In the beginning was the Word. What a mighty sentence. It reverberates in one’s brain like a peal of thunder. In six words, Western culture and the way in which we experience our reality are distilled into their essence. Anyone who, like Faust, is hungering for revelation need look no further in matters of Creation. The word or, better still, the ancient Greek logos – abstraction, order – is where everything begins.
No matter whether one believes in the Christian God or not, Creation is always the step out of the white noise into the clarity of a thought. Order instead of chaos, images instead of snowcrash.
A start, a new beginning is, accordingly, nothing other than the discovery of clarity. Giving a hazy, diffuse feeling definition. Distilling the essence. Only from a reduction to the core can something new emerge.
And when one has considered long enough that a word is always a high eminence, something really clear and profound, that words are always bearers of something compelling, and hence have a consequence – then that is precisely the point at which an ear-shattering screech sets in. The cause of this infernal noise? It is the brake-chocks of writer’s block ramming into the gearbox of creativity.
“So what is absolutely of the essence?ˮ my inner Hamlet cries. “What is really quintessential?ˮ Is the thought fluttering across my mind actually important? Is it the kernel out of which a new world can grow? Does it really have that much potential? Or shouldn’t I rather go in search of a completely different kernel? After all, there are so many of them. And somehow, all of these kernels look alike.
Well, so there I am, squatting on my hunkers. Frozen like a deer caught in the bright beam of a blank sheet of white paper. The word that is supposed to be there in the beginning is simply nowhere to be found. As a creator I have, once again, proved a failure.
This kind of neurotic bout of Hamletitis – the sudden inability to uncover the first word – is as if I were walking along a never-ending, white corridor. White floor, white ceiling, white light and on either side a never-ending flight of white doors. Behind every door, so I imagine, a brave new world lies waiting. Every door conceals adventures that I could experience if I could only decide on one of the doors. But instead of coming to a decision and thus perhaps missing an even more splendid or more exhilarating world, I go on and on in all eternity. Never actually getting anywhere.
And yet, I should know better. I am fully aware of the logical flaw implicit in my undecidedness – the flaw that induces me to go farther and farther along the corridor and never to opt for any one door – lies in the childish assumption that pain and disappointments can be avoided. I persuade myself that, as long as I am just careful enough, then everything will be okay. Then nothing will ever hurt again. But by doing so I’m in denial of the fact that no-one – not even the richest, strongest, best-looking or most intelligent of people – is granted a charmed life. No-one, not even the most superior and most talented author is spared errors, wrong decisions, horrible surprises, traumatic experiences, fathomless feelings of shame.
Pain, fear, shame – the Holy Trinity of loss – are the price of each and every gift life presents to us. And those who attempt to avoid them will never create anything and probably not really live either. The white corridor with all its identical-looking doors, the privilege of never-ending possibilities, is nothing other than the purgatory of fear. The fear of making a mistake and, because of this mistake, forfeiting the affection and love of others.
Recently, in an interview for the German VOGUE, Peter Lindbergh told me that he saw it like Pina Bausch – namely, that everything we do and create is driven by our need for love. The film director Uli Edel (“The Baader Meinhof Complexˮ, “Christiane F.ˮ) also expressed this opinion while we were talking of my late husband Bernd, Uli’s oldest friend. Bernd and Uli came to know one another on their very first day at the Film Institute and later made many films together. And dark and provocative though these films were – including “Last Exit to Brooklynˮ – what drove them on, Uli said, was nothing other than the desire to be loved. Ambition, money, artistic goals – these, he said, had only been secondary motivations.
Bernd himself would never have been able to explain his motivation so exactly. And he would never have reduced what drove him on to ‘love’. Why he made films, and thus again and again took upon himself the risk of total annihilation, was a mystery to him. It was like the question ‘Why?’ in Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Why is there the skeleton of a leopard on the peak of Kilimanjaro? What was the animal of prey doing up there? Shortly before Bernd’s unexpected death we talked about the issue of motivation. He compared making films to climbing an eight-thousander on one’s own. Why does anyone have to climb a mountain? It makes no sense and makes no difference to the history of mankind. There is no film that absolutely has to be made. Just as there is no work of art, no book, no piece of music that mankind could not live without. Nevertheless, we feel constantly driven to climb the next peak. Is the underlying cause a quest for love? Is the explanation really that simple?
