Ludwig Harig Obituary
“This was another world. Frankfurt lay in ruins. The duty officer stormed down the corridors, the stamping of his boots echoing on the tiles, his shrill whistle screeching through the house. Halfway through the night we left Idstein and headed for the motorway in trucks, smelling the dust rising from the ruins outside Höchst, and drove into the acrid smoke of the city behind Rödelheim.”
“It was a miserable undertaking, this hopeless poking about in the rubble, clearing up ruins, where nothing had been left whole but useless clutter, vain tat. We trampled down the walls that had been left standing, pounded steel safes with concrete blocks, plundered half-charred libraries, and stole letters and books. […] On one corner we saw a Jew, an old man with a beard and glasses, he wore a black cap on his head and sewn on to his quilted jacket was the yellow star. I looked at him and didn’t know what to think. Someone said to Kurt Groth: ‘Go on. You can go and spit at him if you like. Nobody will stop you.’ Kurt stayed rooted to the spot.”
Many years ago, when the building of an imitation of Frankfurt’s Altstadt was still under discussion, I would often cite this passage from Ludwig Harig’s autobiographical novel “Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt” [Woe Betide He Who Steps out of Line] as a reason for why the Altstadt no longer existed and to explain why rebuilding it would amount to a falsification of history. It didn’t help. The “Altstadt” is about to open, and Harig is dead. This citizen of the world from Sulzbach in Saarland was not just a wonderful narrator, who saw the bigger picture through the detail, but also a translator – he gave us for example the German translation of Raymond Queneau’s “100,000,000,000,000 poems”, ten sonnets, whose lines can be swapped at will. He was a master of word games, Oulipist, reviver of radio plays, teacher and documenter of the Stuttgart school founded by the philosopher Max Bense. Harig wrote about the school and about the city of Brasilia in the sixth issue of Design Report 1988, a journal considered innovative for its content at the time.
Bense, who also taught semiotics at HfG Ulm and who continues to be ignored by some design philosophers, was an admirer of Harig’s writing from the outset. From 1955, Bense and Elisabeth Walther published Harig’s works in “Augenblick” [Moment]. These works are seen as early examples of concrete poetry, which Marcel Reich-Ranicki described as “experimental texts that he read at the meeting of the Group 47 [in 1960 in Aschaffenburg] which were not good”. What displeased the great critic was Harig’s work with words and structure, such as with the politician’s slogan “Wir sind wieder wer” [We are somebody again] which invited permutation into the question “Wer sind wir wieder?” [Who are we again?]. Harig’s radio play from 1969, “Staatsbegräbnis” [State funeral] also demonstrated that concrete poetry was about much more than playing with form, as Harig himself assiduously reminisced in “Max and Moritz” (1979), with Bense as the big Max and Harig himself as Moritz: “Bense’s numerical aesthetics, the inclusion of mathematical principles in writing, the connection between vital being and rational doing, getting to know and understand all of this kept me in suspense; I learned about the strategies of imagination, the tactics of intuition, the planning of games, and this is what I encountered and learned: all of this was equally connected with the head and the belly, the technical world is connected to the bowels […].” This knowledge of connections and life and work such as Harig, who died on 5 May 2018 at the age of ninety, himself lived, is something I would wish many, so that they do not remain mired in technocracy on the one hand, or subjectivity on the other. Reading Harig can help.