Thus far, I’ve looked at two writers and their motivation for writing: Herta Müller and William Gass. On the surface they are quite different; besides race (they are both white) they really have nothing much in common. Gass grew up in the American Midwest, into middle class malaise and an isolation founded in his problematic relationship with his parents. Müller grew up in a totalitarian dictatorship, just one among many of the voiceless masses entreated to labor for and celebrate the Romanian regime which, in the course of “liberating”its people, had enslaved them.
Both ultimately put pen to paper to record their discontent.
In this post, I’d like to explore a bit more an idea that arrived while doing research the on Herta Müller. As I mentioned in the last post, Müller claims that as a youth she had to invent literature. Living on her now collectivized family land, she had no access to books and no notion that such a thing as a body of literature existed.
Within this vacuum, unfettered by an existing canon, she created her own form and foundation, developing an original voice that was the result of a type of ignorance.
What is of more interest, at least for the purpose of this post, is her struggle with language itself. What language would she write in? The German dialect that she grew up speaking was not appropriate: it had been used by reactionaries as a tool of nationalism.
The question of how to write in a language that has been subverted is by no means unique to Muller. It is probably no exaggeration to say that German of any modern language has most had to recreate itself after the turmoil of the twenty-first century.
Why We Write III—to Rebuild Language
.The subversion of the German language to serve the Nazi agenda altered it incontrovertibly. After WWII, there was no going back. Words like blood and fatherland were sullied forever. Millions of ethnic Germans, whether located in the nation itself, or in satellite countries such as Poland, Romania, Austria, or Hungary, found their utterances suddenly gross with pejoratives, insidiously transformed. It had, after all, been used as an agent of violence.
As a serious language of literature, German was undone–at least for the moment. In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s book, A Time of Gifts, in which the first part of his long journey by foot from Amsterdam to Constantinople is recounted, the author recalls his visit to the Rhineland at a time when Hitler’s hold on the country was still far from complete.
At one point, as Fermor is sitting in a beer hall writing down his impressions of an S.A. march that he had observed, a trio of the young Nationalist Socialist men come in for a post-event drink. He describes them as they break into song, reflecting on the contradiction of these romantic folk tunes and the youths singing them.
Germany has a rich anthology of regional songs, and these, I think, were dreamy celebrations of the forests and plains of Westphalia, long sighs of homesickness musically transposed. It was charming. And the charm made it impossible, at that moment, to connect the singers with organized bullying and the smashing of Jewish shop windows and nocturnal bonfires of books.
The Dichotomy of the Dictator
In a dictatorship, Muller says, everything takes a side. Nothing is neutral. In her interview, she describes how some plants seem to serve the regime simply by virtue of their longevity, while others—frailer though perhaps prettier in their frailty—are indicators of resistance.
In a similar way, German history and art was made to play a part in Hitler’s nationalistic invention or relegated to obscurity. Franz Kafka, a German-speaking Jew, was deemed “undesirable”. Composer Richard Wagner and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, on the other hand, were celebrated as articulators of the Aryan ideal. After Hitler’s fall, Kafka became one of the world’s most celebrated writers. Nietzsche, for his part, has been submitted to extensive exegesis to clear his name of any affiliation with anti-Semitism. Wagner, for all his passion and genius, has never entirely recovered from his association with the regime.
So what of the common people who were raised during that time? What recourse did they have?
The Snail: or Gunter Grass as Dubious Witness
In the introduction to Gunter Grass’ book of essays On Writing and Politics 1967-1983, Salman Rushdie writes:
…Grass has written often and eloquently—of the effect of the Nazi period on the German language, of the need for the language to be rebuilt, pebble by pebble, from the wreckage; because a language in which evil finds so expressive a voice is a dangerous tongue. The practitioners of ‘rubble literature’—Grass himself being one of the most prominent of these—these upon themselves the Herculean task of re-inventing the German language, of tearing it apart, ripping out the poisoned parts, and putting it back together.
Grass was the original whistle-blower, so-to-speak. His was one of the first and most honest accounts of a German youth living in Hitler’s Germany. Bereft of language, and like so many others, he told his stories in a new idiom.
History and the present collide. Like Faulkner, Grass is only too aware of how much our history informs our present. Medieval characters march through village streets in ghostly parades. The hulking ruins of battleships languish in the harbor on their side, a reminder of wars already past. Like Kafka and the Latin American magical surrealists, the veil between reality and fantasy is thin. Perhaps inconsequential. The childlike imagery of pre-war Gdansk, draped in events and rich in character, refutes Hitler’s reductionism of history: There isn’t just one homeland, there are many. Even within Germany itself.
This is how one responds when one’s language has been stolen, when the nuanced, tender terms that evoke the woodlands and rivers or that delegate one’s kin have been uprooted to serve a bankrupt ideology: by rebuilding it, by trimming the parts that have gone gangrenous and replanting the useful parts.
This, to rebuild a language that has been destroyed through political subversion, is another reason we write.