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fiction 1: MAX WEBER IN OKLAHOMA page 5 –

Max Weber sat at the breakfast table in their first Heidelberg apartment, Hauptstrasse 73.  Late winter, 1904.  An uncertain night of troubled sleep, had been up late writing, happy to be at it again after so many insufferable years, but anxious, each fitful dream, every exhausted morning, every restless worry could be the beginning of another plunge into darkness, every ordinary fluctuation of mood, common irritation an ominous foreboding, every hope– things had been going well, he’d taken on the co-editorship with Edgar Jaffé, after much discussion and hesitation, of the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, a position that did not require constant attention, that gave him the freedom to work as he was able– every hope could be a cruel deception.

Marianne brought in the morning post, took a chair beside him and watched– something interested her beyond normal solicitation.

“A letter from Hugo Münsterberg at Harvard.”

He leans over his tea cup and spreads out the envelopes with his fingertips, the one from the United States right on top.  “So there is.”


Looks up from his inspection of the mail.  “Well what, my Little One?”

“Aren’t you going to open it?  I’m always interested in hearing from Hugo.”

“As am I.  I suppose I will open it.”  Leans back into the chair, picks up a piece of toast and begins a deliberate application of butter, then marmalade.  “This bread smells wonderful.”

“Max!  Please.”

“Ah, yes.  The letter.”  Wipes his fingers on his napkin, picks it up, examines the stamps, smiling askance at Marianne, removes the contents, unfolds and smooths it out, reads.

She begins to fiddle with the plate and fork before her, observes the smile broaden across his face.  “What does he have to say?”

“You are the curious child this morning.  It is very interesting:  he is inviting me to America to give a lecture at the Universal Exposition in Saint Louis.”

Looks at him, uncertain.  “That’s great news.  Don’t you think.”

His smile is more rigid.  “The honorarium is quite generous.”  Folds the letter, returns it to the envelope.  “There are several subjects I would be interested to expound upon at such a prestigious venue.”  Takes up the interrupted application of marmalade.  “And what a marvelous opportunity to see the new world.  I’ve always wanted to go ever since Pa… ever since I heard from Henry Villard about their Great Northern Railroad trip from Minneapolis to Portland back 1883.  Paul Göhre and I had planned to attend the Chicago World’s Fair in ‘93, but unfortunately the romantic entanglement, my unexpected engagement to you intervened.”  Stops.  Still holding the toast above the plate, knife poised, eyes unfocused beyond the far edge of the table.  “It could be an inopportune time to leave:  your grandfather is very ill.  It could damage our chances of a large inheritance if we were out of the country when he died.”

She looks down, rubs her forehead, contemplates the tea in her cup.  “I don’t think it would.   Carl David is worried enough about my future, married to an invalid

ne’er-do-well like he thinks you are.  He would not punish me more.”

Smiles, picks up the envelope, taps the edge on the table top.  “Am I up to it? Would my demon allow it?”

She reaches out, places a hand at the crux of his elbow.  “Max, you have been doing well:  you’ve written three important essays for the Archiv.  This is something you cannot pass up.  Besides, travel has always been the best anodyne.”

“I can only contemplate it if you come along to look after me.”

“I suppose I could work it in among my lectures and administrative work.”

The last traces of land have fallen beyond the eastern horizon, salt air rushes over them at the stern rail watching the wake churn, the loom of Southampton linger in the clouds.  After the third day at sea, he knows he has done the right thing– all residue of a past life, all memory of depression and madness, all possibility of a future different from this suspended, unbound present are washed away.

An endless cycle of epicurean abundance– breakfast, mid-morning coffee, dinner, afternoon tea, supper, snack and long conversations among colleagues and wives, speculations, debates fluent from one glass of port, snifter of brandy, jigger of gin to the next, drawn deep into the night within the constant rise and fall, pitch and yaw of the bar, discussions of every possible process and function of a social-political-philosophical world that now seems to exist only as an entertaining theoretical construct of the mind.  Then the cabin, low-rumbling mechanical pulses trembling through the hull, the berth, wind, rushing water, dreamless sleep.

