Questions and Pseudoquestions
Ladies and gentlemen,
Curiosity and interest: I believe I can be certain that these are what have drawn you to this room. They spring from the desire to hear something about the things that preoccupy us—in other words, to hear judgments, opinions, and discussions about objects that we ought to find satisfying on their own, in virtue of their existence. In other words, to hear something that is comparatively weak, because everything that is said about works of art is weaker than the works themselves. This is true, I think, even of the most exalted productions of criticism and of everything fundamental and foundational that has wanted to be said from time to time and wants to be said time and again. It is said for the purposes of orientation, and we desire to hear it for orientation’s sake. If nothing else, writers themselves have always evinced the greatest interest in the testimonials of other writers—in diaries, notebooks, letters, and theoretical disclosures, and, more and more often recently, in the unveiling of the “mysteries of the artist’s studio.” As recently as thirty years ago the Russian poet Mayakovsky apprised his readers that they had the right to insist that poets not take the mysteries of their métier with them into the grave. Today there is scarcely any longer any danger of that; lyric poets in particular are not stingy with announcements, but a complete consensus is not in effect…a poem is made, brewed, built, assembled, even in our time.
Be that as it may, you are being abundantly enlightened, and you are even being afforded a view of mysteries that are nothing of the kind. The varieties of curiosity are as numerous as the varieties of potential disappointment, and all of this may serve us as a provisional excuse for the false hopes that you are forming and that I am forming as I gather up my courage and tender the opinion that while nothing whatsoever may be taught from this lectern something may be awoken from it—namely, the active contemplation of the despair and the hope with which a few readers—or are there actually many of them?—take stock of themselves and of contemporary literature.
“Questions about Contemporary Literature”—this title was chosen for an initial series of lectures, and when I was about to begin my work, well-nigh incapable to the very end of finding a starting point for this attempt, which makes me decidedly uneasy, I mulled over the title once again. Does it really mean that we should be dealing here with questions that have already been posed? If so, then which questions, and where were they posed, and by whom? Or are even answers supposed to be given? If you really know what authorities are like, do you really believe there are any of them who will deal out questions and deliver answers here? And above all, what questions could actually be worth considering? Should we deal with questions like the daily newspapers tossing them back and forth in their arts sections, or discuss those that are dealt with at academies and congresses, or should we, in an even more progressive vein, give serious consideration to the questionnaires on the radio or to the literary Christmas puzzle corner? To name just a few of these: “Should the subject-matter of a book be handled cold-bloodedly?” “Is chronology in a novel still possible in the age of the theory of relativity?” “Must modern literature always be so dark?” “Ad hoc dramaturgy.”
Or should the less noisy, less attractive questions be posed in the way they are posed in the domain of literary criticism, with deliberation? May we dare, untutored and lacking in specialized knowledge as we are, to seek help there? There the life savers are readymade—empathetic interpretation, historicism, formalism, socialist realism. Who wouldn’t want to be rescued there, at nobody’s expense! Even psychology, psychoanalysis, existentialism, sociology, have bids to offer, have questions about literature to pose. Everywhere there are axioms, positions, points of view, slogans, intellectual- historiographical keywords, among which one may discover something—and also learn how to discover it. But there is no keyword adequate to the needs of the person who must come forward at the present moment and who is feelingly aware of all the works, the ages, that lie behind him—even the works of most recent creation, the ages most recently bygone; and he dreads being obliged for want of erudition to fall back onto a few private experiences with language and with the constructs that have been branded as literature. And yet of course experience is his only schoolmistress. However trifling it may be, it is perhaps no poorer a counselor than a body of knowledge that passes through a great many hands, that is often used and abused, that often uses itself up and coasts along on empty, unrefreshed by a jot of experience.
Most importantly as far as the writer is concerned there are questions that seemingly lie beyond the ambit of literature—seemingly because their smooth translation into the language of the literary problems with which we tend to be familiar leads us to regard them as secondary; oftentimes we don’t even notice them. These are questions that are destructive, redoubtable, in their simplicity, and when they have not arisen, nothing whatsoever has arisen in a work.
