My Red Heaven
by Lance Olsen
10 June 1927
Walter Benjamin, in bed with Asja Lacis on this day, or at least remembering that erotic encounter on this day, or perhaps it is the narrator gathering events and thoughts on this day – in any case, Benjamin thinks that “Writing about a given place at a given time puts its existence between quotation marks, plucks it from its native context by engendering unanticipated new ones. This is collage’s capacity, through cutting up and cutting off, to open up and ou—”
Cutting up / cutting ou‑ is a leitmotif in Lance Olsen’s vibrant new novel. The novel draws its name from Otto Freundlich’s painting “My Red Heaven” and Olsen’s reading of the abstract work structures his book: underpainting / value study / reds / grays : greens : whites : blues / blacks.
While Olsen’s novel moves from the reds to the blacks (and to a final gathering darkness), Freundlich’s hope for “a new man in a kind of cosmic communism” likely led him to see the painting as a collectivist opening up, opening out, culminating in his red heaven. (See Julia Friedrich’s essay “Abstraction as Opening Up” in her edited book Otto Freundlich: Cosmic Communism.)
Benjamin’s speculations about narrative form in this novel about narrative form continue: “Suppose you began to regard the essay you are writing not as a piece of music that must move from first note to last, but rather as a building you could approach from various sides, navigate along various paths, one in which perspective continually changes. This building, we might submit, would constitute a literary architectonics that pits itself against narrative’s seemingly inflexible arc from birth to curtains.”
Navigating various perspectival paths, connected by proximity in the manner of collage, Otto Dix, Anita Berber, Adolf Hitler, Hannah Höch, Hannah Arendt, Joseph Goebbels, Dora Diamant, Franz Kafka, Walter Gropius, Bertolt Brecht, Magnus Hirschfeld, Billie Wilder, Werner Heisenberg, Rosa Luxemburg, Käthe Kollwitz, Greta Garbo, Ludwig Wittgenstein and various other famous and fictional characters populate these pages over the course of the day, their thoughts and memories reaching into the past and future, cutting up and opening up the seemingly inflexible arc that traditional narratives share.
Like John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, My Red Heaven features newsreels to provide historical context: GERMAN CRUISERS TO THE RESCUE, Warships battle ice to aid imprisoned vessels! . . . JAPS “FEED GODS” IN WEIRD FESTIVAL.
Berlin is the setting for the novel, inviting comparisons with several German modernist works. Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, for instance, is a geographical and psychological exploration of the place and the time. George Salter designed the book cover and dustjacket for the first edition, a visual suggestion of the profusion that lies within.
Walter Ruttmann’s 1926 documentary silent film Berlin, die Sinphonie einer Großstadt, brings viewers into the city with a train whose lines and angles and motion approach the abstractions of Ruttmann’s earlier experimental films.
Hannah Höch’s collage, “Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany” (1919), is a third modernist work whose form and content explore the possibilities of contemporary Berlin. Höch’s cast of characters, connected only by their placement on the page and their participation in a cultural epoch, includes Albert Einstein, Kaiser Wilhelm, Käthe Kollwitz, Lenin, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch herself, and many more.
Revisiting Weimar experiments, Olsen’s My Red Heaven employs various typefaces and textual alignments to distinguish between screenplays and conversations and impending car wrecks and DADAist speculations and numbered intellectual peregrinations. Ominously titled dark photographs of interior ruins appear near the book’s end, adding to the impending darkness: [[ mother eating her own uterus ]], [[ we have come loose from ourselves ]]. And on the final pages the text twists and accumulates to approach a black totality.
The novel’s characters come and go in vignettes: Otto Dix positions a drugged-out Anita Berber on his bed to paint her; Vladimir Nabokov reads Andrei Bely’s Petersburg while remembering his father; Billie Wilder “can’t get enough of the thrilling confusion” every time he lifts the skirt of his transgender prostitute; and Greta Garbo and Emil Jannings converse in a shared hotel room. In one delightful scene, an unidentified woman and man gathering mushrooms come across a young couple having sex. Later, in their hotel room, the mushroom gatherers turn out to be Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. The two philosophers talk about language and how its structures lead to different ways of being in the world. Arendt says that the German language has a structure that “evolved to moderate its users. Our language settles.” Heidegger remembers “our pair back there? They didn’t seem very settled to me.” Arendt responds: “They weren’t using German, schnucki. They were using their fingers and lips to talk with each other. This is sometimes referred to as having fun.”
