This is a blog entry about Carlheinz ”Arthus” Caspari. I only met him once, but he made a big impression on me. And now he has passed away. Several years ago, actually. I was never particularly good at keeping in touch and he was never particularly good at answering e-mails. But it is a great shame that the world now has to manage without its Caspari.
It is not easy to write about him. Towards the end of our only meeting, at his home just outside Hamburg, he showed me some pickle jars. They contained parts of his archives, or rather, the papers he accumulated during the course of his life. He sold them, but under a condition: if the buyer opened a jar, he/she had to memorise the documents it contained, destroy them and pass on their contents in an oral form. It is a form of archiving that is inimical to the archive, but also one that suits the man extremely well. So if one wants to write about Caspari, and if one wants to do so in a way that respects his views, it has to be done in a non-archival way.Therefore, I will not use any source material. I will not even mention his birth and death dates, because that would make it possible to pin him down on a timeline, safely caught between two points. The only clue I will give is that Caspari was old enough to have fought on the Eastern front during World War II. Otherwise, I will just write down the first things I remember about him; put some entirely personal and subjective accounts into the circulation that he valued so highly.
The first thing I remember is what he told me about being a German in Paris, just after World War II. Caspari lived in the French zone of occupation. He trained as a theatre director, and because he was on friendly terms with the local French military commander, he obtained a visa that enabled him to study French contemporary theater. When he arrived in Paris, he found that his visa and his letters of recommendation gave him access to the theatres, but no more than that. The actors, who were often of Jewish descent, refused to speak to him or even shake his hand, so he ended up just sitting and watching them rehearse.
Another thing I remember is that he was the inventor of the Eastern as a film genre. Working for German television, he came up with the idea of making a series about the Russian conquest of Siberia, as a response to the long-established genre of the Western. What struck me about this idea was that it put him at odds with both sides of the East/West conflict. It identified both the Soviet Union and the US as expansionist powers, imperialist in their very roots. As in Paris, it left him standing all on his own, although his time not as a German amongst the enemies of Germany, but as an original thinker in a world that chooses sides.
A third thing I remember is what he told me about his collaboration with the Dutch artist Constant. They met when Constant was working on New Babylon, an urban environment designed for the man of the future, Homo Ludens, Man the Player. Caspari argued that New Babylon only could function after a profound revolution in our way of thinking, and he decided to define and pave the way for that way of thinking. He called it “Labyr”, part laboratory, part labyrinth, part labour and part something else entirely. Once again he was on his own, not because he ignored history or the logic of the present, not even because he chose the future, but because he placed himself outside the logic of modern Western time altogether. There is no connection between time as we see it, as a regular, measurable, linear form of progression, and Labyristic time.
Now I would like to stress that these are just things that struck me. Personal thoughts that cannot be read as verifiable, logical conclusions. This is how I will remember him: as geographically and temporarily at odds with the rest of the world, a person the like of which we will not see again in a hurry.