Christa Wolf

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Sneja Gunew (essay date March 1985)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4038

SOURCE: “Christa Wolf,” in Meanjin, Vol. 44, No. 1, March, 1985, pp. 100–109.

[In the following essay, Gunew discusses Wolf's humanist perspective, her studies of collective memory, and the social construction of identity, particularly female identity, in A Model Childhood, Cassandra, and other works.]

For Margrit Braun and Hansi Foks, and for Christa W. who almost came to Australia.

My major interest was to try to find out where it actually started—this appalling split between people and society? When did the division of labor influence people so decisively that literature was pushed farther and farther out of that sphere which society understood and defined as important, essential—indeed present! At the same time, the feminine element is also forced out of society; that's a process which began much earlier, however.

(C. Wolf, New German Critique, 27)

The above was part of Christa Wolf's answer as to why she, an East German, had written a novel about the early German Romantics (No Place on Earth) who are traditionally dismissed as a group of over-privileged intellectual elitists. Her answer went on to describe them, instead, as one of the few groups committed to social experimentation and change on the eve of the industrial era, after which reality became paralysed by institutions. It is gratifying for our Western understanding to have it confirmed that, as we suspected, East Germany is bristling with bureaucracy and institutions. At the same time it is disconcerting to discover that Wolf's preoccupation with the question why produce literature, should echo Terry Eagleton's latest book on the question why produce criticism? They converge to some extent in their answers: Eagleton advocates the critic's return to social responsibility and revolutionary intervention:

What surely is true is that no examination of criticism's relation to the classical public sphere can end without considering its relation to the contemporary caricatured form of that sphere, the culture industry. Just as the eighteenth-century bourgeois critic found a role in the cultural politics of the public sphere, so the contemporary socialist or feminist critic must be defined by an engagement in the cultural politics of late capitalism. Both strategies are equally remote from an isolated concern with the ‘literary text.’ ‘The constructing of a proletarian public sphere,’ Brenkman argues, ‘… requires a persistent struggle against the symbolic forms by which the mass-mediated public sphere constitutes subjectivity and puts it under the dominance of the commodity.’ The role of the contemporary critic is to resist that dominance by re-connecting the symbolic to the political, engaging through both discourse and practice with the process by which repressed needs, interests and desires may assume the cultural forms which could weld them into a collective political force.1

Wolf reiterates in all her books what seems to be a related concern with the writer as authentic witness interrogating official orthodoxies. For post-modernists, increasingly confined by the privatised interactions of readers and texts, it is sobering to be confronted by a writing context in which the function of literature has recently been described as a kind of consciousness-raising process designed to facilitate debate on those issues excluded from official public discourses.2 Sobering because for post-modernists discourses on the responsibility of the individual to society tend to be viewed as overly prescriptive, falsely consensual and to be replaced, as quickly as possible, with decentred subjects and decentred networks of power relations. Otherwise, what happens to the marginal who are always designated as objects rather than subjects? The problem with decentering is that it also makes organised political action difficult; it is hard to play now you see me,...

(This entire section contains 4038 words.)

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now you don't, when you are trying to change the world. And this is where Wolf's seemingly old-fashioned humanism needs to be re-appraised.

Her writing constantly explores the interaction of marginal and dominant groups in relation to the responsibility of the individual. The individual, however, is not simply the unified subject of liberal humanism, the origin and end of meaning, but rather a subject-in-process who is both constituted by official discourses as well as learning to question them from positions constructed on the basis of deviant experience. The most fearful and dehumanising state in Wolf's world is to be an object simply constructed by others instead of producing one's own tentative authenticity and taking responsibility for one's own perspective. For example, A Model Childhood, her book on growing up in Nazi Germany which first brought her to world attention, harrowingly reconstructs the process whereby collective guilt arises out of the accretion of individual silences. The price of such survival is examined through a double narrative frame in which the narrator travels through present-day East Germany with her husband, brother and daughter trying to explain to her child, in particular, the conditions under which she, as a child, evolved. From being the traditional objects of modern world-history, the Germans become, through the narrator, Nelly, the subjects who finally take responsibility for their own viewpoints.

Indeed, one of the prime functions of literature is described by Wolf as the painfully acquired discipline of remembering which runs counter to the instinct, or will, to forget: ‘Remembering things is swimming against the current of forgetting—strenuous movement.’3 The will to forget enables one to survive in the face of traumatic experiences but the cost is a repressed and debilitating guilt: ‘To be inconsiderate—without looking back—as a basic requirement for survival; one of the prerequisites that separate the living from survivors.’4 The process of remembering comprises an acutely painful re-examination of debris (photographs, diaries, and places), censored and edited to shape a spurious consistency and superficial calm. False representations of time (photos, letters) as much as of place:

The network of the streets in your childhood town has been indelibly imprinted on your—and everybody else's—mind as the basic model for the layout of marketplaces, churches, streets, and rivers. Now it exists only in part, modified, in an altered form, because it gives you away too much, points out tracks which must be erased; for you are forced to shuffle the details in order to get closer to the facts.

(A Model Childhood)

The individual memories are submerged in the collective memory, or, rather, collective forgetting. Thus Nelly's irritation at family photos which tender the specious resolutions of fairytales and their happy endings and which offer hindrance rather than help in the process of retracing individual silences within the collective alibis and false stories: ‘Chronic blindness. And the question cannot be: How can they live with their conscience?, but: What kind of circumstances are those that cause a collective loss of conscience?’

If photographs and even places obstruct memory, what about language itself? Not only the individual writer's will to forget, but language too becomes an obstacle to memory. Encased in the present language of collective amnesia, how is it possible to rediscover that former language in the past which affirmed a different climate of arrogance, of certainty, certainly not of acknowledged guilt? What role did language play in that reality? The languages of Nazi Germany are organised around silences and distortions: ‘He wasn't asking a question. He didn't have the strength for one … Interrogative, declarative, or exclamatory sentences could no longer—or not yet—be used. Many, Nelly among them, lapsed into silence.’ Nelly learns to read faces rather than listen to words. That language is the prime socialising force is reiterated in the later books, usually in the context of an anxiety concerning the growth of yet another ‘augur's language’ for the chosen few.5 At the same time, and this becomes the saving glimmer of hope which facilitates the progress from object to subject, there is something else which eludes this socialising process, illustrated by the phrase, ‘No, not that!.’

In fact, I often wonder what prevented the worst, since moral instincts are not inborn and we were deprived of all contact with the morals of a highly developed culture. So why were all the humane instincts not rooted out? Whence came that abrupt retreat, on a few occasions sharply etched on the memory, that I now think were decisive? Whence—since there was silence all around—that disturbing warning from within, on three or four occasions, that one did not want to follow up and that could be summed up in two words: Not that!

(The Reader and the Writer)

This awareness returns in another version in A Model Childhood when the narrator encounters a eugenicist Nazi fairy-tale.

It shall be truthfully said that, after reading the article, Nelly sat with the paper across her knees, clearly thinking: No, not that.

It was one of those rare, precious, and inexplicable instances when Nelly found herself in conscious opposition to the required convictions she would have liked to share. As so often, it was a feeling of guilt that engraved the incident in her memory. How could she have known that bearing guilt was, under the prevailing conditions, a necessary requirement for inner freedom?

Language, as Wolf points out in her Büchner Prize acceptance speech, enables scientists and politicians to erect a screen between their own feelings (individual responsibility) and their work or public actions.6 But it is possible for the hegemony of language to be disrupted: No, not that! Another language: Kein ort. Nirgends (no place, nowhere). Utopia?

What self, from where, articulates this disruption? The position of authentic witness is not bestowed, it must be earned. Both A Model Childhood and the latest book, Cassandra, are structured around pilgrimages. It is not simply a matter of adopting the first person and of assuming that all the rest will follow:

Don't ask your contemporaries certain questions. Because it is unbearable to think the tiny word ‘I’ in connection with the word ‘Auschwitz.’ ‘I’ in the past conditional: I would have. I might have. I could have. Done it. Obeyed orders.

In that case, no faces. The ability to remember lies dormant. Still to this day: a feeling of relief, if you're honest. And the realisation that language acts as a filter in the process of minting expressions. It filters: in the sense of what is desired. In the sense of what is mentionable. In the sense of what has been established. How can established behaviour be forced to yield spontaneous expression?

(A Model Childhood)

The witness bears a responsibility to the self as well as to an audience; ‘I will continue a witness even if there is no longer one single human being left to demand my testimony,’ says Cassandra. Which is not to negate the responsibility to an audience, that crucial relationship to the public sphere, intersection of the domestic and the social, to which Wolf (and Eagleton) refer constantly. But responsibility to the self, or selves, is not an unproblematic idealism or essentialism, for the self in Wolf's work is very much a subject-in-process, fragmented by contradictions and repressions: ‘Nelly realises that she is several different girls.’ In A Model Childhood there is the public self who practises until she can keep her arm raised in the Nazi salute for the full length of the anthem, and there is that private, largely suppressed, self who is, at times, able to respond with: No, not that!

Although the subject is riven by contradictions this must not result in paralysis, there is no excuse for post-modernist meta-reflections or for inaction:

So as to preclude misunderstandings: living in contradictions is my fundamental form of life—it's not something I find or have ever found negative. Certainly it can be uncomfortable, also very irritating; it can make you doubt yourself; only it's not shattering or fatal when it's a question of contradictions that move each other toward solutions. It now seems to me that there are fewer and fewer productive contradictions and that the number of unlivable alternatives is increasing. That's precisely the source of so many people's tension, that they feel they've gotten into a corner.7

For to admit only the public self is to assent to a living death, ‘the bliss of conformity … when Bruno Jordan (Nelly's father) … opted, as a social being, for the thousands and against himself.’ When the responsibility of interrogative and self-conscious witness is declined, the self is, to an extent, killed by being reduced to an object constituted by public discourse alone.

There is a moment in A Model Childhood when the narrator's daughter, in present-day Germany, is shown a photograph of a Vietnamese atrocity:

Lenka is a child of this century. She knows about murderers and isn't interested in what makes them tick. What does a person feel who photographs murderers in the course of their assignments, instead of trying to prevent the murders: that's what she'd like to know. Nothing, you say. Probably nothing.

What beasts, says Lenka. She can't look for long at pictures or documentaries showing torture or death scenes, or would-be suicides on the edges of skyscraper roofs. She always thinks of the man behind the camera who is taking pictures instead of helping. She rejects the common division of roles: the one who must die, the one who will be the cause of the death, but the third person stands by and records what the second does to the first.

Represented here is the eternal tableau: the victim, the oppressor and, perhaps the worst of all, the inauthentic and collusive witness. Can those who reduce others and history itself to objects afford to do this to themselves? The interrogation, quoted above, of the first-person in relation to Auschwitz, is partially answered at a later stage when the young Nelly meets a concentration-camp survivor and finds that like her ‘he was unable to laugh. That was the first minute point of contact between them.’ Neither victims nor their oppressors must become simply objects. The point of contact which is only the beginning in the earlier book is extended in the later Cassandra:

It appears that—since when did this happen exactly?—I can no longer view Cassandra as a tragic figure. I do not think she saw herself that way. Does her contemporaneity lie in the way she learns to deal with pain? So, is pain the point at which I assimilate her, a particular kind of pain, the pain of becoming a knowing subject?

Unlike Nelly in A Model Childhood whose story is told in the third person, Cassandra narrates her own story, is the subject of her own history. In this instance the first-person carries connotations of a death-bed confession, for the pilgrimage which frames her story is towards her own death. What escapes this deterministic scheme is her warning. As she moves inexorably towards her own extinction she analyses retrospectively the process of mass extinction: war, the paradigmatic war in Western culture between Greece and Troy. It is that war upon which all subsequent myths of heroism, which ensure the perpetuation of war, are founded. What better place to begin to dismantle the mentality of war in the face of annihilation, both Cassandra's own death and the possible one of the narrator-author in the four essays attached to the novel: ‘How can you teach younger people the technique of living without alternatives, and yet living? When did it begin? we ask. Was this course of events inevitable?’ At the same time that war itself is deconstructed, alternative models for living are suggested. In this case the alternative consists of an apparently old-fashioned feminism which celebrates so-called female values and seeks answers in female communities. But as with Wolf's humanism, which turns out not to be simply based on the unified liberal bourgeois subject, so here too the feminism is not that of the unproblematic essential female. Feminist values also are seen to be in-process.

What about the concept of models themselves?

A model is used for demonstration. To demonstrate is derived from the Latin ‘monstrum,’ which originally meant ‘showpiece,’ or ‘model,’ which suits you perfectly. But ‘monstrum’ can also become ‘monster’ in today's sense of the word.

(A Model Childhood)

Both exemplum and monster—the model life is of course monstrous. Nelly learns of her exemplary monstrosity in retrospect, as does Cassandra, the prophet whom no one believes. Cassandra is set apart in her special role of priestess and king's daughter from the beginning and, in a reverse journey from that of Nelly, rediscovers her links with the community, those unexemplary lives celebrated in another earlier book, The Quest for Christa T. The narrator of the four essays flanking the Cassandra story attempts to imagine not only the past but, as well, an unimaginable non-future: ‘We, the people of today, don't put anything past anybody. We think that anything is possible. This may be the most important difference between our era and the preceding ones.’ The danger and seduction of this future lies in the fact that it may be unimaginable.

Cassandra's discourse constructs the exemplary hero Achilles, the monster: ‘The naked hideous male gratification. If that exists, everything is possible.’ When he is not killing the young men physically he kills them psychically, through his ‘heroic’ example. Increasingly, his monstrous presence haunts the previously idyllic world of the Minoans.

Everything that we are unable to achieve was attributed to them: the ability to find meaning in their work; to integrate themselves into a social and religious community without an accompanying need to reduce themselves to an automatic level of functioning; to live without internal and external violence—an island of perfection.

No place on earth is safe now, however, not even Australia. Increasingly the Minoans learn from the Greeks how to be heroes, how to reduce others to non-human objects, exemplified by the growing division between the men and the women: ‘the men of both sides seemed to have joined forces against our women.’ The process began with the abduction of Helen, not her actual abduction because it is soon realised by both camps that Paris brought a phantom, an absence, but her abduction in the sense of her metamorphosis from human into eidolon:

The word ‘wraith’ = ‘idol’ from the Greek eidolon = image. The woman is deprived of her living memory, and an image which others make of her is foisted upon her in its place: the hideous process of petrification, objectification, performed on living flesh. Now she is classed among the objects, among the res mancipi—like children, slaves, property, livestock—which their owner can turn over to someone else via the legal procedure of mancipatio.

Cassandra is forced, progressively, to see the men about her, former friends and brothers, retreating into Achilles’ model. Within Troy the palace guard Eumelos becomes the mirror image of Achilles and his men become like those modern men who work with nuclear weapons and fear ‘societal death more than uncertain physical death.’ The beginning of that process, illustrated by men turning women into objects, is briefly encountered in the earlier A Model Childhood in the compulsory medical examination of all the women (but not the men) by the occupying Soviet army. In the Cassandra essays the narrator observes the subservient behaviour of modern women towards men while speculating that Aeschylus was not really interested in Cassandra at all, merely in establishing father-right over mother-right.8

The alternative model emerges from the marginal world of the outcast and forgotten, mainly women, whom Cassandra encounters outside the palace walls. It is a world ruled by Cybele rather than the treacherous Apollo. In a parallel structure, the narrator of the four essays meets the emissaries of the goddess in the shape of two American feminists who seek traces of matriarchal civilisation in Crete. The forgotten ones know about each other and Cassandra learns from them to become a knowing subject, moving from the sweet temptations of privilege and conformity to the acknowledgement of oppression. Not that it becomes simply a matter of men versus women or the celebration of the eternal female. Among the women is the exemplum, the monster, Penthesilea the Amazon queen who imitates the male model. That option is encountered elsewhere in Wolf's writings, notably in her analysis of Büchner's female protagonists who aspire to be as good as men: ‘her entrance into the citadel subjects her to its laws!’9 Thus Penthesilea too chooses the laws of the citadel and death. Similarly, towards the end of the Cassandra essays, the narrator refers to another doomed woman subject, the writer Ingeborg Bachmann: ‘I claim that every woman in this century and in our culture sphere who has ventured into male-dominated institutions—“literature” and “aesthetics” are such institutions—must have experienced the desire for self-destruction.’ Wolf explores the difficult territory between women constructed by male culture and language (internalised by many women), and women as something else which escapes the unequal binary opposition of male: not-male. The alternative world, the utopia in the caves outside Troy, contains men also, Anchises and Aeneas, but not heroes, not even Penthesilea. Clytemnestra too is a woman who has succumbed to the laws of the citadel. Cassandra, although finally killed within the citadel, has first testified that there is more than the insanity of the citadel. This was her role, rather than being saved with Aeneas who, in spite of himself, became another war-renewing hero.

In the ‘conditions of a narrative,’ the enabling essays around the novel, the narrator seeks matriarchies but recognises at the same time that women cannot merely continue to be the custodians of the ‘good, everyday life.’ They must not take refuge in the femininity already constructed for them, the inverse of the citadel: ‘Autonomy is a task for everyone, and women who treat their femininity as a value they can fall back on act fundamentally as they were trained to act. They act to the challenge which reality poses to them as whole persons with a large-scale evasive maneuver.’ From being objects women must, painfully, become knowing and writing subjects. Where else will survival come from?

About reality. The insane fact that in all the ‘civilised’ industrialised nations, literature, if it is realistic, speaks a completely different language from any and all public disclosures. As if every country existed twice over. As if every resident existed twice over: once as himself and as the potential perceiver of an artistic presentation; second, as an object of statistics, publicity, agitation, advertisement, political propaganda.

As for turning things into objects: Isn't that the principal source of violence? The fetishizing of vital, contradictory people and processes, within public notifications, until they have rigidified into ready-made parts and stage scenery: dead themselves, killing others.

To what extent is there really such a thing as ‘women's writing’? To the extent that women, for historical and biological reasons, experience a different reality than men. Experience a different reality than men and express it. To the extent that women belong not to the rulers but to the ruled, and have done so for centuries. To the extent that they are the objects of objects, second-degree objects, frequently the objects of men who are themselves objects, and so, in terms of their social position, unqualified members of the subculture. To the extent that they stop wearing themselves out trying to integrate themselves into the prevailing delusional systems. To the extent that, writing and living, they aim at autonomy. In this case they encounter the men who aim at autonomy. Autonomous people, nations, and systems can promote each other's welfare; they do not have to fight each other like those whose inner insecurity and immaturity continually demand the demarcation of limits and postures of intimidation.



  1. Terry Eagleton, The Function of Criticism, (Verso, London), p. 123.

  2. B. Einhorn, ‘Socialist Emancipation: the Women's Movement in the German Democratic Republic,’ Women's Studies International Quarterly, 4/4, p. 449.

  3. The Reader and the Writer, p. 192.

  4. A Model Childhood, p. 334.

  5. The Reader and the Writer, p. 18.

  6. Christa Wolf, ‘Shall I Garnish a Metaphor with Almond Blossom?’ Büchner Prize Acceptance Speech, New German Critique, 23, p. 10.

  7. Christa Wolf, ‘Culture is What you Experience: An Interview with Christa Wolf,’ New German Critique, 27, p. 93.

  8. Robert Fagles argues a similar case in the introductory essay to his translation of the Oresteia (Penguin, 1966/77).

  9. New German Critique, 23, p. 8.

Works Cited

A Model Childhood (Virago).

The Reader and the Writer: Essays, Sketches, Memories (International Publishers, New York, 1977).

No Place on Earth (Virago, hardback).

Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays (Virago).


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2227

Christa Wolf 1929-

German novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, and screenwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Wolf's career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 14, 29, and 58.

A highly respected East German literary figure during the Cold War, Wolf won international renown on both sides of the Iron Curtain as a politically committed artist and voice of moral conscience. Though tolerated by Communist authorities, Wolf probed the psychological difficulties of East German life, scrutinizing Germany's Nazi past, problems facing women in a male-dominated culture, and the estrangement of the individual under a rigid social order. In daring novels such as Nachdenken über Christa T. (1968; The Quest for Christa T.), Kindheitsmuster (1976; A Model Childhood), and Kassandra (1983; Cassandra), Wolf broke with state-sanctioned literary modes to present highly subjective accounts of repression and alienation, particularly as experienced by women, winning universal appeal and attracting the interest of Western feminists. However, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and subsequent revelations that Wolf had briefly worked for Stasi, the East German secret police, she suddenly became a lightning rod for controversy; consequently, her reputation has suffered as critics question the moral—if not the literary—merit of her work.

Biographical Information

Wolf was born Christa Ihlenfeld in Landsberg an der Warthe, Germany (now Gorzow Wielkopolski, Poland), the daughter of a salesman. A teenager during the Second World War, she was a member of the Hitler Youth. In 1945 her family fled from the advancing Soviet army to the Mecklenburg area, in what would later become East Germany. Four years later, enthralled by the utopian promise of Marxism, Wolf joined the Socialist Unity party. She also began studying German literature at universities in Jena and Leipzig. In 1951 she married essayist Gerhard Wolf. After earning her degree in 1953, she began working as a researcher for the East German Writers' Union. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Wolf held various editorial positions, including one with the literary journal Neue Deutsche Literatur. For a time, she also worked in a boxcar factory. In 1961 she published her first book, Moskauer Novelle (Moscow Novella), and the following year began writing full-time. Two years later she published Der geteilte Himmel (1963; Divided Heaven), for which she won East Germany's prestigious Heinrich Man Prize for literature. Divided Heaven also won great praise in West Germany—a rare achievement for an East German writer. During the next several years, she completed a book of essays, Lesen und Schreiben (1972; The Reader and the Writer); a film script, Till Eulenspiegel (1973), written with her husband; and a book of short stories, Unter den Linden (1974; Under the Linden). In 1974 Wolf traveled to the United States as the Max-Kade German Writer-in-Residence at Oberlin College, Ohio. In 1976 she signed an open letter protesting the East German government's mistreatment of writer Wolf Biermann, an action that resulted in her dismissal from the executive committee of the East German Writers' Union. The following year she was made a member of the German Academy for Language and Literature, a West German body. In 1979 she published a book of essays, Fortgesetzter Versuch, and the experimental novel Kein ort. Nirgends (No Place on Earth). She traveled to Greece in 1981, an experience that provided inspiration and material for the novel Cassandra, published two years later.

During the remainder of the 1980s, Wolf continued to collect honors. She won West Germany's most prestigious literary award, the Georg Büchner Prize, in 1980, was named a member of the European Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1984, became an honorary fellow of the Modern Language Association in 1985, and won East Germany's National Prize of the First Class for her novel Störfall (1987; Accidents: A Day's News). She also published a collection of essays, Die Dimension des Autors (1987; The Author's Dimension), and another novel, Sömmerstuck (1989). With the reunification of Germany—an event Wolf ardently opposed—the path of Wolf's career took a sudden turn. Soon after the Berlin Wall fell, Wolf published Was bleibt (1990; What Remains), a collection whose title story embroiled the author in a heated public controversy over her role in the former East Germany. The controversy soon erupted into a complete reappraisal of Wolf's entire catalog, intensified in 1993 after Wolf admitted that she had briefly worked for Stasi. Though shaken by an onslaught of ad hominem attacks in the popular press, and even relocating to California for a time, Wolf responded to charges against her in works such as Auf dem Weg nach Tabou (1994; Parting from Phantoms), a collection of essays tracing her development as a writer, and Medea (1996), a revision of Greek mythology.

Major Works

Although Wolf's essays and short stories constitute an important part of her work, her literary reputation rests squarely with her novels, in which she elaborates upon the central moral and social themes that have preoccupied her throughout her career. Divided Heaven is narrated by Rita, a woman recovering from a recent, unspecified accident, who recounts the story of a failed love affair. Rita is an idealistic young education student from the country who firmly believes in the promise of socialism. Her lover, however, is a cynical urbanite who flees to West Germany to advance his career, assuming that Rita will follow. She chooses not to, and then suffers her “accident”—interpreted in the West as a suicide attempt (a taboo subject in East German literature) and an indictment of the East German state. In contrast, Rita's allegiance to the East was viewed by East German critics as a vindication of the state. Using the 1961 construction of the Berlin Wall as a backdrop for Rita's narration, Wolf imbues the novel's themes of division and separation with political urgency. The Quest for Christa T. is narrated by an unnamed young woman whose friend Christa T., a failed writer, has just died of leukemia. While combing through Christa's papers in an effort to make sense of her friend's life, the narrator discovers that Christa felt completely estranged from society and believed that, as a result, her literary pursuits were futile. Frustrated, Christa became a housewife, but found no refuge in what she felt was a banal existence. Ultimately, the narrator discovers that Christa's difficulty involved finding an appropriate way to be an individual—an “I”—in a society in which the collective “we” is all important. A Model Childhood is a largely autobiographical novel in which Wolf confronts her own—and Germany's—Nazi past. The heart of the narrative concerns the visit of a woman named Nelly to the town in which she grew up. During the course of the visit Nelly tells her daughter, Lenka, about daily life under Nazi rule and how ordinary people gradually acquiesced to Nazi brutality through self-absorption and political indifference. In this way Wolf emphasizes the importance of the individual's responsibility to remain engaged in society.

Wolf's next novel, No Place on Earth, was a radical departure from her previous works. Forsaking any semblance of realism, socialist or otherwise, she wrote of a fictional meeting of two nineteenth-century Romantic writers, poet Karoline von Günderrode and playwright Heinrich von Kleist—both of whom committed suicide. The two share their idealistic dreams of an artists' utopia, but also their sense of alienation from society—feelings shared by Christa T. in Wolf's earlier novel. Written immediately after Wolf's dismissal from the executive committee of the Writers' Union, the frustrations expressed in this novel also reflect Wolf's own. Wolf revisited the themes of social responsibility and frustrated isolation in her next novel, Cassandra, also one of her most overtly feminist works. Wolf's reinterpretation of the Greek myth begins with the shunned prophetess Cassandra in a Greek prison, recounting her part in the last disastrous days of the Trojan war. Wolf casts Cassandra as a lone voice of reason pitted against the arrogant Trojan military elite, who are too sure of their own power to heed her dire warnings. Wolf's mistrust of entrenched power also pervades Accident, a novel that relates the events of a single day in the life of its female narrator—a day during which her beloved brother undergoes surgery to remove a brain tumor and during which an accident occurs at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine, a mere thousand miles away from the narrator's home. The narrator's simple account of her day's activities—gardening, listening to the radio, walking to the post office—take on apocalyptic significance as she alternately yearns for good news about her brother's health and fears catastrophic news about the nuclear accident. While highlighting the obvious hazards of nuclear technology, the novel warns against blind faith in technology in general, which Wolf views as a serious affliction of modern civilization. Wolf returned to Greek mythology in Medea, her first novel following her public condemnation during the early 1990s. The novel rehabilitates Medea, who in the best-known version of the mythic story was a sorceress who murdered her own children as a means of taking revenge on her unfaithful husband. Wolf's version—told in eleven monologues delivered by six characters—is a complex tale of palace intrigue and political conspiracy in which Medea is innocent—her children were murdered by political rivals—yet she is powerless to clear her name and thus remains at the mercy of her corrupt enemies. Suggestive of Wolf's own vilification in the press, the novel is a meditation on the dangers of power and the elusive nature of truth.

Critical Reception

Before the controversy of the early 1990s, critical assessment of Wolf and her work was overwhelmingly positive. She was regarded as a preeminent East German writer, as well as one of the finest postwar European writers, for her utopian ideals and penetrating critiques of postwar Germany, its patriarchal conceptions of truth and identity, and the alienation of modern techno-industrial life. While her complex narratives, replete with multilayered authorial perspectives and explorations of subjectivity, attracted notice for their postmodern quality, her vivid evocations of conflicted female self-identity and psychological crisis won the admiration of feminist scholars. Her critical reputation, especially as supported by Divided Heaven,The Quest for Christa T.,A Model Childhood, and Cassandra, extended to both sides of the ideological divide between communism and capitalism. In East Germany, however, her acclaim came somewhat grudgingly. Officially she was recognized as a masterful writer, but her sometimes harsh criticism of life in East Germany meant that her acceptance was always tentative. Only Wolf's obvious devotion to socialist ideals kept her from facing official sanctions and total censorship. Her critical acceptance in West Germany was much more solid, with critics on the right commending her for admonishing the East German government, and critics on the left admiring her for standing up to a totalitarian regime while retaining her socialist ideals. In the eyes of many, Wolf was the ideal dissident writer. Moreover, she was seen in the West as a person of great moral authority who was willing to deal with difficult political and social issues in an honest manner, with the goal of improving the quality of human life.

All of this changed, however, with the fall of East Germany and Wolf's 1990 publication of “What Remains,” a story originally written in 1979 in which Wolf chronicles the slow, grinding horror of a day in the life of a writer under Stasi surveillance. Critics writing for conservative German newspapers considered the delayed publication an act of cowardice, contending that Wolf should have published the story in 1979, when it may have served a political purpose. Likewise, critics on the left considered Wolf's failure to publish the story sooner a betrayal of her dissident standing. Critics on both sides agreed that Wolf's actions were a dishonest attempt to portray herself as a political victim, and soon they were questioning whether she had ever been anything but a puppet of the East German state. Wolf's vaunted moral authority was thus undermined, and she was called on to atone for her misdeeds. The revelation three years later that Wolf had been an informer for Stasi between 1959 and 1962 further reinforced all the worst opinions. Wolf, however, was never without supporters, including Nobel laureate Günter Grass, who noted that Wolf's collaboration was essentially trivial, especially when viewed in contrast with extensive Stasi files outlining a decades-long campaign against her. Furthermore, though Wolf was the focus of the critical attacks, she was not the only East German writer to undergo harsh scrutiny in the early 1990s. Indeed, what came to be known as the “Wolf Case” was nothing short of a complete reappraisal of East German literature, a critical project of paramount importance in a Germany still very self-conscious of its recent reunification. In fact, some of Wolf's supporters claimed that the attacks on her were an effort on the part of German conservatives to strip the last traces of relevance from East German socialism, which they considered a threat. While the difficult cultural merging of the former East Germany and West Germany slowly proceeds, Wolf's place in contemporary German literature remains uncertain. As critics repeatedly note, any discussion of East German literature must take politics into account, especially in the case of Wolf, whose complex artistic and political commitments are inextricably connected. Yet none but the most vituperative of Wolf's critics has suggested that her purely literary gifts—her prose, her narrative technique, her subtle treatment of profound themes—are anything less than impressive.

Linda Schelbitzki Pickle (essay date Spring 1987)

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SOURCE: “Christa Wolf's Cassandra: Parallels to Feminism in the West,” in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, Spring, 1987, pp. 149–57.

[In the following essay, Pickle examines Wolf's feminist perspective in Cassandra and notes both similarities and differences between Wolf and feminist writers in the West.]

In the workbook-diary she kept while writing her novel Cassandra, the East German writer Christa Wolf called the tale a “roman à clef” (264).1 What is encoded in this work? Cassandra, the scorned prophetess, is stripped of the tragic, mythic elements associated with her in the Western cultural tradition. She appears as a fully rounded figure in an historical and personal setting that seems realistic to the reader. But she is also representative of the modern writer: a truth-sayer, engaged to the moment of her death in a search for (self-)knowledge and the realization of her autonomy as an individual. It is no accident that Wolf chose this figure from a preliterary age to represent her model of the writer. Cassandra's gender as well as her lack of status are important, for in her novel Wolf seeks a revision of myth and history, a revision that reflects the experience of the powerless and the previously voiceless. Therefore, Cassandra's personal experiences and the changes her society undergoes are examples of the beginning of the process that dehumanized women in Western culture. Wolf believes that this process is the root of the exploitation, self-alienation, and lovelessness typical of Western culture that find their most horrific expression in the contemporary nuclear confrontation. The devastation and moral bankruptcy of the Trojan war are also emblematic for this. Finally, Cassandra's narrative itself, a long interior monologue, is an example of a way of writing that Wolf believes can break out of the authoritarian, hierarchical literary tradition that has accompanied and helped shape the destructive process of self-alienation in our culture. Such topics and concerns are generally taboo in the literary and political environment of her homeland. But Wolf's encoded text shows many parallels to works by feminist writers outside the borders of her country, and this is worth examining in more detail for what it may tell us about both Wolf's work and feminist writing.

On the first page of the novel, Wolf reveals a desire to connect her present work to a female literary tradition, a desire she shares with other twentieth-century women writers.2 She does this by beginning the novel with a quotation from Sappho, the first identifiable woman writer in the West. Later, she has the community of women outside the walls of Troy fashion inarticulate messages to people of later times: handprints and pictures pressed into the walls of their caves (133). Cassandra wishes briefly that she could establish a “tiny rivulet” of a female oral tradition next to “the river of heroic songs” (81). As the essays accompanying the novel also make clear, Wolf believes that even before Sappho, women expressed their experience in nonliterary ways. She writes of Minoan female clay figures as being part of this tradition (194, 197), and calls Cassandra the “first professional working woman in literature” (176). Wolf also discusses the chain of women's literature that is important to her and her work: Sappho (296), Marie-Luise Fleisser (232), Virginia Woolf (262), Ingeborg (300–01). In the works of these and other women she seeks a literary tradition and answers to the problem of women's alienation from the dominant (male) literary tradition.3

The first pages of Wolf's novel also contain a theme which, she seems to imply, is typical of women's writing. Sappho's lines on the bittersweet experience of that “untamable dusky animal,” “limb-loosing love,” introduce the tone of subjectivity that marks Cassandra's narrative. The same tone is heard in the voice of the narrator/author who, in the short initial paragraph, envisions the captive Cassandra before the lion gates of Mycenae. Then there follows a transitional statement in which the “I” of the narrator/author opens the way for the voice of Cassandra to speak through her: “Keeping step with the story, I make my way into death” (3). Cassandra, too, speaks of death in her first lines: of her own, of its inevitability, and yet of her reluctance to hasten it with suicide, for she wishes to live on “in order to see” (4), to understand until the end (5). The question she seeks to answer: “Why did I want the gift of prophecy, come what may?” Her answer: “To speak with my voice: the ultimate” (4). The connection between the prophetess and the (contemporary) writer is established. Both seek to know and speak the truth about themselves and reality, and subjectivity is both the means to and the expression of that truth. Like other contemporary women writers (one thinks of Adrienne Rich, Margaret Atwood, Monique Wittig, Kate Millett, Nathalie Sarraute), Wolf asserts that a subjective apprehension of reality reveals more about its truth than an arid abstract rationalism (225–26, 244, 287).4 Yet she also warns against rejecting “the achievements of rational thought, simply because men produced them,” and against replacing the destructive immaturity of “a masculinity mania” with a corresponding “femininity mania” (260). Rather, all human beings have the need for developing their autonomy through “rational models of the resolution of conflict, and thus also for confrontation and cooperation with people of dissident opinions, and, it goes without saying, people of different sex” (260).

Cassandra's search for self-knowledge, the assertion of herself as subject, and the process of resisting the alienation from the self typical of her times are the most important themes of the novel. They are also elements common in many modern feminist writings. Simone de Beauvoir's study of The Second Sex is perhaps the most famous analysis of woman-made-object.5 Annette Kolodny has identified “the fear of being fixed in false image or trapped in unauthentic roles” as one of the most pervasive themes in contemporary fiction by women (83).6 Certainly Wolf's Cassandra also exemplifies this. She rejects the usual role of wife and mother and chooses the dignity and power of the office of priestess, for “how else could a woman hold a position of power?” (26). But she must then resolve the conflict between the role expected of her as a member of the royal family and her need to speak the truth as she sees it. The resulting inner tension causes her prophesies to erupt from her in epileptic-like fits that others find easy to interpret as madness (38–39, 59–60, 68–69). Then she must also combat that onus, for madness is one tag attached to “women whose lives no longer serve a function for men” (Carruthers 283).7

Some contemporary women writers regard patriarchal culture as the cause of such destructive self-alienation. Adrienne Rich has written: “And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society” (“When We Dead Awaken” 35). Although Wolf agrees that the limitations placed on women's development is “the weak point of [Western] culture, which leads to its becoming self-destructive” (260), she is perhaps less inclusive in her blame-laying than some feminist writers in the West. In Cassandra, for example, not all of the Trojan men become caught up in the vainglorious, power-hungry behavior called forth by the Greek model.8 Aeneas and his father Anchises are welcome members of the female community outside the city wall. And these women pity as well as fear their men, whom the spirit of the times reduces “to the level of butchers” (118). Nor does Wolf associate gender per se with the destructiveness of self-alienation. For example, she portrays Penthesilea, the man-hating Amazon, sympathetically but also critically (107, 117–19). Cassandra sees that Clytemnaestra has bought into the destructive male game of power and so “her house, too, will fall” (42). Men as well as women are the victims of a desire for power and glory, but the former have the additional burden of self-delusion (Priam and Paris in particular).

Cassandra gains support in her search for autonomy through the community of women that forms as a spontaneous reaction to their growing powerlessness in Trojan society. This subculture predates the war itself and stems from the exiling of the old female gods from Troy. Among these women, Cassandra finally gains a sense of belonging fully to herself and to a group: “There at last I had my ‘we’” (124). All are welcome, men as well as women, who recognize what the Greeks and, increasingly, the Trojans do not: “Between killing and dying is a third alternative: living” (138). Men wounded in body and spirit by the war come to them (132) as do female slaves from the Greek camp (109) and the scattered defeated Amazons (119). The women live in caves above the Scamander River, caves where roots hang in the entrance “like the pubic hair of a woman” (19) and ancient carvings of female deities stand (123). It is here that Cassandra learns to know and be close to others, and it is through the love and understanding of women that she breaks through her isolation and alienation. Indeed, much of the richness of Wolf's novel derives from the reader's witnessing Cassandra's developing understanding of and sympathy for the women around her: Penthesilea, her sister Polyxena, her mother Hecuba, and her servant Marpessa, among others. This aspect of plot and character development in Cassandra links it to works by Western feminist writers in which the theme of female friendship and mutual support as reality and as an ideal is important.

The concept of a separate female culture is also present in some feminist writings.9 And speculation about matriarchal prehistorical cultures is not unusual.10 But in spite of the pre-eminence of women in the alternate subculture she imagines in Cassandra, Wolf would not seem to agree with writers who assert or imply that women must live totally separately from men in order to attain autonomy.11 Rather, the ideas expressed in her work link her to writers like Marge Piercy (Woman on the Edge of Time), Doris Lessing (Shikasta) and Ursula Le Guin (The Dispossessed). In all of these works, as in Cassandra, women and men in situations of material scarcity or insecurity form societies marked by mutual respect and affection. The women in the caves outside Troy are dimly aware of the significance of their lives as a “gap in time” that must be used (124), and they attempt to communicate this significance to those who would come after them (132–33). Wolf's novel is the literary recreation of the message such a society might have wanted to communicate and of the individual who, like Cassandra, would have found self-realization within it.

On the evidence of such elements of its content, but also in its intention, it becomes clear that Cassandra is a utopian work. As such, it is part of an important branch of women's writing. Anne Mellor's study of feminist utopias is helpful in this context. In her analysis of such works, Mellor declares that “utopian thinking is inherently critical and prophetic” (241). By “prophetic,” Mellor means the presentation of reliable alternate worlds—an entirely appropriate function for the legendary Cassandra, of course. Critical utopias, in Ernst Bloch's sense (Das Prinzip Hoffnung), have “a practical social purpose” (Mellor 242). Cassandra belongs to writing of this sort, for it “define[s] a moral vision, set either in the future or the past, that functions implicitly as a critique of present society,” and it “offer[s] some suggestions as to how [its] utopian vision might be achieved within history” (Mellor 242). Even without the background material of the Cassandra-essays, the utopian implications of Wolf's novel reveal themselves in the depiction of the devastation wrought on Trojan society and culture by the war and of the healing power of the loving community formed outside its perimeters by the women. Wolf's essays make her intention even clearer. She reflects on speculations that Minoan culture (which has been associated with the Trojan culture of Cassandra's era) was one of utopian equality between women and men (200, 205), imagines that Cassandra may have lived at a time when the dominant Mediterranean culture of peaceful, trade-oriented Crete was succumbing to the disruptive pressure of the warlike Achaean robber-princes (247), and finally envisions a Troy that is “a model for a kind of utopia” (224).

The Cassandra-essays also make clear that the kind of utopia Wolf has in mind is of the critical variety. It is not merely a literary construct, but “provide[s] materials for the political imagination” (Stimpson 276). The destructive split of the human entity into body, soul, and mind (230), the assigning of male and female qualities to all elements of experience (and the concomitant devaluation of everything associated with femininity—223), above all the over-emphasis on (male) hierarchical rationality in viewing reality (244, 257, 283–84), have led inexorably to the destructive alienation of the contemporary world. The environment is ravished by short-term exploitation (216), impersonal power structures dehumanize the individual (259), and the destruction of Europe looms on the horizon (228–30, 239–40, 250).12 The solution is that a new perception and expression of the world must be developed, one that acknowledges the complexity of life and the value of the subjective “female” elements in it and one that therefore can heal the alienation of the individual. This would have a cumulative healing effect: “Autonomous people, nations, and systems can promote each other's welfare; they do not have to fight each other like those whose inner insecurity and immaturity continually demand the demarcation of limits and postures of intimidation” (259). This is at best a tenuous solution, one that has no guarantee of success. Cassandra, Wolf's model in attaining the individual autonomy necessary for this open view of the world, does not survive the destructive forces around her, after all. And Wolf herself is only too aware of the temptation to give up the hope of changing things that is her motivation for writing: “At night the madness goes for my throat” (240).

