The world must be romanticized. Only in this way will one rediscover its original senses. I return at this point to this famous maxim of Novalis, written in the early 19th century, since despite all the efforts to drive out its sensuality, art and especially literature never grows tired of comprehending art and life as a unity. Back in the day numerous critics denounced Romanticism as a step backwards, as anti-Enlightenment. Its protagonists were called hypersensitive, with nervous disorders and will-o’-the-whips between religiousness and anarchy. And yet their message was nothing more than about the existence of a depth of consciousness – the concept of the unconscious was already in circulation at that time as well as the notion that this could only be founded through poetic intuition.
More than 200 years later the question concerning how art and life belong together is as critical as ever. When individuals from the world of literature, namely, writers, critics, academics and agents sit together on a panel and reflect on their activities, things always revolve around this single problem: what role do we play in society? Do we play any role at all?
Romanticizing the world also means perceiving it as a continuum where everything is connected to everything else, Novalis also claims. This has nothing to do with candlelight dinners and flattery, but with cognitive ability and the analytical power of literature which – and that’s the key point – all of this is of its own accord. In other words, a text or a literary work is not made meaningful by the desire to be contemporary, not by poise or commitment, but by the act of writing per se – and I’ll now liken this to the attempt at skimming off fragments of the self within the unconscious. This ‘I’ is in fact part of the world, part of society, part of immediate reality; it has grown up, been made and deformed in it. I don’t need to cloak what I draw from within myself in another guise to make it adapt to the present, which is shrill, loud and moody. So we’re talking about a media created, artificial present.
In the 1950s and 1960s the Group 47 in Germany defined the role of literature to a highly influential degree – the focus was on composure and commitment. This restricted perspective made people like Grass, Walser, Enzensberger successful, but they laughed at Celan. Celan was no committed poet, he wasn’t suitable as a moral authority instructing people how they had to behave from the Stunde Null, the “zero hour” onwards. For Celan there was no Stunde Null; nothing was concluded for him because he knew about the condition humaine. You cannot state that evil has been cleared from the world by means of an artificial demarcation. And he was a survivor who didn’t suddenly want to feel guilty because he was still there and he was writing about the fact that he still existed.
Celan’s poems may not be easy to understand, but they are works of art – in a different way from Enzensberger’s in the slipstream of Brecht’s composed poems – absolved of any kind of expiry date. They are not images of a particular time or posture; in a kind of subterranean river course they connect humans with each other who live in different times and under different conditions. But the foundations of human existence are unchangeable. And literature is great when it creates a connection on an existential level.
Fortunately, the European Literature Days are not held in the spirit of the Group 47, although they can feel similar to sitting a school exam. Now and then in the discussions and lectures the superficial is switched for depth, for instance, when an immediate response is called for due to political events and their media depiction. Then substantial overestimation of the writer’s role comes into play. This may even bear fruit on the book market, at least for one season.
However, when we’re talking about literature, about its value, about its future, then actually we don’t mean short-term sales trends. We’re talking about what literature always could do the best: telling both the good and the bad about what makes human beings human. What each individual makes of this is his or her own business. As a writer you must be resilient to this uncertainty; you never know whether you’ll find like-minded people. In Wachau we probably also talked about this: the loneliness of writers. These moments make a difference. And they will endure.
By Peter Zimmermann
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright
This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe‘s website on 26 October 2015.