If you are a god-fearing soul, there are no shortage of deathly portents that could give you some indication the end was nigh. You might meet your own ghostly image or doppelgänger as the poet Shelley claimed to a month before he drowned (it asked him, “How long do you mean to be content?”). Dostoyevsky wrote of a similar entity in ‘The Double,’ Poe in ‘William Wilson’. Folkloric accounts suggest you might see a black dog with glowing eyes, marsh lights called will o’ the wisp and jack o’ lanterns or hear a banshee wail outside the home of the damned. A bird might fly into your room. In reality, you can see portents anywhere; a series of numbers, a snatch of conversation, a newspaper headline. Freud called them ‘delusions of reference’. They are portents of doom because they are psychological symptoms, or the significance attached to them is a psychological symptom, indicative of an already existing malady; senility, madness, serious illness, fevers, anything that could bring on hallucinations, paranoia or a confusion of the senses. Such conditions, even if treated, may not end well so it becomes self-fulfilling prophecy. On the day she died, Virginia Woolf wrote, “Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do…” She then put on her overcoat, filled the pockets full of rocks and waded into the River Ouse. She had been suffering from manic depression for weeks during which she would lie in bed listening to the birds outside mock her as a Greek chorus. She heard voices that told her to do “all sorts of wild things” which she believed were caused by overeating so she began to starve herself to silence them. She was visited by the apparition of her dead mother who taunted her. Any one of these could be taken as an omen of death but rather they were the psychological torments of a gravely ill woman and her suicide, pushed as she was to the brink, remained, at least in the most basic terms, her choice.
And yet sometimes even the arch-sceptics among us must wonder. The appearance of comets has traditionally been a collective portent, said to appear at, or just prior to, times of natural disaster, plague and military ruin (Caesar’s assassination, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Battle of Hastings for example). In the Middle Ages, it was believed comets contained “pestilential vapours” and were one suspected origin of the Black Death, bringing ‘poisonous airs’ from the depths of space. Mark Twain, a man not easily swayed by irrationalities, believed there was something in it, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.” Sure enough, he got what he wanted. Having been born with Halley’s Comet blazing in the sky, Twain promptly keeled over with a heart attack upon it’s return.
In another curious case, the poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote of his own demise in his searing farewell to poetry A Season in Hell, written at the ripe old age of 19. “I’ll return with iron limbs; dark skin, a furious look…Women care for those fierce invalids returning from hot countries.” Eighteen years later, he would indeed return invalided from explorations in Africa to his native Charleville, feverish and cancer-ridden, his leg freshly-amputated to die in the care of his sister and mother. How could he have known?
How too could the mighty Andalusian poet Federico Garcia Lorca envisage his own coming death which he repeatedly referred to, sometimes directly (in his Poet in New York series or his morbid play When Five Years Pass written five years before his death), sometimes indirectly through death-fixated poems about others ‘Gacela of the Dark Death’ and his lament for the bullfighter Ignacia Sanchez Mejias? It was clear to many at the time that the Spanish republic was shifting towards revolution or White terror. In such a climate, to depart relatively safe Madrid and move back to conservative Granada as Lorca did, as a publicly known gay left-winger, was tantamount not just to clairvoyance but also suicide. Lorca’s friend and unrequited love Salvador Dali had painted his Soft Construction with Boiled Beans which showed a monstrous figure tearing itself apart limb from limb, recalling Goya’s horrifying Saturn Devouring His Son. It was subtitled, accurately as it turned out, ‘Premonition of a Civil War.’ Lorca went further; to predict his own murder, shot by Franco’s fascists alongside a schoolteacher and two anarchist bullfighters in a remote olive grove just before sunrise, leaving a body that’s resting place would never be found. How strange his words seem, speaking as they seem to from the grave itself but written seven years before his killing, “Then I realized I had been murdered. / They looked for me in cafes, cemeteries and churches/… but they did not find me. / They never found me?/ No. They never found me” (from ‘The Fable And Round Of The Three Friends’).
Are our views inevitably shaped, looking back, by what we know was to happen? We examine the life and work of Sylvia Plath through the prism of her suicide for example, inevitably distorting who she really was and what she really wrote, seeing darkness in places unintended and missing all the diversity and paradoxes that make her such an exceptional poet (focusing always on ‘Daddy,’ ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Edge’ at the expense of the likes of ‘Morning Song’ or ‘You’re’ or even dark but more complex poems like ‘Mirror,’ ‘Nick and the Candlestick’ and ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’).