This hope of effecting social, political, and cultural change through literature is essentially utopian. It is the basis for the new way of writing that Wolf advocates.13 Like other contemporary women writers, Wolf claims that traditional (male) aesthetic models are inappropriate, for they do not allow those who have been traditionally powerless and voiceless to express their experience of existence: “I claim that every woman in this century and in our culture sphere who has ventured into male-dominated institutions—‘literature,’ ‘aesthetics’ are such institutions—must have experienced the desire for self-destruction” (299). Any rigid system of aesthetics is alienating, for it has been “invented not so much to enable us to get closer to reality as for the purpose of warding it off, of protecting against it” (300). The very structure of the male-developed epic supports and perpetuates the heroic patriarchal tradition that allows woman only to be an “object of masculine narration” (297). In general, Wolf asserts, the Western literary tradition has impoverished the potential for understanding and expressing the complexity of human experience by its emphasis on linear plot development, by favoring dualistic and monistic thinking, and by evolving closed images of the world and systems: “the renunciation of subjectivity in favor of a sealed ‘objectivity’” (287). Such criticism if very close to that voiced by Hélène Cixous, for example, when she writes of “the phallocentric tradition” (The Laugh of the Medusa” 879) and “hierarchized” phallocentrism (“Sorties”), by which she means the antagonistic, dualistic separation of all experience into activity (male) and passivity (female). She, like Wolf, advocates the recognition and even the celebration of difference and of multiplicity of experience and expression (“Sorties”).14

Wolf herself refuses to pose a new aesthetic system and instead claims to have no theory of poetry: “There is and there can be no poetics which prevents the living experience of countless perceiving subjects from being killed and buried in art-objects” (142). What she offers instead is a model for writing that combats “the sinister effects of alienation, in aesthetics, in art, as well as elsewhere” (142). Cassandra's narrative is an example of this. It is nonlinear in structure, a “narrative network” (262), as Wolf terms it.15 There is no authoritarian, analytical narrator who intrudes with “self-satisfied, complacent, know-all condescendingness.”16 Rather, Wolf gives Cassandra her voice, a voice “from below” (271), that allows the expression of hitherto silent experience, the everyday experience of the powerless, the voiceless, the forgotten.17

Cassandra's narrative is not only an example of the subject matter and “open” narrative style that Wolf advocates. Her depiction of Cassandra is also an extended exercise in the same process of (self)-actualization in which her protagonist is engaged. She wishes to “scratch off the male tradition” that adheres to Cassandra (“Documentation” 100) and “to lead her out of myth into the (imagined) social and historic coordinates” (111). It seems to me that she succeeds in this admirably.18 At the same time, she fulfills her aims as a writer of nonauthoritarian texts. Cassandra exemplifies the “revision” (Rich) of history, of literature, and of women's experience that so many feminist writers and critics have called for. Wolf herself said that her work on the Cassandra material altered her way of looking at things (“viewing lens”/“Seh-Raster”) as nothing had since her first readings of Marx thirty years before (278).

It is understandable that the literary and political establishment in the German Democratic Republic has viewed Wolf with distrust and sometimes antagonism. Her concept of a “real, existing utopia without which every reality is unlivable for human beings” (“Berührung,” Lesen und Schreiben 209), a concept that she finds necessary for her writing, is potentially subversive in a land that constantly exhorts its citizens to be content with “real existing socialism” (i.e., the status quo). Party-liners have not greeted her criticism of bellicosity in both East and West favorably. Nor have they approved of her locating the Western cultural tendency to devalue and deny the attitudes and modes of expression of the powerless, especially of women, in her own land as well as in capitalist societies. By asserting a need for a female mode of writing, Wolf criticizes not only the Western “bourgeois” literary tradition. She also challenges the much-vaunted claims of sexual equality in the CDR, specifically in its male-dominated literary establishment, but also in the society as a whole.19 It is a courageous stance for a writer in a socialist land to take, and one that she can afford only because of the international acclaim her works have earned.

It would be presumptuous to claim that Wolf is now a feminist rather than a socialist writer. She herself rejects the label “feminist” because of the negative connotations this word has in German cultural history.20 It is interesting that in the fourth Cassandra essay (273) she lists Woolf's A Room of One's Own, Irigaray's This Sex Which Is Not One, and Cixous’ Womanhood in Letters among the books she is reading as she writes the novel, but she does not list these works in the bibliography appended to the German edition of the essays. It seems that Wolf is reluctant to associate herself even so indirectly with such writers, although she obviously confronts their ideas in her Cassandra-essays. Certainly her works do not display every concern of Western feminism. For example, Wolf does not view lesbianism as an answer to gender oppression or as “a laboratory in which to create a new expression” (Carruthers 301). Nor does Wolf assert the need for a new female language, although she recognizes the difficulty for women to write in a language used so long to exclude and objectify them (305). She also does not speak of the need for women to “write their bodies,” to create an idiom that reflects women's specific sexuality.21 But Wolf shares several of the most basic concerns of Western feminist writers: the exploration of the connection between the oppression of women and the alienation and self-destructive qualities of contemporary society, an accompanying revision of traditional conceptions of myth and history, and the belief that such a revision, mediated through literature, can change human society. Wolf's growing consciousness of herself as a woman writer has strengthened the parallels between her work and that of avowed feminist writers. This development in the work of a committed socialist writer illuminates the extent to which feminist and socialist thought share concerns and arrive at solutions in common. For readers in the West, this may be one of the more interesting messages hidden in Wolf's roman à clef.


  1. All page citations refer to Jan van Heurck's one-volume translation of the novel Kassandra and the essays that appeared simultaneously in German: Voraussetzungen einer Erzählung: Kassandra (Darmstadt/Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1983).

  2. Virginia Woolf regretted the shortness of this tradition in A Room of One's Own (132–35), for example. Adrienne Rich also writes of her struggle to reappropriate that tradition in “Blood, Bread and Poetry” (528).

  3. See Wolf's novel No Place on Earth. (Kein ort. Nirgends) (1979) about the forgotten Romantic poet Karoline vbon Günderode and her essays on Günderode and Bettina von Arnim (found in Lesen und Schreiben: Neue Sammlung, 225–83 and 284–318).

  4. Feminist critics have recognized the importance of subjectivity for women writers as well. See Donovan (344–46), Cixous (“Sorties,” “Laugh of the Medusa” 879).

  5. See especially her introduction, vvi, xix, xxix. Nancy K. Miller shows that some female authors refuse to give their heroines “happy endings” because they recognize the inappropriateness of the traditional (male) view of women's fulfillment in love (46).

  6. Kolodny's essay, as well as those by Donovan and Carruthers, give many examples of this. Works as different as Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1972), Margaret Atwood's Surfacing (1972), and Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982) come to mind in this context.

  7. For related discussions on the subject of women and madness, see Marguarite Duras (176), Christiane Rochefort (184–85), and Gilbert and Gubar (43, 51, 68–69, 77–78).

  8. Several feminist writers have asserted a connection between the male drive for power and men's absorption with heroic behavior: Leclerc (86), Cixous (“The Laugh of the Medusa” 887–89), Woolf (65–66).

  9. The subculture outside the walls of Troy is like a concrete representation of the “wild zone” of women's experience that Elaine Showalter discusses in her excellent study (30–31).

  10. See Elizabeth Gould Davis’ discussion of prehistorical matriarchies in The First Sex (New York: Putnam, 1971), 33–96.

  11. Pertinent works are Monique Wittig's Les Guerillères, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, Suzy McKee Charnas’ Walk to the End of the World,Motherlines, and The Vampire Tapestry, and Sally Gearhart's The Wanderground.

  12. These are concerns that many feminist writers also associate with the treating of women as objects; for example, Rich (“Blood, Bread and Poetry” 540) and d'Eaubonne (67).

  13. Mellor states: “Feminist theory is inherently utopian” (243).

  14. Cixous writes in “Sorties” of an all-inclusive androgynous text which she terms “pederastic femininity,” that “bombards and disintegrates these ephemeral amorous singularities so that they may recompose themselves in other bodies for new passions …” (98)

  15. One is reminded of comments by Woolf and Dorothy Richardson that indicate that they believed that the form of interior monologue might be most appropriate to a “female consciousness” (cited in Donovan 344).

  16. Dorothy Richardson, Forward to 1938 edition of Pilgrimage, quoted in Donovan (343). Richardson was thinking of James and Conrad in particular.

  17. Wolf has long been conscious of the restrictions narrative technique can place on truthful literary expression. This is a central concern of The Quest for Christa T. (1970). Myra Love's excellent study also connects Wolf's narrative style and feminist writing.

  18. See this writer's forthcoming article in Contemporary Literature: “‘Scratching off the Male Tradition’: Christa Wolf's Cassandra.

  19. For example, cultural functionary Wilhelm Girnus wrote a vicious attack on the last of Wolf's Cassandra essays for its “unscholarliness” and for representing a bourgeois rather than a Marxist-Leninist view of history and women's role in it.

  20. This writer asked Wolf at a reading in 1982 in Mainz, West Germany, if calling her a feminist is justified. She emphatically replied “No!” and explained this by saying that she “doesn't hate men.”

  21. French feminism has been most vocal in this regard. See Cixous (“The Laugh of the Medusa” 886), Irigaray (103), and the section “Creations” in New French Feminisms (160–86).

Works Cited

Carruthers, Mary. “Imagining Women: Notes Towards a Feminist Poetic.” Massachusetts Review 20 (1979): 281–307.

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs 1 (1976): 875–93.

———. “Sorties.” Excerpted in New French Feminisms, 90–98.

d'Eaubonne, Françoise. Le fémininisme ou la mort. Excerpted in New French Feminisms, 64–67.

de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Trans, and ed. H. M. Parshley. New York: Knopf, 1964.

Donovan, Josephine. “Feminist Style Criticism.” In Images of Women in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives. Ed. Susan Koppelman. Cornillon/Bowling Green: Bowling Green Univ. Press, 1972, 341–53.

Duras, Marguarite. “Interview.” Signs 1 (1975): 423–34.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Gubar, Susan. The Madwoman in the Attic. New Haven/London: Yale Univ. Press, 1979.

Girnus, Wilhelm. “Wer baute das siebentorige Theben?” Sinn und Form 35 (1983): 439–47.

Irigaray, Luce. Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un. Excerpted in New French Feminisms, 99–110.

Kolodny, Annette. “Some Notes on Defining a ‘Feminist Literary Criticism.’” Critical Inquiry 2 (1975): 75–92.

Leelere, Annie. Parole de femme. Excerpted in New French Feminisms, 79–86.

Love, Myra. “Christa Wolf and Feminism: Breaking the Patriarchal Connection.” New German Critique 16 (1979): 31–53.

Mellor, Anne K. “On Feminist Utopias.” Women's Studies 9 (1982): 241–62.

Miller, Nancy K. “Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women's Fiction.” PMLA 96 (1981): 36–48.

New French Feminisms. Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1980.

Rich, Adrienne. “Blood, Bread and Poetry: The Location of the Poet.” Massachusetts Review 24 (1983): 521–40.

———. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.” In On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. New York/London: Norton, 1979, 33–49.

Rochefort, Christiane. “Are Women Writers Still Monsters?” In New French Feminisms, 183–86.

Showalter, Elaine. “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness.” In Writing and Sexual Difference. Ed. Elizabeth Abel. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1982, 9–36.

Wolf, Christa. Cassandra. Trans. Jan van Heurck. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984.

———. “Documentation.” German Quarterly 57 (1984): 91–115.

———. Lesen und Schreiben: Neue Sammlung. Darmastadt/Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1980.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1929.

Principal Works

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Moskauer Novelle [Moscow Novella] (novella) 1961

Der geteilte Himmel [Divided Heaven: A Novel of Germany Today] (novel) 1963

Nachdenken über Christa T. [The Quest for Christa T.] (novel) 1968

*Lesen und Schreiben: Aufsätze und Betrachtungen [The Reader and the Writer: Essays, Sketches, Memories] (essays) 1972

Till Eulenspiegel: Erzählung für den Film [with Gerhard Wolf] (screenplay) 1973

Unter den Linden: Drei unwahrscheinliche Geschichten [Under the Linden Tree: Three Improbable Stories] (short stories) 1974

Kindheitsmuster [A Model Childhood; also published as Patterns of Childhood] (novel) 1976

Fortgesetzter Versuch: Aufsätze, Gespräche, Essays (essays and interviews) 1979

Kein ort. Nirgends [No Place on Earth] (novel) 1979

Gesammelte Erzählungen (short stories) 1980

Kassandra: Vier Vorlesungen; eine Erzählung [Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays] (novel and essays) 1983

Voraussetzungen einer Erzählung: Kassandra [Conditions of a Narrative: Cassandra] (lectures) 1983

**Die Dimension des Autors: Essays und Aufsätze, Reden und Gespräche 1959–1986 (essays, speeches, and interviews) 1987

Störfall: Nachrichten eines Tages [Accident: A Day's News] (novel) 1987

Ansprachen (speeches and letters) 1988

Sommerstück (novel) 1989

Reden im Herbst (essays) 1990

Was bleibt: Erzählung [What Remains and Other Stories] (short stories) 1990

Sei Gegrusst und Lebe: Eine Freundschaft in Briefen, 1964–1973 (letters) 1993

Auf dem Weg nach Tabou: Texte 1990–1994 [Parting from Phantoms: Selected Writings, 1990–1994] (essays) 1994

Medea: Stimmen (novel) 1996

*Lesen und Schreiben: Aufsätze und Betrachtungen was later republished as Lesen und Schreiben: Aufsätze und Prosastücke.

**The interviews from Die Dimension des Autors were translated and republished as The Fourth Dimension: Interviews with Christa Wolf. The essays from the original collection were translated and republished as The Author's Dimension: Selected Essays.The Author's Dimension has also been published under the title The Writer's Dimension.

Anna K. Kuhn (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9378

SOURCE: “Introduction: Setting the Context,” in Christa Wolf's Utopian Vision: From Marxism to Feminism, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 1–19.

[In the following essay, Kuhn discusses Wolf's critical reception and provides an overview of her complex identity as an East German female writer, drawing attention to her interrelated political, feminist, literary, and personal perspectives.]

In the twenty-six years since her emergence as a writer of imaginative literature, Christa Wolf has become one of the leading figures of German letters and the foremost female voice of the German-speaking world. Inherently political, her writing is both subtle and subversive. As she has matured, her themes have become more complex and the problems she addresses broader. The increasing universality of her writing, the immediacy and compelling relevance of her most recent works have helped earn her the international reputation she enjoys today. The East German writer of the early 1960s has evolved into a writer of world stature in the eighties. Abandoning the Socialist Realism that had influenced her early works, Moscow Novella (1961) and Divided Heaven (1963), Christa Wolf established a distinctive style and set of concerns with The Quest for Christa T. (1968) and Patterns of Childhood (1976).

These novels were at first severely criticized in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) both for their complex experimental form and for their unorthodox subject matter. Christa T.'s claim to the right of individual self-fulfillment within the socialist collective and the narrator's need in Patterns of Childhood to come to terms with her Nazi past (from which the GDR totally dissociated itself) were considered taboo subjects. In the interim, the reception of Christa T. has changed radically—today the book is viewed as a classic, aimed at strengthening the socialist state through internal criticism.1 It remains to be seen whether Patterns of Childhood will enjoy a similar rehabilitation.

In 1976 the dissident poet Wolf Biermann was expatriated, abruptly ending a period of liberalization that had begun in 1971, when Erich Honecker lifted all taboos for truly committed socialist writers at the Eighth Party Congress. Perhaps the precarious political situation in the GDR following Biermann's expatriation prompted Wolf to camouflage her social criticism in historical subject matter. Set in 1804, No Place on Earth (1979) portrays the fictitious encounter between the Romantic poets Heinrich von Kleist and Karoline von Günderrode, whose alienation and unhappiness obviously parallel the experiences of some citizens of the GDR—including Wolf, for whom Biermann's exile and its aftermath precipitated a crisis. In her portrayal of these writers, both of whom committed suicide, Wolf treats the role of gender in their dilemmas and thus foreshadows concerns specifically addressed in Cassandra (1983).

Two trends are discernible in Wolf's work to date: a movement away from the present into the past in terms of subject matter, and an increasing concern with women's issues, particularly the role of the woman writer. These two trends converge in Wolf's feminist reinterpretation of the Cassandra story, in which Wolf moves into mythical times to continue her criticism of contemporary society.

The critical reception of Christa Wolf has been unique. No East German author has been as widely discussed by critics in both German states and in the United States. In the two Germanies, critics agree that Christa Wolf is a significant writer. With respect to particular works, however, the critical reception of Wolf in the Federal Republic has been almost the obverse of that in the German Democratic Republic. Molded by the Cold War politics of the fifties and early sixties, the ideological bias of most German criticism has led critics to praise or censure her works according to their opinion of the GDR and their perception of Christa Wolf's relationship to the socialist state. Critics in both countries, however, interpreted her first major work, Divided Heaven, in terms of the prevailing GDR aesthetic of Socialist Realism. This established a precedent that prevailed long after it ceased to be appropriate. The explicitly political theme of Divided Heaven predetermined the response to her later, less easily defined works. While noting the more personal tone of Wolf's second novel, The Quest for Christa T., most German critics in both countries continued to interpret it and its successor, Patterns of Childhood, preeminently in the political context of GDR literature.

The reception of Christa Wolf's work in the context of GDR society and politics has tended to obscure the extent to which Christa T. marks a turning point in her writing. Political interpretation of her middle works in particular, by understating the utopian dimension of her more subjective writing, has caused Wolf's latest works to appear as greater anomalies than they are. While No Place on Earth disrupts the overtly autobiographical mode of Wolf's earlier works, the novel develops themes that have played an important role in Wolf's writing since Christa T. Indeed, even Cassandra, which uses myth to criticize patriarchal values and to reevaluate the literary canon, sustains a continuity with her earlier works through its criticism of both East and West and through its evocation of a utopian alternative.

Recent American feminist critics do not stress the GDR contextual aspect of Christa Wolf's writing, but instead see her in terms of feminist politics. The specifically female aspect of Wolf's writing, overlooked by (predominantly male) German critics, has been the focus of scholarship by women. Feminist scholarship has illuminated the problematic relationship of the woman writer to language in a patriarchal world, and has noted the interrelationship between the articulation of female subjectivity (the theme of the “difficulty of saying ‘I’”) and Wolf's narrative techniques. The chief virtue of this scholarship, in addition to making readers sensitive to gender issues in Wolf's writing, has been to point to the potential for a more formalistic, linguistically oriented approach to her works and to establish the methodological framework for such an investigation. However, to the extent that it focuses on the subjective experience of the female individual to the exclusion of the broader socio-historical and cultural context, this feminist scholarship is also reductionist.

Although Wolf is sometimes treated in the context of “New Subjectivity,” her work differs from this West German literary movement of the seventies in that, despite the psychological depth of her characters, despite her emphasis on personal experience, she never presents subjective experience in a vacuum. Instead, the individual subject is always presented in a dialectical relationship with the larger social community. This relationship finds its linguistic expression in the shift between the individual (“I”) and the collective (“we”) voice in Wolf's texts. Just as Wolf speaks not merely for herself but also, and quite consciously, for her generation, her use of first-person narrative ensures at once specificity and typicality.

While the GDR context-related and the feminist avenues of inquiry have yielded the most fruitful insights into Wolf's work, each approach in itself is inadequate for a proper understanding of her complex and sophisticated writing. Christa Wolf is an East German woman writer and consideration must be given to each facet of her identity if one is to do justice to her work. Just as Wolf scholarship has often tended toward reductionism, it has also failed to clarify the interrelatedness of Christa Wolf's entire œuvre. As on a giant tapestry, strands from one work are interwoven into the next as new ones are being spun that connect with future works. This intermeshing is not limited to matters of content but includes formal aspects of Wolf's writing as well, making it virtually impossible to treat any of her works in isolation. Proceeding chronologically, I use a close textual analysis to examine Christa Wolf's fiction and essays as they interrelate. While I do not attempt to analyze each text exhaustively, I follow some of the strands of Wolf's literary tapestry, arguing that her work expresses the integration of the various aspects of her identity. (The following focus on each of the aspects of Christa Wolf's self-understanding is merely a heuristic device for placing her work in context and understanding the problems it presents. Indeed, the distinctions between aspects are artificial and cannot be sustained even in this introduction.)

East German woman writer: The highly politicized nature of literature in East-bloc countries means that any discussion of Christa Wolf must be framed in the context of the national and cultural politics of the GDR. A member of a society that experienced the imposition of socialism from above, Wolf enthusiastically embraced Marxism and has worked toward the realization of Marxist humanist ideals in GDR praxis. Augmenting her literary engagement with political commitment, she has been an active member of the Socialist Unity Party (SED = Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands) and for several years was a candidate for a position in the ruling Central Committee.2

Clearly Marxist theory, by providing her with the tools for an economic analysis of history, helped Wolf to understand what had happened in Germany between 1933 and 1945. More importantly, however, Marx's vision of an egalitarian, nonexploitative community filled her with hope. Like many of her compatriots, Wolf saw in socialism the means for achieving a qualitatively new and morally superior social order that would help prevent a repetition of recent German history by transforming human beings from objects into subjects of history.3 Over the years, however, Wolf has become more and more critical of the form of socialism that has evolved in the GDR and increasingly more sceptical about her society's ability to implement the revolution in social relations necessary to create subjects of history.

Yet while Wolf's œuvre can be read as testimony to her increasing disenchantment with her society, she is still a member of the Party, chooses to live in the GDR, and remains committed to the ideals of socialism as conceived by Marx. The theme of the coming-into-being of human subjectivity (das Subjektwerden des Menschen) so central to her work and her insistence on individual self-actualization within the collective are compatible with Marx's vision of free social individuality within a communal society. The discrepancy between Marxist theory and the often repressive reality of the GDR has not destroyed Wolf's faith in the possibility of human community. In her recent works, in which she continues to examine modes of human objectification and alienation, Wolf has explored the feminist critique of Marxism. By analyzing patriarchal attitudes (still prevalent in the socialist East) and their destructive effects on both sexes, she has created works that make a universal appeal. In particular, her lament that reason has been perverted to mere utilitarian pragmatism and her fear that the East, by mimicking the West, by failing to repudiate instrumental rationality, has failed to present a viable alternative to this self-destructive world view, has immediate global relevance. The urgency of Wolf's argument, her belief that the lack of a viable alternative may well lead to the annihilation of humankind, is particularly compelling in light of recent world political events and may explain the enormous popularity she has attained in the past several years.

Despite their often bleak subject matter, Wolf's works never end in despair. Indeed, one of the salient features of her writing is the quiet optimism of even her most critical works. The element of hope in Wolf's writing stems largely from her Marxist perspective. Although Christa T., Karoline von Günderrode, Heinrich von Kleist, and Cassandra succumb to the lack of livable alternatives, Wolf holds fast to her belief in socialism's capacity to change human consciousness and to create such alternatives. She shares the socialist faith in literature's power to teach. But more than that, she has a fundamental faith in human beings and their ability to learn from the experiences of her characters. Literature for Wolf allows both the writer and the reader to play through possible (self-)destructive scenarios vicariously. Although many of Wolf's figures die because they cannot exist in the societies into which they are born, all remain uncompromising in their quest for self-actualization. The implication that, given a different, more humane social order, these figures could survive, is clearly meant as an incentive to readers to attend to aspects of their society impeding the development of human subjectivity. Thus Wolf's work keeps alive the hope of a humane socialism, even as it records the betrayal of contemporary socialism in the GDR.

One of Wolf's deepest commitments is to the emergence of nonalienated subjectivity as formulated by Marx. Perhaps the most serious obstacle to this is the GDR's self-deceptive attitude toward its National Socialist past. Marx believed that the basis of humane community was a revolution in social relations, which would allow people to see others as independent subjects and not merely in relation to themselves, that is, as objects. This community is predicated on the idea of reintegrative subjectivity. On the one hand, individuals must be able to recognize their objectification of and by others in order to overcome alienation and to attain mutual subjectivity, mutual regard for one another as human subjects. On the other hand, they must be able to empathize with one another's situation in order to experience a sense of their shared humanity. Yet clearly the ability to recognize another's subjectivity presupposes an individual's psychic integration. In the GDR, official Party policy has inhibited the process of psychological integration by effectively severing its citizens from their personal history. By calling the populace victims of National Socialism rather than its collaborators, it has prevented East Germans from becoming reconciled with their past and has fostered self-alienation, a phenomenon Wolf addresses most eloquently in Patterns of Childhood. Wolf's concern with achieving a heightened self-awareness as a prerequisite for overcoming alienation makes the question of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (a coming to terms with the Nazi past) an urgent one for her. Indeed, it informs her writing in Patterns of Childhood.

In order to understand the significance of Vergangenheitsbewältigung for the Germans, it will be helpful to recall their situation in 1945. At the end of World War II, a defeated, divided, and morally bankrupt Germany faced the task of rebuilding its cities, reconstructing its economy, and reassessing its history. The economic miracle (Wirtschaftswunder) of the Adenauer era and the Marshall Plan transformed the Federal Republic of Germany into the industrial and economic leader of Europe, and the German Democratic Republic emerged as the most prosperous Soviet-bloc country. Yet the accomplishment of overcoming seemingly insurmountable economic obstacles pales when compared with the task still facing the East and West German states and their people: the need to confront the National Socialist past.

The occupation forces addressed the issue of moral culpability in the upper echelons of the Nazi party through the Nürnberg War Trials (1945–6), but such uniform, immediate, and direct action was not possible in the case of the populace at large. The Allies had agreed that a denazification program was needed. However, after the confrontation between the Western and Eastern powers (1947) and the escalation of the Cold War, methods for purging Nazi elements and for implementing reeducation programs varied in the four occupied zones. The French, British, and American sectors, operating with the concept of collective guilt, set up an elaborate bureaucracy for denazification that lagged behind the more rigorous and consistent measures of the Soviets.4 In the Soviet sector the removal of former Nazi party members from public life (including the dismissal of more than 20,000 teachers in 1945), coupled with the institution of a “law for the democratization of the German school,”5 that is, a centralized school system reform, ensured that education reinforced reeducation. Yet the Soviets, who had originally subscribed to the Allied concept of collective guilt, increasingly distanced themselves from this view as East and West moved toward an ideological division of Germany.

With the founding of the GDR on 7 October 1949 (in response to the creation of the Federal Republic on 21 September 1949) came an official severance of the East Germans from their Nazi past. Since its socialism was not the result of a revolution from below but had been imposed by Soviet occupation forces, the GDR felt obliged to legitimize itself by evoking the liberal legacy of 1848 and the social democratic heritage of the Weimar Republic (1918–33) and by creating the myth of wide-scale anti-Nazi resistance in the Third Reich. Viewing itself as the continuation of a progressive German tradition brutally crushed by the National Socialist state, the GDR accepted the Soviet definition of the Russian invasion as the liberation “of the German people from the yoke of fascism.”6 By casting its citizenry in the role of victims, the Party obviated the need to assess its immediate past and to assume responsibility for Hitler and the atrocities committed between 1933 and 1945. Rather than examining the events of the past, the GDR chose to develop the new socialist society, substituting the concept of the “scientific-technological revolution” for the revolution in social relations envisaged by Marx, that is, exchanging means for ends. Particularly in its early Aufbau phase, the period of socialist development and consolidation (c. 1949–61), it concentrated on changing the means of production. This reductionist view of socialism, prevalent long after the removal of the economic exigencies that had confronted the emerging socialist state, has been a frequent target of Christa Wolf's criticism.

Christa Wolf was sixteen years old in 1945. She belongs to the generation that experienced the transition from Nazism to socialism, an experience that not only shaped her but that also constitutes an important theme of her early and middle works. Her autobiographical novel, Patterns of Childhood, records the decisive experiences of her early years. Born in 1929 in Landsberg on the Warthe River, approximately 130 kilometers northeast of Berlin,7 Wolf grew up in the Third Reich. Patterns of Childhood reconstructs her childhood under Nazism and records the traumatic break in her life caused by the invasion of the Red Army; her family's flight West; and her experiences under American, French, and Soviet occupation forces. By explicitly addressing the taboo issue of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which had always implicitly informed her literary writing, Wolf was psychologically able to leave behind the inquiry into personal history that had characterized her writing. Delving ever further back in time, she was able to develop new narrative forms through which to examine broader historical contexts in their relationship to contemporary society.

Very much a product of her transitional generation, Wolf has treated, in literary and essayistic works as well as in interviews, the difficult and lengthy process of reassessment and reorientation that confronted her and her contemporaries after the war. Not until autumn 1948,8 two years after graduating from the Gymnasium in Bad Frankenhausen near Schwerin, where her family had relocated, did Christa Wolf read her first Marxist work. Her encounter with Marxist thought and the subsequent rise of her socialist consciousness precipitated a fundamental reassessment of values.

Wolf's humanistic vision of socialism was intensified by her studies at the University of Leipzig (1949–53). In Leipzig, then the leading intellectual center of the GDR,9 Wolf studied with the eminent Germanist Hans Mayer. Mayer was a Marxist thinker in the Hegelian dialectical tradition, a Third Reich émigré recently returned to the German socialist state. It is one of the tragic ironies of GDR history that thinkers like Hans Mayer and the philosopher Ernst Bloch (also lecturing in Leipzig at the time), people whose concern with the humanistic potential of Marxism might have helped implement a socialist order closer to the Marxian model, were among those attacked as revisionists.10 With the erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, it became palpably clear to Mayer and Bloch that their vision of socialism could not soon be realized in the GDR, and they emigrated once again. Just as Mayer and Bloch were unable to endure the discrepancy between Marxist theory and GDR praxis, the tension between socialist ideal and reality was to become of increasing concern for Christa Wolf.

East German woman writer: Wolf's identity as a German is inextricably bound to the GDR's national self-understanding and its cultural politics with regard to the German tradition. Orienting itself politically in accordance with the Soviet model of communism, the GDR declared 1945 as a historical cesura and 1949 as the beginning of a qualitatively new social order. The official aesthetic governing literary production, Stalinist Socialist Realism, was deemed a necessity of cultural politics; its objective was to help develop and consolidate socialism in the GDR. Socialist Realism provides the mimetic theory of art with a socialist telos. That is, it holds that the purpose of art is to record social dynamics and conflicts from the perspective of the ultimate triumph of socialism. The doctrines of Socialist Realism, as articulated at the first congress of the Soviet writers’ union in 1934, were appropriated in toto by the GDR. The four main precepts are: (1) the primacy of industrial production for society, hence a devaluation of portraying the private sphere in favor of the world of work in artistic production; (2) a mandate for the creation of positive heroes, portrayed as actively engaged in the socialist struggle, as the norm; (3) a call for socialist literature to appropriate critically its “classical heritage” (klassisches Erbe); (4) the positing of the inherently didactic function of literature which, by rendering a “truthful presentation of real life,” is meant to effect an “ideological transformation and education of working people in the spirit of socialism.”11 Adherence to this restrictive aesthetic, with its insistence on Parteilichkeit (alignment with Marxist-Leninist Party policy) and on an ideologically conceived category of typicality (positive hero as norm, as an allegory of the State) severely inhibited or excluded nonmimetic experimental forms of literary production, bred homogeneity and sterility, and engendered fierce literary debates on the theory of realism.

This barren literary aesthetic was overturned by the Hungarian-born critic Georg Lukács. Until the Hungarian uprising in 1956, when he was deposed, Lukács enjoyed virtual intellectual hegemony in questions of literary realism in the GDR. He was responsible for broadening the parameters of the realist canon in the postwar period to include works by nonsocialist writers. His contribution to the realism debate must be assessed in the context of GDR cultural politics, which aimed at establishing the continuity of the German intellectual and literary tradition. To this end, literary historians evoked the humanistic heritage of the Weimarer Klassik (the classical period of Goethe and Schiller, c. 1786–1832) and engaged in lengthy debates as to which works of presocialist German literature were to be admitted into the new socialist canon (the Erbediskussion). Introducing the concept of “critical realism,” which he opposed to Socialist Realism, Lukács entered the debate and reoriented the realist aesthetic toward the bourgeois novelists of the nineteenth century—Balzac, Dickens, and Tolstoy as well as Theodor Fontane and Thomas Mann. Lukács's concept of “totality,” the basis of his theory of realism, enabled him to include writers who would otherwise have been condemned as late-capitalistic decadents. In Lukács's view, the great realists of previous eras were such masters at capturing the social dynamics of their particular society in its contradictory totality that unintentionally, by sheer virtue of their genius, they illuminate the irresolvable contradictions in their societies and thus point to the inevitable downfall of capitalism.

While Lukács's work greatly enhanced the realism debate in the GDR, it effectively stifled formal innovation through its anachronistic orientation and rejection of modernistic literary trends. Although the concept of totality allowed Lukács to reject certain mimetic art forms such as naturalism as the merely superficial reflection of external reality, his mandate for “objectivity” caused him to repudiate nonmimetic, subjective, “irrational,” “solipsistic” movements such as Romanticism, Impressionism, and Expressionism. After Stalin's death (1953) Socialist Realist norms were ironically more—not less—rigorously enforced than before, and Lukács fell into disrepute as a revisionist. Only very recently has the GDR begun to reevaluate its position on writers excluded from Lukács's canon, the Romantics and modernist writers such as Kafka.12 Thus it is obvious why Christa Wolf, who experimented with narrative perspective as early as Divided Heaven and has incorporated a number of modernist writing strategies, has thwarted her socialist critics. A further obstacle has been her insistence on active reader participation in the (re)constitution of the text, a phenomenon that is anathema to Socialist Realism's call for “objectivity.” In place of Socialist Realism's emotional identification with typical characters, Wolf places intellectual demands on her readers, expecting them to fill in the lacunae of the text. While reader response theories of literature gained some currency in literary discussions in the late fifties and early sixties,13 the concept of subjectivity remains problematic in the GDR to the present day. The rejection of individual (as opposed to class-based) subjectivity has been detrimental to the reception of Christa Wolf's works in East Germany, where her work has been criticized as “subjectivistic.”

Wolf's study of German language and literature familiarized her with the socialist canon. Her career as a literary critic ensured that she was conversant with the nuances of GDR realism and the Erbediskussion debates.14 Her contribution to the Erbediskussion, the reclaiming of the literary past, in No Place on Earth and her essays on the Romantics Karoline von Günderrode, Bettina von Arnim, and Heinrich von Kleist constitute important documents in the history of GDR literary reassessment and establish her as a writer in the German tradition. Subject matter for both No Place on Earth and the short stories written in the mid-seventies comes from Romanticism; more important, however, is the similarity between the formal and theoretical concerns of Romantic literature and those of Christa Wolf. Although Wolf's aims are somewhat different from those of the German Romantics, she, like them, writes about the act of writing; presents an open literary structure as an antiauthoritarian gesture; involves the reader in the creative act; and stresses that the lessons of creativity and self-determination learned from literature can be applied to life.

In essays and discussions, Wolf has stressed the importance of literature for her life, a fact to which her literary texts also bear witness. In addition to French and Soviet writers, her works reverberate with echoes from German writers as diverse as Goethe, Schiller, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, Theodor Storm, Bertolt Brecht, Max Frisch, Novalis, Heinrich von Kleist, Sophie von La Roche, Bettina von Arnim, Karoline von Günderrode, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Anna Seghers. Clearly, Christa Wolf is acutely aware of her German heritage. In discussing Wolf in the context of the German literary and philosophical tradition so essential for her work, one must explore the ramifications of that tradition for the self-understanding of the GDR, just as one must consider Wolf's constantly evolving relationship to Marxism and to GDR praxis.

East German woman writer: With the exception of the sensitively drawn male figures of Manfred in Divided Heaven and Kleist in No Place on Earth, Christa Wolf's work deals almost exclusively with female experience. In Moscow Novella and Divided Heaven, Wolf does not explicitly differentiate between male and female experience, and her protagonists are developed in their relationships to men. Insofar as the dilemmas confronting her female characters were representative for both men and women under socialism, female experience seemed universally applicable. In Christa T. and Patterns of Childhood, male behavior is no longer viewed as the norm, and female consciousness is developed primarily in relationship to other women. Increasingly, Wolf has posed the question of self-actualization, fundamental to her work, in terms of women's possibilities in a patriarchal society. The initial generic treatment of her utopian theme has become ever more gender specific as she has delved further back in time for the roots of alienation. Wolf's feminism has evolved from her Marxist critique of scientific Marxism and can be viewed “not as an alternative to Marxism but as a qualitatively new and autonomous dimension that is a prerequisite for its renewal.”15

In her short story “Self-Experiment: Appendix to a Report” (“Selbstversuch: Traktat zu einem Protokoll,” 1973), Wolf first explicitly articulates a feminist perspective. By setting the action in the year 1992 she is able to express her criticism of socialist patriarchy indirectly. But the science fiction context is a thin veil: Wolf's criticism is clearly aimed at present-day GDR society, specifically at the crippling effects of a misguided concept of reason. The female protagonist, a scientist whose identity has been defined by her male-dominated profession, agrees to undergo a drug-induced sex transformation. Her qualitatively different perceptions of the world as a man convince her of the oppressive limitations of masculinity. She breaks off the experiment and demands to be changed back into a woman.

In her male incarnation the scientist recalls that “city” for her female self meant “an abundance of constantly disappointed hope constantly renewing itself. For him—that is, for me, Anders—it was a tight cluster of inexhaustible opportunities.”16 Yet rather than viewing the privileged male existence as liberating, s/he experiences it as restrictive. In contrast to the holistic,17 mediating female way of appropriating the world that infuses external fact with subjective response, the male mode of existence is based on the dichotomous opposition of self and external reality. The lack of interaction between subject and object is seen to foster fragmentation, objectification, alienation, problems in communication, and ultimately the inability to love.18

An anthology of interviews with women from the GDR, conducted by Maxie Wander, appeared in 1978.19 Abandoning the typical question-and-answer format, Wander edited herself out of the interviews and allowed each woman to present herself directly. The result is a series of individual, highly personal monologues that, because they are directed at and incorporate the interviewer, take on a dialogic structure. Guten Morgen, du Schöne (Good Morning, You Beauty) constitutes an important document in GDR social history. Here women ranging in age from sixteen to seventy-four speak with remarkable candor about all aspects of their lives. They talk about their hopes and their fears, their pain and their joy, their successes and their failures, both in the workplace and in their intimate relationships. Lack of intimacy with their mates and stress resulting from the double burden of meeting domestic and professional expectations are recurrent themes of the book. What these interviews make abundantly clear is that the equality before the law that women in the GDR enjoy in no way ensures social or domestic equality. Instead, the women testify to the persistence of patriarchal patterns of thought and behavior in both the public and the private sphere, almost forty years after the founding of the socialist state. At the same time the book attests to the women's resistance to the current situation, a longing for a more egalitarian community in which all human needs can be met.

Christa Wolf wrote an introduction to Guten Morgen praising Maxie Wander's ability to encourage female self-expression and thanking her for giving a voice to these women, who would otherwise have remained silent. The essay “Touching”20 enabled Wolf to continue her deliberations on gender-specific appropriation of the world. In it she identifies “sympathy, self-respect, trust, and friendliness” as “characteristics of sisterliness,” a phenomenon she considers to be more prevalent than brotherliness, and she offers “unreserved subjectivity” as a possible means for social renewal, for overcoming alienation. The presence of supraindividualistic qualities—“longing, challenge, claim to life”—in these interpersonal texts by women strikes Wolf as heralding utopian community.21 Through her concept of “touching” Wolf identifies a specifically female epistemological stance that, by regarding its object with understanding and sympathy, offers an alternative to positivistic objectivity.22 “Touching” enables these women to transcend the limits of their own subjectivity by incorporating into it another's subjectivity. Through empathy they are able, however briefly, to transform the other into a subject, hence to overcome their own alienation. Thus “touching” as transformative subjectivity adumbrates Marx's social individual.

In her literary (No Place on Earth) and essayistic23 investigations of the German Romantics, Wolf further elucidates her feminist concern. Focusing on the utopian thought of the woman Romantics who longed for the possibility of a radically different, nonalienated human community, Wolf exemplifies her concept of “touching” and sisterliness. The ability to love is viewed as a female attribute, while the otherwise very different figures of Kleist, Savigny, and Friedrich Creuzer illustrate the severe emotional inadequacies common to men.

In Cassandra, male inability to love culminates in Achilles’ necrophilia. Cassandra, Wolf's most feminist work, is literally radical. Not content to criticize contemporary self-destructive bellicosity in East and West, Wolf traces male aggression back to its source in patriarchy. Searching for the roots of dystopia, Wolf has been led further and further back in time as she has sought to uncover the origins of the petrified social structures that bring about alienation. Finally in Cassandra a utopian vision based on a matriarchal model replaces the earlier Marxist one as Wolf, through her reinterpretation of the Cassandra story, calls into question the foundations of male-dominated Western society, advocating the development of a (female) aesthetic of resistance to counteract the self-destructiveness of the patriarchy.

In addition to her feminist critique of patriarchy, Christa Wolf has helped recoup the writing of Karoline von Günderrode and sought to establish the existence of a female literary tradition in Germany. Recently, in the essayistic commentary to Cassandra, she has reflected on the existence of a female aesthetic and deliberated on the sociopolitical ramifications of such an aesthetic, especially on its potential for helping to create the alternatives needed for human survival.

East German woman writer: As a writer living in the GDR and writing primarily, though no longer exclusively, for the GDR public,24 Wolf both enjoys certain privileges and faces the strictures encountered by all East-bloc writers. Officially the GDR does not exercise censorship; that is, there is no bureau of censorship. In fact, however, all literary production is under state control.25 Fear of censorship and possible expatriation26 are concerns for the GDR writer who seeks to express unorthodox views. All too often genuine material exigencies such as paper shortages serve as a pretense for outright silencing or for less obvious forms of censorship such as limited editions and delayed publication. The publication history of Christa T.,27 as well as the excision from Cassandra of unconditionally pacifist passages and overt criticism directed against Warsaw Pact nations, indicate that Christa Wolf has had to contend with external censorship.

By her own admission she has also practiced a demoralizing self-censorship. Understood as a mechanism by which individuals living in totalitarian systems develop an exact sense of how far they can go without offending authority, self-censorship was inculcated into Wolf as a child growing up in the Third Reich. To the degree that she has become conscious of it, Christa Wolf's work can be read as an attempt to overcome this internal censorship.

Not merely a spokesperson for her society but also one of its most rigorous critics, Christa Wolf has become increasingly iconoclastic. The more she has violated the taboos of her society, the more she has had to discover means of articulating her criticism within the programmatic prescriptions for literary production placed on the GDR writer without compromising her integrity. This has led to indirect expression of criticism in historically distanced works such as No Place on Earth and Cassandra and at times to an opacity bordering on the obscure, such as in the story “Unter den Linden” (1974).

As compensation for some of the disadvantages described above, socialist writers, by virtue of their more integrated role, enjoy advantages of intellectual community virtually unknown to their counterparts in the West. Not only is there an intense interchange among members of the intelligentsia (writers, literary critics and scholars, editors and publishers are engaged in a continuous dialogue), but writers in the GDR play an important role for the populace at large. The dichotomy between “high” and popular literature characteristic of capitalist economies does not exist in East Germany, where the politics of publishing has led to the conflation of “high” and popular literature. Thus officially designated “classics” are often also runaway best-sellers.28 Moreover, the voracious reading appetite of the populace29 ensures that successful writers are a household word. For Wolf the integrated function of the socialist writer, the self-definition derived from work, the security that emanates from the sense of being needed30 are weighty considerations. “Being needed” (gebraucht werden) is a theme that traverses Wolf's work and informs the creation of characters whose definition of self is derived from love and work.

In contrast to the outsider position to which German writers had traditionally been relegated—a “ghettolike internal realm of beautiful appearance”31—the GDR from the outset sought to liberate writers from their ivory tower existence and to make literature a public forum. The GDR's understanding of itself as a Literaturgesellschaft, a term coined by the country's first minister of culture, the poet Johannes R. Becher, points to a dialectic between literature and society and to the importance assigned to literature in cultural politics. Becher believed that literature was not only meant to advance the process of democratization and socialization in the newly established socialist state; it was also to serve as the agency for the self-understanding, the coming-to-consciousness of the populace. Ultimately it contributed to the perfectibility of a people, that is, of humankind within socialist society.32 Literature in the GDR is conceived of as a nonelitist, democratic institution, based on an active communication among writers, readers, and producers of books. Its avowed goal is the inclusion of the working masses in the process of a literary production whose aim is the emancipation of all involved.

