In her interview with East German critic Hans Kaufmann (in 1974; reprinted in Lesen und Schreiben: Neue Sammlung), Christa Wolf used the term “subjective authenticity” to describe what she believes should be the methodology and the goal of contemporary prose writers: the intense involvement of the author’s self in the work, along with an absolutely straightforward presentation of reality, as much as this is possible—given the unavoidable subjectivity of the author. Such an approach to writing prohibits the establishment of distance between the author and the work, the reading public, and society as a whole. It implies that the process of writing is more important than the finished product and therefore prevents the commercialization of literature toward which modern marketing tends. For Wolf, the relationship of the author to the work becomes paradigmatic for the relationship between literary language on one hand and modern secular language on the other, and between the individual’s need for self-realization and the pressures for conformity in the technological age. By bridging the gap between author and work through subjective authenticity, Wolf asserts that an intensely reciprocal relationship between author and reader, reader and work is created. At the same time, the dangerous erosion of language in a technological and scientific age is diminished, and the alienation of the individual from society may be abated.
In her acceptance speech for the Georg Büchner Prize in 1980, Wolf warned against alienation of inner, personal life from outer, materialistic life in a contemporary, technological world. She claimed that the dichotomy between the languages of these worlds is not merely a symptom of the separation of the places of work and of living, of the material from the spiritual, but that it has now become a perpetuator of this alienation. Ultimately, it is a threat to the continuation of the human race. The one-sided positive evaluation of modern technology and material advances has been accompanied by a parallel devaluation of the spiritual side of life and its expression in literary language. A deep skepticism toward modern science and technology is an important theme in Wolf’s fiction, particularly in the short stories “Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers” (“The New Life and Opinions of a Tomcat”) and “Selbstversuch” (“Self-Experiment”). The writer, says Wolf, must combat these modern tendencies by reaffirming the validity of a committed individual viewpoint and its subjective expression in language. The subjectivity of the individual author, because it is founded in the real world and has its purpose outside itself, can thus be a model for individual self-realization. It is not surprising that Wolf’s novels all deal with the general problem of individual self-realization within various social contexts. Thematically as well as stylistically, Wolf intends her works to effect “the production of new structures of human relationships in our time,” as she told Kaufmann.
In order to examine the problem of modern alienation and as part of the process of developing subjective authenticity, Wolf has drawn heavily on her own life as a literary source. She has looked at East German society in order to understand alienation in herself and others (Divided Heaven and The Quest for Christa T.). She wrote Patterns of Childhood in order to understand herself better as part of a whole generation of Germans who have been alienated from an important era of their lives and history. She has turned to the lives and times of others at the beginning of the technological age, around 1800, when she believes the alienation of the spiritual from the material in art and life and within the modern world in general began. In No Place on Earth, she uses the figures of two writers, Heinrich von Kleist and Karoline von Günderode, both early victims of the alienation between art and life, both eventual suicides.
The writer (often represented by the narrator/author) is the quintessential figure in Wolf’s works, and the process of narration is often presented as the fundamental act that can reconcile the material with the spiritual, the real with the ideal. The striving toward a whole world that underlies her ideas about writing gives Wolf’s work the utopian impulse that she has said is necessary for full human life here and now. The parallels with the philosophical thought of Ernst Bloch (author of Das Prinzip Hoffnung, 1954-1959; The Principle of Hope, 1986), a professor in Leipzig during Wolf’s study there, may be seen in Wolf’s concept of utopianism as an attitude of active commitment to contemporary issues. In the foreword to her 1980 edition of Günderode’s works, Wolf says, “Writers are, and this is not a lament, predestined to be sacrificial victims and self-sacrificers.” They, through language, can bridge the chasm between materialism and spirituality, although they pay a heavy price in the process.