There’s nothing like a cruise.

Max Weber paced rapidly back and forth in front of the luggage laid out on the New York dock, waiting for the customs inspection, September morning blue haze resolving into grimy yellow, was anxious to head out on foot among the throngs beyond the gate, to see up close the skyscrapers shrouded in mist and morning sunlight they had glided past on the East River.  When they were finally released he bolted through the crowd, stretched out his legs to match a tempo he had never seen in a European city, dodging and weaving, sometimes jumping the curb to pass in the gutter a cluster of straggling pedestrians, cutting across intersections between vans and carts, Marianne and the German companions falling behind– he couldn’t help himself, would stop until they caught up, take off again, out of sight before he’d gone another half a block.  The New World– a cacophony of tongues, hammer blows, wagon axles, bearings, hoof iron wheel rim ringing over stone, contained within constant roaring domed above vast constructions lining the streets, every alleyway clogged with barrels, boxes, crates, lumber and bricks, pick axes and shovels, scaffolding, block and tackle, rope and pulley, men and horses, manure dried to a powder hanging in the air, the smell and taste of it inhaled and clinging to the nasal passages, the roof of the mouth– aggression, directed toward god knows what, but got to get there the quicker the better.  You stop to look, to think, the crowd has passed you by.

He loved it.

“Max.  This is ghastly.”

The colleagues had all finally caught up with him at the hotel.  The lobby packed with businessmen.  “Now just relax, we’ll go up to our rooms to rest.”

“Relax?  How in the world can you relax in a place like this.  This driven bustle, what motivation is there to slow down?  What is there to see, you don’t stroll the boulevards here to take the air, not like Rome or Paris or Vienna, it’s not civilized.  For god’s sake, this even makes Berlin look like an urban paradise.  If you’re not related to what is going on in a very strict monetary sense, you’ve no business out on the street.  You are lost.  I’ve never felt so forlorn.  My heart is still pounding, I’m sweating like a race horse, and it’s not even warm out.”  Her eyes dart around the smoky lobby.  “Relax?  In this loveless barracks full of traveling salesmen– look at this pitiful pack, they’re nothing but numbers they call out to the overworked desk clerk and the bellhops.  This is barbaric.  You could die here and no one would even notice until you started to stink the place out.”

Push their way into the elevator among cigars and sample cases.  Jump, jerk and rise in silence to the 20th floor.  The room is bare:  a telephone on a table, two wooden chairs, two enormous brass spittoons.

Marianne pulls the shade cord– it slips, snaps up, bangs and flaps around the dowel– jumps back, a little pale.  “O my gosh, we’re so high.  I think I’ve a touch of the vertigo.  Look down there into the abyss!”

Max Weber, cautious, approaches the window pane.  “This hotel’s a dwarf compared to our neighbors.  They must be at least ten stories taller.”

A narrow, precarious balcony the entire length of the room.  The avenue, straight, uniform, through chiseled stone and brick structures dissipating into dense haze and distance toward monstrous shrouded cathedral spires.  Instantaneous confusion, self-regenerating, random preconditions, wild manifold, muffled noise, dust and stench, distorted human figures, carriages, hacks, omnibuses, trolley cars scatter intense saturated light– physical to the dazzled eye, plateglass containing every discrete instant of the street continuously, violently shattered.

  Max Weber turns back into the room, moves quickly about as if looking for a way out, touching the austere fixtures as he goes.  “It’s certainly not the old German Gemütlichkeit.  But how can one criticize when one has yet to spend an entire day here.”

Who would want tofive million seemingly desperate people piled up on top

of each other, cut off from earth– we’re caged inside a prison tower– is it tremendous and magnificent or crude and hideous?”

