16.4.15

Peeling the layers: Gunter Grass


Günter Grass reminds me of Salvador Dali, which is really less about their art and more about the perception of it. They are bracketed as the weird even if that weirdness is explainable as epitomising a deeper concern.

The comparison is essentially a non-sequiter but somehow this was the memory visual that came to mind as I sat to pay tribute to Grass who died on Monday at 87. Grass always seemed just short of old in the pictures, much as he never looked quite so young in the photographs of youth. It conveys an image of a seasoned man, a man who lived well, contemplated hard but not too hard, and then wrote absurdist lines that got their authenticity from intent rather than expression.

“Art is accusation, expression, passion. Art is a fight to the finish between black charcoal and white paper."

For one with such a sense of urgency, he delayed in confessing about being part of the Nazi Waffen-SS as a teenager. I am not sure if one should look on it as a confession; it was more in the nature of another dare. After all, he was not really a participant in Nazi crimes, and even if he was there are no traces left behind.

Perhaps this too was art as accusation, of remembering in order to be accused, for it might lead to not merely personal catharsis but also a collective one. Spectators of historical events that result in torture and concomitant guilt become a part of it by the mere expedient of being there.

Grass used his history well, and it is rather amazing how he came across as quite the opposite of what he had once lent his voice to. Terms like liberal, Left-leaning, even anti-Israel became his calling card. The latter is especially noteworthy. He wrote a long poem 'What Must Be Said' where he eent on to talk about Israeli warheads "capable of ending all life":

But now, when my own country,
guilty of primal and unequalled crimes
for which time and again it must be tasked—
once again, in pure commerce,
though with quick lips we declare it
reparations, wants to send
Israel yet another submarine—
one whose speciality is to deliver
warheads capable of ending all life
where the existence of even one
nuclear weapon remains unproven,
but where suspicion serves for proof—
now I say what must be said.

But why was I silent for so long?
Because I thought my origin,
marked with an ineradicable stain,
forbade mention of this fact
as definite truth about Israel, a country
to which I am and will remain attached.


Attachment is a loaded word. However, when he did explain his Nazi past, he attributed it to the black and white charm of the newsreels. Such creative license did not wash with all literary voices. John Updike was not too kind. He wrote: “Here is a novelist who has gone so public he can’t be bothered to write a novel. He just sends dispatches to his readers from the front line of his engagement.”

He has a point, except that at worst it could be called niche writing. If it were dispatches, there would have been no room for experimentation with language and analogy. And one cannot just take away from Günter Grass' idea of the world and for it. In his own words:

“I shall speak of how melancholy and utopia preclude one another. How they fertilize one another... of the revulsion that follows one insight and precedes the next... of superabundance and surfeit. Of stasis in progress. And of myself, for whom melancholy and utopia are heads and tails of the same coin.”

5 comments:

  1. Farzana,

    Your tribute (or Grass's passing prompting of it) came (perhaps fittingly nevertheless) whilst I was marking a mountain of school papers for mid-term. Save as a literary "name," I know next to nothing about Grass. While I caught the buzz surrounding his 2006 outing of himself as a former Waffen-SS grunt and his 2012 poem critical of both his homeland and Israel, and while I was inclined to see both acts as you propose, i.e. "art as accusation, of remembering in order to be accused, for it might lead to not merely personal catharsis but also a collective one," neither prompted an immediate desire to examine his works. I suppose it only seemed natural that someone of his stature should lead German intellectuals back in from the cold after 50 years, and he most certainly could not have weighed-in on German . . . well, "reparations" to Israel (yet another loaded term) without having first acknowledged that he too was guilty of merely "following orders" . . .

    Apparently, like Borges, Garcia Marquez, et al, Grass was into magical realism, which is suggested as a literary form of surrealism, and which you yourself would seem to allude in your reference to Dali. One has read Garcia Marquez; therefore, one is prompted to ask: What is it with the Swedish Academy and magical realism? :)

    >>Spectators of historical events that result in torture and concomitant guilt become a part of it by the mere expedient of being there.<<

    Well, perhaps. Certainly Grass (and Germans generally) stoically bore some responsibility for the excesses of their political/cultural masters. Indeed, to varying degree, don't we all for our own? It would seem part of the package, whatever national, professional or, indeed, familial identification we may claim.

    >>“I shall speak of how melancholy and utopia preclude one another. How they fertilize one another... of the revulsion that follows one insight and precedes the next... of superabundance and surfeit. Of stasis in progress. And of myself, for whom melancholy and utopia are heads and tails of the same coin.”<<

    Yes, this would seem to tie to his earlier (or, if in fact, later) claim that, “Art is accusation, expression, passion. Art is a fight to the finish between black charcoal and white paper." While some may argue convincingly otherwise, might there be room to consider he meant it rather as a joke, that, for melancholy and utopia, it's a coin toss as to which gets to be on top? :)

    M.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Mark:

      I forgot to mention another of his crucial works, at least crucial to India: Show Your Tongue. It exoticised the country, much like most westerners. However, India lends itself well to magic realism, perhaps even more than the Swedish Academy that you have alluded to!

