:: Article

Kong’s Finest Hour

By Jim Henderson.

Alexander Kluge, Kong’s Finest Hour (Seagull Books, 2021); Photo via Seagull Books.

Thirty or so years after history was pronounced over, the past appears as a stock of decontextualized images picked over to generate crude comparisons to the present. In a week in the US, you can be living simultaneously in the Weimar Republic (when there’s a Trump rally), the end of the Soviet Union (when somebody gives a speech full of platitudes that its audience doesn’t really believe), or the New Deal (when a stimulus bill passes). The only parts that are of interest in these periods are the ones that superficially resemble the present and can thus be utilized by opinion mongers. By contrast, Alexander Kluge’s Kong’s Finest Hour looks at our time from the perspective of the outmoded. From the title onward, the book is haunted by the famous shot of King Kong poised over the New York skyline, woman in hand: homo sapiens suddenly confronted with the life form it thought it had moved past. It’s about evolution, but it doesn’t crow about the way things are now or write off the past as an antiquarian matter. Instead, Kluge is interested in vestiges, anachronisms, historical blind alleys, and futures that never were.

Kluge was a big name in the New German Cinema of the sixties and seventies. Now pushing ninety, he is also the author of many books of stories, though these seem to be less well known in the anglophone world. First published in German in 2015, Kong’s Finest Hour is a recent example. Some of its stories are as short as a single paragraph; the longest ones go on for a few pages. They can be parabolic or essay-like. They comprise a lot of different settings—from prehistory to the 2015 Munich Security Conference—and they are not entirely fictional. The pages of Kong’s Finest Hour form a dense agglomeration of proper names. Heinrich von Kleist, Gregor Gysi, and even Joe Biden surface before being washed away by a torrent of credentials appended to the names of seemingly imaginary authorities like Dr. Kaskevich; Prof. Dr. F; and Dr. Nathaniel Friedrichsen, M.D. Many of these stories start from a set of facts that they proceed to drift away from. At one point Kluge recounts the life of a Polish man named Aaron Kominski. Kluge tells how he emigrated to London, where he worked as a barber and was suspected of being Jack the Ripper (true), then returned to Poland and died when an air raid destroyed the concentration camp where he was imprisoned (Kominski actually died in England in 1919). For Kluge, aesthetic pleasure comes from these divergences from the historical record rather than straight fiction, if you can make these distinctions when talking about his writing. He says that “the often minute mistakes made while copying are the best part, namely FREEDOM” and his goal is “to break out of the tyranny of facts.” In other parts, anonymous and usually stateless voices cut through the onrush of names and dates: an Italian soldier in Syria, a woman from Ghana who escapes to Europe on a steamer, a guy from East Germany doing IT work for SYRIZA after years spent in Silicon Valley. And there are biographical reminiscences and diaristic sketches from Kluge himself.

All these disparate elements fit together in a sort of montage, a form that Kluge lays a lot of historical weight on. He proclaims that “attaching and gluing are part of the BEGINNING OF MODERNITY.” The layers of the text are augmented by pictures: a blown up and cropped photo of Kluge’s father looking sideways at something outside the frame, a pair of Xi Jinping commemorative plates, Libyan cave paintings. Sight nonetheless falls under suspicion in Kong’s Finest Hour. “In reality, I do not believe in the power of ‘cinematic images,’” says Kluge at one point. As a young man, he was transfixed by images circulating in postwar mass media, but these campaigns to heighten the arousal of consumer desire only misled him. He once badly inflamed his eyes when he stood up in a convertible to do the “let the wind blow over you” thing that people in car commercials do. Language doesn’t come across much better: the sense throughout the collection is that Kluge has to use the words on offer as placeholders for nameless things. The way the book mixes visual and textual elements while pointing out their limitations fits with his preoccupations. He seems fascinated by moments when two incommensurable forms of rationality collide with each other. This sort of conflict plays out in many of the stories, like the piece that features Ingeborg Bachmann trying to use an article about herself as ID at the East German border (celebrity vs. bureaucratic measures of personhood), or another story about a vicar who won’t reveal the name of someone who confessed a burglary to him (religious ethics and laws vs. secular ones).

