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This item is taken from PN Review 18, Volume 7 Number 4, March - April 1981.Editorial
Let labour be divided:
evil men poison the arrow;
good men draw the bow.
LAST year I talked to West German writers, editors and publishers in a Germany remembering two anniversaries. Thirty years earlier, the Bundesrepublik had been carved out of the wreck of the old Reich. And just a decade had passed since the political unrest of the late sixties. Civic attention fixed on events thirty years back. Many of the writers I met were concerned with the consequences of events a decade before.
It was a period in which literature appeared to give itself up entirely to political causes and considerations; to regard its own propriety, its forms, its allegiances, its modes of production and dissemination, in an extraordinarily angry and reductive spirit. Literature must in no way serve the 'establishment' or the dominant classes; must not be produced or marketed in ways devised and condoned by them. Predictably, the Frankfurt Book Fair was a prime target for the activists. Some interesting and impractical ideas about 'democratizing' publishing emerged from their earnest, frenzied lucubrations.
Ever since the beginning, with the formation of the influential Gruppe 47, the most visible West German literature has been 'politicized', generally in a spirit of leftward antagonism to the existing and evolving order. But not before or since did politicization reach the degree of virulence of the late sixties. The most effective political activists were not, it is well to remember, writers. The most famous, Rudi Deutschke, was not even German.
Michael Hamburger claims that 'the politicization of West German literature since the war . . . has done nothing but harm'. I take it he means harm to writers, writing and readers. His view is widely shared. Yet I came away from Germany wondering whether the experience of the late sixties had not effected a salutary change in the nature of West German writers' politics-the sort of change that might have occurred among British writers after the Spanish Civil War had there been time and the critical intelligence for reflection.
What did writers learn beyond those general lessons about the limits of institutional and popular tolerance of dissent, the necessary rigidity of basic social structures, and the conservatism of the majority of their countrymen of all classes? I believe their sense of what is political in literature was modified. Also, their perception of the sphere in which art (rather than the artist as citizen-activist) can have effect was altered. They came to distrust 'democratic' consensus in activist groups, to regard it (like the public meeting) as a form of social coercion. They perceived how small a constituency they had in society at large, how many of their readers came from the very classes whose interests they opposed, how rapidly those they thought they spoke for turned hostile to them.
The novelist Martin Walser suggests that students developed their activism among writers because they knew them to be only too ready to feel bad conscience and to yield; and writers were, in terms of publicity, useful. They formed an identifiable group well connected with the media, eminently exploitable. If they grew recalcitrant, they were expendable. They were not trusted comrades. I was reminded of Trotsky's cold comment on Alexander Blok: 'Certainly he is not one of us, but he came towards us. And that is what broke him.' West German writers were playing with less dangerous fire; they passed through it-even when their comments were as scathing as Enzensberger's were on Cuba- and it did not consume them. Walser looks back with a chuckle and a shudder at those meetings when, by a show of hands, literature had been democratically abolished.
It is hard to read far in the work of most good modern German writers without sensing that they have made certain political choices far more deliberately than their British contemporaries feel compelled to do. But the choices German writers have made since 1970 are often different in character from those made before. Walser told me that-perhaps coincidentally-he had moved from first to third person narrative in his novels of the seventies; his work had become more modest in form, conventional in manner. It was easier to read and hence more widely read. 'Maybe realism in a novel is not so politically exhibitionistic as it was before.' Helmut Heissenbüttel, the experimental writer, abandoned generic distinctions in the sixties, referring to his prose and verse writings indiscriminately as 'texts'. Now again he is vexed by the question of genre, largely-I think-because the reader's sense of genre is crucial to his way of reading, and because a definite choice of genre frees the writer's skills in parodic and ironic directions. Genre can no doubt have bad class or ideological antecedents; but a writer with a sense of their history can make them new and serviceable in the present. Apparently many East German writers are doing just that. To use traditional genre with an awareness of their historical derivation is quite as radical an act as to reject them altogether as the fruits of corruption. Other poets have circumvented traditional lyricism, attempting large-scale narratives, dramatic forms, ballads and pop-songs, thus avoiding the first person singular and its dubious connotations. Some writers have been unable to do anything at all in the new climate. Others-practising what has, to their annoyance, been called 'the new subjectivism' and working from rather dated American models-ostentatiously exclude politics from their writing, an act which the left sees as highly political and accuses the right of encouraging.
In ten years, much has become clear. A major anthology of texts and news reports about the events of the late sixties, published last year, excludes all mention of the work of Enzens-berger, a seminal writer-activist at the time. Indeed, none of the writer-activists appears in the book. When I asked Enzensberger whether the omission was malicious, he rather thought it wasn't. The writers' part in the student drama had been a small one, much exaggerated by commentators at the time. During the fifties, to be sure, writers may have helped to keep alive a spirit of opposition and critical watchfulness. But they reflected tensions, they did not create them; and when they spoke out, it was to define a figure which, in a sense, did not include them.
