One blushes to admit it

D.J. Enright

  • The Heart of Europe: Essays on Literature and Ideology by J.P. Stern
    Blackwell, 415 pp, £45.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 631 15849 9

There are European authors, notably those writing in German, whom we perceive to be important, intimidatingly so, but with whom we find it hard to come to grips, despite the existence of extremely skilled translations. Some of these authors are possibly less brilliant or wise than they appear to be, or than, given our nagging though commonly well-concealed sense of intellectual inferiority, we resignedly suppose them to be. Incomprehensibility and prestige often go hand in hand. Yet the fascination persists, whatever the degree of understanding (or lack of it), resentment or suspicion that attends the ‘Hegels and Schlegels’ who so bewildered Erich Heller’s undergraduate. (To whom one could add the Krauses and Strausses, Brochs and Blochs, Kellers and Hellers.) In the company of a few other British Germanists and translators, J.P. Stern, who died in November of last year, did much to make these writers more accessible to us, thanks to his persuasion that literature, no matter how exalted, is not the preserve of scholars, and that what has wide implications should be known widely. And thanks also to his moralistic turn of mind, albeit, as he says of someone else’s moral and spiritual motivation, ‘one blushes to admit it.’ Shamefacedly or otherwise, we tend to welcome some talk of right and wrong in surroundings which threaten us with the ineffable.

No one could applaud or blame Stern for ‘pure scholarship’, or for aestheticism. ‘The theory behind these essays,’ he says in his new book, ‘is that there is here no theory.’ The statement can be interpreted in two senses: no literary theory lurks there, or literature is never merely theoretical. Both readings are supported by Stern’s passing remarks in Re-interpretations (1964) on the twin hazards of criticism, represented first by Marxists with their sole criterion of literary merit and secondly by some of his fellow critics, mainly German, who view the works discussed as ‘simply a haven of spirituality, simply serene emblems of high-mindedness’. Literary works do not exist in total and timeless isolation, but neither is their value to be experienced and assessed purely ‘in the light of our worries and preoccupations’.

The balance between learning and popularisation, between serving a small audience of colleagues and addressing a larger if indeterminate public of interested laymen, is never easy to arrive at, and cannot always be maintained. Clarity in the writer – and clarity is one of Stern’s strengths – requires at least something fairly substantial in the reader’s mind to work clarification on. The Heart of Europe is a selection of ‘episodes’ drawn from the literature, politics and philosophy of the region in question, ‘companion pieces to my more circumspect literary productions’, its introduction dated St George’s Day 1991. Parts of it are well beyond my competence; I might be inclined to trust what is being said, though blind or purblind trust is not something Stern would care for. And in any case trust is rarely exciting.

In ‘Words are also deeds’ (a sentence of Karl Kraus’s), Stern touches on word-play as a compensatory activity practised by that endangered species, German-writing Jews of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and also the ‘linguistic unease’ (and hence creativeness) of non-Jewish writers like Rilke. Aside from the fact that languages huddled together become ‘contaminated’, the hardest part of the poetic craft, according to Rilke, is the poet’s ‘strange obligation to distance his words radically from the words of mere social intercourse and communication’. In its plural, that last word leads to Kraus, writing in 1914: the press is no messenger of events, it is the events themselves; printer’s ink turns directly into blood, the imagination is deadened, and ‘once again the instrument has got the better of us.’ And this can send us back, beset by uncertain ironies, to Goethe’s Faust puzzling petulantly over the opening verse of St John’s Gospel, ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ which he contends must be a ridiculous mistranslation, requiring ‘Word’ to be changed to ‘Deed’.

One of Stern’s favourite words is ‘misprision’, a combination of ‘misreading’ and ‘wrong action or omission’. He has some restrained fun with Martin Heidegger’s Sinn von Sein, and with the philosopher’s linguistic transactions: ‘Of all those thousands of intellectuals who only did “what one does”, said “what one says” and thought “what is thought”, he alone devised a language which under its eccentricity came to conceal their and his conformism.’ Stern’s joy in words – a joy that turns at times to pain – can be darkly mischievous, as when, apropos of spiritual high-mindedness (elsewhere he uses the epithet ‘metaphysic-inflated’), he glosses heilige deutsche Musik as meaning sometimes ‘sacred German music’ and at other times ‘German sacred music’, and purely pleasurable, as when observing the motto on an East Berliner’s T-shirt during the westward passage: ‘Last one out switch off the light.’ (Reminiscent of a footnote in an earlier book of Stern’s concerning the serviettes and braces, bearing a picture of Wagner, for sale in the streets of Bayreuth.) In a comparison of The Good Soldier Svejk and Catch-22 he notes the parallel between the girlfriend of Yossarian who contends that she can’t marry a man crazy enough to want to marry somebody he knows isn’t a virgin and the lieutenant’s outburst in Svejk against the telegraph girl he has been courting unsuccessfully: ‘What a whore! She won’t let me sleep with her!’