The selection of the long-neglected poet Günderode as the subject not only of the novel but also of this significant essay fits another pattern in Wolf’s work: her preoccupation with female figures. Women are the main characters in all her novels and short stories. Where men play prominent roles, it is either as problematic, inwardly torn figures (Divided Heaven and No Place on Earth) or as destructive forces. Wolf has said that she has focused on female figures because she naturally can identify more readily with women. More than this, however, she has claimed historical reasons for her depiction of women and men in seemingly stereotypical fashion. She asserts that women, because they have been excluded from power in the last two centuries, have also largely escaped the inner alienation from which modern men suffer. They are therefore a potential force for changing and even for saving contemporary human society. The problematic condition of the writer in the modern world is intensified when the writer is a woman.
Wolf, in examining the experiences of earlier women writers (Günderode and Bettina von Arnim) and of incipient, if failed, contemporary women writers (Christa T.), is also examining herself and her own situation. She understands this aspect of her writing as a natural result of an examination of history (women’s position in bourgeois society). Her own experiences of the consequences of this historical development then go into her works as part of a general dialogue about women in the Socialist state and as part of her striving for subjective authenticity.
Wolf’s life and work are closely intertwined. She maintained her optimism and hope in Socialist society while recognizing its inadequacies. Other East German colleagues were not able to stay on this narrow path without incurring official disfavor. Wolf’s own frictions with party functionaries can be seen as proof of the actuality, pertinence, and commitment of her writing. Certainly most of her work would not have taken form without her intense inner and outer involvement with her surroundings. It is not limited to this involvement, however; like all good literature, it goes beyond the configurations of time and place in which it is based to address issues of timeless human interest: the conflict between the individual and society, the problem of self-knowledge, and the endeavor to “heal the world” through writing, as Wolf once put it.
The immediate acclaim that was accorded Wolf’s first novel, Divided Heaven, in both East and West Germany was largely the result of the Cold War climate of the day. The presentation of an unhappy love affair against the background of divided Berlin was interpreted in the West as a veiled protest against this political act. The defection of the negatively portrayed maleprotagonist and the affirmation of the positive heroine-narrator’s life in the East was regarded in East Germany as properly supportive Socialist Realism, in spite of the ideological blurring of the heroine’s motivation and the ambivalent Socialist zeal displayed by some of the secondary figures. That the novel is not about divided Germany but about “the reasons people leave one another,” as Wolf said, has become clearer in recent years.
The thematic relationship to her later works is also apparent now. Manfred and Rita drift apart because they represent, as Alexander Stephan has noted, the two basic attitudes toward life possible for members of contemporary industrial society. Wolf oversimplifies the dichotomy to some extent by making Manfred the heir of bourgeois materialism and Nazi opportunism through his family, while the two years of Rita’s life chronicled in the book almost become a condensation of the Marxist view of historical process: from a close connection to nature through the spiritual and psychological disruptions of bourgeois intellectualism and late capitalism to the healing world of contemporary everyday socialism.
The problems addressed in the book, however, are not so black and white. In Divided Heaven, Wolf begins her examination of the elements within Socialist society that prevent individuals from realizing themselves fully. Rita may make the “right” decision in the official view when she parts from Manfred in West Berlin, the day before the Wall is constructed, but her reasons remain unclear to her for some time. Indeed, only several months later, while recuperating from a suicide attempt made soon after the lovers’ parting, does she become convinced of the correctness of her decision to participate actively and confidently in the construction of true socialism in her state. Manfred, on the other hand, represents those modern individuals who have become cynical, apathetic, and indifferent to life, alienated by the frustration of their efforts to effect social change, perhaps, or lured by the appeal of fitting into the comfortable routine of a materialistic consumer society. In many ways, Manfred is the central character of the novel. Certainly his self-awareness, his original enthusiasm about contributing to his society, and his ultimate failure to do so make him a more interesting figure than Rita, and also link him closely with the heroine of The Quest for Christa T.
In Divided Heaven, Wolf had not yet mastered the subjective narrative technique that she used to such advantage in her next novel, although the rather conventional flashback and montage...
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