With the Bolshevik poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, we know he’d grown disillusioned with a revolution he saw as increasingly betrayed and bureaucratised but can we really pick up hints from his late satirical plays The Bedbug and The Bathhouse that he knew something of the Terror (the Yezhovshchina) that was to follow and killed himself before they came for him? Mayakovsky fancied himself as something of a prophet after all, “loud-mouthed Zarathustra of our times” he declared himself. And he had foresight enough to name his play Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Tragedy but then who’s life isn’t in the long run?
Knowing as we do that the life of Franz Kafka was to be so short and how many of his family would end up murdered with millions of other Ashkenazi Jews in the Nazi death camps, do we banish all traces of the light in Kafka’s work and see continual traces of the Holocaust in his work? The abolition of innocence and pointless execution in The Trial, the abominable tortures of Mengele or Ilse Koch in In The Penal Colony, the fear of the Other and the dehumanisation of the Jew, the Slav, the Gypsy in Metamorphosis?
Similarly can we detect in the exquisite, surreal and grotesque writings and drawings of the criminally-neglected Bruno Schulz that he had some inkling that a great darkness was on its way and would swallow him up in his quiet hometown of Drohobych? “The gates are closing” he wrote and he was right, shot dead on a street-corner by the SS with a loaf of black bread in his hand on the very day he was due to finally escape with a forged Aryan visa.
In the years before the Second World War, the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti began work on the sculptures of the human form with which we associate him – stretched, elongated, ravaged figures, naked, bare-headed, in a state of physical decay, dessicated near fossilised but frozen in motion. During his war exile, holed up in a hotel in the cantons, the forms became even more ossified, more skeletal. When he began these, Kristallnacht had not yet occurred, let alone the Holocaust. And yet Giacometti’s figures seem to hauntingly pre-empt the very same silhouettes only in actual human form of the people who would populate the extermination camps, the men, women and children whose very flesh, muscle and bone would be degraded into inhuman starved forms, the walking dead who, as Primo Levi recounts in If This Is A Man, were known as musselmenn in the Lager, emissaries of the afterlife, not yet dead but not entirely alive. Decades prior, the Symbolist master Gustav Klimt had painted a series featuring similar pre-emptive emaciated figures writhing in torment, in stark contrast to his trademark shimmering erotic visions, works that were with crude irony burned by retreating SS troops during the fall of the Third Reich.
The logical conclusion of all divination is the prediction of the end of the world and the examples are so abundant it constitutes an entire field of cultural thought known as eschatology. The predictions and associated customs have varied vastly from ergot-ravaged medievals in the face of the bubonic plague dreaming up the Danse Macabre and the scythe-welding Grim Reaper to suicidal Heaven’s Gate comet-hitchers who believed the Earth was due to be recycled and physicists rationally predicting the universe will end, in Eliot’s words “not with a bang but a whimper,” in the slow descent towards heat death.
In 1910, as the Earth passed through the tail of Halley’s Comet, hundreds wore gas-masks and ingested anti-cyanide tablets sold to them by opportunistic con artists. Others partied like there was literally no tomorrow. In 1938, Orson Welles broadcast his radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds featuring a Martian invasion force that had landed on New Jersey farmland and were headed, heat-rays primed and ready, to incinerate downtown Manhattan. Thousands presumed it was breaking news and took to the hills. Lines to the emergency services were inundated with calls to advise New York was a smouldering ruin. One man was reported to have had to restrain his wife from drinking bleach after coming home and finding her in a state of hysteria.
In 1945, the United States detonated the first atomic bomb in the desert of New Mexico in what was called the Trinity Test (named from a line in a John Donne sonnet, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God”). The physicist and director of the nuclear project J. Robert Oppenheimer watching the explosion erupt into a monumental glowing mushroom cloud, recalled a line from the ancient Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” It’s often cited that he spoke these words but witnesses recall he gasped simply, “It works.” Before this moment, the complete destruction of humanity could only exist in particularly pious, fearful or misanthropic minds. Beyond an asteroid strike with the magnitude of the one that killed off the dinosaurs, mankind could not be completely obliterated. Even the Black Death peetered out. From Oppenheimer’s proud moment onwards though, we could actually physically accomplish our own self-destruction in its totality. For his services, Oppenheimer made the cover of Time and Life magazines.
