Beauty is something that burns the hand when you touch it.--Yukio Mishima
I rented the studio on Hansaring because it corresponded to a fantasy I had of a small, impossibly tall place, like the interior of a tower, its floor plan the size of a postage stamp, its ceiling fourteen feet high.
The flat had glass doors opening onto a balcony with a wrought iron railing, overlooking a slightly unkempt art nouveau Hof, or courtyard. The balcony might have been beautiful, but for the collection of Schrott, rusting iron salvage, piled upon it. The primary tenant of the flat must have found these heavy fragments artistic; I simply ignored them. I had a way of mentally and visually eliding anything I didn’t want to see, and that held true for more than metal.
One thing I refused to see was that I was never so—not happy—but let us say, absorbed, as when I was unhappy in love, miserable over some man who didn’t love me. To paraphrase John Fowles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, my torture was my delight.
Nevertheless, I awoke each morning in this room—or came to, depending on how much I drank at the bar downstairs the night before—with the sense that I had sprung a trap, the trap of America, of my own origin. Simply to be living abroad, ‘in Europe’ was liberation. Never mind that the places, which had included London and Glasgow as well as now, Cologne, were gloomier than the one, New York, I had escaped. It gave me a sense of defiance to be living in places I had once only read about, never mind that reality did not always live up to fiction.
In Cologne I had been a guest in a number of rarefied houses, two of which abide in my mind as examples of great depth in decoration. Both belonged to men I was involved with, one much younger than I, the other fifteen years older, which at the time seemed an instance of great age. Today I am almost a decade older than the latter was at the time, and I wonder, with some regret, at how I misprised that man. As we age, we are dispossessed, evicted from the most arrogant and powerful group on earth, the young and beautiful. I was thirty-five, already on my way out, hell-bent on jailbait and the glamour of extreme good looks I chased, and feared, was escaping me.
But I have mentioned great depth in decoration, and that is what I wish to document here, eliding, perhaps the turbulent emotional content of these affairs. The memory both of passion and disregard fails, but the rooms, the atmospheres created by these two men linger in my mind. Furthermore, there is a strange twist to the story of my own life in the room at Hansaring, which is the denouement of this narrative.
My first lover, the older man--whom I’ll call Friedrich--was an architect who, disenchanted with the bureaucracy attending the design of buildings, had turned to collecting and selling superlative furniture of the Bauhaus and De Stijl, and he surrounded himself, both in an apartment in the center of Cologne and a country house in a hamlet not far away with these rare artifacts. I remember on his bed in Cologne a black woolen blanket which he had purchased in Morocco from a woman who had spent a year weaving it, not dyeing it black but fabricating it from the wool of a black sheep. “In Morocco the poor man is as beloved as the rich man,” said Friedrich, who, however, had not been above driving a hard bargain with the lady.
Friedrich exalted the work of all artisans, not only that of sophisticated European designers of the early twentieth century. We shared a love of the anonymous beautiful object, found at a flea market, which evinced the same genius of hand or eye as one masterminded by an artist or designer. His collection of German, Austrian and Dutch Modernist furniture, ceramics and textiles was the most refined and rigorous I have ever encountered, inside a museum or out. If, in some sense, twentieth century Modernist design takes the chair as its focus, Friedrich possessed a Vitra-like selection, which included, of course, Rietveld’s Red and Blue Chair and chairs by Erich Dieckmann. Friedrich told me he could not buy a book if the cover were ugly. I differ from him in this respect.
The young man, whom I’ll call Luzian, told me, similarly, that he could not inhabit a place, not even temporarily, if it was aesthetically displeasing to him. I disagreed; I felt sometimes one must sacrifice the look of things to some higher purpose. Had I not, in Cologne, inhabited a series of ugly rented rooms just so I could stay in the same city as my beloved? “Ich bin anspruchsvoll,” Luzian said, speaking the words slowly as he spoke all words. I did not at first understand “anspruchsvoll” but I took it to mean demanding, which he was, persnickety, in retrospect, a flaw I could not see.
Luzian lived with his mother in a mellow brick house from the turn of the 20th century, lodged in a charmed setting on the southern banks of the Rhein, in an ancient suburb of Cologne. I had not expected this boy to live in relative upper middle class comfort, nor for his mother to be something of an intellectual. Luzian had a dusky aura of the streets; I visualized his mother working in a shop, a dimestore. Therefore I was surprised when, as we approached his street in his car, to see that the street was private, barricaded except to those who had a key.
