This is a slideshow I created essentially because I’ve always been fascinated by the multilingual pun in this Rufus Wainwright song’s title. The “Tiergarten” is a large park that sort of starts at the train station and stretches several miles through what used to be west Berlin, more or less ending at the Brandenburg gate and the Reichstag, fairly close to where East Berlin used to begin. I walked through it several years ago and–while it’s not quite as impressive as museum island–it’s still pretty wonderful. Wainwright uses the changing weather as a metaphor for the ups and downs of romance in the modern world, setting it against a catch yet understated melody. Initially, I had planned the slideshow as basically showing pictures of happy and unhappy people, together and alone, falling in love and out of love. While looking for photographs, I realized that there was a virtual treasure trove of photographs (some of which are copyrighted, and I had to pay to use) of Berlin after the war, including many from the Tiergarten, many of which are recognizable because of the statues still survive. You could say that why I’ve tried to do is expand the song’s subject from the ups and downs of romance to the ups and downs of history, by juxtaposing pictures from 1945-47 (most of the trees had been cut down to be used for firewood in 1944), with pictures that I think are largely from the last decade or so.
Although I had really intended the slideshow to be a more or less pure aesthetic object with no particular message, it sort of evolved very quickly into a rather ambivalent statement about history. Possibly because I’ve read and taught Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller too many times, but also because I have been more or less paying attention for nearly the last sixty years as well as reading a fair amount, it was hard to escape the conclusion that what we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. In the last few years, this has regressed into the even more pessimistic idea that what we learn from history is simply what we’ve already decided we are going to learn; in other words, history is basically something people cherry pick in order to justify courses of action they were going to take anyway, often for selfish, self-flattering, or vindicative reasons.
The slideshow doesn’t go quite that dark, probably because I am no longer quite as pessimistic as I was (although I doubt I’ll ever be an optimist). Instead, as well as trying to retain something of the song’s message about the vagaries of romance, it illustrates how we human beings can make a wasteland out of a park; but it equally demonstrates how we can make a park out of a wasteland, and actually it’s the latter, more optimistic, message that recieves the most emphasis as the slideshow develops. However, if you want to appreciate it (or, for that matter, if you hate it) as a purely aesthetic object with no particular message, that’s cool too.
This one’s for my dissertation director who–even if he didn’t exactly introduce me to history–certainly expanded my view and knowledge of it.