Fighting the Abyss

Fighting the Abyss

Although The Aesthetics of Resistance delves into leftist notions of art and class struggle, this account of an anti-Nazi youth group in Germany seems outdated now.


“In our last conversation, several hours before he died, we spoke of the source of artistic creation,” recalled Gunilla Palmsteirna-Weiss in her speech accepting the Büchner Prize, one of Germany’s most coveted literary prizes, on behalf of her recently deceased husband, the German-born writer Peter Weiss. “It is the black chasm which all of us carry within ourselves: just as there are black holes in space, in the macrocosm, so also in man, in the microcosm. In order to overcome this black hole, this emptiness, we must constantly be conquering it…. Peter was constantly in close combat with the abyss.”

Born in 1916 on the outskirts of Berlin to a Hungarian-Jewish father who had converted to Christianity and a Swiss- German mother, Weiss had narrowly avoided the abyss as a young man. As the rise of National Socialism made life more and more precarious, the Weiss family moved to London, then to Czechoslovakia, where Weiss’s father managed a textile factory. In 1938, after the Germans occupied the Sudetenland, Weiss’s parents took refuge in Stockholm; Peter, who had been studying at the Academy of Art in Prague, soon joined them. Weiss became a Swedish citizen in 1946, and through the late 1940s made his living as a journalist for a Swedish paper. Around this time, he began writing poetry in Swedish, while painting and directing experimental and documentary films. Although he went on to write his best-known work in German, he never resettled in the land of his birth.

It was in the mid-1960s that Weiss first came to prominence as a dramatist, with his meditation on the French Revolution, Marat/Sade–or, in the play’s more evocative full title, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. Marat/Sade premiered at the Schiller Theater in West Berlin in 1964 and soon after achieved international fame in its English rendition staged by Peter Brook. Weiss’s deeply imaginative and unsettling play, which hinges on a fictional debate between the detached, skeptical Sade and the engagé, forward-looking Marat, struck a chord with theatergoers attuned to similar high-pitched debates that defined the political battles of the day. In large part thanks to Brook, who would adapt it for the screen in 1967, the play reached an unusually wide audience for an avant-garde production, playing for many months in Germany, England, the United States and elsewhere.

By the time Marat/Sade appeared, Weiss had already produced a considerable body of literary work written in both Swedish and German, including poems, other plays and novels. His enduring preoccupation with violence, oppression, persecution and human frailty would permeate much of his subsequent dramatic work, from The Investigation (1965), a stark, fact-laden documentary play based on the observations he made while visiting the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt the previous year, to Vietnam Discourse (1968) and Trotsky in Exile (1970).

These dramatic works grew not only from a Brechtian conviction that playwrights have a duty to awaken the consciousness of theater audiences but also from a commitment to leftist politics offstage. Weiss had begun to immerse himself in Marx’s writings while completing Marat/Sade, and his own leanings–his dialectical understanding of history and the recurrent oppositions treated in his writing–were often made palpable, in particular in his aim to trigger sustained critical reflection on the part of the audience. “If I want anything from an audience,” Weiss explained, “it’s that they listen very carefully and be completely awake, not hypnotized, absolutely alive, answering all the questions in the play.”

In 1968, that fateful year for the student movement and the New Left, Weiss officially put theory into practice, joining the Swedish Communist Party. Not long afterward, while still actively involved in a range of political causes, including the antiwar movement and the battle against all remnants of fascism in Germany, he embarked on his most ambitious, most radical project to date: a sprawling epic novel that sought to take stock of the great struggles leading up to those he was facing in the early 1970s. Weiss labored feverishly on his three-volume, thousand-page magnum opus–originally called The Resistance but later renamed The Aesthetics of Resistance–during the final decade of his life. He survived its final publication, in 1981, by only a year.

Arguably one of the most demanding works of modern German literature, Weiss’s tome has no linear narrative development, no clear beginning, middle or end, no chapter breaks, few paragraph breaks and no clear plot lines. While it shares some of the stock features of the classic Bildungsroman (it tracks, in part, the character formation of the nameless first-person narrator) and, even more, of the 1950s nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute, it ultimately resists such categories, as one might expect. Indeed, one very basic element of “aesthetic resistance,” perhaps envisioned as a formal irritant, is the novel’s self-conscious disavowal of its own genre. In his writing for the theater, Weiss went to considerable lengths to insure that audiences would not be lulled into a state of hypnosis–or, for that matter, complacent enjoyment–and he took similar precautions in The Aesthetics of Resistance, whose first volume is finally available in an English edition. The novel demands a constant state of alertness; any dozing off will require a frantic search back through the thick web of material for traces of where the fatal slip occurred.

While the book encompasses countless historical figures, many of them antifascist Resistance fighters of the 1930s and ’40s, it centers on a group of young activists who formed what came to be known as the Rote Kapelle, or Red Orchestra, an underground anti-Nazi organization whose leaders were executed in Berlin in late 1942. Each of these figures, adapted and subject to revision in the novel, is taken directly from the historical record. There is Hans Coppi, who would later become a radio operator in the Resistance; Horst Heilmann, a student of politics and interpreter of wartime documents; and the group’s elder guide, the socialist physician Max Hodann, who was imprisoned by the Nazis but went on to serve as a physician in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War and later mentored Peter Weiss while both were living in Swedish exile in the 1940s. The first-person narrator, who bears a strong resemblance to the author, has political credentials that are almost too perfect (leading some early critics to charge Weiss with writing a “Wunschautobiographie,” or “imagined autobiography,” for himself): He was born on the eve of the Russian Revolution to proletarian parents (rather than to a factory manager) who groomed him for his later service in the Resistance.

