Favourite Readings 2020 – Reading in 2020

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Lori Gottlieb, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (Scribe Publications 2019)

Irvin D. Yalom, Becoming Myself: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir(Basic Books 2017)

Marion Brasch, Ab jetzt ist Ruhe. Roman meiner fabelhaften Familie (S. Fischer 2012)

Lutz Sailer, Stern 111 (Suhrkamp 2020)

Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century. Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times (Verso 1994, 2ndedition 2010 with a new postscript)

Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press 2016)

Julia Voss, Hilma af Klint. Die Menschheit in Erstaunen versetzen (S. Fischer 2020)

Anton C. Meier, Emma Kunz. Forscherin, Naturheilpraktikerin, Künstlerin (Emma Kunz Zentrum 1993)

As in previous years, EJIL’s Review section, has invited EJIL board members and (associate) editors to offer short reflections on their favourite books of the year 200. No strict rules apply — the posts are meant to introduce books that left an impression, irrespective of their genre. Today we have selections from Isabel Feichtner. You can read all the posts in this series here


Bleiben, wo ich nie gewesen bin

Was ich habe, will ich nicht verlieren, aber / wo ich bin, will ich nicht bleiben, aber / die ich liebe, will ich nicht verlassen, aber / die ich kenne, will ich nicht mehr sehen, aber / wo ich lebe, da will ich nicht sterben, aber / wo ich sterbe, da will ich nicht hin: / Bleiben will ich, wo ich nie gewesen bin.

What I have, I do not want to lose, but / where I am, I do not want to stay, but / those I love, I do not want to leave, but / those I know, I no longer want to see, but / where I live, I do not want to die, but / where I die, I do not want to go: / Stay I want, where I have never been.

Thomas Brasch, „Die nennen das Schrei“. Gesammelte Gedichte (Suhrkamp 2013)

I read 10000 tweets this year. About inequality, racism, antisemitism, burning refugee camps, fantastic books and brilliant colleagues, MMT, degrowth and doughnut economics, covidiots and conspiracy theorists, what works in online teaching and what not. Many led to further reading – of papers, journal articles, blogposts; to purchases and downloads of books, some of which I read in part, some just piling up and weighing me down. When I was not staring out of the window, listening to corona virus updates, being on zoom, doing yoga, baking bread, watching a doctors series to relax or trying to write, which did not go so well despite a sabbatical for half the year – I read. My head rings from all this sheepish reading. But before I log off for the holidays and hopefully some days beyond – for some realreading – I try to remember the books that caught my attention sufficiently so I did not get distracted by the next best tweet to read. 

Lori Gottlieb, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (Scribe Publications 2019); Irvin D. Yalom, Becoming Myself: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir (Basic Books 2017)

At the beginning of 2020, a good-read recommendation by a colleague seemed like the ideal post-Christmas and New Year’s reading. In “Maybe you should talk to someone” psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb gives the reader access to recurring sessions with several of her patients. The reader bears witness to the evolving therapist-patient relationships, the patients’ progress or lack thereof as well as Gottlieb’s reflections on her approach to therapy and feelings towards her patients. Interwoven with the successive reports on each “case” is the story of the author’s own therapy, prompted by a breakup and deep-seated worries about a book she believes she needs to write but does not make progress on. For me who has a (superficial) interest in psychotherapy, voyeuristic curiosity about how others navigate their lives, fears and insecurities (and struggles with writing) this book was a real page turner. It also provided insights into the craft and power of therapy and reassurance as to the ability of words, stories and human interaction to reinterpret the past and shape the future.

In summer I could follow up with Irvin Yalom’s “A Psychiatrist’s Memoir” which my mother gave me for my birthday. At the age of 87 Yalom revisits his childhood as the son of Jewish immigrants in Washington DC, the discrimination he had to overcome to be admitted as a student of medicine at George Washington Medical School. The book further is the story of an enduring marital relationship between two successful academics, an account of the author’s professional formation, including descriptions of therapeutical and didactical methods Yalom developed, as well as a reflection on writing – scientific as well as fictional. My attention was captured in particular by the subjects of group therapy/self-awareness groups and mentorship. Early in the book the author recounts a session with a successful physicist whose main grievance, despite his academic acclaim, is that he did not have an experienced mentor to guide him in his academic pursuits. Yalom shares this grievance, yet, later in the book expresses the revelation that he did have many mentors, but only in hindsight recognizes them as such. These reflections on mentorship seem to have appeased my own preoccupations in this respect. By itself not the most memorable of books, it nonetheless affected the course of my remaining year. Intrigued by Yalom’s detailed account of the writing process, I read his bestseller “When Nietzsche Wept” (which Sarah had recommended last year). This led to a visit at the refurbished Freud museum in Vienna and shaped my encounters this autumn and winter with Nietzsche’s ghost in Sils Maria.

