Category: Children's Books

Jörg Bernardy
Mann Frau Mensch. Was macht mich aus?
[Man, Woman, Human Being. What Makes Me What I Am?]

Stories

Otherness makes life interesting

A large butterfly launching itself into the air: the cover picture of Jörg Bernardy’s book “Mann Frau Mensch” immediately sets the tone for all that follows. In mythology butterflies are the intermediary between heaven and earth, and so each of the six chapters of this essay-like book focuses on the question of how our body determines our identity. The visual aspect plays a significant role here, thus for instance the front endpaper immediately blazons red as the colour of femininity, white as the colour of masculinity, and blue to represent the realm of the imagination invoked throughout the book. ‘What makes me what I am?’ runs the subtitle - and it is by no means easy to come up with an answer to this question. Thus while a series of photographs of skin and of various specific areas of the body clearly show how vulnerable human beings are, they give no hint of whether we’re looking at the skin of men or women. Such is Jörg Bernardy’s overall objective in this elegantly written book – not merely to steer clear of mono-perspectivism himself, but to actively encourage us to open our own eyes to the multiple possibilities of life instead of seeing it too readily in terms of a set of clichéed pigeon-holes.
 
The subject of Jörg Bernardy’s book is identity and sexual orientation, and since we can neither seek nor find our identity as a sort of ready-made package but must instead build it up in the course of a never-ending process, the book cannot simply echo the style of self-help guides and offer a string of neat maxims. Bernardy’s premise is that our sexual orientation is not simply determined by our biological gender; rather, we are turned into men or women, as proposed by Simone de Beauvoir. Upbringing, milieu, culture, language, the media - all play a part in the formative process, with the result that the straightforward duality of man/woman begins to look decidedly shaky. Bernardy invites us to take a serious look at homosexuality, bisexuality, the queer movement, transgender forms of sexuality, and asexuality.
 
Life can take an infinitude of forms, and so this book takes us on a journey, inspired by the notion of tolerance, through all of life’s various aspects, from friendship, family and career right through to language itself. It makes no attempt to disguise the fact that it is aimed at a specific audience: it sets out to make teenagers aware of the full range of possibilities that are available in terms of sexual identity. Everything now needs be explicitly spelled out in order to counter anxiety and ignorance. Without trumpeting it in any way, this carefully formulated book makes it clear that its purpose is to foster a humane approach in place of the destructive clichés of populism, and the hate-filled diatribes on the internet that notoriously encourage exclusion. Needless to say, attaining one’s own particular identity does not mean having a stake in each and every form of sexual orientation; what is absolutely fundamental is respect for the dignity of others. Jörg Bernardy’s book compellingly demonstrates that anyone who feels committed to evincing such respect has powerful arguments on their side in any debate about binding values; it not only quietly dismantles taboos, but also shows that it is precisely the rich potential of our fellow human beings that makes life interesting.
 
Thomas Linden

By Thomas Linden, 14.12.2018

​Thomas Linden is a journalist (Kölnische Rundschau, WWW.CHOICES.DE) specializing in the areas of literature, theater and film. He also curates exhibitions on photography and picture book illustration.

Translated by John Reddick