Futurity: Contemporary Literature and the Quest for the Pastby Amir Eshel
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When looking at how trauma is represented in literature and the arts, we tend to focus on the weight of the past. In this book, Amir Eshel suggests that this retrospective gaze has trapped us in a search for reason in the madness of the twentieth century’s catastrophes at the expense of literature’s prospective vision. Considering several key literary works, Eshel argues in Futurity that by grappling with watershed events of modernity, these works display a future-centric engagement with the past that opens up the present to new political, cultural, and ethical possibilities—what he calls futurity. Bringing together postwar German, Israeli, and Anglo-American literature, Eshel traces a shared trajectory of futurity in world literature. He begins by examining German works of fiction and the debates they spurred over the future character of Germany’s public sphere. Turning to literary works by Jewish-Israeli writers as they revisit Israel’s political birth, he shows how these stories inspired a powerful reconsideration of Israel’s identity. Eshel then discusses post-1989 literature—from Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs to J. M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year—revealing how these books turn to events like World War II and the Iraq War not simply to make sense of the past but to contemplate the political and intellectual horizon that emerged after 1989. Bringing to light how reflections on the past create tools for the future, Futurity reminds us of the numerous possibilities literature holds for grappling with the challenges of both today and tomorrow.
“Amir Eshel writes from the perspective of a new ethics of literary and historical narration, whose focus is a new, post-utopian humanitarianism based in remembrance of the past.”
“Using an appealing combination of novels by German and Israeli writers, Amir Eshel produces a powerful and refreshing argument that these texts, which look back at past events, nonetheless point forward to future solutions to the problems they address. Convincing and engaging, Futurity will open the eyes of many readers to an important but often neglected function of literature.”
“At a time when the pace of change seems to have the velocity of a bullet, it is refreshing to read an affirmation of literature’s sustained power to transform on a more profound, enduring level. Futurity lauds the sustainable beauty and power of real literature to outstrip the instantaneous and insubstantial veneer of wireless social networks. . . . A provocative and stimulating read.”
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FuturityContemporary Literature and the Quest for the Past
By Amir Eshel
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBetween Retrospection and Prospection
"It's about Us and Our Future": The 2006 Günter Grass Affair
In 2006, in his long-awaited autobiography, Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion), Nobel laureate Günter Grass revealed that he did not serve, as he had previously claimed, in Nazi Germany's air defense forces but rather in the tank division Jörg von Frundsberg of the Waffen-Schutzstaffel (SS).1 The ensuing controversy was characterized by a sense that once again postwar German public discourse was restricted by a backward-looking approach. The young and successful writers Eva Menasse and Michael Kumpfmüller criticized the older intellectuals who flocked to the feuilletons, calling the dispute a "class reunion of old German intellectuals" who seemed to feel chronically obliged to enlighten "us"—that is, the Germans—on the same topic: "Hitler and me." "Please, no more confessions!" pleaded Menasse and Kumpfmüller:
Are there no other topics? Where are the voices on the current political and moral issues? It's time for this country to finally liberate itself from the self-reflections of its onion-skinned Nazi discourse.... It's time for the lessons of history, preached a hundred times, to finally be applied to the politics of the twenty-first century.... Let's talk about the terrorist attacks that were prevented in London, let's talk about our relationship to Islam, let's talk about the limits of liberality. It's about us and our future.
