Waiting for Giorgio
by Jennifer Allen
Film still with Giorgio Agamben from Pier Paolo Pasolini, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964
Four characters—two young men and a couple—prefigure the return to Berlin of a mysterious thinker, anxiously awaited by the author. But who is Giorgio, really? It won’t be hard for Italian readers to get a clear picture. A series of parallels between the life of Giorgio and that of Immanuel Kant, the group of adoring friends who form a triple force field, embodying Kant’s Critiques, foment the atmosphere of a wait that promises to be a long one. How can he break free of this community founded on opinions about beauty? Perhaps by demystifying the beauty of the object of such admiration.
I started waiting for Giorgio shortly after I met him at the Staatsbibliothek, the German National Library near Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. He was some thinker from someplace in Greece who had come to read some book in the library. Although he was in town for only a couple of days, we managed to go out for dinner. And although he was wearing shoes in a rather unfortunate shade of yellow-brown—the cow must have been jaundiced—I immediately developed a crush on him and spent the whole evening trying to convince him to come back to Berlin for a longer visit.
“I’ll think it over.”
And that’s precisely when I started waiting. I had no idea that waiting could have so many moods and tempos. Sometimes, waiting for Giorgio was like waiting for a bus in the freezing cold. Such impatience might be followed by a long lull where the memory of Giorgio mixed with faint memories of an ordered pizza that was never delivered, a one-night stand who never called back. Then, suddenly, I’d remember Giorgio the way I remember that I’d been waiting for a tax refund. I would call him up and implore him to come to Berlin. Two years later, when he phoned me, I knew the news must be good.
“So! You’re finally coming!”
“Maybe. But a friend of mine is coming for sure this summer.”
“What kind of friend?”
“Emanuele—he’s very young—maybe twenty-eight or twenty-nine. But very good.”
I understood the deal: take care of my little friend, or else I’ll never come to Berlin. And so I began waiting for Emanuele as a proxy for Giorgio. What else could I do? When Emanuele phoned to announce his arrival, he spoke German with a Japanese accent. But he turned out to be Italian, short, skinny, badly dressed, questionable hygiene, terrible cook. And very much younger than “twenty-eight or twenty-nine” (twenty!). I had my work cut out for me. But he was indeed “very good,” which meant a well-read polyglot who had lived in the library. He’d never heard of Prada, Zidane, Sony, James Bond, Madonna (the singer), salsa (neither the dance nor the sauce), but he could deliver quotations from twenty-five centuries of philosophy verbatim.
His favorite person to quote was Giorgio. Emanuele began every other sentence with the same formula: “Giorgio sagt…” (Giorgio says…). And Giorgio had said a lot of things, which Emanuele repeated like axioms for every and any occasion, as if Giorgio’s words had the finality of a full stop and the truth of a QED. There were many obscure reading tips, like Mynona’s “Ich möchte bellen” (I want to bark). Notes on love (the ultimate philosophy). Descriptions of Heidegger’s handkerchiefs (white with blue trim, pure cotton). What kind of shoes to wear on the beach (leather sandals without socks). Fashion rules (never mix black and brown). Cooking maxims (save leftovers for Tuesdays). Dating tips (avoid women in pantyhose). How to drink coffee (put in some sugar but do not stir, drink the coffee, and then spoon out the sweet remains at the bottom of the cup). Even the weather (dry heat is better than dry cold but worse than damp warmth and windy spring days).
Portrait of Immanuel Kant
And, according to Emanuele, Giorgio had a lot to say about Kant—not only his complex philosophy and his many commentators, the few exceptional ones, like Giorgio himself and one other person who had died a long time ago, and the other many, so many, mediocre ones. Over a liter of rather bad red wine, Emanuele explained that there was a secret connection—a pact—with the great German philosopher who ushered in the Enlightenment. For the first time, Emanuele spoke his Japanese-accented German in a loud whisper, which led everyone sitting around us in the restaurant to stare over their beers with a sympathetic-sweet expression, as if we were crossed lovers who’d picked the wrong city for a romantic vacation, if not the wrong partner for romance. The truth was somewhat different: Giorgio was born on the same day as Kant. And Emanuele shared the same first name as Kant.
“But E-m-a-n-u-e-l-e and I-m-m-a-n-u-e-l are not the same spelling.”
“Kant was baptized Emanuel.”
“What about the extra e?”
“It’s close enough.”
“Well, how about this for close enough: my mother was born in Königsberg.”