For sure, there is no feeling more magnificent than loving someone and being loved by that person in return. That is the best that life has to offer. No question about it. As I understand love, however, it can only be given freely and generously. To be loved is a great gift. But I cannot run after this gift. For if I do so, I come under the tyranny of neediness. Naturally, we are all to a certain extent helpless and reliant on one another. Militant phantasies of self-sufficiency are megalomaniacal. But for me, writing is much more a way of coming to terms with myself. Some days, living with myself is like living beside a heavy-traffic motorway. Then my mind is full of unceasing, monotonous noise. In times of emotional stress, this noise rises to a horrid cacophony. Allegedly meditation should help, but I’ve never been able to make a success of it.
The racing driver Stirling Moss once told me that mortal danger was addictive. If one’s own life was at stake, then all humdrum, day-to-day problems receded into the background. All the petty madness that took possession of one otherwise was suddenly blotted out. In the moment of mortal danger everything was clear and simple: all that’s left is oneself and survival. Zen courtesy of the accelerator. To me, that is the perfect metaphor for writing and for any kind of creativity. You can lose yourself in it. Mental noise turns to harmony at last. And I agree with Stirling Moss.Danger is crucial. Only when it’s dangerous the intended effect kicks in. The best story-teller in world literature, I reckon, is Scheherazade. She told stories to save her own life and that of her sister. One of the best moments in cinema history, for me, is the scene in Roman Polanski’s “The Pianistˮ when Adrien Brody is surprised in his hiding-place by a Wehrmacht officer (played by Thomas Kretschmann) and plays for his life on a grand piano.
Now, a writing desk or an artist’s studio is not the Nürburgring, nor a theatre of war or wherever else one might put one’s life on the line. A mistake does not have immediately fatal consequences. And yet, my writing desk is a danger zone. It has to be.
Bernd, who wrote the filmscripts for “Downfallˮ and “The Baader Meinhof Complexˮ once gave me a good piece of advice: when writing, and in any other creative undertaking, I should ‘drop my trousers and bare allʼ, show myself as the person I really am. Make myself vulnerable, assailable. Writing, film-making – it was all precisely a matter of life and death. If you hid behind a mask, you weren’t interesting or relevant to anybody. Because a mask was always a lie, an act of conforming to others. All conformist work was always gratuitous, or as Bernd called it, ʻcheap and triteʼ. Only if I risked everything – my identity, my selfhood – only then would I have at least the chance of creating something of value. Something that could give me satisfaction. Something with which I could not, perhaps, gain the love of others, but for which I could at least love myself.
Bernd’s second piece of advice brings me back to my beginning – to the word. The word that is in the beginning. In our very last discussion about writing, I kept on asking Bernd “What do you do with your doubts? How do you deal with them? How do you overcome your fears? ˮ I knew that he was always plagued by doubts. I knew his fears, which kept him awake at night. At first, Bernd didn’t want to answer my questions. It was as if he didn’t even want to let the word ̒doubtʼ pass his lips. But then he shook his head and looked at me defiantly: “Just keep on writing! Just like a mountaineer simply keeps on going upwards. You can’t afford to have doubts. Paper doesn’t blush. If you have made a mistake, then just tear everything up and start again from scratch. But standing still and looking down into the abyss, that’s not an option.ˮ
You must silence the Hamlet inside you. Hesitation, the question as to the actual substance is permissible only afterwards. No-one would go to Hamlet for advice about living. Consequently, he cannot be a role-model in creative matters either. It’s all about plucking up courage and taking whatever white door along the corridor comes next. Or as the Town Musicians of Bremen put it in the Grimm fairy-tale: Something better than death you can find anywhere and everywhere.
A beginning is always a risk. That means that every word is a risk. Love is a risk. The end is always unpredictable. And in between there are no guarantees either. The only thing we can be certain of is uncertainty. And therein lies a great freedom, because if everything is uncertain, then, at first, it is also value-neutral. Everything is possible, nothing is forbidden. The challenge is to give ourselves this freedom without looking for supposed securities in the form of re-assurance from others. In taking up the challenge, nobody and nothing can help us. Beat the drum and have no fear. And kiss the sutler dame! Heinrich Heine got it just right. There is in point of fact no more to be said. That is all you need to know. That is wisdom’s highest aim. And because that’s the way it is and because I have now been hesitating for six months on end, today, at last, I am going to do it – to write the first word of my new novel. After all, I can always scratch it out again later.
Published in “In Situ,” an exhibition catalogue accompanying exhibitions by Simryn Gill, Min Jeong, Andrea Bowers at the Espace LV galleries in Munich, Paris and Tokyo.