West German writing may now be less political in Michael Hamburger's sense precisely because it went through so narrowly political an experience a decade ago. Brecht is still highly valued, but as much now for his wryly subversive later poems as for his plays. Gottfried Benn is read seriously once again because of the dark precision of his analysis of events and directions and because of the fine demotic quality of his later poems. Brecht and Benn-the utopian and the apocalyptic-can be taken to represent extremes between which contemporary German poetry moves. Yet some writers insist that similar passions and concerns underlie the work of both. In youth they elected different parties. They led their lives in the darkness of those choices. Yet the politics of their writing are not bound by those choices. In effect, their imaginative work at its best did not make the choice: it was too attentive to its subject. And their critical intelligence ultimately survived the choice.
To abstract the 'politics' of one moment or another from a writer's whole development is to distort the political truth the writer finally tells (as well as whatever other truths he may bear in his words). Those who sought to use Benn's work and found it intractable confined him within irrelevant but damaging categories. He said in 1948:
The wings of fame are not white, as Balzac says; but if like myself for the last fifteen years, one has been publicly referred to as a swine by the Nazis, a halfwit by the Communists, an intellectual prostitute by the democrats, a renegade by the emigrants, and a pathological nihilist by the religious, one is not particularly keen on pushing one's way out in front of that public again. . .
Further on, he writes:
. . . here in the West, for the last four decades, the same set of brains has been discussing the same set of problems with the same set of arguments, resorting to the same set of causal and conditional clauses and arriving at the same set of either conclusions, which they call synthesis, or incon-clusions, which they call a crisis. . . . A nation, or a West, hoping for a new lease on life . . . cannot be regenerated by these means.
There is a passage in Benn's Double Life which more than one German writer called to my attention. The late sixties had brought home its truth:
Principles of art cannot be publicly and politically generalized. It is provincial immaturity on the artist's part to expect the public to care about him, to support him financially, and to celebrate his sixtieth birthday with banquets and floral tributes. He rampages within himself-who should thank him for it? Remember, too, how many 'Egmont' and 'Leonore' overtures have thundered over the average politician's head at inaugurations and other festive occasions, without effecting a change in him. I agree, therefore, with Manet's maxim, 'Il faut décourager les arts' . . .
That says almost all there is to say about the public character of art, the public's debt to the artist.
One lesson that stayed with many writers was that an attachment to a party of opposition or revolution compromises creative freedom quite as much as an affiliation with a ruling party might do. Enzensberger presents the traditional antagonism between writer and state as that between intelligence and power; he wryly laments the failure of those writers who have sought to bridge the gap (Mann, Brecht and Grass among them). But the blade cuts the other way as well. Enzensberger's Cuban experience is quite as illuminating as Grass's experience of social democracy.
Walser put another point to me. Since the war, German writers-at least those older than forty or so-have been 'rootless', even those who stay in the region where they were born. The division of Germany, the enforced ideological and economic mitosis, has produced a cultural division too, even for those who devote themselves to reunification. Furthermore, the writer working in a language so distorted during the Nazi period finds creation akin to translation: it requires skill, tact, resources of irony. The poem cannot come naturally as leaves to a tree, no one dares-it would seem-to write by second nature. It is hard for the poet to speak, almost impossible for him to sing the old tunes.
There are few direct lessons in this for English writers and readers, but by transposition if not by analogy something can be learned which bears on issues debated here in recent years.
All the German writers who spoke to me were sensitive, almost oversensitive, to political realities, all were to the left, yet none offered a programme. From Enzensberger's flat in Munich you might have seen on a clear day the flag of the Bundesrepublik flapping above Herr Strauss's Residenz. It was there that perilous certainties and dogmatic policies held sway. The writers were wary, critical, even frightened. It was for them a time of questions, not answers. They were attentive to one another. Their magazines tended to present discussion, debate, self-criticism, little polemic; they included essays on anthropology, sociology and other disciplines in journals whose objectives were basically literary. This is an aspect of the 'cultural reintegration' which some writers see as a crucial objective.
Literary output continues at its usual alarming rate, a product of pluralism (one might call it literary federalism) and a kind of positive disorientation, a pessimism made bearable by irony, an earnest gaze over the Wall at a botched utopia and a possible apocalypse. The West German writer lives on the ideological fault-line between East and West: critical of his own society, he is repelled by what is done in the name of socialism across the border. Each month East German writers cross to the West. When I was in Berlin, Günter Kunert was ushered over by the Eastern authorities. The West German writer has, as it were, to look over both shoulders at once. The Länder have found various ways of keeping him fed and clothed while he gestates, suffers anxiety, and writes.
This item is taken from PN Review 18, Volume 7 Number 4, March - April 1981.