An anecdote that catches Stern’s fancy has to do with Freud, who when he left Vienna in 1938 was asked to sign a statement declaring that he had not been ill-treated; like a parting guest writing in a hotel visitors’ book, he added the comment: ‘I can recommend the Gestapo most highly to everyone.’ In an essay on Vaclav Havel (a momentous move from one theatre to another) Stern describes the weekly letters Havel was permitted to write to his wife while in prison: no underlinings or deletions allowed, no foreign expressions or words inside quotation marks, no jokes, and the diction to be abstract and circumlocutory. ‘If for instance I wanted to say “regime”, I would have to write “the socially manifest focus of non-self” or some such rubbish.’ Such modern and (here the word fits) timeless instances lighten – and enlighten – the somewhat dense historical detail of Stern’s texts, dense because he requires of himself, as of others, that arguments and assertions should be closely accompanied by their contexts.

Stern insists that fiction is one thing and philosophy another, and if the twain are encouraged to meet and merge, if the distinction between them is repealed, then discord will follow. He observes of Elias Canetti that in his earlier work, specifically Crowds and Power, his thought is uneasily located somewhere between extended metaphor and literal truth. In the manner of fiction, its arguments are ‘picturesque’; the particulars are tellingly represented, but, propelled by assertion, they slide too readily into generalisations. (Proust remarked that any mental activity is easy if it isn’t subjected to reality.) It seems to me that in his thinking Canetti doesn’t always distinguish between originalities and commonplaces, and that in his accounts of other people, especially other writers, what masquerades as judicious insight is sometimes simple umbrage, a proneness to belittle, and an indirect self-furtherance, which, though it has its reasons, is curiously petty and misplaced in somebody who can look very much like one of those sages so foreign to our intellectually more temperate shores. In The Play of the Eyes (1985) Canetti tells of how in Zurich in 1935 James Joyce attended a reading by Canetti of his Comedy of Vanity, a play turning on the interdiction of mirrors and images, and largely in Viennese dialect. During the intermission Joyce announced in hostile tones: ‘I shave with a straight razor and no mirror.’ (‘A risky business in view of his impaired vision,’ Canetti comments, ‘he was almost blind.’) Unfortunately, Canetti says, though unable to understand the dialect, Joyce had picked up and misconstrued a reference to the indispensability of mirrors. ‘His outburst of male vanity might have been taken from the play ... His “no mirror” was a declaration of war. To my own consternation I felt ashamed for him, for his compulsive sensibility, which lowered him in my esteem.’ The greatly admired Musil comes off little better, and even the revered Broch is found wanting. When Canetti drops names, they suffer bruising.

But this isn’t to deny that Canetti’s novel, Auto da Fe, which Stern doesn’t appear to admire much, has its icy riches, its knife-edged images of what impresses as painful truth, a part of the truth. And metaphors, as Stern says elsewhere, are ‘minute sorties’ which the imagination conducts against accepted rules, traditions and social contexts in order to illuminate them, to make them more precise or to bring out their absurdity, not necessarily at once, perhaps for a future generation (‘a promise unredeemed is still a promise’): to which he adds cautiously that the delight offered by metaphors and the imagination ‘does not exempt them finally from the order of the contexts in which they appear, and which their appearance disrupts and may eventually alter’. (Which perhaps, in language as little figurative as possible, is simply to give the imagination its ‘amoral’ freedom, and then remind it of its ultimate moral obligation, its duty to reality.) At all events, to speak of the ‘authorial loathing’ in Auto da Fe and its ‘moments of horrifying, matter-of-fact cruelty’ – while it echoes Hermann Broch’s question, quoted in The Play of the Eyes: ‘You rub people’s noses in their wickedness ... Is it the writer’s function to bring more fear into the world? Is that a worthy function?’ – does seem a little quaint considering so much of the acclaimed fiction of recent years. In the long run fear is less destructive than disgust.