When we look back on the past half-century, on its literature with its chapter-headings of Naturalism and Symbolism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Imagism, Futurism, Dadaism, and a great deal that refuses to fit under any chapter-heading, it seems to us as though literature has been developing in a completely miraculous albeit somewhat inconsistent manner, exactly as it always has done, as it did in earlier ages—first there was Sturm und Drang, then Classicism, then Romanticism, and so forth; it is not especially difficult to acquire a working knowledge of these periods; but the present leaves a fair amount to be desired; we cannot properly see how it is developing, where it is headed; nothing is getting any clearer, not even the sense of a direction or directions. It is the same problem that confronts us in connection with contemporary history; because we are too close to it, we cannot get a comprehensive view of anything; only once the clichés of an age have vanished do we discover the language of an age and become capable of describing it. Even of today’s clichés only the most powerful ones reach our consciousness. If we had words, if we had language, we would need no weapons.
As far as literature is concerned, I need of course only remind you of what has been talked about most in recent years and continues to be talked about most at present. On the one hand you hear the lament over the loss of the center, and the labels borne by these center-bereft literary products are as follows: illogical, too calculated, irrational, too rational, destructive, anti-humanistic—in other words, every conceivable negative designation. On the opposite hand their proponents speak a vocabulary that is to a large extent quite similar to the other one; the negative designations are brazenly appropriated, or new ones are created—and so, thank God, and, indeed, to our relief, they talk of the illogical, the absurd, the grotesque, anti-, dis-, and de-, destruction, discontinuity; there are the anti-play, the anti-novel; so far nobody has said anything about the anti-poem, but perhaps somebody may do so yet. Alongside them more traditional products trot along at a leisurely pace, accompanied by a more traditional form of criticism employing a vocabulary reliant on such words as craftsmanship, creativity, and substance. You can finish the list as you choose. And that nervous, hope-pregnant period after the war has been assaulting us with even more words, like deforestation, calligraphy, degree zero, existential, sites of being, foreground and background, and initially our generation witnessed the recrudescence of the struggle between politically committed literature and art for art’s sake, this time as a direct consequence of the political catastrophe in Germany and the associated catastrophes in the devastated neighboring countries, nurtured by our premonition of new catastrophes to come.
And so we have the choice; we need only give utterance to our enthusiasm about the one type, our abhorrence of the other, and pitch camp on the side that appeals to us. Perhaps you are asking yourself where this pressure on you to participate as a combatant in the theater of war is going to come from, or whether you are even going to be roped into maintaining a neutral, objective stance—this for the sake of pleasing everybody, of not causing any scandals. Because every writer finds himself in a complicated position, whether he admits this to himself or not; he lives in a network of favor and disfavor, and it is impossible to be blind to the fact that literature today is a stock exchange. But this statement was first committed to paper not by me or even in our time at all but rather by Hebbel, Friedrich Hebbel, in 1849. In such matters the times do not really change all that much.
But let us cast aside both partisanship and neutrality and try to find a third way: an obstacle-strewn exodus out of the Babylonian confusion of tongues.
