Monday, April 13, 2009

Ghosts of Berlin through Chapter 2

Considering we’ve already had the discussion on The Ghosts of Berlin, this post is a little dated. The nice part though, is that I can reflect on both my reading of the book as well as what the class had to say about it.

After thinking about the book for the past couple weeks, perhaps the most interesting aspect of it isn’t even located within its pages. The title, The Ghosts of Berlin, is clear, simple, though perhaps not entirely direct. What are the ghosts? Are we meant to take them to be the ruined buildings on the cover? Are they persons who once inhabited Berlin, or ruled Berlin? Are they friendly or menacing? These ghosts are both German history and the Berlin landscape. In Berlin, as in all places, the landscape is linked with the history. But in Berlin, unlike other cities, the landscape is linked with the troubles of German history that manifest themselves in Berlin. Other cities in Germany have their events, but only in Berlin do all of the events of German history converge and coagulate.

Even in most recent history, Berlin was symbolized by the Berlin Wall, and as Ladd points out in many ways still is. One of the most striking passages in the book is where he discusses semiotics, where the Wall has become the signifier of Berlin. The Wall was Berlin. A question I posed in class and still wonder about is: If the Wall was the signifier of Berlin, what happened when it ceased to exist? Part of this is historical, but a large part of the answer is psychological. When the signifier loses its power, or when it disappears altogether, what does that mean for the signified? And, when the signified is a city with a population, what does it mean for that population that has lost its signification? What is now the signifier of Berlin?

The class in general seemed to really latch on to the fact that the Wall was built in a day, separating the two halves of the city over night and ramparting it in the daylight of August 16, 1961. This fact could provide a descent counter to the popular maxim, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” “No, but the Berlin Wall was.” It altered the cityscape profoundly over that 24 hour period. it established the East-West divide that still exists as the “wall in the mind” phenomena. According to Ladd, the only thing the two sides could agree on was that “the Wall was a temporal barrier, dividing past from present, and that the other side harbored the unredeemed heirs of Hitler” (23). How is a people supposed to reconcile these feelings when that barrier comes down? Can they ever be erased as long as there are memories of it?

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