Sunday, August 20, 2006

Gunter Grass

The Dog is puzzled--disconcerted is, perhaps, better--over Gunter Grass's confession that in 1945, age 17, he served in the Waffen SS--that he peed his pants in combat seems an irrelevancy. I don't expect artists to be any more pure than anyone else; in fact, I probably cut artists more slack than I do politicians, for example, because artists are not usually making decisions on whether someone else lives or dies. The exception to that rule is obvious, but I'll spell it out--an artist or academic who enters the public realm must be judged for their policies and for their artistic work--and sometimes the two get all bound up together. Or the artist turns propagandist, usually at the expense of the art, but not always. I won't go to war on the subject, but I seem to recall that a few of the great Renaissance artists took on religious themes because they needed the money and thus were willing to propagandize for the church. Well before that, Virgil was singing praises of Augustus--and on....That brings up the whole question of patronage, or sponsorship, especially, but not exclusively, in theatre and film and how it affects what is produced. so that the art becomes servant in one way or another to a particular ideology or cultural perspective. Science is not much different.

Of course, I'm talking here of a matter of degrees, because, as Marx observed, artists and intellectuals belong to the superstructure of society. By default, even the most radical among them will go only so far in their quest for artistic and intellectual freedom, although in certain contexts that far may be far indeed. Nonetheless in America it is an article of faith among the cultural elite--excepting the religious right--that ideology, morality and politics should not drive art or shape intellectual discourse, until the state of the nation or the world becomes too fucked up to be ignored. Then, it is time to bear witness.

Arguably, we have been in such a state since the Great War (I) and the advent of Modernism, although one would never know that by looking at contemporary American letters. There is much to do, even on these shores, over Samuel Beckett--the centennial of his birth, it is--and how he ripped what was left of narrative, plot, and character from the novel, which I applaud--Gina, too--that makes the sound of two hands clapping. But in America, narrative reigns supreme, as if Beckett and those other Europeans never happened--and by narrative here I'm talking about the simple story line running the length of the book, so beloved in fiction and non-fiction. Now, that reflects a society that doesn't want complexity or subtlety or paradox or, since September 11, 2001, barely irony. It's a society that wants the world to be a certain way and wants to be entertained.

Speaking of paradox and irony, Dog Bytes' readers will long since have commenced muttering to themselves that one high priest of Modernism was the virulently anti-Semitic, Mussolini propagandist, Ezra Pound, and another was the politically indifferent, at best, Picasso, Guernica not withstanding. I've long admired the poetry of Ezra Pound while finding abhorrent his bigotry and politics, but there are many people who won't pick up a book by him. Pound paid for his decisions, too--incarceration in a makeshift, open-air cell following the war and then impoundment at St. Elizabeth's as a nut case too incompetent to stand trial for treason. Still, believing that the responsible artist, writer, intellectual, human will always be in opposition to power, I tend to look askance at any writer or artist, Pound included, who touts the party line. Without endorsing a Gardneresque argument for moral fiction, I must nonetheless confess that I'm no fan of "literature" that preaches hate--misanthropy is another matter. That's finally why I'm not going to declare Pound my favorite poet or even place him high in the pantheon, despite the occasional brilliance of his verse--too much of the other crap washed into it, and he placed himself and his talent in the service of an evil that caused great suffering.

Gunter Grass has long stood in opposition to Germany's Nazi past, demanded confrontation with it in his fictions and in his public posturing. I initially read him in part because of his reputation and in part because the so-called Danzig Triology is an important cultural document, but I don't find him the best of the post-war German writers, who nonetheless were born under Hitler. I rate more highly Hans Magnus Enzensberger--Grass's exact contemporary--better as a thinker--he's an essayist and poet, not a novelist--and W.G. Sebald (this link's to his obituary in the Guardian) flat better, although his body of work is considerably shorter. Enzensberger, as the linked to interview reveals, caused his own flap in Germany, when he endorsed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, even while disavowing Bush's foreign (non) policy and the carnage that has followed. He simply hates all dictators, Enzensberger said.

Sebald died in 2001, age 57, a great loss to literature and the world. The Guardian began its obituary with a quote that seems pertinent now: "I don't think you can write from a compromised moral position," he told an interviewer shortly before his death.

Through concealment of his service in the Waffen SS, Grass put himself in a compromised moral position. It didn't stop him from 'writing,' but it perhaps did stop him from writing anything that will endure that will ultimately be considered immortal. In Sebald's poshumous Campo Santo is an essay "Constructs of Mourning,' devoted to Grass and Wolfgang Hildesheimer and the collective failure of postwar Germany to confront the devastation of the War--not just the destruction of Jews, Russians, Poles, Gypsies, political opponents, and social deviants but also the annihilation of German civilians in the firebombing of cities and the disappearance of German armies in POW camps. Writing about Grass's Diary of a Snail, a fictional account of the 1969 campaign that brought Willy Brandt, who actively resisted Hitler, and the Social Democratic Party to power, Sebald praises Grass for telling the story of the deportation of Danzig's Jews by the Nazis--while slyly emphasizing that he took the history from someone else--but Sebald also criticizes him for creating a "good" German, Hermann Otto, aka "Doubt." Sebald gives chapter and verse, but his point is to ask, politely but firmly, "whether the dominance of fiction over what really happened does not tend to militate against the recording of the truth and the attempt to commemorate it."

That raises the question of whether Sebald was writing fictions, as most American critics claim, or something closer to essayistic prose poems, my choice--and, yes, it's hardly a poetic phrase. But I digress.

In today's New York Times, Daniel Kehlmann, the young German novelist, writing from Vienna, suggests that at a certain point, Grass withheld public confession because he knew news of his service in the Waffen SS would keep him from ever receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature [this link takes you first to my sign in page, for some reason, but click in]. After he received the prize in 1999, he remained silent to preserve his reputation, coming forward now as a pre-emptive strike, Kehlmann says. That's to wrap hypocrisy in venality, but who's to say it's not true, since Grass himself is sayig little. He is further proof, however, that one can be a "moralist' without being moral; indeed, that's the story of our age. Sadly, as Sebald said, you can't "write [my emphasis] from a compromised moral position." You can tell stories, for sure, and they can even amuse and achieve great popular success, but they will finally fall short of what writing is about. The task of the writer in this age is to find the way to speak what must be spoken.


faculty for workplace justice said...

a beautiful, eloquent, and most moral piece of writing. bravo mark.

faculty for workplace justice said...

oh, and one question: fiction vs. "what really happened"? what's the difference?

Mark Derr said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Derr said...

jonie v. slyly asks, referring to Sebald's critique of Grass: "fiction vs. 'what really happened?' what's the difference?" I can't speak for Sebald, of course, but I see 'fiction' in this instance as outright fabrication, which can take the form of altering events, constructing fake biographies, scenes, whole characters--even if they are intended to illuminate a larger "truth"--whatever that is. The questiion of how one reconstructs events or people is more complex, but if a witer employs fabrication, they must indicate they are doing so for a specific limited purpose.