The first and worst of these questions that I have spoken to you about and that cannot but impinge on the writer concerns the justification of his existence. To be sure, the individual writer in our midst, invigorated and seduced as he is by his own vocation, is seldom quite conscious of this question; often he becomes conscious of it only late in life. Why write? To what end? And to what end, given that missions are no longer handed down from on high and no missions of any kind are forthcoming; nobody pretends as much any longer. What is he to write about, for whom is he expressing himself, and what is he to express to human beings in this world? Can he, who is himself more thirsty for knowledge, for interpretation, and for meaning than other people, make do with any interpretation, any meaning, or even with a description, no matter how clear-cut it seems to him? Is language his medium of appraisal, and is he always appraising, and every time he bestows an appellation is he appraising people and things, and appraising them in a way that isn’t completely indifferent, or reprehensible, or damnable? And is his mission, if he dares acknowledge it to himself (and nowadays he can only acknowledge it to himself!) not capricious, confused; however hard he may exert himself, does he not always end up selling the truth a bit short? Is not all his activity a form hubris, and must he not incessantly be mistrustful of himself, of every word of his own utterance, every goal of his own setting? The fact that this question has long since ceased to be of more than biographical interest to those who preoccupy themselves with literature and its victims is disconcerting. For once one has begun to talk about the “death of literature,” to ponder such a possibility gluttonously or invidiously, as if literature itself were of a mind to come to an end, or as if this end were its final subject, one cannot fail to take into consideration where the preconditions for such an end have always inhered. They have inhered in the writers themselves, in the pain they have felt at the thought of their own inadequacy, in their guilty consciences. In his last years Tolstoy condemned literature, poured scorn on himself and on all geniuses, accused himself and the others of engaging in every sort of devilry, of being arrogant, of sacrificing truth and love, and vociferously proclaimed his intellectual and moral bankruptcy to all the world. Gogol burned the sequel of his Dead Souls. Kleist burned his Robert Guiscard, concluded himself a failure, and committed suicide. In one of his letters he wrote: “A great need has been stirring within me; unless I satisfy this need I can never be happy; it is the need to do something good.” And what is betokened by Grillparzer’s and Mörike’s silent discontinuation of their labors? External circumstances can scarcely be made to explain anything here. And Brentano’s flight into the bosom of the church, his recantation, his repudiation of all the beautiful things he had written? And all those recantations, the suicides, the instances of willful muteness, the madness, silence upon silence emanating from a sense of sinfulness, of metaphysical guilt, or human guilt, debt, a debt to society emanating from indifference, from a lack of something. Every kind of inadequacy accosts us long before the period we must deal with today. It seems to me that in our century these plunging descents into silence, the motives for these descents and for the reemergence from silence, are of greater importance for the understanding of the linguistic performances that precede it or follow it, because the situation has become more critical. For the first time the dubiousness of literary existence is now faced with a state of uncertainty in the aggregated relationships. The actualities of space and time have been worked out; reality is constantly awaiting a new definition, because science has deformed it beyond recognition. The intimate, trusting relationship between I and Language and Thing has been badly shaken. The first document in which self-doubt, despair about language, and despair about the alien preeminence of things that can no longer be comprehended is the famous “Lord Chandos Letter” by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. This letter also marks Hofmannsthal’s unexpected turn away from the pure, magical poetry of his early years—a turn away from aestheticism.
“But my honorable friend, terrestrial notions elude me in the same fashion. How can I possibly delineate for you this peculiar spiritual torment, this rocket-like ascent of the fruit-bearing branches beyond the reach of my outstretched hands, this recoiling of the brook’s murmuring waters from the touch of my thirsty lips?
My plight, in short, is as follows: the ability to think or say anything coherent about anything whatsoever has completely vanished from my possession.
At first I gradually found it impossible to discourse on any elevated or general topic and in attempting to do so to form my lips into those words to which everyone is accustomed to have recourse without scruple. I felt an inexplicable disinclination even to utter the words spirit, soul, or body. I found it impossible for my mind to produce an opinion on affairs at court, on proceedings in Parliament, or on any other subject you care to name. And this was by no means owing to diffidence of any sort, for as you know I am habitually frank to the point of rashness; rather, the words to which the tongue is obliged to have recourse as a mere matter of course crumbled away like moldy mushrooms in my mouth.”
