The German Writer Who Foresaw His Own Death

This holiday period is an especially difficult one for many people, who will look up into the cold sky not in expectation of Santa Claus, but in despair. From wartorn Ukraine to the cost of living crisis in Europe, many people are suffering in ways that seemed unthinkable only a year ago.

This night, the seventh night of Hanukkah and the night before Christmas, pay a thought for those who are living insecurely and losing hope. There are many of them. All we have is each other, ultimately. Alas, some of us do not even have that. Here is the story of one such man, Maximilian Bern.

Maximilian Bern, (born Bernstein), was a Jewish German writer who died during the hyperinflation which brought the Weimar Republic to an end almost a century ago, in 1923.

He had been born in 1849 in Ukraine, in Kherson, where his father was a doctor. But then as now, people were leaving Ukraine, and Maximilian relocated with his mother to Vienna after his father died. Though the family fortune was lost, Maximilian’s first novel Auf Schwankem Grunde (“On Shaky Ground”), made his name, and he became a freelance poet, writer and novelist thereafter.

Bern is alas not much read today.

He lived for a couple of years in Paris, and for a time he was married to the renowned actress Olga Wohlbrück, who is now regarded as Germany’s first female movie director. She later left him for a playwright. However, until soon before his death in 1923, he lived an affluent life of artistic renown in Berlin.

In 1904, he published a collection of poems called Die zehnte Muse (“The Tenth Muse”), in which we may read two of his poems which now seem disturbingly prophetic. These are On a Dead Track, and Vagabond Song, which I have lovingly mistranslated below.

What do they appear to prophecy? His own death, which appears almost as a footnote or an aside in Frederick Taylor’s 2013 history The Downfall of Money: Germany’s Hyperinflation and the Destruction of the Middle Class. Taylor had borrowed the anecdote about Bern’s death from a book by Otto Friedrich entitled Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the Twenties, wherein on page 126 we hear briefly about Bern’s fate.

Hyperinflation had destroyed Maximilian’s savings as it had so many others, and aged in his seventies, he was in no position to restore the family fortune a second time. He withdrew them all – over 100,000 marks – and spent the entirety of his wealth on a subway ticket, all he could now purchase. After riding one last time around the city, Bern withdrew to his apartment and starved to death.

On a Dead Track

There are people who fall through

old ways and norms, either due

to someone else’s fault or all their own,

to land on a dead track, alone.

Though thousands pass on,

hunting in the world for happiness,

you are chained, unmoving, gone

cheated by the turns of fate, helpless.

You are separated, restricted, forever

from all paths where burns

driving ambition, or wherever

a proudly purposeful force stirs.

Tormented by consuming longing

to storm into the open, into the wide,

even those who miss their lives must

die unnoticed, lonely, set aside.

Vagabond Song

Now I don’t care about anything at all.

What goes up must come down again.

And if I go nowhere, by the road I’ll fall

and stretch out to die, who knows when.

Then the morning finds me dead

like many a bird on a pile of shit,

like many a deer, killed in the night

alone and helpless, in the forest unlit.

When the first fingers of dawn’s light

touch my cold and pallid cheek,

they’ll gleam to show that I was glad

to be freed at last from torment so bleak.

Return of the Dread AI

Or, you are DEFINITELY the data they’re looking for.

Do you remember when AI was nothing to worry about? It was just an oddity, a subject of humour. But yet people with lots of money and power kept taking it extremely seriously. They kept training up AIs, even when they turned out to be hilarious, or racist, or just downright incompetent.

And then all of a sudden AI got good at things. It began to be able to draw pictures, or write basic journalistic-like factual articles. Then more recently, it began to write plausible student essays. I say plausible, even if it did seem to be doing so with artificial tongue placed firmly in virtual cheek, penning histories of bears in space.

Nevertheless, this was an example of the sole virtue which Silicon Valley values – disruption. And so everyone took notice, especially those who had just gotten disrupted good and hard. Best of luck to academic institutions, particularly those responsible for grading student work, as they scramble to find a way to ensure the integrity of assessment in a world where Turnitin and similar plagiarism software systems are about to become defunct.

And yet there are still some people who would tell you that AI is just a toy, a gimmick, nothing to worry about. And yes, as AI begins to get good at some things, mostly we are enjoying it as a new toy, something to play with. Isn’t it, for example, joyous to recast Star Wars as if it had been made by Akira Kurosawa or Bollywood?

(Answer: yes, it very much is, and that’s why I’m sharing these AI-generated images of alternative cinematic histories below):

Bollywood, long long ago, in a galaxy far far away…
Akira Kurosawa’s version of Star Wars, as envisioned using Midjourney V4 by Alex Grekov

So where, if anywhere, is the dark side of this new force? Isn’t it fun to use the power of algorithms to invent these dreamscapes? Isn’t it fascinating to see what happens when you give AI an idea, like Kurosawa and Star Wars, or better again, a human-written script, and marvel at what it might produce?

(Answer: Yes, it is fascinating. Take for example this script written by Sapienship, inspired by Yuval Noah Harari, and illustrated by algorithm. Full disclosure: I wrote a very little bit of this.)