I did not have to explain to the well-read library-loving polyglot Emanuele that Kant was born and died in Königsberg, that he never ventured anywhere else, except for a brief afternoon visit to the countryside, which he regretted until his dying day. Upon hearing this tidbit of my family history, Emanuele coughed, like he had just swallowed his wine the wrong way. But I could never have guessed what he would spit out of his mouth.
“Giorgio says that everything important about Kant comes in threes. Just like his critiques: The first Critique of Pure Reason, the second Critique of—”
“—of Practical Reason, the Critique of Judgment. I know the three critiques, Emanuele.”
“Yes, but do you know their power? The force of the Kantian trivium? All things about Kant tend toward configurations of three: trios, triptychs, threesomes, three-wheelers. And in exceptional circumstances, a triple configuration holds the next philosophy.”
“Since Giorgio shares Kant’s birthday, he’s the philosophy of history. I was given the same first name at birth, so I am the philosophy of language. And you—with your mother from Königsberg—well.”
“You must be the philosophy of geography.”
“Don’t you think I belong with the philosophy of history?”
“No, that’s Giorgio’s.”
“But—there is no philosophy of geography.”
“That’s your task: to write a philosophy of geography. We shall write it together!”
German cover of the Critique of Judgement by Immanuel Kant, first edition, 1790
It was not exactly the way I had planned to be with Giorgio: caught in the whirlwind of a Kantian threesome with Emanuele and speeding toward a philosophy of geography without a map. But that seemed better than simply waiting for Giorgio. For the first time in years, I thought I might finally have a chance to spend some time with him. And Emanuele—we could send him to the library to get books. Or to do some research on Prada (“Prado? Pravda?”). How long could it take to write a philosophy of geography? A month? A year? Two years? A lifetime! A couple of days later, when Emanuele told me he had “really good news,” I was sure: Giorgio is finally coming to Berlin to finalize our pact with Kant.
But, no, it turned out to be yet another friend of Giorgio: Gianni. He was also Italian and twenty, but taller, fatter, nicer clothes, better hygiene, okay cook. Gianni was not “very good,” at least not as good as Emanuele, with the philosophical references, but he knew some pretty good poems and back exercises. It was clear that Gianni was as infatuated with Giorgio as Emanuele and I. Where I waited and Emanuele repeated “Giorgio says,” Gianni had his own little ritual: “Giorgio kann…” (Giorgio can…). Like Emanuele, Gianni had spent a lot of time with Giorgio, but, instead of listening, Gianni had watched just how many tasks Giorgio could accomplish with ease. The list was endless: Giorgio can skin a chicken, Giorgio can cook for twenty, Giorgio can lift all of Heidegger’s books, Giorgio can fix the stove and the vacuum cleaner—both in one day! Giorgio can swim breaststroke in the ocean, kill mosquitoes in the dark, do the Hustle on the dance floor.
I have to admit that there was never a dull moment as we waited for Giorgio that summer in Berlin. If we were not talking about Giorgio, we were doing Gianni’s back exercises or exposing Emanuele to life beyond the philosophy section of the library (we told him it was “the post-Heideggerian Weltanschauung,” but it was basically anything that happened in popular culture after 1976). If we faced a quandary in our plans—swim or walk?—we’d ask Gianni what Giorgio can do best and follow the exemplar (in this case, swim). And if we disagreed—say, about Deleuze’s best book—we’d ask Emanuele for the expert opinion to solve the dispute: “What would Giorgio say?” (Différence et répétition). There were some repetitions. When Gianni started to tell me what Giorgio can do with his cup of coffee, I already knew: “Yeah, yeah, he can eat all the sugar out at the bottom of the cup—every last crystal.”
As we three sat there in silence, trying to eat the sugar out of the bottoms of our coffee cups, it dawned on me that I might be sitting right in the middle of one of those Kantian trivium force fields, bound by “Giorgio sagt” and “Giorgio kann.” The first critique—Critique of Pure Reason—was about a priori knowledge. Didn’t Emanuele always know what Giorgio would say before he got here to say it himself as an undeniable truth? The second critique—Critique of Practical Reason—was about ethics. And didn’t Gianni know Giorgio’s principles of action in every situation, from the kitchen to the dance floor? That left me as the Critique of Judgment: a community created by judgements of beauty. Wasn’t I a beauty in waiting? I was definitely waiting, but only for Giorgio, not a whole community. A judgement? Or… “Giorgio is coming to Berlin, and we’re going to have a beautiful community!”
“Oh—we forgot to tell you. Giorgio called yesterday!”
“So, he’s finally coming!”
