Writ in Water. Reading "Die Ostsee"
“Here lies one whose name was writ in water” reads the epitaph on John Keats’s tombstone. This English Romantic poet knew he was dying at twenty-five, too soon for immortality, hence doomed to be washed away and forgotten.
But what if water does not stand for oblivion but is the very elixir of life, the way seas are. Writing in water, like writing on any washable surface, is the art of trying ever different takes on things. Think of that infinitely renewable surface of black- or whiteboard in the classroom. You wipe it clean with a sponge and it is ever ready to teach you new things — a clean slate, a tabula rasa. Klaus-Jürgen Liedtke, writer and translator, has put together a heavyweight anthology of texts from the last two thousand years related to the Baltic Sea. Die Ostsee [The Baltic Sea] provides legions of versions of life by this sea, and with a quote from Herder — who figures prominently in the book — it’s good to set out on this sea as something generic, above politics, an unnamed element:
“wie unsre Schiffahrt geht, ists nur überall Meer”.
[The way our ships sail, it’s the same sea all around]
Water, of course, is also something we use for baptism and rebaptizing. Places and things have been constantly named and renamed on and around the Baltic Sea, by residents, visitors, and intruders. Many political powers around this sea have enjoyed a period of greatness at some time in their history. As Max Fürst, a son of Königsberg, writes here of the sometime realm of Lithuania:
“Es scheint, dass Gott gerecht ist und jedem Volk einmal seine Geschichtsstunde gewährt hat, worauf dann ewige Ansprüche angemeldet werden.”
[It would seem that God is just and has granted each nation its hour of fame, for which claims are then made in perpetuity].
Most realms get a mere fifteen minutes of fame, yet some go on suffering from phantom pains.
Sweden was one of these powers, and a specifically Baltic one. From the peace of Westphalia up to the demise of Charles XII, and even beyond, Sweden liked to view the Baltic as its mare nostrum, a Swedish lake — der Ostsee? — and a Mediterranean of the north. And of course it smarts to give up a mare nostrum; it was painful for Rome once. Sweden, we know, didn’t renounce its claims to the city of Wismar until the early 20th century. Downsizing takes time.
Worldly powers wield their might over names too, and cities along the coast have changed their names as rulers have changed. Reading Die Ostsee there seems to be something particularly unstable about seas. They are such stuff as tall tales and sailor’s yarns are made of, everchanging, stormy or sedate, enthralling, unpredictable, capricious. All of this comes across in the book in stories about shipwrecks, near-shipwrecks, piloting ordeals, risky fishing expeditions, post-war extraditions, etc.
The Baltic Sea in Liedtke’s portrayal has a thousand faces; it is a wonder of relativity. It is even relative to the way you face it. In Germanic languages the Baltic is called the East Sea, as opposed presumably to the North Sea, which lies west of the East Sea, and lies to the south of, for instance, Norway. Norway thus faces south towards a north sea — but then again its name was the Anglo-Saxon way of referring to the way leading to the north. When Danes look west from Jutland they refer, with Danish gusto, to the North Sea as the West Sea. Estonians also talk about the West Sea (Läänemeri), but what they mean is the Baltic, the Baltic being their west sea. And there is no telling where their west sea meets with the Germanic east sea. The borders of the Baltic are writ in water; no limen is visible.
This recountal reminds us that names entail a perspective. In seafarers’ language, names are moored in historical change, as when Königsberg becomes Kaliningrad, or Stettin Szczecin, or Arensburg Kuressaare. Linguists have a category for this, they talk about deixis, or deictic words. A deictic is a digit, Greek for finger. Not only does it, like a finger, point in a certain direction, it also has a pointer, someone to whom this finger belongs. A deictic is always situated: its meaning is relative to the speaker’s time and space. Like today, tomorrow; here, there; you, they, these are fleeting, fickle words.
As I see it, shifting perspectives, the relativity of perspectives, is a propelling idea behind this book. That is how this shallow patch of water becomes such a deep source of texts about discovery and surprise, about seeing things anew. The median depth of the Baltic is fifty-five meters, slightly less than half the height of Rostock’s Petrikirche. It is neither deep nor vast, but is what oceanographers call a marginal sea. It gets its vastness from the multitude of experiences it has been subjected to. That is the very point about the title of Tomas Tranströmer’s long poem “Östersjöar” (Baltics), which features prominently in the book. This poem has long been found in all the languages of the Baltics — and then some — in the digital Baltic Sea Library (www.balticsealibrary.info). The same point is made in Liedtke’s preface to the book, which is headed “Ostseewelten”[Baltic Sea Worlds], a very audible plural.
Tranströmer’s Baltics poem veers between the Stockholm archipelago and Liepāja/Libau, and thus highlights a distance that is crucial to, indeed constitutive of, this sea’s history. The SSR of Latvia was virtually a world apart from Sweden; the Baltic Sea was split down the middle. It was, to a rare extent as far as small seas go, a politically divided entity, much like Berlin or Nikosia/Lefkoşa.
Being a contested area, it has always been an object of curiosity about the other borderers, plunderers, explorers, merchants, townbuilders, and statebuilders — curiosity about the Other, in short. And Die Ostsee is organized along this curiosity, this inquisitiveness. It feeds on it. Its sections come in the following sequence: Arrival and departure, Real and invented voyages, Histories and battles, Close by the water, Cities by the sea, Provinces, Islands and peripheries. This organization in itself guides the reader into looking at the contents in a certain way. National anthologies usually take the easy way out, proceeding historically, serially, ticking off currents and tendencies, whereas supra-national anthologies tend to construct their narration thematically, as in, e.g., Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s thesaurus Museum der modernen Poesie, which subdivides its contents into Moments, Localities, Seas, Graves, Nuptials, Laments, etc.
