Mass Catastrophist

December 28, 2010

A clever young linguist named Dietrich Fischer-Berg once fell in love with this girl, who had to spend a month standing him up in expensive restaurants crowded with happier couples before he got the message and left her alone. Her reasons for that I don’t know, but the consequences I’m pretty familiar with.

Fischer-Berg was as subtle as he was unassertive, which is to say he was the Chuck Norris in black eyeliner of being passive-aggressive. And since what little confidence he had had, had been shattered by that girl, he spent the next couple of years marinating in a bitter grudge against her.

After about a year she changed phone numbers, and since Dietrich didn’t get out much anyway, he lost any and all contact with her, and had no means of reestablishing it.

In all this time, however, his resentment didn’t slacken.

Four and a half years after getting snubbed, Dietrich got a job with the Heinnemann publishing company to put together a course of German textbooks for English students. Brilliant as he was, the project was completed in record time, and five years later his textbook was on a set-list at the University of Auckland, on the other side of the planet.

This is how I come into the story.

Though I didn’t like to admit to myself at the time, and still don’t, when I enrolled at uni I suffered pretty heavily from a grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side mentality. Because I had some vague feeling about French being too “mainstream,” and because I actually knew too many Asians to be able to project my fantasies onto their countries, I signed up to learn the only other European language on offer.

I wasn’t bad at German, at least by the standards of the other people in my classes, though I would have done better had I not been working twenty hours a week at a Wendy’s and suffering from a minor WoW addiction.

I didn’t really notice anything out of the ordinary about Fischer-Berg’s textbooks when I was studying for the first couple of years (I didn’t even know who wrote the book, since the names on the front were totally meaningless to me), though in hindsight there were a few things that seemed a bit strange at the time that are highly significant.

Take for example chapter 6 of the beginners’ textbook. The way the book was structured, it would introduce a new grammatical concept in each chapter, together with vocabulary grouped around a particular theme drawn from daily life in Germany. Chapter 6 introduced German negations together with vocabulary associated with relationships. Though there’s nothing out of the ordinary in the chapter if you just glance at it superficially, with a closer look you’ll notice that Fischer-Berg gives unusual weight to sentences like the following in his examples and grammar exercises:

“Willi kennt keine Mädchen.”

“Niemand hat sie da getroffen.”

“Er will so nichts bestellen.”[1]

Pulled out like that and put in the context of Fishcer-Berg’s life-story you begin to see something of a fixation, but in a list of translation exercises like the following, which is itself only one of nearly a dozen, it’s pretty difficult to spot anything going on:

“1. Wir haben keine Zeit

2. Es gibt nichts zu tun.

3. Ich träge Rocken nie.

4. Willi kennt keine Mädchen.

5. Niemand hat sie da getroffen.

6. Hast du das noch nicht getan?

7. Sie haben kein mehr Geld.

8. Shrei nicht so laut!

9. Er will nichts bestellen.

10. Konnt ihr bitte kommen?”[2]

It was only at the end of my second year when I went to study in Hamburg over the summer holidays (summer in New Zealand, winter in Germany), that I really realised what had been going on.

From the above it might appear that Fischer-Berg’s hurt had sublimated and insinuated itself into every aspect of his thinking and life as a permanent, subconscious psychic poison. This would be an entirely incorrect theory. Fischer-Berg was perfectly conscious of his hurt, and was acting on it with the full force of his considerable intelligence.

Fischer-Berg understood that when you’ve been studying a language for about two years in an environment devoid of native-speakers, you learn in a very specific way. You speak confidently in those aspects that your teachers have drilled into you, but haltingly in the many aspects that it was naturally impossible to prepare you perfectly for. It is normally the aim of language instructors to try to minimise this gap between education and authentic environment as much as possible.

However, it was Fischer-Berg’s aim to give the impression of having minimised that gap, while at the same time targeting the gap very precisely in order to skew the range of thoughts, desires and emotions that students like me would be able to express.

I can’t say when exactly I began to notice how my German had been twisted, but it might have been after the second or third time that I had a conversation that went something like this:

Girl: Tut mir leid. Meine Zug war von der Schnee aufgehaltet. Du hast auf mich nicht lange gewartet?

Me: (Me going “umm…” and looking stupid for a moment) Nein, nicht lange.

Girl: Gut. Warum warten wir im Kalt, denn? Gehen wir drin!

Me: Ja, ein anderes Restaurant, vielleicht.

Girl. Warum?

Me: Die Kellner kennen mich.

Girl: Das ist aber gut! Ich wusste nicht, dass du ein solcher Conoisseur bist.

Me: Ich bin nicht. Sie kennen mich, weil sie mich vor eine Halbstunde aus dem Restaurant ausgeworfen haben.

Girl: Scheise. Du hast doch so lange gewartet? Das müsste schrecklich gewesen sein. Tut mir leid, dass ich nicht telefoniert hat.

