Freispiel, Berlin

I’ve just arrived in Berlin to begin a year-long research fellowship at a well-known Institute for Philosophy. All the really smart philosophers left here in the 1930s, but Berlin retains an unmistakable luster. Come here as a philosopher, and you are assumed to be thinking some very profound thoughts.

Day 1

I’ve rented a furnished apartment in Kreuzberg, and it came equipped not only with the usual couches and tables and IKEA dishware, but also with a Terminator 2: Judgment Day pinball machine. Digital samples of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s voice bellow you missed, and get out, and of course Hasta la vista, baby. I recovered long ago from the absurdity of Schwarzenegger’s governorship in my home state—that he was vastly less qualified than Ronald Reagan or even Gary Coleman for the same position, that his father was a Nazi, that he himself has been caught on film gleefully doing the Hitler salute. But when, here in the shadow of the Reichstag, the digital message beneath his grim, sunglassed image flashes “Los Angeles, July 11, 2029: Judgment Day,” it is different. Everything is different.

Unlike the pinball machines of my youth, in arcades, where one was required to insert coins to make them work, here at home in Kreuzberg, as an adult, I can simply stick my hand inside the machine and set it for as many credits as I like. I pump it up to 20 credits at a go. Already today I’ve done this 6 times, which means that I’ve played 120 games of pinball. At 3 balls per game, I’ve shot the ball into action 360 times. I only stopped when I realized I was out of crème de cassis and would have to go out for more. If I had played this much in an arcade in my youth (when I did not need crème de cassis), I would have spent $30 in quarters. If you had shown me $30 in quarters when I was 10 I would have had a grand mal seizure on the spot.

Day 2

A certain artist from the developing world who has enjoyed tremendous success lately (a group show at MoMA, a MacArthur Genius Grant) and is now in residence in Berlin is supposed to be calling me back anytime now. I left her a message hours ago. She’s a friend of a friend in New York, and he thought it would be a good idea for us to meet. The phone is silent, so I’m back at the machine. When I take breaks, Arnold Schwarzenegger announces “I’ll be back,” to which I mutter in response: “I’ll be back too. It’s just a piss break.”

It’s 2 PM, and I’ve reset the machine 5 times, for 20 games a go. If I hit the machine too hard, Schwarzenegger’s voice says “Chill out!” and on the screen under his face the words “Achtung! Achtung!” appear. Germans say “Achtung” when the floor is wet and slippery, when your fly is open, or when you’re hitting the pinball machine too hard.

Day 3

Sören Kierkegaard came to Berlin to study when he was 28 and spent the rest of his life mocking the Herr Professors he encountered here, with their massive architectonic systems. He decided to write instead, frankly and simply, about God and faith. He may as well have written about pinball. Pinball has it all. Take causality, for example. One’s actual influence over the motion of the ball is rather limited; as in poker, much depends on simple luck, or, as the philosophers of science say, stochastic processes. But the deeper one gets into it, the more one’s perception of one’s causal reach is distorted, and, consequently, the better one plays.

I am not sure I can explain this. My causal reach does not extend beyond the two buttons that move the flippers, but the more confident I grow, and the more crème de cassis I drink, the more the ball seems to do what I want it to do when it’s far from my flippers, up among all the bonus knobs and tunnels. It is as though I am able to transmit my will into it.

Day 4

I’m contemplating having a dinner party as a pretext for showcasing my pinball talents. I’ll invite the woman artist from the developing world. Maybe she’ll encourage me to apply for a MacArthur Genius Grant, too.

I now have to unplug the machine in order to stop playing it. Last night I reset it 8 times, which means I played 160 games, or shot the ball 480 times. When I plug it back in it has to warm up for about 10 minutes, during which strange messages appear on the screen in German, telling me to run the test module, and to insert, of all things, more deutschmarks. The unplugging is meant to discourage me, but it doesn’t seem to help much. If I were Ulysses I would tell my shipmates to bind me. But I am all alone.

Day 5

Berlin is a city consisting of two principal ethnic groups: Turks and hipsters. Now I know we aren’t supposed to talk about hipsters anymore; I’ve been upbraided for it, and told I was relying on “a crutch for uninspired alt-weekly hacks.” But what can I do? They’re here. I didn’t invent them. As Durkheim would have said, they constitute a social fact.

