Berlin, William James and Booksluts

There’s such a beautiful piece over at The Awl by Bookslut‘s Jessa Crispin. Her Talking to the Dead: Channeling William James in Berlin details her own experiences living in the city and how she reached out to James’ life and work for comfort. Berlin can be a tough town. Especially the winters. The cold gets into your bones and doesn’t go away until June. Crispin writes:

The freeing sensation that comes with burning your old life down to the foundations fades surprisingly quickly. At the first sign of rain, you will miss that old roof, inadequate as it might have been. And so there were nights, lying sleepless in a bed I do not own, staring at a painting I did not choose, when I requested the presence of William James. And he would come, the older, more confident version, the one who could see his life backwards, in a three-piece suit and smoking a pipe.

James believed in free will. Perhaps this free will is what makes us quit our jobs and move to Berlin with two suitcases in order to find ourselves (something Crispin and I have in common!). But this free will can also cause a lot of anxiety. If my time in Berlin taught me one thing, it’s this: too much freedom is as bad as no freedom at all. There’s a sweet spot in the middle where most of us humans can be happy and relatively sane. If everything is wide open and one can choose from unlimited options, the result is often paralysis.

Right now, Berlin has quite a pull on people. However, I fear the situation is already close to its tipping point (rents are much higher than they once were and all the aimless expatriates are seriously testing the Berliners’ tolerance). I wonder if once the world economy picks up again (it will do this, right?), people will stop flocking to Berlin in search of cheap rents and good times and instead stay at home and enjoy the pleasures of working a job they enjoy. Just an idea. In any case, Crispin articulates Berlin’s pull in such gorgeous prose. Here’s another passage:

Let’s say, for a moment, that the character of a city has an effect on its inhabitants, and that it sets the frequency on which it calls out to the migratory. People who are tuned a certain way will heed the call almost without knowing why. Thinking that they’ve chosen this city, they’ll never know that the city chose them. Let’s say, for a moment, that the literal situation of a city can leak out into the metaphorical realm. That the city is the vessel and we are all merely beings of differing viscosity, slowly taking on the shape of that into which we are poured.

Perhaps this is why Berlin attracts so many Americans. Maybe it’s not about free will at all.


~ by Valerie Palmer on December 14, 2012.

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