This must have been quite a picture: a woman, naked just as God created her, walks across a meadow towards a man who is just as naked and says: “Hello, I am Eve.” He replies: “And I am Adam. You look fantastic. Like someone cut from my rib.” Later on, a snake and an apple come into play, and finally an old man who presents himself as God and throws them both out of his paradise. Not a joke, but rather the first encounter of mankind. But such a scene could also happen today in a dating soap on an island, say, Paradise Hotel or Love Island. With millions of lonely spectators, who closely follow the encounters of other people on their screens, comment them or share them and decide to give them likes or not. And there is another ancient encounter that has written world and cinema history...
Cleopatra is the Ptolemaic queen on the Nile, just as cruel as she is beautiful. During the years from about 69 to 30 B.C. she does not grow very old, yet experiences some encounters that change her life. First married to two of her brothers, she conquers the conqueror Caesar with her female charm by having herself brought to him as a present wrapped in a carpet. They have a son, but the already somewhat greyed Caesar falls victim to Brutus. After his death, she seduces his successor Marcus Antonius and marries this Roman as her third husband. Only when the military might of Rome again threatens the borders of her kingdom, the Roman-Egyptian couple supposedly decide to commit a joint double suicide; as a man, he chooses to fall upon his sword; she prefers the bite of a cobra as her means of last resort. A number of centuries later, this Shakespearean story becomes one of the most expensive works of film history. And by a strange twist of relationship drama, the two leading actors Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton fall in love with each other, although they are still married to other partners. But a whole year of shooting time welds them together, and they inevitably become the dream couple of Hollywood. The production costs of this film soar from 2 to 44 million USD, thus almost causing the famous intro skyscraper of the 20th Century Fox production company to crumble, but in 1963, this masterpiece scoops up four Oscars and has earned hundreds of millions of dollars until today. With a story that ends in the year 30 B.C.
Which brings us to the next story about encounters: the world’s most widely spread book, the Holy Scripture, is a true Bible of dramatic human encounters, where everything seems possible in all occasions. Whether Jesus throws merchants out of the Temple, heals lepers, calls disciples, institutes the Lord’s Supper or forgives his tormentors, contact with people is invariably the essential driver, the messianic motor.
One historic encounter, which unfortunately is largely unknown, should be briefly mentioned here – an encounter of lifelong enemies, that is. On 28 September 1918, a badly injured message-runner with a rank of Lance Corporal named Adolf Hitler, who had completely lost his way, and the future British war hero Henry Tandey, encountered each other on the edge of the battle of Marcoing. When Tandey recognised Hitler’s wretched condition, he decided not to shoot him but let the enemy escape. As the most highly decorated soldier, he was honoured with a painted portrait. When Hitler was made aware of this, he asked for a photograph of that painting and received it together with a copy of Tandey’s military service book. When Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in Munich 20 years later, he asked him to give his regards to Tandey, which Chamberlain did. After the Second World War, the hero of the Empire, who lived until 1977, regretted his decision not to shoot – it would have been a bullet that would have changed the course of history.
Since Romeo and Juliet, we know that balconies are very special meeting places for trysts. The medieval troubadours already sang below the parapets of their beloveds’ houses, and the Bavarian custom of window climbing also has its origin there. In the 1970s and 1980s, discos were known as meeting places, and from the film “Titanic” we have learnt that we know more people after a cruise than before, provided the vessel reaches its destination. Here, yet another legend of encounters should be remembered, whose development says a lot about the culture of meeting people. In 1948, the well-known Hamburg restaurateur Wilhelm Bernhard Keese opened Café Keese, a plush lounge establishment specifically dedicated to the world of ladies. The purpose was to help war widows, women clearing rubble and female migrants to find new husbands, which is why he invented the “Ball Paradox”: The ladies invite the gentlemen to dance, and telephones with numbers are placed on small tables to encourage an informal chat before the first dance. Keese names the event “Ball Paradox”, and creates the motto: “Always bear in mind that the ladies reign at the Keese.” The Keese etiquette manual placed on every table starts with this head note to explain its rules of good civil behaviour. The outfit fits the occasion, a white princess lifting her skirt is placed above the entrance, together with the motto of the Order of the Garter: “Honi soit qui mal y pense” (shame on him who thinks evil of it).
