Thursday, June 12, 2014

Visiting Marburg University

Many towns have universities, Marburg is a university—or so according to one town slogan. Of 72,000 residents, 25,000 are students and additional 8,000 teach and work at the university. Philipps-Universität began as the first Protestant University in 1527, and over the centuries graduated a number of illustrious students. The most notable, perhaps, are brothers Grimm who studied philology here and collected tales from the local society women. In the 19th Century, the University boasted one of the most prestigious philosophy departments in Europe; T.S. Eliott, Ortega y Gasset, Boris Pasternak, and Hannah Arendt studied there. This particular bit of history brought Dave and me to Marburg for a few days. My novel-in-progress is set during the summer semester of 1912, just before Professor Hermann Cohen, the head of the philosophy department, retired.

The door of the Marburg's medieval
Rathaus opens automatically

If you thought you could simply waltz into this ancient university and be directed to its archives, you’re more or less right. Within an hour of arrival on campus, I held in my hands the microfilm of the local newspaper for the year 1912 and was able to scan in the pages I needed and save them to my USB card, all free of charge. No one had asked for any form of ID or even as much as my name. The miracle repeated later when I wished to browse the stacks of the Philosophy department library. The young man working there asked me to leave my backpack on the bench by the door and led me to the stacks, explaining their organization system: books were shelved according to the author’s date of birth and then alphabetized by the last name. Instantly I had access to the most obscure tomes that seemed impossible to locate from the US. As a reader who for years had been intimidated by Stanford’s and Berkeley’s library access policies, I nearly cried from happiness.

With equal ease I made appointments to speak with two university professors, a third was out of town but promised to answer my questions via email. One of the professors met me at a charming riverside café, Am Grün (On the Green), connected to a bookstore, Rote Stern (The Red Star). Unlike most cafés in Germany where it’s customary to pay for food and drink at the table, "kollektiv" Am Grün requested that customers paid for their purchases at the counter and stayed for as long as they liked: the cooperative disapproved of consumerism and didn’t want to force it on their guests. The professor led me to a terrace on the riverside, and as we talked, he drank black coffee and rolled cigarettes. A philosopher and a musician (he plays classical guitar), he combined the two in his work, writing extensively on the philosophy of music. He named a few people in the history of philosophy who played instruments and composed music, among them professor Hermann Cohen, who wrote pieces for piano and violin.
Beach bar
Students taking lunch break

The university blended with the town, and on nearly every block we encountered yet another administrative or academic building. The medieval castle, once the seat of the local princes, now housed the university’s ethnographic collection. Nearby a boxy building from the 1970s housed the physics department. The Old University, a 19th Century neo-Gothic building where Professor Cohen taught, now housed the theology department, and the adjacent 16th Century Dominican church, now Protestant, is still used for services and exhibit space. The main library and the humanities department stood across the river, in the buildings known colloquially as “the elephants’ legs” for their characteristic 1970s and 1980s plain functional architecture, odd-looking next to the medieval old town. The lower floors of these contemporary buildings, minimalistic in their design and smeared by angry and humorous graffiti, provided ample study benches and some plugs for the students’ laptops and phones; at lunchtime, a cafeteria truck stopped in front of the doors to offer coffee, sandwiches, and sweets. The upper floors were orderly and clean, the entrances to the hallways enclosed by doors, presumably locked in the evening.

Ice cream line

The students dominated the town’s social life. They boated on the river, studied by the riverside,picnicked and played badminton and Frisbee in the parks, practiced juggling and some kind of variation of skittles, relaxed at the beach-style bars on the river, ate at the cafés and ice cream shops (a couple on every block!), rode bicycles down every conceivable alley, shopped at the bookstores and at the grocery stores. Dave and I mixed in as much as we could (though we didn't eat at the Mensa, the student cafeteria, or sought out to the late night discos) and enjoyed a few days of perfect tranquility and intellectual and epicurean pursuits.

1 comment:

  1. I'm imaging the Brothers Grimm collecting tales from the local society women... They are provided tea and cookies and entertain the lonely women as their husbands are off leading the Hessian army... Sounds like a tough job! :)