Marion Brasch, Ab jetzt ist Ruhe. Roman meiner fabelhaften Familie (S. Fischer 2012); Lutz Sailer, Stern 111 (Suhrkamp 2020)

This was not a year of many novels for me. Yet, these two captured my distracted mind. Both are autobiographical novels, written by authors who came of age in the German Democratic Republic, and both deal with the marks that the disappointed dreams of parents leave on their children’s lives. I had not heard of Marion Brasch before, but I like the poems of her brother Thomas Brasch. Marion Brasch, born in 1961, tells the story of a daughter and a sister. She tells the story of the daughter of a Jewish emigrant who returned to Germany after World War II to become a high party functionary in the GDR and who – after his son Thomas was arrested, with the help of his father, for distributing flyers against the Soviet invasion in Prague 1968, and later left the GDR for West Berlin – fell somewhat in disfavour with but never became illoyal to his party. She tells the story of a younger sister to three gifted brothers, apart from Thomas Brasch, Klaus Brasch, an actor, and Peter Brasch, also an author, all of whom committed suicide (or died of overdoses).

“Stern 111” by Lutz Sailer, which received this year’s Leipzig Book Fair Prize, is a book about parents who after the fall of the wall seek to realize the dream they had boxed for several decades, but never fully buried after a first unsuccessful attempt to leave the GDR and pursue a life and musical career in the United States. It is also a book about a disoriented son who listlessly drifts through Berlin and is taken in by a community of East German squatters. Apart from sensitively narrating the story of his parents and the son’s attempts to make sense of their sudden departure (first to West Germany to earn money and then to the United States) this novel masterfully brings to life the atmosphere of the early post Wende years. I came to Berlin only a bit later and as a West German student. Still this novel brought back many memories and sensations of squatted apartments, the greyness, cold, and coal ovens of East Berlin, the many self-declared artists and poets, but most importantly the simultaneous playfulness and seriousness of this Berlin and the sense of new possibilities. While I am romanticizing here a place and communities I always only was an outsider to, the book’s protagonist – also remaining mostly an observer – does not.

Reading these novels made me want to revisit other accounts of life in the GDR that I read and enjoyed in the past, like the novel and diaries of Brigitte Reimann, her exchange of letters with Christa Wolf, Maxie Wander’s portraits of women in the GDR. I believe there is a lot to learn from these writings in which questions how to live a good life, which society to live it in, which responsibility and possibilities people have to collectively shape society are always present, while at the same time they preclude easy truths and answers.

Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century. Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times; Haraway, Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene

This year I finally read Arrighi’s “The Long Twentieth Century” and thus could add another piece to the infinite puzzle of trying to understand capitalism. Arrighi paints with a broad brush, identifying patterns and changes – building on Fernand Braudel – in four systemic cycles of capitalist accumulation from the Genoese in the 15th century via the Dutch and the British to the fourth US cycle that came to an end in the 21st century.  Arrighi can locate the rise of capitalism in the city states of Northern Italy as to him the defining feature is not a particular mode of production, but the pursuit of profit as an end in itself. I am sure much can be contested in Arrighi’s analysis, yet I find it invaluable for the orientation and systematization his “big picture” provides; the particular attention it pays to the role of states and the global flows of finance. The book serves as an important caution against simplifying accounts and juxtapositions of “the market” and “the state”, “the private” and “the public”. In the postscript that Arrighi added in 2009 to the 2ndedition, he objects to readings of his book as making an argument of historical necessity – as depicting the history of capitalism as the eternal return of the same. He does point to contingencies, to differences in agencies, strategies and structures of the successive cycles, to evolutionary patterns such as the shortening of each cycle and the increase in power of the leading governmental organizations, as well as the power of social movements to affect transitions in capitalism. Nonetheless, his outlook on the current transition to a new cycle is rather bleak. According to Arrighi two major obstacles may stand in the way of “a non-catastrophic transition to a more equitable  world order” (at 383) – one being US (military) resistance to adjustment and accommodation to the loss of its hegemonic role (to China), the other being the failure to fundamentally depart “from the socially and ecologically unsustainable path of Western development” (ibid.).

