Prussian Blues

Fredric Jameson

  • Ein weites Feld by Günter Grass
    Steidl, 784 pp, DM 49.80, August 1995, ISBN 3 88243 366 3

Can there be literature after reunification? It strikes one as something of a science fictional question. Philip K. Dick, indeed, posited a future world in which the Axis powers had won World War Two, and proceeded to divide the United States down the middle into two zones with two decidedly different regimes of military occupation. In Fire on the Mountain Terry Bissell posits a world in which a successful John Brown’s raid sets off a black revolution in the American South which leads to the formation of a socialist state, ultra-modern and prosperous, in contrast with the shabby private-enterprise North that limps along on the crumbs of world trade. But what if the Allies had won World War Two, and divided Germany itself into two occupation zones dominated by two different modes of production? And what if – for the science-fictional fantasy has the peculiar property that its conceits refuse to remain static or fixed, but suddenly convulse, change and grow with the dynamics of History itself – what if eventually, after several generations, these two different German-speaking nations somehow rejoin? Is one to imagine the coming into being of some undreamt of new third entity, distinct from each of its constitutive halves (assuming the post-national dimensions of a European federation don’t deprive secession and reunification alike of anything other than local significance)? Or does the one half appropriate the other and subject it to its own specific forms of exploitation, as the North did to the conquered South after the real Civil War, sending in the various tribes of carpetbagger, from the academic to the financial, from land speculators to the police force (with their newly repainted vehicles), in order to teach the errant member its true subalternity and to endow it with conformity to the law and custom, the property rights, of the allegedly consanguine state that has taken its poorer cousin in out of charity ...

As for literature after reunification, George Steiner thought there could be none anyway after Hitler; but he had in mind the bureaucratic degeneration of the language. The question reactivates the matter of tradition, and of the framework in which the new text – any new text – is to be received and evaluated. For it is not clear, first of all, which Germany the present one continues, except that it is surely not that of Hitler’s Reich. But Weimar, to which so much radical German literature still appeals, was – besides being a victim of that West of which the successor state is the hegemonic power – a failure that it might be unlucky to be identified with; while the second Empire, the Wilhelminian period, combining the Victorian harmonies of a bourgeois golden age with the grisly overtones of the trenches of World War One, also offers little in the way of imaginary satisfaction and genealogical pride and fulfilment. Beyond that, we lose ourselves in a well-nigh medieval night: the Holy Roman Empire? Wallenstein and some putative South German/Bohemian Catholic kingdom? The two Fredericks? And why not Tacitus’ Germania, while we are at it, and the Teutoburger Wald? There are good reasons for the solution that seems to have been arrived at, without any particular planning or forethought: the new Germany will be a larger version of the Federal Republic; that is to say, of a provincial West Germany with which very few of its writers wished to identify in the first place, preferring to live in West Berlin outside that dispensation, when not in outright exile.

Günter Grass’s new novel, Eine weites Feld, proposes another solution, a more radical and scandalous one. The scandal predictably aroused the outrage of all those (and they were and are many) who thought that politics could now be abandoned once and for all, and that in Germany, as elsewhere in the world, after the alleged triumph of capitalism, we could return to the untroubled cultivation of the aesthetic as such, to Literature, and to an appreciation of belles lettres apt to adorn and distinguish a prosperous bourgeoisie ready to take up its duties and privileges where they had been broken off when class struggle and Fascism reared their ugly heads. Not the least entertaining response to the novel was the attempt of the well-known reviewer and television critic, Reich-Ranicki, to tear it up (literally as well as figuratively) on the small screen. Bourgeois aesthetics and culture as an unfinished project: so might run the ironic Habermasian judgment on this new mood, this new task for no longer committed intellectuals. It accounts for the opprobrium called down on Grass himself, who, just when we thought we had got rid of the postwar and of the boring ‘critical’ and would-be subversive writing associated with it, produced this eight-hundred-page monstrosity about a pair of old men in East Berlin, the former East Berlin: pages whose very sterility allegedly attests to the drying up of his own (only too political) talent and to the end of an era now best forgotten, whether in the East or the West.

His enemies and critics clearly understood the project: for the positing of a tradition – even a ‘merely’ literary one – is a utopian and a political act. Thus the universalism of Finnegans Wake projected a transfigured Ireland that was at one with some new world culture to this day not realised. Ein weites Feld more modestly rewrites the German past on the basis of a Prussia of which East Germany (the German Democratic Republic) was the rightful heir: the new Germany, therefore, is here asked to assume the legacy of the socialist and Prussian Germany as its imaginary other. A few strong but isolated voices have long been telling us that the identification of Prussia (let alone Berlin) with the Nazi side of the ‘German character’ is based on the sheerest misinformation about this tolerant Protestant culture, so different from what one encounters in a Catholic and provincial West Germany, or in a reactionary Bavaria or Austria (see, for example, the seductive arguments for Prussia pursued by that marvellous historian Sebastian Haffner). Yet the suggestion cannot rest on historical opinion; it must be demonstrated to be possible, in other words, to be concretely imaginable: and this is the vocation of Grass’s novel.

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