Study Guide

Günter Eich

Günter Eich Essay - Critical Essays

Eich, Günter


Eich, Günter 1907–

Eich is a German poet, playwright, and author of radio plays. He writes of the disillusionment of the postwar period in Germany in poetry and plays that are subtle psychological explorations of dreams and the subconscious. It is as a radio dramatist that Eich is best known; he is considered to have made radio drama a respectable literary genre through his imaginative plays. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 93-96.)

Egbert Krispyn

Günter Eich follows a well-established tradition when he assigns the birds an important place in his poetic idiom….

His use of this motif provides an interesting example of the way in which old topoi survive by adaptation to the concepts of successive generations of writers. Moreover, the treatment of the bird motif in Eich's work is very characteristic of this author and reveals salient features of his worldview and literary style. However, because, on the whole, Eich's images are highly symbolic in Goethe's sense, their full significance cannot be deduced from isolated instances. Only by studying the usage of a given metaphor in various contexts can its symbolic value be expressed in abstract terms.

In the case of the bird motif, such an inquiry can best take as its starting point the radio-play Sabeth, not only because it has a bird as its leading character and title figure, but also because this non-lyrical treatment of the topos contains some explicit remarks on the significance it has in this work. (p. 246)

The bird [in Sabeth] represents eternity, and eternity is, naturally, not subjected to the law of inexorable progression along a temporal dimension. The entire concept of time depends on a peculiarly human delusion, caused by the fact that man through his reflective attitude experiences himself as an individual who is born and dies, instead of as an integral part of a larger, timeless whole.

The idea of temporality thus appears as a translation of a dimension of eternity into finite terms consistent with man's individuation. In this dimension which transcends humanity's time-bound perception, eternal beings move with the same freedom as man does in space. Or, to put it differently, sub specie aeternitatis time and space merge into one "absolute" dimension, of which Sabeth is an embodiment. (p. 247)

In Eich's poems, too, birds are frequently introduced to symbolize eternity. In Der GroBe Lübbe-See the cranes indicate the metaphysical position through which the essence of the universe is comprehended…. The poem...

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F. M. Fowler

Eich has created not so much a theatre of the air as a poetry of the air, a "spirit-world of voices", a medium in which, as in lyric poetry, the word or word-complex is dominant. Dispensing with the visual dimension (and limitation) of the stage as well as the communal reaction of a mass audience, Eich's Hörspiele [radio plays] demand the total engagement of the listener's imagination so that they may subtly or violently awaken the individual conscience.

The play entitled Träume, though somewhat uneven in quality, is indisputably a key work; no one hearing or reading it could possibly be left in doubt as to the nature or extent of Eich's commitment as a writer. From a formal point of view, too, though not typical, it is significant: the five dreams acted out as separate scenes are framed by verse passages increasing the involvement of the listener, and finally—in a near-Brechtian manner—making a direct appeal to his sense of duty as a human being…. [The] dream is seen as an escape, a potentially dangerous flight from a reality that should command all our attention…. But at the same time the dreams reveal, through the five scenes, the fundamental insecurity of twentieth-century man, uncovering a reality far below the surface of everyday life. Significantly enough, the dreams are not all those of one person, or even of a few people living in similar circumstances: the fictitious dreamers are spread over four continents, and their dreams give a clue not to the peculiar psychological state of any one set of individuals but rather to the condition of a whole diseased society. (pp. 90-1)

[In] Träume Eich conjures up a picture of a society insecure and unstable, haunted by anxious dreams and liable to lose the values of humanity. If the images themselves are Kafkaesque in quality, the appeal to the social conscience is Brechtian: the individual dare not be deaf to the unceasing cries of pain in the world, he must give up his dreaming and be ever on his guard to ensure that those in authority, acting in his name, use their power not to inflict but rather to alleviate suffering. In no other Hörspiel by Eich is the social message so strongly and directly expressed; but the recurrence of themes from Träume in his latest lyric poetry shows this concern to be no mere passing phase in his thought.

If the first broadcast of Träume deserves Gerhard Prager's designation "the birth of the German radio-play", it is not because of technical or formal innovations in the play but rather owing to the masterful verbal economy. Far more impressive than the appropriate use of sound effects—the train accelerating, the steps in the night, the tribal drums, the sound of the termites—is the suggestive character of the language, particularly in the first scene, in which a few lines reveal the insecurity of man's relation to reality and his need of language to command it.

Although it may be said that formally Träume is unique in Eich's oeuvre, the dream motif at least recurs regularly throughout the plays. In several cases the motif is combined with a typically Eich pattern: the individual awakens from a state of torpor or sterile self-satisfaction, a kind of death in life, to a new acceptance of reality; mysteriously, he is driven to seek his true destiny, the finding of which frequently involves his own actual death. (p. 93)

The comic element … appears as a notable feature of Festianus, Märtyrer, a play about a nervous little saint who feels ill at ease in heaven because he fails to find his friends and relations. The great saints appear singularly unhelpful on the subject…. Eventually Festianus descends to hell (a sophisticated concentration-camp) and chooses to remain there, for while he can in no way diminish the sufferings of the others, he prefers at least to share them. Although Eich here treats a real problem in traditional theology, the context of his other plays reveals that he is not primarily concerned with the Christian notion of the hereafter but rather with the problem of suffering and our attitude to it: through Festianus he again condemns complacency, indifference and rigidity—whether on the part of the individual or the institution. The theme of caring for others likewise predominates in the satire Zinngeschrei, in which, however, a cynical reversing of rôles takes place—the idealist's conversion to material self-interest balancing the progress of the other main character from self-interest to idealism....

(The entire section is 1875 words.)

Diether H. Haenicke

[Günter Eich] wrote the famous poem "Inventory" which became the classical example of Kahlschlag literature. He made his debut in literature before the war with rather conventional poems in praise of nature. The experience of the war changed the poet's timbre. His Ausgewählte Gedichte (Collected Poems, 1960) reveal a continuing closeness to nature, but also show his attempt to look beneath the obscuring surface of things and find their true reality. His poetic language intends to make these hidden realities visible. "The essential language appears to me to be the one in which the word itself and the object it names are in congruence," says Eich, "we have to translate from this language which is all around us but at the same time nonexistent. We are translating without having the original text." Eich is also considered the main representative of the radio play in Germany. This new genre became extremely popular after the war when television was not as prolific as in today's Germany. Eich collected his radio plays in the volumes Träume (Dreams, 1953) and Stimmen (Voices, 1958). The protagonists in his plays usually enter a situation endangering their existence and in this crisis find the truth about themselves. (pp. 395-96)

Diether H. Haenicke, "Literature since 1933," in The Challenge of German Literature, edited by Horst S. Daemmrich and Diether H. Haenicke (reprinted by permission of the Wayne State University Press; © 1971 by the Wayne State University Press), Wayne State University Press, 1971, pp. 350-404.∗

Steven D. Martinson

What is important with regard to Träume is that Eich's dreams and "Warngedichte" are disturbing because an inexpressible and yet undeniable feeling for reality is aroused in the soul of the dreamer…. In effect, there are two levels of dreams. Those dreams which we call "pleasant" or "good" are similar to wishful thinking and daydreaming. Here we are content with a perhaps strange, but familiar world, the world of appearances or everyday reality. Those dreams which we call "bad" emanate from the very depths of the unconscious. They are the ones which project the true images of reality. It is here that the truth of the reality of things lies concealed. (p. 332)

Throughout all five...

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