Austrian novelist Robert Musil, walking through Berlin’s Tiergarten in another scene, continues the theme of a life rich beyond language, beyond the mind. He “believes more than anything (taking a deep breath of candied night air flowing into the city from the west) it isn’t we who do the thinking. It is life that does the thinking all around us. Let life think. Let morality be a profusion of life’s possibilities.” That’s exactly the stuff of this novel: a fragrant and fraught profusion of life’s possibilities on this day in this Berlin.
The possibilities Olsen has gathered comprise a sketch of narrative possibilities. The disjointed, open, architectonic fragments the novel celebrates compete with the ominous rhetoric Rilke praises in a letter to Walter Benjamin: “Mussolini’s New Year’s Eve speech. What soaring language! What lustrous discourse! Fascism, our great healing agent!” Mussolini’s fellow Fascists Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler fly into Berlin early in the novel and fly out again as the day ends, talking about crowds and power, proposing symbolic gestures and manly fonts: “Goebbels talked nonstop about various typographical changes he wanted made to his newspaper, Der Angriff, whose first issue appears next week. . . .” At rally for a Brownshirt killed in a skirmish with Communists, Goebbels “vowed an end to oppression by the exploiters and rejuvenation of the Germanic nations. You could feel the bystanders spark with outrage and purpose.” Driving back from the rally, Goebbels returns to the newspaper: “May I ask you your thoughts on Grobe Deutschmeister? It feels quite a manly font to me. Does it feel quite manly to you?”
Der Angriff, first published on July 4, 1927, indeed featured the manly font and by 1933 it could announce Hitler’s ascension to the office of Reichskanzler in soaring rhetoric: “Get out the Flags!”
What was it that needed the healing balm of Fascism’s “lustrous rhetoric”? Every cut up, opened up, opened ou— “depraved degeneracy” the democratic freedoms of the Weimar Republic had allowed to flourish. Anita Berber. Otto Dix. Billie Wilder. Magnus Hirschfeld. Rosa Luxemburg. Bertolt Brecht. The Communist architects of the Bauhaus. The troubled modernist, homosexual, pacifist, Jewish, psychologically experimental writers and artists whose books were burned and whose works were displayed in the 1937 Munich exhibit of “Degenerate Art.” A photo of Otto Freundlich’s sculpture of “The New Man,” by the way, was featured on the cover of the exhibition guide for “Degenerate Art.”
Leni Riefenstahl knew exactly what medicine was called for: “Triumph of the Will.” Her film of the Nazi Party rally in Nurnberg in 1934 reminds viewers of a shameful past and in successive headlines promises to Make Germany Great Again:
On the 5th of September 1934
20 Years After the Outbreak of the World War
16 Years After the Beginning of Germany’s Suffering
19 Months After the Beginning of Germany’s Rebirth
Adolf Hitler flies to Nuremberg to review troops and those true to him
The music is inspiring. The straight lines of marching soldiers go on forever. Crowds of adoring citizens lift their arms and shout “Sieg Heil.” A parade of Nazi leaders extols the greatness of Germany and its people.
One. Just one. No cut ups. No cut outs. No degenerate multiplicity. ONE. This narrative arc moves from loss to victory. And it will surely MAKE GERMANY GREAT AGAIN.
At the end of My Red Heaven, in an airplane carrying Nazi leaders out of Berlin,
“One of the passengers briefly comes awake as the plane banks, gaining altitude. He squints down, gratified, at Berlin receding below, canals and boulevards and housing blocks blackening into forests and lakes, and reaches over to pat his comrade on the wrist. Don’t worry, Joseph, he says, Don’t worry at all. I can feel it. Everything’s going to be all—”
This final paragraph slants down the page, finds its way onto the next page, multiplies to form a swastika of sorts, gathers on the next page into increasing darkness, regathers heavy, thick, and blinding black, and sputters out on the final page with a final all—.
We assume the speaker (perhaps it is Hitler) is telling Joseph (Goebbels) everything is going to be all right. But the last word is “all,” and in a book about liberating and totalizing narrative, we rethink the possibility.
Everything was possible in the Weimar Republic.
Everything will soon be ALL under the Nazis.
Freundlich’s painting, read from top to bottom, leaves the red heaven to descend into blackness. Everything is going to be all—