You could argue the very nature of literature is, aside from an attempt to defeat death and/or rewrite history, an attempt to tell where we are headed. The study of texts for prophetic significance was traditionally viewed as a high art known as stoicheomancy; hidden messages were deciphered in the Iliad and the Odyssey, millenarian cults sought out patterns and codes for clues of the forthcoming Messiah or Day of Judgement within the Tanakh and the Qur’an.
One of the most interesting dress rehearsals of the apocalypse came in the Café des Westens, a bohemian Berlin nightspot, in the early years of the 20th century. Arguably the birthplace of German Cabaret, the decadence and rebelliousness of the venue is demonstrated by its early patrons; a motley crew of professional controversialists, Nietzschean composers, authors who’d been charged with treason for their writings and critics who’d received not only death threats but premature obituaries in right-wing newspapers. It was also the meeting place, and competing ground (along with the Nollendorf-Kasino, the Neue Sezession and the Cafe Austria), of a later even more radical generation of poets who were drawn together by the writer and activist Kurt Hiller. A left-wing Jewish pacifist gay rights pioneer, Hiller was despised by the Wilhemite establishment and conservative Berliners. He gathered around him a loose, often antagonistic but remarkable coterie of outsiders including morphine addicted painters like John Hoexter, members of Die Brücke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) art movements, the actress Tilla Durieux, the poet Emily Ball-Hennings, the mathematician Robert Jentzsch, the poet Gottfried Benn (author of the sensational Morgue poetry cycle), the allied/rival founders of the cultural journal Der Sturm (The Storm) Herwarth Walden and Alfred Döblin (later author of the modernist masterpiece Berlin Alexanderplatz) and Franz Pfemfert, editor of the equally influential magazine Die Aktion (The Action).
They were united by little other than a common interest in earlier artistic outlaws and misfits, a loathing of stiff suffocating bourgeois conventions and a desire to counter these, even obliterate them, through impassioned art. Inner turmoil would be channelled in such a way to create an outward tempest. Many of them simply regarded themselves as artists, socialists or ‘Left-Nietzscheans’. Hiller baptised them in a piece in the Heidelberger Zeitung, “Those aesthetes who know only how to react, who are nothing more than wax-tablets for impressions, or delicately exact recording machines really do seem to us to be inferior beings. We are Expressionists.”
Looking back years later, the poet Ernst Blass was illuminating, “What was in the air? Above all Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Freud too and Wedekind. What was wanted was a post-rational Dionysus. Van Gogh stood for expression and intense experience opposed to Impressionism and Naturalism as flaming concentration, youthful sincerity, immediacy, depth; exhibition and hallucination… the courage of self-expression; Nietzsche: the courage to be oneself; Freud: the hidden depths and problems of the self; Wedekind: the problem of human relationships exploding (in brilliant visions). There was much talk of Visions.”
Added to these influences was the latent presence of the French Symbolists, already gone to bones and dust but with their half-crazed insights becoming more relevant with each passing year. Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Lautréamont and Verlaine had established that poets could be seers and that cities were not only worthy of poetic comment but had in them secrets channels of discovery. It all depended on how you perceived your surroundings and how far down you were prepared to delve. There was the emerging sense that the city’s surface was all spectacle, a miasma that as a seer the Expressionist could see through, to other truths and unseen depths (pre-empting Walter Benjamin‘s explorations). The issue was how to sharpen your senses to perceive things as they really were beyond the advertising hoardings and grand façades. Kasimir Edschmid summed up the gift and curse of the Expressionist, “The whole space becomes a vision for the Expressionist artist. he doesn’t see, he envisions. He doesn’t depict, he experiences. He doesn’t reproduce, he fashions. He doesn’t take, he searches. Now the chain of facts exists no more: factories, houses, disease, whores, tumult and hunger. Now there is only the vision of these.”
Hiller provided the focal point with an evening of readings, performances and art he called the Neue Club. It featured largely Jewish avant-garde young poets such as the aforementioned Blass, Alfred Lichtenstein, Erwin Loewenson aka Golo Gangi, Simon Guttmann, Arthur Drey and the older gifted lyric poet Else Lasker-Schüler.