Café Keese becomes a cult, subsidiaries are established near the Baltic Sea and in Berlin, and more than 50,000 knots are said to have been tied in the Keese. Whoever looks at cafekeese.de today to see what is still going on in Bismarckstrasse, Berlin in a slightly plush atmosphere, in terms of foxtrot meetings and dancing parties, Oktoberfest and Crazy Sundays is led to believe that the good old days will never end. But, together with the Reeperbahn, the original café in Hamburg has begun to decline, especially after the retirement of its founder. At first, prominent local residents take over the well-known establishment, in 2006 the comedian Thomas Hermanns revives it once more with his “Quatsch Comedy Club”. He rides the big comedy wave sweeping across Germany. From 2013, the next change comes about. The former cult dating temple, an icon of the local culture, becomes a fish restaurant with street sale, similar to a “Nordsee” fish shop. What a decline: from a dance hall to smoked eel. This leads to the question: are venues for meeting people still necessary in the digital age? Are youth clubs and tearooms, clubhouses and meeting points for local residents still needed when everyone can link up with everyone else at any time?
Digitalisation also encounters people who, in their genetic evolution, are closer to a Neanderthal man than a digital native, who sees his Smartphone as a mere extension of his brain. The Teachers’ Association has just published a report claiming that school children were having motoric difficulties with handling pens and scissors, because they had not learnt any movement patterns except wiping across a display. Added to this are reading and writing deficiencies that will cause a high communicative loss in future as well.
We meet Laura T., a 22-year-old psychology student at the University of Bonn. Several months ago, she met her new boyfriend in New York. Such a great distance is easy to overcome with the help of the media; daily communication presents no problem thanks to Twitter and WhatsApp. A few weeks ago they cooked together via Skype, the same dish, he in his New York apartment, she in her shared flat in Bonn. And the next flight to the Big Apple is already booked. Laura has an older acquaintance named Helmut, who would like to meet a new woman again. Laura can help him – thanks to Tinder. She creates a profile of him, with a maximum of six photos, his body size and weight, and two emojis: a complete the picture of his personality is finished. And then, it is time to wipe to the right and to the left, top or flop. After two days, he finds a single mother; they exchange messages, and then arrange a personal meeting at a music festival. Never before has making contact been so easy. Also: on Parship, there is a single who falls in love every eleven minutes. There are examples, but no studies, on whether this goes any further, and how far. The immense advertising expenses of relationship service providers and dating agencies alone show how many lonely people there are in our totally networked world.
We are, however, anything but lonely in those social media channels that claim to facilitate our work, but then continually distract us from it. Xing or LinkedIn, for example. There we are asked to assess colleagues, judge their special abilities, congratulate others on the next step of their careers and, please, update our profile again. Admittedly, these portals are of undeniable use, but at the same time, they are time wasters and nerve wrackers with their own, algorithm-controlled activities. Neurobiologists criticise the extremely high numbers of irrelevant interruptions, which cause memory loss and a decline of knowledge, because the knowledge available on the Internet is not equal to the knowledge in our brains. Indeed, we can find every kind of knowledge on the Internet, but the knowledge stored in our brains is what our decisions are based on, and this knowledge is decreasing in a measurable way. The neurobiologist Martin Korte puts it in a nutshell: “The brain has no hard disk.”
And together with the store of knowledge, attention as well as cognition has been proved to suffer as well. While formerly test persons were able to remember a random expression without context for an average of 15 seconds, today this span is no more than 11 seconds. This also has an effect on the assessment of contact enquiries. How often do people contact us via Xing and LinkedIn, and we ask ourselves: Who on earth is that? What do they want? Everyone probably knows those enquiries from foreign bankers wanting to transfer high amounts of money to us and requesting us to contact them immediately by email. According to expert opinion, this type of fully anonymous contacting is expected to continue its rapid growth in spite of all spam folders and anti-virus programs.
There is another factor causing a fundamental change in the world of personal contact: abstract words are being replaced by real pictures at an increasing rate. On Instagram, the leading social media channel by now, people post their meal before eating it, or present themselves in their outfit and make-up before going out. But this masochism of self-staging has also given rise to a new, profitable profession: the influencers. From a certain number of followers upwards, these direct ambassadors are of interest to manufacturers and brands; they give buying tips in a very personal way, even though that advice has been bought by the manufacturers. For an annual income of a million or more, influencers like Caro Daur fly to the most beautiful spots of the world, all paid by the brands, to present the trends of tomorrow already today at fashionable events.
But another encounter was the most impressive one this author has experienced. St. Peter’s Square in Rome at early summer temperatures and three hours of waiting for the audience with Pope Francis. 180 minutes spent in the midst of about a hundred cheerful people from Columbia, waiting for the Pope like they would a rock star. And then he rolled onto the scene in his Popemobile, the Argentinean in Rome; our early rise from the bed was richly rewarded – he was only a few metres away from us and inspired us with his aura, his charisma and a personality that simply must be felt to be appreciated. This moving experience of a longed-for and long-planned encounter has left the author with a lasting impression to this day.
Text: Ulrich J. C. Harz