BY Pablo Larios in Opinion | 08 MAR 13
Featured in
Issue 9

Cry Me A River

Sentimentality and the city

BY Pablo Larios in Opinion | 08 MAR 13

The sun came out today. It was historic, they said, since this was the darkest winter on record.

I hardly noticed. I’ve been inside all day, and the concept of light has begun to seem like a good joke or a spontaneous street encounter: relished when it comes, but never anticipated and best left out of one’s head.

After work, the S-Bahn courses across Berlin like a steel river afloat with coin-filled coffee cups and boot-slush. Nondescript business people. Fare dodgers. A group of technocrats in zip-up fleeces boards at Friedrichstrasse, apparently in town for some TED-affiliated conference. Their Samsung Galaxy phones are parodically large. ‘What is “local” anyway, anymore?’ one asks, a bit too loudly, with that rhetoric of common sense cultivated by good evangelists. We pass a large government building. I can see a small, wooden toy giraffe, gazing outward from the building’s windowsill, and I imagine the bureaucrat who’s made this miniature, imaginary savannah. We all find some way to escape the elements.

Outside the Alte Nationalgalerie: rain, then black raincoats, like ants. Inside, it’s flush with tourists and lush with delightfully empty Romantic landscapes. The building’s blue cupola is a simulacrum of sky, but to linger too long on description is, as photographers know, to overexpose, to risk sentimentality. For the past few weeks I’ve been coming here to look at the same, simple pictures. Bowls of ripe fruit, girls on swings, the Deutschrömer, foxes in woods. Pictures where nothing at all happens, just like in the countryside.

The pastoral, for the literary critic and poet William Empson, is a process of ‘putting the complex into the simple’. Works – then and now – can command unexpected strength by espousing the deliberate simplicity of the sentimental. What such landscapes stand for (on the surface) most good cynics stand against. To call something sentimental is usually to disparage emotiveness. And just as every sunset is forgotten the next day, no one remembers last week’s weather except when it’s trapped on canvas – and even then, hardly. But I keep returning to Caspar David Friedrich’s Mann und Frau den Mond betrachtend (Man and Woman Observing the Moon, 1824), which hangs at the Alte Nationalgalerie. It’s familiar not because it is famous but because it is so anonymous. The tree in the painting of two lovers gazing up at the moon is plain, unadorned. In 1936, Samuel Beckett, on a six-month tour of Germany, walked into this building and noted this ‘little moon landscape’. Nearly 40 years later, in 1975, now a theatre director, he finds himself in front of it again and tells his companion, the theatre scholar Ruby Cohn, ‘this was the source of Waiting for Godot ’ – that bleakest of plays. So maybe there was some softness behind Beckett’s scowl. Is there a scowl somewhere in the painting’s feeling?

From museum records, Beckett was actually mistaking this picture for Friedrich’s nearly-identical Zwei Männer in Betrachtung des Mondes (Two Men Observing the Moon, 1819) which shows two men, backs turned, looking at the moon, but which Beckett had actually seen in Dresden. A landscape is almost replaceable, at least in hindsight. Maybe that’s to the point. In the 1819 piece, the figure’s clothing looks more urban, as if the viewers are on a country retreat, or voyeurs of the bucolic. The pastoral mode of deliberate naïveté presupposes its audience, like its maker, as urban. Such works were generally neither for nor by the ‘naïve’ individual. The unease we feel when we look at the most basic landscapes arises when we struggle to reconcile our position – urban, complex, frustrated – with the given presentation – country, simple, bucolic. Such a contradiction was present from the start. The naive has always been the sentimental. The pastoral implies conflict. Jadedness and irony, while never present, are never too far off, either.

Pastoral urbanizes nature and naturalizes the urban. It’s no coincidence that the European countries with the richest traditions of pastoral sentimentality, the UK and Germany, were those where industrialization a couple of centuries ago was at its most ravenous. So tell me, Mr. TED man, what is local, today? ‘Real’ pastures have taken on the eerie tinge of artifice. The very word ‘local’ has itself begun to stale: a mere item on the depressing hotel menu, beside grass-fed beef and maple balsamic reduction. I read recently that when Disney opened up its Animal Kingdom in Florida, filled with actual gazelles and tigers, children complained that the animals were ‘not real enough’, preferring the studied animatronics of robot alligators and silicone teeth. Riding back from the museum, I think of the child’s fantasy of releasing all the animals from the zoo. But what would the real animals do once the gates were open, besides lick their paws and stay in their cages?

Pablo Larios is an editor and writer. He lives in Berlin, Germany.