The social and ecological destructiveness of our current social organizations is the point of departure of Haraway’s “Staying with the Trouble”, the “work book” that gave me some hope this year for a less destructive more cooperative future. The final impulse to pick it up, came from the equally inspiring virtual opening of the exhibition “Critical Zones – Observatories for Earthly Politics”, curated by Bruno Latour, Peter Weibel, Martin Guinard and Bettina Korintenberg at the ZKM (center for art and media) Karlsruhe in May this year (when I was not yet tired of online events) that featured two eye-opening films: “Storytelling for Earthly Survival”  by Fabrizio Terranova on Donna Haraway and “Lynn Margulis: Life, Symbiosis, and Gaia” by Bruce Clark. The biologist Lynn Margulis who studied bacteria and symbiosis in evolution also figures prominently in Haraway’s book that is a refusal to give in to apocalyptic resignation and instead calls for other stories to tell stories with and other concepts to think concepts with. The stories Haraway tells are informed by structuralist critiques of capitalism and imperialism, yet focus on entanglements and relations between humans and other “critters” and how these may be recognized, transformed and strengthened. The book’s slogan “Make kin not babies!” for me took on further significance during the pandemic’s social distancing when my twitter feed evidenced latently aggressive exchanges on pandemic-burden-bearing between academic twitterers with children and those without and when the newest German pandemic regulation limited Christmas get-togethers along ascending and descending family lines. If only we knew how to make kin, such categories might lose their significance and living and dying during a pandemic might become a less lonely affair. The book moreover deeply impressed me for the central place it accords to collaboration, also in research. Throughout the book, Haraway recounts collaborative research processes and acknowledges her debt to others and their joint collective endeavors. It made me long even more for academic collaborations bringing joy and satisfaction more sustainable than the kick one may get from inflationary twitter praise.

Voss, Hilma af Klint. “Die Menschheit in Erstaunen versetzen”; Anton C. Meier, Emma Kunz. Forscherin, Naturheilpraktikerin, Künstlerin

In my exhaustion from all the doubting how to live and work well, the Nietzsche House in Sils Maria became a refuge. A refuge full of books, ghosts and new and inspiring encounters. Walking and talking about Nietzsche led to more talking about anthroposophy and spirituality and my desire to read Julia Voss’ biography of Hilma af Klint whose paintings I had first seen exhibited 2018 at the Guggenheim. While I had enjoyed the colourful paintings, I was even more intrigued by their genesis. Many of Hilma af Klint’s paintings were not painted by, but through her, the painter following invitations and instructions received from higher powers, initially during séances conducted with closed circles of women friends.

While the Swedish painter (1862-1944) left thousands of pages of notes, they mainly include messages from the spirits and reveal rather little about the painter’s relationships, convictions, worries. Julia Voss therefore concentrates on contextualizing and situating Hilma af Klint’s art, her spirituality and significant life choices within societal, political and scientific developments of her time. Yet, she refuses to invoke sociological explanations for af Klint’s spirituality, such as the desire for self-determination or the legitimation of same-sex relationships. Voss takes seriously af Klints self-understanding as artist, healer and seer who together with close women friends sought to foster reconnections with the living spirit of creation, stones, plants and animals ( at 467) and to reveal this spirit to the world through art.

Af Klint did not seek to sell her paintings, but had clear ideas about how they should be presented including plans for the building of a temple for their exhibition. Her attempts to interest Rudolf Steiner for her paintings remained without success. Voss’ book is one of an increasing number of projects to rewrite the history of (spiritual) abstract painting to give due regard to the contributions of female artists.

Another artist, healer and seer often mentioned together with Hilma af Klint (and the British painter and spiritualist Georgina Houghton), is Emma Kunz (1892-1963). A first impression of her healing practice and art – large and powerful drawings guided by a pendulum – can be gained from Anton Meier’s biographical sketch. Anton Meier when a child was healed through Emma Kunz and as an adult founded the Emma Kunz Zentrum in Switzerland for the exhibition and continuation of her work.

The turn to spirituality in crisis is not exceptional. And while it is important to caution against instrumentalizations (Voss, for example, dedicates a chapter to the connections between national socialism and spiritualist circles and movements) I am troubled by a tendency in today’s discourses to dismiss spiritualism as potentially dangerous and undermining constitutional foundations of society – often by the same people who acknowledge the need for radical transformation. I for one am convinced, with af Klint and Kunz, that we need to reconnect with the spiritual world. And that does not mean that I refuse to wear my mask.

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