The hipsters congregate in bars without names, whence radiates music that signals either (i) how much better they know America than even Americans know America; or (ii) what a beautiful and respect-worthy place is the third world; or (iii) that we are indeed entering the age of the Man-Machine, as Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, and others anticipated long ago, but it’s not so bad because if you’re young and good-looking you can still get laid.

I live in a Turkish neighborhood, but there is a hipster enclave close by. And, walking by one of their unnamed bars this morning, what did I see but a Terminator 2: Judgment Day pinball machine! And I was like: if they only knew! I’ve got one of those of my own, right in my own apartment. We could all just play at my place: you know, relax, put on some Merle Haggard, and just totally play. I would be so into that.

Day 6

With pinball, it is not at all clear what the theme of the game—Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in this case—has to do with the game itself. Am I supposed to be the Arnold Schwarzenegger character, or am I supposed to be fighting against him? How could this ever be determined when “I” am a perfectly spherical metal ball?

The digital screen tells me that I will earn a “Freispiel” when my score hits 30 million. Not just a free “guy,” as we used to say, but an entire free game. All of my games are free but I feel this is something I would like to achieve. So far I haven’t made it past 15 million.

Day 7

I’m finally starting to understand what makes a good pinball player—that is, as a German philosopher might say, I am starting to understand the “principles” of pinball. I now realize that my earlier perception of circumscribed causal reach was a consequence of my attachment to a mechanical model of reality, whereas the world under that glass sheet obeys only organic laws, by which everything is interconnected in ways that cannot be reduced to the mere collisions and repulsions of metal balls and plastic knobs. The pinball wizard is the one who grasps this, and is able to bend the pinball world to his own subjectivity. I believe I am close to doing this.

Day 8

My wife suggested, on the phone from America, that pinball appeals to me because the entire machine, the massive unmoveable megascopic thing, was constructed entirely for the purpose of playing just this one game, pinball, in contrast with the video games that you might, on a whim, download onto your cellphone, play for a while, and then abandon. She said that playing pinball on a machine made precisely for pinball is like having a wife, rather than a mistress. I’m not sure I understood this on all the levels on which my wife intended it, but intuitively I think I agree.

Day 9

Berlin has a lake nearby called the Wannsee, where the Nazis once held a meeting to devise the “Final Solution.” If I could go back in time like the Terminator and disrupt that meeting I would definitely do it. Transformed into a solid metal ball, I would roll right over Eichmann and Heydrich and Bühler, and when I finally took aim at Hitler himself and knocked him to kingdom come I would probably win a Freispiel.

Short of that, I would like to play a Schindler’s List-themed pinball machine, in which the spherical metal ball would be not Arnold Schwarzenegger but Oskar Schindler, and when it bumped into things these bumpings would represent savings of innocent lives, instead of killings of shape-shifting androids.

Day 10

My wife said she would think about joining me in Berlin if I ever succeed in getting my act together. Otherwise, as they say, kaput. It was my recitations of Rilke, and not my pinball playing, that won her over, once upon a time.

There’s something wrong with my pinball machine. The ball no longer pops out. If it were an older, less digitally complex machine this wouldn’t have happened. But Terminator 2: Judgment Day was built in the waning days of pinball, in what Nietzsche might have called the Pinball-Dämmerung, and is a sort of hybrid between the original pinball that grew organically out of bocce and croquet, and the ephemeral video mistresses that today’s ephemeral youth download onto their cell-phone screens. I am so angry I don’t know what to do. I tried to fix the machine by sticking my hand deep inside it and got the shock of my life. When I recovered I tried again and got the second shock of my life.

I’m going to head over to the National Library, the one frequented by the angels—Bruno Ganz and the other one—in Wings of Desire, to see if I can’t get my old life back. Bruno Ganz later played Hitler in Downfall, a German blockbuster that made Germans ask: are Germans ready for Hitler blockbusters? I can’t answer this question, but in any case Bruno Ganz deserves his own Bruno Ganz-themed pinball machine.

Ganz’s angel in Wings of Desire wanted to touch and taste and feel everything that the objects of his solicitude got to touch and taste and feel as real, flesh-and-blood human beings. He became a human being and suddenly everything was in color. He bought some sharp second-hand duds, went to a Nick Cave show, and kissed a girl. But being human hurts, too. In a Bruno Ganz pinball machine, the bumpings would be understood to represent the pain of being human. And if it were mine, or were part of my furnished apartment, I would reach my hand inside and charge it up with more free games than I could count.

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