Perceptions of Hip From The Square.
Intergalactic warfare comes to the kitchen. Bury me in my shades. A preliminary inquiry into the German purity laws.
But the art of living is not to waste powder, and not to shoot at every moment.
– Theodor Fontane
Mit Mädeln sich vertragen,
Mit Männern rumgeschlagen,
Und mehr Kredit als Geld;
So kommt man durch die Welt.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The term “Lebenskünstler” (“life-artist”) was originally used to refer to a person who doesn’t work and makes something of an art-form out of his or her day to day life. It has much to do with hedonism and very little to do with actual artistic endeavour.*
It was always a movement with little originality, but some rebelliousness, and at times a very small amount of street cred. Pastimes originally included sitting in bars playing cards, smoking roll-your-own cigarettes, and knowing which student greasy-spoon was in fashion at any particular moment. They were good at sniffing out free stuff – mainly food, booze and entertainment. Self-proclaimed followers of the movement were equally to be found at poetry slams as at table-soccer tournaments.
The term was used either positively, by those who fancied themselves as Lebenskünstler, or pejoratively, by those who were actually contributing to society in some way. Back in the early and mid 2000s, the term was slowly making its way into mainstream usage. It has since become the subject of several best-selling books and is well-known enough that it even forms the basis of questionnaires in magazines aimed at teenaged girls.
Brigitte magazine, for example ran a multiple choice test a few years ago, under the title “Are you a Lebenskünstler?”
“Damn, slept in again, no milk for coffee and stress with your dearest one over trivia?”
A – When the day begins like this, I need a few hours to recover.
B – I have a bad mood for half the day.
C – Ah, so what? The bad start is quickly forgotten.
This pointless little questionnaire then meanders through another nine boring and unremarkable everyday situations which have absolutely nothing to do with whether one is or is not a “Lebenskünstler.” The comments at the end of it are divided between the older generation of Lebenskünstler (generation Y) who were apparently really upset about the inanity of this quiz (but who have the time to read this trash anyway) and the newer generation of Lebenskünstler (the millenials) who took the whole thing rather too seriously as a tool to determine their own coolness.
As an aside, it seems strange that a generation of rich-kids who are so derivative, narcissistic and bland as to be irrelevant even in their own lifetimes, even worries about whether the world sees it as cool or not. They will be the forgotten generation of history, leaving not a trace behind, no written communication shall survive, their music files will be deleted, and their sweat-shop clothing will disintegrate into dust. They will be remembered in the geological record only by a thin lens of nondescript plastic.
These days fashions have changed and evolved once again, and the Lebenskünstler label could perhaps be generally applied to the Berlin hipsters. They are quite possibly the fourth wave of the movement.
Back in 2006, Bonn was full of wannabe second wave Lebenskünstler, students living on a stipend or from Mummy and Daddy’s purse, spending all day kicking a soccer ball around the Hofgarten in their cut-off jeans, or sitting at the folding tables outside Pawlow’s in the so-called Altstadt, drinking mugs of Pilsener in their Tommy Hilfiger T-shirts, or hanging out in Einstein, a sort of German Starbucks opposite the university’s main entrance.
Shortly after I moved in I realised that none of my new flatmates worked, and that although they would have denied the charge of being Lebenskünstler, they filled some of the basic prerequisite qualities. Others would certainly have applied the term to some of them. Had I known this sooner, it may have affected my choice of abode, but then again, on the Bonn accommodation market beggars can’t be choosers. Some of the places I had looked at? You wouldn’t let a dog sleep in them! I had already adjusted my age downwards by five years, when I found that interest in a thirty-five-year-old flatmate was somewhat limited. I had also abandoned my dreams of finding a picturesque farmhouse or a cool pad in a garret overlooking crazy rooflines and broken chimneys. I was happy just to find a group of amiable people in a relatively clean, relaxed flat which was close to transport.
Matthias was studying engineering and was generally quiet and unobtrusive. From time to time he told obscure and even occasionally subtly amusing jokes about mathematics and computer programming languages.
He was a Christian guy who sang in the local choir and went to church on Sundays, but relaxed at home by playing violent computer games. I hadn’t known this, but I came home one day and heard a machine gun blazing in his bedroom. I peered around the door to discover that he was online, playing an interactive shoot-em-up. This time he was playing on the side of the Islamic terrorists against the US marines in a computerised rendition of a city something like Kabul. Other days he fought for the Marine Corps, he told me. It just depended on his mood.
Still, he was in charge of an intergalactic battle-fleet, so I remained respectful at all times and was always ready to snap out a crisp salute.