The most formidable presences in the group however were the poets Jakob Van Hoddis and Georg Heym. Both were handsome young men from middle class backgrounds who had turned their back on relative privilege and family expectations for a life of cosmopolitanism. They shared a healthy distaste of authority, being expelled from universities (Hoddis for laziness, Heym for contempt) and sacked from a succession of jobs (Heym for trying to flush major land registry documents, that were boring him, down the toilet and for regarding the legal profession he’d fallen into as “swine-feed not worth pissing on”). Both were talented poets despite, or because of, their confrontational natures. And both ultimately were doomed. They shared a certain megalomania which was expressed in their lives and verse. It was not merely enough to oppose the Kaiser and the forces of conservatism in Germany (the “miserable Prussian shitstate” in Heym’s words), what they wished for was to shake the earth itself. Van Hoddis would write the greatest poem of the movement (their “Marseillaise” in the words of Johannes Becher), Heym the greatest collection. When he read ‘Weltende’ (translating as ‘World’s End’), Van Hoddis electrified the audience and inspired a trend for similarly themed poems that would last a generation (the effect could be comparable to Ginsberg’s first reading of Howl – the poem as Catherine Wheel).
Upon first reading, the poem seems deceptively simple but it is revolutionary not just in its portrayal of conservative Berlin being washed away by a deluge (presumably creating the blank slate that was needed to start over again). It’s tone and imagery are everything. It avoids rage and histrionics. It is written with the matter of fact style of a weather report. The end of mankind as reported in a small local newspaper (“and on the coasts, we read, the tide is rising”). It is witty, elegiac, surreal (the roofers who “tumble and shatter into pieces”) and vaguely terrifying for its normality. It begins mischievously with the hat flying off “a burgher’s pointed head” followed by the horrific Munch-like image of “a sound that shrieks through all of the air.” For all its impish combinations of mundanity (one sign of the apocalypse is that everyone has the cold) and terror (“trains plummet from bridges”), it contains a unfathomable sense of melancholy. A call to arms, a death sentence and a manifesto. Eight. Lines. Long.
Fittingly for a mock newspaper report on the Rapture, it echoes the ominous events of that year. Two comets (Halley’s and the Great January Daylight Comet) had appeared in the skies. Einstein had begun shattering Newtonian physics, the very laws of the universe, to the point even space and time couldn’t be trusted anymore. The Seine had flooded through Paris, filling the Metro with water. The indestructible Titanic had made its way to the ocean floor. Mankind’s certainties were being shaken to the core.
‘Weltende’ was not a revelling in destruction for destructions sake (though the aesthete Wilde would have approved, wishing that fin de siècle could be transformed into fin de globe in The Picture of Dorian Gray). The Expressionists were not nihilists. This was more akin to a wildfire where old dead wood is incinerated to make way for new shoots. At least that was the plan, the problem being when the fire starts and takes hold, how do you control it? Gottfried Benn defined it best in his play Ithaca; it was their intention to break “through the analytical corporate atmosphere and struggle on the dark path inward to the layers of creativity, to the primal images, to myths, and in the midst of this horror-full chaos of disintegration and inversion of values, to arrive by force, by law, by serious means, at a new image of mankind.” The idea was sound. The implementation, for those who welcomed the coming war as a purge of the old orders as Heym did (“If only someone would start a war, it needn’t even be a just one. This peace is so stagnant, oily and greasy…”), would be more costly than they could ever imagine.
Such were the egos involved in the Neue Club and the philistinism of their opponents, it became known as the “Café Megalomania.” As with Die Brücke, such personalities could not stay amiable for long and, after a brief run of acclaimed nights, the Neue Club broke up publically and dramatically when Van Hoddis tried to usurp Hiller’s “eternal presidency” and threw him out of his own group. The Neue Club split into Hiller’s Gnu and Van Hoddis’ Neopathetische Cabaret. It was as part of the latter that Georg Heym appeared. He’d been previously introduced to the Neue Club by Simon Guttmann, having recited him his almost-Futurist urban poem ‘Berlin I’ from memory. His performances at the evenings (one of which was dedicated to his work alone), earned him critical derision in the press but brought him to the attention of the publisher Ernst Rowohlt, who released his book Der ewige Tag (The Eternal Day). Heym had made a name for himself. He became known for his Jacobin pretensions, modelling himself on Danton and the poètes maudits, his personality “half bandit… half angel” in Emily Ball-Hennings’ estimation but most of all he became known for his poetry. In his juvenilia, he wrote on various subjects – love poems, nocturnes, autumnal pastoral poems, elegies on Hölderlin and Villon, aubades on suicides and convicts, French revolutionary dramas, momento moris, subversions of religious rituals, some haunting, some exotic, some of bottomless romantic joy, some of bottomless dread, some clumsy, hyperbolic, adolescent.
