Torschlusspanik

Torschlusspanik is one of those wonderful German coinages that envisions an entire universe in a single word. The South African artist William Kentridge defines it as:

The panic of closing doors. The fear of opening one door rather than another, and hearing it slam behind you, once you have made your decision; but maybe that decision is the wrong one, so you would rather stand paralysed in front of three doors to avoid making it. Torschlusspanik.

William Kentridge in interview with Peter Asden, “The art of war” for The Financial Times, 7/8 July 2018.
Torschlusspanik
Sandy Horvath-Dori from Grand Junction, CO, USA [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Germans associate Torschlusspanik with the passage of time: a midlife crisis, a biological clock ticking, career stagnation. We’ve all felt that fear, even when we were still young. No one wants to be left behind. We all want to be invited to the cool kids’ party.

Yet the thought of having to make a choice is even more frightening than the prospect of falling behind. Think of all the expressions we have for the regret of choosing badly: greener grasses, roads not taken, sitting on a fence.

City Walls

Torschlusspanik was first coined in medieval times when cities were walled. During the day, merchants and mendicants could enter the city gates under the watchful eye of the local garrison. Farmers would come to town to sell their wares. But at night, the city gates would close to protect its inhabitants from the dangers that lurked in the dark. Wild animals. Thieves. War.

Tabriz city gate by Eugène Flandin. Image source: Wikimedia

When those dangers threatened the countryside, the farmers would take refuge inside the city walls. Torschlusspanik was the fear of not reaching the city in time.

You don’t need a medieval gate to experience Torschlusspanik. In 1961, East Germans were crossing into West Germany despite efforts by the Communist authorities to seal the border.

Everything East German leaders did to shut off the flow of refugees to the West seemed, instead, to spur it on. The day that Deputy Premier Willi Stoph announced new secret measures to halt the refugees—ostensibly at the urging of “delegations of workers”—1.532 East Germans beat it over the border and checked into the big Marienfelde refugee center in West Berlin.

Time Magazine, “Torschlusspanik”, 18 Aug 1961

Writer’s Block

There’s a different sort of Torschlusspanik that afflicts artists. It starts with people like William Kentridge setting the bar impossibly high. “A Drawing Lesson” is a series of six lectures Kentridge gave in 2012 at Harvard University.

Kentridge calls the artist’s pen a loaded weapon, full of every thought that has never been expressed. When asked whether such an artistic challenge might seem a bit daunting, he responded: Torschlusspanik.

But there are many reasons why a pen might stutter. Take, for example, the predicament of Maxine Hong Kingston. She opened the way for generations of writers like me who recognized themselves in her works. Yet 40 years after the publication of The Woman Warrior, Kingston still feels the need to be uplifting and nice about her fellow Asians. Hence, her next book project.

“I’m liberating myself to write anything I want,” she told me. By stipulating that the book won’t be published until one hundred years after her death, she said, “I can let go of that duty [to be uplifting] and I can write. I can put my negative emotions in. I can write my shadow.”

Alexis Cheung, “What I Learned from Maxine Hong Kingston” in Catapult, 4 Dec 2017

Self-censorship can also afflict an entire society. In Malaysia, politics, religious freedom, and gender fluidity are all topics of furious debate. Yet they rarely surface in Malaysian literature written in English. For one, such writers are regarded as postcolonial pretenders with colonialist souls. For another, it’s just dangerous.

While bemoaning the state of literature in the region and the paucity of good writers, there is still a numbing self-censorship that makes authors draw back from the precipice before they get too near.

Dipika Mukherjee, “Malaysian English Writing Today” in World Literature Today, 16 Apr 2019

Object Lessons

So let’s assume you’re in the possession of an idea or image never before expressed. You’re also blessed by a language and a society that will tolerate your expression. Now, go write.

The craft of writing is no simple task. There are so many cats to herd. Think about something as basic as the details you put onto the page. There are orienting details that tell the reader whether a character is standing inside or outside. Descriptive details to tell us whether that character is old or young, fat or thin. And then there is granular detail.

those hyper-specific, hyper-vivid details that hold layers of time and meaning.

Laura Van den Berg, Object Lessons: An Exploration in Craft, 13 Aug 2018

An orienting detail (it was a dark and stormy night) serves to ground the reader. By contrast, the purpose of the granular detail is to startle and destabilize. Van den Berg uses a fingernail, found in the drawer of a hotel dresser, to do that in her novel The Third Hotel.

Sometimes, a granular detail can rise to the level of an object. A thing with a luminous halo in the words of Virginia Woolf. An object must do more than merely reflect the character observing that object.

[It] should be a mirror and a window and a refraction all at once.

Closing Doors

Writers make choices all the time. Every page, sentence, word. This detail or that. You can take them all back, of course. Return the ink to the barrel as Kentridge would say. But at some point you have to say, enough is enough.

As I approach the final edits of my novel-in-progress Peace Court, I hear doors slamming shut. I’ve chosen my characters and their fate. Drawn, tightened, and redrawn the plot lines. My narrator has found her voice. But what about my details?

I’ve taken a cleaver and an agate pendant from my short story Moon Cakes and put them into my novel, Peace Court. A photograph of five young friends leads to the denouement of Peace Court. That photo could only have been taken during the period described in my first novel, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. But these are all static objects. They cast no shadows.

If I have any granular details or haloed objects, then it’s the food: the making of food, the memory of food, hoarding and hunger. Cooks fill moon cakes with sweet red beans and nostalgia. Ration coupons mean millet is the last stage before famine. A bowl of glass noodles in duck’s blood is all it would take to set a man free.

I’ve made my choices. No Torschlusspanik. Yet.

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