Again, there is a difference between theory and praxis. To counteract discrepancies between its ideal of a Literaturgesellschaft and the reality of a pervasive party organization and a hierarchy in social and communicative relations, in 1959 the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED) initiated the Bitterfeld Conference. Intended to unify the intelligentsia and workers and to break down the distinction between art and life, the so-called “Bitterfeld Way” sought to implement the motto of the Fifth Party Conference of the SED (July 1958): “sozialistisch arbeiten, lernen und leben” (socialistic work, learning, and life) and to advance the literary presentation of working conditions in factories. To assure authenticity, writers were encouraged to enter factories and work in brigades to obtain first-hand knowledge of working conditions. Alternatively, under the motto: “Kumpel, greif zur Feder, die sozialistische Nationalkultur braucht dich!” (comrade, take up the pen, the socialist national culture has need of you), manual laborers were called upon to document everyday conflicts, setbacks, and achievements in the sphere of economic production. Together the writer-worker and the worker qua writer were to help develop a socialist national culture and to break down hierarchical distinctions.

The goals of the Bitterfeld Way were difficult to realize. Writers were reluctant to enter factories, and the cultural revolutionary impulses spurred by the program, such as workers’ cultural clubs, the “circles of writing workers” (Zirkel schreibender Arbeiter), as well as the brief renaissance of the proletarian-revolutionary literature of the Weimar Republic, could not be sustained.

The years 1960–4 brought a revision in cultural politics that relegated workers to the sphere of material production and again measured literary production according to classical bourgeois norms. At the second Bitterfeld Conference (1964) it was clear that the GDR was more concerned with economic production and scientific-technological progress than with the development of a working-class culture. The possibilities for a broad-based mass cultural movement inherent in the Bitterfeld experiment were not realized; by the mid-sixties the professional writer was again firmly ensconced in an élite position. Nonetheless, its significance as an attempt to put socialist theory into practice should not be minimized.

GDR literary theory, which developed as an outgrowth of the Bitterfeld Conference and defined artistic creation not merely in terms of the writer's production but also in terms of the text's reception by the reader,33 was to have far-reaching implications for Christa Wolf's work. In contrast to the autonomy concept that informs the aesthetic of l'art pour l'art, Socialist Realism, as didactic art, posits a dialectic between the author and the reader-recipient. Thus the relationship between the reader and the writer that constitutes the basis of Christa Wolf's reflections on literary theory, as articulated above all in her essay “The Reader and the Writer,” has its roots in the socialist aesthetic that shaped her early works. Insofar as post-Bitterfeld theory conceived of mimesis not as a mere copy of reality but as a model through which essential social processes were made manifest in the hope of making the reader more receptive to the progressive forces of socialism,34 it exerted a lasting influence on Christa Wolf. Much as she has distanced herself from Socialist Realism, all her works retain the modellike structure of this aesthetic.

Similarly, Wolf's innovative contribution to a socialist aesthetic, her focus on authorial subjectivity, can be seen as a response to the theoretical goals35 of the Bitterfeld Way and the concrete situation of the writer in post-Bitterfeld society. Wolf rejects as impossible the notion of “objectivity” considered requisite for realist art. In her view, the basis of realist literature (to which she insists that all her work belongs)36 is experiential, hence subjective. For her, literature is created through the appropriation of external reality by the author/subject and the transformation of that experienced reality into art. Wolf's focus on the individual in her works and her insistence on the primacy of subjective experience have been influential in changing the official Party stance toward subjectivity in literature.

Beginning with Christa T., the work that established her own unique style, Wolf has accompanied her literary writings with essayistic and verbal commentary. She has introduced the concept of “subjective authenticity”37 to describe her personal moral engagement as an author in her literary production. Subjective authenticity can manifest itself, as in Christa T. and Patterns of Childhood, through the introjection of authorial consciousness into the literary text or, as in No Place on Earth and Cassandra, as essayistic commentary that illuminates the text and clarifies the relevance of the material for its maker. As the concept of “subjective authenticity” makes clear, all of Christa Wolf's writing is ultimately autobiographical. In her early and middle works, the correlation between authorial biography and fictional narrative is more readily apparent than in her later narratives, where authorial subjectivity tends to be displaced into essays that elucidate the fictional texts. By creating an interdependence between personal, subjective essayistic commentary and the literary text, she undermines traditional generic categories and breaks down what she considers to be an artificial distinction between life and art.

The unique position Christa Wolf enjoys today, both in her own country and in the West, is largely due to the moral integrity she has displayed in her personal life and in her writing. Pursuing questions of personal conscience, she has criticized not only the policies of the West but increasingly those of the East as well. She has relentlessly scrutinized her own behavior and that of her compatriots and has refused to compromise her ethical standards, even when they have brought her into conflict with Party policy. As a consequence, she has come to be regarded as a voice of public conscience. Clearly Wolf's national and international reputation affords her special status within the GDR. Thus while the Party has the ultimate authority, Christa Wolf has become a force to be reckoned with. And that she is forcing a reckoning can be seen in her recent bout with the censors. Wolf insisted that the excised passages in the East German edition of Cassandra be marked by ellipses to signal censorship to her readers—and she prevailed, an unprecedented victory for a GDR writer.38

Ironically, Wolf's position in the GDR today is the outgrowth of another function that often falls to literature in socialist countries: in the absence of an open public sphere, political and social issues are often debated in the literary arena. The symbolic, multivalent nature of literary language, as opposed to more restrictive and ideologically charged political discourse, allows for greater freedom of discussion of volatile issues. Thus literature, which officially has a proselytizing function, can simultaneously serve as an impetus for implementing internal reform. The socialist writer's dual function as proselytizer/supporter and critic means that she walks a fine line between the accepted, the acceptable, and the taboo. A morally responsible writer such as Christa Wolf, who is acutely aware how precarious her situation is, has helped extend the boundaries of the accepted and the acceptable as she has ventured ever further into the realm of the taboo.


  1. This recent assessment (1983) was related by Christa Wolf's husband, Gerhard Wolf, during a lecture and discussion on GDR poetry at Ohio State University (3 June 1983).

  2. The Socialist Unity Party was created in the GDR in 1946 when the Communist Party (KPD) merged with the Socialist Party (SPD). The SED nominated Wolf to the list of candidates for the Central Committee in 1963. In 1967 she was removed from the list by the Party leadership for coming into conflict with them over cultural political issues.

  3. Wolf's Marxism continues to be guided by anthropological concerns; her focus remains on the individual and on the possibility of developing all aspects of one's personality. While we know very little about her excursions into Marxist thought, we do know that the first Marxist work she read was Engels's essay “Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy.” Christa Wolf, “Zu einem Datum,” in Lesen und Schreiben (Darmstadt/Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1972), p. 52. Judging from her concern with human self-actualization, one can conclude that the early Marx of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and the Marx/Engels of Theses on Feuerbach and The German Ideology had the greatest impact on her.

  4. Frank Trommler, “Kulturpolitik der Nachkriegszeit,” in Kulturpolitisches Wörterbuch: Bundesrepublik Deutschland/Deutsche Demokratische Republik im Vergleich, ed. Wolfgang R. Langenbucher et al. (Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, 1983), p. 409.

  5. This law was based on the pedagogical reform of the Weimar Republic and drawn up by exiles of the Nazi regime. Trommler, p. 412.

  6. From the inscription on the Soviet war memorial in East Berlin, erected 1949.

  7. Biographical information on Christa Wolf is scarce. The following data are gleaned from Alexander Stephan, Christa Wolf (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1976), pp. 7–22, 161–2, and Jack Zipes, “Christa Wolf: Moralist as Marxist,” Introduction to Divided Heaven, trans. Joan Becker (New York: Adler's Foreign Books, 1974), pp. xi–xxx.

  8. Wolf, “Zu einem Datum,” p. 52.

  9. Not only had the university attracted eminent Third Reich émigrés who had chosen to return to East rather than West Germany, but the founding of the GDR Literary Institute (1955; renamed the Johannes R. Becher Institute in 1959) aimed at developing the literary talents of writers culled from the working and peasant classes, ensured that Leipzig would become an important literary center as well.

  10. For many years critics assumed Wolf had read Bloch's works and/or attended his lectures during her years in Leipzig because of echoes of Blochian utopian thought in her writing. Recently, however, Wolf has denied that she was familiar with Bloch's work until well after completing Christa T. See editor's note in Christa Wolf Materialienbuch, ed. Klaus Sauer, 2nd, revised edn (Darmstadt/Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1983), p. 115. In a letter to me dated 13 January 1986, Wolf reiterated that she had not read Bloch until very late in her career. The similarities between Wolf's work and Bloch's philosophy of hope, his emphasis on subjectivity and on the everyday, and his call for humankind to assume the ethical posture of “the upright stance” (der aufrechte Gang) are so striking that one must speculate that the main tenets of Bloch's utopian thinking had become common intellectual currency. Wolf was perhaps exposed to them indirectly, either through Hans Mayer, who while Christa Wolf was studying in Leipzig was engaged in an intense debate with Bloch, or at some later period. See Andreas Huyssen, “Auf den Spuren Ernst Blochs: Nachdenken über Christa Wolf,” in Christa Wolf Materialienbuch, pp. 99–115, for a discussion of parallels between Bloch's philosophy and especially The Quest for Christa T., and Klaus K. Berghahn's recent article, “Die real existierende Utopie im Sozialismus. Zu Christa Wolfs Romanen,” in Berghahn and Hans Ulrich Seeba, eds., Literarische Utopien von Morus bis zur Gegenwart (Königstein: Athenäum, 1983), pp. 275–97, for a broader analysis of Bloch's significance. Far from overstating the importance of Bloch's thought for her œuvre, Wolf scholarship has not yet explored its full significance.

  11. David Bathrick, “Geschichtsbewusstsein als Selbstbewusstsein. Die Literatur der DDR,” in DDR-Literatur, ed. Klaus von See, vol. 21, Neues Handbuch der Literaturwissenschaft (Wiesbaden: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft, 1979), p. 274. Bathrick quite rightly points out a fallacy informing this aesthetic, namely the tacit assumption that everyone knew what “real life” was and that the writer would be guided by this knowledge.

  12. For a discussion of the reevaluation of Romanticism in the GDR, see Patricia Herminghouse, “Die Wiederentdeckung der Romantik: Zur Funktion der Dichterfiguren in der neueren DDR-Literatur,” in Jos Hoogeveen and Gerd Labroisse, eds., DDR-Roman und Literaturgesellschaft, pp. 217–48 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1981); Herminghouse, “The Rediscovery of Romanticism,” in Studies in GDR Culture and Society, vol. 2, ed. Margy Gerber et al. (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1982), pp. 1–17.

  13. See Peter Uwe Hohendahl, “Ästhetik und Sozialismus: Zur neueren Literaturtheorie der DDR,” in Literatur und Literaturtheorie in der DDR, ed. Hohendahl and Patricia Herminghouse (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1976), pp. 103–14; 123–38 for a discussion of the reception, criticism, and influence of Western literary theory.

  14. Her dissertation, “The Problems of Realism in the Work of Hans Fallada,” treats a novelist who was a progressive social critic of the Weimar Republic. The study shows that she was familiar with current theories of literary realism. In her work as editor, she rigorously applied Party line norms. In essay and discussions Wolf has recalled restrictive aspects of her study of German literature. She believes that her literary studies retarded her emergence as a creative writer.

  15. Helen Fehervary and Sara Lennox, Introduction to Christa Wolf, “Self-Experiment: Appendix to a Report,” trans. Jeanette Clausen, New German Critique 13 (Winter 1978): 112. I am indebted to Fehervary and Lennox for my reading of this story.

  16. Christa Wolf, “Self-Experiment: Appendix to a Report,” trans. Jeanette Clausen, New German Critique 13 (Winter 1978): 113–31, here 122. “Anders,” the protagonist's new name, means “different, other.”

  17. This holistic appropriation of reality by the female subject would also account for the significant role played by illness in Wolf's work. In Moscow Novella,Divided Heaven,Christa T.,Patterns of Childhood and No Place on Earth her protagonists respond to external events by becoming ill. In Cassandra the response is madness. In each case the etiology of illness and madness is a situation that is emotionally intolerable to the woman. In a talk delivered at a conference of medical doctors in October 1984, Christa Wolf argued that particularly for women, illness is often psychosomatic, arising from a feeling of not being loved. She urged doctors not merely to treat physical symptoms, but to explore the psychological roots of these illnesses. Published as “Christa Wolf. Krankheit und Liebesentzug. Fragen an die psychosomatische Medizin” in Neue deutsche Literatur 34/10 (October 1986): 84–102.

  18. Fehervary/Lennox, Introduction to “Self-Experiment,” p. 111.

  19. Guten Morgen, du Schöne (Berlin, GDR: Buchverlag Der Morgen, 1978). West German edition Luchterhand, 1978.

  20. Also published in Christa Wolf, Fortgesetzter Versuch: Aufsätze, Gespräche, Essays (Leipzig: Reclam, 1982), pp. 312–22.

  21. Christa Wolf, Fortgesetzter Versuch, p. 312. My translation.

  22. Sara Lennox, “Trends in Literary Theory: The Female Aesthetic and German Women's Writing,” German Quarterly (Winter 1981): 71.

  23. “Der Schatten eines Traumes” (Shadow of a Dream, 1978), written as an introduction to an anthology of the work of Karoline von Günderrode by the same name; “Nun ja! Das nächste Leben geht aber heute schon an” (Yes indeed! But the next life starts today!, 1979), written as an afterword to the recently reissued biography of Günderrode by Bettina von Arnim (both essays appear in Fortgesetzter Versuch); and an essay on Heinrich von Kleist's Penthesilea (1982) written as an afterword for a new edition of the play (Berlin, GDR: Buchverlag Der Morgen, 1983), pp. 157–66. Also published in a volume of fiction and essays on Romanticism by Christa Wolf and Gerhard Wolf, Ins Ungebundene gehet eine Sehnsucht: Gesprächsraum Romantik (Berlin/Weimar: Aufbau, 1985), pp. 195–210.

  24. Since Divided Heaven Wolf's works have appeared both in the GDR and in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and have been translated into English within a relatively short period of time. Since No Place on Earth Wolf has been published simultaneously in the GDR and the FRG.

    Publication history of Wolf's major works:

    Divided Heaven: GDR (Mitteldeutscher Verlag: 1963)

    FRG (Rowohlt: 1968)

    USA (Adler's Foreign Books: 1965)

    Christa T.: GDR (Mitteldeutscher Verlag: 1968)

    FRG (Luchterhand: 1969)

    USA (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 1972)

    Patterns of Childhood: GDR (Aufbau: 1976)

    FRG (Luchterhand: 1977)

    USA (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 1984)

    (originally published as A Model Childhood, 1980)

    No Place on Earth: GDR (Aufbau: 1979)

    FRG (Luchterhand: 1979)

    USA (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 1982)

    Cassandra: GDR (Aufbau: 1983)

    FRG (Luchterhand: 1983)

    USA (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 1984)

    Störfall: GDR (Aufbau: 1987)

    FRG (Luchterhand: 1987)

    In a recent interview about No Place on Earth (1982), Christa Wolf admitted that she was no longer readily able to distinguish between letters from East and West German readers. Describing an experiment she sometimes does, namely reading her mail without checking the return address, Wolf said she frequently could not tell if a letter was from the Federal Republic or from the GDR. According to her, “apparently there's a similar need that the texts respond to. Often, by the way, they are similar people—I meet them at public readings. There's a similar human type that's neither East nor West German, GDR or FRG. Rather, it's a type, usually a young person, with very specific expectations that aren't ‘divided.’” Christa Wolf, “Culture is What You Experience—An Interview with Christa Wolf,” trans. Jeanette Clausen, New German Critique 27 (Fall 1982): 98.

  25. Wolfgang Emmerich, Kleine Literaturgeschichte der DDR (Darmstadt/Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1981), pp. 20–1; 29–32.

  26. The freedom of expression of GDR writers at any given moment is dependent upon the political climate. The cause scandaleuse expatriation of the vociferously critical but committed socialist poet and songwriter Wolf Biermann is the most recent testimony to the GDR's unwillingness to countenance internal criticism.

  27. Publication of the book was delayed a year. According to Wolf, Christa T. had been completed for a year when she started to write “The Reader and the Writer,” published in 1968, the same year as Christa T.; see “Die Dimension des Autors” in Christa Wolf, Fortgesetzter Versuch: Aufsätze, Gespräche, Essays (Leipzig: Reclam, 1982), p. 78. Moreover, there is speculation that a large part of the original GDR edition was sold to the West (see Heinrich Mohr, “Produktive Sehnsucht. Struktur, Thematik und politische Relevanz von Christa Wolfs Nachdenken über Christa T.,” in Basis: Jahrbuch für deutsche Gegenwartsliteratur, vol. 2, ed. Reinhold Grimm and Jost Hermand (Frankfurt/Main: Athenäum, 1971), 217, footnote 20. There are also vast discrepancies in reports regarding the actual number of copies printed in the first edition of Christa T. (estimates range from 500 to 15,000 copies). This first edition sold out almost immediately. A second edition was not printed until 1972. See Dieter Sevin, Christa Wolf: Der geteilte Himmel; Nachdenken über Christa T.: Interpretation (Munich: R. Oldenbourg, 1982), p. 62, footnote 54.

  28. This is true, for example, of the anti-Nazi novels Das siebte Kreuz (The Seventh Cross, 1939/42) by Anna Seghers and Nackt unter Wölfen (Naked Among Wolves, 1958) by Bruno Apitz. It is, however, also increasingly true that more controversial works, including those of Christa Wolf, are enjoying the greatest popularity.

  29. GDR writers have a larger readership relative to population, hence a more significant public voice. For a discussion of the book and publishing industry in the GDR, see Emmerich, pp. 21–6.

  30. The reprisals against Biermann's supporters following his expatriation seriously called this assumption into question and precipitated a crisis in Christa Wolf, which found its expression in No Place on Earth.

  31. Robert Minder, quoted by Emmerich, p. 19. The following overview of the GDR as Literaturgesellschaft is indebted to Emmerich, pp. 19–33.

  32. As Emmerich has pointed out, Becher's statements reflect not only the perspective of classical critical Marxist thinkers such as Rosa Luxemburg but also the utopian legacy of Enlightenment Idealist thought (Emmerich, p. 20). This dual legacy plays an important role in Christa Wolf's work.

  33. See Horst Redeker, Abbildung und Aktion: Versuch über die Dialektik des Realismus (Halle/Saale: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1966).

  34. Hans Georg Hölsken, “Zwei Romane: Christa Wolf ‘Der geteilte Himmel’ und Hermann Kant ‘Die Aula,’” Deutschunterricht 5/21 (1969): 64.

  35. It remains an open question whether the literary praxis of Socialist Realism corresponds to the theory arising out of Bitterfeld.

  36. Unpublished public discussion with Christa Wolf at Ohio State University, 2 June 1983.

  37. Christa Wolf, “Die Dimension des Autors,” discussion with Hans Kaufmann, Fortgesetzter Versuch, p. 83.

  38. Heinrich Mohr, “Die zeitgemässe Autorin—Christa Wolf in der DDR,” in Erinnerte Zukunft—II Studien zum Werk Christa Wolfs, ed. Wolfgang Mauser (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 1986), p. 47.

Wes Blomster (review date Spring 1989)

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SOURCE: A review of Ansprachen, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 2, Spring, 1989, p. 304.

[In the following review, Blomster offers a positive assessment of Ansprachen.]

When Gerhart Hauptmann and Thomas Mann—the two major literary representatives of Germany in the first half of this century—celebrated their sixtieth birthdays, each had received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Such Olympian heights are less easily scaled by today's writers, and when Christa Wolf turns sixty this year (i.e., 1989), she will look upon an assembly of significant yet comparatively minor prizes. Still, Ansprachen, a modest volume of eight brief “addresses”—two are in reality letters and one a magazine article—makes clear that no writer, East or West, approaches Wolf as the representative figure in German literature today. She has achieved this station through an artistic and personal integrity encountered otherwise only in works of fiction.

The entries in the book—it can be read in an hour—document the discomfort that Wolf continues to cause the cultural authorities of her native GDR. In her letter to the 1987 congress of the Writers Union, recalling the expatriation of Wolf Biermann in 1976, she asked her colleagues to establish contact with former Eastern writers now residing in the West. When the letter was greeted as something between open attack and provocation by union president Hermann Kant, Wolf repeated her request personally before the district meeting of Berlin writers in March 1988. There she included the request that the seventy-fifth birthday of senior GDR dissident Stefan Heym be officially celebrated. Positive action was later taken upon both requests. (An exhibit of books from the Federal Republic currently displayed in GDR cities includes recent publications by the self-exiled writers.)

In addition to such declarations of steadfast courage, Ansprachen contains Wolf's words of congratulation to Erich Fried and Franz Fühmann on their sixty-fifth birthdays and to her former teacher Hans Mayer on his eightieth. The speech with which Wolf accepted Munich's Geschwister-Scholl Prize in 1987 and her laudatio for Thomas Brasch upon his receipt of the Kleist Prize that same year—along with a magazine article and a talk given at the 1987 Berlin Peace Forum—conclude the book.

The entire volume is a singular declaration of starkly realistic concern for a world in a state of extreme danger. Like Wolf's literary works (see e.g. WLT 57:4, p. 629), it is a call for action that deserves very careful reading.

Further Reading

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Buruma, Ian. “There's No Place Like Heimat.” New York Review of Books (20 December 1990): 34, 36–39, 42–43.

Buruma provides a critical overview of Patterns of Childhood, The Quest for Christa T., No Place on Earth, Cassandra, and The Fourth Dimension, as well as a discussion of the controversy surrounding Was bleibt.

Gewen, Barry. “Eastern Lights.” New Leader (15 October 1984): 13–14.

Gewen offers a mixed assessment of Cassandra, faulting the work for its heavy-handed feminist ideals.

Goozé, Marjanne E. “Finding a Place for Christa Wolf: Gendered Identity in No Place on Earth.” In International Women's Writing: New Landscapes of Identity, edited by Anne E. Brown and Marjanne E. Goozé, pp. 44–59. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Goozé examines Wolf's underlying feminism and prescient commentary on the marginalized status of the writer—notably her own—in No Place on Earth.

Gordon, Mary. “Skeleton in the Cellar.” Nation (11 May 1998): 18, 20.

In this review of Medea, Gordon comments on the impossibility of separating Wolf's personal past from interpretations of her writing.

Graves, Peter. “Christa Wolf's Sommerstück: An Intensified June Afternoon.” Modern Language Review 87, Pt. 2 (April 1992): 393–406.

Graves discusses the narrative structure and psychological themes in Sommerstück, drawing parallels to the short story “Juninachmittag.”

Hall, Edith. “Sustained by Lies.” Times Literary Supplement (17 April 1998): 22.

Hall offers a positive assessment of Medea.

Internicola, Dorene. “Writer Bludgeons Truth.” New Directions for Women 15, No. 1 (January–February 1986): 12.

Internicola offers a negative assessment of Cassandra, criticizing Wolf's “daunting self-righteousness.”

Lipton, Eunice. “Memory Manager.” Women's Review of Books XV, No. 8 (May 1998): 6–7.

In this review of Parting from Phantoms, Lipton discusses Wolf's public condemnation after the collapse of East Germany and expresses admiration for her literary and political commitment despite lingering questions about her integrity.

Schoefer, Christine. “The Attack on Christa Wolf.” Nation (22 October 1990): 446, 448–49.

Schoefer discusses how the publication of Was bleibt brought accusations against Wolf, charging that she was a collaborator with the East German government.

Slavitt, Davis R. “Revenge Fantasy.” New York Times Book Review (14 June 1998): 17.

Slavitt offers a negative assessment of Medea, calling the novel “impossible to read straight.”

Weil, Lise. “The Repression of Memory.” Women's Review of Books X, Nos. 10–11 (July 1993): 19–20.

Weil offers a positive assessment of What Remains and The Author's Dimension.

Wiesehan, Gretchen. “Christa Wolf Reconsidered: National Stereotypes in Kindheitmuster.Germanic Review LXVIII, No. 2 (Spring 1993): 79–87.

Wiesehan examines Wolf's portrayal of Americans, Russians, and other cultural groups in Kindheitmuster.

Additional coverage of Wolf's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85–88; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 45; Contemporary World Writers, Vol. 2; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 75; Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Edition 1; and Reference Guide to World Literature.

Melissa Benn (review date 14 April 1989)

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SOURCE: “Contemplating Chernobyl,” in New Statesman and Society, April 14, 1989, p. 35.

[In the following review, Benn offers a positive assessment of Accident.]

A first spring day in 1986 and a writer is giving herself the day off. This, a day when her beloved brother is undergoing a risky brain operation, and the consequences of Chernobyl are beginning to filter through East German television, radio, papers. The writer broods constantly on the madness of the nuclear age—on the statistics of danger of contamination as a result of Chernobyl, on an article she has read about “Faustian” young men working on Star Wars technology in California who have become so obsessed with their particular discoveries that they work 15, 16 hours a day—living off junk food and cake—isolated from women, children, “ordinary life.”

The writer is frightened by their obsessiveness and their cut-off-ness. And yet she still thinks to ask herself: “Is ordinary life a value in itself?” The very structure of the book suggests that it is; the description of a day's slow rhythms and pleasures—watching the sea, fields, the sun setting: preparing food, drinking a glass of wine alone in front of the flickering TV screen; listening to other people's dramas and opinions—the odd mix of absolute certainty and contingent anxiety that make up the everyday. The more obvious, threading question of Accident is; does technology (or what in the 19th century they liked to call progress) serve to enhance or destroy this everyday life? Destroy, more like. Brain surgery is saving her brother but Chernobyl makes nothing safe, ever again. The very food she prepares and savours—fresh milk, “greens,” a newly caught wriggly eel—seems to be poisoned in front of her eyes.

What is so stunning about Christa Wolf's writing is that it seems always to emerge from a dense and yet somehow covert fabric of interwoven thought and experience. In reading her, it is as if we catch partial glimpses of what is a total consciousness. And what goes to make up this total consciousness is precisely the question upon question she asks herself—in this book, in all her books—and the connections she finds, here, between the monstrous creations of technology and love or lack of love (“At which crossroads did human evolution possibly go so wrong that we have coupled the satisfaction of our desires with the compulsion to destroy?”), individuals and civilisations, the past and the present. This, after all, is a book by a woman who has seen and lived through a good part of the 20th century. Accident reflects this with its remembered fragments of 19th century childhood verse interspersed with conversations about Prince with her granddaughter.

The nearest Wolf comes to an answer in this book of questions is when she talks about self-deception—the “blind spot” that is at the centre of every body (literally; we each have a blind spot in one eye), every human soul—and every civilisation. The implication is (and she explicitly says, it's not easy, I'm not sure I can do it myself) that the only way forward is to resolutely refuse self-deception, whatever the consequences. For the consequences of not doing so—the book is published on the anniversary of Chernobyl—are, in a sense, already here.

Richard Eder (review date 4 June 1989)

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SOURCE: “Morning Becomes Radioactive,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 4, 1989, pp. 3, 16.

[In the following review, Eder offers a positive assessment of Accident.]

It is three years since the nuclear catastrophe at the Chernobyl power station in the Ukraine, and already, for most of us, it has gone from a universal portent to an affair conveniently left to worry specialists. Our memory's half-life is so much shorter than strontium's.

Christa Wolf, one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary German literature, forbids us to forget. That is all very well; the half-life of forbidding is the shortest of all. Except that Wolf is a great artist, and her brief and shining Accident shifts her voice into our throats. It will be we who forbid.

Accident: A Day's News is, in form, precisely that. The day is a bright day in April, 1986; the place is a village in the Mecklenburg countryside in East Germany, 1,000 miles from the site where the accident has just occurred. The narrator is a writer who is Wolf's alter ego, if not her very self.

The writer moves in and out of her kitchen, weeds her garden, does errands in the village, bicycles in the woods. Each move and moment is precious and suspect. News reports describe the radioactive cloud moving west. The airwaves are clouded by argument and advice about milk, vegetables and children playing outdoors.

Everything—the orange coffee maker, the white Leghorns pecking up the garden seeds, the texture of black Mecklenburg bread, a line recalled from Schubert (“In a clear brooklet … a wayward trout”)—is linked by sudden mortality. Endings, or their prospect, bind the miscellany of life into a dying coherence.

And a second mortality looms in the writer's day. Her brother is undergoing surgery for a brain tumor. The telephone holds the question: Will he live?; just as the radio holds the question: Will we live?

When the Archangel Gabriel blows the last trump to announce the end of the world, it will be very beautiful; he has had all of time to practice. The events and reflections in Accident are sounds of Gabriel keeping his lip supple; muted, terrible and golden. To get a notion of Wolf's journal of that April day, it is necessary to imagine its beauty and tenderness along with its desolation.

Accident is an inventory of life, of the cherished dailiness of the mind, body and spirit, and of the lethal absurdity the drifting Chernobyl cloud lays upon all of it.

There is the spring day, for example. The sky is radiant, but “radiant” now has another meaning. The cherry trees are in full bloom; a year before, the writer would have spoken of the blossoms “exploding”; but no more. At the end of the long, tense day, the sunset is splendid, but is this an extra redness, and what does it mean?

She thinks of eating an egg, and the whole sense of an egg is stood upon its head. Of course, these eggs were formed before the fallout. What is required now, in this askew dispensation, is “eggs guaranteed fresh. But not too fresh. Definitely not yesterday fresh.”

There is lopsided humor here. Humor and love are the wings that allow Wolf's terrible rage to soar above our horizon. She thinks of nuclear meltdown, the “China Syndrome”; and tenderly she thinks of a childhood game with her cherished, ill brother.

They had filled a bottle with hydrochloric acid and buried it in the sand. Surely the acid would eat away the bottle and somehow—children are always a little off in such things—acid and bottle together would burn through the earth to China. A note was enclosed, in case: “Brothers and sisters, please acknowledge.”

Childhood to “China Syndrome.” Innocence, love, the daily things that one attach us to the earth, to our past, to our imagination and to each other; all these are endangered. The child's prank is linked to the end of the world.

So are the utopian efforts of scientists to create clean, cheap power. And so is the writer in her garden, stripping nettles from the ground. A worthy pursuit; you get a better lawn, and ease the tension. Yet, she has read, five different species of butterflies depend upon nettles for their survival.

It is playful; playfulness draws us in. Wolf's delicacy and freshness in describing a garden, a friend, a slice of bread, a memory, allow us to feel the full outrage of what threatens them. She has become Cassandra—she is the author of an extraordinary book of that name—but her prophecy is not a shriek we hear. It is a dance we join.

And her larger themes emerge with entire naturalness. As she pulls the nettles, she thinks of the surgeon rooting up her brother's tumor. She urges the billions of healthy cells in his brain to resist; she will make her thoughts a second lifeline giving them something to grab.

There is pure grief. “It is one in the afternoon, brother; what are they doing to you?” she demands. She walks 500 paces from the post office back home. In that time, she wonders: “What distance did you cover and in what region?”

But there are wider connections. A tumor suggests radiation and its contamination, of course. And it brings up the image that is perhaps central to the book. A cancer cell is one that turns from balancing life to an insanely propagated overspecialization.

Humanity's purposes, Wolf suggests in a dozen different ways, turn cancerous through single-mindedness. The physicist intent upon his theories is obvious. But there is also the society—her own East Germany, for instance—whose original dedication to justice and equality has ended by crushing freedom and the spirit.

And, she asks herself at the end of the day—the doctors report a successful operation, she is watching a spy film on television—what about herself as a writer? How much primal wisdom has been obscured by the invention of language? How much ruthlessness has there been, how much offense given, how many human purposes neglected, in her lifelong effort to utter shining words?

Certainly the words in Accident, so few and so potent, shine in their grace and humility. Reading doesn't seem enough. It is not a book to read and then to have read. Perhaps is a book to recite and to perform, like a liturgy.

Nikki Lee Manos (review date Summer 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 659

SOURCE: “A Blade of Time,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 4, No. 4, Summer, 1989, p. 34.

[In the following review, Manos offers a positive assessment of The Fourth Dimension and Accident.]

Christa Wolf, a citizen of the German Democratic Republic, has achieved international status as one of the leading visionary women writers of our time. Indeed, in her deeply personal, highly experimental novels, notably Cassandra,The Quest for Christa T.,A Model Childhood, and No Place on Earth, she appears to have answered in advance the recent call by feminist critics for women writers to forge narrative strategies independent of the male-dominated literary establishment. In The Fourth Dimension, a series of interviews and conversations spanning a decade, Wolf openly discusses what it means to be a woman and a writer, repeatedly insisting that the author must not be absent from her own work. In Accident, her latest novel, she gives us a haunting meditation on the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

Wolf is not concerned with celebrating women's erotic impulses or familial duties. Her greatest concern in the last decade, as she declared in a 1983 conversation recorded in The Fourth Dimension, has been the fear she sees dominating our view of the future. Indeed, as she pointed out in a 1984 interview, the presence of nuclear warheads in Europe has greatly influenced her life. In her metaphor, this “blade of time hanging over” humanity is what has motivated her most recent work.

Such statements from The Fourth Dimension supply us with a ready introduction to Accident. The narrator tracks the poisonous cloud of nuclear-contaminated particles spreading over Europe the day after the Chernobyl catastrophe. We listen along with her to the hourly news reports on the radio, “chopped up and refashioned” for public consumption. We learn of the experts “shooting up out of the ground like mushrooms” with reports designed to ease our fears. We are also reminded that the mushrooms will not be edible this season. Eggs, if we are to eat them, should not be too fresh, not “yesterday fresh.” And absolutely no milk.

As these details suggest, the narrator's greatest battle is with her growing anxiety. We watch her fears cast a pall over the day as ominous as the cloud's actual shadow. As a defensive measure, she plants sorrel, lettuce, and spinach seeds without wearing gloves, although she no longer has any appetite for fresh vegetables. She also checks the stable to make sure the wooden table can still be reassembled so that, once summer returns, she can invite family and friends to eat outside. Despite these reassuring actions, she cannot eliminate from her thoughts the impression of a “glowing core.” Suddenly, she selects her olive-wood salad utensils, throws them into the corner, picks them up, and throws them again, over and over.

The narrator's frustration over Chernobyl is intensified because on this very day her brother is undergoing brain surgery. She feels she must be strong, in control, to support him in his ordeal as he faces the surgeon's knife. Her task is not easy. How can she trust her brother's doctors when she despises the scientists responsible for nuclear energy? How can she wait patiently for her sister-in-law's phone call when she must confront those hourly news bulletins? Is modern science meant to save or destroy life? Are the means of communication at our disposal meant to enhance our sense of community or distort it?

Wolf does not supply us in Accident with easy answers to these questions, but her focus is clear in the helplessness her narrator experiences—as well as the strength she exhibits. In short, Wolf weaves for us impressions and memories (of Hiroshima, the “Star Wars” program, the Holocaust, the movie The Return of the Jedi) into a narrative tapestry that in its completeness calls for a new set of values, a new way of life. As she repeatedly declares in The Fourth Dimension, we must cut through social structures that offer us only “false alternatives.”

Wes Blomster (review date Autumn 1989)

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SOURCE: A review of Sommerstück, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 4, Autumn, 1989, p. 674.

[In the following review, Blomster offers a mixed assessment of Sommerstück.]

Sommerstück, a loosely woven recollection of an idyllic Mecklenburg summer, is Christa Wolf's 1987 reworking of sketches made in 1982 and 1983; they are in part a by-product of Kein ort. Nirgends (see WLT 53:4, p. 671), which she wrote several years earlier. Although the author concludes her new work with the customary disclaimer about the actuality of persons and events depicted, there is much here that invites autobiographical decoding. Indeed, the book is clearly a Künstlernovelle, in which the central figure is a no-longer-young writer (Wolf turned sixty in April) who experiences a crisis in her relationship to the word. “Unbefangenheit,” that cherished naïveté which Thomas Mann's Gustav von Aschenbach sought to regain in 1911, is no longer hers. She is caught up in the contradiction between the desire to create and the consciousness of her own inadequacy. Art, she stresses, must be nourished with bits of the self of its creator.

A panorama of characters, largely couples of intellectual bent, seek refuge from the city and the society it represents in thatched rural homes of the northern Democratic Republic and in the anachronistic bucolic beauty of the region. All are aware, however, of the deception in which they are involved. The once-magnificent permanence of their surroundings underscores the transitory nature of their own lives. As in Rilke's Duino Elegies, the things of this world are rapidly losing their contours; their salvation is beyond the reach of those who sense the devastating decay that threatens their lives. Moreover, it is from this perspective that Sommerstück is a sequel to Wolf's earlier work Nachdenken über Christa T., wherein a boy who bit the head from a frog pointed to the ills of the new society. Here a mole that comes up out of the ground, its hind quarters infested with worms, becomes a symbol of the age. Elsewhere most readers will want to see Wolf's friend Maxi Wander behind Steffi, the woman here dying of cancer who is the central figure's principal protagonist in the final section of the book. Wolf identifies her disease with the “social cancer” of the age.

Sommerstück is an interesting and revealing—if largely unsuccessful—work. Wolf herself defines the difficulty that she was not able to overcome in assembling her collage of individual stories; it was, she states, “as always, blending the simultaneity of many events into a linear narrative.” The book is slated for publication in the GDR by Aufbau in a special edition with drawings by Harwig Hamer.

Wes Blomster (review date Spring 1990)

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SOURCE: A review of Gesammelte Erzählungen, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 2, Spring, 1990, p. 303.

[In the following review, Blomster discusses the value of the content in Gesammelte Erzählungen.]

“One has to have attended Christa Wolf's readings in the GDR to realize how her moral authority has grown with the years,” wrote Marlies Menge in Die Zeit in the days following the catastrophic fortieth-anniversary celebration in the author's homeland. “Questions are put to her not as an author but as a prophet.” Read in the light of current events, the seven short narratives collected in Gesammelte Erzählungen (they were written between 1960 and 1971) strike the reader with a cogency that validates Menge's observation. Even in “Blickwechsel,” the 1960 story that touches upon experiences more fully developed in Christa T. (1968) and Kindheitsmuster (1977; see WLT 51:4, p. 611), there is an undertow of troubled discontent that clearly anticipates the unhappy situation in which the GDR has found itself in recent months.

Since the Aufbau Verlag exercises its now-customary editorial frugality, bibliographic information will be of value to the reader of Wolf's collection. “Dienstag,” first printed in the West in 1980, makes its first East German appearance here. “Juninachmittag” was published (in German) in both Denmark and Japan before Luchterhand included it in the West German Gesammelte Erzählungen of 1980 (see WLT 55:2, p. 310). “Unter den Linden,” the Hoffmannesque “Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers,” and “Selbstversuch” all were part of Aufbau's Unter den Linden of 1974. “Kleiner Ausflug nach H.” from the 1980 Luchterhand collection makes its GDR debut here. It is regrettable that Moskauer Novelle, Wolf's first major effort, could not have been included as well. The long novella, first published in 1961, has not been reprinted since 1966 and is today not readily available. The Aufbau Gesammelte Erzählungen is one of many publications honoring Wolf on her sixtieth birthday in 1989.

Elise Marks (essay date Summer 1990)

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SOURCE: “The Alienation of ‘I’: Christa Wolf and Militarism,” in Mosaic, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 73–85.

[In the following essay, Marks discusses the conflicted and oppressive social environment of Wolf's youth in Nazi Germany and examines its literary expression in A Model Childhood and Cassandra.]

In 1938, witnessing the rise of Fascism and the threat of a second world war, Virginia Woolf wrote Three Guineas to answer the question, “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” (3). War, Woolf argues, is only a symptom of the competitive, dominating drive fundamental to patriarchal society; it is the rivalry inherent in business, law courts and church hierarchies taken to an extreme and openly violent degree (18–20, 64, 91). Preventing war would seem, then, to require a basic restructuring of society—a difficult task, Woolf feels, especially for women, who are denied any direct political clout. The most reasonable option, she decides, may be to adopt an attitude of “indifference.” By this, Woolf means refusing to participate in or even acknowledge any form of competition, patriotism or militarism, and saying instead, “as a woman, I have no country. … As a woman my country is the whole world.” Such women, declaring themselves a “Society of Outsiders,” would not gratify nationalist vanity with either praise or scorn, but would “shut the bright eyes that rain influence, or let those eyes look elsewhere” when asked to cheer their men on to war (109).

Decades later—after World War II had indeed occurred—East-German writer Christa Wolf also confronted the problem of women's response to war, focusing, like her predecessor, on how an individual can resist the conforming pressures of a militaristic society. Christa Wolf was a young girl in Germany at the height of Hitler's power; throughout her childhood, she was a willing and enthusiastic follower of the Third Reich, not flagging in devotion until well after Hitler had lost the war. After the fall of Fascism, however, as she entered university in what had become East Germany, she was struck by the work of Karl Marx and became a committed socialist, feminist and opponent of militarism and of the nuclear arms race.

In her writing, Wolf confronts the political and social forces that shaped her in these two very different molds. In her 1976 fictionalized autobiography A Model Childhood, Wolf considers this issue most directly; although she presents the story of her childhood in the third person, as an account of a girl she calls “Nelly,” Wolf is clearly depicting the psychological basis of her own youthful devotion to Nazism. In her 1983 novel Cassandra, she explores the nature of militarism from a much longer historical perspective, retelling the classical myth of the Trojan War from the horrified viewpoint of a female narrator, the prophetess Cassandra. What emerges in both of these works is a question even more complicated than the one posed by Virginia Woolf: how can people, in practical terms, survive in and resist the pressures of a warlike society without suffering violent persecution, without experiencing a debilitating alienation from their social group, or without becoming agents of violence themselves?

Certainly in the Germany of the 1930s and '40s, as A Model Childhood reminds us, the indifference to nationalism encouraged by Virginia Woolf was punishable as crime. Even in Nelly's small hometown, a Nazi official systematically enforces participation by every citizen, threatening those who fail to display the swastika flag or are seen to smile at a Jewish doctor in the square. Nelly's parents, Charlotte and Bruno Jordan, each receive ominous visits from government officials—Charlotte for remarking to a woman friend in 1944 that Germany is losing the war, and Bruno for, according to rumor, giving credit to Communists in his little shop and for being under-zealous in observing the Hitler salute (165, 41). In a fully militarized state, in which demands for compliance are backed up with the threat of arrest and violent reprisal, it is not “shut eyes” but “shaking knees” that characterize those inclined to dissent.

