Since February I have been living in Jena, a small city in eastern Germany that rests snugly in a river valley a few hundred kilometers southwest of Berlin. The Franks planted vineyards in the nearby hills in the late twelfth century, and the wealth created by the wine trade eventually convinced the locals to establish a university in 1558. Several centuries later, the university became a hothouse for German Romanticism and its potent mix of intellectual exaltation, political ferment and the refusal of limits. Napoleon’s troops routed the Prussians in Jena’s outlying hills and plundered their way through its streets. The Allies bombed the city at the end of World War II, and when the fighting stopped the Soviets hauled away much of the optical and machine works that had brought Jena wealth and fed its curiosity. Under communism, Napoleon’s field of glory became a training ground for tanks. Since 1989, Jena has been a crucial research and economic hub in eastern Germany. The tank grounds are now an open-air park.
A few weeks after arriving in the city I visited the Church of St. Michael, a Gothic cathedral in the old town that took two hundred years to build. Martin Luther first came to Jena in 1523 to reform the clergy. Six years later he preached from St. Michael’s stone pulpit, and a bronze memorial plate of him is mounted nearby on a wall. In the back of the church there is a different sort of memento, also mounted on a wall: a large, rectangular slab of limestone that was probably quarried in the nearby hills. The slab’s chiseled script is worn and illegible but above it is a carved figure in relief: a bulky hourglass with two feathery wings at rest on a skull. The skull’s mouth hangs open, “Death” the unspoken word. Construction of St. Michael’s began in 1380, so the cathedral had risen and its parishioners had lived in the aftermath of the Black Death.
A few weeks ago I saw another set of wings. I was in my office, in a building that sits atop a hill. The desk faces a large window, and in the near distance are the rocky, barren slopes of low-lying mountains. The town’s restaurants and bars had recently been told to close, and there was talk that Jena would soon follow the example of Berlin, Munich and other cities and order everyone to confine themselves to their homes. One afternoon I looked up from a book and a flash of color caught my eye—the red and gold canopy of a paraglider joyriding above the mountains. Internal borders have been reestablished in the European Union to slow the spread of the coronavirus, yet here was someone defying borders as well as gravity, absorbed in something other than a newsfeed. The paraglider caught an updraft, its path a graceful tracing of currents invisible and benign.
After watching the paraglider for a while, I thought of the cold stare of the winged skull in St. Michael’s, an omen of life’s end that leaves nothing else in mind. No “Death is the mother of beauty,” as Wallace Stevens wrote in “Sunday Morning” a little over a century ago, no appreciation of life’s ephemeral essentials or the elegant, necessary ways we imagine wrestling with mortality, like writing a poem with the line “Death is the mother of beauty, mystical.” I continued to watch the paraglider but could not see it land: it descended into the distance, past mountains and rooftops, and then out of view. With it went the idea of floating above it all—the tracing of an escape portal—a stark illusion of its own.
Jena, March 29, 2020
John Palattella is editor at The Point, where this article was first published as a contribution to the Quarantine Journal on March 25, 2020. From August 2019 to January 2020 he was a Visiting Fellow at the IWM.