Can Europe Make It?

Reinhard's Tale: in search of an absent tense

'We might hope that some absences audible to us now (that of heavy traffic) anticipate future human life.'

Iain Galbraith
22 February 2021, 4.57pm
Still waters of the Ammersee, Bavaria.
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One morning towards the end of last April I awoke to the sound of an absence. In fact it was noise from the street I heard. This was the end of the first lockdown (some hoped of the pandemic). However, the cars and drills, loud as they were, themselves constituted a palpable absence: that of auditory sensations experienced since the departure of similar street noises weeks earlier. And now this interim absence of noise, or presence of other sounds, was itself absent. What I was missing was the quiet allowed by the grounding of fleets of aircraft and overnight disappearance of other automated means of travel and transportation.

Into another lockdown, I hear that double absence outside my window again: absence of noise (not entirely convincing today), and absence of the noiselessness which that noise replaced. But how much of this complicated scenario is actually outside rather than 'inside'. The absence of noise and silence is a product of experience: an absence of sensations we have known and now remember. "What we have no access to through experience," wrote Nietzsche, "we have no ear for".

I sometimes think English grammar lacks the facility to accommodate satisfactorily these quasi-paradoxical spatial and temporal relations. Perhaps another language has more subtle arrangements for describing phenomena whose complexities might warrant the use not only of the present, but also of an absent tense. Some absences may not seem substantial enough to require much more than the mere negation of 'be', but the absences I am referring to are essential. We know the absence of noise under lockdown to be the sound of persons supporting life, in their own interest, but reciprocally to protect others.

We know the absence of noise under lockdown to be the sound of persons supporting life, in their own interest, but reciprocally to protect others.

As such, it is a profound and substantial silence we mean: the sound of an empathy, a democratic consensus, a solidarity. Absence of the living we experience as loss and personal diminution, yet the absence of jet engines is hardly a deathly hush. In fact we might hope – desiring survival of life on this planet – that some absences audible to us now (that of heavy traffic) anticipate future human life.

Thinking of how our minds and languages represent relations between past, presence and absence, and of how our understanding of these may alter our view of future outcomes, I am reminded of an episode (entitled 'The End of the Future') in the second 'book' of Edgar Reitz's film series Heimat, a fifty-nine-and-a-half-hour epic of German life between 1848 and 2000 (and my Corona-lockdown, box-set project). Previous episodes, set in Munich in the early 1960s, had seen a group of students and musicians gather night after night in a villa owned by a woman whose father, a wealthy publisher, had cheated a Jewish friend and colleague out of his property during the Nazi era. The childlike daughter, professing ignorance of her father's ill-gotten gains, runs an 'open house' for these young bohemians: an attempt to shore up her selective memories of an untainted, pre-war family life. For the students, many from provincial homes, the big-city villa becomes a site of friendship, love, music and all-night discussions.

One alumnus of this institution, Reinhard, an aspiring film-maker, returns from a year-long trip to South America to find the villa gone: razed in a welter of speculation and fraud. All that remains of his 'second home' is a large hole and pile of rubble. Overwhelmed by loss Reinhard attempts, and fails, to film this absence: the hole in the air where the villa once stood – haunted, he imagines, by the spirit of the place. Later, after an affair with Esther, the granddaughter of the cheated Jewish previous owner of the villa, Reinhard himself disappears, apparently forever. We hear the lapping of small waves on the shore: in one moment we see him bobbing gently in a boat on the Bavarian Ammersee, in the next he is gone.

We hear the lapping of small waves on the shore: in one moment we see him bobbing gently in a boat on the Bavarian Ammersee, in the next he is gone.

In the bottom of the boat lies a discarded film script entitled Esther, in which he had intended to reveal the fraud and treachery of the older generation, but in which, so Esther tells him, he has falsified her life to suit his own ambitions. He is told, not only by Esther, that he is a fake, believes he has no talent, and finds no way out.

But is his apparent drowning in fact a perfect work of art? The incorporeal incorporation of a mood he sought to represent, the 'absent tense' itself? At any rate, his body is never found. Standing in the hole where the villa once stood, the composer Hermann, one of the main characters in this series, exclaims to his grieving friends: "Why behave as if all is lost? Nothing is lost if you only open your eyes and ears." Hermann emerges from past disasters to reinvent himself. Reinhard, it seems, attempting to capture loss in a box, has drowned in despair.

This piece was originally published in the February edition of Splinters.

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