Although Bruno Jordan's “thinking was socialist in tendency,” and although, after his experience of being buried alive at the battle of Verdun, he thinks “war means nothing but one big pile of shit,” when he is asked to join the Nazi storm troops—which in any event “could not have been refused without consequences”—he concedes with a kind of relief (37, 32, 42). As much as he would like to abstain from the military order in the way Virginia Woolf advocated, the social pressure to conform is too strong, and the price of dissent is, for him, simply too high. Wolf calls his relief at giving in to these pressures “the bliss of conformity (it wasn't everybody's thing to be an outsider, and when Bruno Jordan had to choose between a vague discomfort in the stomach and the multi-thousand voice roar coming over the radio, he opted, as a social being, for the thousands and against himself …)” (42–43).

Charlotte and Bruno Jordan are pressured into compliance with a regime which seems unnatural to them, but in the case of Nelly we have an example of the way a child growing up in a militarized state can be socialized from the start into conformity with its values. Wolf describes Nelly in school, hearing her adored teacher tell his class, “A German girl must be able to hate” (128), and tells of Nelly singing “innocently” with her classmates “Jew-heads are rolling all across the street. / Blood, blood, blooood, / blood must be flowing thick as thick can be” (136). Nazi Germany is an extreme case—Virginia Woolf herself identifies it as the ultimate example of the drive for violent domination (Three Guineas 142, 167)—but it nonetheless makes evident a difficulty in the desire to move “outside” a violent social order; that violent social order may be so rigorously engrained in individuals that they may take it with them wherever they try to go.

Especially for someone like Nelly, the classic “good little girl” who craves approval from her elders, her teachers and anyone in authority, conformity to the prescribed system of behavior becomes a way to garner praise. Obedience then becomes the cornerstone of self-esteem. Nelly feels humiliated when her teacher scolds her because her weak right arm cannot sustain the Hitler salute through all the verses of “Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles,” and she obsessively exercises her arm to overcome the weakness and recover her sense of self-worth (99).

Submission to Nazi ideology gives Nelly not just a sense of self-esteem, but also a visceral, almost sexual, satisfaction. We see her as a young girl awaiting a visit to her town by Hitler and feeling that “The Führer was a sweet pressure in the stomach area and a sweet lump in the throat” (45), and listening to a radio broadcast of Hitler's taking of Vienna “which moved Nelly's inner depths in a way no force of nature had ever moved her before; she was trembling, and her father's brown writing desk bore the sweat marks of her sopping-wet hands” (164). Even as Germany is losing the war, she refuses to betray her loyalty to Hitler, writing in her diary of “her decision to keep absolute, lasting faith in the Führer, even during hard times” (304). Her allegiance is voluntary, and complete.

In her novel Cassandra, Wolf presents another woman, this time a completely fictional one, whose identity is similarly based on pleasing those in power. Cassandra is especially concerned with pleasing her father, King Priam of Troy, and defines herself primarily as “the king's daughter.” When in the course of the Trojan War the populace of her once relatively gentle and humane home city begin to replicate the efficient, ruthless violence of their enemy the Greeks, she must, in order to preserve her identity, deny any private anxieties that may arise: “The king's daughter is not afraid, for fear is weakness, and weakness can be amended by iron discipline” (35).

An even more obvious parallel to Nelly in A Model Childhood might be Cassandra's weaker-willed sister Polyxena. Despite a conscious hatred of the military party gaining power in Troy, Polyxena finds some unconscious part of herself responding powerfully to Andron, one of the army's cruelest officers: “She dreamed that she was in a garbage pit and stretched her arms toward [Andron]. … [that] she had coupled in the most degrading way with [him] … whom she hated while she was awake. … something alien inside her was forcing her to burn with passion” (96–97).

As Cassandra decides, regarding Polyxena with revulsion, “many were prepared to be victims, not only from the outside, but through something in themselves” (97). To stand aloof from a system of brutality, as Virginia Woolf asks the ethical individual to do, can be profoundly lonely, whereas to join the group is instinctively pleasurable. The “bliss of conformity” can be more than just a release from fear of reprisal; it can be an animal satisfaction, even excitement, in submerging oneself in the energy of the mob, in submitting, self-degradingly, to a dominant, overwhelming force.

This surrender of the independent self is an explicit goal of totalitarian ideology. Wolf grew up in the years when Mein Kampf was a national bestseller, and Hitler was adamant on the relation of the individual to the state: “if we consider the question, what, in reality, are the state-forming or even state-preserving forces, we can sum them up under a single head: the ability and will of the individual to sacrifice himself for the totality. … [In the Aryan], the instinct of self-preservation has reached the noblest form, since he willingly subordinates his own ego to the life of the community and, if the hour demands, even sacrifices it” (151–52, 297). Survival of the individual self and survival of the state are, by Hitler's definition, mutually exclusive. Insisting on the primacy of the individual self is then quite literally an act of treason.

Failure to sacrifice oneself to the state is selfish, even criminal. Compliance, however, means taking part in brutality one might secretly find repugnant; it demands the suppression of pity or compassion, and a surrender of the right to an independent, emotional self. For Wolf, the pressure of this double bind creates a lasting self-estrangement. Years after the fall of Hitler, when Wolf, as a socialist deeply opposed to totalitarianism, writes of her childhood, her early training in self-denial in combination with her adult sense of guilt and shame at what she once was seems to require the use of a cautious and uncomfortable fiction. Wolf cannot talk about herself directly, but approaches her childhood memories as if they belong to someone else—the fictional construct Nelly. It may simply be too painful, or perhaps even more of a falsehood, for Wolf to speak of both her early and later selves with the use of a single, coherent “I.”

The ability to say “I,” comfortably and without internal division—or shame for betraying either the group or some private ethical impulse—the ability to conceive of oneself as an integrated, feeling being, capable of pleasure and of love and of independent moral choice, threatens the stability of the totalitarian state as Hitler defines it, and is therefore what the totalitarian state must seek to destroy. “Community interest comes before self-interest,” went the popular slogans in Christa Wolf's youth, “Germany must live, even if we have to die” (43, 54).

For Cassandra, Wolf makes this crisis of loyalty, self-versus-state, absolute. In order to claim the right to a personal “I” in opposition to her state, she must sacrifice everything else; since she is both the daughter of the king and Troy's high priestess, her government, her religion and her family are all one—rejecting any of it, she rejects everything, loses every anchor of social identity. In addition, given her highly visible position, as the new military party gains power in Troy, any protest on her part will result immediately in arrest and in probable execution. With this extreme pressure upon her, while Cassandra may condemn her sister's outright sexual submission to Andron, her own active resistance to the military order is long in coming. As the conflict with the Greeks escalates, and she sees Troy attempt to preserve itself by becoming increasingly militarized—demanding the kind of rigid discipline and will toward self-sacrifice required by Hitler's Germany—she does little to try and stop it.

When Cassandra discovers that Helen, the ostensible cause of the war, is not even in Troy—that actually Cassandra's brother Paris lost Helen to the King of Egypt on his way home, but would rather risk his city in “a war waged for a phantom” than confess this shame—Cassandra wants to proclaim the truth, but finds she cannot: “The Eumelos inside me forbade me. … I was the seeress, owned by the palace. … [It was for Eumelos's] sake, whom I hated, and for the sake of my father, whom I loved, that I had avoided screaming their state secret out loud” (69).

Cassandra's long inability to act on her feelings of moral outrage stems not only from a desire to protect her father and his government, but also from the desire to preserve her own sense of self. Condemning the Trojan government, as she knows full well, would mean the sacrifice of the identity she has always known—as the king's daughter, as seeress, as a citizen of Troy. “I have always granted myself these times of partial blindness,” she says in defense of her vacillation; “To become seeing all of a sudden—that would have destroyed me” (40).

For a considerable time, Cassandra continues to perform her duties as seeress—ritual sacrifices in which she no longer really believes—to convince her people that the gods will help them win the war (87). The preservation of her social identity, achieved through the suppression of her feelings of outrage, comes, however, only at the price of suppressing most other private feelings as well. There is, she gradually discovers, something more to her than her status as “the king's daughter,” something which is sacrificed by loyalty to the Trojan “we”; there is also an independent, emotional “I”: “Part of me—the gay, friendly, unconstrained part—stayed behind, outside the citadel. … Vacillating and fragile and amorphous was the ‘we’ I used. … It included my father, but did it any longer include me? … Each evening that part of me which was loyal to the King, obedient, obsessed with conformity, returned to the fortress with a heavy heart. … and consequently I was more and more out of touch with my ‘I’” (94).

The conflict between the two parts of her nature—one social, one private—is experienced by Cassandra as internal violence, as the violation of her inner self by alien forces. She imagines “a fight going on inside me. … Two adversaries had chosen the dead landscape of my soul as their battlefield and were engaged in a life-and-death struggle. Only madness stood between me and the intolerable pain” (60). While one might expect Cassandra to favor her internal “I” over the demands of the hated military party, the demands of her moral voice are equally responsible for her pain. The need to know and speak the truth about Troy is itself experienced not as a natural part of her consciousness, but as an “alien being who … had already eaten its way deep inside me; I could no longer get rid of it” (48). When Cassandra does at last, though far too late, cry out against what Troy has become, she says she does so only because “finally the dreadful torment took the form of a voice; forced its way out of me, through me, dismembering me as it went” (59).

What we might call the moral or ethical voice, the voice of dissent, is experienced by Cassandra as violently “alien.” This would seem to contradict the earlier use of the word, when Polyxena's desire for the repulsive Andron is considered an “alien” aberration from her true self. For Polyxena, it is alien to conform; for Cassandra, it is alien to dissent—but that contradiction is at the heart of the problem of identity. It may be impossible, Wolf seems to be suggesting, to separate out some “genuine,” “innate,” “moral” self from a self socialized to accept violence and the sacrifices demanded by a culture at war.

We have already seen how a child like Nelly can be taught to accept what many might call perverse acts—the adoration of Hitler, the hating of Jews—as normal and good; nothing “innate” in her serves to contradict her general acceptance of Nazi ideology. She never even gets as far as Wolf's mythical Cassandra; in A Model Childhood at least, Nelly never recants her identification with the military order. Nevertheless, though in ways far more subtle than Cassandra's moral rebellion against the military party, even Nelly experiences moments of “alienation” from the Nazi program. One day she reads in the SS newspaper of a eugenic practice called “The Wells of Life” in which “tall blond blue-eyed SS men” are mated with young Aryan women to produce “racially pure” children. Her response is ambiguous; like Cassandra regarding Polyxena, Nelly feels private moral revulsion, and simultaneous guilt for her revulsion:

after reading the article, Nelly sat with the paper across her knees, clearly thinking: No, not that.

It was one of those rare, precious, and inexplicable instances when Nelly found herself in conscious opposition to the required convictions she would have liked to share. As so often, it was a feeling of guilt that engraved the incident in her memory. How could she have known that bearing guilt, was, under the prevailing conditions, a necessary requirement for inner freedom?


It is not clear, unfortunately, that Nelly's opposition arises from some instinctive sense that this scientific manipulation of human life is wrong; instead, it may simply be that her training in Nazi ideology has clashed with a trace of competing training she absorbed from her parents’ old sexual value system—“her mother's warnings not to ‘throw herself away’” (223).

At the same time, while neither Nelly nor Cassandra, at least at first, reject their militaristic governments in the abstract, their resistance does increase the more those governments impinge on their intimate lives. For Cassandra, the impulse to resist is almost invariably triggered by the rupture of a private human relationship for the sake of the glory or preservation of the state: Paris's theft of another man's wife, not for love but to prove his prowess as “supreme among men” (58, 64); Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia to get good winds for his warships (53); King Priam's willingness to sacrifice his children Paris and Polyxena (53, 108), and to have Cassandra, when her eventual protests become too loud, buried alive, and then traded to an ally in exchange for troops (127–28, 133); and everyone's willingness to send a young Trojan woman to the “brute” Achilles, the murderer of her lover, because her constant weeping is “undermining morale …” (80–81).

As might thus be expected, the issue of sexuality is particularly vexing. Because love and sexual pleasure are intensely private experience shared by pairs who hold each other as special, the desire for pleasure and for genuine emotional bonds between lovers—as opposed to the emotionless reproduction of more bodies for the state, “future national comrade[s]” as Hitler calls them (Mein Kampf 45)—can be seen as an impulse against the state. Even early on, before the war starts, Cassandra's complex reactions of inner revulsion and guilt are triggered by societal pressures to deny her own desires for love. When she is required by Trojan tradition to sit in the temple and allow any strange man who passes to deflower her, she feels disgust and “dreadful shame,” but feels duty-bound to master herself, to overcome her supposed weakness with inner discipline: “Close my eyes, I can't go on; but I could” (16). It would be wrong, shameful in another sense, to indulge her private self by refusing her duty. Thus, ironically, when the man who selects her turns out to be Aeneas, whom she actually loves and with whom we might expect her to enjoy sex, she finds it impossible to respond.

Their problem is two-fold—they cannot have sex because the enforced nature of the encounter would debase the genuine emotion of love, but also because love, which would allow them to enjoy it, would seem to disqualify the act as fulfillment of duty. The suppression of personal desire seems almost to be an integral goal of the ritual act. When they blame themselves for their “failure,” they are really blaming themselves for failing to overcome their feelings of love.

Significantly, in the lives of the cruelest agents of the military order, there is also a notable absence of love. Aeneas's father Anchises comments to Cassandra that Eumelos may be obsessed with gaining military power because no woman will marry him—“You [women] won't let him in. So he takes revenge, it's as simple as that. A bit of responsiveness from your lot and who knows, he might be cured” (91). Cassandra herself believes that the Greek King Agamemnon's sexual impotence is what accounts for “his exquisite cruelty in battle” (10). There seems to be some suggestion that the practice of war not only forces the rupture of intimate bonds, but may arise in the first place out of the failure to form them.

In A Model Childhood, the one “boyfriend” whom Nelly has is the repulsive Horst Binder, a boy so “infatuated” with the Führer that he dresses like him and schedules every hour of his day to do what Hitler would be doing at that time. Horst tells Nelly “with a pained look of renunciation” that their relationship can never be more than spiritual; instead, he spends his time with her talking of “the beautiful meaning of self-sacrifice to a higher endeavor.” Nelly, apparently wanting something more from romance, feels “guilt” for her selfish desires, and, wanting “to punish herself, suffered his company with even greater friendliness than before.” Later, she catches sight of Horst Binder having himself whipped with a switch by the town's “feared, brutish street-gang leader,” and the expression in his eyes (“it wasn't pain or fear or rage—something entirely different, something unknown to her”) makes her run away (205). Horst Binder never bothers her again, but after the war Nelly learns that, when their town was about to be overrun by allied forces, rather than surrender, the boy took a pistol and shot his parents to death in their bed, then killed himself.

Not only must healthy love for another person be suppressed for the sake of the state, but also self-love. In A Model Childhood, Nelly's most serious moment of rebellion comes when a girl in her Hitler Youth camp, Gerda Link, refuses to confess to an alleged minor theft. While the group sings, “And now the me is part of the great We, / becomes the great machine's subservient wheel,” a girl named Christel, who has “colorless hair,” publicly strips Gerda of her Jungmadel kerchief and knot (191). Nelly feels a strong sympathy for Gerda, which focuses, significantly, on Gerda's being “beautiful” with her “darkish skin … and long, dark hair” (192). Watching the blonde girls punish Gerda, Nelly is overwhelmed with anxiety and has to run away: “According to her own convictions, she should have felt disgust for Gerda Link instead of this spineless pity; she should have felt enthusiasm for the leader's straightforwardness, instead of, well, fear. … She admitted to herself, to her own bewilderment, that she didn't want to go on serving in the unit until kerchief and knot had been returned to Gerda Link” (193). Her refusal to return to the Jungmadel group is so strong that she half-fakes, half-induces in herself a bronchial ailment that excuses her for the entire winter.

According to Nazi ideology, “Race is the soul seen from without” (98), and fair hair is a sign of superiority. Since Nelly, like Wolf herself, has dark hair, finding Gerda Link beautiful is declaring an aspect of herself beautiful. It is a transgression against ideology, but also a re-affirmation of self. Of course, this stand can be sustained only temporarily; when, after Nelly's prolonged absence, the Jungmadel group nominates her for a leadership position, she capitulates, with the usual motives: “Recognition, and comparative security from fear and from overwhelming guilt feelings. … [and from] self-doubt.” In return, she gives “submission and strict performance of duty” (194).

The psychic cost of this kind of self-denial and of the dehumanizing pressure of war is not quite adequately accounted for by Virginia Woolf's call for indifference from her Society of Outsiders. To be fair to Woolf, in her post-World-World-I fiction, like Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, she clearly portrays how war brutalizes the emotional, private self. In Three Guineas, in her famous statement of feminist pacifism, however, written in the quiet period between the wars, Woolf is perhaps too hopeful about the power of the individual to withdraw from the influence of a wartime military order. For the women Christa Wolf writes about, such a withdrawal is simply impossible—the military state aggressively penetrates even the most intimate aspects of life.

In her influential 1979 essay “Women's Time,” French feminist theorist Julia Kristeva directly addresses the difficulties inherent in such a withdrawal. Discussing feminist impulses to form a “counter-society,” Kristeva decides that the primary impulse to withdraw comes not so much from a desire to prevent war in its global sense, but to escape, on a more individual level, from the “sacrificial and frustrating” pressure that a militaristic society exerts on its own citizens. What the vision of a counter-society promises is not just global peace but, on a more intimate level, a refuge which is “harmonious, without prohibitions, free and fulfilling” (202). Unfortunately, Kristeva warns, the very idea of a counter-society implies the same kind of us/them, good/evil, ally/enemy dichotomy which allows war in the first place. It may result in a dangerous tendency to place the blame for all suffering onto a hated, excluded group—in this case, onto men—and to “counter-invest” the suffering women have endured into some form of retaliatory violence (203).

In Christa Wolf's writing, we can see a clear illustration of how militarism destroys what Kristeva would call one's “affective life as a woman” (203). As Cassandra witnesses the increasing inhumanity of her own society—“the people I met seemed to me more and more alien”—she also loses her ability to enjoy being alive: “my limbs no longer moved of their own free will. … I had lost all desire to walk, breathe, sing. … The unloved duty inside me ate up all my joy” (99–100). The violence of Achilles against her people, especially when he murders twelve Trojan captives in one night, is also experienced as penetrating her insides and destroying her feeling self: “Achilles the brute occupied every inch of space outside and inside of us. … Twelve times the cry, that of an animal. … twelve times the red-hot iron burned out of us that place from which pain, love, life, dreams can come. The nameless softness that makes human beings human” (113); “I was, living, what Hector became dead: a chunk of raw meat. Insensible” (112).

This is real “indifference,” the total deadening of human feeling inside the individual; it is seen here not as a way to prevent war, but as one of the goals of war—to subsume every citizen into the war machine, to demoralize the enemy—and it is also war's greatest casualty.

Wolf plays out Kristeva's prediction in both A Model Childhood and Cassandra, as she describes her heroines, their feeling selves brutalized, turning their frustrated anger outward again in counter-violence. Although Nelly is powerless to turn her frustration against the system that “brutally ignores” her affective life, she releases it through the games she plays. In one favorite game, she fantasizes being a Princess whose servant, guilty of some nameless “horrible treachery,” is subjected to “punishments marked by exquisitely lengthy and torturous procedures” (121). In another, she builds a sand town for ladybugs in which they have to “prove their gratitude by strictly following the prescribed streets and paths.” When they stray, she buries them in “underground sand caves: prisons” and when they escape she says: “You're bad, wicked, disobedient. … violently and hastily she covers them with loose sand, again and again, as soon as they try to escape. I'll show you. Why should she cry, she's actually quite delighted” (162).

In a game with her brother Lutz, Nelly imagines that the dolls in their doll house are guilty of the vague crime of “Pretending.” Nelly and Lutz, appointing themselves thought-police, punish the dolls brutally:

Nelly and Lutz, who know what goes on in the culprit's minds, shake them up and call them by their real names: Spare Rib, Owl Claw, Bat Beast, Stink Puke, Cross-eyes, Mongoltop, and Dung Heap. There is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Their punishment is based on the principle that pretenders deserve to be misled. Their arms and legs are tightly bound with yarn, they're thrown into a corner, Stink Puke's head is pushed into the toilet. All food is removed from the house. Lutz, who controls the batteries, must cut off all the lights.


It is not difficult to see what Nelly is playing out in her games. On the one hand, she is identifying herself with those in power, as the Princess, the city builder, the moral avenger. On the other, growing up as she does with relentless demands for obedience and conformity, with pressure never to slip, never to think any selfish or unpatriotic thought, Nelly must also identify on some level with the treacherous servants, insects and dolls who are “guilty” of secret, subversive thoughts, of being insufficiently “grateful” for having their lives rigidly ordered, of having “real names” or real, hidden selves, grotesque selves who hate those who have power over them.

As Cassandra is led captive into Greece, she reports that her heart, bludgeoned out of its ability to feel, has turned instead into a kind of hard, metallic weapon: “my heart, which I had stopped feeling long ago, grew smaller, firmer, harder with each rest stop, as a smarting stone from which I could not wring another drop of moisture: then my resolution was formed, smelted, tempered, forged, and cast like a spear” (22). Her hatred of Achilles and her desire to do violence against him as he did violence against her people, becomes at times her whole existence: “If only nothing survived me but my hatred. If the hatred sprouted from my grave, a tree of hate that would whisper: ‘Achilles the brute’” (79); “If only he, Achilles, had died a thousand deaths. If only I could have been present at every one. Let the earth vomit out his ashes” (83).

Cassandra never acts on her hatred, but another group of women, the Amazons, led by the woman warrior Penthesilea, do—they are rumored to have actually “killed their own menfolk” (117). They have, as Kristeva would put it, made men “a scapegoat charged with the evil” of war. Penthesilea seems to believe that by stopping men, she can stop war, even if she must wage war to do it; she is willing to have “everything … come to a stop,” to destroy all human life if necessary, even her own, because “I don't know any other way to make the men stop” (118).

Instead of ending male violence, however, Penthesilea's attack on Achilles, which ends in her own murder and the rape of her dead body, only drives other women to further violence, to random, animalistic destruction. The women rage through the camps “like a monster”: “A procession leading nowhere on earth, leading to madness. … The companions of the corpse came to resemble human beings as little as she did. Not to speak of the howling. … Their knowledge was in their flesh which hurt unbearably—the howling!—in their hair, their fingernails, in the marrow of their bones” (121).

Panthous the Greek priest appears, and though he is innocent of Penthesilea's death, the women rip his body apart. In committing mass counter-violence, they have indeed become exactly the thing they claim to hate; instead of reclaiming their right to an “I,” they have revealed, as Cassandra laments, just how much they belong to the “we” of their supposed oppressors: “we are capable of rummaging through someone else's entrails and of cracking his skull … I say ‘we,’ and of all the ‘we's’ I eventually said, this is still the one that challenges me most. It is so much easier to say ‘Achilles the brute’ than to say this ‘we’” (119).

Kristeva supposes that the woman possessed by violence will turn it against some external, “excluded” evil element, but we have seen that such a we/they division—the “good” conforming self versus the “guilty” rebellious self—can occur within a single individual under pressure from the military state. Even to retain an individual body is lasting proof that such a woman has not surrendered absolutely to the totality, and when she strikes out in frustration, she may turn her violent feelings against herself. Nelly has “fits of depression” in which she compulsively rips her cuticles, alternately starves herself and binges on chocolates, and makes herself walk barefoot over the iron boot-scraper outside her front door (251). Cassandra likewise is shown to experience moments of perversely self-indulgent, almost voluptuous masochism. It is simultaneously alienating and liberating, intensely painful and also pleasurable: “I did not want to feed this body, I wanted this criminal body, where the voice of death had its seat, to starve, to wither away. Lunacy: an end to the torture of pretense. Oh, I enjoyed it dreadfully … I had gone back to being myself. But my self did not exist” (60).

Punishing her body, Cassandra punishes her failure to conform to Troy. At the same time, though, she is achieving a kind of freedom—if she destroys her body, no one can have control over her anymore. In a strange sense, by almost killing herself, she recovers if only for a moment her affective life—an element of “dreadful” pleasure.

Eventually, Cassandra decides that to retain her body, to continue to live, will force her to remain enslaved to a system that both denies her inner “I,” and pushes her toward participating in Achilles's brutal “we.” Offered a chance for escape and survival with Aeneas, she deliberately chooses capture and execution by the Greeks. Society as it is currently constructed, she has come to believe, will inevitably force the soft, human, private self into a rigid, dehumanized role—that of murderer, or at best, of statue-like “hero.” Her choice, effectively a suicide, is to her the only way to avoid “submission to a role contrary to my nature” (95).

This is, to say the least, a bleak conclusion: that the only way to have a free self is to die. There is, however, another faint hope held out, in Cassandra if not in A Model Childhood, another possible model for human existence. Throughout the war, small groups, both Trojan and Greek, have escaped briefly from the citadels and the war camps to gather in caves that line the Scamander river. These people, frustrated by war, have been inviting the disaffected: “Come to the mountains. The forest. The caves along the Scamander. Between killing and dying, there is a third alternative: living” (118).

The life they make for themselves there is admittedly idealized, but as an ideal at least it would seem to provide some sort of answer to both Virginia Woolf and Julia Kristeva. It imagines a way for those who oppose war to remove themselves from participation in it, as Woolf wishes to do, but does so without predicating their separatism on any vain hope of its stopping the war, or of ending war's power to destroy them. At the same time, it asserts that it is possible that such a society might function, not in the counter-violent way the Amazons choose, but as a haven which is indeed “harmonious, without prohibitions, free and fulfilling,” to use Kristeva's formulation, without having that harmony overrun, as Kristeva implies it must be, by the violent desire for revenge.

The society in the caves acknowledges, and satisfies, the individual's primal need to belong to a group, but creates a group that holds as sacred the individuality of each member, their bodies, and their feelings. The people in the caves prize talk, self-expression, touch, and the pleasure of belonging, not to a vast, impersonal totality, but to a web of intimate relationships: “we sang a lot. Talked a lot. … We used to tell each other our dreams; many of us were amazed at how much they revealed about us. … we spontaneously touched each other and got acquainted. … we concentrated on what mattered most: ourselves, playfully” (132–33).

The group is admittedly made up mostly of women, but not so by design; it exists as an alternative to the practices of killing and dying, but does not define itself in opposition to an “excluded element” of human beings. Men weary of war can come; Aeneas and his father Anchises come, Greeks can come, even Andron and Eumelos are welcome to come, though there is little hope of helping the two of them (93, 91).

The greatest drawback of this society is that, in a world dominated by war, it cannot last. “We knew we were lost,” says Cassandra, “We were fragile. Our time was limited”; but nevertheless: “it was not a question of how much time we had. Nor of whether we could convince the majority of Trojans, who of course remained in the dismal city. We did not see ourselves as an example. We were grateful that we were the ones granted the highest privilege there is: to slip a narrow strip of future into the grim present, which occupies all of time” (132–34).

The temporary nature of the society in the caves is both its practical weakness and its greatest ethical strength—it is not going to force itself down the throat of history, it will not battle others for dominion or glory, or even for basic survival. “Why hurt other people? Or disturb them,” asks Cassandra when she is brought to the caves. Saying that, “All of a sudden I noticed that my heart was in great pain. Tomorrow I would get up again with a reanimated heart that was no longer beyond the reach of pain” (124). The restoration of the ability to feel is what life in the caves allows, and it is possibly the greatest victory Cassandra can have over the immensity of war—to refuse to be made “indifferent,” to hold onto her affective life, even if all she can feel is pain.

Just before her death, Cassandra is asked by a Greek chariot driver a question much like that originally posed by Virginia Woolf: “if victory after victory means destruction in the end, then destruction is planted in our nature?” Cassandra can only answer, “I believe that we do not know our nature. That I do not know anything. So in the future there may be people who know how to turn their victory into life” (116).

Early on in Cassandra, Wolf writes, “War gives its people their shape … they were made and shattered by war” (13). Perhaps we cannot, as Virginia Woolf would like to do, avoid the shaping affect which militaristic society has on us. Nor does Christa Wolf have an easy answer for how to bring an end to violence. The best we can do, Wolf seems to suggest, is to maintain a constant, humane awareness of how deeply systems of violence can penetrate us and influence our own behavior; if we can accomplish this, we may be better able to resist the power of militarism to shatter our emotional selves, or to make us participate in the shattering of others.’

Works Cited

Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Trans. Ralph Manheim. Boston: Houghton, 1971.

Kristeva, Julia. “Women's Time.” 1979. The Kristeva Reader. New York: Columbia, 1986. 187–213.

Wolf, Christa. Cassandra. 1983. Trans. Jan Van Heurck. New York: Farrar, 1984.

———. Fourth Dimension: Interviews with Christa Wolf. 1987. Trans. Hilary Pilkington. London: Verso, 1988.

———. A Model Childhood. Trans. Ursule Molinaro and Hedwig Rappolt. New York: Farrar, 1980.

Virginia Woolf. Three Guineas. New York: Harcourt, 1938.

Wes Blomster (review date Winter 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 566

SOURCE: A review of Was bleibt and Reden im Herbst, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 1, Winter, 1991, p. 111.

[In the following review, Blomster discusses the critical reception of Was bleibt.]

Christa Wolf might have subtitled Was bleibt “Ein Tag in dem Leben einer DDR-Schriftstellerin,” for in the brief narrative she tells of the close observation by the East German secret police to which she was subjected in 1979 as a result of her stand on the expatriation of her colleague Wolf Biermann. The work is remarkable for the almost unmediated account it gives of wiretapping, break-ins, and the attempt to undermine a public reading that Wolf gave in East Berlin on the evening in question. Wolf conveys the anxiety, the helpless frustration, and—above all—the nausea that she experienced at the hands of the Stasi.

More important than the book itself is the critical dispute that has grown up around it throughout Germany. Wolf has been called by some a “state poet” of the GDR who, because she never broke with the regime, supported it through the mere fact that she remained in the country. However, no less a colleague than Günter Grass has come to Wolf's defense in a Spiegel interview, in which he praises her for her desire to live in peace with all parties while serving the high humanitarian goals that were at the center of her concern.

Was bleibt is a deeply personal document of inhumane persecution by unjust authorities that, precisely because it was written by a (the?) major author of the GDR, will undoubtedly achieve classic stature a decade from now. For the moment, however, the book raises the old and always painful questions about the role of the intellectual in society. Should Wolf—like Biermann, Jurek Becker, Sarah Kirsch, and Monica Maron, to mention only a few—have turned her back upon her native land long ago? (Those who feel this way overlook the fact that Biermann did not leave the GDR willingly.) Has Wolf not, precisely through her efforts to work for reform from within the country, contributed to its long-term survival? This is a question, of course, of special relevance to Germans who look back upon a half-century of their history.

Although the title Reden im Herbst is intended only as a literal location in time for Wolf's public contributions to the Wende or “turn” that began the revolution within the GDR in the autumn of 1989, it further cloaks the volume's seventeen brief essays, speeches, and letters—quite appropriately—with an aura of autumnal melancholy, for, as the author admits in her brief foreword, they had become the artifacts of a now-lost hope even before their publication. The title involves a certain inaccuracy, for the longest item in the book is a 1988 interview in which Wolf tellingly defines her position within—and on—the GDR. Her open letter to the East German PEN Club asking support of the organization for the then-imprisoned Václav Havel is dated February 1989. Beyond that, however, the emphasis of the collection is upon Wolf's public role in the tormented events surrounding the fortieth anniversary of the GDR and the fall of the Berlin wall. Even if Wolf's richly critical thought is now, alas, nothing more than a documentation of a major moment in history, Reden im Herbst will remain essential to a full understanding of the author and her literary work.

Martin Jay (essay date Fall 1991)

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SOURCE: “Force Fields: Who's Afraid of Christa Wolf? Thoughts on the Dynamics of Cultural Subversion,” in Salmagundi, No. 92, Fall, 1991, pp. 44–53.

[In the following essay, Jay discusses public criticism of Wolf stemming from the publication of Was bleibt and allegations of her complicity with the former East German government.]


“Why not?,” asked our driver, as he jumped the curb and drove his little Trabant onto the thin strip of paved road between the still forbidding outer ramparts of what since 1961 had been known simply as “The Wall.” It was now July, 1990, eight months after it had been breached and the city it had separated reunited, but this was the first time he had been tempted to enter the former Todesstreifen or “deathstrip” that had encircled West Berlin. What only a short time ago was a no-man's-land patrolled by watchdogs and guarded by border police with automatic weapons was now open to anyone with the curiosity to wander into it and a car as small as a Trabi able to negotiate its narrow road. Except for a listless group of teenagers resting on their motorcycles, we were the only ones who seemed to seize the opportunity that summer afternoon.

As we passed toppled watchtowers and bales of rolled up barbed wire, taking note of the fresh graffiti that now covered previously untouchable section of the interior faces of the walls, we felt at once exhilarated and uneasy. Scarcely more than a half year before, our act would have invited imprisonment or even death; now it was a harmless adventure with nothing but the rattling of the tinny car on the uneven pavement to cause us concern. What would have once been a reckless gesture of defiance, perhaps even subversion if it had been a prelude to escape, was now an innocuous excursion for tourists fascinated by the detritus of a crumbling political order.

Our driver was a young and talented professor of English at the Humboldt University in East Berlin, a Shakespeare scholar who had made his first visit to the West only a few months before. He had been our guest in Berkeley and was now graciously showing us his city in return. As we drove through the deathstrip, he ruminated on the uncertain future of East German academics, indeed of his compatriot intellectuals in general. Although he had not actively aided the Stasi (as had the historian with whom we had lunch earlier that day), he frankly admitted that he had not been an outspoken dissident either. Like many others with careers to make and families to support, he had succumbed to the pressures of the system in which he found himself, without, he hoped, committing moral outrages. Now it was unclear if his past would be held against him, especially if job-hungry West German scholars were parachuted into East German universities to take over departments. Would they be able, he wondered, to distinguish between the hacks and time-servers, who deserved to be sacked unceremoniously, and the genuine scholars, whose gifts were thwarted by the inability to publish freely?

That his anxiety was not groundless, he pointed out, was shown by the controversy then swirling around East Germany's most distinguished novelist, Christa Wolf, which followed the publication of her short autobiographical story, Was bleibt, in the spring of 1990. Written a decade earlier, but kept in her drawer until the fall of the GDR, it told of her surveillance by the secret police in 1979 and the anguish it caused. Why only now, her critics in newspapers like Die Welt,Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and even the liberal Die Zeit were asking, did she choose to disclose her persecution? Had she, in fact, been only a pseudo-critic of the regime, whose mild, often indirect reproaches were never really very hostile to the system? Was she perhaps a kind of house critic, providing a fig leaf for Communist tyranny by allowing herself to be used as an example of its alleged tolerance of criticism? For if she were genuinely subversive, why hadn't she been forcibly expatriated like the singer and poet Wolf Biermann, who was expelled in 1976? Worst of all, hadn't she benefited from her role by being granted privileges, such as the right to travel abroad, denied other citizens of the GDR?

Such questions evoked others in our East German friend. How representative were these attacks, he worried, of the reception in the new Germany awaiting academics and intellectuals from the wrong side of the Wall? Was there a witchhunt in the works, as old scores were settled and new recriminations invented? Would humiliating, ritual self-criticisms of the type so common in Communist societies now ironically be demanded in a post-Communist Germany? How clean must the hands be of those who wished to continue their careers after the change? Who, in fact, would be empowered to examine those hands for signs of indelible stains?

Soon after our trip through the deathstrip a somewhat reassuring answer to these anxious questions was forthcoming, as outcries of indignation came from West German defenders of Wolf's integrity. In a long interview in Der Spiegel, Günter Grass angrily deplored the “inquisitorial and pharisaical tone” of her critics. The leader of the West German PEN, Walter Jens, dubbed the attack an example of “postmodernist McCarthyism.” The author of such deeply unsettling novels as The Quest for Christa T. (1968) and Cassandra (1983), they insisted, needed no lessons in resistance from comfortably placed writers in the West who risked nothing by attacking Communism.

Wolf's dogged insistence on remaining in the GDR, they further argued, could be explained by her hopes, now proven vain, for a genuinely socialist future. Her poignant plea on November 4, 1989, five days before the Wall fell, to the 500,000 demonstrators in East Berlin's Alexanderplatz to stay in the GDR reflected her belief that despite everything, something might still be salvaged from the forty years of “actually existing socialism.” Wolf's fantasy, “Imagine it is socialism and no one leaves,” may have been naive, they acknowledged, but it expressed the integrity of a writer whose motives were anything but self-protective.

“The Wolf case,” as it quickly became known, was especially heated because it recalled for some a similar debate that split refugees from Nazi Germany and the “inner emigres” who remained at home. In May, 1945, Thomas Mann had written an open letter from America to Walter von Molo in which he claimed that all books composed in Germany between 1933 and 1945 were “worse than worthless. … a stench of blood and disgrace clings to them; they all ought to be pulped.” Mann was vigorously answered by writers like Frank Thiess, who praised the inner emigres for “staying at their posts” and suffering the regime in dignified silence. German public opinion rallied around Thiess and Mann's reputation in his former homeland was badly damaged, at least in the short run until Thiess's pro-Nazi past was exposed.

Now, ironically, Wolf was being cast in the role of the compromised inner emigre and her West German critics were playing that of Thomas Mann. There was, however, a major difference, as her defenders were quick to point out, between the Nazi regime and the GDR after its Stalinist period. The latter was by no means as unequivocally evil as the former and could honestly have been interpreted as containing the potential for a progressive evolution. Wolf, moreover, had not remained silent, but had been involved in various forms of public protest, including speaking out when Biermann was expelled, which led to her demotion in the League of Writers. In addition, her strong feminist stance, evident in her essays on Karoline von Günderrode and Bettina von Arnim, also challenged the East German status quo.

Wolf herself refused to respond to the charges, but in an interview in 1982 had presciently anticipated them. Asked to comment on the reluctance of 19th-century women writers to publish under their own names, she replied,

Probably that can be understood in terms of the atmosphere of the time. I think there are certain things we refrain from doing nowadays, some of them consciously, that won't be understood later. Not even if we would explicitly describe them. Because a lot of taboos must actually be understood not in terms of what is stipulated, but the whole ambience and mood of the time, and the limits in one's self—a mixture of all these things, and I imagine that's the way it must have been for those women, who had dreadful external restrictions to endure.

To fault Günderrode for publishing under a masculine pseudonym was thus unjustly anachronistic, and by extension so too was attacking Wolf herself for not taking Was bleibt out of her drawer earlier. It was as foolish as failing to recognize that our friend's question “Why not drive into the deathstrip?” would evoke a different response in July, 1990 from the one it would have demanded a year before.

Wolf's West German critics were not entirely blind to these considerations; Ulrich Greiner, for example, willingly acknowledged differences between Nazism and East German Communism. But he insisted that one of them was the important role intellectuals like Bertolt Brecht, Anna Seghers, Arnold Zweig and indeed Christa Wolf had played in legitimating the Communist regime, a function rarely played by comparable figures from 1933 to 1945. It was therefore absolutely necessary that such intellectuals humbly atone for their mistakes and accept the responsibility for their misdeeds. Otherwise, the reproach made against Germany's failure to “master” its Nazi past could just as easily be made in regard to its four decades of Communism.

Behind the moralizing arguments of Wolf's critics, however, could be seen other agendas. Wolf, along with the writers Stefan Heym and Christoph Hein, represented resistance to what seemed to be the swallowing of the GDR whole by the Federal Republic. In this they were clearly not typical of the population of East Germany, which was unmoved by their pleas to make a revolution from below. The now celebrated (or notorious) transformation of the democratic cry “We are the people” into the nationalist “We are one people,” which presaged the unexpectedly rapid reunification, symbolized the vanity of their hopes. The attacks on Wolf were in part intended to make sure the unification remained what it had become by the spring of 1990: a revolution from above, a German tradition as old as the Reform era of the early 19th century. In addition, they were aimed at a target in the Federal Republic itself, the remnants of its demoralized and chastened left. For in criticizing Wolf's hopes of finding a residue of genuine socialist emancipation in the wreckage of the GDR, they were also striking out at similar hopes among West German intellectuals.

From the perspective of an outsider, the “Christa Wolf case” may seem oddly overblown. But once its tangle of motivations, emotional overtones, and historical resonances is unraveled, its importance can easily be seen. Wolf herself, I suspect, will survive the controversy undamaged, as her record is scrutinized and her personal integrity better appreciated. By the end of the summer of 1990, the French Minister of Culture Jack Lang could still award her a prize and defiantly defend her against her defamers. Significantly, unlike in the case of Mann and the inner emigres of the Third Reich, those who chose to leave or were expelled from the GDR were not the ones throwing the rocks at those who stayed.

As for the fate of less prominent academics, there can be no doubt that many non-teaching members of the East German Academy of Arts and Sciences, whose numbers were in the thousands, will find themselves looking for new work. Many seemed to have enjoyed sinecures without much compulsion to engage in serious scholarship. Those who have been actually teaching may find it easier to remain in place, especially if their subjects are now in demand. Professors of English, like our friend at Humboldt University, are likely to do a lot better than philosophers whose specialty was Dialectical Materialism. But even among the former, those who were clearly complicitous with the old system at its most authoritarian may be shunted aside. Still, if one remembers the spotty and inconclusive de-Nazification process after 1945, it is hard to believe that much more will happen now that Communism has ended. For despite the furor over the need to “master the second German totalitarian past,” there is little anxiety that Communist attitudes remain to poison the new Germany even to the extent that Nazi ones threatened the Federal Republic after the war. If anything, the threat comes from unmastered residues of the hyper-nationalist past, allowed to fester for forty years, rather than, pace Greiner, the remnants of Stalinism.


Whatever the ultimate outcome of the “Wolf case” and everything surrounding it, there is perhaps a larger question raised by this story, a question that can be said to touch on recent debates in American academic life. I am talking about the issue of what constitutes genuine or false “subversion.” If Wolf's work and public activity before the fall of the Wall can be retrospectively damned as pseudo-critical, if, to up the ante, her pseudo-critical work can be construed as inadvertently functional in maintaining the repressive system it purported to challenge, then the question arises, what would a genuine critique have looked like? How, moreover, can we judge the potential gap between critical intentions and the effects they may or may not produce?

In the late 1970's, when radical American intellectuals were still bathing in the backwash of the previous decade, this precise issue was addressed by a small group of Frankfurt School disciples who talked of the transition from “one-dimensional society” to what they called the “age of artificial negativity.” Herbert Marcuse's celebrated claim that late capitalism had successfully suppressed any negation, any second dimension dialectically opposed to the status quo, was, they argued, no longer valid. Instead, the “system” now reproduced itself by the secretion of pseudo-negations, whose artificiality was judged by the fact that they didn't really challenge it on any fundamental level. Apparently oppositional movements from feminism to the counter-culture were all covertly functional in preserving the system, however much they wanted to subvert it. Even the culture industry no longer needed to control all dissident currents; instead it tolerated, even nurtured apparently independent initiatives, which nonetheless were impotent to challenge the logic of the system as a whole.

