In a work that intentionally defies categorization, the elderly German polymath Kluge, a film director as well as writer, offers commentary on love, war, the Devil and the cosmos, from the stars to the oceans, using myth, fables, the historical record and invented dialogues.
Guided in spirit by Kant, Walter Benjamin, and Adorno, Kluge (The Battle, 1967, etc.) has assembled dozens of little essays and anecdotes, the idea being to stimulate the reader through unexpected perspectives. Thus Kluge looks at the sad life of Christina Onassis and sees a person who has attained maturity in the Kantian sense; then Kluge broadens the picture to show Soviet interest in its shipping fleet, and the way the heiress becomes a pawn of geopolitics; inserted into the narrative are thoughts on another victim, the Queen of Carthage. Why? “History moves in waves . . . narratives that are not causally connected may still be related.” Kluge amplifies his point by turning to Sarajevo 1914 and the First Gulf War, reaching the startling conclusion that the only antidote to Sarajevo (shorthand for a world-war trigger) is for a nation to protect its own worst enemy. Elsewhere, he indulges in the puckish notion that the Devil has been spotted in a White House group photo by German Intelligence: Read this as a catcall from “old Europe.” A section on homecomings after WWII is backlit by the world’s most famous homecoming, that of Odysseus; the Chernobyl rescue operation brings to mind a poem by Schiller. Kluge’s accounts of military planners supping with the Devil are mostly on target, whether it’s a Pentagon “adventurer” trying to harness the spiritual powers of a rabbi or the Nazis’ search for a “primitive warrior type.” Still, a longish section on 9/11 fails to get a fix on the catastrophe.
Kluge’s frequent interrogatory dialogues on all these episodes throw up an array of talking-points that make his work ideal for an avant-garde reading group or post-graduate seminar, though less so for the solitary reader.