For all their similarities, Heym’s passionate, expletive-strewn temperament differed from Van Hoddis’ more reserved nature but Heym followed and expanded upon his friend’s baleful visions. He began with urban melodramas that mix abject pathos with unintended bathos (fever hospitals, blind men, crippled children, morgues, misery loaded onto misery) but, following Van Hoddis, made the leap to something beyond pastiches of desolation, which is where his genius comes in, particularly in his later work. Georg Heym somehow managed to prophesise the coming cataclysms of war, not just that they would happen but how they would happen, the scale of it. Less than a decade after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, Heym was writing of visions that mirror the aerial bombardment of cities and the fire-bombing of civilian populations from the sky. Though a single bomb had been ineffectually dropped onto the city of Venice from a hot-air balloon in the previous century, what Heym had foretold was effectively a novel idea. He pre-empted military theorists by several years. His visions were demonic, depersonalised, grotesque, extravagant. Something would finally happen to the stultifying society he grew up in. The skies would suddenly become dangerous. No-one and nowhere would be entirely safe. The poet floats above the burning streets and recounts what occurs with the merest hint of delight.
In ‘War’ Heym like some angel of death watches, “A mighty city sank in yellow smoke / slipped in silence into the abyss’s throat… withering the farthest night his firebrands rain / pitch and fire down on the cities of the plain.”
In ‘The God of the City,’ he describes “like the blue scent of incense, factory-fumes / and grime of smokestacks rise towards his feet…. a sea of fire cracks / along a street. And the thick glowing smoke / devours it until a late day breaks.”
With ‘White Haired, On Barren Plains,’ he makes an astonishing declaration that seems to suggest the Fall of Imperial Russia to a violent Marxism rabble, “and on rebellion’s sea, red, like a star, / atop its pole the Tsar’s head rocking higher.”
Again and again, images of annihilation, the poet viewing it all from the altitude of zeppelins or bombers. In ‘The Demons of the Cities,’ “Upon the rooftop sea their shadow sways… the broken housetop washes red with flame. / they straddle it, and hurl like midnight cats / towards the firmament their frenzied scream… earthquakes surround their hooves with fires alight / and through the womb of cities blasts the thunder.”
In his most famous poem ‘Umbrae Vitae’ the auguries continue, “meteors slithering with fiery snouts / round jagged towers mark a baleful track // and rooftops bristle with astrologers / who thrust huge telescopes into the sky…” “the ships hang all disconsolate and rot / all scattered, and not a current moves…” “the trees no longer change with seasons / and die eternally when seasons end.” (Trans, Anthony Hasler).
Something terrible was indeed coming. It would be the a quarter of a century before history caught up with Heym and the horrors of the grim rollcall of Guernica, Warsaw, Nanking, the Blitz, Manila, Tokyo, Dresden, Hamburg, Stalingrad, Leningrad, Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought his baroque visions of slaughter into unimaginable reality.
Heym would be spared having to witness any of this by virtue of being dead. Around the time he was introduced to the Neue Club, he’d written of a troubling dream in his diary in which he was shuffling along on the ice of a frozen lake and a woman called to him and told him “Quick, turn back, the ice is breaking up,” but he kept going, momentarily walking on water before plunging into the murky waters, barely making it to the shore as tentacles of kelp threatened to drag him down. A personal premonition perhaps or just a coincidence. In the winter of 1912, the poet went skating with his friend and fellow poet Ernst Balcke on the Havel. At some point, the ice began to crack and Balcke fell through and became trapped beneath the ice. Heym attempted to save him but fell through and once in the water could not pull himself free. He held on for half an hour desperately calling to woodcutters on the shoreline who could not make it safely across the treacherous floe in time. Their corpses were hauled out in frozen tableaux several days later.
Though they would put together a tribute night for the departed at the Neopathetic Cabaret and publish many of Heym’s unpublished poems and his novella The Thief, the remnants of the Neue Club would soon dissipate. Van Hoddis never recovered from the news and had the first of a succession of mental breakdowns shortly after. The next thirty years of his life he would spend in psychiatric hospitals, briefly, periodically escaping and resurfacing in cultural circles until psychotic episodes and outstanding warrants would drive him back into care. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and rarely, if ever, wrote again. He was murdered by the Nazis at Sobibor death camp mid-1942, along with 500 of his fellow patients and nursing staff of the Jewish sanatorium where he’d stayed.
