IRAS Reading Room West

IRAS, the International Republic for Artists and Scientists, is the utopian refuge of an artistic and scientific elite after the atomic devastation of the earth in World War III. The gloomy science-fiction vision from the Cold War in the 1950s comes from Arno Schmidt’s novel “The Egghead Republic”(1957). The hopes attached to the IRAS—that even after the fall of humanity, at least art and science could continue to exist on a mobile, artificial island—are bitterly disappointed. While the East-West division continues here as well, and both sides conduct secret medical experiments on humans, the libraries that preserve humanity’s memory deteriorate through neglect. The reading rooms in the west of the island are empty, which the text terms a “tragedy,” and in the east people march in ranks to read, which it terms a “comedy.”
      Today we know that the East-West conflict, that was the background for such apocalyptic scenarios, did not discharge in a third world war, but was overcome through the total marketing of the entire planet. By contrast, the cultural critique that Arno Schmidt inscribed into his utopia has lost none of its currency. On the contrary: the more the so-called culture of the West extends its global triumphant march, the clearer the lacuna that the critique refers to is—although it assumed other historical circumstances— and the more precisely is it possible to name what is forgotten and what makes the empty Western reading room an emblem of the failed utopia. This forgotten something, that makes the victory of Western culture Pyrrhic, marks an area beyond the pop-cultural intersections which today create a homogeneity of cultures that is the same the world over. Precisely because the pop-cultural camouflaged mainstream did not yet exist in Arno Schmidt’s times, the hypothesis of the empty library now leads to a hidden trail that, in its generality, was initially hardly perceptible. The specific something that is lost is precisely the labyrinthine, seemingly future-averted side of an epoch that, at the moment when IRAS was invented and seemed necessary, was still unbrokenly called “modernism,” but that today is splintered into diverse post-epochs. The forgotten something that this splintering unforeseeably liberates again is a shadow of modernism—and, to borrow from Arnold Böcklin’s famous painting, perhaps this rising shadow could be called “Isle of the Dead Modernism.” The engagement with historical stations of this shadow line of modernism allows for different foci. We might, for example, look at Peter Stein’s 16-hour production of both parts of Goethe’s “Faust” (a work from the beginning of the modern shadow line) in 2000. In the Classical Walpurgis Night (“Faust II”), where the theme of the southern world of antiquity is taken as a counterpart to the northern witches’ kitchen (“Faust I”); the appropriation of that world takes place in conscious opposition to the Enlightenment analytical iconoclasm of the web of ideas that would finally lead to official Protestant orthodox modernism, where there is no longer any room for such dark, mythical ballast. The supposed triumphal procession of a one-dimensionally defined Western culture has already reached a limit here, which ever since then has been accompanying every further step like a bizarre, internalized Prometheus reflex. Elsewhere, we may look at Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film versions of the myths of antiquity from the 1960s and 1970s, where at the tentative end of the confusing game of self-loss and self-discovery, the memory of antiquity once more displays an elegiac richness of images.
      In the focus of that almost forgotten axis from the north to the south within Europe, on which many of the shady chargings of a thinking-oriented towards aesthetics took place, the “Faust II” material as well as Pasolini’s pictorial inventions offer a quite varied view of the blinding twilight. Disparate mythological references and surrealistically pictured cosmological and political theories come together with historical figures, connected only symbolically and as if in a dream—for example the pre-Socratic philosophers Thales and Anaximander, who conduct the geological debate, current in Goethe’s own time, between the Neptunists and the Vulcanists. Pasolini, on the other hand, tries to concentrate the ancient/mythical theme of origins one last time in the North African desert landscape, in archaic images and with very little text. The south, cold and pushed into the distance, is the motif that provides a darkened target throughout the entire modernist period in the old and new search for a European identity mediated not solely in terms of pop culture. The more tangled this path seems in comparison to the well-trodden mainstream paths of recent decades, the more it can contribute to alternative determinations of position, without questioning the already historical global triumph of Western culture.
      The new filling of the empty reading room with various sequences of pictures from modernism’s “Isle of the Dead” brings to light a counter-model that helps to once again relativize the entire contrary process of the failure of a utopia: what has failed is only that part of a context, steered by hope, that believed from the start it could do without a labor of memory. But the other, memory-fostering part, which already slid into a wild, branching undergrowth, almost before this failure, cannot unfold its powers until all possibilities seem to have been realized and squandered. A path from the island, so far removed from the world, toward the supposedly best possible of all worlds becomes visible, where every step doubles the ground that just previously seemed suspicious as simple ground.

Halcyon Days, Cologne 2013, p. 219