Although the criteria distinguishing “organic” from “artificial negativity” were never satisfactorily developed by the proponents of this argument, who also failed to demonstrate how their own work was exempt from the charge of artificiality, the doubts they expressed about the contradiction between the manifest and latent functions of oppositional movements have continued to bother many observers. In the past decade, they have, for example, often informed debates about the political implications of post-structuralist thought. Is deconstruction as radically subversive as its defenders like to claim, or does it leave things shaking, but still standing, as its critics often charge? Is Foucault's notion of power so totalizing that it precludes any alternative to the eternal recurrence of the same? Is the “new historicism” beholden to a model of containment that suggests all alleged transgressions really preserve the laws which they seem to challenge? Does the “post-Marxist” abandonment of “classist” social analysis lead to a reliance on marginal phenomena that in no way disrupt late capitalism at its core?

A great deal of energy and ingenuity has been expended on trying to answer these questions, as virtually no one wants to be found guilty of espousing a pseudo-subversive position that functions to preserve the status quo. No one willingly accepts the charge of cooptation by the system hurled by their critics. Even those who insist they have given up all thoughts of a meta-narrative of emancipation take pride in subverting the illusions of those who do, often claiming as well that they are calling into question the totalitarian implications of a totalizing analysis.

How valid all these claims and counter-claims may be is not my concern now. What I want to highlight instead is the widely shared topos of genuine versus false subversion, which draws on the model of manifest and latent functions. For despite the fact that the German critics of Wolf come predominantly from the right, whereas the Americans who espouse the artificial negativity argument and worry about the implications of post-structuralism are broadly speaking on the left, they both operate with the same fundamental assumption: that one can tell confidently the difference between what really subverts and what does not.

If there is any lesson of the “Wolf case,” however, it is the difficulty of making this distinction. It is especially difficult to make in advance, before the outcomes of actions are clear. Indeed, if we take seriously the claim that history never reaches its final state, then there can perhaps never be a vantage point from which this clarity is perfectly evident. In 1990, it may seem that Wolf was foolishly naive to believe that socialism could be reformed or that German unity entirely on Kohl's terms was avoidable, but from some later perspective, perhaps she will be understood to have anticipated future trends. Thus her “compromises” with the system may not seem so unwarranted, after all. In other words, there is an inevitably temporal moment in judgments about subversion, an infinite deferral, if you will, of the final balance sheet.

There is also what might be called a spatial problem underlying the genuine/false subversion distinction. That is, what is the relevant unit of analysis whose subversion is at stake? What are the boundaries of the system which is being challenged or maintained, and how can we circumscribe them? As Gerald Graff has rightly noted, “a point is reached at which almost anything can be praised for its subversiveness or damned for its vulnerability to co-optation, for there is always some frame of reference that will support either description.”

In the case of the GDR, the boundaries were easier to discern than they are for “late capitalism” or the society of “artificial negativity”; there is no physical Wall, after all, separating the latter from an alternative system. But even in the GDR's case, there were no visible walls rigidly defining its internal landscape, no markers keeping the false from the genuine subversives apart. Rather than pretend to see a clear-cut distinction between the two, it is thus perhaps wiser to be attuned to the multiple ambiguities of words and deeds that resist reduction to one function alone. From the lofty vantage point of a fully redeemed utopian order, efforts to ameliorate the status of individuals or groups in the current society may seem like counter-productive diversions. But from that of the people involved, meaningful changes in their lives and those of others may result.

It is thus imperative to be sensitive to the contextual possibilities defining the choices available at the time. Entering the deathstrip is suicidal at one moment in history, a lark the next. Deconstructing texts may at times call extra-textual authority into question, at others, it may serve to reinforce the status quo. The choices we make cannot be judged by some ultimate standard of subversiveness, based on an intransigently maximalist conception of the system that has to be overthrown. Consider, for example, the well-known dilemma of the leaders of the Jewish Councils during the Holocaust, whose horrible choices no one lucky enough not to face them can presume to judge. Only those comfortably outside a complicated situation can afford to cast aspersions at the Christa Wolfs who fail to live up to some notion of absolute opposition.

This is not to deny the existence of time-servers, who pretend to agonize over moral issues, but are really concerned with prospering no matter how awful the compromises they make. But what cannot be held against them is the failure to adhere to the logic of genuine versus false subversion, organic versus artificial negativity. More traditional moral criteria must also be introduced to complicate our judgments. Those who thought such criteria could be abandoned in the name of the world court of history—the Merleau-Ponty of Humanism and Terror comes to mind as an obvious example—have often come to regret their decision. For history has a way of subverting the logic we impute to it. Among its victims are the belief that participants and even historians can know what genuine and artificial negativity, real and pseudo-subversion, really are.

Myra Love (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9186

SOURCE: “‘A Little Susceptible to the Supernatural?’: On Christa Wolf,” in Women in German Yearbook: Feminist Studies in German Literature and Culture, edited by Jeanette Clausen and Sara Friedrichsmeyer, University of Nebraska Press, 1991, pp. 1–22.

[In the following essay, Love identifies aspects of psychic experience and intuitive understanding in Wolf's writings that challenge and transcend the Western concept of rationality.]

I see what is beneath me, what is above me,
what men say is-not …

(H. D., “The Flowering of the Rod”)


In first setting out to write this essay, I intended simply to address a topic with little currency in academic discourse: the thematization of prophecy, clairvoyance, and extraordinary or psychic healing in the writings of Christa Wolf. The presence of references to such phenomena in her writing, the absence of a functional vocabulary suited to discussion of the topic, and the tendency of literary critics and scholars to avoid any serious confrontation with it made the topic seem both fascinating and intimidating.

The thematization of prophecy, clairvoyance, and psychic healing in Wolf's writings is difficult to place in context. My first impulse was to historicize the subject: to treat it as yet another indicator of Wolf's affinity or indebtedness to Romanticism,1 or to analyze it as an extension of her critique of the mechanical materialism into which the Marxism of the GDR had degenerated. Then I considered writing about it as an aspect of Wolf's critique, most strongly stated in Cassandra and the Cassandra-lectures, Conditions of a Narrative, of the mind-body split, which is itself a part of her larger critique of the blind spots of western civilization, including the exclusion of women and of what has come to be termed “the feminine” from western civilization's definition of what is rational, valid, and real. The concept of the “feminine” has, at least since the beginning of modernity, been the repository for all that has to do with intuition and the soul, which are neither scientifically verifiable nor amenable to “rational” elucidation. Perhaps it is this equation of the feminine and the irrational that has mitigated against scholarly discussion of the psychic, intuitive, and even spiritual elements that recur in Christa Wolf's writing from The Quest for Christa T. through Sommerstück.2

Though some colleagues warned that a project with the focus I envisioned might give rise to a belief that I had succumbed to the occult, others encouraged me, fascinated as I was by the apparent paradoxes inherent in the topic. Christa Wolf is, after all, a Marxist, and despite doubts expressed by her East German critics about her commitment to a materialist world-view, her various negative comments on religion and mysticism appeared to leave little room for interpretations of her writing from a mystical or occult perspective.

Indeed, Wolf has evinced considerable discomfort with religious attitudes and practices, mentioning with some distaste in both A Model Childhood and Cassandra the unnerving childhood belief that one is under constant scrutiny by a deity and distancing herself explicitly from any kind of writing characterized by “mysticism” and the “abandonment of knowledge” (“Notwendiges Streitgespräch” 103).3 She has likewise expressed in the Cassandra-lectures her aversion to the misogyny of the “Semitic-Christian” religious framework, describing her skeptical response when an acquaintance turned to Christianity as a source of transcendental values. In both A Model Childhood and Accident, she articulates a distrust of religiously based world views, along with her reservations toward the nature of the secular knowledge and behavior that have displaced religious frameworks. In A Model Childhood, in a passage describing a conversation between the narrator and her relatives during a drive into the center of the narrator's hometown, they pass one of the churches, which the narrator dismisses as “functional buildings that are useful as long as human beings feel obliged to believe” (338), and enter the reconstructed inner city:

You drive through the rebuilt inner city … and you ask yourselves why the conviction that man should be guided by his knowledge, rather than by his faith, has thus far produced so little beauty. You find no answer, because the question is posed wrongly. It doesn't cover the type, the extent, the direction, and the goal of this knowledge.


And in Accident, we read:

If, in fact, the need for rule and subordination is so pressing in us from early on that it must form the basis of the invention of our gods—that we (I added, reflecting upon my life), should we be capable of freeing ourselves from the compulsion to worship gods, are prey to the compulsion to submit to people, ideas, idols—well, where then, brother heart, is the escape route … ?


Wolf's commitment to knowledge rather than faith precludes religious or occult readings of her oeuvre. Yet clairvoyance in the literary texts up to and including Cassandra and of psychic healing in Accident and Sommerstück are unmistakable themes and can be documented: Christa T.'s encounter with the soothsayer, Günderrode's attraction to and understanding of clairvoyance, Cassandra's experiences of merging with those close to her as well as her prophetic trances, the psychic transmission of healing energy by the narrator to her anesthetized brother in Accident, and the description of an encounter with a folk-healer or witch, who in Sommerstück successfully makes use of ashes from her hearth to alleviate symptoms. These supernaturalist elements are hard to reconcile with a purely naturalistic or materialist Weltanschauung, and it is difficult therefore to integrate this topic into our accepted frameworks for interpreting Wolf's prose.4 My aim here is not merely to demonstrate the existence of the paranormal in Wolf's writing but also to attempt to bridge the distance from where we as critics stand to where the topic makes sense.

Wolf's treatment of the paranormal is emblematic of an aspect of her writing to which western critics have paid little attention. Indeed, the discomfort long experienced and expressed by critics in the GDR is not completely based on a misreading or misunderstanding of her writing. Western critics have recently begun to share that discomfort with both her view of the nature and function of literature and her conception of reality. If I am correct, the radicality of Wolf's prose is a function of its deviation from the narrowly conceived naturalism and materialism of the “scientific” world-view that constitutes the consensus reality of socialists and capitalists alike. She has laid the groundwork for such deviation in her frequent criticism of consensus reality.5

I shall endeavor to articulate the extent and nature of that deviation in this discussion. Before trying to specify the radicality of her prose, it may be useful though to try to elucidate some of the grounds for the philosophical and political discomfort her writing engenders.


When critics reproach Christa Wolf for not doing what she claims to be doing, it is usually because she does not accept what they consider the objective limits to the dimension of subjectivity. Most often these critics have been GDR Marxists reprimanding her for her “moralism” in the face of historical necessity or decrying her inadequate adherence to a materialist world view. When Hans Kaufmann drafted his critique of Wolf's rejection of traditional realistic fiction, he defined her specific understanding of the task of contemporary prose:

The task today is to develop a prose art that occupies heights analogous to Einsteinian and Heisenbergian thinking.

The polemic thrust of these remarks … is aimed at the objectivity of movement. What disturbs her about the “mechanics” of the heavens and the earth is materialism, to be precise, and she tries to get past the objective reality, which she places in quotation marks, by referring to dialectics and relativity.


While repeating some of the objections of other GDR critics, Kaufmann's criticism does come closer to the real difficulty that Wolf's prose poses for the historical materialist (as well, I think, as for the western ahistorical materialist or naturalist of whatever philosophical inclination). He fails, however, to take Wolf's analogy to Einsteinian and especially Heisenbergian thinking as seriously as it deserves to be taken—as a serious attempt to assert the fluid complexity of the interpenetration of subjective and social processes that Wolf sees as the proper subject matter of the contemporary author. Kaufmann also directs his critique at what he considers the “cathartic” purpose of her writing, that is, her emphasis on emotional response as a key to facilitating understanding and the emergence of subjective agency, another manifestation of the same rejection of an expanded notion of what constitutes reality.

Frequently, however, when western critics have expressed their views, the target has not been Wolf's inadequate historical consciousness or materialism, but dialectics itself and specifically the assertion of a dialectic of subjectivity that resolves into self-identity, which they take to be Wolf's aim. Rainer Nägele is a case in point. He asserts, for instance, the existence of an inevitable “rupture” in the dialectic of subjectivity constituted by a radical otherness, both of the unconscious and “the letter,” that is inaccessible except through a trace structure and therefore exceeds the reach of subjectivity and cannot be brought into any kind of dialectic (“The Writing”).

Subjectivity seems to be at the heart of all the difficulties. It, as we all know thanks to Freud and Lacan, supposedly exists only under the sign of castration, and the objectivity of the historical laws governing the development of productive forces, so we learn from Marx and his interpreters, is determinant in the final instance. In any case, our limitations shield us from responsibility for what is beyond our conscious control; and history, psychology, the economy, or perhaps even biology can be held accountable for our personal failures as well as the apparent destructiveness and self-destructiveness of our civilization.

So the currently accepted wisdom would seem to be the inevitability of lack, the impossibility of radical social or personal transformation, and the acceptance of both of these as the “human condition.” This is and doubtless will remain the case so long as subjectivity is identified with the structure of the separative ego (e.g., Keller), one form that the fixation on what Wolf (following Büchner) has called the “citadel of reason” takes. But the subjectivity to which Wolf refers repeatedly is itself neither a perfect self-identity nor a lack, but rather an excess that exceeds possessive individualism, including self-possession, escapes confinement, and constitutes itself as an unbounded relational structure, an underlying radical connectivity so extended as to call into question traditional models of identity as enclosure within the self:

So far, everything that has befallen me has struck an answering chord. This is the secret that encircles and holds me together … : There is something of everyone in me, so I have belonged completely to no one, and I have even understood their hatred for me. Once “in the past” … I tried to talk about it to Myrine … Aeneas had pulled out with his people. Myrine despised him. And I tried to tell her—no, not just that I understood Aeneas; that I knew him. As if I were he. As if I were crouching inside him, feeding in thought on his traitorous resolves.

(Cassandra 4–5)

One may perhaps speak here of a transpersonal self and call into question the identification of subjectivity with the limits of interpersonal identification valid only when identity is equated with ego-identity. The conceptualization and experience of subjectivity as excess rather than lack has political implications and consequences as well, including the breakdown of the opposition between friend and enemy. This is thematized in Cassandra as the protagonist's ability to empathize with the Greeks, an ability not to be reduced to or confused with the simple fear of conflict.6

By refusing to take seriously the idea, put forth again and again in Wolf's writings, that a correspondence exists between our innermost being and what befalls us, her critics misunderstand the task that she has taken upon herself: to investigate complicity rather than to engage in attack. Wolf has consistently, most often using her own experience as the focus, set out to expose the fears that lie at the root of cooperation in victimization and domination:

It's a wild feeling, said Anton, when you really understand no one can do anything to you. You're your own master, if you just want to be. It's only your greed that chains you.

(Sommerstück 150)

This process, undertaken for the purpose of self-empowerment rather than to affix blame, has found resonance in many of Wolf's readers. It also sets Wolf's writing apart from that of writers who are often considered more political, though her choice to write in this fashion is eminently political, since it stems from her attention to the manner in which antagonistic systems of domination resemble each other and eventually replace each other without undermining the persistence of relations of domination. It is to this persistence that she refers when she laments history's tendency to repeat itself, the most common manifestation of which is war.

Part of our heritage is a sense of identity rooted in separation, attack, blame, opposition, and conflict. The invulnerability of the “citadel of reason” in its various manifestations depends upon separation and the inviolability of the boundary between itself and what it excludes. Wolf herself addressed this discomfort with the blurring of boundaries in an interview first published in 1982 in relation to the primarily male discomfort with her portrayal of Kleist in No Place on Earth:

I think it's a … diffuse discomfort with everything androgynous, with the fluid transitions, with the fact that it isn't only one way or the other, friend-foe, male-female. A fear of learning how to live with, not against each other. Not in rigid antinomies, but in fluid transitions, in productive alternatives that wouldn't have to be fatal.

(“Culture” 89–100)

The non-patriarchal implications of Wolf's approach are probably too evident to require extensive comment, since there are feminist approaches that hypothesize a greater openness of women to non-violent and cooperative methods of conflict resolution and problem-solving, attributable at least in part to the relative underdevelopment of the separative ego in many if not most women in western civilization.7 If one wished to look at some theoretical elaborations and implications of thinking that seek to undermine the solidity of boundaries within masculinist phallocentric thought, Luce Irigaray's writings on “The ‘Mechanics’ of Fluids” would be an excellent starting point (106–18). And if the assertion of the relationship between feminist theory and supernaturalism in writing still remains unconvincing, then a passage from Rosemary Jackson's introduction to What Did Miss Darrington See?: An Anthology of Feminist Supernatural Fiction might provide some clarity:

The dominant literary forms in Western culture from the eighteenth century onwards have been realistic and mimetic … There has been no room in such fiction, nor in such a world view, for anything not immediately knowable, for anything invisible, unseen, inexplicable. These areas have been prohibited from mainstream literature just as they have been tabooed by culture at large; a rationalistic, materialistic, scientific, and secular culture has restricted its definition of the “real” to what is familiar and under rational control. This culture is also a patriarchal one, and many of its values and definitions are male-determined. Indeed, some feminist critics have gone so far as to argue that the very history of reason, or rationality, and the materialistic, atheistic philosophy that accompanies it, are inseparable from masculinity and phallocentric power. Literature has supported and reinforced this dominant position.



Though many possible starting points offer potentially productive approaches to the topic at hand, none is fully satisfying, for each tends to make the topic a metaphor for something else, recuperating the radicality of the disjunction with acceptable scholarly frameworks by some variety of narrowly rationalistic translation or transfiguration. That disjunction, however, provokes an intense critical discomfort similar in kind to that evoked by the persistence of Wolf's unwillingness to project contradiction outward and translate it into conflict. As I pondered that discomfort, I increasingly came to believe that Wolf's treatment of the paranormal and her avoidance of conflict (literature as peace research!) are inextricably intertwined and stem from the same source: a refusal to accept the limits to perception that our various intellectual frameworks establish as final.

Of course, intuitive, parapsychological, and even supernatural elements are by no means totally absent in texts by other East German writers. They do not, however, necessarily express an anti-conflictual attitude. Despite the long-established hegemony of socialist realism in the literature of the GDR, the use of the supernatural as a fantastic device has been quite common since the 1970s at least (e.g., Nägele, “Trauer”). The thematization of supernatural phenomena in most East German texts differs though from that in Wolf's writing precisely because for most other writers the “supernatural” really does function as a fantastic device or a satirical weapon, employed essentially as a technique to attack specific social problems and raise consciousness about particular issues. Perhaps the outstanding example of such a use of the supernatural in relation to women's issues occurs in the novels of Irmtraud Morgner. Wolf, on the other hand, seems increasingly concerned with psychic and intuitive abilities as constituents of an expanded reality. These abilities, important because they have been excluded by western rationalism and materialism from what is considered real and therefore part of what Wolf has called the blind spot of our culture, are also, as Cassandra more than any other text makes clear, an effect, a “by-product” of that “‘hellish journey of self-recognition,’ without which … reason cannot exist, according to Kant” (“Büchner-Prize” 6).

The paradoxical nature of a concept of reason based in a journey of self-recognition that gives rise to capabilities that reason excludes and in opposition to which reason defines itself is obvious. And it is perhaps inevitable that Wolf's intensive focus on self-recognition, indeed her definition of her writing as essentially nothing other than a means of self-knowledge, should lead her to concern herself with “nonrational” capabilities. Indeed, the thematization of the paranormal is not the only evidence for a supernaturalist strain in Wolf's writing. Perhaps one key to understanding that supernaturalist strain lies in something to which I have already alluded: Wolf's increasing emphasis on the soul. This manifests itself first in a rather ironic reference in her short story “Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers” (1970), where modern disdain for the concept is exemplified by the utterances of her feline narrative persona. In a relatively recent speech “Krankheit und Liebesentzug: Fragen an die psychosomatische Medizin” (1984) she deals with the same issue more critically and more extensively, focusing in part on the linguistic sleight of mind that makes “psyche” a scientifically acceptable term, while relegating “soul” to the arts. And in Cassandra, the soul is apostrophized in a remarkable passage:

Soul, beautiful bird. I felt its movements in my breast, sometimes light as a feather's touch, sometimes violent and painful. The war gripped the men's breasts and killed the bird. Only when it reached out for my soul too did I say no. A strange notion: The movements of the soul inside me resembled the movements of the children in my body, a gentle stirring, a motion like that in a dream. The first time I felt this frail dream-motion it shook me to the core, opened the barrier inside me which had held back my love for the children of a father who had been forced upon me; the love rushed out with a river of tears.


The sense of self as soul eludes naturalistic and materialistic reductions of reality. Within Wolf's frame of reference, to recognize oneself is to enter into an expansive state where relationships rather than the contracted boundaries of the ego define who and what one is. That state of expanded selfhood gives rise to those capacities that we, from our normally contracted ego-based standpoint, consider paranormal, psychical, or intuitive, and therefore outside the “citadel of reason.” Wolf has formulated that expanded experience of self in terms of contact with realms that exceed the grasp of the five senses. In Cassandra and the lectures, she focuses on the body and the five senses, only to point to what transcends them:

I had the feeling that I was screening with my body the place through which, unbeknown to everyone but me, other realities were seeping into our solid-bodied world, realities which our five agreed-upon senses do not grasp: for which reason we must deny them.


And in Accident, she reiterates the same idea, addressing her unconscious brother, whose surgery she is assisting by means of her imagination, primarily through visualization:

How am I supposed to know with which sense, or senses, you may be taking in everything I am imagining ever so furtively. Seeing hearing smelling tasting touching—and that's all there is? Who believes that, anyway. We can't have been sent on our way with so little sensitivity back then.


It would appear that knowledge that transcends the grasp of the five senses involves relinquishing the sovereignty of the ego for states of consciousness that allow much more fluid interaction between self and not-self. There are numerous other textual passages in Wolf's writings that attest to this alternative model of selfhood and to the correspondence between everyone and everything one encounters and one's innermost being. Those passages, more than anything else, suggest to me that our tendency to read Christa Wolf within the parameters of “received” literary critical approaches, whether Marxist, poststructuralist, or academically feminist, may fail to do justice to the complexity and profundity of her endeavor. They all obfuscate the possibility of alternatives beyond the “citadel of reason”: fluidity, excess, abundance.

Still I am hesitant to read Wolf's writing simply as a step beyond the “citadel of reason,” though I notice many indications that Wolf takes this step, lest I be misunderstood as consigning her writing to the anti-Enlightenment and irrationalist tradition, to which it most definitely does not belong. To go beyond the “citadel of reason” is not necessarily to negate reason but merely to transcend the fortresslike and prisonlike limitations of the rational mind as ego-mind. It is a commonly held postmodern assumption that there is no rational alternative to the “citadel of reason” and that though we may deconstruct or demystify it, we can never really leave it. Yet Wolf's notion, taken over from Kant, of the hellish journey of self-recognition seems to suggest that something more basic underlies and connects the poles of the distinctions we make within the western philosophical tradition: perhaps a recognition of self as something more than that bounded identity of her/him who thinks in opposites.

Wolf is certainly not alone in conceiving of a self beyond ego. Hence her constant emphasis on the importance of the ability to love, by which she is clearly not referring primarily to romantic or sexual attraction. In her Büchner-Prize Speech, she directly attributes the male inability to love to fear, and fear is always an indicator of one's perception of the self as vulnerable or deficient. If “we may understand the activation of love,” as Claudio Naranjo suggests, “as a movement away from the limitations of a deficiency-motivated ego” (141), then perhaps Wolf's reiteration of the importance of love and her expanded notion of subjectivity are elements of a transpersonal world-view, along with the non-conflictual attitude and the expanded sense of personal responsibility for what befalls one to which I referred earlier.

Earlier in this discussion I mentioned Wolf's brief allusion to Einsteinian and Heisenbergian thinking and claimed that Hans Kaufmann failed to take that allusion seriously enough. It is almost a cliché that what are called “the frontier sciences,” including the “new physics,” often call into question many of the same elements of the western philosophical tradition that poststructuralist thinking displaces, particularly dualistic and totalizing modes of ratiocination. The similarity of these contemporary scientific and philosophical enterprises may be due to the shared origin of classical philosophy, theology, and science in the dualistic mode of knowledge and perception that characterizes Greek philosophy. The difference, however, resides in the transcendence by the “new” physicists of the critique of representation undertaken in postmodernism. They suggest not only that the dualistic mode of knowledge characterizing the “citadel of reason” is intrinsically incomplete and lacking, but that productive alternatives to it exist:8

… [W]hen the universe is severed into a subject vs. an object, into one state which sees vs. one which is seen, something always gets left out. In this condition, the universe “will always partially elude itself.” No observing system can observe itself observing. … Every eye has a blind spot. And it is precisely for this reason that at the basis of all such dualistic attempts we find only: Uncertainty, Incompleteness.

Besides relinquishing the illusory division between subject and object, wave and particle, mind and body, mental and material, the new physics … abandoned the dualism of space and time, energy and matter, and even space and objects. … Now this is of the utmost importance, for these scientists could realize the inadequacy of dualistic knowledge only by recognizing (however dimly) the possibility of another mode of knowing Reality, a mode of knowing that does not operate by separating the knower and the known, the subject and the object.

Eddington calls the second mode of knowing “intimate” because the subject and object are intimately united in its operation. As soon as the dualism of subject-object arises, however, this “intimacy is lost” and is “replaced by symbolism.”

(Wilber, “Two Modes” 235–36)

In Wolf's writings, speeches, and interviews, the relationship between the blind spots of western culture and the exclusion of intimate knowledge from what is real is apparent. Indeed that aspect of her writing that many critics find disturbing, her implicit equation of knowledge of and identification with another, attests to the centrality of that other mode of knowing in her literary endeavor. Similarly, the transcendence of dualism as the transcendence of “Greek” thought is summarized in Cassandra:

For the Greeks there is no alternative but either truth or lies, right or wrong, victory or defeat, friend or enemy, life or death. … What cannot be seen, smelled, heard, touched, does not exist. It is the other alternative that they crush between their clear-cut distinctions, the third alternative, which in their view does not exist, the smiling vital force that is able to generate from itself over and over: the undivided, spirit in life, life in spirit.



The idea of justice is a good place to start the final portion of this discussion, which will focus on textual indications of a non-dualistic transpersonal world-view throughout Wolf's writing. For justice is a key term in understanding at least one of Wolf's texts, The Quest for Christa T. The concept of justice plays a central role in a peculiar passage about which little has been written in Wolf criticism, the account of Christa T.'s encounter with a fortune-teller, the General, the “damned spook man” (74). It also is the first mention of psychic experience in Wolf's writing.

At the end of the eighth chapter of the text, the narrator mentions Christa T.'s wish to visit the “damned spook man,” who has settled in her vicinity; the narrator characterizes that wish as evidence of a regressive susceptibility to the supernatural. The actual encounter appears in the next chapter, where the narrator introduces and interrupts her account of it with passages reminiscent of those that preface the book itself.

The preface defines Christa T. as a literary, that is, presumably a fictional figure, yet it refers to authentic citations from diaries, sketches, and letters and contrasts Christa T. with minor characters who are invented. In the passages from the ninth chapter, the narrator likewise equivocates about whether or not the General actually existed, insisting both that Christa T. would otherwise have had to invent him and that she hadn't the courage to invent, and then concluding that “he did exist, and he enters the scene as a real person; but at once she hides him, as a precaution” (78).

The most obvious parallelism between the preface to The Quest for Christa T. and the discussion of Christa T.'s relationship to the General is in their treatment of the relationship between “reality” and representation. The narrator creates the literary figure Christa T. out of her memories and mementos of the “real” person, just as Christa T. creates the General out of her encounter with him in the flesh. So, on one level, the presentation of the General merely serves to offer some much-needed clarification of the author's narrative technique.

However, it is the narrator's designation of Christa T.'s “invention” of the General as precise, objective, and just that requires elucidation:

Of course, of course she invented the General … she must have invented him, the day after that séance … she invented him with the best of intentions—to be accurate, to be objective, writing down what he said, without once interrupting him, even when he embarrassed her: could one be more just? So she does him justice, in the way anyone would—she extracts the real substance from the stuff and hardly mentions the rest, the abstruse side of it, the errors, my God, yes, the stupid and silly side of it.


Basically Christa T. does justice to him by emphasizing what was of value in his pronouncements and discounting all the rest, a practice that the narrator carries over to her treatment of Christa T. Hence the similarity between the preface to the book and the narrative interpolations in this passage. Indeed, some of the outrage on the part of East German critics at the time of the first publication of The Quest for Christa T. may very well have had to do with the author's practicing justice toward her protagonist in exactly this manner. At issue are the supposed problems posed by Wolf's narrative perspective based on identification with the figures who are her literary creations. Christa T.'s practice of justice in relation to the fortune-teller, like Christa Wolf's in relation to Christa T., redefines the act of literary creation by redefining what it means to judge.

This redefinition is taken up again in the science fiction story “Self-Experiment” when the etymology of the German word meinen is addressed by the narrating protagonist, who pays tribute to the spirit out of which language arose, the “amazing mentality that could express ‘to judge’ and ‘to love’ in one single word: meinen, ‘to think, have an opinion’” (122). The identity of judgment and love in the original usage of the word meinen violates all accepted standards of objectivity. It undermines a basic concept of justice: impartiality, the need for which presupposes that one person's exoneration depends upon another's condemnation. Judgment, as we usually understand it, is based in the separative and adversarial relation of evaluation that the identification implicit in the idea of “love” negates.

In The Quest for Christa T., the protagonist's “invention” of the General and the narrator's invention of the protagonist are characterized by a surrender of the attitude underlying the usual adversarial notions of justice and judgment. That surrender is essentially the refusal to judge or evaluate from the standpoint of the ego, which is the standpoint of separation between the subject and the object of judgment. It suggests that a way of knowing based on “psychic affinity” (Quest 80) that is part of the intersubjectivity of love mentioned in “Self-Experiment” is not only possible but necessary as a counterweight to the culturally normative separative process of critical evaluation. By linking the process of writing to the practice of judgment or justice based in psychic affinity or love in The Quest for Christa T., Wolf also implies that the supposedly radical otherness of “the letter” and the unconsciousness in relation to the subject depends on a particular historically contingent understanding of who or what constitutes the subject. This historical contingency is further emphasized by the etymological play in “Self-Experiment” with its sideglance at the original “brotherly union” of certain words “forced apart by our disputes” (122).

Of course, judgment undertaken with a loving attitude corresponds so little to what we ordinarily recognize as judgment as to seem paradoxical. Similarly, the equation of knowing another with being another suggested by passages in Cassandra where the protagonist psychically shares another's experience is so alien to ordinary consciousness as to seem either a poetic device or a form of psychological pathology.

The identification of justice and partiality, judgment and love, knowing another and being another stand in contrast to all common sense and undermine the clarity of terminological distinctions by blurring categories of thought and feeling that we normally take to be separate. That blurring is, of course, in no way foreign to the character of Christa T., who, in the very chapter that first mentions the “spook man,” describes the blending of categories in her own thinking: “My thinking is more darkly mixed with sensations, curious. Does that mean it's wrong?” (Quest 73).

The juxtaposition in The Quest for Christa T. of an encounter with clairvoyance and knowing and judging based on loving identification is hardly accidental, for the emotionally and sensorily colored form of cognition noted by Christa T. parallels closely the assertion by Leonardo da Vinci cited approvingly by Wolf in the Cassandra-Lectures: “‘Knowledge which has not passed through the senses can produce none but destructive truth’” (268). In a similar vein, Cassandra speaks of her inability to ignore the information she obtains through her body: “Like everyone's, my body gave me signs; but unlike others, I was not able to ignore them” (58).

The text of Cassandra never names what differentiates those who do and those who do not have access to intuitive information, for it is, after all, a work of fiction and not a treatise. However, it is significant that Cassandra does distinguish between authentic and inauthentic emotions:

My rebirth restored the present to me, what people call life, but not only that. It also opened up the past to me, a past that was new, undistorted by hurt feelings, likes and dislikes, and all the luxury emotions that belonged to Priam's daughter.


These “luxury emotions” are all functions of Cassandra's privileged status as a daughter of the king and of her link to “the upper echelons in the palace,” with their propensity for falsely heightened emotion:

The transition from the world of the palace to the world of the mountains and woods was also the transition from tragedy to burlesque, whose essence is that you do not treat yourself as tragic. Important, yes, and why not? But you do not treat yourself as tragic the way the upper echelons in the palace do. … How else could they persuade themselves that they have a right to their selfishness?


However, as important as Cassandra's status as a daughter of the king is her identity as a “daughter of the father,” that is, as Priam's favorite, which entailed her conformity to his image of her: “[T]he intimacy between us was based, as is so often the case between men and women, on the fact that I knew him and he did not know me. He knew his ideal of me; that was supposed to hold still” (50). As long as Cassandra continued to conform to Priam's image, she remained in his favor. While she continued to limit her behavior and her perceptions to those his conditional love demanded, he reinforced her own sense of specialness that facilitated the development of inauthentic emotions. Specialness presupposes an ideal or image that is both static and based on the competitive exclusion of other people. Hence it is incompatible with personal evolution and with self-knowledge. In the course of her development, Cassandra surrenders that perception of her own specialness and attains not only greater self-knowledge but also genuine closeness to other people. In this respect she continues the line of thought that Wolf first formulates clearly in Günderrode's decision to give up her desire to be a person of consequence, a matter to which I will return.

By the time Wolf writes Cassandra, the link between self-knowledge, intuitive or psychic abilities, and the capacity for empathy, identification, and love is well established in her writing. Since much of Wolf's anti-patriarchalism stems from her perception that men have, to a great extent, lost touch with the capacity for love, it is not surprising that The Quest for Christa T. is the last text in which clairvoyance is attributed primarily to a male figure or figures, for their concerns and their sense of reality and self tend to exclude those aspects of existence that might give rise to transpersonal or intuitive abilities. In A Model Childhood, it is Charlotte, the mother of the protagonist Nelly, who is designated “Cassandra behind the shop counter” (165). Characterized as almost the only person in Nelly's environment who had the ability to empathize with persons not immediately familiar to her, Charlotte's intuitive abilities are described (and decried by her husband) as pessimism (Schwarzsehen) (17). Here again, though intuitive capacities hardly play a role in the text, it is striking that they are attributed to the one person capable of empathy, of spontaneous identification with others in an environment mitigating against empathy.9

The capacity for empathy and the emotionally and sensorily colored cognition referred to above both call into question certain conventional categorical boundaries. These boundaries, when perceived as external, separate people from each other and when perceived as internal, fragment individuals into ensembles of disconnected personae. In No Place on Earth, Günderrode is the figure for whom clairvoyance is most important both conceptually and experientially: “She came to understand how many people acquire the gift of clairvoyance: an intense pain or an intense concentration illuminates her inner landscape” (106). Kleist, afflicted with that “diffuse discomfort with everything androgynous,” experiences panic at the blurring of the very boundaries that keep him estranged from himself. He experiences “one of those moments of doleful lucidity when he perceives the thought behind every play of features, the meaning behind every word, the reason for every action” as repulsive, because “everything, most of all he himself, lies exposed in its nakedness and poverty, and loathing enters into him, and words are like toads jumping out of his mouth and the mouths of others” (64). Though he and Günderrode share a fascination with the workings of the inner machinery of the soul, his is fueled primarily by a hypersensitivity to other people's judgments of him (12), whereas hers is based much more, as Kleist points out, on extreme receptivity to the emotional states of others (51).

Her receptivity calls into question the boundary between internal and external realities. Indeed receptivity to inner vision is basic to Günderrode's being, and her material and social circumstances both engender and mirror her willingness to “offer up the visible to the invisible” (4). Though we are tempted to see her as a victim of the circumstances of her life and time, she herself emphasizes the centrality of subjective agency and choice, in even the most restricted context:

Even a confined existence can be expanded until one reaches its outermost limits, which until then are invisible. The only thing lost to us is that which we lack faculties to grasp. Once the eye of the mind has opened, it perceives things invisible to others, which are akin to itself.


By asserting the power of inner vision, Günderrode negates in advance all readings of her life that would reduce her to a victim of the historical limitations placed upon her.

What she shares with Kleist is the recognition “that only that within us which wishes to be destroyed is destructible; that only that can be seduced which meets seduction halfway; that only that can be free which is capable of freedom” (88). In his case the clearest proof of the validity of that claim is the deep-seated and self-destructive ambivalence of his attraction and repulsion to Napoleon. However, Günderrode is aware to a much greater extent than Kleist of the apparently innocent victim's complicity in what befalls him. This is expressed in her response to his account of his accident in Butzbach, “when the horses pulling his coach, terrified by the braying of a donkey somewhere behind them, ran away and placed him and his sister in extreme peril” (89). What offends and troubles Kleist is expressed in “that skeptical thought which he had believed would be his last thought in life. So, a human life is dependent on the braying of an ass?” (89) His hope is that Günderrode can offer him “something substantial which we can use to combat the blind chance which governs our lives” (89).

Günderrode recognizes immediately that it is Kleist's self-importance, his “pride [that] rebels against the idea of such a death” (90), possibly because she had just begun to consider and to take comfort in Bettine's idea of “the genius of the inconsequential” (73):

Günderrode is … immersed in her musings about that word—inconsequentiality. How it forces its way into her fantasies of her own importance, fantasies whose existence she scarcely confesses to herself. And how it helps her to rend asunder the web of deceit which hides her from herself. … [H]ow many things become easy and natural for her, and how much closer she comes to other people, when she ceases to wish to be a person of consequence.


She leads Kleist to recognize the extent of his own participation in establishing the circumstances that gave rise to his accident, which was then anything but purely accidental. The same insistence that no one is purely a victim of external circumstances underlies Günderrode's response to Kleist's description of himself as one caught up by a driving current over which he has no control and his request that she tell him “who visits such judgments upon us” (105):

I believe that we are wrong to ask such questions when we confront fate, rather than to see that we are one with fate; that we secretly provoke everything which befalls us. … If this were not the case, exactly the same thing would happen to everyone who found himself in analogous circumstances.


Inherent in the idea that we secretly provoke what befalls us is the implication that no one visits judgment upon us other than we ourselves. The negativity of the judgment, so it would seem to follow, corresponds to the extent of the secrecy of our provocation, that is, the more we know ourselves, the less likely we are to fall victim to unintentional self-destructiveness. Once again, the absolute necessity of that “hellish journey of self-recognition” is central here, for what it reveals is that we are, despite all fragmentation, one, not only with the limited flesh-encapsulated ego each of us takes for her/himself, but with all that we encounter. It is the denial of that unity that underlies the psychological mechanisms for adaptation to what Wolf has, at the end of her essay on Günderrode, described as the reduced life with which we manage to come to terms. And it is that unity to which the narrative voice in No Place on Earth alludes in her evocation of “[t]he freedom to love other people and not to hate ourselves” (118).

To love other people without hating oneself is only utopian in the context of a world where one is constantly forced to choose between what one perceives as one's own interests and those of others. That this choice is not necessary, but merely contingent upon our perception of ourselves and our situation, is one of the primary themes of Cassandra. It becomes explicit early in the text, when Cassandra describes a hostile encounter with Panthous, the Greek priest of Apollo residing in Troy, and goes on to reflect:

It took me a long time to notice, but he knew and detested himself, and sought relief by attributing one cause and one alone to every act or omission: self-love. He was absolutely convinced of a world order in which it was impossible to serve oneself and others at the same time. … At first perhaps he was right to think me like him, on one score—what Marpessa called my pride. I lived on to experience the happiness of becoming myself and being more useful to others because of it.


Cassandra's journey of self-recognition is a painful and gradual process of the recognition of unity with other people that comes with the surrender of a specious sense of specialness and of the fear that altruism is identical with self-destruction. For Cassandra, awareness of that unity occurred often under the pressure of painful circumstances. Her experience of the death of her brother Hector is a case in point:

In the deepest depths, in the innermost core of me, where body and soul are not yet divided and where not a single word or a single thought can penetrate, I experienced the whole of Hector's fight, his wounding, his tenacious resistance, and his death. It is not too much to say that I was Hector: because it would not be nearly enough to say I was joined with him.


Indeed, much of Cassandra's experience that relates to the paranormal is painful, and her ability to make use of her prophetic abilities is severely limited by the political circumstances of her time and place.

Although the external circumstances in Accident are hardly more propitious than in Cassandra, the narrator does make use of an ability that is generally considered paranormal: psychic healing. That she undertakes it without being in the immediate proximity of her brother, whose survival and recovery it is intended to assist, merely emphasizes its divergence from our normally accepted categories of time, space, and causality. Of course, the narrator makes no claim for the efficacy of her undertaking, and it is tempting to view it either as a literary device or as a form of psychological compensation for feelings of powerlessness in the face of both her brother's illness and the Chernobyl disaster, to whose lethal radioactivity the narrator juxtaposes non-material rays of healing energy. However, and with this interesting “coincidence” I will terminate this portion of my discussion and the body of this essay, the narrator recounts a peculiar experience. After hearing from her sister-in-law that her brother's surgery had been successful, but that he had not yet awakened from the anesthesia, the narrator finally prepares a meal for herself, listening all the while to the radio with its reports of the catastrophe at the Chernobyl reactor:

I heard on the radio that it was 1:45. And I saw myself standing there, the dish towel still in my hand, and heard myself singing at the top of my lungs. The Ode to Joy. … Now what is the meaning of this, I was forced to ask myself, somewhat flabbergasted. Joy! Joy …

Since I never would have been able to fathom this signal from the very deep layers of my consciousness otherwise, I decided to ask you later, brother, just when you actually awoke from the anesthetic that day which will then have become the past. 1:45? you will say. Wait a minute. Say, there's a good possibility … Yes. You could be right.



A little light is falling into previously dark, unconscious rooms. Underneath them or previous to them (places and times flow together), further rooms can be sensed in the dim light. The time of which we are aware is only a paper-thin, bright strip on a vast bulk that is mostly shrouded in darkness. With the widening of my visual angle and the readjustment to my depth of focus, my viewing lens … has undergone a decisive change. … When I try to realize what is happening, what has happened, I find that (to bring it down to the lowest common denominator) there has been an expansion of what for me is “real.”

(Cassandra 278)

Words, so we are informed by the text of Cassandra, have a physical effect; “no” causes contraction and “yes” relaxation (114). And relaxation is nothing other than the release of tension through expansion on the physical level. I believe that expansion is the key word for what Wolf, perhaps unintentionally at first, has accomplished in the course of her development as a writer and as a human being. Her writing has evolved from the restricted materialism of Socialist Realism to the brink of an art form that integrates social and spiritual concerns without degenerating into occultism or irrationalism.

Wolf has repeatedly described her writing as the expansion of the limits of what can be said and as a struggle to transcend the boundaries, conscious or not, of what she allows herself to know. Perhaps even more important, however, than her broadening of what can be known and said is her deepening of our awareness of how knowing can transcend the boundaries of the “citadel of reason” by undermining the separation of the knower from the known. For many of us feminist academics, somewhat uncomfortably entrenched within the “citadel of reason,” the possibility of such knowledge can be both profoundly threatening and profoundly liberating. It challenges us to rethink our relationship to even the most avant garde modes of academic theorizing. It gives rise to irritation and to hope.