His friend the poet Alfred Lichenstein was already long dead, killed during the First World War on the same stretch of land Wilfred Owen lost his life but fighting for the other side. He too had predicted the conflict in his aptly-titled ‘Prophecy,’ “Sometimes I have premonitions / a deathstorm advancing from the distant north… the walls of all the building crack / fish are rotting in the streams / everything comes to its own sticky end / screeching buses are overturned.” The war they had wished for did indeed wipe out the straitjacketed society of Wilhelm’s but at the price of virtually an entire generation of young men, and indirectly, thanks to a botched peace, millions more in the near future.
Ernst Blass continued writing poetry and contributing to magazines and cultural debate during the Weimar era, gradually shifting his style to neoclassical verse. His health however was poor, he was tubercular but undiagnosed and eventually went blind. Unable to make a living, he died penniless in a Jewish hospital for vagrants. Only Kurt Hiller, their old friend and adversary, seems to have had any luck. After several decades, enraging the Right with his left-wing activism and courageous championing of gay rights, he was one of the first people arrested upon the Nazi assumption of power and was sent to Oranienburg and Sachsenhausen concentration camps where he sustained torture that almost killed him. Nine months later, he was released by mistake and escaped into exile in London via Prague. He survived until 1975.
The influence of these early Expressionists on German culture was considerable, mainly thanks to the bestselling Kurt Pinthus-edited, Egon Schiele-illustrated anthology of their work – Menschheitsdämmerung (Twilight of Humanity). Their influence though was less in terms of German poetry (where do you go after writing about Armageddon but self parody?) but stylistically and thematically in other artforms; the cataclysmic plays of Ernst Toller (Man and Masses) and Georg Kaiser (especially the Gas trilogy), the threatening otherworldy environments of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Metropolis, From Morn to Midnight and The Golem. You can even find echoes in those who came after Expressionism had burnt out in the New Objectivity School and beyond, in the decadent ‘cities on the plains one minute before their destruction’ scenes painted by Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, staged by Brecht and Weill (The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany and The Threepenny Opera) and filmed by Fritz Lang (M).
Closest is the early artwork of Ludwig Meidner, currently undergoing a rightful albeit posthumous resurgence in critical opinion. A friend and conspirator of Van Hoddis, Meidner’s paintings of exploding cityscapes, tumbling tenements and slate rooftops burning are vividly reminiscent not just of Georg Heym’s poetry but of the bombing campaigns of the Second World War. Again they preceded reality by decades. Meidner shared the temperament of his early Expressionist allies, being a man who, it is said, could look out of the window, resisting the urge to throw himself from it, and see not a beautiful summer’s day in Berlin but instead “a thousand skeletons jigging in a row. Many graves and incinerated cities writhing across the plains.” He was a glass half-empty kind of chap. In his autobiography, he confessed, “When I’m half-awake, I die many terrible deaths but I know that I shall come into divine bliss again… I’m going to throw myself under a train so its wheels can run screaming into my serene skull…” Despite his best attempts at self-immolation, Meidner would survive the catastrophes he had envisioned however by escaping to England where the authorities promptly arrested him for being German and shipped him off to the Isle of Man for the duration of the war. During the Sixties, at an arts festival in the Ruhr, they organised a retrospective and debate on this forgotten sadly departed genius when suddenly a frail voice piped up at the back, “It’s me! Meidner! I’m still alive!”
There’s another more troublesome aspect to the Expressionists’ legacy and predictions. When the Nazis overthrew the Weimar Republic they set about rewriting German culture through acts of desecration. Expressionist paintings, films and texts were among the first to be burned and defiled as degenerate art. Yet the two dichotomies shared certain traits, to the extent that very early on Joseph Goebbels toyed with the idea of declaring Expressionism the official art form of the Third Reich, much as Mussolini had Marinetti’s Futurism, before rejecting the idea. It was after all a uniquely German movement but history would have to be airbrushed as it was actually almost exclusively German Jewish, the vast majority of whom the Nazis were now butchering in their hundreds of thousands. Several of Expressionism’s finest protagonists, of those left living, had signed on briefly as Party members; namely the painter Emil Nolde and the poet Gottfried Benn. There were also bridging figures who appeared to span the chasm between ideologies such as Ernst Jünger (though he would later turn against the Nazis during the Officer’s Plot), who used the hyper-intense language of Expressionism to exalt bloodshed, “It is the lust of the blood lowering over war like a red sail above a black galley, in its boundless ardour related only to love. It claws at the nerves already in the womb of agitated cities when the columns march to the stations through a rain of glowing roses, the Morituri song on their lips.”