“I believe in the poetics of evolution,” says Kluge. Nowadays evolution’s most vocal proponents use it as a scientific rationale for the antisocial individualism they were going to engage in anyway. For his part, Kluge seems to imply that species perpetuate themselves through cooperation. The page before the first chapter shows a baby mountain gorilla being held by its mother; in the stories that follow, apes band together in units sustained by mutual support. Yet in itself, this primordial reciprocity is not enough to ensure survival. Circumstances constantly threaten to turn against these little groups. An academic who appears in one story remarks that “why one line of progress derailed is not because it’s unfit, but because conditions excluded any kind of adaptation. It is necessary . . . to imagine what high degree of good fortune (and thus coincidence) is stored in our ancestors.” It’s an idea that often comes up: unlike complacent accounts of the present, the book suggests that what wins out in the struggle for survival is more or less random and has nothing to do with what’s best. A sense of life’s contingency hangs over Kong’s Finest Hour. It takes a number of forms. A fan of aleatory art, Kluge appreciates the way successive chance occurrences along the evolutionary line create singular things like fingerprints or the folds of an ape’s nose. But he is especially fascinated by remnants of bygone eras that have somehow endured. These can be vestigial traits, like the nerves in feet (which shoes have made largely inactive); more often, they are traces of dashed political hopes and twentieth-century socialist experiments whose memory has been blotted out by capitalist triumphalism. The book surveys a number of them, such as the last surviving Institute of Marxist-Biocosmic Alchemy, or the German Federal Ministry of Finance’s office, which in Kluge’s telling once belonged to the GDR’s Council of Ministers.

At times these holdovers take on an autobiographical quality. Some parts of Kong’s Finest Hour read like an excavation of Kluge’s personality. He is the son of a stolid, upright doctor brought up according to Bismarckian mores (Kluge says that “my father possessed a composite of the characteristics that defined society in 1882 [ten years before his birth]”) and a vivacious, headstrong mother; in his memories, she figures as sharp-eyed and physically imposing. They split up after the war, during which Halberstadt, the town where they lived, was bombed. His parents ended up living on opposite sides of the wall, with his father staying in the East, where he was out of place as an unreconstructed nineteenth-century bourgeois. Kluge repeatedly goes over these memories. He itemizes his qualities and the side of his family that each belongs to; his retention of mannerisms forged in long-gone circumstances sometimes creates weird cross-historical encounters. From his mother, he inherited a certain recklessness and a familiar manner. His father gave him a short temper and a tendency to yell, but Kluge lacks his bass voice and the doctor’s office that gave it heft. Kluge mentions how when he starts shouting in his dealings on the phone (which seem to take up a lot of his time: a number of stories mention his negotiations with producers, publishers, and other culture industry brokers), he comes across as huffy rather than authoritative. Transplanted to this context, the bearing of a stern 1930s patriarch seems incongruous.

The persistence of such vestiges makes for the most affecting material of the book. It’s clear that Kluge’s sympathies lie with things that have outlasted the times they belonged to and are on their way to being forgotten. He wants to rescue them from historical amnesia, and at times he reaches the point of talking in terms of resurrection and reanimation. Having catalogued the deposits his mother left in his personality, Kluge remarks that “the majority of her still lives in my sister and me. But that is not enough . . . I want to reclaim every word that she ever said . . . I’ll loan her my breath. She can walk using my legs.” In other parts of Kong’s Finest Hour, these visions get even more sweeping. One of the best stories in the book is about a conversation he says he had with the playwright Heiner Müller. They imagine what it would take to extend the fruits of revolutionary change backward to those who died before it could be realized. This causes them to wonder about a different sort of utopia, the idea that “an act of destruction could be reversed”:

Can the circulatory system of a stag shot by hunters be reactivated? Is it possible to collect together the “disassembled” projectile within the body of the stag, to re-unite it with its cartridge on the spot and return it to safe-keeping in the hunter’s gun by reconstructing its trajectory, while also realizing that the thing is to change the hunter’s thinking so that he renounces his desire to destroy and bag his prey and doesn’t simply repeat his shooting right away?

From there they talk about whether there could be a switch that turns off historical forces until a more propitious time for them comes along. Here Kluge’s desire to rescue the past from the oblivion of presentism approaches sci-fi eschatology. His hopes might be in vain, but who wouldn’t want a switch like that if, as Kluge suggests, history consists of random shifts that dislodge lives, thwart attempts at collective transformation, and make it so those who lose out aren’t even remembered? In our perpetual present, with its proverbial “memory hole” widening out to sinkhole proportions, you can see the appeal.

Jim Henderson lives in Minneapolis.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 25th, 2021.