By Steven Hill, Montréal Review, July 2012
The German language has a word, “Stammtisch,” that really has no English equivalent. The closest translation is something like “a table reserved for regulars” or “regular get-together.” Literally speaking, Stammtisch means a table in a bar or restaurant which is reserved for the same guests at the same time every day or every week, and no one else is supposed to sit there, even when the regulars aren’t present. In the most traditional German beer halls there is a large brass plaque above the table with the word Stammtisch printed on it in bold lettering, which conveys “don’t sit here.” When I visited the Hofbrauhaus in Munich for the first time, which is a massive beer hall that also has no U.S. equivalent, I made the mistake of sitting at someone else’s unoccupied Stammtisch, raising eyebrows and eventually glares until I figured out my transgression. In the US, if a table is empty, it’s fair game to occupy it, but not in Bavarian Germany.
There can be all kinds of Stammtisch, whether for friends who imbibe together on a regular occasion, or those for specific interest groups, such as a “philosophy discussion Stammtisch” or a “stamp collectors Stammtisch,” or a “learn to speak German or English Stammtisch,” etc. This is what US sociologist Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) once labeled “social capital,” the stickiness that binds a cohort together. Adolph Hitler, who got his start by learning the art of oratory in Germany’s large beer halls, had his own Stammtisch of sorts — it became known as the Nazi Party.
Understanding this word/concept is one way to appreciate Munich’s annual rite of beer swilling known as Oktoberfest. It’s like a massive Stammtisch of hundreds of thousands of people who have a regular annual date in Munich. I had never attended Oktoberfest before but when the organizers of my public lecture in Munich invited me to be their guest at Oktoberfest, it was too attractive an offer to turn down. I approached the experience like a sociologist with a bent for blending in with the locals, i.e. consuming massive quantities of beer.
Oktoberfest was celebrating its 200 year old anniversary, and over the two-week period in which it unfolded approximately six million people passed through the gates. A large number of attendees were wearing the traditional Bavarian costumes, men in Lederhosen shorts and feathered caps, the women in the low-cut, cup-runneth-over, St. Pauli girl Dirndls. And just about everyone is holding an enormous flagon full of the specially made yellow lager beer known as Märzen (nearly two million gallons of which are consumed during the two-week festival). In other words, these Stammtischers (can I use this word as a noun?) are pounding down serious quantities of beer.
Besides the amusement park atmosphere around the fairgrounds, they have enormous beer halls on the fairgrounds where the Stammtischers mount their libational assault on Kantian reason. Just in the beer hall in which I”stammtisched” (can I use it as a verb?) with my friends, I shared the revelry with about 10,000 other people in a single hall. It was an enormous structure and everywhere you looked there was a sea of people hoisting high their yellow flagons, singing along in thick, throaty tones to the oompa band in the middle. The more people drank, the more they climbed on top of their benches and stools, apparently trying to get as high physically as they were getting blood-level wise. The singing too grew increasingly loud and paradoxically on-key, as the volkgeist found its harmony in both German- and English-language songs rolling over the crowd. Next thing you know, they were standing on the tables, higher still, and the singing by now was thunderous, bellowing like drunk elephant seals.
There’s something about singing in large crowds that has always been appealing to humans; something about the communion that occurs when each individual joins with like-others to produce something harmonious. It’s the exact opposite of politics, which is often one long argument that one can never win, except temporarily, and frustrates this innate need for consensus and connection. Three voices joined in harmony is a delight, but ten thousand in unison is a wall of uplifting sound. Think of the magnificent chorus of dozens in Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” and multiply that by, oh, about a thousand. While I’m not particularly religious, I suppose there is something God-like in this pursuit, a sense of climbing higher and higher onto the stools, the tables, in beer content, in our attempts to reach some divine summit. Perhaps I had drank too much beer myself, but this loud bellowing mass suddenly seemed like something life-affirming and even sloppily beautiful, a Stammtisch of Thousands within this beer hall.
Yet as I realized later (once the effects of the beer had worn off), the flipside is that these sorts of rituals can and have been abused, whether during the patriotic “rally around the flag”-fest that occurred after the 9-11 terrorist attacks (when the number of Americans who were willing to support the use of torture spiked in the opinion polls) or during the Nazi mass rituals that used symbols and, yes, song to unite a people’s will around a perverse destination.
Now with the developed world, whether in Europe, the United States or Japan, mired in doubts and indecision over how to move forward their economies, and with the developing world in China, India and Brazil wanting their deserved seat at the table, the challenge of the 21st century, if you will, is how to create a global Stammtisch of 7 billion people. We have a regularly reserved table with each other, but can we make enough room at the table for everyone to fit? And beyond that, can we learn to lift our voices together in a beautiful song of planetary union? That’s what we will find out in the 21st century.