This reaction forcefully captured a prevalent agreement in scholarship, intellectual discussions, and public discourse in Germany and elsewhere that post–Second World War German literature and culture are retrospective in nature, that in its struggle with Nazism, the past is "a burden man has to shoulder and of whose dead weight the living can or even must get rid in their march into the future," to point back to our earlier discussion of Hannah Arendt's Between Past and Future. More often than not, when discussing National Socialism and the Holocaust, scholarship of postwar German literature is characterized by what Ernestine Schlant labels "absence and silence." In her study of West German literature's depiction of the Holocaust, Schlant maintains that this "absence and silence" has not been "uniform, monolithic emptiness," yet the "great variety of narrative strategies" are "silent about the silence" of postwar German culture when it comes to the Holocaust (1). Schlant builds on Alexander Mitscherlich and Margarete Mitscherlich's well-known psychohistorical diagnosis from the late 1960s that West German society and culture are unable to mourn the loss of the führer. Schlant claims that with the possible exception of Chancellor Willi Brandt's visit to the Warsaw ghetto in 1970, no public ritual "has had an affective impact that would involve the entire personality and thus lead to a genuine expression of mourning" (13). "Germans individually and collectively," Schlant argues, "have been unable to work through and mourn the crimes perpetrated, if working-through demands 'the possibility of judgment' that is 'argumentative, self-questioning, and related in mediated ways to action' " (13). Thus, Schlant follows scholars who claim that authors of the postwar era did no meaningful "labor of mourning," preferring to present isolated historical moments in a highly poeticized manner. According to this view, "repression and silence" regarding the crimes of the regime "structured the literature of Vergangenheitsbewältigung [coming to terms with the past] up to 1990" (9).
While such psychoanalytically informed observations contribute to our understanding of the literary engagement with Nazism following 1945, they neglect its futurity and its prospective dimension. Challenging the notion that the literary interest in the past is a reflection of the ideological convictions, mental states, and moral standing of the author and his or her community, I trace in the following pages the way in which the fictional evocation of Nazism in German letters brought about a new vocabulary to address that past. The works here do not merely reflect memories, ideologies, perceptions, and the like but also create new ways to address that era. Beyond confronting, admitting, or evading Nazi crimes, these works also perform what I called in the introduction the "world-making" role of imaginatively redescribing the past in ways that open new horizons of thinking and feeling about that past. Taken together, these writings have expanded contemporary cultural and political discourse, an expansion initially involving the integration of the Holocaust as a chapter of German history and then, in the course of the 1990s, a consideration of the role of historical remembrance in the reunited Germany, thus suggesting a different path into what Menasse and Kumpfmüller emblematically call "the future."
Literature, Expansion, and Becoming
Coming of age in the Israel of the 1970s and 1980s, my first encounter with postwar German literature was marked by the expectation that its images, metaphors, and allegories would allow me to grasp better Germany's slide into the Fascist abyss as well as how German culture—in the Federal Republic and the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR)—made sense of that era once the war was over. When I arrived in the Federal Republic in the late 1980s, I encountered the emergence of a new Erinnerungskultur (culture of memory)—an unprecedented wave of interest in testimonies, historiographies, theater productions, and acts of public remembrance recounting the Nazi past.
The 1980s presented a first high point in a process that began in the 1960s with the so-called Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials (1963–65) and the era's student unrest, through which Germans who were (mostly) born after the war began to confront Germany's Nazi past. Yet the budding West German Erinnerungskultur of the 1980s was also an expression of a global trend. As in other Western societies, German Erinnerungskultur was a manifestation of what Andreas Huyssen labels a "memory boom": the wide-ranging fascination with individual and collective memories and a keen awareness of different modes of historical representation. Huyssen views this development as resulting from a postmodern desire to find some usable pieces of various pasts, since the past seems to offer some grounding in a world where accelerating economic growth and technological and media innovations destabilize our experience of time and lived spaces.
