Essay: A Literary Tailor at Work on the California Myth

Thomas Mann House
Nov 22, 2019 · 13 min read

Fellow Stefan Keppler-Tasaki on Marcel Beyer’s poetological poem “California Girls”

Michel Piccoli, Fritz Lang, and Jack Palance on the set of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt), 1963. Photo: akg-images

In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 metafilm Le Mépris (Contempt), the German-American director Fritz Lang plays himself, filming nothing less than Homer’s Odyssey and dealing with the bizarre alteration requests from the producer, Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance), who is as violent as he is depressive. The alterations are to start with the script, so the American hires a French mystery writer, Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), as a literary tailor. Underscoring the elegiac-critical element of this cultural-industrial situation, Lang cites the emblematic lines from Brecht’s 1942 cycle of poems Hollywood Elegies:

Jeden Morgen, mein Brot zu verdienen

Fahre ich zum Markt, wo Lügen gekauft werden.


Reihe ich mich ein unter die Verkäufer.

Every day, I go to earn my bread

In the exchange where lies are marketed,

Hoping my own lies will attract a bid.

(trans. Adam Kirsch)

Brecht lived in Santa Monica from August 1941 until October 1947 and, at the time of the creation of the Hollywood Elegies, collaborated on Lang’s anti-Nazi film Hangmen Also Die! In Godard’s film, Lang refers to Bertolt Brecht as “le pauvre B.B.,” alluding on the one hand to Brecht’s autobiographical ballad “Vom armen B.B.” (Of Poor B.B., 1922), on the other hand — using a textbook alienation effect — to the person standing in front of him: Brigitte Bardot, herself known as “B.B.,” whose pitiable character in Le Mépris is practically sold to the producer by her husband, the writer. The reduction to initials denotes a depraved individual carrying a “price tag” for potential buyers, an individual who, like Bertolt Brecht, prostitutes himself in the film industry or, like Brigitte Bardot, is pressured to do nude scenes. In fact, one of the two producers of Le Mépris, Carlo Ponti, insisted on an extensive nude scene with Bardot in order to make this nouvelle vague film, with its highly encrypted mythological, art-theoretical, and cultural-critical allusions, more consumer-friendly.

The Beach Boys, 1964. Photo: Getty Images

“B.B.” are also the initials of the classic pop and surf-sound band The Beach Boys, whose most resonant hit, “California Girls”, provides the title for a central poem in Marcel Beyer’s 2014 volume of poetry Graphit (Graphite). “B.B.” also codifies the “Bananen, Büchsengemüse” (bananas, canned vegetables), which at the beginning of the seventh verse of the eight-verse, run-on poem stand for the banality of “stupid” (“blöden”) consumption. As we learn in the sixth verse, the song here is merely the canned background music in a “shopping mall.” Still, one cannot fail to initially relate the title to a situation in the American West. The term “shopping mall” indicates North America; the prominent air conditioning, thanks to which the building is “misted” “day and night” (“Tag und Nacht bedunstet”), as well as the Hawaiian shirt (“Blumenhemd”) that is handed over to the tailor (“Änderungsschneider”) refer to the symbolic topographies of Hawaii, Florida or California, where “California Girls,” the most compact icon of the California myth, is part of everyday folklore. No literary text or film about Los Angeles that does without a reflex of obligatory automobility in the “world’s most spread-out village,” to use Wolfgang Koeppen’s phrase. The poem’s very last line looks out towards the “car park” (“Parkdeck”). The fact that the next poem in Graphit, “Don Cosmic,” begins with the line “Kingston, Jamaica” (“Kingston, Jamaika”) also seems to suggest a voyage across the Atlantic.

For the more communicative members of the Beach Boys, the California myth was the globally radiating vision of endless summer and easy consumption, of perpetual youth and erotic freedom, of close-to-nature surfboard individualism and laid-back beach volleyball camaraderie. Released in July 1965, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) is the title of the album that contains “California Girls.” The Beach Boys — the inventors of the surf sound who came together in 1961, rose to quick success, and with “California Girls” were already at the apex of their career — crucially helped promote this mythology. Singer and guitarist Alan Jardine (2nd fr. r. in the picture above) noted in hindsight:

I think we had a lot to do with the population rush to California. People hearing the Beach Boys songs envisioned California as sort of a golden paradise where all you did was surf and sunned yourself while gorgeous blondes rubbed coconut oil on your body.