“He’s thinking about it. But his friends Beppe and Veronica are coming.”
“But, what about the force of the Kantian trivium?”
Gianni looked confused. Emanuele looked embarrassed.
“How many more friends does Giorgio have?”
“Well, when he’s not feuding with them—”
It turned out that I was wrong and right. Beppe and Veronica made us into a little community while bringing news of yet another. “Giorgio’s girlfriend is…” began Beppe. “Beautiful!” chimed in Veronica. “She is so beautiful… bella!” “And she and Giorgio look beautiful together.” “Yes.” Both Emanuele and Gianni seemed to agree, too, although neither had mentioned a girlfriend among Giorgio’s numerous words and endless feats. “We have a great time together.” “It is her beauty.” “Yes, it’s her beauty that holds us together.” “When there is an argument, or an uncomfortable silenzio in the conversation, we look at her, she smiles back at us, and we all start laughing.” “Together!” “Beautiful!”
Portrait of Immanuel Kant
I was totally depressed. There was not going to be any chance for me and Giorgio, let alone the philosophy of geography. I had to sit there and bear them all: Giorgio says… Giorgio can… Giorgio and his bella. Beppe and Veronica liked to go to museums—where else?—to judge if the Old Masters in Berlin were beautiful, but they were not interested in contemporary art. Unfortunately for me, since Kant had not written a fourth critique on politics, it was impossible to change the ways of our little community. Perhaps that was the force of the Kantian trivium: no voting. As August dragged on, it became clear that Giorgio would not come to Berlin. And as I consoled myself at a café, I suddenly had a vision of a perfect mimetic ending to the summer.
When I told Emanuele, Gianni, Beppe, and Veronica that I’d seen someone who looked like Giorgio, they couldn’t believe it. “Ma non!” “It’s impossible. Giorgio is one of a kind!” “Ma si! Exactly like him, I’m telling you, he looks just like Giorgio.” “Are you sure?” “Yes, he’s very beautiful!” They got all excited and started laughing. We made a date the very next day to meet at the café. Sure enough, he was there, swirling gracefully around the tables.
When I pointed him out, everyone looked shocked.
“See? I told you so.”
“Giorgio…” Emanuele coughed that cough. “Giorgio… is much more beautiful!”
“He has more hair!” said Veronica.
“More hair, less hair—this guy doesn’t look like Giorgio!” said Gianni.
“Not one bit!” said Beppe.
“Have you ever even met Giorgio?” asked Emanuele.
“Well, I only met him once.”
They all stared at me with disgust. I may as well have taken them to Euro Disney to see Donald Duck or to Madame Tussauds to see Hitler. When the waiter came over to take our order, no one would look at him. When he delivered our coffees, they all put their hands over their eyes, as if his face were an annoying searchlight. They drank their coffee in silence, looked at each other, and got up in unison.
“What about the sugar at the bottom of the cup?”
“The coffee is bad,” said Beppe, placing a note on the bill.
They left together. Our little community became their little community, minus me. One night, I reminded Emanuele that Kant did not require everyone to agree about the definition of beauty. But I had broken a taboo not only by likening Giorgio to a balding waiter but also by admitting that I had not spent much time with him. I was a mere contact, not a “friend.” And one by one, Giorgio’s friends left Berlin, in exactly the same order as they had come: Emanuele, Gianni, and then Beppe and Veronica.
A year later, I phoned Emanuele to ask him about his philosophy of language, Giorgio’s progress on the philosophy of history, and if he was still interested in the writing the philosophy of geography. But Emanuele had forgotten everything—the force of the Kantian trivium, Gianni’s back exercises, what Giorgio had said about leftovers, sandals, and dry heat—everything, except the waiter. “Are you sure this trivium theory isn’t like your Giorgio doppelgänger?”
Five, maybe seven years later, Giorgio showed up in Berlin. He called me completely out of the blue and asked me to meet him in one hour at the Staatsbibliothek. He had forgotten to send ahead some friends. Of course, I took off my pantyhose and rushed right over. Thank goodness he still wearing those unfortunate jaundiced shoes, otherwise I might have missed him.
I told him that I’d become a contemporary art critic. I wanted to add, “while I’ve been waiting,” but he cut me off. “Contemporary art is ridiculous.” He told me that art was over with Duchamp and that nothing had been done since, except for a few little things by Debord. He promised to call, and I waited for Giorgio for one more week. Since then, I have not waited, except for the tram outside my house. And, of course, for my dying day.
Originally published on Mousse 17 (February-March 2009)