Wall Flower
A Life on the German Border
Rita Kuczynski
(University of Toronto Press)
She lived in East Berlin (was born there in 1944) and was there when the wall went up on 16 August 1961. She stayed on for another twenty years and studied piano until her father told her it was driving him crazy --- he said "STOP PLONKING ALREADY." He also said that it was driving her looney which she soon confirmed by her twice trying to do herself in. She explains that she never knew if she "was playing the music or the music was playing me."

To keep what was left of her sanity, she turned to Valium and Hegel, neither of which needed plonking, and one of whom might not even be a philosopher. Indeed, she became an expert on Hegel, and was able to support herself studying and teaching him because she is, I do believe, one of the few people who ever in the history of the last two centuries ever managed to figure him out. It was simply a matter of music:

    The rhythm with which Hegel wrote was familiar to me, the melody of his sentences recognizible. They reminded me of Bach; more specifically of the structure of a Bach fugue, of the sequence of steps for linking one note to another and of how the omission of one single step threatened to cause the entire composition to collapse.

When she tried to write a dance piece involving Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, it was turned down by the GDR artist's union. They said that "dancing and the Party cannot coexist." She retorted that Marx wrote that "society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic." Her's was a direct quote from Marx's German Ideology."

She also found --- very helpful for those living in East Berlin between 1961 and 1989 --- that Hegel taught that "our knowledge is primarily a practised ritual that serves to conceal our speechlessness in the face of the real."

She survived by mostly learning to hide everything, claiming that Hegel and Bach made her understand how to do it. Polyphony, part of the music half-hidden. "Reading Hegel's sentences reminded me of 'The Art of Fugue."'

Her chapters on the Stasi are fascinating, being a how-to-do-it. If you ever go to live in a totalitarian society, this is your manual. Most of all you must hide in the shadows. It is very important that you shut up, mind your P's and Q's and --- most of all --- stop laughing.

She tells us that you mostly knew who the Stasi were, and you quickly learned to work in and around them. And occasionally with them. She liked playing around with the nomenklatura, using all the tricks, especially if it could get her what she wanted. She wanted to get into the Institute for Philosophy to do Hagel, but a key minister of the state, a Stasi agent, would not sign the appropriate document. He didn't even have a degree, she snoots.

Since he was a boozer, she went to one of the parties where he was in attendance. "I flirted with him the entire evening, at least, flirted as well as one could with a man who was anything but likeable."

    Thanks to my time as a barmaid, I knew how to act as if I were drinking along. Then, later, I took my preliminary contract, which I had carefully folded, out of my pocked and very casually asked if if he wouldn't mind putting the signature to it on the lower left. And that is what he did, without attention to what he was signing.

"I stuck the piece of paper back in my pocket and refilled our wine glasses." Later, in the office of the director for education and development, "we had a heated argument about how the contract had been signed. I said the director was so drunk that he no longer knew what he was signing."

    If he wanted that to become public knowledge, I offered, he could contest it. But one would have then to have to discuss how the comrade director was so unable to maintain his political vigilance under the influence of alcohol.

She ended up surviving by being married to the son of a high functionary; this meant that when she took on lovers, she was protected because all of her family secrets were stored in a special Stasi file that concealed the doings of the higher ups. And when she traveled in the U.S., the GDR was kind enough to supply her with an agent to watch over her. Her buddies would tell her that someone from GDR was looking for her, just missed her.

At the same time, she was also being followed by the FBI. She definitely preferred the latter. "For the FBI, my case was one they had never had before: a German housewife who travels to Columbia University as a Hegel specialist, related the good-looking man, laughing . . . He raised his glass and wished me a continued good stay in the United States."

Wall Flower is interesting for the first hundred pages, especially for those of us who want to know exactly how one can survive in a police state. You just knew it was unwise to speak freely on the telephone, in front of strangers, and most hurtfully, even with good friends. It was too dangerous. And it took a terrific toll on one's possible simple joy at life.

Her genuine love for Heidegger, Nietzsche, Sartre and Hegel makes the earliest parts of the book fascinating, especially for those of us who never got much of a hold on those particular luminaries. But the darkness at the end of her tale makes for bleak reading, and shows, all too graphically, that Kuczynski was damaged by those twenty years in East Berlin.

Philosophy may have helped, but it was a dark trade: the writer Holderlin only "brought me the certainty that I was not alone with loss."

    The black dresses and the scarves that I wore over the years; the long hair, behind which I could hide my face; the sedative tablets that I took to deal with my anxiety and my lack of self-control, which I quit calling spontaneity long ago --- these were also part of it. For again and again spontaneity had made my life in the GDR unbearably difficult.

--- C. A. Amantea
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