And he continues:
“But gradually this rescission spread like rust, devouring everything it touched in all directions. Even during familiar home-baked conversations, I came to find all the opinions that are casually vented with an air of downright somnambulistic certainty so questionable that I was obliged to cease taking part in such conversations altogether. I was filled with an unaccountable rage, a rage that I only barely managed to conceal with great difficulty, when I heard such sentiments as: this affair will turn out well or badly for this man or that one; N. the sheriff is a wicked man, T. the parson a virtuous one; M. the tenant farmer is to be pitied, his sons are wastrels; another man is to be envied, because his daughters are good housekeepers; one family is coming up in the world, another one is in decline. All of this seems to me as unprovable, as mendacious, and as perforable as anything can possibly be. My spirit compels me to see everything that is mentioned in such a conversation from a perspective whose proximity is downright unsettling. Once I once saw a piece of skin from my little finger through a magnifying glass: this piece of skin resembled a stretch of open countryside full of furrows and hollows; I now seemed to be seeing human beings and their actions through such a glass. I no longer managed to apprehend them with the simplifying gaze of habit. Everything that came my way crumbled into pieces, the pieces into smaller pieces, and nothing was compassable by a concept anymore. The isolated, individual words were floating all around me; they congealed into eyes that were staring blankly at me and that I am obliged to stare back at: they are whirlwinds that I cannot look into without feeling dizzy; their rotation is inexorable, and to pass through them is to attain union with the very void itself.”
Similar experiences are attested to via such mutually dissimilar visitations as are to be found in Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge, a few novellas by Musil, and Benn’s Rönne: A Doctor’s Jottings. And yet we should not dwell on correspondences in literature; rather, we must bear in mind that we are only ever dealing with isolated revolutionary shocks. People are always saying that certain things are in the air. I don’t think they’re simply in the air, that everyone can take hold of them and acquire ownership of them. Because every new experience is made and not pulled out of the air. The only people who pull them out of the air or other people are those who haven’t made any experiences themselves. And I believe that when these ever-new questions of why and wherefore that nobody is spared, along with all the questions that follow in their wake (and questions of guilt, if you like), are not raised; that when the act of production itself is unattended by suspicion and consequently unattended by any actual problems, new literature will not come into being. This may sound paradoxical, because a short while ago we were talking about the cessation of speech and the maintenance of silence as a consequence of the writer’s difficulty in coping with himself and with reality—a difficulty that has merely assumed different forms today. Religious and metaphysical conflicts have been superseded by social, humanitarian, and political ones. And for the writer they all flow into the conflict with language. For the genuinely great achievements of these past fifty years, the achievements that have made manifest a new kind of literature, have come into being not because writers wanted to carry out certain stylistic experiments, because they were trying to express themselves in one way on one occasion and another way the next, because they wanted to be modern, but rather and always when in defiance of every piece of received knowledge a new idea provided a powder keg-like impetus—when in defiance of every formulizable moral proposition a moral impulse was great enough to comprehend and schematize a new ethical possibility. To this extent I do not believe that today we have the problems that people have been trying to wheedle us into believing we have, and unfortunately we are all too easily seduced into adding our own voices to the wheedling. Nor do I believe that after the many and significant formal discoveries and adventures that have been made and embarked on in this century (especially at the beginning of this century), there is nothing left for us to do but to write in an epigonic vein, wherein one writes even more surrealistically than the surrealists and even more expressionistically than the expressionists, and that there is nothing left to be done but exploit the discoveries of Joyce and Proust, of Kafka and Musil. After all, Joyce and Proust and Kafka themselves made no use of previously lived, previously discovered experience; and in any case, whatever extraneous material they did use and that is conceivably communicable in seminar papers and dissertations is manifestly the most trivial facet of their work; it either resides on the surface or it has been melted into the depths without a trace. If we blindly adopt those days’ stipulations about reality, those forms of thought of yesteryear, the result can only be a pale imitation and a rather feeble iteration of the great works. If the only possibility were to continue, to trudge onward and experiment without experience until this came to seem worthwhile, then those cavils that are so often raised against younger writers nowadays would most likely be all too well-founded. But the rafters are already creaking. Night comes before day, and the fire is kindled in the twilight of dusk.