  1. For the best discussion of this see Bernhard Greiner.

  2. To the best of my knowledge, only Anna K. Kuhn has even mentioned that the narrator of Accident “directs concentrated psychic energy to help him [her brother] withstand the rigors of the six-hour operation and ensure his recovery” (218).

  3. All references to textual material will be to the authorized English translations when available. When no authorized translation exists, as in this case, I have offered my own.

  4. Although it has been a while since western critics felt compelled to read Wolf solely in terms of her relationship to the cultural politics of the GDR, even the most adventurous have remained within the parameters of literary and cultural criticism and theory, as these have normally been practiced within the academy. “New” approaches to Christa Wolf range from the feminist to the post-Freudian and post-structuralist psychoanalytic, and the scholarly contributions made by those using such approaches are considerable. No one, however, has, to the best of my knowledge, addressed or even attempted to address the issue raised in this essay.

  5. For two telling instances of such criticism see her Büchner-Prize acceptance speech and her contribution to the anthology Mut zur Angst. Schriftsteller für den Frieden, titled “Ein Brief.”

  6. To attribute the absence of an oppositional or confrontational element in Wolf's writing merely to conventional good manners and a fear of conflict, as does, for instance, Günter Grass after her publication of Was bleibt (Grass 143), is to simplify unduly a complex psychological impulse. Although Wolf herself has criticized in Was bleibt her own unwillingness to offend and her desire to have everyone think well of her, she has also portrayed convincingly in her figure Cassandra the tension between an “inclination to conform with those in power” (82) and insight into victims’ complicity in their own disempowerment, which the creation of the image of an enemy as the source of evil worthy of attack helps to obfuscate.

  7. See Carol Gilligan and Catherine Keller for just two of many such discussions.

  8. In other words, postmodern scientists do not, unlike their philosophical counterparts, reject holism, for they differentiate between a wholeness implicit in the unboundedness or “seamlessness” of the universe and the purely conceptual self-limiting totality of theoretical languages. Since their concern is primarily the “territory” of “reality” rather than the “maps” of representation, their explorations do not allow them to accept undecidability or incompleteness as the limit of their endeavors (Wilber, Holographic Paradigm).

  9. Although transpersonal states do not play a role in this text, there is a striking scene in the twelfth chapter in which an “altered state of consciousness” is produced by means of hypnosis. Not all altered states are transpersonal; when “normal” ego-centered consciousness is set aside through spontaneous or induced regression, the state of consciousness achieved is more properly labelled prepersonal. Sometimes regression into a prepersonal state can ultimately result in an ability to enter transpersonal states, as is the case, I believe, in Cassandra's episodes of “madness.” Until the advent of full spectrum psychology, the distinction between transpersonal and prepersonal states was ignored or denied (see, e.g., Wilber, Atman Project 76).


Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1982.

Grass, Günter. “Wer hat Angst vor Christa Wolf?” Der Spiegel (16 July 1990): 138–43.

Greiner, Bernhard. “‘Sentimentaler Stoff und fantastische Form.’ Zur Erneuerung frühromantischer Tradition im Roman der DDR (Christa Wolf, Fritz Rudolf Fries, Johannes Bobrowski).” Amsterdamer Beiträge zur neueren Germanistik 11/12 (1981): 249–328.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Jackson, Rosemary. “Introduction.” What Did Miss Darrington See?: An Anthology of Feminist Supernatural Fiction. Ed. Jessica Amanda Salmonson. New York: Feminist Press, 1989. xv–xxxv.

Kaufmann, Hans. “On Christa Wolf's Principle of Poetics.” Responses to Christa Wolf: Critical Essays. Ed. Marilyn Sibley Fries. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1989. 76–90.

Keller, Catherine. From a Broken Web: Separation, Sexism, and Self. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

Kuhn, Anna K. Christa Wolf's Utopian Vision: From Marxism to Feminism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.

Nägele, Rainer. “Trauer, Tropen und Phantasmen. Verrückte Geschichten aus der DDR.” Literatur der DDR in den siebziger Jahren. Eds. Peter Hohendahl & Patricia Herminghouse. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1983. 193–223.

———. “The Writing on the Wall, or Beyond the Dialectic of Subjectivity.” Responses to Christa Wolf: Critical Essays. Ed. Marilyn Sibley Fries. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1989. 248–56.

Naranjo, Claudio, M. D. How to Be: Meditation in Spirit and Practice. Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1990.

Wilber, Ken. The Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1980.

———, ed. The Holographic Paradigm and Other Paradoxes: Exploring the Leading Edge of Science. Boston: New Science Library, 1985.

———. “Two Modes of Knowing.” Beyond Ego: Transpersonal Dimensions in Psychology. Eds. Roger N. Walsh & Frances Vaughan. Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1980. 234–40.

Wolf, Christa. Accident: A Day's News. Trans. Heike Schwarzbauer & Rick Takvorian. New York: Farrar, 1989.

———. “Ein Brief.” Mut zur Angst. Schriftsteller für den Frieden. Ed. Ingrid Krüger. Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1982. 152–59.

———. Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays. Trans. Jan van Heurck. New York: Farrar, 1984.

———. “Culture Is What You Experience—An Interview with Christa Wolf.” Trans. Jeanette Clausen. New German Critique 27 (Fall 1982): 89–100.

———. “Krankheit und Liebesentzug. Fragen an die psychosomatische Medizin.” Die Dimension des Autors: Essays und Aufsätze, Reden und Gespräche, 1959–1985. Vol. 2. Frankfurt: Luchterhand, 1990. 727–48.

———. A Model Childhood. Trans. Ursule Molinaro & Hedwig Rappolt. New York: Farrar, 1980.

———. “Die neuen Lebensansichten eines Katers.” Gesammelte Erzählungen. Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1981.

———. No Place on Earth. Trans. Jan van Heurck. New York: Farrar, 1982.

———. “Notwendiges Streitgespräch. Bemerkungen zu einem internationalen Kolloquium.” Ed. Wolfgang Joho. Neue Deutsche Literatur 3 (1965): 97–104.

———. The Quest for Christa T. Trans. Christopher Middleton. New York: Farrar, 1970.

———. “Self-Experiment: Appendix to a Report.” Trans. Jeanette Clausen. New German Critique 13 (Winter 1978): 109–31.

———. “Shall I Garnish a Metaphor with an Almond Blossom? Büchner-Prize Acceptance Speech, October 1980.” Trans. Henry J. Schmidt. New German Critique 23 (Spring/Summer 1981): 3–11.

———. Sommerstück. Frankfurt: Luchterhand, 1989.

———. Was bleibt. Frankfurt: Luchterhand, 1990.

Renate Voris (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12021

SOURCE: “The Hysteric and the Mimic: Reading Christa Wolf's The Quest for Christa T.,” in Writing the Woman Artist: Essays on Poetics, Politics, and Portraiture, edited by Suzanne W. Jones, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, pp. 233–58.

[In the following essay, Voris examines the construction of female self-identity and aspects of alienation in The Quest for Christa T., drawing attention to the representation of women as creative agents—both biologically and intellectually—and the narrative's appropriation of bildungsroman literary conventions.]

But for this reason I fancy that I am seeing myself lying in the coffin, and my two selves stare at each other in wonderment.

—Karoline von Günderode

Man likes woman peaceful—but woman is essentially unpeaceful, like a cat, however well she may have trained herself to be peaceable.

—Friedrich Nietzsche

To compare woman to a cat is banal. Yet the comparison is found in numerous texts of Nietzsche and Freud and for the same reasons as in Christa Wolf: the cat is an independent animal, little concerned with man, essentially narcissistic and affirmative, like a child and as such both self-sufficient and dependent.1 For example:

that black green-eyed cat (2[frac12]) which was delicate and graceful and in an unmistakably oriental manner seductive, yet inside, alas, impudent and arrogant and lusty [gierig], in short: a woman.2

her supple [geschmeidigen] movements. …3

Femininity and narcissism are key concepts around which Christa Wolf's works revolve, including The Quest for Christa T. They are linked to alienation, the sinister motive in modernism and the modernist text, and Wolf's aesthetics and art as well. The question that disturbs me is: why are nearly all her female figures4 mothers? And what is the relation between motherhood, art, and aesthetics? Was there, is there for Wolf, an alternative to alienation? Is it motherhood? Is it art? Is it female narcissism? Or is it a combination of all three?

Freud, who in his essays on female sexuality offers massive affirmation of the “natural sexual inferiority” or “deficiency” of women, tells a different story of woman's sexuality in his essay “On Narcissism: An Introduction” (1914).5 There he does not take sexual identity to be an inborn, biological essence, but in fact sees it as an unstable subject position that is socially and culturally constructed in the process of the child's insertion into society. The passage I have in mind concerns the difference in the love life of men and women. Freud argues the following thesis: there are fundamental differences between the sexes in their relation to the type of object-choice. Male narcissism is characterized by object-love of the anaclitic type (Anlehnungstypus) which includes the nurturing woman and the protective man (89–90). It shows a striking sexual overvaluation of the love object. The overvaluation has its source, Freud explains, in the original narcissism of the child which subsequently is transferred onto the sexual object. Verliebtheit, love and passion, is hence a neurotic condition, since it originates in the libidinal impoverishment of the ego that accompanies the sexual overvaluation of the love object (88).

Woman's development in her relation to a type of object-choice is different. Female narcissism, Freud argues, is characterized by object-choice of the narcissistic type, which includes the love for: (a) what one oneself is, (b) what one oneself was, (c) what one oneself would like to be, and (d) the person who once was a part of one's own self (90). This type of love is most frequently found in women, not, however, because of some biological determinant, but rather because of the woman's place in culture and society. It seems that, at the onset of puberty, the formation of the female sexual organs intensifies the original narcissism, which is unfavorable to the development of a normal (ordentlichen) object-love with its accompanying sexual overvaluation. Especially if she develops beauty, a state of self-sufficiency (Selbstgenügsamkeit) settles in, which compensates the woman for society's unwillingness to allow her freedom of object-choice (die ihm sozial verkümmerte Freiheit der Objektwahl) (89). The woman's “wildness,” her “unpeaceable nature,” is domesticated by the norms and rules of (patriarchal) society in that her Otherness, heterogeneity, is tamed through narcissism. Strictly speaking, such women love only themselves, and they do so with the intensity with which a man loves them. Their need does not make them aspire to love, but instead to be loved, and they are pleased by the man who fulfills this condition. The importance of this type of woman for the love life of humankind (Menschen) is of immense value, Freud concludes, for such women exercise the greatest charm (Reiz) over men for two reasons: (1) aesthetic, because they are beautiful, and (2) psychological, because a person's narcissism exerts a great attraction over those who have fully relinquished their own narcissism and are in quest of object-love. Analogously, the charm (Reiz) of a child rests to a large extent on his or her narcissism, her self-sufficiency (Selbstgenügsamkeit) and inaccessibility (Unzugänglichkeit). Hence, also the charm of certain animals who seem indifferent toward us, such as cats and large beasts of prey (89). Is a woman ever able to love according to the male model (and vice versa)? Yes, Freud says, since “male” and “female” do not refer to biological but instead to psychological and cultural phenomena, to “functions” (Funktionen) (89) within a cultural field or social practice (such as writing). And if this is so, the obvious question is what determines the model according to which a woman loves? In his answer, Freud draws on the psychology of repression and the mechanism of displacement. Repression, as we know from Freud, originates in the ego, from the ego's self-esteem (Selbstachtung). Its condition is an ideal, an ideal ego (Idealich) that one has either erected or not erected in oneself. It explains why the same impressions, experiences, impulses, or wishes, which one person allows in herself or at least consciously deals with, are rejected in another or suppressed (erstickt) before they can ever become conscious. In case of the latter, narcissism is substituted for this new ideal ego, that is, whatever she projects as her ideal is the substitution for the lost narcissism of her childhood in which she was her own ideal (93–94).

In light of this theory and in keeping with this volume's questioning of material (including linguistic) conditions of women and men writing, I will undertake a reading of Wolf's novel, which deals with woman as well as with narcissism or alienation, by studying the arrangement and function of the main signifying units used in the narrative message, in order to determine the way in which this text represents feminine creativity. Since the title gestures toward the subject of the novel, a woman's “quest” for (self-)knowledge and (self-)development, I will begin by reading it as a text that quotes two literary traditions. The first is the classical German Bildungsroman (written by men), whose paradigm contains the fantasy of an originally unified subject split asunder in the confrontation with civilization, society, reality, a conflict that is solved—in however melancholy a way—by the integration of the individual, the (male) artist, into practical, active life; Goethe's Wilhelm Meister (1795/96 and 1821) constituted that model. The second literary convention cited here is the feminine version of that model, the nineteenth-century woman writer's Bildungsroman, whose paradigm contains the same individualistic fantasy of an originally unified subject that in the feminine version, however, is split asunder not by a “universal” conflict between the individual or the “self” and civilization or society and so on, but instead by the conflict between the desire for art and knowledge and the complete negation of that desire by a society whose norms and conventions restrict the woman to one role only: that of the mother (and not that of the physician, for instance, like Wilhelm Meister). The conflict is therefore not solved by the integration of the woman into active public life, but by her exclusion from it, a plot that almost invariably results in the death of the artist as a young woman; Bettina von Arnim's Günderode (1840) constituted this model.

In quoting these two literary conventions, a different paradigm emerges in Wolf's Bildungsroman. The conflict between vocation and role (= the masculine model) as well as that between art and womanhood (= the feminine model) are both interiorized, and in that movement are both recuperated and revised to become a conflict between two vocations: art and womanhood! The desire to create and the desire to recreate—two different but equal “selves”—are presented as that which defines the whole and essential woman. The question that motivates The Quest for Christa T. is therefore: when and where and why did the two “selves” that originally formed a harmonious whole become alienated, “staring” at each in wonderment or even enmity?6 When and where and why did the alternatives that define the figure Christa T. collapse, and how did she experience that?

For Christa T. appears without a center. She resists coherence and structure by oscillating between creativity and procreativity, silence and speech, madness and mimicry, as well as “female” sexuality and “male” morality, childish play and parental control. Her “characterlessness” is contained in the novel's dominant rhetorical figure, repetition. In repetition, identity is split, since every repetition occurs in a different context. Meaning then appears to flicker between identity and nonidentity, sameness and difference, reconstruction and deconstruction. The novel's double-edged codeword, Nachdenken, supports the tension,7 and so does the syntax that coordinates the transitive and the intransitive, in that the unconnected members of the essentially paratactic structure are connected by the use of anaphora.8 On the semantic level, this text then plays out at once what Julia Kristeva has called the two fates of woman in Western culture: that of the classic hysteric who is denied her place in language, yet represents in that negativity a sort of disturbance of the symbolic order, of power and domination, and that of the mimic who takes her place in language and represents in that positivity a submission to the symbolic order, to masculine power and authority. In other words, the speaking subject occupies a position that alternates between feminine heritage and masculine heritage; the question that concerns me here is which of these two moments wins out in the end.

In any case, I read Wolf's novel as one that performs the rift experienced by women writers in bourgeois as well as socialist society, where the use of language itself may reinscribe the very structure by which the woman is oppressed.9 I shall argue that this is indeed the story here, that The Quest for Christa T. is a most paradoxical text in that it challenges authority and patriarchy in a most authoritarian and patriarchal manner. My final question will be whether this paradox is offered to us for adherence or for criticism.

Wolf's novel, one of the most thoroughly discussed in scholarship on contemporary German literature,10 appeared in 1968 in her home country, the (then) German Democratic Republic, amidst a debate among writers, literary scholars and critics, philosophers, and politicians about the question of the relation between subjectivity and history, the individual and (socialist) society, language and ethics. The debate centered on the familiar question of Western metaphysics that also moves the classical German Bildungsroman: how, if at all, and under what circumstances can one realize oneself in a work of art, a question the novel quotes (95) and varies by providing the socialist version of it: how, if at all, and under what circumstances is it possible for the artist within a planned (and rigidly organized) society to realize herself and be productive as an active member of that society (102)? The question for Wolf, the theorist, is the classical version, paraphrased from the first to the last sentence of the novel: “the attempt to be oneself” / “When, if not now?” The question of what role gender plays in the production and reception of art was not an issue, had never been an issue in the GDR, not for literary theorists or literary historians or Christa Wolf, as her essay of the same year, “The Reader and the Writer” (1968), as well as all subsequent writing on poetics and politics, show.11 It remains a curious contradiction in her theory of literature that she subscribes to a materialist conception of art—with time and place as her major categories—but ignores entirely the materiality of language—that is, the discursivity of sex (or race, ethnicity, or even class)—and consequently overlooks the boundaries of a person's existence (just as did Georg Lukács, the most powerful and influential literary theorist in the cultural politics of the GDR during the first twenty years of “reconstruction”—Wolf's immediate social, biographical, and literary context). The question of women and fiction—as Virginia Woolf pondered it in 1928, for example, in the meaning of “women and what they are like,” or “women and the fiction that they write,” or “women and the fiction that is written about them,” or “somehow all three”12—is a question that Wolf prefers not think aloud. In her silence she is a figure of her country, reproducing the vision (or delusion) that structures political, social, and cultural discourses: that with the coming of socialism and the abolition of class structure, workers as well as women will have been freed from oppression. That the system of patriarchy survived the transition from capitalism to socialism is only marginally contemplated, even by Wolf, thus revealing her and her society's blind spot: the repressive tendency in questions of sexual ideology.13

Yet it is precisely that relation—between language, body, and society—that is discreetly articulated in her textual practice, beginning with her first tale, Moscow Novella (1961). A curious struggle then structures her works, a struggle that is represented in The Quest for Christa T.: between the reader-philosopher-theorist, who ponders the problematic epistemology of selfhood in terms of universals, and the writer-artist-practitioner, who performs it in terms of specifics.

The novel's plot revolves around death and birth. Its protagonist is ostensibly a woman who wanted to be a poet and became a mother instead. How that came about is told in twenty chapters whose main signifying units are childhood, adulthood and motherhood, and death by leukemia at the age of thirty-five. They are ordered chronologically from the present point of view by another woman, or mother, the narrator, who begins her tale with a eulogy, a sermon beyond the grave, circling around memory and forgetting. The dead woman has left behind a husband, three children, and the narrator, a friend since childhood. Besides the family and the friend, the dead woman has also left behind a large oeuvre—diaries, notebooks, sketches, and a thesis on the writer Theodor Storm, as well as short stories, poems, dialogues, and letters, all in no discernible order, mixing all sorts of discourses at times—autobiographical, theoretical, philological, poetic, polemical—written in part in the margins of books, even cookbooks, or on scraps of paper taken from her husband's desk. Why this woman—immensely privileged, it seems, for she is well educated, financially secure, artistically talented, with a love for words and the time to reflect upon them (“To think that I can only cope with things by writing!” 34, 96)—why this woman of letters and mother of three children has no paper, let alone a room of her own, is a mystery indeed, one the narrator wants to solve in her investigation into the “mess” (147). For it is she who, upon the death of the other, is charged by the husband with ordering the details of the wife's domestic and intellectual life; she is called upon in her capacity as witness (as a mother to a mother) and as examining magistrate, whose task is to inquire into the truth behind Christa's demise. “What do I reproach her for?” the narrator quotes a mutual friend. “For dying, for really dying. She always did everything as if it was for fun, as an experiment” (49–50). With the central opposition in place—play versus control—the narrator sets out on her own experiment in writing and living, gathers the fragments of the alien chaos and begins by thinking out the enigma of Christa T. on the model of the hysteric who holds a secret of which she herself is unaware and which she hides to herself (“a person with prospects, latent [geheimen] possibilities,” 136). The narrator's goal is then the solution to the enigma, motivated both by death as a fact of life—Christa T.'s death and her own (“Not a person or thing in the world can make her dark fuzzy hair go gray as mine will,” 4)—and by death as a subject of meditation and conquest:

So there she was, walking along in front, stalking head-in-air along the curb, and suddenly she put a rolled newspaper to her mouth and let go with her shout: HOOOHAAHOOO—something like that. … For me, unlike the others, it wasn't the first scene of this kind. I tried to recall a previous occasion when she could have walked on ahead of me, yet found there wasn't one. I'd simply known it. … suddenly I felt, with a sense of terror, that you'll come to a bad end if you suppress [erstickt] all the shouts prematurely; I had no time to lose. I wanted to share in a life that produced such shouts as her hooohaahooo, about which she must have knowledge.


The word terror contains at its roots both the awesome and the fearful. It introduces the theme of repression and points to the accompanying mechanism of displacement, both condensed in the metaphor of suffocation (erstickt), which in turn echoes the metaphor Freud uses in his essay on narcissism. This then is the other tale told here, the narrator's tale. Its protagonist is a woman who became a mother first and is now also becoming a writer. It is the reversal of Christa T.'s tale.

But it is of course one and the same story, as the passage suggests, a story of a (self-)conscious quest for love. What kind of love? A scene that punctures the narrative three times, each time in a slightly different form, presents the meaning—an ideal meaning of love. The first time—and, not by chance, in the eulogy—the narrator resurrects the dead in the image of Woman-as-Child:

Effortlessly she walks before me, yes, that's her long stride, her shambling walk, and there too, proof enough, is the big red and white ball she's chasing on the beach.


The second time she inserts the frame into the narrative is at about midpoint and at a time when she is concerned with Christa's bohemian lifestyle as a university student (chapter 8). What had seemed a child in the picture turns out to be a Woman-as-Mother:

How she runs, Christa T., after the huge white and red ball that the wind is driving across the beach, how she reaches it, laughs aloud, grabs it, brings it back to her small daughter, under our gaze, which she feels and to which she responds with a side glance, in no doubt as to our admiration. Justus, her husband, walks up to her, runs his hand through her hair, pulls her head back, hi Krischan! She laughs and shakes herself. And all the people along the beach can see her practicing How to Take Big Strides with her little Anna, using as background, brown and slim as she is, the whole sea which is foaming slightly and the pale sky overhead. Hi, Justus! she shouts.


The third and last version—inserted toward the end of the novel when Christa's (fantasized) romance with her husband's hunting buddy is the context (chapter 17)—projects Woman-as-Wife:

I really must come back to the day we spent on the Baltic coast. To the gigantic white and red ball which the wind was driving along. To her supple [geschmeidigen] movements and to Justus's admiring looks and the way she tossed her head. To her laughter, which I can certainly never describe, but also never forget. She had a dark tan and I said: This has been your summer, she laughed, white teeth and tanned face. Justus took her by the hair, which she wore short, and kissed her on the mouth in front of all the people. She took it all seriously, laughing all along. I can still see the look in her eyes.


Reading the images vertically, and separately from the narrative context, our perception or sensibility is split between two conventionally conflicting figures. At the center stands the image of Woman, defined in the sequence first as Child, then as Mother, then as Wife. In the repetition and its variation, the figure seems interminable, unstable in its meaning, being both playful, indifferent, and self-sufficient, as well as controlled, object-oriented, and dependent. What controls her are the two empirical eyes that watch her, parental eyes (“under our gaze”), behind which appears a somewhat “gigantic” or godly third eye that peeps at the world out there as a stage (“in front of all the people”). It is a voyeuristic eye—Nietzsche called it the “Theatre-Eye”—the eye of the spectator/narrator amusing herself by watching the figure(s) on the beach/stage act out a morality play, the family plot. It is the eye that watches her (us?) or that she herself (we ourselves?) imagine watching her (us?) whenever she (we?) acts as a moral subject and views the world in terms of morality. The moral world needs a spectator, Nietzsche said, and he admonishes us to open up this gigantic third eye which looks at the world through the other two. The fact, though, that the subject has access to this godly, transcendental eye implies a paradox: it elevates it to the level of a god at the price that it is reduced to nothing.15

Identity or feminine sameness—mother and daughter having the same body—is the essential/essentialist presupposition structuring the vertical. Yet it serves also an image, authoritative and central, of man. This authoritativeness is present on the level of language, in the break in the logic of the third version (“She had a dark tan and I said: This has been your summer”), and on the level of structure, in the metonymic displacement of the metaphoric system. For if we read the three versions of the image within their temporal context, heterogeneity collapses into homogeneity, the unstable image into the stable sign “womanhood” with all its familiar connotations—the hearth, the home, the womb, the tomb. What seems unstable in the image becomes stable in the narrative, connecting form to meaning, word to substance. Moreover, an explicit dualism is established—female/male, exhibitionism/voyeurism, passivity/aggressivity, inside/outside, emotion/intellect, belly/head—with the first pole of the opposition as the positive to the negative: female-exhibitionism-passivity-inside-emotion-belly. Woman, the narrative's syntagmatic units and paradigmatic variations argue, does indeed have two desires. And yet she should not live them, should not “be” both child and adult, narcissus and nurturer, beast and mother. Woman must make a choice. And since it is she who by virtue of her anatomy, the womb, embodies, literally, nurture, the choice is clear: motherhood first (like the narrator), and only then a little bohemianism, a little individuality, a little romance. Thus, whether dead or alive, past or present, whether silent because she is physically dead, whether restless because she refuses conformity, whether creative because she resists domesticity, Christa T. is within this narrative always already confined to the statute of womanhood.16

Hence, woman in this text functions as a moral spectacle for the purpose of enlightening and educating its viewer (reader). It explains why the eye, exteriorized in the “big” and “huge” and “gigantic” (eye-)ball of the beach scene, is the privileged organ in the text, linking the kind of showing and telling here to a philosophical tradition, the Age of Enlightenment, whose most privileged emblem was the sun (the sky in Wolf's system) and whose most privileged organ the eye, wanting above all, as Foucault has argued, to see and oversee.17

Yet it may also mean the repetition of an all too familiar paradigm: that the female subject18 is considered insufficient to occupy the position of the speaking subject, that she is, so to speak, spoken for, which might be one reason for the peculiar discourse. It appropriates Christa T.'s verses and cadences and uncanny babble (“HOOOHAAHOOO”) by combining them with the narrator's showing and telling and chatter, evoking in that combination at once unreliability and discipline. Yet specular and linguistic authority rest with the reader-writer (= narrator), who legitimizes her posture by the “compulsion,” she says, “to make her stand and be recognized” (5). This telos points to the hidden problem: a need for a looking glass that reflects that which is not: a whole and intact and powerful (female) figure. The genesis of a writer is plotted whose condition is the death of the Other. In the process, a series of genealogical connections is established—author/text, text/meaning, reader/interpretation—underneath which lurks the imagery of succession, authority, and maternity: “to think her further” (weiterzudenken) (5). The discourse of power?

It functions as a compensation for psychological and social injuries:

The voice I hear isn't the voice of a ghost: no doubt about it, it's her voice, it is Christa T. Invoking her, lulling my suspicions, I even name her name, and now I'm quite certain of her. But all the time I know that it's a film of shadows being run off the reel, a film that was once projected in the real light of cities, landscapes, living rooms. Suspicions, suspicions: what is this fear doing to me?


The phantom produces fear and fascination, expressed in the moving snapshot and described in the scene from girlhood recording Christa's enigmatic babble. The emotions are the same that one feels before a double or a ghost, before the abrupt reappearance of what one thought was forever overcome or lost, and what now exercises the greatest charm over the spectator/narrator and that for two reasons: aesthetic, because Christa T. is beautiful, and that is the first reason for the charm she exerts over her, and indifference, indifference and silence (“Not a word about this to me,” 11), except for her laughter which, compared to language, is unstructured and more like singing, a sound rising from the body. This apparently monstrous laughter echoes the onomatopoeic babble from childhood, a terrifying, inaccessible sound around which the narrative curls itself19 as if it wanted to contain it, in the dual sense: preserve and restrain it. The ambivalence unites the aesthetic and psychological (and social) and points again to the narrator's project, which defines itself in terms of finding an adequate language for the essence of that sound, that body, that alien Other (“To her laughter, which I can certainly never describe, but also never forget,” 150).

This Otherness, heterogeneity, is present in the figure of narcissus or the child (“Effortlessly she walks before me,” 4) or the cat (“her supple movements,” 150), figures with whom the narrator is in love, passionately (fetishistically?), from the legs up (“How she runs,” 74). As a Girl-Woman-Wife, Christa T.'s charm rests on her playfulness (“She always did everything as if it was for fun,” 50) and her inaccessibility, aspiring not to love, but to be loved, a need the narrator condenses first in the figure of the Pan Piper seducing all by her mysterious howl, then in the figure of the tomcat roaming the city (umherstreunen)20 as if in search of prey (49), and finally in the figure of the bourgeois or socialist housewife attracting guests and preventing strife by the sheer virtue of her presence (164). As a sexed (female) body, she seems painfully self-sufficient, indifferent, and theatrical, whether young (“The truth was: she didn't need us,” 8), or adolescent (“She hardly ever talked about love. She kept herself to herself,” 36), or mature (“our gaze, which she feels and to which she responds with a side glance, in no doubt as to our admiration,” 74). No matter what time or what place therefore—in the schoolyard, on the beach, in the house—she exerts great charm over both women and men, while granting nothing in return, taking pleasure only in herself with an acute awareness of her own force (“about which she must have knowledge,” 9–11).

Even as a writer, she seems indifferent to conventional fetishes, such as the work of art, reviews, praise, and critique, does not publish her works, scribbles wherever she can find a blank page, a scrap of paper, an empty margin, has no room of her own and does not seem to mind it, sits instead at her husband's desk during the early morning hours and writes about “The Big Hope, or The Difficulty of Saying ‘I,’” only to toss away the sheet of paper on which it is written (“I saw the sheet of paper there …, but now it has disappeared,” 169).

Yet it is during puberty that her narcissism appears most intense, as she assumes the role of the Pan Piper before a crowd of spectators. The exhibition expresses the social dimension of woman's narcissism and is a sign of her place in patriarchal culture and society, a society that denies her freedom of object-choice, as Freud formulates it. And the narrator enacts it, not, however, in a tableau, but in her figures of speech, as she traces the development of the female child from “girl” (Mädchen) to the (neuter) “miss” (Fräulein) to, abruptly, “the mother who cooks the soup” (21–22, 159), while the father roams the village archives in search of history (17) or the husband travels across the countryside in pursuit of (sick) cows (147).

The opposition movement/containment defines the law that governs the relation between the sexes, past and present, in bourgeois as well as socialist society. Accordingly, the little girl stands inside the fence, watching the boy leave the village (“He's free to do as he pleases,” 22, 57); the adolescent maiden stays inside the fence, tempting the young man outside with a cherry (37, 91–92), like Eve with an apple inside a different yard; the adult women (Christa T. and the narrator) move inside the homely sanctuary, gazing out the window or over the balcony, while the men are, god only knows where (136, 143). Or the lonely lover hovers wretchedly behind the window, looking for the beloved to pass below (155–56). And, to end it all, the wife designs a house, lying down and dying in it.

Woman is present as a spectacle indeed, playing out the old bourgeois tragedy of sacrifice and sexuality, reminiscent of those nearly forgotten (historical/fictional) figures, Karoline von Günderode, the artist in Bettine von Arnim's novel, or Makarie, the eternal feminine in Goethe's novel. Both roles belong to the same repertoire, with von Arnim fantasizing the woman's essence to be art, fantasy, imagination, feeling (as opposed to the drudgery of motherhood and housewifery), and Goethe imagining woman's essence to be beauty, silence, selflessness, feeling (as opposed to the drudgery of fatherhood and public roles). What links them is the narcissistic woman, which is a type of woman men (and women) have fantasized as being the very essence of her, the eternal feminine. They have done so because this type corresponds best to the desires of men, since she represents the lost part of their narcissism,21 which is the function, of course, that the figure of Christa T. has for the narrator. And she serves that function despite or, more exactly, because of the incongruity she exhibits.

For Christa T. appears to occupy the position consciously; she plays at one moment Dostoevsky's great criminal roaming the city in secrecy and with great cunning (49, 54), the next moment Sophie La Roche's Fräulein von Sternheim indulging in a feminine orgy of charity (118, 137–38), and then Flaubert's Madame Bovary searching for eternal love and passion (156). In her impersonations, she seems closer to the figure of Wilhelm Meister than to Karoline von Günderode, since Christa T. has the power, the narrator tells us, of choosing her role (“Christa T. couldn't say that she hadn't chosen her own role, and she didn't say it,” 137).

In her art, however, she resembles Günderode, a broken voice with her slight lisp (6), a (symbolic) speech impediment, uttering here a sound, there a laugh; here a sentence, there a story; here a strophe, there a poem; here a letter, there a dialogue: unreliable, fragmented speech, as with Günderode who published her works under the pseudonym Tian. The masquerade is contained in the image of the woman of letters sitting at the husband's desk during the early morning hours, writing in secret, it seems, about “The Difficulty of Saying ‘I,’” for fear perhaps of offending someone, including, significantly, her own sex—the narrator, who watches her undercover (168–69). It is a gesture in which a whole social situation can be read, showing not only how the political is inscribed in the relationship between men and women and the way these are institutionalized in marriage—with woman as both victim and perpetrator of her confinement to the sphere of domestic isolation and narrow social experience—but revealing moreover the social and cultural situation of the female artist as represented in German literature, past, present, and future: the female artist in the past (Makarie, for instance) as the bearer of silence; the female artist in the present as the breaker of silence (Günderode and Christa T. who write clandestinely); and the female artist in the future (the narrator) as the bearer and breaker of silence, realizing Christa T.'s “vision of herself” (117), of totality, in her desire to create, to be a poet, and her desire to recreate, to be a mother. In the imperfect, however, which is Christa T.'s time, voice and body are “still” dismembered, a vision expressed in the present in the interstices of the inserted fragments of poetry and chatter. The Other is absent, silent, figuring in that silence the classic hysteric who breaks out of a fixed and stable structure of identity by refusing to take her place in language: “Krischan, why don't you write?” (33, 171).

So the narrator does it for her, speaks both for and “as a woman,” more precisely, as a mother who rigorously inserts the unreliable, the verses and cadences of the poet, into a whole and unified story about the effects of alienation in woman, in art, in aesthetics, a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, disciplining the fragments into closure of representation. For it is in the rupture, rather: in the purposeful submission to the voice of that alien body as well as in the explicit indifference to interruption, that the feminine heritage is enacted here, revealing the cat that the narrator is: the domesticated cat! It is she who is narcissus, projecting onto paper the image of woman, with whose (imagined) intactness she is in love: in love with the mother that she is, in love with the child that she was, in love with the writer she is becoming, and in love with the person who once was part of her own self, her “brain child,” Christa T., who is a wholesome form indeed, offered to “us” for love. The language of feeling begs it—pathos: “When should one live, if not in the time that's given to one?” … “When, if not now?” (70, 185) Her domestication then is the issue here, domestication that she aims to revise through, paradoxically, mimeticism.

Hence, the “wild” discourse as “an attempt to be oneself,” juxtaposing quotation (the strange, the impersonal “one”) and commentary (the familiar, the personal “self”) in an often abrupt and disorienting manner, intending to formalize the effect of alienation in speaking. But speaking as what? “As a woman”? In the most erotic scene of the text, female desire does indeed “speak.” There they are, two women, laughing, giggling, touching, woman in love with woman's body, woman feeling her way to her body, woman getting in touch with her sex (27).22 Bliss, momentary in-sight, displaced instantly by the sight that controls the narrative thread: here they are, two women, huddled against the wall under a glaring spotlight (the empirical and fantasized paternal/maternal stare), divided, silent, mourning (“losing one another and ourselves,” 14). It reveals the affect that moves the imagery—fear of feminine self-sufficiency—and the myth that moves the narrative—woman as victim—with the wall functioning as synecdoche to signal the whole, the house, the container, in which the female artist was once entrapped and in which the female artist is now contained and protected.

Therefore, the gynaeceum as the setting of the novel. It is the (dream-)house that contains and protects the nurturing women and that offers the difference of view. What the male artist once perceived (and perhaps till today) to be his conflict, that between vocation and role, and what the female artist once perceived (and perhaps till today) to be hers, that between art and motherhood, is here united to mirror the whole of woman's interior, her two vocations, that is, to create poetry (present in the verses and cadences of the other) and to recreate humankind by bearing “our” children and loving them (present in the narrator's chatter). This wholeness is evoked aesthetically in the closed form, pragmatically in the various versions of the snapshot, and thematically in the figural constellation of two women who share the “joys and burden of creation,” literally, in the moment of motherhood, figuratively, in the moment of writing. The men are nearly always absent or just marginally present, like Justus. On the one hand, this exclusion signals woman's attempt to be “one self,” to sound a voice that is in its duplicity distinct and separate from the voice of the male artist, like Wilhelm Meister who cannot speak literally, from the body, and perceives it therefore always as Other.

On the other hand and nevertheless, the exclusion magnifies what is within—repression, alienation, and amputation. Fear functions as agent, fear, significantly, of physical violence:

She wakes up in the night, the farmer and his wife are still there … the phonograph is playing. I'll dance with you into the skies above. … A screech. The farmer's wife has stepped on the tomcat, our good black tomcat, he's gentle and old, but he's hissing at the farmer's wife now … silence … then the farmer comes out with the tomcat, has grabbed him, cursing and swearing, as he flings him against the stable wall. Now you know how it sounds when bones crack, when something alive a moment ago drops to the ground.


The wall and the dead cat again, this time as empirical event. The trauma haunts the narrative; its symptom is the paradoxical structure. Here, in the play with pronouns (she/I/you), the paradox expresses itself directly, for in it gender boundaries are at once transgressed and cemented, experience generalized and specified, history equated with biology: the death of the cat and the death of the child (22) and the death of the baby birds (31) and the death of the toad (109) show acts of absurd and “irrational” cruelty, directed against those who cannot defend themselves, namely women, children, animals, by those who can, namely men. Men, the text argues in the repetition of “male” violence outside a circle of nurturing women, men are strong, active, and violent while women are weak, passive, and nonviolent.23 Thus, whereas the opposition movement/containment that structures the narcissistic system is presented as a cultural phenomenon, the opposition violence/nonviolence is grounded in sexual metaphysics.

This “lapse” represents next to the revolutionary moment—in the figure of narcissus or the hysteric—the reactionary instance of this text and supports my thesis that The Quest for Christa T. is a project that defines itself not in terms of undermining the notion of essence or ontology, but in terms of finding an adequate language for woman's Otherness, defined however in a most conventional way. “Female love” (as opposed to desire) is fantasized as the essence of woman, projected as originating in anatomy and, within that logic, as an alternative to “male aggressivity.” It means that the problematic epistemology of selfhood, which the philosopher-theorist-reader poses in terms of universals (“how, if at all, and under what circumstances, can one realize oneself in a work of art,” 95), is revised by the female artist-practitioner-writer not in terms of woman's difference but in terms of woman's anatomy. Consequently, in affirming the opposition masculine/feminine as a biological phenomenon, her question becomes how she can talk about herself as a woman and say “I” if the “I” secures the father's heritage (violence) and displaces the mother's (love). “She, with whom she associated herself, whom she was careful not to name, for what name could she have given her?” (170)

The name given to her is “Christa T.,” abbreviating the father's name and thereby questioning the name as an index of sexual and social identity. “She” is then placed into a gynaeceum, a place full of harmony, free of domination and reification. It is the place from which the “one” speaks, in the form of quotation, and from which the “self” speaks, in the form of commentary. It is an “I” then that contains not only the paradigmatic (masculinist) fantasy of a unified subject, but also its negation, enacted in the play with pronouns of the third and first person. What holds the “she” and the “I” together is the conventional figure of Woman-as-Nurturer. It is present as a literal sign, referring to the physical process of lying spread-legged and supine, exposing the locus of the child's generation, the womb. It is present also as a metaphorical sign, identifying the creative act with bearing “brain children”: “Feeling pain, longing, something like a second birth. And saying, finally, ‘I’: I am different” (57, 22). The first birth? The real child:

Her first child was born during this time, and the delivery was difficult. The child was in a bad position. For hours she strained uselessly. Of course it weakened her, but she didn't retreat into the feeling that the pains were an injustice being done to her. She had no sentimentality to spare and couldn't forget that she wanted to have the child and that the strict rhythm of rending strain and relaxation was necessary to produce it.


This description serves well—and is meant to serve, especially in view of the genealogical connection established in the “preface” (“to think her further”)—as an index of the narrative's rhythm of quotation and commentary, poetry and chatter, giving birth to the female artist from the spirit of Christa T.

Thus, just as in “male” fiction of past and present centuries, woman's brain is still connected to the womb. The metonymy signifies the recuperation of sexual metaphysics, subjecting the artist to the philistine (“She sees the advantage of being a woman,” 123) and the hysteric to the mimic (the scenario of the eternal feminine) who lets the other speak only in order to subordinate her speech to the (sexist) narrative of procreation. So the text is dominated by the other figure of consciousness, one that has assumed her place in language and submitted to power and authority because, as Kristeva writes, she identifies with it and wants to take its place (“to think her further”).24 While it can be argued that the centrality of childbearing here aims to revise the convention of the male artist who has used the birth metaphor to legitimize his “brain children” and ascribe female creativity to the womb,25 it can also be argued that it affirms the paternal metaphor because it links the woman of letters to the mother of children. The female artist writes from the body, so argues the text in its metaphors and metonymies, from the rifts and pains of childbearing (in the dual sense). It is her (metaphysical, not social) “fate” as an artist, in fact the origin of her speech, which is “female” precisely because of its (tragic) division between biological and intellectual energies, a no-win situation: “She wanted to unite that which cannot be united: to be loved by a man and to produce a work that can be measured against absolute standards,” writes Christa Wolf about the woman artist Karoline von Günderode.26

And how does Christa T. experience the collapse of her alternatives? As a collapse of her vital system, literally. Symptomatic is her illness, leukemia, a disease of the blood where an overproduction of white (light = reason) blood cells kills the red (dark = vitality) blood cells. In the final analysis then, being a female artist is shown once again as self-sacrifice to woman, a plot that repeats what is (or ought to be) familiar not only from fiction written by men, but particularly by women, harking back to the literary convention of the nineteenth-century woman writer's Bildungsroman and forward to popular culture of the twentieth century, “women's magazines,” for instance, where female artists are nearly uniformly represented with a book under one arm and a child under the other.27 The strife between the two “selves”—or between sexuality and morality—is resolved by the mimic in favor of womanhood, of “life” (185, 69–77), of motherhood. The novel rewrites therefore the auto/biography of a female artist in the name of a certain ethic, with the narrator functioning as some sort of archaic mother, one yet with fatherly attributes, wanting to lead “her self” (and analogously her reader) down the redemptive path of object-love: the path of pregnancy. The nursery functions as a room of her own, which represents the vision (or delusion) of a society without contradictions, the feminine world, the gynaeceum, with women as nurturers and men as (hidden) protectors.28

This wishful vision explains why the female figure is erected as an object of the paternal/maternal gaze, as an organizing spectacle, an absence that structures the symbolic order here and sustains “our glances.” Aesthetics is subjected to ethics, the erotic to morality, breaking the “spell of subjectivism” that the official propaganda of her country commands (67). But the motive is not just historical. It is also psychological, in that Christa T., the narrator's double, defines the other figure of consciousness, the “real,” that “character” that has fully relinquished narcissism and is in quest of object-love. The “female model of love” (Freud), narcissistic “immoral” love, is displaced onto the “parental model” which is, as Freud reminds us, the most moral love of all. For it sacrifices the desire to be loved for the need to love, placing in the (absent) center “His Majesty the Baby” (Freud), a figure that functions as a substitution for the fantasy long lost. The child, therefore, is to become what the father is not, a “great man and a hero,” or what the mother is not, a princess to a “prince.” It serves as a substitution for the unfulfilled wishes and dreams of the parents. “Parental [childish] love,” Freud concludes, “is nothing but the parents’ narcissism born again, which, transformed into object-love, unmistakably reveals its former nature.”29

A “Majestic Baby” is this (brain) child, Christa T., indeed. “She was all there,” the narrator jubilates (174), lived “according to the laws of her own being” (170), produced, pell-mell, children and art, which, put together in the present, make her intact, unique, perfect, “most valiant” (73), without “sentimentality to spare” (134), a woman of genius, without deficiencies, including “childish sexuality,” to use Freud's phrase (kindliche Sexualität). Considered in this context, narcissism appears a perversion indeed.