The one thing we all thought was that some jobs, some industries, some practices were immune to machine involvement. Sure, robots and automation might wipe out manufacturing and blue collar work. What a pity, eh? The commentariat for some time has shown little concern for the eradication of blue collar employment. Their mantra of ‘learn to code’ is now coming back to bite them on the ass as firstly jobs in the media itself got eviscerated and then so too this year did jobs in the software sector.

2022 tech sector job losses, Jan-Nov 2022.

But those old blue collar manufacturing industries had mostly left the West for outsourced climes anyhow. So who exactly would lose their jobs in a wave of automation? Bangladeshi garment factory seamstresses? Chinese phone assemblers? Vietnamese machine welders? (In fact, it turns out to be lots of people in Europe too, like warehouse workers in Poland for example.)

But the creative industries were fine, right? Education was fine. Robots and automation weren’t going to affect those. Except now they are. People learn languages from their phones rather than from teachers increasingly. (Soon they won’t have to, when automation finally and successfully devours translation too.)

Now AI can write student essays for them, putting the degree mills and Turnitin out of business, and posing a huge challenge for educational institutions in terms of assessment. These are the same institutions whose overpaid vice-chancellors have already fully grasped the monetary benefits of remote learning, recorded lectures, and cutting frontline teaching staff in record numbers.

What’s next? What happens when someone takes deepfakes out of the porn sector and merges it into the kind of imagery we see above? In other words, what happens when AI actually releases a Kurosawa Star Wars? Or writes a sequel to James Joyce’s Ulysses? Or some additional Emily Dickinson poems? Or paints whatever you like in the style of Picasso? Or sculpts, via a 3D printer, the art of the future? Or releases new songs by Elvis, Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston or Tupac?

Newsflash: we’re already there. Here’s some new tracks dropped by Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison and some other members of the 27 Club, so named because they all died at 27.

What happens, in other words, when AI starts doing us better than we do us? When it makes human culture to a higher standard than we do? It’s coming rapidly down the track if we don’t very quickly come up with some answers about how we want to relate to AI and automation, and how we want to restrict it (and whether it’s even possible to persuade all the relevant actors globally of the wisdom of doing so.)

In the meantime, we can entertain ourselves with flattering self-portraits taken with Lensa, even as we concede the art of photography itself to the machines. Or we can initiate a much-needed global conversation about this technology, how fast it is moving, and where it is going.

But we need to do that now, because, as Yoda once said in a movie filmed in Elstree Studios, not Bollywood nor Japan, “Once you start down the dark path, forever it will dominate your destiny.” As we generate those Lensa portraits, we’re simultaneously feeding its algorithm our image, our data. We’re training it to recognise us, and via us, other humans, including those who never use their “service”, even those have not been born yet.

Let’s say that Lensa does indeed delete the images afterwards. The training their algorithm has received isn’t reversed. And less ethical entities, be they state bodies like the Chinese Communist Party or corporate like Google, might not be so quick to delete our data, even if we want them to.

Aldous Huxley, in his famous dystopia Brave New World, depicted a nightmare vision of people acquiescing to their own restraint and manipulation. This is what we are now on the brink of, dreaming our way to our own obsolescence. Dreams of our own unrealistic and prettified faces. Dreams of movies that never were filmed, essays we never wrote, novels the authors never penned, art the artists never painted.

Lots of pretty baubles, ultimately meaningless, in return for all that we are or can be. It’s not so great a deal, really, is it?

Gaslit by Goblins – the dictionary definition

There is dissent among the lexicographers!

Whereas last year the Oxford English Dictionary (with the somewhat American-sounding diminutive ‘vax’) and Merriam-Webster (with the more formal, and somehow British sounding vaccine) concurred on word of the year, this time they have diverged.

For the M-W, this year’s word is ‘gaslighting’, a not-especially-new term used to describe a kind of cruel psychological manipulation. However, the OED put their favoured options (which included a phrase and a hashtag!) to a public vote, and came up with ‘goblin mode’.

What is ‘goblin mode’, you may ask? Some Tolkienesque monstrous tendency to murderous behaviour?

Goblin Mode?

No, apparently it is a term of online usage which is defined as “a type of behaviour which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations.”

In other words, the kind of behaviour one expects from people who consider hashtags to be words and eschew responsibility by putting their work out to a vote.

I feel like the OED has started gaslighting me. I’m team Merriam-Webster until the goblin mode ceases in Oxford.

The Iceberg

It’s been a while since I last published a mistranslation, so here’s The Iceberg, mistranslated from the poem by the late great Brazilian poet Paulo Leminski. It’s not the first of his I’ve egregiously mishandled. Regular readers may recall this travesty from earlier this year.

Having now done damage to his work twice, I will release Leminski from the clutches of this project and seek other subjects elsewhere. You, however, are advised to go and read as much of his poetry as possible.

Paulo is not impressed with my mistranslating.

The Iceberg

An Arctic poetry

of course, is what I wish for.

A bleached-out practice,

three verses of ice.

An icecap of words

where speaking of life

is no longer possible.

Words? No, none.

A silent lyre

reduced to absolute zero,

a blink of the spirit,

the only, only thing.

But it’s all cock. And in speaking I provoke

swarms of misunderstanding

(or swarms of monologues?)

Yes, winter. We’re still alive.