If your guiding lights are neither national nor supranational, nor even poetic, but spatial, and that is the case here, you’re at liberty to try any amount of narrative reframing. Time — cumulative, linear time — has dominated historical discourse in all its aspects, and in any national framework there is always an implicit priority to boost the national idea. If you skip this focus, you can raise space from being just a setting into being a theme, and you can gain new nodal points for your story in the process.
Arrivals and departures — travel — make up a theme that runs through not just the first sections of the book, but through all of it. When your customary setting changes, you’re thrown off balance. Everything becomes new and strange. This has been an age-old principle not only for travel literature, but also for any writing that wants to ‘make it new’, to deautomatize, to freshen up perspectives, to unsettle. And much of the strangeness cuts both ways. A traveller sees things that are new and strange, but he also gets to know himself better in new surroundings. “It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists we cannot change because it does not”, Alain de Botton remarks in his The Art of Travel. You have to expose yourself to strangeness in order to unsettle yourself.
The book is full of matter for comparison, which is another way of looking anew at things. Carl Michael Bellman, Sweden’s great eighteenth-century songwriter and composer, is portrayed in one way by Ernst Moritz Arndt and in quite another by Johannes Bobrowski. Königsberg looks different to Nikolai Karamsin, Russian traveller of great renown, arriving from the east and much impressed, than it looks to Hans Graf von Lehndorff a century and a half later, in the chaos which ensues after the Russian army’s arrival from the east. And readers who think Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, with eels eating a horse’s carcass, provides a rather drastic image of fishing in the Baltic will find in this book that Werner Bergengruen outshines Grass. The Balto-German Bergengruen’s eels feed on a fisherman’s wife.
Foreigners or aliens can surprise you at home, too: we read about a Finnish lady during one of those many wars with Russia. All of a sudden a Kalmuck enters her room and she is literally dumbfounded. The mere sight of him deprives her of her hearing, forever. Encounters with novelty abound. Aptly, the sections of Die Ostsee are interfoliated with the Swedish cartographer Olaus Magnus’s Carta marina of Scandinavia from 1539. The map delights in the beasts and dragons that cartographers knew inhabit untravelled territories.
The book starts out by pulling a trick of sorts: its first text and first arrival is not so much at some spot in the Baltic but in the Baltic per se, as a sea. In its opening text the Finnish-Swedish writer Arvid Mörne arrives at the coast, and finally in Riga in 1929. Mörne sets out from Lake Wolfgang on a meandering journey, starting on the continent and narrowing in on the deep north. His essay is little known even in Finland, but it is an inventive way of sensitizing the reader to the northern shallows of the Baltic by descending and zooming in on them from mid-European alpine heights. The core interest of the book is the water catchment area of the Baltic basin. The people who inhabit the Baltic rim area (die Anrainer) are about as numerous as the population of Germany.
I have stressed the importance of space partly because time is always the walk-over winner in anything that smells of history, whereas in Die Ostsee it is not. But obviously it too smells of history. At the farthest end of the spectrum we find Tacitus, the man who put Germans and even more faraway peoples on the map. I cannot refrain from telling you something about myself, as a Finn, in the words of Tacitus:
“Die Finnen sind sonderbar wild, grässlich arm: sie haben nicht Waffen, nicht Pferd, nicht Heim; […] Den Menschen gegenüber ohne Fürsorge, sorglos gegenüber Göttern, haben sie sich des Allerschwersten versichert: niemals von einem Wunsche belästigt zu werden.”
[In wonderful savageness live the nation of the Fenni, and in beastly poverty, destitute of arms, of horses, and of homes; […] Secure against the designs of men, secure against the malignity of the Gods, they have accomplished a thing of infinite difficulty; that to them nothing remains even to be wished].
This is history; today even Finns have desires.
This book, then, is born out of the happy confluence of time and space: in a sense it is the child of the reemergence after 1989 of the Baltic as a common area, not a split space. It has been a slow and tentative reemergence; such things take their time. I am reminded of an anecdote told by the Estonian novelist Jaan Kross at a Lahti International Writers’ reunion which I chaired in the very early nineties. On one of his first trips outside the Soviet Union Kross, who is well represented in the present book, was strolling about in a bazaar in Cairo. A carpet seller asked him where he came from. “From Estonia”, he proudly answered. “There’s no such place”, said the carpet man. “Oh yes there is”, Kross insisted, and walked in triumph to a wall map he had observed in the sales stall, in order to point out Estonia’s particular place in the universe. But as he got up close, he realised that this particular place was covered in toto by the Michelin Man, the fat cartyre man logo, which easily took the place of all three Baltic republics. Ocular proof was not to be had, and the carpet seller never suspended his disbelief in the existence of Estonia.
From this we learn that not even Michelin guidance can be trusted. We can get better bearings if we access texts which are imbued by or soaked in the history of space, and map them along the two-thousand-year time span available to us, as in Die Ostsee.
Review of Die Ostsee [Berlin: Galiani 2018]
Published in Baltic Worlds February 2019