Life on the Border

the Imago of the Gypsy in Literature and the Arts

(Stand April 2008)

Der Antiziganismus hat die Erfahrung des Holocaust fast unbeschadet überstanden – oder aber, schlimmer noch, seine Vorurteile an einen Philoziganismus weitergereicht, wo in den Phantasien von ungebundenen Nomaden und freidelirierenden Schizos die alte Sehnsucht von der ‚Freiheit hoch auf dem grünen Zigeunerwagen’ (Thomas Mann) als Theoriekitsch weiterlebt – dies ist eine der Hypothesen eines Forschungsvorhabens an der Schnittstelle von Philologie und Kulturgeschichte, das der Imago des Zigeuners in unterschiedlichen medialen Kontexten über die Jahrhunderte hinweg folgt. Nicht die Lebenswirklichkeit von Sinti und Roma, Manouches oder Kalderasch ist Gegenstand des Forschungsvorhabens, sondern Phantasien der Mehrheit über eine Minderheit, ein Artefakt also, das gleichwohl der Mehrheitsgesellschaft als unverzichtbare negative Orientierung ihrer Selbstverständigung dient. Seit rund 500 Jahren arbeiten Literatur, Bildende Künste, Musik, aber auch die sog. Ziganologie und schließlich auch der Film in ihren Versuchsanordnungen ein pittoreskes Phantasma aus: Die hexenhafte Wahrsagerin, die Tänzerin mit Tamburin und Fußschellen oder die Operettengestalt des treuherzigen Vagabunden sind die markantesten Figuren dieses Szenarios, dessen verführerische Attraktivität freilich durch die zwingende Verbindung seiner Protagonisten mit Schmutz, Gestank und Kreatürlichkeit nachhaltig beeinträchtigt wird.

Die mediale Konstruktion des Zigeuners folgt in ihren Konjunkturen vor allem außerästhetischen Interessen: sei es, dass im Nahbild des Zigeuners das Fernbild des edlen Wilden desillusioniert wird, sei es, dass die nomadische Lebensweise der romantischen Generation als Heilmittel für ihre Entfremdungserfahrung empfohlen oder dass materielles Elend und kriminelle Verwahrlosung die Realität des Vagabundentums zu illustrieren und damit ex negativo die Normen der bürgerlichen Welt zu bestätigen haben. Die Überprüfung einer möglichen Vereinbarkeit von Mehrheitsordnung mit der Lebensweise der Zigeuner in Literatur und Kunst führt fast durchweg zu einem negativem Ergebnis.

Unter dem Label ‚Zigeuner’ liegt ein Phantom- und Vorurteilskomplex vor, der sich – trotz einiger gemeinsamer Schnittmengen – von dem benachbarten des ‚Juden’ erheblich unterscheidet: Hier die vorgeblich nomadisierenden, nicht alphabetisierten, sexuell freizügigen Zigeuner, dort die integrationswilligen, schriftgelehrten und sexuell zurückhaltenden Juden. In beiden Fällen steht das Problem der Assimilation zur Verhandlung, aber zumeist mit gegensätzlichem Ergebnis: im Fall der Zigeuner droht sie zu scheitern, in dem der Juden, womöglich bedrohlicher noch, zu gelingen. Vor dem Hintergrund der derzeit geführten Diskussionen um Assimilation und Integration gewinnt das Vorhaben einer kulturgeschichtlichen Rekonstruktion der Zigeunerimago seine Aktualität.

(Last modified April 2008)

Antiziganism survived the experience of the Holocaust nearly undamaged; or, what is worse, passed on its prejudices to a form of philoziganism. Here, in fantasies about unfettered no-mads and wildly raving schizophrenic characters, the old yearning for freedom “high up on the yellow wagon” (Thomas Mann) lives on as theoretical kitsch. This outlines one of the arguments pursued in this study, a study situated on the intersection of literary studies and cultural history, which retraces the imago of the gypsy in a variety of medial contexts over several centuries. Thus, rather than addressing the day-to-day lives of Sinti, Roma, Manouches, or Kalderasch, this research considers the fantasies of the majority about a minor-ity, as a kind of artifact, which nonetheless serves mainstream society as an indispensable negative landmark for constructing the majority’s self-understanding. For some five hundred years, literature, the visual arts, and music, as well as so-called ziganology or the study of the gypsies, and, last but not least, the cinema have shaped, with their experimental orders, a pic-turesque panorama: the witchlike fortuneteller, the dancer with the tambourine and bells around her ankles, or the loyal vagabond of operetta fame are the most distinctive characters in this scenario. The seductive attractiveness of this scenario is, albeit, substantially impaired by its protagonists’ indissoluble connection to filth, stench, and creatureliness.