Sebastian was also addicted to interactive online games. He was obsessed with the progress of his intergalactic battle-fleet which was apparently out there in some far-flung corner of the universe. He would often wake up in the middle of the night to make sure no-one was commencing an attack on one of his planets, or preparing to destroy his battle fleet; while he planned attacks on other people’s planets and in turn tried to destroy their battle fleets.
Sometimes he would forego sleep entirely, and in the morning I would get up to go to work and find him in the kitchen, red-eyed and staring at the computer which lived on top of the fridge. He would be standing there in a pair of ancient grey tracksuit pants cut off at the knees and a filthy t-shirt which I think had once been white, scratching his bum and eating a bowl of muesli. Those pants had been through the washer and dryer so many times they were practically see-through. Still, he was in charge of an intergalactic battle-fleet, so I remained respectful at all times and was always ready to snap out a crisp salute.
“Morning Commander. Permission to come aboard?” I would say to him as I filled up the coffee machine and turned it on, “How’s the fleet doing?”
One Tuesday morning I found him at the kitchen table, face buried in his hands, swaying and muttering and looking even more haggard than usual. He looked like he may have been crying.
“What’s the matter, Commander?” I asked as I opened the fridge door and searched through the beer bottles, half eaten yoghurts, and assorted life-forms for the fruit juice I had bought the day before. My hand landed in an unidentifiable substance which had oozed from somewhere higher up.
“They snuck up on me! I went to sleep, just for half an hour, but they were waiting. I’m ruined!”
“Megadont and Ozone Girl 213 formed an alliance and ambushed my battle fleet while it was refuelling on Zerkan in sector 23 Alpha. Meanwhile Julius-B12 attacked my Uridium mines in sector Gamma-235. I suspected they were plotting something, but I thought they were getting ready to attack the Azkhasch empire in 61 Sigma.” He sobbed loudly and cradled his head in his hands. “This is the end for me! Alles ist kaputt!”
Old slices of pizza lurked behind his computer, on top of his bookshelf, and in the folds of his bedsheets…
Sebastian didn’t work and he didn’t care. He’d finished studying one year earlier and retained his room in exactly the state it was when he finished his final exam. The German educational system is a minefield, even for native speakers, and when he thought it was all over and he just had to get through his exams to graduate, a letter arrived from some educational council or other informing him that he hadn’t completed such and such a requirement when he was in second year and therefore would have to repeat a year to get his degree. Rather than repeat the year, he got permission to submit a special essay on the topic in question, but couldn’t bring himself to complete it. The impetus was gone.
Somehow his whole life had stalled at that point and his room remained as it had been, with piles of pizza boxes and books and papers occupying every square centimetre, and old slices of pizza lurking behind his computer, on top of his bookshelf, and in the folds of his bedsheets.
He sank more and more into his online world, stopping only to fry up Bavarian noodles or frozen Turkish döner meat from time to time. When he had eaten what he wanted he would leave the rest in the saucepan and secrete it somewhere in the kitchen, usually in the oven or the microwave, or sometimes in the cupboard with the cleanish crockery or behind the cartons of Aldi brand UHT milk. For the next week he would make furtive darts into the kitchen, shovel a few forkfuls into himself, hide the saucepan again and slip back into his darkened bedroom.
Sarah and Armin were hardly ever there. They spent most of their time partying in other cities with their goth friends, or raving on cocaine in some air-raid bunker, or at a friend’s place either recovering from a night of clubbing in another city, or planning the next one. Sometimes Armin, Sarah, Sebastian and Matthias would play cards in the kitchen, until four or five in the morning. For an emaciated vegetarian, Armin could sure sink piss. This was, he explained, made possible by the German purity laws of 1516. The law dictates, among other things, that beer shall be made only from hops, barley and water. That, apparently, meant you could drink as much as you liked and it would never give you a hangover. Through extensive and rigorous research, I disproved this theory on several occasions.
One evening I asked if Armin was a Turkish name. Thankfully Armin was a gentle, open minded and easy going kind of guy.
“No, Armin is the ancient form of the name Hermann. It comes from the ancestral German, Arminius, who led the Germans against Varus.”
Which brings us neatly to the “Varus Schlacht,” the starting point of the Germanic legend and the historical event in which almost all interpretations of German being and nationalism have their origins.
*The term “Lebenskünstler” has changed slightly in its meaning over the last ten years, and has come to mean someone who makes the best out of everything that life throws at them. This has probably got something to do with the fact that the “Lebenskünstler” of 2006 are now managing their own small companies thanks to government subsidies, and have given the term some sort of respectability.