Despite being polar opposites politically, Nazism and Expressionism did have a common ancestor in Friedrich Nietzsche. This was due mainly to the Nazis perverting his teachings particularly the Overman and Will to Power concepts, extracting the bombast (“the whole world will be in convulsions, I am sheer destiny”) and crude methods (“philosophising with a hammer” for example) for their own use and casting all meaning and purpose onto the scrapheap. What was a philosophy of self-liberation for the Expressionists and Nietzsche himself was warped into one of enslavement. They were aided in their efforts by the philospher’s fairly despicable surviving sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche who proclaimed, “I have no doubt that the Führer is the Superman foretold by Zarathustra.” Nietzsche, for what good it done him, foresaw what was coming, “I know my fate. One day my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous–a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, a decision that was conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far. I am no man, I am dynamite.” In the same work, Ecce Homo, he hinted that apostles would come to corrupt his teachings and use them for nefarious ends. In a letter to his sister he wrote, “I tremble when I think of all those who, without justification, without being ready for my ideas, will yet invoke my authority.”
And yet, in a strange sense, what was Hitler, that failed artist, with his petulant hysterics, his belief in the will over reason, his inability to accept facts, with his pretensions that he was a seer but some monstrous Expressionist archetype? In John Toland’s exceptional biography of the dictator, it’s mentioned that Hitler based a great deal of his stagecraft and speechmaking on the performances and gestures of the Austrian hypnotist, clairvoyant and occultist Erik Jan Hanussen who’d briefly taught him some of the techniques he used to fool the German people into believing he was a visionary and not a deranged psychopath. With grim irony, Hanussen made the mistake of predicting the future too precisely, namely the Reichstag Fire and the Nazis involvement therein and was ‘disappeared’ permanently to the afterlife.
As for Hitler the seer, what was left of his visions, his eternal metropoleis, a thousand miles of living space and a thousand year Reich? The shells of destroyed cities, the only buildings left standing the indestructible flak towers, uninhabitable forests strewn with glass mines and a network of train tracks leading to mass graves. This emphasises one crucial distinction between the Nazis and the Expressionists, alienated sensitive bravado-filled youths that the latter were; when they spoke of the urge to destroy it was not just an attempt at ultimately a creative form of destruction but critically it was an urge turning in on itself. They were staging a mock execution of the bourgeoisie, like children at play, but it was themselves, not others, they were condemning. They were the bourgeoisie. And you recall not just Nietzsche in their pantheon of heroes but Freud too. In The Rebel Albert Camus gets to the root of the issue, “To those who despair of everything reason cannot provide a faith, but only passion, and in this case it must be the same passion that lay at the root of despair, namely humiliation and hatred.” The Expressionists chose humiliation (or rather it had chose them), the Nazis hatred. The Expressionists only dreamt of the end of their world, the Nazis enacted the end of the whole world. It’s the difference between the tortured Romantic and the nihilistic butcher.
Outside of Germany, the Expressionists had a profound influence on writers of divinatory works later in the 20th century. One of W.H Auden’s finest poems, the exceptional ’The Fall of Rome’ is a virtual rewrite and extension of Van Hoddis’ ‘Weltende’ in theme, tone, rhythm and imagery (this is no bad thing), possibly gleaned from his time with Isherwood amidst the debauched underground cabarets of Weimar in the Thirties. T.S. Eliot’s ’The Hollow Men’ shares the same sense of lamentation against a bourgeois world which will probably end as it has lived, dismally and inertly (The Wasteland and The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock bear distinct influences too, which is to be expected given Thomas Stearns read and absorbed everything). There are later echoes to be found in Holub, Hughes and Roethke, Tranströmer, Plath and Geoffrey Hill, Archibald MacLeish‘s ‘The End of the World’, Edwin Muir’s ‘The Horses’ and Sara Teasdale’s ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ (but much more gently in the latter two), all of whom brought the apocalypse into the personal or vice versa. They were taken up, in spirit if not talent, by some of the vastly hit and miss New Apocalyptics. Heym’s ‘Demon of the City’ seems to have mutated, at some point, into Fritz Lang’s Moloch and then Ginsberg’s incarnation of the same entity. And there’s Beckett whose plays (Endgame for one) often take place in some unexplained post-apocalyptic landscape, the nightmare being not that mankind is dying out but that it persists in not having the decency to die out.
