Meindert Peters, New College, Oxford
How is your interior treating you? Is it helping you in your tasks, or being a tad recalcitrant? Is everything just where you would like it – however messy you might like it – or is everything asking for attention, standing in your way? Right now, we are all more or less stuck at a home amongst stuff. Whether you just Marie Kondo’d your apartment or are a hoarder; whether the cleaner still comes twice a week, or your kitchen bears the traces of what you ate last week: stuff is there. If you are lucky, the stuff is yours, familiar, and comforting; if you are unlucky you live with someone else’s stuff, design choices, or lack thereof.
German modernists were fascinated by objects and how they can support or inhibit our tasks. Modernist thinker Martin Heidegger famously explored the ‘ready-to-hand’, the transparent tools of everyday use that help us along in our daily activities, stuff we can count on to be there when we need it and lies dormant to our attention when we do not. Stuff which fits our hand like a glove, familiar stuff. But equally exciting, for me at least, is the other stuff, the ‘un-ready-to-hand’. The obtrusive and recalcitrant stuff. The stuff that throws you back onto yourself and makes you reflect on your activities and tasks. The stuff that makes you ask: ‘what am I trying to do?’; or, ‘why is this not working?’
Heidegger recognizes three of such kinds of breakdowns of daily activities, of the unready-to-hand. The pen that you want to use to write something down, but that is out of ink; the broken tools he calls ‘conspicuous’. There is the corkscrew that you cannot find while the bottle of wines – and your guests – are asking for one. Not so much the corkscrew but the unusable bottles become irritating. Heidegger calls this their ‘obtrusiveness’. Perhaps the most irritating of these three is the stuff that is in the way, the stuff that reminds us of what we still need to do. It is the work that we have not yet done. Heidegger calls this the ‘conspicuous’.
What is missing from this analysis, however, seems to me the most irritating, namely the stuff that is in your way but that you cannot do anything about, or at least does not feel like your responsibility. Your partner’s stuff that you trip over, or the delays in public transport. If, as Sartre writes, Heidegger usually thinks not in individuals but in crews, here his analysis seems to discount shared responsibility, and how irritating the lack thereof can be.
Malte, Rainer Maria Rilke’s avatar in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), equally describes stuff as distracting and/or recalcitrant. Unable to write in his claustrophobic apartment in Paris – who can relate? – the fallen aristocrat is distracted by the repeated noise of a tin lid dropping on the floor in the neighbouring apartment. But it is not a careless neighbour who is responsible. No one even lives in that apartment. The tin lid has become recalcitrant, seemingly all by itself. Or, perhaps, Malte is at fault. He understands the lid’s recalcitrance, he writes in one of his entries, because if people barely fit their occupations properly, why would a lid want to, literally, stay on top of its everyday tasks? For the fallen aristocrat at the dawn of the twentieth century, the use of people has been muddied as much as the use of things. But the lid is not just a mirror of Malte’s own lack of purpose: it also shows that objects only have use to an agent. The tin lid’s recalcitrance is a sign of Malte’s lack of agency. He does not know where to order it in his way of life. The lid is recalcitrant because Malte is distracted, not the other way around.
Walter Benjamin was equally interested in how to deal with objects and discussed unchosen, unfamiliar, interiors with Bertold Brecht. Although they discussed this in the South of France, the topic of unfamiliar habitations, as Ursula Marx argues, was a common topic in Germany because the crises of the 1920s and 30s forced many people to come up with new ways of living. The re-tracing of marks left on bourgeois ‘Intérieurs’ is indeed a recurring topic in Benjamin’s work. Brecht and he, as Benjamin’s diary entry shows, discussed how to deal with such furniture. Brecht, as Benjamin recounts it, said he had two ways of habitating. Either he shaped his environment in such a way as he wished it to be, so that he would be at home in it, or he behaved like a guest, taking no responsibility for the interior. Benjamin, who did not commit so personally to the two further ways of habitating he brought forward, suggested that one could either become slave to the habitual activities that objects demand (how, Benjamin believes, landladies like you to behave) or take no heed of the behaviour the furniture is meant to elicit and just wear it out with your own use (a.k.a. the bad lodger). Notice that for Benjamin the interior seems to especially elicit a social pressure, to which you either cave or which you resist. But there is no way of negotiating the history of objects with your own wishes.
Some of the female characters and women writers of the period in Germany seem to eye-roll their way through all that male theorising — when, after all, had the world ever really worked for them? They deal with their environments practically, no matter how contrarian. Mieze’s cute interior in Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) is her little refuge from an otherwise hostile, male world; if outside she does what she needs to do to make money (she works as a prostitute), it is her interior that seems to embody her real wishes – ‘clean and tidy, with flowers and ribbons and knick-knacks’. Irmgard Keun’s and Vicki Baum’s novels are filled with so-called ‘new women’, self-sufficient, modern women with jobs and pragmatic attitudes. ‘Hoppa!’, a cold shower (the very opposite of a hospitable ‘object’) and the world awaits. Even when in Keun’s Gilgi (1931) the cruel, male-dominated world intrudes — a charming man, a drunken night, abortion illegal — the titular character does not retreat into self-reflection as Malte does but makes the best of a bad situation.
In our times of the Coronavirus crisis, the outside world may seem especially inhospitable for our normal lives. ‘Just doing it’ indeed seems, at least to me, out of the question. Nevertheless, we may at least attempt to create a personal environment which is supportive rather than recalcitrant.
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962), para. 15.
Ibid., para. 16.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness : An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans. by Hazel E. Barnes (London: Taylor & Francis, 2005), p. 246.
Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, trans. by Robert Vilain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 102ff.
Ibid., p. 105.
Ursula Marx, ‘Von Gästen und Vandalen: Eine Typologie des Wohnens’, in Benjamin und Brecht: Denken in Extremen, ed. by Erdmut Wizisla and Akademie der Künste (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2017), p. 49.
E.g. Walter Benjamin, Einbahnstraße, ed. by Detlev Schöttker and Steffen Haug, Werke und Nachlaß: Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2009), viii, p. 111; Walter Benjamin, ‘Erfahrung und Armut’, in Gesammelte Schriften, ed. by Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1991), II.1, pp. 217–18.
Walter Benjamin, ‘8 June 1931’, in Benjamin und Brecht: Denken in Extremen, ed. by Erdmut Wizisla and Akademie der Künste (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2017), p. 47 (p. 47).
Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz, trans. by Michael Hofmann (London: Penguin Classics, 2018), p. 245.
For more on the so-called ‘new woman’ in the German 1920s, see Elizabeth Boa, ‘Women Writers in the “Golden” Twenties’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Modern German Novel, ed. by Graham Bartram (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004); see, for example, Irmgard Keun, Gilgi, One of Us, trans. by Geoff Wilkes (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2019); Irmgard Keun, The Artificial Silk Girl, trans. by Kathie Von Ankum (New York: Other Press, 2002); Vicki Baum, Grand Hotel, trans. by Basil Creighton (New York: New York Review Books, 2016).
Keun, Gilgi, One of Us.