A few days ago a friend asked if the ravens in my Facebook banner ( Albrecht Schenk’s painting ‘Anguish’ which now hangs in Melbourne) were “mean”, and generously offered that those black birds might work in solidarity with the lambs. I considered a quick reply, but held back. We know enough about ravens to know they beg no simple answers. And the seemingly simple question about ‘meanness’ is actually not so simple. It smacks a bit of “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” To which Dorothy frantically answers, “Why I’m no witch at all.” She’s just Dorothy and she wants to go back to Kansas.
And then, of course, we are left with the not so small irony that for Dorothy to complete that journey back to the world of black and white, she must in turn become a slayer of very bad witches. Which of course makes her simultaneously both a bad witch as well as one who is good.
In the Middle Ages or perhaps even long before that, the raven was perceived as a portent of death, of imminent and profane destruction. When villagers would see a dark unkindness of ravens approaching on the horizon, they knew that the armies would soon follow. Ravens are omnivores, but most of all they are carrion birds. They dine on the dead. As well, they are sentient. They have sufficient cognition to recognize men bearing arms as armies. And that armies are for one thing: the making of death. The shedding of blood. The leavening of slaughter.
The Raven does not do the killing. But his arrival serves the advance warning. And then he bears witness. And here, at least in Schenk’s image, the unkindness evokes the sadness wedded to communion.
Whenever we eat, especially when we partake of bread and wine, we are taking the flesh and blood of the Host – of the sacrificial lamb – into our own bodies. In this act, we acknowledge our own complicity in his death, and the subsuming of his power, his humility, and his promise into our selves. In the Host’s death we find our own sanctification.
The raven was born to be a sentinel. And when there’s nothing left for which to be warned, the bird must fly so that it may dine on the burnt offerings. That is his task.
When I posted that banner image just after the election I actually wondered where in that picture I figured. And today I realize it is everywhere. I am at once the bleating ewe, the falling snow, the fallen lamb, and the raven in waiting.
Perhaps ask yourself where, if anywhere, do you find yourself in the image?
Germany, February 1945
After my family left Latvija in 1944, they walked across Poland and Germany a day at most ahead of the advancing Russian troops. They were accompanied by family friends who in turn travelled with a wounded Russian soldier. His name is now lost, but the families valued him. Though disabled he had served as a kind of farmhand. He looked after the animals and he scavenged food and he did what he could to care for everyone. One day in Germany, under the Allied bombardment, he gathered potatoes that had fallen from train cars on the side of the tracks. He lost his footing and he fell down and was crushed by an oncoming locomotive. The train would have been bearing German soldiers, or food, or even the final bodies to be executed in Bergen Belsen.
In these days, especially in the smoke and mirrors and confusion of the last few weeks, it bears remembering that there can be a world in such chaos and moral ambiguity that one can be a victim even while dining on the fallen.
The German painter Gerhard Richter, born in 1932 on the eve of the burning of the Reichstag, would grow up in Dresden during the rise of National Socialism. Distrusting the reality of received information, he would later say that “style is violence.”
What did he mean by this? Style is ideology. And ideology, by definition, is visionary. It is declarative and absolute. At an extreme, it depends on discounting or even silencing the opinion or worldview of others.
When we condemn entire classes of people with blanket words – terrorist, bad hombre, enemy of the people – without any consideration for their discrete truths or histories and life stories, we deny the complexities of reality. We deny fundamental humanity.
This is violence.
Authoritarian ideology frames the world in absolutes: A total disaster. A complete mess. Police and society become militarized to ward off an impending and, more often then not, exaggerated or even fabricated danger. The urban bourgeois become enemies. People who are different, perhaps with darker skin or a foreign bearing, are framed as “an infestation.”
Mass spectacle replaces discourse and reasoned argument.
Authoritarian ideology begins by declaring outsiders or others as terrorists, foreigners, or criminal elements. It leads to the infliction of suffering and, if left unchecked, unspeakable acts of violence.
This happens under a veil of social confusion, but also a tragic normalcy. Heinrich Himmler himself, the architect of the Final Solution, actually considered himself to be a good father and a Good German. He felt quite genuinely that he was restoring his culture by ridding it of an infestation, of other strange identities, of a decadent cancerous rot.