He looks at her, an eager smile.  “The shape of things to come.”

The Brooklyn Bridge, five o’clock in the afternoon, low late summer sun.  They stand on the raised footpath in the middle and stare.  Elevated trains clatter by on both sides every fifteen seconds, trams further out hiss and rattle, all crammed full, riders hanging on behind.  Tugs, ferries and barges below, bells clang, steam whistles pipe and bellow.  To the southeast the rolling hills of the Brooklyn cemetery bristling tombstones, to the west the Battery, towers, fortresses risen among gauzy steam vapor clouds from freight elevators and boiler vents, the East River, the upper bay, the Statue of Liberty.  The narrows, then the far ocean and the sky.

“They are not ugly.”


“The skyscrapers, bastions of capitalism.  Like our tenements at home– but with their dreary facades superimposed one on top of the other ten times over, looks from here like streaked rock cliffs with a den of thieves on top.”

“But they are also not beautiful.”

“Beyond all that, truth and beauty, good and evil, exactly what they are, the reification of what goes on there.”

“Here they come.”

Sudden, frantic swarms disgorge from buildings in the business districts, merge and fill the streets– from here narrow pathways, rectilinear trails–  surge toward the Manhattan end of the bridge.  A flowing, simple physics, liquid dynamics– pressure, velocity changing where channels narrow or widen.  Tension in the bridge increases, the flood approaches– this shedding off of content– minuscule creatures, human

beings insignificant among what they have made.

“You can set your watch by it.  All social constraints destroyed in America– scholars have always thought capitalism would lead to atomization, a dust of  individuals, no more cohesive than a pile of sand– but it’s only in the midst of it that it seems shapeless, jostling, chaotic.  On another level, at far enough remove, it is closely structured and syncopated:  each individual unpredictable, but the whole rigid and regular, a lockstep order beyond consciousness and comprehension.   The idea that democracy is a mass of rugged individuals– the American conceit– fragmented, autonomous, is fundamentally wrong:  the national expansion was and is only made possible by large bureaucracies:  railroads, mining corporations and an ever larger federal government.”

Marianne pulls her collar around the throat.  “It makes me shudder– frightening to look at, to ponder.  Belief in the infinite worth, the immortality of the individual soul, at this distance, seems absurd.”

Max Weber turns to face the southeast end of the bridge, an exquisite Brooklyn accent.  “Din’t know dat death coulda undone so many.”

Chicago.  A strange flowering of civilization.  Hot dry southwest wind across a thousand miles of arid and semiarid plains, strong enough to cage the immediate clamor of the city in a persistent plaintive surge and sigh caught up in the brain at the edge of consciousness, to buffet and batter, but not to cleanse the air.  Setting sun permeates brown coal smoke, dust from unpaved streets, the filth of so much concentrated life, a pallid yellow red illumination, Lake Michigan beneath a pall of industrial particulates, the flat city, a crystallization of resident spirit– marble, golden bronze offices, blind tenement window panes, the desperate pursuit of loot– magnificent wildness reduced to imaginary extension beyond the three block range

light can penetrate.

“It’s like a man with his skin peeled off, the workings of the intestines exposed– all hell has broken loose.”

Max and Marianne Weber stand at a trolley stop, backs to the wind, their attention caught by the picket line down Halsted Street, the stockyard strike– Armour has brought in black and Italian scabs– or a streetcar demonstration– the company bankrupt, in receivership– the manifestation distorted, rippling heat, scraps of newsprint, the pop and crackle of what can it be– the crowd suddenly thrown into confusion, four or five bodies fall writhing on the pavement, shouts, screams, people scattering through traffic– gunfire!

Max Weber walks from the hotel, past plateglass windows lit with electric lights, women, every size and hue, various states of provocative dress and undress, lounge and leer, prices of their specialties scrawled on chalkboards, making his way to the tobacconist to buy cigars.  A sharp discharge, now familiar, at the door to the shop, shattering glass, he is knocked aside, two men flee into the street.  He watches them disappear into the alley.  Turns to see the proprietor facedown bleeding among cigarettes and pipes scattered across the hardwood floor.