Reality always encounters a new language when a moral, knowledge-rich jolt takes place and not when someone tries to remake language itself from scratch, as if language on its own could serve as a goad to knowledge and reveal experience that one has never had. Whenever someone merely fools around with language to make it feel novel to the touch, it quickly takes its revenge and exposes his design. A new language must have a new gait, and it can acquire this gait only when it is inhabited by a new spirit. We think we all know language like the backs of our hands; after all, we are constantly palling around with it, but the writer does not; he cannot pal around with it. It frightens him; it is not transparent to him; of course it has an existence anterior to that of literature, active and preordained to serve a use that he can make no use of. For him it is nothing like an inexhaustible reservoir of material that he can dip into at will; it is not the social object par excellence, the undivided property of all humankind. Language has not proved itself capable of what he wants, of what he wants to do with language; he must fix its signs within the limits that have been prescribed to him and make it vital within the context of a ritual, impart to it a gait that it can receive in a literary work and nowhere else. For although language admittedly may permit us to be mindful of its beauty, to be sensible of that beauty, it is compliantly subordinate to a transformation that neither initially nor ultimately craves aesthetic gratification, but rather new powers of comprehension.
We have spoken of a much-needed stimulus that for the time being I cannot identify as anything other than a moral one in plain view of all morality; we have spoken of a propulsive force to be imparted to an idea that initially couldn’t care less about its trajectory, an idea that desires knowledge and desires to attain something through language and through working through to the limits of language. For the time being, let us call that something reality.
Once this trajectory has been embarked on, and provided it is not a specifically philosophical or literary trajectory, it will always be a unique and distinctive one. It led Hofmannsthal to a different place than George; it was distinctive yet again for Rilke, and again for Kafka; Musil was always ordained to follow an entirely different trajectory from Brecht’s. This assumption of a trajectory, this centrifugation into a path in which [one] thrives and goes to seed, in which nothing contingent is any longer granted access to words and things…when this occurs, I think we have a better warrant of the authenticity of a literary phenomenon than when we scour his works in search of felicitous hallmarks of quality. Of course quality is heterogeneous, debatable, and over long stretches even deniable. Moreover quality is now and then to be found in some middleman’s poem, in a good short story, in an attractive, clever novel; it is not in short supply; there is certainly no lack of experts, even today, and there are flukes, or oddities, or deviant productions on the fringes that can become personal favorites of ours. And yet only a trajectory, a continuous manifestation, a mathematical constant, an unmistakable world of words, a world of characters, and a world of conflict, is capable of prompting us to see a writer as inescapable. Because he has a trajectory, because he pursues his path as the only one out of all possible routes, desperate under the compulsion to make the entire world into a world of his own, and guilty of the presumption to define the world, he actually exists. Because he knows and says to himself I am inescapable, and because he cannot escape himself, his mission discloses itself to him. The more he begins to know about it, the more distinct it becomes to him, the more his work is accompanied by a secretly or avowedly theoretical agenda. We often hear people say that while Rilke was undoubtedly a great poet, the world-prescribing and worldview-evincing content of his poems need not concern us in the slightest, as though it were a deductible surplus in the form of some fairly pernicious embellishment. The only important thing, they say, is the individual well-turned poem, or even the individual well-turned line. We hear people say that Brecht is a great writer, one of our greatest-ever dramatists, but that one must ever-so amicably forget or vehemently regret that he was a Communist. In crassly barbaric terms: pretty words are what matter most; the poetic part of poetry is nice; we like it, especially the plumtrees and the little white clouds. Hofmannsthal’s overweening effort to renew the haggard European intellectual tradition yet again in his work even as this very tradition was giving way to a vacuum strikes many as wasted labor, and yet without his fictive points of reference his plays never could have been written and his faculty of judgment would have been impotent as an organizing force in his essays. In the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, Proust virtually underwrote the entire work in a theory, reflected on the genesis of the work, appended an apologia for it to it, and one could well ask, to what end? Was that necessary? I sincerely believe it was. And why, I once heard somebody ask, has Gottfried Benn not spared us his formulation of a radical aesthetic, this blueprint of his world of expression, these fanatical keywords—intoxication, intensification, the monologic I? But did he really have any other possible way of giving prominence to that handful of poems whose merit the questioner was willing to acknowledge? Are the essayistic episodes in Musil’s Man without Qualities really not intrinsic to the work? Can we imagine it in the absence of its foundation of a utopia that is doomed to failure, or its search for a “clear-eyed mysticism?” Isn’t the book what it is only thanks to all its ratiocinative experiments?
