Tonight’s the new moon, tomorrow’s the equinox.
Try to picture him, Gusto, “precursor and stimulator of all the Inflation saints,” on the roads of pre-First World War Europe, in a cut-out tunic and rope sandals and a poncho of his own design, sleeping in roadside chapels and saints’ niches and caves, eating windfall fruit and begging bread and seeking a way of life based on Bedürfnislosigkeit, demandlessness, needlessness, modesty of life, to live without taking. In 1907, he turns up in Berlin, where he recites poetry and dances his model of history. It falls into three periods: “Uru,” before we made fire and became slaves to technology; “Zwing,” most of history – schools, armies, compulsion; and the future, when grass grows over the cities and the dance is restored.
In Ascona, Switzerland, on Lago Maggiore, his home was two slabs of rock with a few boards on the ground on which to lie, and a trough into which to throw fruit pits. His brother Karl (whose slogan was Ohne Zwang, without coercion) built a house without metal – no mines or miners, no coal or foundries or armament factories. Jenny Hofmann, their fellow-traveler, wore date stones instead of buttons on her handmade clothes.
I’m fascinated with trying to understand everything around the War and the hyperinflation – the utter unmooring of the received logic of daily life, and what people did in response. The arbitrariness: a sudden order to an active section of the front lines meant almost certain death, while others worked in stupefying boredom on the supply lines. Inflation wiped out patient, careful savings overnight while lucky speculators became almost unimaginably rich in a matter of weeks or months. Youthful bravery, ardent patriotism, and bourgeois prudence became terrible liabilities. The inflation worked like Brechtian theater, cutting through illusory identification and laying bare the organizing structures of modern life. All close relations, as Walter Benjamin said, are put under brutally bright lights: who’s really in charge, who’s suffering, who’s dependent, who’s got money? People experienced “naked want,” nacktes Elend, in both senses, with the shame and the humiliation attendant – and the desire for what’s actually real, reliable, the “flight into real values” from that terrible exposure.
(Black coffee, morphine, horse-lung soup, burning newspapers and banknotes and wallpaper in freezing rooms, the infiltration of money into every aspect of life no matter how intimate.)
The “inflation saints” were already around, but the crisis brought them forward: what could be more “real” than human company, festivity, bad weather and good, walking through the countryside, gleaning from harvested fields, baking peasant bread and making your own clothes? What if the route out of the hopelessly traumatized modern moment was just – out? They became their own subculture (there was a congress of professional vagabonds in Stuttgart in May 1929). Gräser was the saint among saints, even as his life became harder: sleeping rough, in late middle age and in midwinter, cold and hungry. (Old age is not kind to the fox.) With his poncho and woven headband, his long beard and way of gentle refusal, whole grains and sandals, the covered wagon he built slowly morphing into a camper van or a slab of egg-crate foam in the back of a pickup truck, Gräser invented the milieu of my Californian childhood, and in some ways seems more contemporary than ever.
White Lies, “Death” (MP3)
This song is everything that was wonderful about being seventeen. (You might recognize it from the best Iranian-Californian vampire/western/noir love story that’s also about heroin and oil EVER MADE, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. Recommended!) Put it on, dance around, it’ll be spring soon.
The autobiography (yes, autobiography) of, well: The Story of My Life, By the Submarine Telegraph (1859). “Mine has been a short but most eventful career …”
Thanks for reading, as ever.
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