BF: How does anyone come to think of pieces of architecture like that? If it had not been thought of, put into words and »calculated«, then it would be unable to stand up. I’m always interested in this transfer process, like in literature. What we have read together comes from the brain of Edgar Allan Poe and it ends up in our brains. What’s exciting about this part of the world is that we’re constantly being provoked into thinking about what we’re actually doing. In Switzerland, you don’t dig into the earth, you don’t go climbing down inside it. Instead, there’s this weird, postcard-like idyll that gets further and further away the closer you try to get to it.
Here, it’s the other way around: it doesn’t withdraw from me, but tempts me towards it and drives me into a kind of productive lack of understanding. On my journeys through the north of the Ruhr region I see all these monstrosities standing around in the landscape and think: they spent almost two hundred years here digging down into the ground, and now I’m being dug into. It’s digging back, it’s turning me over and unsettling me.
UCS: For me, these questions crop up elsewhere: what human energy has been invested here – the spirit of invention, the labour, the human lives – to yield these raw materials? Perhaps it’s only possible to understand a little of this when a mine closes down: first, they had to transport every single screw underground and afterwards, all of it, even the tiniest little screw, has to be brought back above ground again. The cost in terms of human energy is unimaginable. At the same time, I can look up in the archive, entirely prosaically, how much profit was made. I can consider that free from any emotion in terms of the relationship between capital and labour. But it’s more than that. To get close to comprehending that, we might perhaps need the language of literature and poetry. Of course, it’s possible to construct a narrative of industrial history purely through gross registered tonnage. But literature reveals other aspects; it invites you to think about it differently.
BF: Seeing the head as a mine, the soul as a mine, makes me wonder about excess. Did mining fail because of its excesses?
UCS: Well, mining black coal in the Ruhr didn’t fail because of its excesses, but because it was too expensive and it had to be subsidised too much in order to remain competitive on the world market. And then it didn’t fail – because it was a political decision to initiate the closure of subsidised black-coal mining.
BF: But that does have to do with excess: it goes beyond a certain level and becomes what people would describe as uneconomic.
UCS: Ok, in that case, yes.
BF: And I find this excess very interesting in Poe too. If you read him as a stylist, he is exploring the very boundaries of what is sayable: everything is incredibly frightening or even more horrifying. For me, there is the sheer delight in art in these superlatives. Art is always about surplus, it’s about paradise and disaster. Beauty and horror are neighbours. And not just in art ...
UCS: Some of my colleagues discuss whether the end of coal mining also meant the end of the Ruhr region. I see it differently. Here, I would agree with the philosopher Roland Barthes: this particular story may have come to an end. But now the great age of the myth begins. And this is something that people are working on from a variety of locations: there are groups who emphasise the comradeship of the miners, who wear blue-and-white-striped shirts and swear by »hard work«. There are the fashion-conscious who like urban living and say: this isn’t like Berlin, we can create things here, it’s ripe for development. And, of course, you can stand at a kiosk eating Currywurst like Herbert Grönemeyer »deep in the West« and live out the myth there.
BF: There is something heroic about being able to talk about your own decline and that it will never be the way it was ever again. That way you can hold it slightly at a distance from yourself and mystify it. Could a part of the melancholy that can be felt here also lie in the fact that coal mining was dangerous and that death was lurking down in the pits? That must have ended up somewhere too.
UCS: Wives, mothers and daughters of various generations of coalminers have talked of an ever-present fear that »he would never come home again«. But they managed to accept this and took good care of Grandma, so that they would benefit from her miner’s pension for as long as possible, to put into one provocative image. It may be that because of the tension in these relationships, a melancholy has written itself into the region and is still here now.
BF: Where are the cracks and the snail trails in our civilisation? What does the hairline crack spreading across the facade of the House of Usher carry with it?
With Poe, you have to take the plunge. You’ve got to enter the darkness, leaving the world you’re in behind and come back again as a reader, enriched by another world. I think this change of world is also interesting in connection with coal mining.
And for me, the character who goes through this change is the miner who becomes a hero, because he somehow manages to give me the feeling that I’ve gone down there myself, as if the whole Ruhr region were in the mine. The ones who really went down the mine have a representative function.
UCS: There were always mines and steelworks, but it was not until the coming of the universities, in the 60s, that there was an educated society in the Ruhr and many people experienced »upward mobility«. That is at least as important to the story of the region today as the mining industry, which, incidentally, contributed a great deal to that educational landscape. However, the specific folklorisation and romanticism of the mines is running full steam ahead.
BF: Could this folklorisation also be a form of mollification? A way of easing the pain of losing a »golden age«, a sense of togetherness? That pain is in all the arts: it is recognition of one’s own loneliness.
UCS: Fortunately, that’s one perspective you can take up in your exploration of the Ruhr region! Because anything else wouldn’t lead to anything new.
And I am challenged to step back from my historical knowledge and to let this literary experience affect me. The ending of The Fall of the House of Usher also opens up associations with the real situation: here is the »deep and dank tarn« and the »voice of a thousand waters«, that not only shouts at the House of Usher in literature but also presents a genuine threat in the Ruhr region. If the water from the disused mine workings wasn’t constantly pumped away, there soon wouldn’t be a Ruhr region any more. But in literature, that collapse must come …
BF: It happens through sound – a »tumultuous shouting sound« – and then silence.
»While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened—there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the House of Usher.«
Translation: David Tushingham