The first time I saw his house we were alone there, mostly in the kitchen, which had earthy grey plaster walls like those in my flat in Glasgow. The furniture and gas stove were old, immaculate. Up a narrow flight of white-painted wooden stairs were his and his siblings' bedrooms, two girls and two boys. In one room was a white chest of four drawers, each drawer stenciled in blue with the name of a child. To me this manifested love and order, a family unlike the one I came from, of two parents and a quartet of children, instead of a triangle of sometimes single mother, father, daughter. Yet this family and this house had been abandoned by the father at one stage; later Luzian would tell me that after the father’s departure his mother left everything intact to the point of stagnation. The house was “stuck”. But I, stuck in the inferiority complex of my origins, could not be convinced of a flaw in this apparently perfect family; even the divorce seemed an acceptably official event. My own parents had never married but stayed together for thirty depressed years.
I see here that in fact I cannot remember many details of the decoration wrought by either of my lovers, though that is what I promised the reader. I know only that Friedrich’s and Luzian’s interiors and the seemingly orderly lives and relationships they represented were perfect of their kind, intimidating. This was a projection on my part, a fantasized antidote to the damage and defects which were my inheritance.
At Hansaring, in an effort to lift the curse of my elders, I decided, not for the first time in my thirty-something life, to seek psychoanalytic help. But where, in Germany, were the psychoanalysts? Had they not, driven out by the Nazis, all migrated to where I came from, namely Los Angeles and New York? I had read a book by a renowned therapist, Konrad Stettbacher, entitled Wenn Leiden einen sinn haben soll—if suffering has a meaning—and he wrote simply that the meaning of suffering is in its relief, an explanation andprospect which sounded good to me.
I opened the Gelbe Seiten, the Yellow Pages, under Psychoanalytikern: and found but two names, whom I’ll call Herr and Frau Doktor Langeweise, a married couple, obviously. Twenty years on, I have searched the Internet for psychoanalysts in Cologne and now there are dozens; how could there have only been this pair at the time? The Langeweises are still around, but no longer in the center of Cologne; they moved to the suburbs.
I noticed something else about these names: their address was Hansaring, like mine. I dialed their number and was instructed by an answering machine to send a letter of inquiry to their address.
In my mailbox I received a neat typed letter offering me a consultation with the Frau Doktor. When I set out to see her at the appointed time, I was amazed to find that the stone steps to her house were in fact a part of the building I lived in. The grand façade of the building—of her house--was directly on the Ring, whereas I reached my studio through the Hinterhof, or rear courtyard, by an interior flight of stairs.
Inside the massive front door I stood alone in a vestibule. At the top of a long staircase sheathed in Oriental carpet stood a woman with salt and pepper hair pulled back in a clip. She wore maroon velvet slippers embroidered with medallions. As I ascended, there were painted on the wall to the side figures that might have hailed from Pompeii, gods or an aristocratic family. I thought of the final scene of Fellini's Satyricon; I thought of Freud. Sure enough, in Frau Doktor Langeweise’s consulting room were the sort of ancient figurines I knew from period photographs of Berggasse 19, and a long chaise covered in kilim rugs. Not only did we share an address, I saw now that we shared the wall of her consulting room. The chamber where I had shed so many tears and read so many texts was but a membrane of masonry away from this putative place of healing.
I commenced a psychoanalysis with Dr. Langeweise in the language in which it was invented, and felt I had arrived at a new origin, one I could borrow to my benefit. I confessed my infatuation, not only with Luzian but with his family. I wanted new ancestors, like the ones on Dr. Langeweise’s stairs, like the ones in the house on the Rhein. Once, after an especially stormy session of sobbing, Dr. Langeweise gave me a small clay female head from her desk. “Do you know who Hera is?” she asked. “Of course,” I said. I had been raised on the Greek myths rather than the Bible. “Hera is the protector of women,” she said, “and in Greece the women place these heads at her temple to receive her help.”
“But I live under a curse,” I said in German. “Fluechte duerfen aufgehoben werden,” she replied in a deep voice: “Curses can be lifted.”
Mine wasn’t. I merely outlived it, or outran it. I never married the golden German I craved, nor had his four children, nor lived with them in a mellow brick nineteenth century house. But I am happy now with my portion, amused that I can barely remember the one who so tormented me with his lack of love; I remember, with love and some regret, the one I saddened for the same reason. A loves B who loves C, an ancient infernal circle I no longer participate in. The house at Hansaring was not my first or last house of self-undoing, but it was certainly one of the most dramatic.