This piece was written as an entry for the Goethe-Institut Boston Stipendium contest, for which I was awarded a scholarship to study German in Germany. The pieces referenced can be found at Grand Dessein and Full Bleed: The Crisis Issue. Many thanks to the Goethe-Institut Boston for this incredible opportunity!
“Shall I never lead any but an inner life?” asks the painter Paul Klee in his celebrated The Diaries of Paul Klee. Klee, obsessed with art and music, had an equally vibrant (and fraught) inner life of letters and conversations with himself. Like many, I became captivated with the life and work of Klee first through his paintings and then through his writings. I am not a visual artist, but I am a writer of poetry and prose. Though my primary profession is teaching, I consider myself an artist and a writer first. I was struck by Klee’s exclamation about his inner life (along with many other stunning phrases that pepper his diary entries) because as a writer I often feel like my life is lived internally, inside my mind, and in continual conversations with myself. After reading his diaries I began studying Klee with dedication, rereading his diaries, creating an artist book out of his diaries and sketches (the picture above is from the artist book), publishing a hybrid lyrical-visual essay on Klee’s diaries and my experience as a reader of his text (images to the right and below); and presenting at a symposium at The Phillips Collection museum in Washington, DC about the impact of Klee on contemporary artists and writers. Last summer I was fortunate enough to visit the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland, and to research Klee’s writing.
At the Zentrum I learned that Klee is also known and celebrated not just for his prose writing (his diaries and the Bauhaus notebooks) but also as a modernist poet. In his earliest diary entries Klee aspires to be a poet and includes a few snippets of his own verse but he ultimately channels his energy into music and painting. His actual book of poems, titled Gedichte, has been published in several editions in Germany. It is more difficult to acquire the German-language editions and even more difficult to access unpublished entries—they can only be accessed through the Zentrum’s archives and they only exist in German. I was surprised to learn that some of the English versions of Klee’s writings (such as The Thinking Eye) don’t resemble Paul Klee’s original writings. The Thinking Eye is presented to an English-speaking audience as definitive, when in fact it has been heavily arranged and edited by Jürg Spiller. But this is the case with most of Klee’s published writings—his diaries were edited by his son Felix, the book of poems was published posthumously and was also edited by Felix, and Jürg Spiller edited and arranged Klee’s notes. Because the only English translation that exists is a translation of Spiller’s version, as an English speaker I have no access to how Klee actually chose to present and arrange his notes. It’s hard to say that any text can hold a definitive truth, but I know it’s recommended that one read the original language works if possible. Similarly, all of Klee’s handwritten notes, marginalia, and other ephemera are all in German. I have wanted to know, for example, what notes Klee might have scribbled in the books he read, as his personal library is part of the Zentrum archives.
The question asks that I discuss what German means to me: It means possibility, knowledge, and access. It means the ability to speak, read, and understand one of the world’s greatest languages in which some of the most important texts were written. It means being able to participate in the conversations Klee might have had with the books he read, the notes he took, the lectures he wrote. We are so fortunate that Klee was organized and obsessive in keeping track of his notes and ledgers, though for now they remain indecipherable to me. My long-term goal is to work with the Zentrum Paul Klee in preparing and publishing the first English-language translation of Klee’s Gedichte with a critical introduction that introduces Klee’s poems to an Anglophone audience. Even though English is a language that one can use to navigate the entire world, including Germany and Switzerland, I do not expect that the world is thus entirely open to me. I believe in learning languages because it is a responsible thing to do if one intends to spend time with a country’s culture, its writings, and the nuances of its thought. As a writer, I also just love language—the sounds and textures. I am quite interested in Klee’s work (and of course, the Bauhaus) and it feels necessary and important to honor those texts in their original languages and to do my best to learn the language. I have only just begun taking German through the Goethe Institut, but already I can sense things starting to click. Fortunately I am on leave from teaching during the fall and would love the opportunity to study in Germany.