Constructions of the gypsy in various media were subject to cycles determined primarily by extra-aesthetic interests: in some cases, the close-up image of the gypsy served to demystify the far-off image of the noble savage; in others, the nomadic lifestyle of the romantic genera-tion was suggested as a remedy for the experience of alienation; in still others, material mis-ery and criminal depravation are utilized to illustrate the realities of vagabond life and thus to confirm, ex negative, the norms of the bourgeois world. In almost all instances, appraisals in literature and the arts of the possible compatibility of the majority order with the gypsies’ way of life lead to negative results.

As a label, the concept of the gypsy stands for a complex of phantoms and prejudices, which, despite certain commonalities, is quite distinct from the neighboring complex of “the Jew”: on the one hand, there is the supposedly nomadic, analphabetic, sexually permissive gypsy; on the other, the Jew, as a figure supposedly characterized by the will to become integrated in mainstream society, by a high level of education, and by sexual restraint. In both cases, as-similation is the problem that is negotiated, but the result generally differs greatly: with re-spect to the gypsies, integration seems doomed to failure; in the case of the Jews, perhaps worse still, to bound to succeed. Seen on the backdrop of current discussions in German soci-ety about assimilation and integration, this attempt to reconstruct the cultural history of the imago of the gypsy gains new topicality.

(Last modified April 2008)

Antiziganism survived the experience of the Holocaust nearly undamaged; or, what is worse, passed on its prejudices to a form of philoziganism. Here, in fantasies about unfettered no-mads and wildly raving schizophrenic characters, the old yearning for freedom “high up on the yellow wagon” (Thomas Mann) lives on as theoretical kitsch. This outlines one of the arguments pursued in this study, a study situated on the intersection of literary studies and cultural history, which retraces the imago of the gypsy in a variety of medial contexts over several centuries. Thus, rather than addressing the day-to-day lives of Sinti, Roma, Manouches, or Kalderasch, this research considers the fantasies of the majority about a minor-ity, as a kind of artifact, which nonetheless serves mainstream society as an indispensable negative landmark for constructing the majority’s self-understanding. For some five hundred years, literature, the visual arts, and music, as well as so-called ziganology or the study of the gypsies, and, last but not least, the cinema have shaped, with their experimental orders, a pic-turesque panorama: the witchlike fortuneteller, the dancer with the tambourine and bells around her ankles, or the loyal vagabond of operetta fame are the most distinctive characters in this scenario. The seductive attractiveness of this scenario is, albeit, substantially impaired by its protagonists’ indissoluble connection to filth, stench, and creatureliness.

Constructions of the gypsy in various media were subject to cycles determined primarily by extra-aesthetic interests: in some cases, the close-up image of the gypsy served to demystify the far-off image of the noble savage; in others, the nomadic lifestyle of the romantic genera-tion was suggested as a remedy for the experience of alienation; in still others, material mis-ery and criminal depravation are utilized to illustrate the realities of vagabond life and thus to confirm, ex negative, the norms of the bourgeois world. In almost all instances, appraisals in literature and the arts of the possible compatibility of the majority order with the gypsies’ way of life lead to negative results.

As a label, the concept of the gypsy stands for a complex of phantoms and prejudices, which, despite certain commonalities, is quite distinct from the neighboring complex of “the Jew”: on the one hand, there is the supposedly nomadic, analphabetic, sexually permissive gypsy; on the other, the Jew, as a figure supposedly characterized by the will to become integrated in mainstream society, by a high level of education, and by sexual restraint. In both cases, as-similation is the problem that is negotiated, but the result generally differs greatly: with re-spect to the gypsies, integration seems doomed to failure; in the case of the Jews, perhaps worse still, to bound to succeed. Seen on the backdrop of current discussions in German soci-ety about assimilation and integration, this attempt to reconstruct the cultural history of the imago of the gypsy gains new topicality.