I have not made mention of all these things in order to preempt the formation of an opinion about individual writers and their errors, their monomaniacal obsessions. I have done so, rather, in order to remind us all, in the midst of our disoriented bemusement, of the signs by which we are most likely to recognize the new, the emergence of a genuinely literary writer and of a genuine form of literature. We will recognize them in a new, comprehensive definition, in a legislative effort, in the covert or overt promulgation of an inescapable idea.
Admittedly only images are timeless. A thought, being rooted in its time, perishes with its time. But precisely because it perishes, any thought of ours must be new if it is authentic and if it wishes to bring anything into effect.
We will never dream of clinging to the world of the ideas of the classical period or to that of another epoch, because these worlds can no longer be of any substance for us; our reality, our quarrels, have turned out to be different from theirs. However glorious we may find individual ideas of an earlier age, when we call them as witnesses, we do so in support of our own present-day ideas. Nor should we ever dream of supposing that everything has already been accomplished because a handful of great minds debuted on the scene some 40 or 50 years ago. It won’t do any good to keep letting them do all the thinking, as though they were our fixed navigational stars. It won’t do any good to prop ourselves up on the admirable works that were produced in those recent decades. From them the only thing to be learned is that we cannot avoid making the same kind of perilous debut. In art there is no horizontal progress but rather and merely the unceasingly new rupture induced by a vertical trajectory. The media and techniques of art alone are responsible for the erroneous impression that it is making progress. But something that is truly, actually possible is transformation. And the transformative effect that emanates from new works inculcates in us a new percipience, a new affective state, a new consciousness.
When art takes hold of a new possibility, it gives us the possibility of learning of where we stand or where we ought to stand, of how we are faring and how we ought to fare. For art’s blueprints are not drafted in an airless void. Today nobody is any longer likely to believe that literature can exist independently of the historical situation, that there exists even a single writer whose starting point has not been determined by the givens of this moment in history. In the most fortunate of cases he can successfully do two things: represent, represent his age, and present something for which his age is not yet ready. To be sure, there is such a thing as, if not the anxious stasis, then at any rate the intellectual foot-dragging of those who are only capable of receiving the kindling stimulus to do this from afar. For an entire generation it was Nietzsche from whom an overleaping spark alighted upon André Gide, Thomas Mann, Gottfried Benn, and many others. For Brecht it was Marx, for Kafka Kierkegaard; Joyce was enkindled by Vico’s philosophy of history, and there have been countless impetuses provided by Freud, and in the most recent period Heidegger has been a major influence.
How might new kindling stimuli come into being? It is difficult to say. The specialists, the experts are multiplying. The thinkers are not forthcoming. Perhaps Wittgenstein will yet exert an influence; perhaps Ernst Bloch will. Pure conjectures.
Art as a transforming force…? “Transformation” in general—that is the question, a question that is but a part of the first, doubt-ridden, formidable question: what do we mean by transformation, and why do we crave transformation through art?! For we obviously crave something from it! Art has already been shifted from one site of residence to another an incredible number of times, from the house of God into the house of the ideals, from the house beautiful to the bateau ivre, and then into the gutters, and then again into the house of dreams and into the temple with the hanging gardens, and then onwards into the pseudo-mystical suffocating atmosphere of blood and soil, and further still into the house of humanity and the house of politics. It is as if it has never enjoyed a moment’s peace, as though no permanent dwelling has ever been allocated to it. For a while it receives and acknowledges commands, and one fine day it begins to listen afresh. This is its peculiar version of progress, of migration.