Then there’s that assorted bunch of buffoons, headcases, chancers and geniuses they named the Surrealists who were attracted to the Expressionists not just by the violent radicalism and the dark romance of the writers who died young or went mad (they were taken in by the ‘authenticity’ of madness, art brut and so forth) but also by their powers of supposedly foretelling the future. The Surrealists had put great faith in forces beyond reason and intellect, seeking to bypass the expected and tap into hidden realms of knowledge. Their parlour games of chance like automatic writing, Dadaist ‘speaking in tongues’ like religious charismatics, the exquisite corpse exercise mirrored Freud’s techniques of jokes, dreams, the slip of the tongue and were designed to break through the veil of reality into what lay beyond. Their leader Andre Breton was a man as obsessed with collecting dead artists underneath the Surrealist umbrella as he was excommunicating living ones and he embraced Van Hoddis as one of their forebears, including him in his excellent Anthology of Black Humour, “We are here at the extreme point of German poetry; Van Hoddis’s voice reaches us from the highest and thinnest branch of the lightning-struck tree… swarms of white flies, carpets of flowers, green-tinted cats.”
It’s an old idea that has gone through various guises down the years. Art as a Kabalistic force. The artist as a thief or rather a receiver, an antennae who picks up messages floating in the ether. Tune into the right frequencies, be able to decipher the messages and anything might be possible, even foretelling the future. Change the word ‘ether’ for ‘geist’, ‘oversoul’, ‘the unconscious’, whatever you like. Keats called it ‘negative capability’. Walter Benjamin referred to divine fragments left over from the detonation of God. Burroughs tried mining it through cutups and orgone machines believing if you broke through, “the future would leak out.” Rimbaud through a rational derangement of the senses, which to him meant hashish, opium, buggery and starvation. It’s either an unfathomable mystic well of inspiration or another example that culture is simply what you can get away with. Breton clarified his interests in Signe Ascendant, “For me the only manifest truth in the world is governed by the spontaneous, clairvoyant, insolent connection established under certain conditions between two things whose conjunction would not be permitted by common sense… I love passionately anything that flares up suddenly out of nowhere and thus breaks the thread of discursive thinking. What comes to light at the moment is an infinitely richer network of relations whose secret, as everything suggests, was known to early mankind…”
He’s an interesting one, Breton. He began as a youthful anarchist like Heym, like Van Hoddis, hankering for the world of old bastards (“the weary tongues” as Nietzsche called them) to implode and the whole rotten artifice to come crashing down around their heads. Prepared to blow the whole world apart if necessary. He’d once defined the simplest Surrealist act as “going into the street with revolvers in your fist and shooting blindly into the crowd as much as possible.” But Breton lived. And he witnessed the ends of worlds, the six million Jews turned to smoke and soap and he wrote almost in penitence, as if he quaintly still believed in a God, as if any fucker were listening, “we no longer want the end of the world.”
Perhaps it’s a question of powerlessness. The artist sees the statue inherent within a solid block of stone, the poet sees the ruins inherent within the temple. Poets decide nothing, they control nothing, maybe they create nothing, only poets even bother reading poetry, they have miniscule fiefdoms fought over bitterly and laughably but bitterly still. The real world is run by bankers and politicians. But the poet has words. And in words his or her revenge. It’s one reason poets love cataclysms. It’s their chance to play God. And it can be done provided there’s a safe distance between writing about it and it actually happening, some clear demarcation lines, like way the occultist John Dee was said to have taken great care not to step outside the pentacle when summoning spirits.
Just after The War of the World‘s hoax, H.G. Wells met Orson Welles on an American radio talk-show and they amiably complemented each other’s work and joked about the recent furore. Only once did the discussion take a chill turn when Wells surmised, “You aren’t quite serious in America yet. You haven’t got the war right under your chins and the consequence is you can still play with ideas of terror and conflict… It’s a natural thing to do until you’re right up against it.”
“Until it ceases to be a game?”
“Until it ceases to be a game.”
One reason then that we predict the disasters of the future (global warming, pandemics, the ‘grey goo’ theory, nuclear winter) is quite reasonably in order to stop them from happening. It only takes a increase of the earth’s temperature by less than half a dozen degrees to cause the polar ice caps and the Siberian permafrost to melt and it’s all over, a runaway Greenhouse Effect turns Earth into New Venus. Another reason we predict disasters is because we’re revelling in the fact it hasn’t happened yet or hasn’t happened here. Taking solace that fiction has not entirely become fact. It’s human nature. There are those too who would rush us headlong into oblivion, corporate nihilists, religious nihilists. Be careful, history says, in what you wish for. Or consider Heym at play, daydreaming of raining hellfire down upon cities, not noticing that the ice beneath him is slowly beginning to crack.