They stand once more at the trolley stop.  A mob down the street– not organized– has surrounded and brought a streetcar to a halt, the driver, apparently a nonunion man, is dragged from his chair and beaten, the car, rocked back and forth showering electrical sparks, finally capsizes.  Ambulances come to carry off the dead and injured shoppers crushed beneath.

“Max.  I do not understand this disparity between private wealth and public squalor.  How could they allow public transportation to deteriorate like this?”

“Simple arithmetic, little one– the rationalization of capital:  around 400 people, I understand, are killed or maimed each fiscal year in streetcar accidents.  According to local law, the company’s liability is $5000 for each death, paid out to widow or heirs, and up to $10,000, the actual amount read from a rigorous schedule of damages– one eye, left hand and left leg above the knee, right foot and three fingers other than the thumb, and so on– for each cripple.  Even in an extremely unfortunate year, that comes to less than $3,000,000 per annum.  A tidy sum, but nowhere near what it would cost to establish appropriate safety procedures and to maintain the rails and the rolling stock.”

“Maybe we should take the elevated.”

“Did you see in the morning paper that threats have been made to dynamite the pylons supporting the tracks?  One of their cars, derailed by perpetrators unknown, plunged directly into the Chicago River, according to the police report.”

“We’ll take the trolley.”

“Also a story about three armed men who attacked and robbed a streetcar last evening.”

“On second thought, I think I’ll catch up on some letter writing, maybe walk over to Jane Addams’ Hull House, see if I can find a contrast to this modern urban reality.  You can sight-see alone.”

Halsted Street runs for over twenty miles through an endless human desert, through all the world’s cultures and religions– Greek hotels and orthodox churches, Chinese laundries, noodle dives, Polish insurance agencies, Roman Catholic cathedrals, Italian green grocery stores, German beer gardens, Norwegian churches– through small clabboard neighborhoods maintained according to social and economic status– yankees control the city, Greeks shine their shoes, Germans wait their tables, Irish tend to politics in the wards, blacks and Italians dig the ditches.  The streetcar rattles and clacks through thick haze to the end of the line, the Armour and Co. slaughterhouse.

Max Weber swings down from the rear platform, fights off nausea, the fetor, intensifying unnoticed in blustery hot wind through the open tram windows, now a suffocating physical presence– rotting feed, manure, violated flesh and coagulated blood.  A man sitting on a bench in bib overalls worn through at the knees, a frayed blue collarless shirt out at one elbow, watches him.  Max Weber hesitates, looks around nervously for something, uncertain what, the man stands up and approaches.  “Would you like a tour of the plant, sir?”

Clears his throat, not so sure now, raises his voice to overcome the thick knitted bleating, wails and squeals as oppressive as the stench.  “I think so.  You know something about the enterprise, boy?”

Holds up his left hand, palm out, in front of Max Weber’s face, spreads and wiggles the remaining thumb, ring and little finger.  “Yes sir, I do.”

“How much do you charge for your services?”

“Fifty cents, sir.”

From the clock tower for as far as you can see:  cattle, pigs and sheep, shoulder to rump, gridwork fence rails out to the level horizon, steeples, grain elevators, smoke stacks, wind-ripped nimbus clouds and vaporous plumes.  Max Weber stumbles along behind his guide through dense oppression, yelling questions above buzzing flies, shouts, man and animal, the clang of conveyor belts, steam engines, driving wheels, slipping and teetering past troughs running full, muck and blood– a macabre dance of butcher and machine, eight pound sledgehammer blows, iron hooks, razor-quick knives, entrails, hides and carcasses– inexorable, one every few seconds, thousands a day– he follows from beginning to end, from sty to sausage in the can.

© philip kimball 2009