The California myth of the first half of the 1960s found another melody for the New World than the classic Hollywood era of the 1930s through the 1950s, where the prospect of fame and fortune always also meant heavy workloads, hierarchies, and arbitrariness. But this is no longer what the hedonistic, post-careerist, and pre-political California myth of the Beach Boys is about, while state-of-the-art technology, start-ups, and teenage billionaires are still a long way into the future. Until now, however, all phases of the “Golden State” mythology, which reaches out across both the Atlantic and the Pacific, have embraced a claim of universality, and this merging fantasy is also dominant in the Beach Boys’ paradise:

I been all around this great big world

And I’ve seen all kind of girls

Yeah, but I couldn’t wait to get back in the States

Back to the cutest girls in the world

I wish they all could be California

I wish they all could be California

I wish they all could be California girls

These “California girls” are heirs to salvation-historical forerunners, with the song’s musical structure reminiscent of Bach’s hymn of Mary, “Jesus bleibet meine Freude” (Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring) — a reference that the Beach Boys themselves have claimed in self-interpretations and that has been made explicit in the intro to “Lady Lynda on the 1979 album L.A. They are the savior figures that lead us into golden paradise, and the Beach Boys their evangelists.

Already for the Beatles, “California Girls” became the catalyst of a critical geopolitical contrafact, namely in the no less legendary opening song of their 1968 White Album, “Back in the U.S.S.R.. The thrust here was against the chauvinistic universalism of the California myth celebrated by the Beach Boys, which the boys from Liverpool countered with a Eurasian scenario:

You don’t know how lucky you are boy

Back in the U.S.

Back in the U.S.

Back in the U.S.S.R.

Well the Ukraine girls really knock me out

They leave the West behind

And Moscow girls make me sing and shout

That Georgia’s always on my mind

In Marcel Beyer’s “California Girls,” there are no girls at all but only two characters connoted as male: the “tailor” (“Änderungsschneider”) and an I with a “Hawaiian shirt” (“Blumenhemd”), a nostalgic accessory such as the Beach Boys veterans wore during their final world tour in 2012. The poem’s characters find themselves in an epic-balladic situation that is reported in the past tense. It is a Wild West-like, duelistic, and dialogue-less eye-to-eye situation: he who stands “with / steady feet, a steady hand” (“mit / festen Füßen, fester Hand”) at the end of the first verse, by a metrical-grammatical delay, turns out to be not a gunfighter with nerves of steel but a “tailor.” He has an “iron” on hand and “draws” — not a gun but a sleeve over a sleeve board, then picks up a “steam iron machine,” which further ramps up the violence-filled tension of the situation through a “twisted cable” and “two thousand six hundred / watt,” suggestive of an electric chair’s 2,300 volt. Finally, there is, in fact, an “attack,” with the seriousness befitting one’s final moment in life, but the attack is only on the Hawaiian shirt that is subjected to the iron’s 2,600 watt. No wonder that the narrating “I,” so far only appearing as object, in the grammatical form of “me,” is breaking out in “a coward’s / a scoundrel’s sweat” (“Memmen- / der Kanaillenschweiß”).

The scenario of a Western movie, a favorite film genre of many literary cineastes, such as Else Lasker-Schüler and Gottfried Benn, is no accident. The immediately preceding poem in Graphit, “Sanskrit VII,” gives the following definition: “Film is delirium, plus lowest / instincts” (“Film ist Delirium, plus niederste / Instinkte”), and makes the film industry’s first sex idol, Asta Nielsen, perform a sadomasochistic “Apache dance” (“Apachentanz”) around her lover — alluding to Urban Gad’s 1910 romantic drama Afgrunden (The Abyss). The “Sanskrit” cycle as a whole revolves around the German Wild West writer Karl May, as he gets increasingly caught up in the role of Old Shatterhand, roams the Saxon provinces in his “moose-skin hunting suit” (“elchledernen Trapperanzug”) and embarks on his six-week North American trip in 1908.

