Here’s your invitation: step into this stately castle where dozens of people from all over Germany plus two North Americans are gathered to celebrate the centennial of Professor Arno Peters’ birth.
An impromptu choir of family members walks onto the stage, then launches into “Hallelujah,” that most popular of all Leonard Cohen’s songs.
Don’t remember the song? No problem: you can hear it sung by the artist himself on this YouTube video. Either way, Cohen’s point is clear: even if life is not what it could have been …even if everything turns out wrong, he’ll appear before the lord of song with just one word upon his tongue, “Hallelujah!”
To be doubly sure people got the point, the singer provided this explanation: “I wanted to write something in the tradition of the Hallelujah choruses but from a different point of view. It’s the notion that there is no perfection – that this is a broken world and we live with broken hearts and broken lives but still that is no alibi for anything …. You have to stand up and say hallelujah.”
Hearing the song in that celebratory setting triggered another memory for me: that in preparing the manuscript for How Maps Change Things – with Arno Peters’ picture on the dedication page – I included a few lines from another Leonard Cohen poem:
“Give me back the Berlin Wall,
Give me Stalin and St. Paul;
I have seen the future, brother,
It is murder.”
Actually, those lines were cut during the editing process, one factor in that decision being their negative tone. Advance readers commented, “Who in their right mind wants to go back to the Berlin Wall?” and “The song is wrong; the future is not murder, it is hope!”
May I suggest that right now, given new realities, it’s time to re-examine Cohen’s words? They may be more timely than Cohen himself ever thought.
Is the world a better place without the Berlin Wall? Of course! How, then, to make sense out of the longing to go back? Why, for that matter, are we so ready to build a Mexican Wall? “Ah.” some may answer, “this wall is different. The Mexican wall is just to keep the bad guys out.”
That, to students of history, is a sorry echo of how the Communists of Eastern Europe justified their project in its day: keep out the dirty, no-good capitalists; keep out the Westernized Germans – who really cares if it splinters families? …keep out subversive ideas that would destroy our Greatness!” So they built their wall and protected their people. Or so they thought.
They also imprisoned their people. In truth, a wall may keep out; it also keeps in. Cut off from the dynamic of the outside world, the East stagnated.
Leonard Cohen, who died at his home in Los Angeles November 7, 2016. still speaks to our time. Consider, for example, his take on the future: hardly upbeat, would you agree?
It is murder.
These lines, dated 1966, could have been written last night. Do you not sense tragedy and loss in the mood of the times? Not every person on the planet shares the feeling, to be sure, but many do. Millions feel pushed to the margins. Their lives don’t count. Sometimes struggling to find a sliver of safety beneath the crossfire of competing ideologies or desperately seeking escape over dangerous waters to a strange and unknown land or affirming that “Black lives matter” or forced to live as victims of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing, in dread of when their little home might be broken into and their family hauled off. In other places honest, hard-working people have looked forward to qualifying for a mortgage and acquiring a house, maybe buying a car, even watching with pride as a son or daughter graduates from college… only to have their lives and fond hopes crushed by a changing economy and hardening attitudes. For all these – and more – the future is pain. It is despair. It is the loss of hope and of a proud self-image. Cohen said it simply: it is murder.
Arno Peters, though he never met Leonard Cohen, creatively confronted the crisis Cohen outlined. As an historian and a cartographer he became a champion of fairness to all people. His questions drove right to the point: Why do history textbooks pay so much attention to kings and rulers and conquering generals and so little to all the people who worked the fields and fixed the machines and raised families and taught the next generation? Did they not count? And why do we put up with maps that supersize some countries – notably the homelands of white people – while shrinking the habitats of many people of color? So he fought for fairer treatment, for equality, for respect.
If it is true that attitudes matter, then such enlightened attitudes can affect how we live together in our communities and as world citizens.
Do you catch the hope that Cohen’s pessimistic “the future is murder” may be supplanted by a joyous and universal “Hallelujah” through such insights as Peters’ vision of a fairer, better world?
It’s not going to happen by magic, but by the energized, enlightened action of people like ourselves. You’ll know best what might work in your situation, but a good place to start might be to make sure schools in your locality are using “fair to all peoples” equal-area maps. Adopt the slogan, Down with putting other people down! Then move beyond your comfort zone to make friends among those who – understandably – see the future as murder and life as a threat.
Let’s face it: seeing reality through the eyes of respect and fairness toward everyone isn’t going to cancel out all problems. It won’t give back a welder his job after it has been outsourced to another country or made obsolete by new technology. It won’t miraculously do away with the tensions that surface as refugees and retaliation, murder and massacres. But the human journey to a better world can never succeed without a RESET of attitudes. Deliberate distortion is out; fairness is in. When attitudes toward other persons and groups are open, right action – political, economic or whatever – logically follows.
This word of warning and of hope: If I sing “Hallelujah” as a solo, it’ll be the vocal equivalent of murder; if we all join in, it’ll be a chorus of winners! Arno Peters would be pleased to hear it, and to join in (he enjoyed singing as much as discussing ideas). And the lord of song would surely shout, “Great dialogue; now let’s dance!”
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In German/auf deutsch!
Aribert Peters, son of Arno and Anneliese Peters, discovered an amazing bit of history while going through his mother’s effects after her death earlier this year. It was a diary of a daring trip to Berlin his parents took between May 11 and July 6, 1945 – starting out just three days after the guns went silent in Europe after one of history’s most horrific wars. Through those 58 days of uncertainty they persevered until they reached the ragged ruins of what had been the nation’s proudest city.
The journal, enhanced with photos, has just been published. If you’d like to sharpen your skills in German or would be interested in a first-hand account of that momentous time in human history or would like to know more about what shaped the renowned thinker Dr. Peters, I’ll gladly send you a copy at no charge. Aribert has kindly made them available to me. If you know someone who would enjoy a copy, that will be fine, too. Please note: quantities are limited, so email me at firstname.lastname@example.org soon to ensure you get your copy.