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On Goethe and “sobbenbunker”

Leaving Germany earlier today, I tweeted a farewell, politely using the native language of those I was farewelling “Ladies of Germany, auf wiedersehen. But don’t cry in your sobbenbunkers: I shall be back to schaden your freudes and zeit your geists asap”.

Two German speakers asked me what “sobbenbunker” means, which surprised me. It simply refers to a room for crying in. German culture invented the word “angst” because Germans spend at least 15% of their day crying over existential worries about the futility of it all. Given that most homes have a dedicated room for the toilet – an activity which normally consumes much less than 15% of the day – it’s unsurprising that middle class Germans had a dedicated room for weeping and sobbing. (Now they get it all out at football matches.)

The “sobbenbunker” was the subject of one of the big song and dance numbers that German poet Goethe wrote in his early draft of “Faust: the musical”. In the song, Mrs Faust learns of her husband’s pact with the devil, and goes off for some angst in the sobbenbunker. Faust sings “My pact with satan is a clunker/ mein Frau ist in der sobbenbunker./ My heart recoils at words she’s spoken: / for me, her fotze is verboten.”

However, Goethe removed the song before publication. Although at heart, he was a light entertainer, he was constantly stung by criticism from serious High German artists that he was dumbing-down the culture. Beethoven and Brecht were particularly scathing, deliberately re-naming him “Goatse” in interviews to show their disdain. In an attempt to rid himself of his low-brow image, he took all the songs out of “Faust: the musical”, and reinvented it as a rather dull treatise on good and evil.

5 Responses to “ On Goethe and “sobbenbunker” ”

Comment by Christof

The lack of sobbenbunkers in most modern flats was one of the main reasons why I left Germany.

Now in Spain I don’t feel the need for them any more.

Comment by Charlie

I think the problem is that the neologism is difficult to parse: “sobben” makes no sense in German and a bunker really is something very military. “Heulkammer” or “Jammerkammer” might work better: “kammer” being the analog of chamber; “heulen” is to cry or sob; “jammern” is to moan or complain.

Comment by Bruce

@Charlie

“zobben” is from the Early Middle High German dialect found in Baden-Württemberg, southwestern Germany. It’s a cognate of the English “sorrow”. The Sobbenbunker was invented in the region when angst levels reached an all-time high due to deforestation caused by the sudden popularity of Black Forest Gateaux in the Late Medieval Period.

(You also rightly note that “a bunker really is something very military”; I would remind you that “German history” is practically a synonym for “very millitary”.)

Other areas of Germany call the Sobbenbunker the “Angst-room” – from which the SI unit of “sorrow caused by the futility of life” is derived. One Angstrom is defined as the amount of existential misery experienced by an average German in one day.

Hope this clears it up.

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