It all started when I had the opportunity to see Rammstein live in Tacoma in May of 2011, in all honesty. I hadn’t yet heard their most recent album at the time, but I had been listening for nearly 15 years already, hearing them evolve as artists with what strikes me as an avid interest in political discourse that evolves with the times. I have taken the time to translate multiple lyrics, with what little knowledge of German I have left from high school, and have frequently unearthed a politically charged dialogue of anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and consciousness-raising on matters of abject Eastern European poverty in juxtaposition to American life. I’ve also had the pleasure of unveiling, one word at a time, a number of profoundly metaphorical fiction pieces.
After the concert, in which I could thrash along to nearly every song except for their most recent work at the time, I made a point of ordering their latest album. I ached to know what “Liebe Ist Für Alle Da” could possibly mean, beyond the literal translation: “Love is there for everyone”. When the CD arrived in the mail, I inspected every surface of the fold-out cover art with morbid fascination. I wanted to know where “there” was.
Without even making any effort beyond reading the insert as I heard the title track for the third time, I could tell I was listening to a politically charged, anti-imperialist sentiment. I was blown away–they have previously released biting criticisms of the United States, but this was far deeper and more complex. I looked up a couple of unfamiliar words, and my perspective sharpened–I was listening to a song about the invasion/colonization of the Middle East by people who fantasize about imprisonment and rape of defenceless people of colour from these nations.
I was curious to see what other people have to say about this song, because I felt a very noticeable shock move through me as this flood of insight came to me. What I found was a pathetic mistranslation that turns the entire dialogue into a relatively trivial story about a single introverted man who experiences morbid sexual fantasies about women he is powerless to even reach out to. It’s as if the cognitive dissonance is so significant for the audience hearing this song, that they have to make up a sloppy mistranslation that only approximately makes sense with the existing lyrics (including the title itself: converting it to “There is love for everyone”, which would actually be written “Es gibt Liebe Für Alle” and is therefore quite a remarkable mistake).
With that in mind, as I am trying to make that digression brief (it is really probably a topic that deserves its own post entirely), another track stood out to me on this monumental album. That track is called Haifisch, and the video is a morbid version of hindsight on many of their previous videos, complete with foreshadowing to their latest album (released in 2011) right in the closing segment. In German, Haifisch means shark, and the chorus for this song translates roughly to:
The shark, it is crying
And the tears run down its face
Yet the shark lives in water
So no one sees it cry
In the deep, it is lonely
And so many currents flow
And so it comes to be
That the oceans are so salty
I resonate with these lyrics on a profound level, and so HaifischGeweint (Shark cried) came to be. I had been trying for months already to take a macro portrait of myself in tears, in an effort to express a parallel sentiment in my own voice, and I still have difficulty putting it into words, but here goes nothing: I live with a severe complex of mental disability that has impacted me in various ways over the course of my entire life. But I live in a world where ableism is utterly pervasive and invisible.
We can observe, reach out, and touch something as concrete as a cement staircase (literally concrete), and we can imagine how this would present an insurmountable barrier to someone who uses a wheelchair, someone who walks with the aide of a cane, or anyone else whose relative mobility is otherwise reduced to the point that this staircase tells them “You aren’t welcome here,” such as a single parent with an infant in a large stroller. But we stigmatize or sensationalize mental illness as it suits our needs, even when we ourselves are suffering. We turn mental illness into a punchline without even thinking about whose hurt we’re reducing to a fit of shits and giggles by doing so. We use ableist language and defend its use by saying “Yeah, but…” any time someone confronts us with how insensitive this is.
I have been living with being reduced to silence while people make pot-shots at schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder in the same sentence, or calling my cognitive capacity into question whenever it conveniences them to do so because they know that’s the only thing they can hold against me. I have been living with the memory of sitting in a nurse’s station in a hospital, being told by a doctor that if I try to pick at the scabs on my arms, I will have mittens taped over my hands–and if I try to leave the hospital or escape, I’ll be sent in an ambulance to the nearest asylum for indefinite detention (it either still has or once had the charming title of “The Ponoka Asylum for Idiots”). I have been living with every memory of every trauma I’ve rarely spoken to anyone about, for my entire life–especially the memories of simply not being heard when I did communicate to other people, such as doctors and social workers when I was young; psychiatrists, nurses, therapists, and counsellors when I was an adult; and four of my long-term lovers, along with countless “friends”, flings, friends with “benefits”, flatmates, and people I dated at one time or another.
I have cried as often as I have gotten angry. But no one sees me crying, because all they want to see is someone who they can dismiss for being deliberately antagonistic, non-normative, defensive, hostile, or even belligerent. Someone who is wrong. Someone who is invalid. Someone who is weak, who constructs their identity entirely out of internalized victimhood, and whose complaints ought not to be heard because they only serve to expend energy, time, and attention on someone who is just acting–creating drama because their real life is so disinteresting.
But I’m not just acting, or just being antagonistic, or just being defensive, or just being intolerably different for no reason other than for attention. I am not histrionic or narcissistic–I am mentally disabled, living in a world whose culture is defined in part by the expectation that if your body is intact, your mind is too. That we’re all perfect, and nothing ever goes wrong. I’m living immersed in a culture that expects me to be weak and powerless because the way my mind works some of the time just doesn’t fit with what’s expected of me all of the time. I’m swimming in a sea of ableism, and it is lonely and painful–but I am empowered because I am acutely conscious of how I am different from every other person that swims past me.
Yes, I get hostile, defensive, and/or aggressive when there’s blood in the water. Who wouldn’t, if they could smell it?
I have come to believe that this is the reason “Haifisch” and “Liebe Ist Für Alle Da” are on the same album. An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and we all have the responsibility as individuals to dismantle social inequality by interrogating where our own privileges come from. It’s an ongoing process, and it’s a lot to take in. It never gets easier, but we don’t get younger as time goes on, either. When we don’t hold ourselves responsible for this process, we act as agents of someone else’s continued oppression. We contribute to normalizing hurtful behaviours, such as the stigma applied to mentally ill persons, and in so doing, erase it.
Erasure is not a viable solution. It’s a bandaid.