Conversely, misery is idealized: “But how does one cut oneself away from oneself?” (27). Through will, sheer will: “Now she would have to answer the question: what are you going to be? She would have to say: I want [Ich will] to get up early every morning, first to look after the child and then see to breakfast for Justus and me” (137). This is life in the subjunctive, but “life” nevertheless. Its opposite, death, is caused by blindness to the needs of the other—the death of the cat(s): “That's what happens when you're not being attentive” (21). This somewhat Jesuitic morality reveals the mimic's blind spot, that is, history and (internalized) structures of power. Accordingly, narcissism is substituted by an ideal ego erected in herself and enabling her to reject the shadow, her own double, “as if possessed, plays out the shadow figures and overcomes to some extent what has brought him to the brink of destruction or self-destruction in the ‘real’ world.”30 Major uncertainties are thereby explained away, particularly woman's essentially unpeaceful nature, which is domesticated over again in the representation of femininity through motherhood.

Left for us to view is the image of the “Great Mother”—protective (“Worst of all, the fly circling the lamp every morning when you awake. Your mother can chase it away. To forget,” 135), creative (“She cut blue fishes and yellow flowers out of colored paper and pasted them like an ornamental frame around the margins of the white paper; she painted big clear letters,” 140), sacrificing (“as any mother would she quells the child's sense of strangeness by hugging Anna; but she doesn't have the illusion that she's hugging a part of herself. She lets the child go, and lets herself be looked at,” 145), and nurturing (“She only cried when the doctor placed the child on her breast, when she called it by name: Anna,” 134).31

But why link motherhood to biology? Why insist on a semantic identity between form and content, woman and tenderness (“Does one remember tenderness? Is it tenderness the child still knows today when it hears the words ‘your mother’?” 134)? Why link it to anatomy, to a substance, rather than to a function that men can perform as well? And is the multiplicity not really a singularity since it is absurd to identify female sexuality with woman's reproductive function?

One reason for the reduction is psychological. The world has to have a center, since a centerless world is unthinkable, impossible to live. But the “old” center, the Father whose substance is violence, needs to be substituted by the Mother whose substance is love. “She” now stands high in the center and provides the single principle of coherence, one that controls the play with forms (child, artist, mother, wife, lover, etc.). Its opposite, plurality of meaning and plurality of the subject, caused by the absence of that transcendental signified (Love, in the sense of the Christian Agape), leads to chaos, violence, the apocalypse. Longing for presence—or “the inability to tolerate chaos,” as Nietzsche would say—motivates the act of mastering heterogeneity, the uncanny, of collapsing instability into stability. The enigma of Christa T., that violent “wild” subject-in-process, flickering between pronouns, between the veils and cadences of the other and the showing and telling of the “self,” is cemented into a Monument-of-the-Ideal-Woman, the Great Mother, whose condition is repression and whose mechanism is displacement. “Writing means making things large” (168). Indeed, but at the price of reducing the subject to nothing.

The other reason is historical. It is significant that narrated time begins under fascism (chapters 1 and 2) where the social, political, and cultural discourses aim at reducing woman to her sexual and reproductive function, conceiving her as nurturer (of man) and man as her protector and exaggerating thereby the division between the sexes. It leads/led, paradoxically, to belligerence and militarism.32 Narrated time ends, equally significant, under socialism where political, social, and cultural discourses aim at securing woman's public function—as worker, writer, theorist, politician—while simultaneously assigning to her once again the essential quality of the nurturer of children and men.

The mimic repeats and affirms that ideology by adapting and obeying the moral rule of her condition without compromising about the dogma on which it rests.33 That “gigantic” third eye is indeed present then, seeing the eye that watches her (us) whenever she (we) acts as moral subject and views the world in terms of morality. But does this mean that the little morality play staged in the gynaeceum is offered to us for criticism?

No, it is offered to us for adherence. The novel's structure serves as evidence, as does Christa Wolf's entire oeuvre in which female figures are if not already mothers, then at least always already married. Women in Wolf's works are shown without exception in their relationship to men, including in this novel, where the men are practically nowhere and therefore everywhere, like the sky, an authority that at once determines and limits the woman's condition, outside as well as inside.34

The novel's point of view also serves as evidence, as it is characterized by a propensity toward caricature, beginning with the moving snapshot of the lady on the beach and the meaning it takes on in the various contexts. Woman is presented there and here as almost eternally pregnant, literally, as being with child, and figuratively, as being with brain child. In the centrality of childbearing, which orders the images and sustains the narrative thread, woman's distinctive feature, the womb, is exaggerated to the point of being ridiculous. Perhaps that is the “real” significance of the red and white ball that in the three versions of the beach scene grows steadily from “big” to “huge” to “gigantic,” pointing to the mother's womb as seen from below. The propensity toward caricature signifies what Elisabeth Lenk has called “pariah consciousness,” that is, woman perceiving herself as an inferior being to man.35

Like the mimic here, a batlike soul, rather than a great cat, as her uncanny double, a soul yet waking to the consciousness of itself, but in darkness and secrecy and loneliness, tarrying a while, loveless and sinless.


  1. For the comparison of woman to cat, see Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. W. Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1966), pp. 87 and 169, and Nachgelassene Fragmente 1, Werke, ed. G. Colli and M. Montinari, pt. 7, vol. 1 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1977) sec. 1[30], p. 12; also Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. J. Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1957), vol. 14, pp. 73–102, Compare the German original “Zur Einführung des Narzissmus,” Freud—Studienausgabe (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1975), vol. 3, pp. 37–68. Subsequent references are to the English translation, cited parenthetically in the text; the translations have been modified in places where the English text reduces, in my view, the complexity of Freud's text. The following discussion of Freud's essay is indebted to Sarah Kofman, “The Narcissistic Woman: Freud and Girard,” diacritics (September 1980), 36–45. See also Sarah Kofman, Autobiogriffures: Du chat Murr d'Hoffmann (Paris: Christian Bourgeois, 1976), pp. 36–37.

  2. Christa Wolf, “Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers,” Gesammelte Erzählungen (Darmstadt/Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1981), p. 98 (my translation). I am aware that Wolf's tale aims to satirize from a contemporary perspective her (socialist) society's philistinism in its view of the artist, just as E. T. A. Hoffmann did in the figure of the cat Murr and its view of the (Romantic) artist Kreisler in Lebensansichten des Katers Murr (1820/1822), a novel to which Wolf explicitly alludes. What escapes her is the philistinism in the cat's view of woman, as I shall argue in the following.

  3. Christa Wolf, The Quest for Christa T., trans, Christopher Middleton (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970), p. 150, originally in German Nachdenken über Christa T. (Halle: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1968). Subsequent references are to the English translation, cited parenthetically in the text. I have altered Middleton's punctuation and retained the original, since it captures Wolf's peculiar habit of constructing what we call run-on sentences which function for Wolf as an approximation of written speech to oral communication. Important for my argument is Wolf's use of the adjective geschmeidig which in German applies to people's bodily movements only in reference to women: “Sie ist geschmeidig wie eine Katze” (see Duden's and Grimm's dictionaries).

  4. A note on terminology: “female figure” and “female artist” refer only to the fictional characters; “woman writer” refers to the person who invented the narrative.

  5. Freud (see note 1). Kofman sees a connection between Freud's story of woman's sexuality in society and culture here (1914) and his being “particularly taken” at the time with Lou Andreas-Salomé (Kofman 36). For a most exhaustive interpretation of the Freud-Salomé relationship see Biddy Martin, Representing Woman: The (Life)Styles of Lou Andreas-Salomé (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 267–320.

  6. See my headnote which quotes Wolf's headnote to her novel about the poet(s) von Günderode (and Heinrich von Kleist), No Place on Earth, trans. Jan van Heurck (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1982), originally in German Kein ort. Nirgends (Berlin/Weimar: Aufbau, 1979).

  7. English, to reflect, a verb that unites sight and reflection, (historical) object and (critical) subject, spatiality and temporality, as well as the limit and the infinite, since it means both to ponder something, someone, in order to know and understand, and to reflect, from the Latin reflectere, to bend back, to become mirrored. Compare the myth of Narcissus where we are confronted with a love for an object which is a mirage (Ovid, Metamorphoses, III). Useful for my discussion of the function of the myth in Wolf's novel is Jacques Lacan's “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I,” in Écrits, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), pp. 1–7, and more important Julia Kristeva's “Narcissus: The New Insanity,” where she points out that “Narcissus after all is guilty of being unaware of himself as source of the reflection” because “he, in fact, does not know who he is”; in Tales of Love, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), pp. 103–21. Similarly, the narrator in Wolf's novel, who turns sight into origin without her knowing it.

  8. For example: “Da mag sie schon monatelang in unserer Klasse gewesen sein. Da kannte ich ihre langen Glieder,” and so on. See also Inta Ezergailis, Women Writers: The Divided Self (Bonn: Bouvier, 1982), pp. 66–67, 93–116, who reads this syntax as a refusal to superimpose an air of certainty or closure on the unfinished and uncertain life of her friend (67). I agree only partly with Ezergailis and fully instead with Adorno who argues that parataxis functions to express relations of power which include, by definition, both the role of the adversary and the aid (see my argument about the narrator's double role of hysteric and mimic); Theodor W. Adorno, “Parataxis,” Noten zur Literatur III (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973), pp. 156–209.

  9. About this paradox of women's writing, see especially Mary Jacobus, “The Difference of View,” Reading Woman (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986), pp. 27–40. Regarding the coupling hysteric-mimic, see Julia Kristeva, “Die Produktivität der Frau,” Alternative 19 (1976), 166–72; also “Narcissus” where Kristeva argues that the “feminine facet of [ideal] love is perhaps the most subtle sublimation of the secret, psychotic ground of hysteria” (Tales 112–13); also relevant is Kristeva's essay “Woman's Time,” trans. Alice Jardine and Harry Blake, Signs 7.1 (1981), 5–35.

  10. I consider the following the most incisive treatments of the novel—from a historicist perspective, Heinrich Mohr, “Produktive Sehnsucht. Struktur, Thematik und politische Relevanz von Christa Wolf's Nachdenken über Christa T.,Basis 2 (1971), 191–233; Christa Thomassen, Der lange Weg zu uns selbst. Christa Wolfs Roman “Nachdenken über Christa T.” als Erfahrungs—und Handlungsmuster (Kronberg: Scriptor, 1977). From a philosophical perspective, Andreas Huyssen, “Auf den Spuren Ernst Blochs. Nachdenken über Christa Wolf,Basis 5 (1975), 100–16; Ortrud Gutjahr, “‘Erinnerte Zukunft’—Gedächtniskonstruktion und Subjektkonstitution im Werk Christa Wolfs,” Erinnerte Zukunft, ed. Wolfram Mauser (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 1985), pp. 53–80; Wolfram Mauser, “‘Gezeichnet zeichnend’—Tod und Verwandlung im Werk Christa Wolfs,” Erinnerte Zukunft, pp. 181–205. From a psychoanalytic perspective, Bernhard Greiner, “Die Schwierigheit, ‘ich’ zu sagen: Christa Wolfs psychologische Orientierung des Erzählens,” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift 55.2 (1981), 323–42; Sylvia Schmitz-Burgard, “Psychoanalyse eines Mythos: Nachdenken über Christa T.,Monatshefte 79.4 (1987), 463–77. From a poetological perspective, Wolfram and Helmtrud Mauser, Christa Wolf: Nachdenken über Christa T. (Munich: Fink, 1987); Ester Kleinbord Labovitz, The Myth of the Heroine: The Female Bildungsroman in the Twentieth Century (New York: Peter Lang, 1986), pp. 201–43. From a feminist (cultural theory and social history) perspective, Jeanette Clausen, “The Difficulty of Saying ‘I’ as Theme and Narrative Technique in the Works of Christa Wolf,” Amsterdamer Beiträge zur Neueren Germanistik 10 (1979), 319–33; Elizabeth Abel, “(E)Merging Identities: The Dynamics of Female Friendship in Contemporary Fiction by Women,” Signs 6.3 (1981), 413–35; Inta Ezergailis (see note 8); Sara Lennox, “‘Der Versuch, man selbst zu sein’: Christa Wolf und der Feminismus,” in Die Frau als Heldin und Autorin: Neue kritische Ansätze zur deutschen Literatur, ed. Wolfgang Paulsen (Bern: Francke, 1979), pp. 217–22; Anna K. Kuhn, Christa Wolf's Utopian Vision: From Marxism to Feminism (New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 1988); Anne Herrmann, “The Elegiac Novel,” in The Dialogic and Difference (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), pp. 62–89. For a good selection of essays in English on Wolf, see Responses to Christa Wolf, ed. Marilyn Sibley Fries (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989). The study that I find the most provocative and therefore the most influential on my work is Myra Love, “Christa Wolf and Feminism: Breaking the Patriarchal Connection,” New German Critique 16 (1979), 31–53. Yet while I agree with Love that Wolf's novel breaks down the “patriarchal system” of dichotomous and mutually exclusive opposites, with the male as center over and against a female other, I disagree that that scenario contains the whole story and argue instead that besides the deconstructive the novel contains a reconstructive moment, with the female as center over and against a male other, which is of course a farce. Love ignores the process of signification, of ideological trickery, that is, the narrator as the bearer of accepted opinion. Moreover, to postulate that “female subjectivity” (Love's key category) is defined by intersubjectivity and non-reification and “male subjectivity” by self-reflection and reification repeats in its reference to biology (“female”/“male”) the kind of dichotomous thinking Love aims to revise.

  11. I do not mean to say that Wolf is not reflecting upon patriarchy, indeed she uses the term ten years later in her introduction to Maxie Wander's Guten Morgen, du Schöne (1975), a collection of interviews with women in the GDR, and again, still more polemically, in her lectures on poetics at the University of Frankfurt in 1982, which appeared in English under the title Conditions of a Narrative: Cassandra and were appended to Wolf's novel Cassandra, trans. Jan van Heurck (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984), pp. 141–305. But Wolf never concerns herself with the question of the relation between gender and writing or, more precisely, with the question of what language actually is, how it functions in constituting subjectivity, and, moreover, what the relationship is between subjectivity (including “female”) and power. (And power as a discursive—and not just as an economic—phenomenon was already a category in postwar German culture, West as well as East, not in Lukács's writing, to be sure, but indeed in Brecht's, for instance, whose works are, as Wolf herself tells it in her essay on Brecht, part of the literary canon in schools and universities.) Thus, in the name of—ironically—the bourgeois liberal notion of a split but harmonized unitary subject (“das Subjektwerden des Menschen—von Mann und Frau,” see Wolf's essay to Wander), Wolf evades the consequences of her earlier theoretical (and radical) argument that “I without books am not I” in “The Reader and the Writer” (1968), The Reader and the Writer: Essays, Sketches, Memories, trans. Joan Becker (Berlin/GDR: Seven Seas Publishers, 1977), pp. 177–212. See also her essays on Karoline von Günderode and Bettine von Arnim which reveal the same blind spot(s), in Wolf, Die Dimension des Autors (Darmstadt/Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1987), pp. 511–610, as well as the series of interviews published as “Documentation: Christa Wolf,” German Quarterly 57.1 (1984), 91–115. A good essay (in English) on the status of feminist discourse in the East-German academy and society is Chris Weedon's “Introduction” to her anthology Die Frau in der DDR (Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988).

  12. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (New York and London: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1957), p. 3.

  13. Terry Eagleton writes that much of classical Marxist thought “was clearly incapable of explaining the particular conditions of women as an oppressed social group, or of contributing significantly to their transformation” because of its narrowly economic focus or the concomitant ignorance vis-à-vis the question of “sexual ideology, of the ways men and women image themselves and each other in male-dominated society, of perceptions and behaviour which range from the brutally explicit to the deeply unconscious.” Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), pp. 148–49). Is that Wolf's legacy, especially since she insists throughout her writing on equating patriarchy with capitalism (“Klassengesellschaft, das Patriarchat,” see the essay on Maxie Wander and the lectures on poetics, as well as “Documentation,” note 11)? It certainly is the legacy of her critics (see note 10) in East-as well as West-Germany (and the United States) whose writing on Wolf can be linked by the refusal to pose the question of the effect of sexual ideology in works by women, in this case, works by Wolf. (The question is usually reserved for writing by men).

  14. I have altered slightly Middleton's translation and replaced “smile” by “laughter” since the original reads Lachen (and not Lächeln), a sound rising from the body, while “smile” refers to soundless “laughter,” which makes no sense considering the narrator's fascination with that (apparently) uncanny sound.

  15. See Friedrich Nietzsche's Aphorism 509 of Morgenröte and Zur Genealogie der Moral. I am indebted for this discussion to Rainer Nägele's lecture “Theatrical Speculation on Marat/Sade,” MLA Convention, Chicago, December 28, 1985.

  16. Not only does the narrator's “preface” invoke the birth metaphor, but within the total narrative the female figure is instantly associated with motherhood (and death, of course), as in the opening pages: “Then she began to blow, or to shout, there's no proper word for it. It was this I reminded her of, or wanted to, in my last letter, but she wasn't reading any more letters, she was dying. She was always tall, and thin, until the last years, after she'd had the children. So there she was, walking along in front, stalking head-in-air along the curb” (9).

  17. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977). Useful in this context is Wolf's essay of the same year as the novel, “The Reader and the Writer” (1968), which subscribes to a “poetics of the eye,” that is, to the classical doctrine of art as mimesis; also in her lectures on poetics, especially pp. 272–305.

  18. What I do not mean by the term is the woman author or some sort of “female” or “feminine” essence, or a “split subject” or a centered, unified subject as such, traditionally fantasized as “male,” recently as “female.” What I do mean by the term is a peculiar place of a thinking, acting, or writing subject, one that refuses a “human” or “female” nature by weaving together heterogeneity and contradiction, without wanting to dissolve them; that is, by a speaking subject (of a text) that repeatedly shifts its position vis-à-vis (gendered) experience and (gendered) discourse. Its object is not an identifiable object—neither the “total woman” nor the “total man”—but representation itself, fantasy, a psychic space, at once structured and heterogeneous. A (potential) example is Christa T.'s fragmented writing, organized around the moment, it seems, and, as one body, radically theatrical as well as perspectivist, reflecting perhaps the heterogeneity of subjectivity—prior, of course, to the intervention of the narrator and the obsession with truth and identity, with ordering, administering, classifying, categorizing, interpreting, and so on.

  19. See pp. 4, 5, 6, 26, 117, and 169.

  20. German umherstreunen refers to roaming animals, particularly to cats and dogs.

  21. See Kofman, “The Narcissistic Woman,” p. 39, and Freud, “On Narcissism,” pp. 89–91.

  22. On the demystification of female homosexuality, see Luce Irigaray, “This Sex Which Is Not One” (1977), in This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983). Relevant to the image of giggling women in opposition to belligerent men is Jean-François Lyotard's “Something at Stake in the Women's Struggle,” sub-stance 20 (1977), 9–17. Important in this connection is Wolf's brief “Interview with Myself” (1966), The Reader and the Writer, trans. Joan Becker (Berlin: Seven Seas Publishers, 1977), pp. 76–80.

  23. See Wolf's lectures on poetics (note 11) where she consistently identifies aggressivity with “maleness” (e.g., pp. 153, 159, and 173); the double equation structures most of her work, up to her latest piece Accident: A Day's News, trans. Heike Schwarzbauer and Rick Takvorian (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989), originally in German, Störfall. Nachrichten eines Tages (Berlin and Weimar: Aufbau-Verlag, 1987).

  24. Kristeva, “Produktivität,” p. 168; compare Kristeva's discussion of “love and the exclusion of the impure” (Tales 109–113). See also Kofman who writes that if Freud “can in the course of his inquiry transform woman into a hysteric by rejecting all speculation and by appealing, as he says, only to the observed facts, it is because most women, throughout the course of history, have in fact been the accomplices of men. Do most mothers not seek above all to turn their sons into heroes and great men and to be parties to their crimes, even at the risk of death?” (Kofman, “The Narcissistic Woman,” 45). For a critique of (Wolf's) Hegelian speculative dialectic, see Jacques Derrida and Christie V. McDonald, “Choreographies” (Interview), diacritics 12 (1982), 66–76.

  25. See Susan Gubar, “The Birth of the Artist as Heroine: (Re)production, the Künstlerroman Tradition, and the Fiction of Katherine Mansfield,” in The Representation of Women in Fiction, ed. Carolyn G. Heilbrun and Margaret R. Higonnet (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), pp. 19–59. For a different view on nineteenth-and early twentieth-century women novelists and on the metonymy brain-womb, see Ann Ardis's essay in this volume, “‘Retreat with Honour.’”

  26. Christa Wolf, “Der Schatten eines Traumes. Karoline von Günderode—ein Entwurf” (1978); my translation. Lesen und Schreiben. Neue Sammlung (Darmstadt/Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1980), p. 242.

  27. See Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “To ‘bear my mother's name’: Künstler-romane by Women Writers,” in Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), pp. 84–104. Regarding popular culture, see especially the East-German “women's magazine” Für Dich and the West-German feminist magazine Emma. Relevant to this discussion is Irene Dölling's study, “Continuity and Change in the Media Image of Women: A Look at Illustrations in GDR Periodicals,” Studies in GDR Culture and Society 9 (Lanham and London: University Press of America, 1989), pp. 131–43. Compare Roland Barthes’ incisive analysis of the French weekly Elle in Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), pp. 50–52.

  28. Wolf's Büchner-Prize Acceptance Speech (1980) and its discussion of Georg Büchner's female figures (Rosetta, Marie, Marion, Julie, Lucile, and Lena) is relevant here, since Wolf refers to them exclusively in terms of their status as victims, ignoring the difference in social class that also characterizes them—“Unprotected on the perimeter,” yet “unprotected” from what? (“‘Shall I Garnish a Metaphor with an Almond Blossom?’” New German Critique 23 [1981], 6). For an (implicit) critique of the discourse of homologization, see Virginia Woolf, “Professions for Women” (1931), Women and Writing, ed. Michele Barrett (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), pp. 57–63. Also Mary Jacobus, “Review of The Madwoman in the Attic,Signs 6.3 (1981), 517–23.

  29. Freud, “On Narcissism,” p. 91.

  30. The Reader and the Writer, p. 206 (my translation and emphasis); woven into this view are the cultural politics of the GDR—of Western industrial nations in general?—which emphasize not only the perverse aspect of the Narcissus myth, but its morbidity (which conflicts with the privileging of such values as normalcy, health, and sanity).

  31. I have altered Middleton's translation slightly to conform to the original in its explicit reference to woman's body (ihr das Kind auf die Brust legte).

  32. See Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (1938), and Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, trans. Stephen Convay (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), a fascinating study of the misogynist attitudes of a group of military men, the German Freikorps. Compare to that Wolf's epistolary essay “Come! Into the Open, Friend!,” trans. Maria Gilarden and Myra Love, Connexions: An International Women's Quarterly 13 (summer 1984), 12–14.

  33. See Barthes, Mythologies, pp. 50–52.

  34. The exceptions are Rita Seidel, the central figure of Wolf's novel Divided Heaven, who leaves her lover in West-Berlin to return home and to work with her (surrogate) father, Metanagel, and Karoline von Günderode, the female artist figure in No Place on Earth, who is also a historical person, the poet of German romanticism, who committed suicide, because of an unhappy love affair—or so we are told by literary historians and, significantly, by Wolf herself in her essay on Günderode in Lesen und Schreiben.

  35. Elisabeth Lenk, “Indiscretions of the Literary Beast: Pariah Consciousness of Women Writers Since Romanticism” (1981), trans. Maureen Krause, New German Critique 27 (1982), 101–14.

Catherine Hutchinson (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6622

SOURCE: “The Case of Christa Wolf,” in Cross Currents: A Yearbook of Central European Culture, No. 11, edited by Ladislav Matejka, Yale University Press, 1992, pp. 9–22.

[In the following essay, Hutchinson presents an overview of Wolf's literary reputation and ongoing critical controversy surrounding the publication of What Remains.]

Six months after the opening of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the East German government, an anxious little story called What Remains was published in Germany.1 In this slender volume Christa Wolf describes her life under the surveillance of the state security police in East Germany. Written in the late seventies but first published in 1990, What Remains caused a great stir in reunified Germany. This single book at once brought Wolf's person and political history under intense scrutiny and instigated a wide-ranging debate among German intellectuals about the moral responsibilities of the writer and the politics of literature and literary criticism. The so-called Wolf debate, I believe, is the vehicle of a long-standing and unresolved question: the relationship of the writer's life to the reading of her work.


According to the New Handbook of Contemporary German Literature since 1945, Christa Wolf is the most important contemporary German author.2 American scholar Marilyn Fries calls her the best-known German woman writer of this century.3 Born in 1929 in what is now Poland, Wolf was part of the generation of Germans that built the East German state after World War II. She became a member of the Socialist Unity (East German Communist) party in 1949, the year the German Democratic Republic was founded, and remained a member until 1990. From 1949 to 1953, Wolf studied German literature in Jena and Leipzig, writing her dissertation on the writer and social critic Hans Fallada under the literary scholar Hans Mayer. In Berlin, from 1953 to 1959, Wolf worked for the Writers’ Union and the prominent East German literary journal Neue deutsche Literatur. She was promoted to the journal's editorial board in 1958. Then she worked as editor for the Halle publishing house Mitteldeutscher Verlag, until 1962, when she returned to Berlin to devote herself to writing. Thus Wolf's early career and rise to prominence in the East German cultural world in the 1950s was clearly determined by cultural politics. Moscow Novella (1961), her first prose narrative, shows the influence of cultural politics on the aesthetic values of the budding writer of fiction.4 For the West German scholar Alexander Stephan, “much of the book reads like an instructional text on socialist realism, like an essay about the tasks or possibilities of marxist belles-lettres turned into prose.”5 Wolf was recognized as a rising star in East German letters as well as a committed socialist: she received her first literary prize for Moscow Novella in 1961, followed two years later by the Heinrich Mann Prize for her first novel, Divided Heaven.6 The same year, 1963, she was selected as a candidate to the Communist party's Central Committee. The Academy of the Arts of East Germany praised Wolf for her commitment to Communist art: “She effectively fulfills with this novel the mission of socialist art to represent the workers’ world of thoughts and feelings, to show the richness of experience of our times, and to build the people's powers of understanding and feeling.”7 One East German journalist noted that the political and moral voice of Wolf's fiction followed logically from the nature of her cultural and political activities: “Whoever has observed Christa Wolf's critical and cultural-political activities in recent years will not be surprised at the tone and manner of her narration.”8

Not only was Wolf praised for her ability to combine moral and political values, but her writing was noted for its artistic innovativeness, for successfully combining ethics with aesthetics. Her publisher, Heinz Sachs, even claimed that Wolf's Divided Heaven set new standards and broke with the old aesthetic categories, while a reviewer for the publishing industry's trade journal praised its “masterful domination of formal-compositional means and … human warmth that enriches the reader and persuades him to take a stand.”9 In her combined roles as writer and communist, Wolf was proving, Kurt Hager asserted, “the possibility of mastering contemporary problems aesthetically.”10 This was the same Hager who later became the hardline minister of culture of East Germany. Wolf's stylistic artistry and her translation of the “process of self-recognition” into an “inner monologue” received special notice and admiration. Although one East German critic complained that she had not quite succeeded in “getting a grip on the national question,” another said that Wolf had found an “unusual resonance among readers of all classes.”11 In any event, Divided Heaven was the cause of considerable controversy among critics, who, while claiming that the book spoke to all Germans, hotly disputed its meaning.12

In 1964 Wolf, then candidate for the Communist party's Central Committee, helped turn Divided Heaven into a film, and received the National Prize of East Germany. However, Wolf's next book, The Quest for Christa T., was criticized so harshly that the publisher issued an official apology for having accepted it.13 Yet four years later, after some changes in the East German political leadership, the book was reprinted, and in 1973 it was awarded a literary prize in Potsdam.


The reception of The Quest for Christa T. beyond the borders of East Germany was from the start affected by the political controversy surrounding Wolf in East Germany.14 Though delayed, the West German response to The Quest for Christa T. was sympathetic. The West German city of Braunschweig recognized The Quest for Christa T. as “one of the few significant German novels of the 1960's.” Wolf's next major work, Patterns of Childhood, first published in East Germany in 1976, won the Bremen Literary Prize in 1977. Wolf's acceptance speech, like her prose, was commended by some Western observers for keeping distance from ideological loyalties and political commitments and “rising above” divisive inter-German politics.15 In 1980, after the publication of No Place on Earth, Wolf became the first East German writer to win the prestigious West German Georg Büchner Prize—a previously unthinkable event.16 The reward pointed out that in narrative prose Wolf “helped illuminate the darkness of contemporary experience.”17 One West German critic praised Wolf for freeing herself from “a socialist-realist literature of production”;18 others praised her “modernity,” the “increasing complexity of her works,” while sympathizing with her political stand.19 The Austrian writer Ingeborg Drewitz emphasized that “Christa Wolf's oeuvre appears ever more clearly as a writing against the grain, not one of open rebellion against the world she lives in, but one that incorporates hesitation and denial—and also the uncertainty whether it is right to do so.”20 In Wolf's The Quest for Christa T., one critic saw a “renewal of the utopian dimension of marxist thinking,” arguing that this aspect of the text—one that Divided Heaven did not have—allowed it to be read well beyond its East German context.21 With the publication of The Quest for Christa T., Christa Wolf had indeed captivated West Germany: her texts were displayed in every bookstore window and read widely, and she was claimed as an “all-German writer.”22

The array of West German and Austrian prizes awarded Wolf in the 1980s (after the publication of Cassandra in 1983), testify to her renown in the West: the Schiller Prize (Bad Württemberg, 1983); the Franz Nabel Prize (Graz, 1984); the Austrian National Prize for European Literature (1985); and the Scholl Brothers Prize (Munich, 1987). It was the generality of “her mourning and her fears,” explained West German critic Franz Schirrmacher in 1990, that made Wolf's fiction appeal to a wide variety of Western readers. Whatever the reason, Wolf indeed became “the carrier of all possible expectations and hopes, from feminism to environmental protection and the peace movement, to Eurocommunism.”23 Christa Wolf was “our” writer too, cheered one West German reviewer on the occasion of the writer's sixtieth birthday. “May she remain our Christa Wolf, one of the most sincere and best writers that we know.”24

Gradually Wolf's popularity extended to the United States, where she remains a favorite author in academic circles, especially among marxist and feminist critics.25 Wolf became the subject of numerous dissertations, books, and scholarly articles which widely recognized her not just as a great writer from East Germany but also as one of the premier German writers of this century. Scholars like Anna Kuhn applauded her “inherently political … subtle and subversive” texts and admired her “relentless honesty and self-scrutiny.”26 Her work was translated into twenty-seven languages, and some literary experts even expected Wolf to be nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature. What happened to change her reputation?


In the shadow of the sudden collapse of the socialist government, Christa Wolf published What Remains, a manuscript she had written more than ten years earlier about her experiences while under surveillance by the secret police. Soon the controversy began. In their critical reviews of the book, the Western literary critics Franz Schirrmacher and Ulrich Greiner began to reassess Wolf's reputation as a moral leader in East Germany. In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Franz Schirrmacher called What Remains a “book of bad conscience.” He saw the relationship between the intellectual and the state as complicitous rather than oppositional. Wolf Biermann, the political songwriter expelled in 1976, reminded the readers of Die Zeit that in East Germany “some dared and suffered more, some less … resistance and conformity have flowing boundaries … and how far is too far is always tied to the individual writer. The deep familiar contacts to our deadly enemies never broke off, because we carried the contradiction in ourselves.”27 Schirrmacher claimed that Wolf's loyalty to the family/state blinded her to the reality of its oppressiveness for others. Wolf's behavior in 1989 had demonstrated both her loyalty to the socialist state and her belief in her role as its spokesperson. Indeed, Wolf's prominence in her own country was such that on the occasion of her sixtieth birthday, in March 1989, she was officially feted with the republication of her works: no slight honor for an East German author. Wolf was also one of a handful of writers who spoke before half a million demonstrators on the Alexanderplatz on November 4, 1989. In her speech she encouraged a reflective, serious reform process, a renewal of dialogue, and applauded the people who had taken to the streets in peaceful protest.28 On November 10, 1989, as thousands of East Germans hastened over the newly opened borders toward the West, Wolf again emerged in the public eye, this time to read an appeal on East German television to her fellow citizens. Signed by writers and opposition leaders (and distributed at crossing-points along the Wall), this appeal urged East Germans to remain in order to participate in the country's reform.29 A month later, Christa Wolf made another appeal, called “For Our Country,” with the author Stefan Heym. Published in the East German press, this letter pleaded with the people to help make the “socialist alternative” a reality. The Communist party leader Egon Krenz endorsed—and thereby damned—this letter with his signature.30

Schirrmacher's examination of the person behind the Christa Wolf myth was not the first of its kind. In 1988, the Berlin cultural journal Niemandsland published a critical, carefully documented analysis by Arianne Bauer of Wolf's involvement with the state. It was called “Christa Wolf: A Cult Figure? Or Reflections on Solid and Shaken Points of View.”31 Bauer showed that Wolf's moral “positions” on power and her actual behavior told two different stories. It is true that Wolf clearly and repeatedly tried to link writing to morality, to represent the socialist author as moralist, and to express her sense of moral responsibility in her fiction. In What Remains, she writes: “Every day I tell myself that a privileged life like mine only justifies itself through the attempt now and again to go beyond the boundaries of the sayable, bearing in mind the fact that all kinds of border violations will be punished.”32 Schirrmacher points out that Wolf sees writing here as a kind of desertion of her country, (“eine Art halber Republikflucht”). In Bauer's view, although Wolf lived in East Germany, she had emigrated inwardly by turning away from local problems to discuss global problems in her fiction.

Wolf claimed to believe in the sociopolitical importance of writers, specifically in the writer's role of speaking for the people. After Wolf Biermann was refused reentry into East Germany in 1976, Wolf and other prominent writers and artists signed an “open letter” of protest to the government (because the East German media refused to publish it, it was published only in the West). This letter, and the dozens of signatures added to it, led directly to the harassment, exile, and exodus of many of her colleagues. In 1979, Wolf described her tenacious loyalty to East Germany thus: “I still draw reserves of confidence and creative impulsion from the intensity of my identification with society and from the feeling of being personally affected by everything that affects this society. I can't abstract myself from this.”33 The exodus of writers and artists from the East continued throughout the eighties, while Wolf remained in East Germany as a symbol of critical internal opposition—especially to the West, where her ongoing conflicts with the Writers’ Union were noted with interest.34

Schirrmacher and Bauer both admit that Wolf's struggle to “go beyond the boundaries of the unsayable” in literature involved different risks from taking a public stand in opposition to the government. Both critics, it is true, are less concerned with an evaluation of her verbal artistry than with a realistic assessment of her politics. This reevaluation of Wolf's literary reputation must, in my opinion, include an analysis of how her way of writing contributed both to her popularity among Western academics and to her moral authority in the East.

About the time Schirrmacher's article appeared in Frankfurt, the Hamburg weekly paper published two opposing papers on What Remains.35 Ulrich Greiner's article, “Lack of Finer Feelings,” reproached Wolf for publishing the book, calling her action “embarrassing” and accusing the author of self-importance and a lack of consideration for those whose lives had truly been destroyed by the regime. The tone of self-pity, the self-critique, and the yearning for a “new language” in What Remains infuriated Greiner, who wondered whether Wolf expected to be considered one of socialism's victims by virtue of this fictional representation of her experiences.

Greiner's response to Wolf's writing style is revealing and descriptive of his expectations for literature. He refuses to succumb to the “disarming strategy” by which the author brings out all objections against herself in the work. He describes this style as “the comfortable Christa Wolf sound, the flat noncommittal melody in the individually formulated language; it is this unclear relation (typical for Christa Wolf) between the real world that shimmers like a distant foreboding and the poetic world of her texts.”36 Greiner claims that this same style and its utopian overtones account for Wolf's “terrible success” as a writer: “[This is] the inner logic of the Wolfian narration: the long familiar inwardness protected by power that builds literary fortresses of refuge. This explains at the same time the terrible success of Christa Wolf. She is the painter of idylls.”37 The ambiguity of her literary texts had certainly helped get them published in East Germany, where books like Stefan Heym's historical narrative Five Days in June and Reiner Kunze's ironic, anecdotal The Wonderful Years could never be published.38 Wolf's multivalent language, once valued for its strategic ambivalence, is criticized now for playing games with reality and truth and allying itself with power.


In an article appearing with Greiner's but taking the “other side,” Volker Hage defended Wolf on the basis of her record of literary accomplishments.39 He called for an evaluation of What Remains on purely aesthetic grounds. This was indeed wishful thinking, for as writer Hans Joachim Schädlich, who emigrated from East Germany, pointed out, “it is unfortunately unavoidable to speak of politics when one speaks of writers and literature in East Germany.”40 Arguing that “the quality of a book does not depend on its publication date,” while conceding that “the book could have been made available sooner,” Hage seemed to think that literary appreciation of What Remains could proceed unaffected by the questioning of Wolf's behavior as a citizen. This proved not to be the case. The West German writer Peter Schneider acknowledged that “the writer [Christa Wolf] was more radical than the citizen from the beginning, and repeatedly exposed herself to the rancor of censors with her books.”41 Though Hage—like Günter Grass and Walter Jens42—appealed to critics to detach the writer from her work, Hage himself linked the author's personality and writing when he called Wolf's “doubting, undecided, contradictory attitude, her fearfulness, and hesitancy … the ground from which her literature has sprung.”

Like other defenders of Wolf in this debate against her critics, Hage argued that literature is not ideology, and should not be read politically. He insisted that writers in East Germany were obliged neither to speak for the state nor even to speak out. Yet successful writers in East Germany were published, and this at least gave them a voice where others had none. The West German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki commented on the writer's authority in East Germany: “By expressing ideas that cannot be read in any East German newspaper, but that are felt and thought by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of citizens of that country, writers gain not only publicity but authority: they become the spokespersons of the discontented, the points where resistance crystallizes. … In some cases, they are even promoted to figures of national identification.”43

In 1987, Hage had observed that “there are few authors like Christa Wolf, who are taken in the arms of the state (now and then crushed) and at the same time offer a model to the nonconformists.44 Hage argued in 1990 that Wolf was a writer first, and a moral authority and public figure second—“Christa Wolf became the most important writer of the GDR and thus, nolens volens, a moral authority”—as if this fact alone excused her from all responsibility for her own reputation. The East German poet Bert Papenfuss-Gorek sympathetically commented, “Literary people like songwriters or other critics had to deliver role models and the public expected these role models. … It was a further wall that one erected for oneself, to fulfill these expectations.”45


The criticism of Christa Wolf initiated by Schirrmacher and Greiner sparked many responses. Prominent writers and critics including Günter Grass, Walter Jens, and Hans Mayer called the criticism a smear campaign. Jens accused Greiner and Schirrmacher of starting a hunt with Wolf as the quarry, while Grass warned about using What Remains as the vehicle for an attack on the author. Both Mayer and Grass compared the critique to the attempt to “purify” Germany by a denazification process after World War II. For Grass, judging the narrative was appropriate but judging the person was not, and in his opinion the criticism was essentially an (inappropriate) “working-over” of her character.

Thus the critics were criticized in their turn, called “the self-righteous ones” by Peter Schneider, and accused of presuming to be Wolf's moral betters by some who had skeletons in the closet themselves, like Hermann Kant, president of the former East German Writers’ Union.46 Wolf Biermann agreed that the critics’ position was problematic: “Christa Wolf is being reproached for cowardice vis-à-vis an enemy who, to be sure, was not her enemy, and under whose rule the critics never had to live. Tricky!”47 Peter Schneider pointed out a further irony in Wolf's fall from grace with West German critics: “Was the author not, until recently, honored in these very pages? Was she not lavished with all the literary prizes of the West German literary industry?”48 The timing of the critical debate was no accident, in Schneider's opinion. The change in the critical wind had only come, like the publication of What Remains, after the collapse of the dream of socialism.

Sarah Kirsch, however, remarked that Schirrmacher and Greiner were offensive not because they were wrong, but because “they are a hindrance. Because they refuse to participate in the Christian sweeping-it-under-the-carpet. Instead, they drag things out from under it, and decorate the dents, would you believe!”49 Under Kirsch's ironic gaze, the debate appeared to be the anxious defense of new values and a new age against the unpleasant truth. Those who excused East German intellectuals for their complicity with the state had themselves invested in “the same historical hope,” that is, the dream of a better socialist system, and were thus excusing themselves. Western supporters of the East German intelligentsia were “Western fellow travelers” and themselves to blame, for as Peter Rossman points out,

they chose to overlook the grim reality of everyday life in the GDR, the omnipresent security apparatus, and even the existence of the Wall. Literary works were detached from their social and political context, elevated into so many “texts” and “discourses” independent of the life around them. It was considered bad form to point out the contradictions of writers with passports exhorting people to stay at home and help in the construction of socialism, or to mention the hypocrisy of intellectuals silent on domestic militarism playing host to delegations from the World Peace Congress. Yet the reality was there for all who wished to see.50


What Remains is not an admission of complicity or a confession of guilt, despite what some feel Christa Wolf owes the world today. Rather, it is a bald, negative personal account of the effects of censorship. “Christa Wolf describes the function and use of a slave language in a dictatorship,” wrote the West German scholar Antonia Grunenberg.51 Schirrmacher warned against praising the book as some kind of repressed vital “truth,” however, for “its slender truth is already the reworked version of a truth. Its courage is already the amended form of courage. Its self-accusations are already the corrected form of self-accusations.”52 Schirrmacher objected to the evaluation of What Remains as a document of the effects of censorship in terms of “courage,” “truth,” and “accusations.” He sought distance from a certain way of reading East German literature. When literature is considered a truthful, if coded, “message,” Schirrmacher argues, the writer feels the responsibility to tell the truth; and the critic feels obliged to treat the text as a document of the author's convictions. But according to the East German writer Helga Königsdorf, writers might censor those convictions in order to survive: “If we were crafty, we temporarily joined with the opponents of our hope. That was the root of our inner censor. The border was different for everyone.”53What Remains, unpublished until 1990, is testimony to the writer's internalization of censoring mechanisms. Wolf's narrator describes language as pathetically inadequate for her task, finding at her disposal only “words swollen up with convictions, prejudices, vanity, anger, disappointment, and self-pity.”54 There is only a faint hope that “one day” she will be able to name things in her “new language,” a language “harder” than “the one in which I am still having to think.”