Me: (Me going, “uhh…” and looking really confused for so long that she changes the subject before I can remember how to say “no, really, it’s not a problem.”)[3]

On its own it’s nothing really. Certainly it’s demoralising when you can’t remember something as basic as the idiomatic response to “I am sorry” in the language you’ve spent years of your life studying, but it’s not something that really has any substantial effect on your life.

That is until someone starts talking about their feelings:

Girl: Es kann doch nicht dauern! Es scheint, ich kann nichts bei dir richtig tun. Ich spüre mich immer, wenn ich bei dir bin, als wäre ich zwölf Jahre alt, und eine Vase gebrochen hätte.

Me: (I look up from my intimidating, German breakfast, unable to cobble together anything more than a confused) Was?

Girl: O je, natürlich, verstehst du nichts davon! Es sei sicherlich nur wie immer, laut dich, ich rege mich über nichts auf, sei in einer Psychose, wovon du verstehst natürlich nichts, weil du viel zu vernünftig seiest, über etwas so Bescheuertes als meine Gefühlen nachzudenken!

Me: (I stare silently, unable to respond, certain that I could never have said any of those things, especially given that some of the words she used are new to me. Before I can think of any way to answer, to assure her that I could say and think nothing of the sort, to think how to plead linguistic incompetence over callous malice, I am alone.)[4]

I remain to this day unclear as to what specifically she was upset with me about, doubtless another legacy of Fischer-Berg’s unique pedagogical technique.

When I returned home, I went back to uni to finish my final year. Sitting at the back of a culture lecture, where a Swabian man with an accent I couldn’t understand was presumably trying to tell me something about Goethe’s opinion of the French Revolution, I went through my German textbooks. In the vocabulary list for chapter 2 of my first year grammar book (page 31), were the words “(Es) tut mir leid= I am sorry.” They appeared in example dialogues in chapters 5 (page 93), chapter 8 (page 141) and chapter 9 (page 169). I went over the first year book twice, and eventually went through every subsequent book with a fine-toothed comb (Goethe must have had a lot of opinions), but nowhere, absolutely nowhere, did I find I single example of a response to “I am sorry.” Not in the vocab lists, not in the grammar exercises, not in the example dialogues.

After I graduated I realised how hopelessly unqualified I was for most forms of paid work. I got on a plane to Europe about a month after this realisation, where I managed to get enough work translating obscure EU agricultural regulations from English to German and vice versa. In my spare time (of which there was great deal, the translation industry having been entirely casualised, and the ratio of work to people who spoke English and German being very low), I tracked down Fischer-Berg, the name on the pathological textbooks I’d studied, and pieced together what little I know of his story.

Eventually I went back home to New Zealand, with enough “experience in international business” to find steady work and settle down. I told the story about the sad, German linguists to friends of mine who had studied with me. Naturally, they found it hilarious and spread it on, until it became a fixture of Auckland’s culture, and a story lecturers told to first year German classes to break the ice.

I would occasionally hear young people on the trains and at bus stops telling it to each other, wondering to myself if that meant that those same books were still in circulation around the university German department after so many years. The story got distorted somewhat, but was passed down, more or less all still there. It never failed to provoke a particular kind of laughter, the kind you get in response to jokes about serial killers for example.

But what changed, I became more and more certain as I grew older, was how much people laughed at it. I was certain my friends had found it funnier when I first came back from Europe. An element of sadness had entered the laughter, like I was listening to the regrets of old men.

[1] “Willi knows no girls”

“She met no one there.”

“So he doesn’t want to order anything.”

[2] “1. We have no time.

2. There is nothing to do.

3. I never wear skirts.

4. Willi knows no girls.

5. She met noone there.

6. Have you still not done that?

7. They have no more money.

8. Don’t shout so loud!

9. He doesn’t want to order anything.

10. Could you all please come?”

[3] Girl: Sorry. My train got held up by the snow. You were waiting for me long, were you?

Me: … No, not long.

Girl: Why are we waiting in the cold then? Let’s go inside.

Me: Yeah, a different restaurant maybe?

Girl: Why?

Me: The waiters know me.

Girl: Ah, that’s good. I didn’t know you were such a connoisseur.

Me: I’m not. They know me because they threw me out of the restaurant half an hour ago.

Girl: Shit. You waited that long? That was really awful of me not to call you. I’m really sorry…

[4] Girl: This just can’t go on! It seems I can’t do anything right by you. When I’m with you I always feel as though I were twelve years old, having just broken a vase.

Me:… What?

Girl: Oh yes, naturally you don’t understand a thing! It is surely as always; according to you, I’m getting upset over nothing, I’m in a psychosis, of which you naturally understand nothing, because you’re far too sensible to think about anything as barmy as my feelings!