It was also during that era that the Holocaust began to surface as a global signifier for unspeakable atrocities and a central referent in debating human rights. The fascination with memory in the Federal Republic was coupled with a growing sensitivity to the specific nature of Nazism's crimes and to the role of the Holocaust in German self-perception. The detached rhetoric previously used to address the Holocaust gave way to a multifaceted consideration of its origin and course, its effects during the postwar era, and its meaning for the victims and their descendants. The broad public interest in the 1979 screening of the NBC miniseries Holocaust and the political reverberations of the 1985 landmark speech of then Federal Republic president Richard von Weizsäcker are two important moments that mark this significant shift. Even though the Holocaust was increasingly regarded in German cultural criticism of the postwar era as a defining moment of German history and of modernity, and despite the central role that Nazi crimes played in the West German youth revolt of the late 1960s, it was not until the 1980s that the Holocaust began to assume a more central role for German identity. This change was also partly in response to some high-profile attempts to revise and contextualize the focus on Germany's Nazi past: the 1985 visit of Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Ronald Reagan to the Bitburg cemetery (only three days before von Weizsäcker's speech) and the 1986 milestone Historikerstreit (Historians' Debate). The abundant and often ardent discussions surrounding these different attempts at what came to be called "normalization" underscored the extent to which different historical narratives regarding Nazism had direct implications for the West German public sphere.
The disappearance of the most marked trace of the Second World War—the division between East and West Germany—in 1989 provoked fears that Nazism would be relegated to the realm of sufficiently addressed history. As Michael Geyer, Konrad Jarausch, and others observed, some indications of a newly assertive national consciousness did emerge. Soon after the wall fell, a desire for a self-assured German nation arose, an emotion often accompanied by a tendency to universalize the pain of the victims, remembering them together with bystanders and even those who served the Nazi regime. Furthermore, broader sections of the German public began focusing on the suffering of Germans during and after the war: on the Allies' massive air raids on German cities, the plight of ethnic Germans who were expelled (or fled) from Eastern Europe at the end of the war, the fate of German POWs, and the widespread rape of German women by Soviet troops during the Red Army's westward advance. A concern thus arose that a self-assured German national discourse would set a new, disconcerting tone to replace the juste milieu of the Federal Republic and the enlightened public sphere of Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass, Jürgen Habermas, and the historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler, among others.
My own reading of contemporary German literature at that point emphasized contending with guilt and shame. The literary depiction of recent German history mattered, I thought, because a reunited Germany was in danger of succumbing to strident nationalism. The wave of xenophobic incidents in the early 1990s and the seemingly endless array of debates regarding the role of the past in the reunited Germany—the dispute surrounding German participation in the "Coalition of the Willing" to drive Iraq out of Kuwait, the row over the exhibition displaying the Wehrmacht's crimes, and the debate surrounding the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin (to name but a few incidents)—strengthened my conviction that the study of literature's engagement with the past was crucial because it could give us an indication of the ability of German discourse to address the past appropriately. Like many of Grass's harshest critics in 2006, I understood the role of the critic to be a moralist and not a reader or thinker focused on unfolding the artwork. What I failed to see, however, was that by reading contemporary German literature exclusively through the lens of its ability to "mourn" or "work through," I became a supervisor of the imagination whose task it was to remind writers and readers alike of the necessity of "confronting the past" and "accounting for the crimes" committed there.
By concentrating on questions of guilt and shame, trauma and its evasion, instead of the figurative language and formal devices employed in German literature about the past, this post-wall discussion failed to recognize the many ways in which postwar German literature (like contemporary literature elsewhere in the First World) displays an awareness of the questions about all historical representations raised by the philosophical "linguistic turn" and the discourse of postmodernity. In this sense many of the difficulties facing German authors as they approached their country's past are shared by writers facing similar challenges in Israel, Britain, South Africa, the United States, and elsewhere. A German writer interested in recent history faces not only the test of meaningfully addressing a deeply disturbing national history but also what troubles many of her peers writing elsewhere: the understanding that "modernist events" amount to a decisive rupture in civilization and thus demand new modes of artistic expression. As we have seen in the introduction, these events function in social consciousness in a similar manner to the working of trauma in the psyche of individuals: they cannot be forgotten without significantly affecting our ability to engage with the present or to "envision a future free of [the events'] debilitating effects." What the literary imagination thus struggles with is precisely the possibility of mobilizing the past in ways that will address its debilitating effects. The literary imagination in Germany and elsewhere does something more significant than display the tension between remembrance and forgetting: it creates new ways of apprehending the world and thereby presents the possibility for new paths into the future.
