Essays fom Central Europe , Part 2
A Travel Novel
When I was trying to decide whether to visit Karlovy Vary, Franzensbad or Marienbad on the map of my memory of the names of the fashionable Bohemian spas, Goethe came to my rescue. The "Marienbad Elegy" was still known to me as a poem and as an episode from his life. And so the decision was made quite quickly, helped by the easy accessibility from the Nuremberg-Prague highway.
The Upper Palatinate, which one crosses on the way to Marienbad, is by no means as barren and poor as it might have been in the days of the composer Max Reger. Well-kept, small towns with top modern industrial estates speak eloquently of the dynamic change that the former agricultural state of Bavaria has undergone.
The unoccupied border fortifications with the Czech Republic are still for me one of the wonders of recent European history. The fanatically precise and almost sadistic border controls of the defunct communist regime are still too vivid for me.
The Sudetenland behind the border still shows the exodus of the German population. Compared to the rest of the Czech Republic, the economy here still lags far behind.
Sparsely populated, interspersed with often slightly dilapidated small old farmhouses, on the other hand, one experiences here a tranquility and romance of the countryside that over in Bavaria has mostly been lost long ago behind the highly effective bustle.
The magic of a country road with its delicate birch trees is difficult to capture in words. Like garlands, the outer branches waft back and forth, doubling their effect when they are reflected in the water of the nearby ponds. One is already fully in the expectation of secluded country life, when Marienbad rises like a mirage of the 19th century in this peaceful idyll.
A grandeur that is incomparable and next to which the other famous spas of Europe almost pale, rises among the great forests of the area in a wildly romantic valley. The architecture overwhelms in its sense of proportion and beauty. It is inconceivable how all the tragedies of the 20th century could have had so little effect on this world. Even today, Marienbad is a symbol of the most beautiful things in European culture.
Thus, Goethe's Marienbad Elegy, in its today almost grotesque seeming infatuation with age, which then rises to inconceivable passion, fits wonderfully into this gem between the high beech forests of western Bohemia.
The whole place seems completely removed from the information overload and the imagined or felt catastrophes of the 21st century. And then it is not at all: many of the aristocratic apartments are empty and the inhabitants migrate to Prague or to work in Germany.
On Sunday, there is a bilingual Protestant mass, with the priest also serving as organist. A true all-purpose weapon of the Lord, he even puts the songs from the sheet into the right key for the congregation. Many songs wandered between the cultural circles of Europe, showing once again how closely this continent is culturally interwoven.
The message of the sermon, which admonishes not to get too involved in the temptations of the present, seems authentic in this setting and tells of the long periods in which the church thinks. But also a boon is the careful German of the pastor, who perhaps without meaning to, draws attention to the beauty of the language.
On leaving the next morning, I feel refreshed at the Gemüt, a word I had also almost forgotten. It is difficult to know what was the greater refreshment: the mineral springs bubbling everywhere or the feeling of having arrived at the home of my own culture.
Finally, a few lines from Goethe's Marienbad Elegy:
In our pure bosom a striving surges,
To a higher, purer, unknown one
Out of gratitude voluntarily surrender,
Unraveling the eternally unknown;
We call it: to be pious! - Such a blessed height
I feel myself partaking, when I stand before it.
And here is the most beautiful setting that can be given to this poem:
Stefan Zweig's "Sternstunden der Menschheit":