After the war, notions even as simple as “family” or “nation” or “good” become strangely indeterminate. A fundamental distrust of the world and even language itself may be the hallmark of those whose understanding of reality has been shaped by authoritarianism.
What can we learn from the people who in other times fell inexorably under the sway of nationalist and exclusionary ideologies? Ideology and emotional or physical violence come at a cost. Who bears it and what does it look like?
We might turn to the enveloping canvasses of the German artist Anselm Kiefer, born a few months before VE Day and the close of the war. While Richter came to us during the convulsive birthing of Nazism, Kiefer’s infant eyes received it’s horrible conclusion.
To sit with Kiefer’s pieces is to be swallowed whole in the terror of the rounding up and of the rousing of the dogs of war.
Kiefer’s mucked and unruly residue is the inevitable outcome of the pattering martial tattoo. It’s the consequence of a seething resentful voice that declares that he will do something to North Korea, to Mosul, to Syria. The world exists as a being that has wronged him. And for this, he will inflict violence and war. He will eradicate his enemies, however he defines them, from the face of this earth.
In the presence of Kiefer’s paintings you immerse yourself in the ashen remains that are left after the blistering attack.
Have no illusions as to what it looks like and what will follow. There is nothing pretty, nothing kind nor valorous, nothing redemptive about it.
It is straw caked in black tar. It is burnt feces. Fields after a dark harvest, barren of life and able to offer no feeding. It is a world set ablaze.
The fields harrowed in the winter by tanks are sown in the spring with blood. Horses we are. Gaunt frames. Ribbed chests exposed. Grown from this ground, we dine on dirt and broken straw.
And here, at last, we return to our raven.
In this case, the carrion bird’s leaden wing falls upon a burnt and destroyed landscape. And yet it offers a bleak shred of hope.
Is the Raven mean?
He offers a bleak promise of regeneration; of the alchemy that comes when he feeds on rotting flesh and transmutes ruined matter into language and dark winged flight.
After the murdering has been had, the very sad truth is that there’s nothing more that can be done. Nothing will bring back the dead.
The Romanian poet, Paul Celan survived the invasion of his country by the Soviets in 1940 and in 1941 the butchering of the Jews of Cernauti by the German Einsatzkommando. In his poem Todefuge, he would later write
Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er pfeift seine Rüden herbei
er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde
er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling, he whistles his hounds to come close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he commands us to play up for the dance.
Yes, we can and should try to stop it. I would really like for the ravens to join with the lambs. And in a sense they do. They fly ahead of the advancing armies and their squawk fills the air as if to say, “Please. Listen. Bad things are afoot. Fight or flee, the days are numbered.”
And if there’s no listening, then the birds are left only to bear witness.
In Keifer’s Sulamith, the artist leads us to the entrance of the Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldiers. But this hall, designed by the Nazi architect Wilhelm Kreis and intended to commemorate the perpetrator, under Kiefer’s hand instead transmutes into the terminus of the iron track and the burning flames of the oven.
We find ourselves descending into hell.
“What would you do in this moment? Would you turn away from something so dark? Or would you intercede? Would you have the strength to gaze deeper and to feel it?”
Kiefer’s expressionism and experimentation of form is neither decadent nor abstract, but rather cemented in an amorality and horror unlike any the world has ever seen. Even more disturbing, it emerged in the very cradle of modernity, in a technologically advanced Western democracy not dissimilar from our own.
A Holocaust is not necessarily savagery in a some other savage place, but quite the opposite: savagery wrought by us. Richter perhaps challenges us to detect the darkness and violence inherent in the seemingly placid sea.
To experience Kiefer and Richter, one can learn from a generation forced to ask where their parents or even they themselves were when these things happened. How could they stand by and tacitly allow others to be hurt? What did they fear? What did they have to gain? How did they not see it coming? How did they come to believe the propaganda?
Where do you find yourself in the picture?
When presented with Gerhard Richter’s Lesende (The Reader), the German writer Luisa Beck asks who is this girl? And what does she have to offer?
Beck’s answer? She is a German. And she is us. And the look on her face betrays something important. That inhumanity can be born from and live commensurate with normalcy. As with our relationship to the raven, if ungood comes to pass and if we survive it, what will be our relationship to this girl? If we ourselves become war borne, how will we reconcile our own inhumanity with this profile and with this face, so lovely and so hardened?