Much of the first volume of The Aesthetics of Resistance, translated into English by Joachim Neugroschel, revolves around the passionate debates among these and other members of the Resistance group. Already in the opening pages, set inside the Pergamon, Berlin’s great museum of antiquities, they stand before the altar frieze imported to modern Germany from the ancient world and begin to recognize their own plight in the images they examine: “The heyday of the Pergamene Kingdom lasted for only a few short decades, and it had been preceded by over a century of unabated warfare. This was the pattern still inherent in most politics today. The laws of the ancient slaveholding society were still in effect.” They very quickly see their aesthetic engagement through a political prism, that is, as “attempts to escape speechlessness,” to gain access to a formerly forbidden realm and “to overcome petty bourgeois leanings.” As the narrator quips, “From the very outset, our studying was rebellion.”

What this means, in effect, is that whatever they happen to study, aesthetic criticism for these young intellectuals–as for other Western Marxist thinkers of the period, like Gramsci, Lukács and Benjamin–is never divorced from politics. The Divine Comedy and Ulysses become occasions for reflection on the limits and possibilities of socialism, while Kafka’s The Castle evokes the “definitive gap in power and privilege” and is, at base, “a proletarian novel” (this would have been news to the cultural commissars in Communist Eastern Europe, who often suppressed Kafka as the ultimate decadent novelist). History, in general, represents “one long sequence of horror and rebellion.” As Coppi asserts, “If we want to take on art, literature, we have to treat them against the grain, that is, we have to eliminate all the concomitant privileges and project our own demands into them.” This, needless to say, does not always make for the most nuanced critical analysis.

Still, some of the most gripping–and most beautiful–passages of Weiss’s novel appear in detailed examinations of classic paintings by Delacroix, Goya, Brueghel, Géricault, Munch and others, and their bearing on contemporary struggles. Of Picasso’s Guernica, for instance, Weiss writes: “The painting presented something utterly new, incomparable. Crudely, violently, the sharp shadows and cones of light, the flatly intersecting mastodontic limbs and faces, the hard diagonals and verticals contradicted the deep, motionless density all around. The air was filled with the metallic singing of crickets.” These and other lavish analyses offset the otherwise staid political proclamations (“We remain wage slaves instead of steering production processes”); they also betray Weiss’s flair for visual description, a consistent feature of his work.

In his foreword to the English edition, Fredric Jameson argues that Weiss’s novel “is not so much a contribution to aesthetic theory as rather a working out of an aesthetic pedagogy.” This can, of course, have its drawbacks, especially where that pedagogy becomes doctrinaire. Critics have faulted the author’s pedantic tone, which at times resembles “the voice of party seminars and academies” (Ferenc Feher) or “a handbook of class-struggle” (Klaus Scherpe) more than a novel.

But Weiss’s project has another, deeper aim than advancing the socialist revolution, namely to give voice to fascism’s victims, and to preserve the memory of their lives and example–hence the archival nature of his work, with its painstaking attention to the names of fallen comrades. This was his way of waging “combat with the abyss,” as his wife remarked. As W.G. Sebald has observed, in Weiss’s epic novel, “The process of writing…is the struggle against ‘the art of forgetting,’ a struggle that is as much a part of life as melancholy is of death, a struggle consisting in the constant transfer of recollection into written signs.” The Greek goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, thus occupies a central place here, both as a subject of commentary and as an intellectual and spiritual guide, bearing witness to the horrors of history (“She protects what our own knowledge contains in all achievements”). According to Sebald, whose own decidedly nondidactic writing possesses a few subtle affinities with The Aesthetics of Resistance, Weiss’s work should be understood as “an expression of the will to be on the side of the victims at the end of time.” By victims, Weiss is not referring exclusively, or even primarily, to the Jews who died in Nazi concentration camps. Indeed, there are very few references, apart from the narrator’s mother’s declaration of solidarity with the plight of the Jews, to the ethnic or religious background of his subjects. He is more interested in the militants who chose to fight Nazism than in those who were singled out as its victims because of their racial or sexual identity. While this widens the scope of compassion, it also very clearly dates the novel as a product of the European left of the 1970s.

Like the work of Brecht and other old-guard leftist writers, Weiss’s Aesthetics seems, on occasion, rather anachronistic. The questions it addresses–what role, for instance, the artist should play in the class struggle–are so deeply rooted in the time when Weiss wrote that his novel cries out not only for linguistic translation but also for a kind of historical and political translation; the latter, it turns out, is more difficult.

Perhaps this explains why in recent years, on both sides of the Atlantic, Peter Weiss has, after a brief boom around the fall of the Berlin wall, drifted further into oblivion. The recent New History of German Literature, published by Harvard last year, did not even see fit to include an entry on The Aesthetics of Resistance. In spite of the admirable effort to publish the first volume–both translator and publisher are to be commended for taking on this formidable challenge–one doubts whether the novel will ever find much of an audience in the twenty-first century. As Klaus Scherpe noted in the early 1980s, soon after the novel’s third and final volume appeared, “It is to be feared that Peter Weiss’ Aesthetics remains just as unread as the most discussed books of this century: Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust’s Remembrance, and Musil’s Man Without Qualities.” If, as fate or the unforgiving eye of history would have it, Weiss’s novel is finally to be consigned to the neglected masterworks of Modernism, we can at least take some solace in knowing it will be in good company.

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