Karl May, 1896. Photo: Max Welte
Karl May at Tuscarora Indian Reservation, 1908 (unknown)

Beyer, who studied German and English literature, has made his reputation in contemporary German literature by pursuing a kind of literary media archeology. His first volume of poetry, Walkmännin. Gedichte (Walkmännin. Poems; 1990), his long-time observation of the American scene for the Berlin-based pop-cultural magazine Spex, and his studies of William S. Burroughs, an idol for writers interested in film and for the “Audible Generation” (Beyer), are still resonant in Graphit. “Sanskrit VII” starts with a hypnotic cinema situation: “At fifteen frames per second / you lie there, moving / not at all” (“Bei fünfzehn Bildern pro Sekunde / liegst du da und rührst dich / nicht”). In early film, 15 frames per second, instead of the later standard of 24 fps, resulted in that flickering of images that Burroughs described as “cut-up” and used as a literary technique. In a 1965 interview for the Paris Review, Burroughs explained: “That’s a real cut-up. It flickers, just like the old movies used to. When talkies came in and they perfected the image, the movies became as dull as looking out the window.”

At the same time, one notices that Beyer since the mid-1990s — around the time of his move from Cologne to Dresden — has increasingly translated the transatlantic paradigm into larger geopolitical contexts that are not yet indicative of an alternative paradigmatic order. Beyer’s Erdkunde (Geography), the 2002 volume of poetry that immediately preceded Graphit, insinuated a new opening-up of history in word movements from Dresden via Kaliningrad and the Crimea to the Volga. Graphit itself, in its title poem, starts out by weaving together the same process, the production of artificial snow, at two different places at two different times: in contemporary Neuss on the Rhine and on the outskirts of Moscow during the shooting of Sergei Eisenstein’s symbolic anti-Nazi film Alexander Nevsky in 1938. The Graphit poem “An die Vermummten” (To the hooded) about the CIA’s presumed video proof of the execution of Osama bin Laden leads into a “north Pakistan night” (“nordpakistanische Nacht”). Directly preceding “California Girls,” “Sanskrit” explores the United States first as a German literary fantasy by Karl May, then as an oppressively bleak “Indian” reservation during May’s American trip, and finally as a lasso circus act in Urban Gad’s The Abyss with the revealing closing line: “Nielsen, Kosmorama, Denmark” (“Nielsen, Kosmorama, Dänemark”). With “California Girls,” we seem to have arrived in the real West, which, however, only fulfills the stale expectations of the Karl May poem.

Still from Urban Gad’s Afgrunden (The Abyss) from the Danish film company Kosmorama, 1910. Photo: Det Danske Filminstitut

At the very moment when the “I” breaks out in “a coward’s / a scoundrel’s sweat,” Beyer’s poem reaches a liberating turning point. The perception widens from the contracted close-ups of “feet,” “hand,” “sleeve,” “board,” “iron,” and “twisted cable” into a more panoramic view and a doubly emphasized “everything” (“alles”): “You netherworld, you stupid / shopping mall, where everything, day / and night, is misted, everything subjected to the sounds of California / Girls” (“Du Totenreich, du blöde / Shopping Mall, wo alles Tag / und Nacht bedunstet / wird, alles mit California / Girls beschallt”). At the same time, the situation changes from the past tense into the present tense. The speaker takes control of the situation, gains an overview and judgment over things that can be felt (“misted”), heard (“sounds”), smelled (“artichokes”), and seen (“canned vegetables”). “Lethe” indicates a water cascade, a standard feature in modern-day shopping malls, or a near-by river that may be visible through a panorama window. Via a final outbreak of “magnificent violence” (“herrlicher Gewalt”), with which the tailor lets out the seams, the word movement finally reaches the saving exit: the “way to the car park” (“Weg zum Parkdeck”), where the “multilingual” (“vielsprachige”) and “articulate” (“sprachgewandte”) but taciturn (“kaum je / ein Wort”) tailor has his shop, “his berth” (“seine Koje”).

Has Marcel Beyer, with “California Girls,” thus returned to the American Gods, which turn out to be underworld gods, such as the film producer Jeremy Prokosch in Godard’s Le Mépris? The degree of globalization in the early twenty-first century in fact renders this trip superfluous, for the site of this close Western encounter is everywhere — including in the Elbepark Dresden shopping center, which was opened in 1995 and has been a matter of local political controversy since its expansion in 2009. It is the Elbe river meadows that are acoustically and mythologically superimposed in the poem by the California beach and the river of forgetfulness, Lethe. The Saxon shopping mall unfolds a topography of dilapidated American symbols around a “Las Vegas Slot Machine Casino” (“Automatencasino Las Vegas”) a “Bowling-Center Play & more,” a jeans shop called “Jack & Jones,” and a men’s wear boutique called “Camp David.” A “Jeans live” megastore has put out Stars and Stripes doormats. In the cheapest spot, on the top floor diagonally across from the entrance to the car park, one finds “Jim’s Alteration Shop” (“Jim’s Änderungsschneiderei”).

