Germany Is Abuzz, Literally

Tourism Lit: the summer of wasps in Berlin

Robert Musil in 1900 (Journaux)

Cherrypicking the vast mire of policy regulations, German newspapers hit tabloid gold this summer with the headline: ‘Killing a Wasp Can Cost You 5,000 Euros!’ A headline designed to make the reader’s blood boil for reasons I’ll get into.

Since Berlin was sweltering with uncommonly high temperatures this summer, the wasp situation became uncomfortably relevant. You would get your lager and your currywurst and prepare to enjoy it at a picnic table or outside, on the sidewalk, when here they came: the bomber squadron of wasps, or what I, from my Georgia childhood, would call yellowjackets.  There would soon be two dogpaddling in your Erlanger and three laying dibs to your currywurst. Since wasps have a sharp sting, and since, unlike bees (who die if they sting), they have no problem deploying them, all of this foraging was also threatening.

You’d look around at the other tables and see basically two reactions. Some customers began a seated version of the Freak, that popular dance from the 70s, as they tried to shoo the beasts. Unfortunately, this only stirred the wasps to even more aggressive Lebensraum frenzies. Other diners (who looked like experienced Berliners) took the Buddhist approach of refusing to shoo, thus, theoretically, radiating love peace and compassion to the invading hordes. Neither tactic worked.

I talked to one waiter who held up his arms and demonstrated six separate stings: “This is how much they have stung me today.” Myself, I began as a freak person. But at some point, the equivalent of road rage set in, and I got in contact with my inner cowboy: appropriating my boy’s squirtgun, I engaged in firefights with the pests, finding that a solid wetting would force them to fly away.  The down side of this tactic was, 1) I soaked everyone sitting in the vicinity of my table with my off shots, and 2) the wasps instituted displacement rolls and other evasive maneuvers and still ended up in my beer, or on my arm.

There is a good reason that the wasp fine came into existence: Europe is suffering a catastrophic loss of insect populations and diversity, due to climate change. But bureaucratic rules are slow to catch the changes that are happening; seeking to protect honeybees, they may simply be advancing another species in the bee niche. Wasps naturally lay thousands of eggs to survive the spring, when cold temperatures eliminate a majority of the larvae. But this spring’s temperatures were not cold enough. Instead of the struggle for survival, these wasp babies were given the equivalent of an all expenses paid spring break trip to Fort Lauderdale, and behaved accordingly.

The Darwinian fury at the lunch table reminded me of a classical piece of prose description by the Austrian writer, Robert Musil. Musil is best known for his 2000 plus page novel about Vienna, The Man without Qualities. His essay, Fly Paper (which you can find, translated by Peter Wortsman, in the essay collection,  Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, published by Archipelago Books as a swell looking paperback) requires less exorbitant attention from the reader, since it is all of 2 pages long. Musil wrote it in 1913, before the real start of violence in the 20th century, but it reads like an allegory of what is to come. He observes the interaction between flies and flypaper as though he were describing something essentially human. The essay begins with a horror movie flourish:

“Tangle-foot flypaper is approximately fourteen inches long and eight inches wide; it is coated with a yellow poison paste and comes from Canada. When a fly lands on it – not so eagerly, more out of convention, because so many others are already there – it gets stuck at first by only the outermost joints of all its legs. A very quiet, disconcerting sensation, as though while walking in the dark we were to step on something with our naked soles, nothing more than a soft, warm, unavoidable obstruction, and yet something into which little by little the awesome human essence flows, recognized as a hand that just happens to be lying there, and with five ever more decipherable fingers, holds us tight.”

Musil liked to combine, as he put it, precision and soul. It was a form of seeing that built its symbolic and metaphoric work – for instance, those hands lying in wait for the skinny fly’s legs – on the exactness of observation. What he sees happening to the flies (with their ‘brown and hairy” heads, “as though made of a coconut, as manlike as an African idol”), we seem to have a dim memory of, having seen scenes like this in old black and white films of battlefields and concentration camps: “Here they stand all stiffly erect, like cripples pretending to be normal, or like decrepit old soldiers (and a little bowlegged, the way you stand on a pointy ridge). They hold themselves upright, gathering strength and pondering their position. After a few seconds they’ve come to a tactical decision and they begin to do what they can, to buzz and try to lift themselves.”

Although Musil is associated with Austria, he spent a lot of time in Berlin, where he went to the University and studied scientific psychology. He was there in 1914, when war broke out, and in 1933, when the Nazis took over. He had, it seems, a talent for being at the breaking points of history. Soon after the publication of his Flypaper essay, he went into the Austrian army and served in the war on the Italian front.

While Musil rarely refers Berlin in his works, surely the Flypaper essay was influenced by the sort of ambient dread that it is easy to catch from the Berlin atmosphere. It is, after all, a city that has had a ringside seat at most of the catastrophes of the twentieth century. The wasps this burning Berlin summer are barely a ripple on the placid current of bourgeois life, barely enter the consciousness of the clubber set in the cafes of Neukölln or the prosperous older people talking over their Kaffee und Kuchen in the quiet courtyard of the Literaturhaus near Kurfürstendamm. But looked at as closely as Musil looked at the flies dying on a piece of flypaper,  you might see, in their numbers, one of the hair thin fault lines that is running through our contemporary history. In this summer of wasps, one has a strong sentiment of the geologically rapid crumbling of the Holocene. You don’t need to be a scientist at the North Pole to see what is happening. Berlin will not have a special ringside seat for the bad weather ahead – we will all have those seats – but in this summer of the wasp, one feels in more proximity to it  here.

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