And the writer who wishes to transform—how much is open to him and how much is not? That is also the question. He must participate in a drama that has become fully public only in our time: because he has a view of humankind’s misfortune in its entirety, it seems as though he is sanctioning this misfortune, it seems as though he is failing to exert the desired effect. Because he allows his gaze to rest on misfortune in its entirety, it seems permissible to leave even what is transformable untransformed. People see the foam on his mouth, and they applaud him. Not a thing stirs, apart from this calamitous applause. And I surmise that thanks to the numerous playful shocks that have been inflicted on the public for years, a bad habit has been picked up, an obtusion or an addiction, as to a drug, an addiction to being slightly shocked. Only the utmost seriousness and the struggle against the abuse of primordial experiences of affliction might yet help us to awake from its fantastic lethargy. “The people need poetry like bread”—this moving statement, an optative statement, to be sure—was put in writing by Simone Weil once upon a time. But today people need movies and glossy magazines like whipped cream, and these more discriminating people (who happen to include even us) need a bit of a shock, a bit of Ionesco or the howl of a beatnik, lest they lose their appetite for everything altogether. Poetry as bread? This bread ought to grind between their teeth and revive their sense of hunger before it quells it. And this poetry will need to be honed by knowledge and embittered by yearning so that it will be able to disturb the sleep of human beings. We are indeed sleeping, are sleepers, out of the fear of being obliged to perceive our world as what it is.
Our existence today lies at the intersection point of so many mutually unconnected realities that are chockful of the most mutually contradictory values. Within the confines of your own four walls you can cultivate a domestic idyll in the patriarchal vein or libertinage or whatever else you like—outside you’re whirled about in a functional world of utility that has its own ideas about your existence. You can be superstitious and knock on wood, but the reports on the current state of scientific research and the development of armaments have consoling things of their own to say about the preservation of your security and freedom. You can believe in the immortality of your soul and expound your own spiritual findings to yourself, but outside you discover other findings; out there the shots are called by tests, by business, by the authorities; out there you are being wholesomely and unwholesomely written up, classified, and evaluated. You can see phantoms or values; in any case there are a ton of both there, and you can entrust yourself to all of them, if you simply happen to be very good at keeping everything soberly compartmentalized in practice. Here are inwardness and significances, the conscience and the dream—there the utility function, an absence of significance, clichés, and speechless violence. Do not base your thinking on one principle; that is dangerous—base it on many principles.
As things stand, in our sheer passive acquiescence, we have already reached the point of allowing the eventuation of a state of affairs that Hermann Broch excoriated in an apothegm of savage fury. If such is the case, the apothegm is valid; if such is the case, things have indeed come to such a pass. “Morality is morality; business is business, and war is war, and art is art.”
If we patiently endure this, if we quiescently allow the scornfulness of this “Art is art” to serve as a substitute for the Whole—and if the writers patiently endure it and encourage it through flippancy and a deliberate dissolution of the act of communication with society, an act that is always imperiled and therefore always in need of renewal—and if society withdraws from literature whenever it is imbued with a serious and uncomfortable spirit desirous of transformation, this will be tantamount to a declaration of bankruptcy. Simply making it possible for people to appreciate a few difficult artistic forms, simply awakening an understanding of art—this prophylactic against art, which is intended to render it innocuous –this cannot be the writer’s function. Under such shabby auspices none of us would have anything to lose from one another. Neither art from human beings, nor human beings from art. In such a case, there would also no longer be any need for any questions.
But we keep posing them anyway. And we shall pose them in the future so that they will regain their binding character.
Translation Copyright © 2017 by Douglas Robertson, who thanks flowerville for introducing him to Bachmann’s wonderful lectures.
Source: Ingeborg Bachmann, Frankfurter Vorlesungen. Probleme zeitgenössischer Dichtung [Frankfurt Lectures. Problems in Contemporary Literature], Munich and Berlin: Piper, 2016.