Göttingen, Niedersachsen

Expecting to find that my Air BnB in the largely undestroyed old University town of Göttingen in Niedersachsen would be in a student hall of residence, my basic needs catered but not in a calm environment, I was pleased to find the apartment instead in a very salubrious area with large houses once owned by Nobel prize winners, Max Planck, an important figure in the development of quantum physics, at Merkelstrasse 12 (and died there in 1947), and Werner Heisenberg at no. 18, who, according to Wikipedia, was initially frowned on by the Nazis because of his association with the ideas of Einstein, which the Nazis self-destructively regarded as Jewish physics. Heisenberg was subsequently protected by Himmler and became an important collaborator in the German nuclear programme. And in my street lived Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer, awarded a Nobel Peace prize in 1922 for his work as a League of Nations commissioner for refugees in the first world war. I wonder if Fridtjof Nansenstrasse kept its name during the Nazi period.

Göttingen is bigger than Lund but smaller than Uppsala. Finding my lodgings on the outskirts of the centre reminded me very much of my early days in Lund, liking the laid-back environment where you didn’t always bother to lock the door when you went out but where there was much, including the language, that I didn’t understand. But in Göttingen, I wondered, as I did in Heidelberg, about life in Göttingen in the Nazi period. I want to get hold of David Imhoff’s 2013 book “Becoming a Nazi Town: Culture and Politics in Göttingen between the World Wars”. University of Michigan Press.

.My visit to Göttingen university library confirmed what I already suspected, that it wasn’t the place to work on my reading list of books on India as the academic focus didn’t cater for my needs. But I was too enamoured of the picture of myself sitting and reading in a German university library to lightly do the sensible thing and abandon the idea of a visit. And I couldn’t avoid the railway station as it was on my route to France so it was easy to persist.

The town is fine, having suffered only light damage in the war with many old buildings extending all the way back to the thirteenth century. But the cold prevented me from doing it justice, the old man in me lacking the steely determination of earlier versions to complete my intended programme regardless of sporadic externals. I saw the house where Bismarck had lived when a student in the city and the statue of the girl with a goose that new graduates (or was it new PhDs) were supposed to kiss. And the statue of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799), whom I took a fancy to. He was the first person to hold a professorship in experimental physics. An anglophile who visited England on two occasions, hobnobbing with George III; there were many German-English cultural contacts in the eighteenth century when the British king was also Duke and Prince-elector of Brunswick-Lüneburg (“Hanover”) in the Holy Roman Empire before becoming king of Hanover on 12 October 1814. 

What interested me most about Lichtenberg was not his royal contacts or scientific contributions but his “sudelbucher”, a translation of “waste books”, an old bookkeeping term. As I understand these were books that bookkeepers jotted economic transactions down in before transferring the information m to a more permanent and organised form when back in their offices. Lichtenberg used his travelling notebooks in much the same way (lettered alphabetically I believe), transferring his jottings and ideas to structured notebooks when back in his work room. His notebooks have subsequently attracted attention from Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein and Jacques Barzon; not sure whether it was his travelling notebooks or the sanitised home versions they admired.

For years, I have had a problem with notebooks. I like having a notebook with me to jot down words and book titles, practical things and whatever cerebral flotsam and jetsam that catches my fancy. But I’m too promiscuous as I fall in love with notebooks at the flick of a creamy page and acquire more and more. And I have become increasingly preoccupied by my obvious need for a notebook policy. A couple of years ago, I took the radical step of collecting every notebook I could find, dividing them into virgin and used, and then categorizing them, but carrying around separate notebooks for etymology, vocabulary/language, book titles, memories, associations etc. is too cumbersome. Instead, they have to be on a shelf in my work room and I will have a general notebook or perhaps binder that I carry with me before transferring my info to my shelf of books at home. Not quite sure yet how this is going to work as home is an infrequent place but I am convinced that a Lichtenberg solution is the way to go, perhaps a digitalized Lichtenberg solution.

I somehow doubt that my collection of notes, scribbled by the Delphic oracle after having taken LSD is going to attract future praise from the latter- day equivalents of Tolstoy and Wittgenstein.

I’m also grateful to Lichtenberg for having led me to read about Jacques Barzon, who lived from 1907 to 2012, according to whom “Old age is like learning a new profession and not one of your own choosing” (he had a few years to sharpen his act in this area). I’d never heard of him before but he was an active writer from 1927 to 2004 and published what some people regard as his magnum opus: From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present in 2000 at the age of 93. I must find out more about him; I will undoubtedly find much that I don’t agree with but also the admirable.

So thank you for that Göttingen, despite the almost inaudible voice of the past dubious

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