      {Well, perhaps. Certainly Grass (and Germans generally) stoically bore some responsibility for the excesses of their political/cultural masters. Indeed, to varying degree, don't we all for our own? It would seem part of the package, whatever national, professional or, indeed, familial identification we may claim.}

      Indeed, we do bear responsibility, but I am intrigued by the guilt we feel when there is no overt attempt to involve us. Guilt probably acts as a palliative. The utopia of (for?) melancholia?

      {...might there be room to consider he meant it rather as a joke, that, for melancholy and utopia, it's a coin toss as to which gets to be on top? :)}

      What if it is the tunnel and the light at the end of it? A coin toss-up would shoot straight into the valley!

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    2. >>I forgot to mention another of his crucial works, at least crucial to India: Show Your Tongue.<<

      Nevertheless, I'm glad you were reminded to mention it. By way of obtaining an overview, I found an old NY Times review of his journal and, while reading, the thought struck me that likely the experience of (then) Calcutta rocked his whole world. Sure enough, he was then quoted as saying to the effect, "From now on, I will measure everything according to what I saw in Calcutta." One can hardly be certain what, exactly, Grass meant by this; but, certainly, Calcutta put paid to the German (not necessarily Nazi) angst for liebensraum, i.e. "living space," put forth as justification for their annexing much of Europe. Show your tongue, indeed . . .

      >>. . . I am intrigued by the guilt we feel when there is no overt attempt to involve us.<<

      I think most (if not all) feel an immediate twinge of sympathy at the sight, say, of an emaciated person clearly starving to death. I think this twinge of sympathy *could* be allowed to move the voyeur further to offer immediate aid or assistance to them in obtaining aid. I think the could becoming *would* depends on a flurry of calculations made in an instant as to what personal cost (in terms of time, money, health, etc.) as might be incurred if one were to act. What trumps in most instances, it seems to me, are social expectations: What *should* I do? What is expected of me socially -- morally -- by my people in this instance? Or, further, what is expected of me by my God? The guilt we feel, I think, is when considerations for personal cost comes into conflict with considerations for the social/religious.

      >>Guilt probably acts as a palliative. The utopia of (for?) melancholia?<<

      :) Well, perhaps, lol. Interestingly, there was this interview here in the Guardian with Lars von Triers:

      http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/apr/20/lars-von-trier-interview

      In a perhaps tongue-in-cheek attempt to "justify" his return to drink, he said:

      "I believe that if you are an artist and you’re drunk (laughing), you’re more sensitive. I have this theory: scientists say that 80% of our mental work is to stop the senses. So we have filters to block useless information. But if you are sensitive, then it means these filters are a bit broken. At least that’s what I see at AA. Sensitivity gives you anxiety. Even when I’ve worked with anxiety in therapy for all my life, anxiety is something that you can handle sometimes, while other times it’s impossible."

      Might von Trier's theory on "sensitives" and anxiety relate to guilt? Have you seen his film, Melancholia?

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    3. {"From now on, I will measure everything according to what I saw in Calcutta." One can hardly be certain what, exactly, Grass meant by this; but, certainly, Calcutta put paid to the German (not necessarily Nazi) angst for liebensraum, i.e. "living space," put forth as justification for their annexing much of Europe. Show your tongue, indeed...}

      :-) Show Your Tongue has other resonances. I am told it was also about how the act is considered an ill omen. I also took it to be a reference to the presiding deity of Bengal, Durga, and her tongue-showing Kali avatar. 

      {The guilt we feel, I think, is when considerations for personal cost comes into conflict with considerations for the social/religious.}

      True, but often we weigh in the personal cost based on what we've learned from social and religious norms.

      {Might von Trier's theory on "sensitives" and anxiety relate to guilt? Have you seen his film, Melancholia?} 

      Not all anxiety is due to sensitivity; some is in fact because of cautiousness. And while much of guilt is due to an acute awareness/perception of wrongdoing, it might also be the result of treading carefully so as to prevent actual damage. A tsk-tsk, as if were!

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    4. >>I am told it was also about how the act is considered an ill omen.<<

      Interesting, the Maori bare theirs, I think, as a sort of ward against ill intentions.

      >>I also took it to be a reference to the presiding deity of Bengal, Durga, and her tongue-showing Kali avatar.<<

      Which was, apparently, Grass' reference as well -- at least, according to the aforementioned NYT review. In his journal, he is suggested as being both appalled and admiring of Calcutta -- which makes the reference to Durga's tongue-showing Kali avatar all the more . . . well, "poignant," perhaps? :)

      Do Bengalis internalize this aspect of their Goddess? Implicit in the cycle, it seems to me, is a sort of cleansing or sloughing-off . . . or does her avatar simply represent an inevitable and recurrent bloody-end to human folly?

      >>. . . often we weigh in the personal cost based on what we've learned from social and religious norms.<<

      We do indeed. I'd offer self-sacrifice as a lesson near-universally learned thereof -- idealized, if only in caricature, by George Orwell's Animal Farm character, "Boxer."

      >>A tsk-tsk, as if were!<<

      Or the other shoe. :)

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