Stern is pleasantly intelligible on the subject of Wittgenstein, or the two Wittgensteins, ‘Cambridge, scientific’ and ‘Austrian, mystical’, the mystical being, by Wittgenstein’s account, that which cannot be put into words, and therefore cannot be communicated, but which makes itself manifest. (What’s surprising is how much that is unutterable manages in one way or another to be uttered!) Stern quotes Wittgenstein’s question as to whether it is always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture by a sharp one: ‘Isn’t the indistinct one often exactly what we need?’ (Is it prudence in philosophers, or honesty, or proper pride, to grant the impossibility of being precise on occasion? Nietzsche goes a good deal further: the deeper a truth, the more difficult it is to get at it beneath its disguises; a matter that becomes clear ceases to have interest for us.) Wittgenstein’s saying might have been Stern’s motto in undertaking his Study of Nietzsche (1979), with its roving, aphoristic procedure. Nietzsche is a thinker who can be understood locally – with exhilaration, or alarm, or repulsion – but cannot (it seems to me) be ‘summed up’, grasped in toto, with much conviction. What is Shakespeare saying in toto? Or Dickens?

Agile in metaphor, remote from the stereotype of the dispassionate savant, Nietzsche is the most literary of philosophers, Stern says, ‘or rather the one in whom the time-honoured distinctions between literature and philosophy are radically challenged’. One might ask how much of time has actually honoured those distinctions. Perhaps philosophers need to be literary in some degree if more than a few of us are to understand them, and regardless of the misgivings we – or Stern – might have about metaphors replacing theory and analogies substituting for explanation. Nietzsche’s venture is surrounded by ‘an aura of grave, Hamlet-like charm’, deriving from the knowledge which he shares with Hamlet of ‘being overtaxed by his chosen task’. Not invariably a grave aura, I would say, nor unfailingly charming – as Stern’s choice of admonitory or droll quotations from the play as chapter epigraphs may be intended to convey. Like Hamlet, Nietzsche had bad dreams, lacked patience, and was not notably delighted by man. Zarathustra: ‘All too little, the greatest! – that was my weariness of men!’

Another time-honoured distinction means that it is still rather daring for a Germanist to engage in what we awkwardly term ‘creative writing’. A number of pieces in The Heart of Europe display the novelistic, or the less ‘circumspect’, side of Stern. This can occur in momentary flashes, as when he remarks of some expert agonising over exile and rootlessness that the impression conveyed was one of being so much at home in the television studio that you could hardly tell where the speaker ended and the studio began. It is overt in ‘The Matljary Diary’, in which Kafka is brought back in 1944, twenty years after his death, to the mountain village where he had once spent several months in a sanatorium. Not to a sanatorium this time, but to a camp of Czech resistance fighters, along with other ‘Prague coffee-house Jews’ who speak German among themselves and recite German poems and stories, something which (as the soldierly narrator notes) infuriates ‘our chaps’. ‘After all, we’re here to fight the Germans, not to fill our minds with their nebulous Teutonic poetry!’ Kafka, who strikes the narrator as the most sensible of them, offers in extenuation that there are people who can’t live without literature, people who don’t have much else in their lives. The resurrection provides him with an opportunity to divulge some choice if baffling information about his obscure literary works, and to die again, rather more heroically.

More covertly Stern the storyteller is active in ‘Notes on the German Army’, a piece recording in quasi-documentary fashion a stay with the new Bundeswehr in 1964. His interrogation is politely relentless, his alertness to evasive manoeuvres and nuances of phraseology characteristically sharp. One feels some sympathy for the officer-objects of his scrutiny, though his final verdict credits them with ‘an unfanatical sense of duty and pride, and even (goodness knows it comes hard to admit it) a certain charm’. Especially moving is a tribute to Hans and Sophie Scholl and their associates of the White Rose, all six of them executed in Munich in 1943, who obeyed their consciences and, as we say, ‘did no good’ – but who were good: a political failure, a moral triumph. The White Rose, named after a novel by the mysterious B. Traven, presents a striking contrast with the autocratic Heidegger, whose intention in embracing Nazism, somewhat de haut en bas, seems to have been that it should endorse his philosophy rather than vice versa.

Lighter in tone, though tinged with wry discomfort, is ‘A Crisis of Identity’, describing a modest symposium in a small German town on the subject of understanding the past. Among those present is an innocent young girl in a blue pullover who experiences a little difficulty in enunciating the word Identität and has never seen a Jew. The honoured foreign guest, ‘Herr Stern, a Jew from Prague’, though he has prepared himself with pertinent topics, is hard pressed to know what to contribute. ‘People with tact can’t get a grip on anything, not even a word’: the thought applies as much to him as to the girl in the blue pullover; and he contents himself with a few amiable remarks and a message of greeting from his students in London. In other connections Stern has proposed that there is no law of history that condemns a people to perpetual darkness – or presumably to perpetual disgrace – and that ‘contempt everywhere and always, except in the form of the figured contempt of satire, is a bad guide.’ Rigorous and humane, he is himself an admirable guide.