While I agree with White's view that modernist events challenge our inherited categories for assigning meaning to historical occurrences, I consider less productive his claim that these events escape our efforts to integrate experience into our perception of the realities we inhabit. In West German literature of the postwar era, the poetic exploration of Germany's past was in fact an incorporation of those events into personal and communal narratives. West German literature's engagement with Nazism can thus be read as a constant rethinking of, and dialogue with, postwar cultural and political conditions and thus of Germany's future.
Richard Rorty's reading of Donald Davidson's theory of metaphor inspired this insight. As noted in the introduction, Davidson suggests that rather than symbolically expressing what we already know, metaphors change our beliefs and desires. When a literary work presents the past, it does not express the writer's or her community's knowledge of, or obliviousness to, the past alone. Rather, when a work invokes a painful moment of the past, it also offers us the opportunity to know it differently, and thus to rethink our views about its impact on present-day circumstances. In this manner, the literary engagement with the past may enhance our ability, to quote Rorty, "to do lots of other things—e.g., be more sophisticated and interesting people, emancipate ourselves from tradition, transvalue our values, gain or lose religious faith—without having to interpret these latter abilities as functions of increased cognitive ability." Works such as Günter Grass's The Tin Drum and Dog Years introduce new ways to view Germany's Nazi past. When imaginative writers "send shivers down their readers' spines" with their literary innovations, they do not merely indicate what Grass or "the Germans" thought, felt, remembered, or repressed. Rather, they also change the vocabulary, self-perceptions, and ideas of readers, leaving a mark on what Rorty calls their "patterns of action." Thus, I argue that Grass's literary rendition of the Third Reich and its crimes is an expansion of the language available to address the past. Metaphors of the past in postwar German literature can be seen as a source for changes in readers' beliefs and desires, creating possibilities for new ways to see and become.
Symptomatic Reading and Moralism
The symptomatic approach to literature—the search for evidence of an individual or a social condition—appears in two, often-interrelated modes in the study of German literature's engagement with Nazism: the moralistic and the psychological. "Morality" is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, Wendy Brown reminds us, as "ethical wisdom ... moral qualities or endowments ... moral discourse or instruction" motivated by the sentiment of goodness rather than by motivations outside it. Moralism, by contrast, is but a trace of the discourse of morality, "whose heritage and legitimacy it claims while in fact inverting that discourse's sense and sensibility." Moralism is a "posture" and "pose," one "that stands opposed to measured, difficult, and deliberate action that implicates rather than simply enacts the self."
One of the most intriguing questions regarding the 2006 Grass affair is how the indignation at Grass as a hypocritical moralist ostensibly supported self-aware remembrance but was in fact devoid of sense and sensibility. That is, beyond the understandable need to question Grass's silence, his often judgmental language when it comes to others, and his self-assigned role as Germany's conscience, the Grass affair also displayed a deeply questionable impulse to indict Grass from a position of moral superiority.
This moralism obscured what Grass's autobiography actually offers as an imaginative redescription: its ability to suggest a language that can enable the reader to alter the terms used to address the writer's—and his generation's—struggle with a Fascist youth. The stormy debate prevented Grass's readers from measuring the path the writer and others have followed from voluntary conscription into Hitler's army or the SS to writing and speaking in favor of a German culture of memory and a civic public sphere. The rush to the moral high ground kept many from considering what it meant for the writer to tell his life story knowing that it would almost certainly destroy his public persona. Condemning Grass with a language ironically reminiscent of the writer's own moralizing posture, they could not see that the book offers the possibility of overcoming the cycle of guilt, shame, and public accusation with which Grass's name has been almost synonymous since the mid-1960s.
Excerpted from Futurity by Amir Eshel Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Amil Eshel is Edward Clark Crossett Professor of Humanistic Studies and director of the Europe Center at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.
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