Culture for children

Michael Ende’s books were “Opium for Kids.”

Every writer has an iconography, most authors are young and old, Michael Ende only exists once: as a friendly looking intoxicating beard, more fairytale uncles than magicians. The very young, rapturously beautiful acting student Michael Ende doesn’t even exist in the public consciousness, and the shooting star of German post-war literature for children probably only knows who was there when locomotive driver was still a dream job.

This is the Michael end of the “Jim Knopf”, in the pre-cultural revolutionary uniform of the economic miracle: tie and suit and bird’s eye glasses. So he squats, tall and strange, between the children and reads to them – a children’s book author, if not against his will, then because it has turned out that way.

That he didn’t think of children when writing was explained by Ende ex cathedra, that he didn’t even think of sacrificing the “beauty” on the altar of accessibility, everyone who reads “The infinite story” today and saves the genitive and many a worn verb that has gone out of fashion knows.

After the successful accident “Jim Knopf” Ende retired to his desk to write a big play for the grown-ups, which was torn to pieces as “Missgeburt” and never again played by a professional stage. The “Jim Knopf” was “full of delicious ideas”, the jurors had found when the novel won the German Youth Book Prize in 1961.

But even such praise indicated that end and criticism would never understand each other. For the delicious, the mere idea of the end were alien. “What he saw, what he experienced, he wanted to transfer into something general,” recalled Rainer Lübbren, Endes’ classmate at the drama school. “It was a metabolic process that transformed the random into something binding, the incidential into something valid.

An aesthetic critique therefore saw and sees in the end a Sinnhuber. An ideological critique accused him of fabricating “opium for children” simply because he wrote fantastic texts. This criticism, which demanded exclusively “reality”, politicization and commitment, drove Ende to Italy, his “Casa Liocorno” south of Rome was also more idyllic than exile.

A brilliant essay entitled “Darwins Jim Knopf” now proves how bitterly wrong a jealous, sometimes drooling children’s book criticism did after the end of ’68. In it, literary scholar Julia Voss points out what should have been obvious almost 50 years ago. Voss reads the “Jim Knopf” as a “counter-narration to the National Socialist educational policy” that End had suffered in Munich.

At the end, exchange the Siegfried of the Nibelungen saga, taken over by the Nazis, for the black foundling Jim Knopf and let him defeat the racist dragons of Kummerland. “Attention! Entry is not forbidden to pure-bred dragons under death penalty”, says a sign at the beginning of the Dragon City – in an allegedly non-political text whose hero Julia Voss surprisingly finds again in Charles Darwin’s early travel report “The Journey of the Beagle”.

Jemmy Button is the name of the young Fireland country, which had been deported to Europe years before and which, as Darwin described without much sympathy, returned to its homeland with the Beagle. The anthroposophically influenced end, which tended towards an intuitive judgement, saw in the theory of evolution the seed for the racial delusion of the Nazis.

Litigation cost more than selling film rights

He’s often called naive. Ende could very well be sharp-tongued. His angry criticism of Wolfgang Petersen’s film version of the “Infinite Story” is still readable today, revealing that, as Ende recognized, fantasy was making its way into the cheap shops at that time.

The alleged escapist then climbed into the ring and took legal action against the film until the lawsuit cost more than the sale of the film rights.

End lost anyway. “Bastian”, he wrote about the protagonist of the “Infinite Story”, who saves the realm of fantasy and threatens to get lost in it before he finds himself, is not just a boy “who lacks a bit of self-confidence”. “Bastian is a child who cannot find his way in a cold, only rational world because he longs for poetry, for the mysterious, for the miraculous.

This is the pure romantic credo, because rather than naive, Ende was a believer – receptive to all kinds of metaphysics. At home in his Munich apartment, where he lived with his mother and father, the surrealist painter Edgar Ende, who was banned from working by the Nazis, the spirits went in and out. Lieflam was the name of a mixed creature of man and sheep that all family members had already heard “shuffle across the corridor”.

Edgar Ende had the peculiarity of putting himself into a visionary waking sleep in a darkened studio, whose pictures he then sketched with an illuminated pen in darkness, and his son described his own intentions in a very similar way in the “Infinite History”. There, the blind Yor descends into the “Mine of Images” to seek the forgotten dreams of the human world and to salvage the wonderful.

An aesthetic critic may perceive such a scene as an allegorical punch, the audience saw and sees it differently. Endes books “Jim Knopf”, “Momo”, “Die Unendliche Geschichte” or “Der satanarchäolügenialkohöllische Wunschpunsch” were translated into more than 40 languages; the total circulation, 14 years after his death, approaches the 30 million mark.

Not at all apolitical, but indeed highly politicized, he imitated in his work for children a social development that also shaped the literature for adults: A little earlier than others Michael Ende set off into a “New Innerness”; a whole bit earlier than others, which was soon called the Gutenberg Galaxy, became a nostalgic project in the “Infinite History”.

Adolf Muschg noticed in an obituary at the end that his “fables against the spirit of the times”, the nerve of the spirit of the times, hit it perfectly. Tomorrow Michael would have turned 80 at the end.

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Christina Cherry
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