“California Girls” is thus part of Beyer’s Dresden poems, such as can also be found at the beginning of the volume Erdkunde. It therefore belongs to a level-headed political poet who has not only grappled with the National Socialist media dictatorship (Flughunde [The Karnau Tapes], 1995) and the West German culture of remembrance (Spione [Spies], 2000) but also with the media exploitation of the Elbe flood in Dresden (Wasserstandsbericht [Water-level report], 2003), Vladimir Putin’s KGB time in Dresden (Putins Briefkasten [Putin’s mailbox], 2012), and the Pegida marches in Dresden. The local debates in Dresden about the Elbepark shopping mall seem minor compared to drastic objects such as the globally controversial execution video of Osama bin Laden (“No filming of the adjacent room, where a dead child is interrogated” [“Ungefilmt bleibt der Nebenraum, wo man ein totes Kind verhört”]). The Western-American illumination of this “netherworld” of “attack” and “violence” links the thriving consumer landscape with the mediascape of a global and violent world.

It remains to be noted that the “I” of “California Girls” makes use of neither the lifestyle of “Camp David” nor the fast fashion of other, similar stores in the Elbepark shopping mall, but entrusts his Hawaiian shirt to the sustainable tailor, an “incorruptible” (“unbestechlichen”) craftsman and “multilingual” migrant. This might be the ecological-social statement of the poem. If you think back, however, to the literary tailor Paul Javal in Le Mépris, a final, poetological dimension opens up: the tailor as figure of the writer, skilled both intertextually and across different media, who, with “a steady hand,” sets out to let down the seams of given textiles/texts and rework their textures in “multilingual,” “articulate” and yet economical (“kaum ein Wort”) ways. In the case of Godard, this kind of working method was linked to a bitter critique of the culture industry, just like the Austrian travel writer and later émigré Arnold Höllriegel concluded at the end of his 1927 Hollywood-Bilderbuch (Hollywood picture-book): “Suddenly I know why it is so terribly difficult to write reasonably realistic film scripts: you have to customize them, just like a tailor makes custom suits, and a writer is no tailor.” Against these older, integralist aesthetics, Marcel Beyer has, since his early days as a writer around 1990, offensively pursued the techniques of cutting up, dubbing, and remixing texts. The most prominent examples in Graphit are “Die gerettete Zeile” (The saved line) with variations on Elias Canetti’s Die gerettete Zunge (The Tongue Set Free); “Don Cosmic,” where he draws on the correspondence between Benn and Oelze; and “An die Vermummten” (To the hooded), where he expertly and skilfully reworks Georg Trakl’s “An die Verstummten” (To those who have fallen silent). The poetological key text “California Girls,” which comments on the make of Graphit as a whole, therefore not only cites the Beach Boys song but also takes up its earlier critical fitting by the Beatles in “Back in the U.S.S.R.”

Marcel Beyer in Bremen, 2015. Photo: Carmen Jaspersen (dpa)

Translated by Manuela Thurner.

Stefan Keppler-Tasaki, born in 1973 in Wertheim, scholarship holder of the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes from 1993 to 1999 and again from 2000 to 2003, assistant professor for modern German literature at the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg from 2002 to 2005 and at the FUB from 2005 to 2008, taught as Junior Professor for Modern German Literature at the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of the FUB from 2008 to 2012. In 2012, he became professor for Modern German Literature at the University of Tokyo, Faculty of Letters / Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology. In 2014, Keppler-Tasaki was appointed Einstein Visiting Fellow at the Free University Berlin. Author of Grenzen des Ich. Die Verfassung des Subjekts in Goethes Roman und Erzählungen. (De Gruyter, 2006) and of Alfred Döblin. Massen, Medien, Metropolen. (Königshausen & Neumann, 2018). Co-Founder/co-publisher of the book series WeltLiteraturen (De Gruyter) and Rezeptionskulturen (Königshausen & Neumann).


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