Walter Jens reminded Wolf's critics of the paradoxical flowering of art under socialism in East Germany: “The works: banned, exiled, made taboo. The authors: discouraged, constrained, and chased into exile. And yet: what an art of breadth, status, and power.”55 Jens claimed that in each successive decade of East Germany's forty-year history, “the gap between the ideological and reality, the political truth and art's truthfulness to reality” became clearer. This image of a widening gap between culture and politics simplifies the relationship between literary texts and politics that was characterized on both sides by adaptation and appropriation through the mediation of language. Yet more investigation is needed into the relationship of literary language to political language, power, and the stability of the state. If, as one critic argued, writers’ “critical views and emancipatory demands wanted to improve the system rather than to get rid of it,” is this judgment of their views to be the basis for the judgment of their literary works? What specifically are the effects on literary style of different political convictions?

Günter Grass directed attention to the attacks on the literary style of What Remains. As he said to one reporter, “Don't you notice that people are reproaching her for things that belong to her writing style, that is, that she doesn't name state or party by name, … and that people reproach her for cowardice because of that?”56 Grass emphasized “what a critical, if coded critical function literature had in the GDR, and what role Christa Wolf played in this context.” Although Grass did not elaborate further on the politicized reception of the language of the literary text, his comments are a reminder that the Wolf controversy stems from a shift in how such coded language is viewed. Once considered critical and subversive, Wolf's style is now seen as lacking in directness and honesty, and its “opposition” has been redefined as collusion. In sum, Wolf's multivalent language means different things at different times to different readers.

For instance, one critic described Christa Wolf as “systematically” writing “right by the reality of the German Democratic Republic” in What Remains,57 while another viewed the book as an accurate description, in “sentences hard to understand,” of the author's discomfort.58 The narrator's alienation from language, her helplessness, and her loss of purpose are indeed pronounced in this text, as in this passage: “One day, in my new language, I would be able to speak about it, which would be difficult, because it was so banal: The anxiety. The sleeplessness. The loss of weight. The pills. The dreams. That could be described, but what for? There were other fears in the world.”59 The narrator's discomforting experience with surveillance is also a negative linguistic experience from which she finds no escape. This negativity, or “moral implosion,” is not familiar to Wolf readers, and it implies a rejection of utopian thinking, as well as a view of literature as teacher and of the narrator as critical guide. This narrator has no answers, only despair. In What Remains, Wolf deserts the readers who are dependent on her to speak for them, and represents her own inner imprisonment and the disabling power of self-censorship. In what Marilyn Fries calls “a narrative of paranoia, claustrophobia, and self-referentiality,” Wolf departs from her usual dialogue with the reader and from ambiguously hopeful tones.60What Remains offers a record of the writer's despair and alienation: “I became burdensome to myself,” the narrator says; “I had neither fear nor any feeling at all, I had no more contact with myself either.”61

If not a political writer, Wolf had to be a political animal of sorts to survive the forty years of the East German government. It is undeniable that the effects of Wolf's involvement in the ideals and practices of socialism are “readable” in her literary texts. If Wolf “found her own style,” as Grass put it, it was this style that enabled her to write and publish in East Germany, and to avoid the direct censorship of her literary texts.62 It is true that “for decades people have read her keenly in both German states,” and perhaps Grass is right that Wolf's “style of the cautious internal monologue had an effect.”


Greiner's first response to What Remains was followed, a month and many critical responses later, by an analysis of the debate entitled “No One Is Free of Guilt.”63 He calls the intellectuals both the accusers and the accused in this “second German catastrophe.” For unlike fascism, communism was the work of the intellectuals, and although some saw through its illusions, Greiner spares no sympathy for the faithful, on both sides, who “played the game with power and lost.” He points to their recent attempt to retain vestiges of their former power by demanding the extension of state funding for the East German Writers’ Union. The “forgive-and-forget” invitation from the West German PEN to open itself to all members of the East German PEN is another example. This invitation was met with incredulity and outrage by East German emigrant writers, now members of the West German organization, who objected to the erasure of political crimes for which they themselves had paid. As usual, sweeping it all under the carpet would mean that the difficult acknowledgment of wrongdoing and past injustices would never take place.

Both Ulrich Greiner and Franz Schirrmacher have pushed beyond the debate on Christa Wolf to discuss a more broadly challenging topic: an aesthetic shift in German letters. In his article “The German Aesthetics of Conviction,” Greiner argues that the evaluation of East German literature was always based on its “oppositional” character in the West.64 He notes that literature was accorded higher moral integrity than other forms of writing, for the East German media were ideologically under state control and could offer little resistance. Literature, unlike the media, could cross national boundaries and discuss the realities of the “socialist alternative.” Literature in the East thus served as an escape valve and was praised for its truthfulness by Western literary critics, who were prevented from analyzing literature's actual function and importance by their own belief in its beneficence for the citizens in a dictatorship. In the so-called “Reading Republic of East Germany,” scarcity and censorship insured that books would in fact be desired, but no one could enforce the hope that readers would be instructed by literature to lead better socialist lives, or even to think critically. The relationship between readers and texts could never, despite the best efforts of the government and the hopes of writers, be controlled. The East German regime policed not only the publication and distribution of literature but also writers themselves in the attempt to control the opinions of the people. One can read the consequences of this for Christa Wolf in the pages of What Remains.

In his article “Farewell to the Literature of the Federal Republic,” Franz Schirrmacher declared the end of an era of literary criticism in which literature and morality are linked and literature is judged by an author's convictions.65 In the past forty years, an “aesthetics of conviction” has governed German letters, dictating that reading be instructive and art accountable to a framework beyond itself, whether “bourgeois morality, class consciousness, humanitarian goals, or, lately, the ecological apocalypse.”66 This attitude about art linked the politically diverse literary criticism of East and West Germany and “political” criticism in the United States, where the debate on Wolf persists in academic circles today.67 Although Christa Wolf's legendary reputation has been toppled, the reevaluation of her literary works continues. It is more widely recognized now that Wolf was “an author [who] understood how to bring the German mixture of love of suffering, expectation of disaster, and need for consolation into a form to which no one could object.”68 The lesson of the “case of Christa Wolf” is that one could have objected, but one did not. The irony is that a silenced text called What Remains, a “story of failure,” has succeeded in freeing critics and writers to speak out.


  1. Christa Wolf, Was bleibt (Frankfurt am Main, 1990).

  2. Neues Handbuch der deutschen Gegenwartsliteratur seit 1945, hrsg. Dietz-Rudiger Moser (Munich, 1990), 386.

  3. Marilyn Fries, “Locating Christa Wolf: An Introduction,” Responses to Christa Wolf: Critical Essays (Detroit, 1989), 25.

  4. This text has not been translated into English. Christa Wolf, Moskauer Novelle (Halle, 1961).

  5. Alexander Stephan, Christa Wolf (Munich, 1987), 14.

  6. Christa Wolf, Der geteilte Himmel (Halle, 1963).

  7. Eduard Zak, “Tragische Erlebnisse in optimistische Sicht,” Sonntag 20 (19 May 1963), 1, 9.

  8. Zak, 9.

  9. Heinz Sachs, “Notizen zu Christa Wolfs Der geteilte Himmel,Berliner Zeitung, 28 June 63; Martin Reso, “Unser Porträt: Christa Wolf,” Börsenblatt für den deutschen Buchhandel, 5 January 1965.

  10. Gunter Wirth, “Den Blick zum klaren Horizont gewonnen,” Neue Zeit, 14 April 1963.

  11. Wirth, “Den Blick”; Reso, “Porträt.”

  12. For the story of the reception of Divided Heaven, see Martin Reso, “Der geteilte Himmel” und seine Kritiker: Dokumentation (Halle, 1965). Reso claims that people began to consider Wolf a German writer (as opposed to an East German writer) in the early 1960s, after the publication of Divided Heaven.

  13. The reception of this controversial book has been documented by Manfred Behn in his Wirkungsgeschichte von Christa WolfsNachdenken über Christa T.” (Königstein, 1978).

  14. Wolf's reception in the West was not free from the ideological biases of the Cold War in the 1960s. See Bernhard Zimmermann, “The View of “The Other Side”: On the Critical Reception of GDR Literature in the BRD” GDR Bulletin 17, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 18–22.

  15. Similarly, in her speech for the reception of the Büchner Prize three years later, despite “some allusions that one could relate to her country,” Wolf avoided direct political references. She reflected primarily on the grammatical and political significance of the phrase “I thank you,” specifically when uttered by an East German writer addressing a West German audience. Josef Quack, “Finstere Erfahrungen: Zur Verleihung des Büchner-Preises an Christa Wolf,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 243 (18 October 1980), 25.

  16. Wolf's esteemed mentor, the prominent communist and writer Anna Seghers, had received the Büchner Prize in 1947, before the East German state was founded. Peter Engel, “Das Leiden an Deutschland,” Hessische Allgemeine 241 (16 October 1980).

  17. Helmut Schmitz, “Trüb mit Aufhellungen,” Frankfurter Rundschau 243 (18 October 1980).

  18. Hanno Heibling, “Mut, den man anderen machen muss,” Saarbrücker Zeitung 242 (18 October 1980).

  19. Quoted from Manfred Jurgensen, Christa Wolf: Darstellung, Deutung, Diskussion (Bern, 1984), 22; and Ingeborg Drewitz, “Stil und Existenz gehören zusammen,” in Unter meiner Zeitlupe (Vienna, 1984), 201.

  20. Drewitz, “Stil und Existenz,” 201.

  21. Heinz-Dieter Weber, “Der Sinn der Schreibart in den Romanen Christa Wolfs,” (Unpublished ms., 1980).

  22. Wolf was said to write in gesamtdeutsch, that is, a unified German. The success of the West German edition of The Quest for Christa T. (published in 1969) was clearly a cause of discomfort for the East German authorities who were responsible for its limited first edition in the East; in 1972 the book was reprinted. Hans Jansen, “Büchner-Preis für Christa Wolf,” Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung 147 (28 June 1980).

  23. My own research has shown Schirrmacher's observation to be true. Wolf's literary texts are not only readable from a variety of perspectives, but her writing has lent itself particularly to marxist, feminist, and reader-response theories. I also believe that Wolf has been a kind of heroine to liberal or leftist literary critics in the West. Franz Schirrmacher, “‘Dem Druck des härteren, strengeren Lebens standhalten.’ Auch eine Studie über den autoritären Charakter: Christa Wolfs Aufsätze, Reden, und ihre jüngste Erzählung Was bleibt,Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (2 June 1990).

  24. Hedwig Rohde, “Immer tiefere Schichten freilegen,” Der Tagesspiegel (18 March 1989).

  25. Anna Kuhn, author of Christa Wolf's Utopian Vision: From Marxism to Feminism (Cambridge, 1988), calls Wolf the foremost female voice of the German-speaking world.

  26. Anna Kuhn, Christa Wolf's Utopian Vision, 1.

  27. Wolf Biermann, “Nur wer sich ändert, bleibt sich treu,” Die Zeit (24 August 1990), 43–44.

  28. “Befreite Sprache und Gefühlsworter,” Die Tageszeitung [Berlin] (9 November 1989).

  29. “Bleiben Sie bei uns,” Die Tageszeitung [Berlin] (10 November 1989).

  30. Egon Krenz had been appointed to guide East Germany through a reform process (the so-called Wende) after Erich Honecker stepped down. Krenz was widely known as the man responsible for the falsification of the communal election results and as a supporter of the Chinese government's massacre at Tiananmen Square. Thus his endorsement of the Wolf-Heym appeal virtually insured that it would be disregarded and scorned. As one journalist remarked, however, “the text is such that Egon Krenz had to understand it as calling for his signature,” for it was worded in much of the same ideological language that had dominated East German politics. Arno Widmann, “Unter Linden” Die Tageszeitung (7 April 1990).

  31. Arianne Bauer, “Christa Wolf—Eine Kultfigur? Oder Nachdenken über feste und erschütterte Standpunkte,” Niemandsland (Berlin, 1988), 213–28.

  32. Wolf, Was bleibt, 22.

  33. Christa Wolf, “Ich bin schon für eine gewisse Masslosigkeit,” interview with W. Schoeller, in The Fourth Dimension, Hilary Pilkington, trans. (London, 1988), 84.

  34. Some have been suspicious of Wolf's ability to finesse these particularly repressive years in East Germany. One West German critic wrote: “That they did not—in contrast to others …—expel her from the Party and the Writers’ Union is only a sign of the particular status Christa Wolf enjoys in East Germany.” Alfred Starkman, “Die leise Mahnerin,” Die Welt, 7 July 1980. The Party required public apologies from all the signatories of the Biermann protest letter, and to this day Wolf claims that she did not take back her signature. According to a reliable source, Christa Wolf suffered less—a “strict reprimand” and removal from the executive board of the Writers’ Union—thanks to the punishment allotted to her husband, Gerhard Wolf, who was expelled from both the Writers’ Union and the Communist Party. This story has wide currency in the former East Germany but is disbelieved and considered an irresponsible rumor by prominent scholars in the West. Yet if this story discredits Christa Wolf, it also helps to explain why Wolf never had a reputation as a dissident in East Germany—especially among members of the East German opposition—that she had in the West.

  35. Ulrich Greiner, “Mangel an Feingefühl,” and Volker Hage, “Kunstvolle Prosa,” Die Zeit, (8 June 1990): 13–14.

  36. Greiner, “Mangel an Feingefühl,” 13.

  37. Greiner, “Mangel an Feingefühl,” 12.

  38. These two works number among the many works of East German literature published initially, or only, in the West. Stefan Heym's works were never published in the East. Kunze emigrated to the West in 1976. Stefan Heym, Fünf Tage in Juni (1974), and Reiner Kunze, Die wunderbaren Jahre (Frankfurt, 1978).

  39. Hage, “Kunstvolle Prosa.”

  40. Hans Joachim Schädlich, “Tanz in Ketten. Zum Mythos der DDR-Literatur.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, July 1990.

  41. Peter Schneider, “Die Selbstgerechten” (Unpublished paper).

  42. Gunter Grass, “Nötige Kritik oder Hinrichtung?,” interview, Der Spiegel 29 (1990): 138–43; Walter Jens, “Plädoyer gegen die Preisgabe der DDR-Kultur. Fünf Förderungen an die Intellektuellen im geeinten Deutschland.” Süddeutsche Zeitung, 16 June 1990.

  43. Marcel Reich-Ranicki, “Die Angst vor dem Schriftsteller,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 285 (9 December 1987): 23.

  44. Volker Hage, “Drüben bleiben?” Die Zeit 48 (20 November 1987): 1.

  45. “Ist das Gaststattenwesen politisch?,” interview with Bert Papenfuss-Gorek and Rainer Schedlinski, Konzepte 9 (July–August 1990): 13–23.

  46. Hermann Kant was largely responsible for the expulsion of Biermann and other writers in the late 1970s. Yet he now attempts to portray himself as “an activist of East Germany.” See “Ich war ein Aktivist der DDR,” Der Spiegel 32 (1990): 156–60.

  47. Wolf Biermann, “Wer Sich ändert,” 43.

  48. Schneider, “Die Selbstgerechten.”

  49. Sarah Kirsch, “Böcke für Gärtner,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 7 June 1990.

  50. Peter Rossman, “Zum Intellektuellenstreit: Contribution to the Symposium ‘Gegenwartsbewältigung,’” GDR Bulletin 17, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 6–7.

  51. Antonia Grunenberg, “Das Ende der Macht ist der Anfang der Literatur. Zum Streit um die Schriftstellerinnen in der DDR,” Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte 44 (26 October 1990): 22.

  52. Schirrmacher, “Dem Druck des härteren.”

  53. Helga Königsdorf, “Der Schmerz über das eigene Versagen,” Die Zeit, 8 June 1990.

  54. Wolf, Was bleibt, 11.

  55. Jens, “Plädoyer.”

  56. Grass, “Nötige Kritik oder Hinrichtung?” 141.

  57. Heimo Schwilk, “Nachdenken über Christa Wolf,” Rheinische Merkur, 22 June 1990: 15.

  58. See Christine Zehl Romero, “Was bleibt,GDR Bulletin 17, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 2.

  59. Wolf, Was bleibt, 22.

  60. Marilyn Fries, “When the Mirror is Broken, What Remains?” GDR Bulletin 17, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 11–15.

  61. Wolf, Was bleibt, 39, 80.

  62. With one exception, Cassandra, Wolf's fiction was not banned or censored in East Germany. Wolf consented to having certain passages—marked by ellipses in the text—removed from the East German edition of Cassandra.

  63. Ulrich Greiner, “Keiner ist frei von Schuld,” Die Zeit, 27 July 90: 1.

  64. Ulrich Greiner, “Die deutsche Gesinnungsästhetik,” Die Zeit, 9 November 1990: 15–16.

  65. Franz Schirrmacher, “Farewell to the Literature of the Federal Republic,” Kulturchronik 1 (1991): 4–10.

  66. Greiner, “Die deutsche Gesinnungsästhetik.”

  67. Predictably, because Wolf was esteemed in the United States by feminists and those sympathetic to the Left, the West German critique of Wolf has been perceived as an ad femininem attack, and a dispute between the left-of-center journalists and conservative journals. See Anna Kuhn, “Rewriting GDR History: The Christa Wolf Controversy,” GDR Bulletin 17, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 9; and Fries, “When the Mirror is Broken,” 12.

  68. Greiner, “Die deutsche Gesinnungsästhetik.”

Evelyn Juers (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3972

SOURCE: “Who's Afraid of Christa Wolf?,” in Cambridge Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 3, 1992, pp. 213–21.

[In the following essay, Juers discusses Wolf's concept of “subjective authenticity” and her abiding moral authority as a critic and author despite controversy surrounding Was bleibt.]

The title of Christa Wolf's latest work, Was bleibt, is conspicuously without a question mark—that form of punctuation, or as she has deployed it in her writing, anti-punctuation, which has become a significant feature of her literary signature. ‘Was bleibt’ could mean ‘what remains’ in the sense of ‘what remains to be done,’ or more pitifully, ‘what else could we have done’ (‘was blieb uns übrig’). Or perhaps more exactly, ‘what is/will be left’ (in the sense of ‘when this whole mess is cleaned up’); or it could mean something more positive, an abbreviation of ‘etwas bleibt’ (‘etwas muss bleiben’), to suggest that out of the chaos—that was and in a way still is the GDR—surely some good must be salvaged. Finally the title also carries a more personal message, about growing old, and scanning the significance of one's life. Was bleibt is both the culmination of this author's work and her casting around for new beginnings.1 Set in the ‘last days’ of East Berlin (the story is actually set in 1979: thus the decline of East Berlin was being recorded on Christa Wolf's calendar for at least a decade), a day in the life of the author, its continuous present documents the self-destruction of a place and a time but not of the central character, who is threatened but holds firm, just as we have seen it before in Wolf's earlier works, Moskauer Novelle (Moscow Novella), Der geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven), Nachdenken über Christa T. (The Quest for Christa T.), Kein ort. Nirgends (No Place on Earth), and Kassandra (Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays).2 ‘Holding firm’ suggests a special sense of gravity. It is this sense of gravity in the work of Christa Wolf that I wish to explore now.

Christa Wolf has argued that ‘pure literary criticism is often a mistake’—

If critics cannot bring themselves to relate their own observations to the subjectivity expressed in the book, if they can't openly adopt a position on it, then their criticism will always be constricted … Some critics try to hide behind a pseudo-objectivity, but their own personal inhibitions as people and as literary critics are so obvious in every line they write that one is forced to laugh.3

Christa Wolf is not joking. Indeed, most often, she is critic and novelist tightly coiled into one. It would be terrible, therefore, to make such a mistake—as a critic, to forget my subjectivity in response to her work, to commit pseudo-objectivity and be laughed at. For this author's laughter would be no ordinary laughter. It would be serious. It would weigh down my conscience as the impact of her work already weighs down my mind.

This is the reason. Christa Wolf has led a literary and critical crusade against indifference and for subjectivity, or as she calls it, subjective authenticity.4 It has been suggested that her reputation as an internationally acclaimed writer is based specifically on her seriousness as a writer on moral questions.

However, placing aesthetics in the service of ethics and becoming subjectively authentic has not been easy for her. Firstly, it was unfashionable and secondly, it was uncomfortable. For in its most immediate expression, ‘subjective authenticity’ is wholly dependent on the most consistently intense physical and emotional reactions. I would not like to postulate that there is no complexity in this process and I would not like to suggest that there is no pleasure. But it seems that in the work of Christa Wolf the purest form of subjective authenticity is in the experience of pain. Angst (fear), Schreck (shock), Zorn (anger), Enttäuschung (disappointment), Kummer (grief), Unruhe (anxiety), Schlaflosigkeit (insomnia), Trostlosigkeit (despair), Beklemmung (oppression), Verletzungen (injury), blankes Grauen (sheer dread): such is the catalogue of pain from her latest and shortest novel. And this is how she describes it there: ‘Der rasende, blanke Schmerz hatte von mir Besitz ergriffen, sich in mir eingenistet und ein anderes Wesen aus mir gemacht’ (I was possessed of an intensely violent pain, which had colonised me and transformed me entirely). What kind of pain? The pain of alienation. ‘Ich war in der Fremde’ (I was in a foreign land).5

From hope, desire, the appreciation of a friendship, food, landscape, from humour, even from wit, but most often from fear and pain—deep and terrible wounds which through description and inscription she will not allow to heal—from the realm of emotions there comes what she has called an ‘effervescence’ and a ‘tingling,’ like an electric current transmitting messages. It is produced from an accumulated ‘inner restlessness,’ like a migration of feelings within the territory of one person. It is also a call to action as she describes it, in her case the act of writing and speaking and remembering, and even prophesying. The author is like the Cassandra of Aeschylus: ‘… in [whose] muttered fear lies more than meets the sight: with stunning pain, like a brute serpent's bite, her whispered cry crashes upon the ear.’6

The reader's ear. For like Cassandra, the experience of painful knowledge is not something Christa Wolf wishes to keep to herself. One of her aims in writing is to let the reader share in the work of creating her fictions, to let the reader see the author, to inspire what she has called ‘productive tensions between the author and the reader.’

Another of her aims is that she would like literature ‘to drain every ounce of my energy.’7 Her energy and my energy. She was once asked, with all that intensity, and pain, and fear, and commitment, whether she did not run the risk of making herself ill. To which she answered that it's OK to write about illness too. This answer encourages me to make a rather blunt critical confession. I want to tell you that most of Christa Wolf's work gives me a headache. Having read and reread her work—of which there is a lot, novels, essays, stories, criticism, interviews, the work-ethic being an important part of her system of values—you can imagine how I've suffered, the packets of Disprin I've swallowed, wondering at times if this is what she really meant by effervescence. In the process of reading her works there is such an accumulation of anxiety and pain that what remains, when the headaches fade, is a firm conviction that she has succeeded in creating those necessary productive tensions between herself the author and myself the reader.

It is not exactly an equal partnership however. I develop a creeping suspicion that the concept of ‘subjective authenticity’ is a form of authorial assertion, an enchantment of a kind, but also a shackling. The author/reader relationship feels terribly claustrophobic at times, overcrowded, as if one's immediate attention and involvement are being stretched beyond their capacity. I begin to think of the relationship as a trap, a new kind of Gothic, and for ‘authenticity’ I read ‘authority’—making the ruling concept ‘subjective authority.’

Christa Wolf says of her heroine Kassandra, ‘die Gefangene nahm mich gefangen’ (I was taken prisoner by the prisoner herself).8 For the reader this chain of imprisonment continues. As she describes in Was bleibt this process is no mere abstraction. There she gives the example of the young girl who turns up at her doorstep with a manuscript, which Christa Wolf reads and praises while she herself is under surveillance, her every move being ‘read’ and appraised. In talking to the girl the narrator finds out that she has just been released from a year in prison where she had been sterilised under cover of a kidney operation.

Through this meeting the author's own sense of imprisonment and paranoia are confirmed and sharpened. The ordinariness of her everyday existence as she relates its rituals—eating, writing, sleeping, phonecalls—takes on a very dark dimension. Imprisonment, imagined or real, is one thing. But involuntary sterilisation lifts it to the level of a great crime, against humanity and against women in particular. And it carries with it a certain awesome historical echo. The GDR is linked to Nazi Germany.

From the writer to reader to writer. This is indeed a curious circle. In the case of the Kassandra narrative, it begins with the author's desperate attempts to become a modern medium for the captured Trojan woman, lending her voice to Kassandra's enforced silence. From simple compassion—there is rape, murder, intrigue, enslavement, humiliation to hang our emotions on—the textual and intellectual and emotive density of the writing almost materialises a living Kassandra. Similarly, the author almost achieves a spiritual possession. ‘Sie besetzte mich’ Wolf says, ‘she claimed me.’9 The captured woman captivates. I stress the ‘almost’ because despite the strenuous effort the author doesn't quite reach her subject.

The phantom of Kassandra is established by the author's desire and obsession with prophecy, her Frankensteinian rendering of human fragments. As an important aspect of the pain-complex in Wolf's writing, failure is thus inevitably built into her texts. There is always the striving for ever more difficult questions of morality, from the past and from within the condition of subjective authenticity, which can never be perfectly achieved, of course. Always the falling short, leaving many questions unanswered. At such moments, first poised and tense, then collapsed in upon themselves—what Wolf herself has described variously as ‘das Zusammenbrechen aller Alternative’ (the failure of all alternatives), ‘Hoffnungsmüdigkeit’ (the exhaustion of hope), or simply ‘Verlorenheit’ (loss)—the reader, this reader, feels compassion more for Christa Wolf the writer in her Kafkaesque dilemma than for Kassandra the tragic heroine.10

Christa Wolf has more than once referred to her debt to readers. She has said that it is their direct criticism, their questions at public meetings, but above all their letters, which have sustained her as a writer, particularly at times when she was low on fuel for her creative phoenix.

It was the community of readers that would return the writer to herself, that would prove her existence when she was tending a barely flickering ‘subjective authenticity.’ Thus a morality of reciprocity is established—what Christa Wolf has called ‘Zusammenarbeit mit Andersdenkenden’ (collaboration with those whose thinking is at variance with one's own).11 And just as the author never abandoned her unattainable subjects—be they the utopian state or the Trojan woman—so it becomes almost impossible for the suffering reader to abandon this author.

The bond is based on an understanding of the connection between speech and pain. Therefore Christa Wolf is afraid for the girl who visits her in Was bleibt; she wants to tell her that great talent is murdered in German prisons (making poignant use of the present tense); she wants to teach the girl about fear (‘fürchten lernen’ like in the fairy-tale) and about survival. In Kassandra Wolf writes (perhaps with reference to the creative potential of headaches): ‘Wer wird, und wann, die Sprache wiederfinden. Einer, dem ein Schmerz den Schädel spaltet, wird es sein.’ (Who will rediscover speech, and when. It will be someone whose skull is split open with pain).12

The reader necessarily becomes curious to know how this author obtained such a knowledge of pain, and turns to the biography for clues. Christa Wolf was born Christa Ihlenfeld in 1929 in Landsberg east of the Oder River. She attended high school there from 1939–1945. Her home town, which she revisited as an adult and which is the background of her autobiographical work, Kindheitsmuster (A Model Childhood), is now a Polish town.

Since she left Landsberg in the great postwar migration from East to West Christa Wolf has been a refugee, someone not-quite-at-home, living under a ‘divided heaven’ (the title of her second work), a condition which she calls in her last work, Was bleibt, ‘not being at home in her own place.’

And yet, remaining in Germany, indeed, proclaiming her socialist loyalty to the dream of a new Germany and writing in the German language and literary tradition, she does not appear to be an exile at all.

By the end of the war, when she was sixteen, however, ‘something had been seriously damaged’ and it became the sense of ‘something missing’ that inspired her to write.13 While the person had survived, the place and the time disintegrated around her. Kein ort. Nirgends, translated as No Place on Earth, is about that kind of exile, as is Kassandra and Was bleibt.A Model Childhood is a documentary of the ruins, an autobiographical reconstruction. The author has confessed she cannot identify with her own childhood character in that book. That child, she claims, is just one of several people wandering around inside her.14 Alienated from their time and place, they are resettled in a narrative time and place constituted by the author's ‘subjective authenticity,’ the latter in turn becoming a historical and geographical substitute for the ruins.

Christa Ihlenfeld was resettled in Mecklenburg. She destroyed the diary she had kept during the war. Studying German and Philosophy at university in Jena and Leipzig, she chose ‘realism’ for a thesis topic. Studying Marx she became a member of the SED, the Socialist Unity Party, in 1949. She married in 1951 and became Christa Wolf: all new beginnings. Above all she fell head over heels for the promised miracle of a new life in the GDR. It was an intense commitment. In an essay written in 1966 the enthusiasm still sparkled:

What we can say is that in this part of Germany, dominated by the Nazis twenty years ago and inhabited by embittered, confused and hate-filled people, the foundations have been laid for human beings to live reasonably together. Reason, we call it socialism, has penetrated into everyday life. It is the measure, the ideal, by which we judge how praise or blame is to be meted out. If we record this in our history books as a fact in our day and the decisive thing in our progress, I do not think we shall have to correct it later on.15

In the end, when the wall came down, becoming yet another ruin, Christa Wolf was still clinging to the socialist ideal that had been her lifeline. Now we may want to laugh instead. That is what a large section of the media has been doing. They had caught her, they thought, in the act of being hopelessly, historically, in the wrong. The moral prophetess who had so often admonished the West was now a mere puff-ball. That part of Germany of which Christa Wolf was so proud is no longer producing its own history books. As the GDR bureaucrats had been blinded by their politics so Christa Wolf had been blinded by her ideal.16

However, while she appeared to be unswerving in her adherence to socialism, as a student of literature in the 1950s, a critic, literary editor and member of the executive committee of the writers’ union, spokeswoman for socialist realism, dedicated communist, for a short time worker in a railway factory, writer, and later lecturer, Christa Wolf emerged somewhat obliquely but none the less vehemently, as a political dissident, a militant peace activist and a feminist. Most significant for her transformation, as chronicled in her work, has been the shift from ‘Sachlichkeit’ (objectivity) to ‘Innerlichkeit’ (subjectivity), from socialist realism to experiments with the dialectics of self, which she has also marked out as a progression from exclamation marks to question marks.

It has been a long and complicated stage of pupation. Not only had she been a candidate for the Communist Party's Central Committee from 1963–67, but for all her dissidence she still did not resign from the Party until 1989—at which some (rather self-righteous) critics have been horrified: it was just a little too late, they thought. They forgot, or did not want to relinquish their recent boost of Western Schadenfreude, to admit that she was always and increasingly outspokenly critical of GDR bureaucracy—indeed that she was herself more than once a victim of suspicious policy enforcements and a staunch supporter of other such victims.

Christa Wolf's admiration of the dissenting spirit was first most recognisably written into the heroine of The Quest for Christa T. published in 1968. For this she was severely criticised, her SED candidature was cancelled, and the book was not reprinted in the GDR for five years (while in the West publishers were overwhelmed by the demand for this novel). In 1977 Christa Wolf lost her position as writers’ union president and her husband lost both his union and party membership, because of their open support of Wolf Biermann. It was at such times that she depended most on direct contact with her readers. Furthermore, in the early 1980s she was obliged to produce two versions of her Kassandra work, consisting of a biographical narrative and four essays, one version for the East and one for the West.

No matter how absurd Christa Wolf's adventures in GDR wonderland now look to us, she has placed her moral integrity on public display by numerous, and some agonised examples of self-criticism, which includes criticism of her earliest, socialist realist work.

The fluctuations of her status aside, there remains a specific centre to her work which is beyond reproach.

It is not that she writes well and thinks deeply, not that she has inherited and criticised and expanded an existing literary tradition of grand dimensions, and not the ‘aesthetics of resistance’ that inform her political, environmental and feminist positions.

At the centre of her work there is nothing less than a historical catastrophe. She has admitted that ‘the intellectual realisation that one has made a mistake [and some would argue that her loyalties to the GDR were just that] is easier to bear than the emotion of shame.’ She is interested above all in what one learns from such emotions. She has also said that ‘a past like fascism envelops us like a wave’ and indeed a sense of calamity rarely leaves her writing.17

In 1968, when she was gathering up that ‘inner restlessness’ that led to her major turning points, she felt that ‘the curious, jerky story of her generation ought to be written sometime.’ As there were not many takers for this suggestion, and those already treating this topic seemed somehow inadequate to the task, she did it herself, with Model Childhood, published in 1977.

It was a difficult book for her to write. Going back to her home town, she did not expect to find parts of her self located quite so far back in a primitive past. She found she could use Landsberg—as place and as concept—to inform the catastrophe.

Thus she has written of Auschwitz, it was ‘a world in which evil and destruction were declared normal and felt by many to be normal … a world in which all the signs were reversed … a nightmare.’18 She wrote that it was a ‘riddle’ still unsolved, for which even ‘correct’ social and economic analyses—Marxist analyses—were inadequate. From this point on her criticism of ‘reason’ (or socialism) expanded and the cracks widened. What she was probably unaware of at the earlier stage of her recognition, was that while ‘reason’ would play tricks on her and one day, as incarnated in the GDR, it would disappear completely, what would remain would be the cracks themselves, the wounds and the pain. This was the counter-logic that the riddle demanded. The millions who were killed are not something she comes to terms with, not something she intends to get over. It is an uncomfortable existence, full of contradictions, but she cherishes the pain as the main current for the transmission of emotions and ideas, and above all, for a morality that had gone missing.

Christa Wolf's work is always about death. In Model Childhood her autobiographical childhood self, whom she calls Nelly, lies down in a potato-furrow, in all innocence, enjoying the summer warmth. When she gets up she leaves an imprint which looks like a coffin. Postmodern perhaps, constructed on several levels and from various points of view, Model Childhood is above all a literary post-mortem.

The counter-logic with which Christa Wolf begins to arm herself is simple enough. If the soft, blue sky—a ‘bluebell’ sky—with innocent pink clouds, is spread above Buchenwald, if innocence is guilty, if normal is abnormal, if there are terrible crimes being committed and all around no one sees these crimes, then the only thing to do is to surrender one's nostalgia for the past. Her generation is banished from nostalgia. The innocent past is a taboo, a sheer impossibility. She sets out ‘to learn to see, to strain the memory, not to let it get lost.’

Her writing is always in the service of memory, as a recognition of one's responsibility for the past. And ultimately it is memory, as a repeated moral act, which is her work, writing being merely the form it takes. Thus, for Christa Wolf, memory is a craft to which even narrative and poetics, and certainly the comfort of the reader, must at times be sacrificed. When accused of complexity, her response has been that some things cannot be expressed otherwise.

Not being able to remember means not being able to imagine the future. And loss of memory is equated with alienation—what another German writer, Heinrich Böll, has called ‘Distanzierungskrankheit’ (detachment-disease). He once remarked that in Germany emotions are regarded as a kind of ‘syphilis of the soul.’19

It has also been suggested by Böll that there is something distinctly Eastern, in the sense of ‘oriental’ or ‘exotic’ in the cultural traditions of eastern Germany: the home of Romanticism (of course with all the connotations of its perversions), introversion, speculative philosophies.20 Strangely, then, it is in Christa Wolf's adherence to a tradition of ‘Innerlichkeit,’ of subjectivity, which she calls the ‘fourth dimension,’ that almost mystic and certainly feminist intensity of her writing, and in her struggle to establish herself within a politics of emotion, that she can be regarded now, perhaps more than ever, as an East German writer. And having subjected herself so rigorously and for so long to ‘authenticity,’ Christa Wolf the author and psychopomp has become the most interesting character of her narratives. At the end of Was bleibt she writes: ‘Eines Tages, dachte ich, werde ich sprechen können, ganz leicht und frei’ (One day, I thought, I would be able to speak quite easily and openly).21 While it is easy to understand her desire, it is difficult to imagine that she could ever abandon her burdens.


  1. Was bleibt (Frankfurt am Main, 1990).

  2. In order of publication 1961, 1963, 1968, 1976, 1979, 1983.

  3. From a discussion at Ohio State University, 1985. Published in The Fourth Dimension: Interviews with Christa Wolf (trans. H. Pilkington, London, 1988) p. 106.

  4. From a conversation with H. Kaufmann, 1976, in The Fourth Dimension, pp. 17–38.

  5. Was bleibt, p. 33.

  6. From a conversation with J. Walther, 1973, in The Fourth Dimension, pp. 3–5. Aeschylus, The Oresteian Trilogy, Penguin Classics, 1956, lines 1164–68, p. 83.

  7. From a discussion at the GDR Academy of Arts, 1975, in The Fourth Dimension, p. 61 and p. 16.

  8. Voraussetzungen einer Erzählung: Kassandra, (Frankfurt am Main, 1983), p. 10.

  9. Voraussetzungen, p. 10.

  10. Voraussetzungen, pp. 15, 75, 94.

  11. Voraussetzungen, p. 116.

  12. Kassandra, p. 10.

  13. From a discussion, 1975. In The Fourth Dimension, p. 40 and p. 51.

  14. The Fourth Dimension, p. 45.

  15. Christa Wolf, The Reader and the Writer, (trans. Joan Becker, New York, 1977), p. 26.

  16. To mention only two, there was Peter Graves, ‘Not above reproach,’ TLS, August 24–30, 1990, and Ian Buruma, ‘There's no place like Heimat,’ The New York Review of Books, vol XXXVII, no 20, pp. 34–43.

  17. The Fourth Dimension, pp. 56 and 24.

  18. The Reader and the Writer, p. 104.

  19. Heinrich Böll Werke: Interviews I—1961–1978 (Cologne, 1978), pp. 713, 225.

  20. References to this idea in Franz Baumer, Köpfe des 20.Jahrhundert, (1988).

  21. Was bleibt, p. 107.

Myra N. Love (essay date Spring 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6289

SOURCE: “The Crisis of East German Socialism: Christa Wolf and the Critique of Economic Rationality,” in Monatshefte, Vol. 84, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 59–73.

[In the following essay, Love discusses Marxist conceptions of work and economic ideology in East Germany, drawing attention to Wolf's criticism of modern industrial society for its alienating effect on individuals.]

Wir mochten ihn nicht, diesen Kapitalismus mit seiner sozialen Ungerechtigkeit, mit seinen perfekten Mechanismen, mit seiner rücksichtslosen Effektivität.

—Helga Königsdorf1

As the mass media reported the disintegration of Eastern European socialism and either triumphantly predicted the reunification of Germany and the demise of the German Democratic Republic, or else projected terrifying images of a potential “Fourth Reich” emerging from a reunified Germany, research on literary and cultural developments in the GDR became both more difficult and more urgent. Faced with the need to see past the superficial exultation as well as the dire predictions offered periodically, the researcher who wishes to consider the implications of recent events must also reflect on the manner in which they have been publicized. And a careful consideration of the rapidly changing scenario offered by German-German relations must also be counterbalanced by informed reflection on the changing quality of life within that part of Germany that for forty years called itself the German Democratic Republic.

Perhaps even more challenging but equally essential for the researcher whose familiarity with East Germany is limited by cultural and ideological factors is the task of self-reflection. Once the province of both Marxist intellectuals and cold warriors in this country, the study of literary and cultural life in East Germany may now require redefinition, as the political entity of the GDR is passing into history. Many of the questions about convergences and divergences in the cultures of the two German states become mere historical curiosities, whereas others may take on new significance in a changing reality.

It used to be somewhat fashionable, especially for commentators and scholars on the left, to criticize the facile identification of socialism and Stalinism that has dominated both the media's representations of the GDR and the discourse about the GDR of non-leftist researchers in this country. Many studies of the literature of East Germany in particular insisted on context-specificity in a manner that far exceeded the requirement that historical context be considered in the study of almost any other literature. That insistence invested East German literature with a peculiar aura. It seemed almost as if it had no validity other than as documentation of and, in the best of cases, a kind of key to the understanding of an alien reality.

With the recent political and social changes in East Germany, however, that reality no longer seems so alien. The fact of East German fascination, indeed love affair, with western consumerism, the news of intermittent outbreaks of xenophobia, of profiteering from the economic instability of the period following the fall of the SED government are all depressingly familiar. This stage of history has not yet found its literary representations, but it does raise many questions about the role of literature and the literati in what was the GDR, forcing a reevaluation of old assumptions.

There have been exceptions, of course, to the insistence that East German literature be read only as a coded record of its historical context. One of the best known of those exceptions has been Christa Wolf, whose writings have been widely read in the West, and whose status as an author of “world literature” has increasingly been acknowledged. For many readers outside the GDR, her writing has had a personal and moral impact that far outweighs its role as a tool for decoding East German reality. Although her writings offer insight into the world of the GDR, they are not limited to representations of it. Recently, however, Wolf's status as a kind of “model” East German author has suffered a setback for reasons that are more political than literary. Wolf is one of the prominent East German intellectuals critical of the eagerness of her society to surrender its own identity in order to achieve amalgamation into the more prosperous and powerful West German state as quickly and as easily as possible. Intellectuals who shared this view came in for criticism as a group privileged under the old regime, who now wished to take the moral high ground and criticize ordinary citizens aspiring to the same privileges, including opportunities to travel in the West and access to western consumer goods. Along with the attack on privileged intellectuals came the denunciation of them for persisting in their desire to use the population of the GDR as guinea pigs in utopian experiments with democratic socialism. Their rejection of the identification of socialism with Stalinism or even Leninist centralism that discredits it as a valid alternative to capitalism is attributed to the relatively privileged position they enjoyed in the SED-state.

Christa Wolf was an early and active supporter of the East German popular uprising of 1989. Applauding the East German “revolutionary renewal” as a popular movement, “die den Sozialismus vom Kopf auf die Füβe stellt,” she still appeared to be well within in the mainstream.2 However, during the next few weeks, as pressure for German unification mounted, she issued, in collaboration with other artists and intellectuals, a statement strongly advocating the continued existence of an independent German Democratic Republic as a “socialist alternative to the Federal Republic.” The statement decried the potential “annexation of the German Democratic Republic by the Federal Republic” that would result from “the strong economic compulsions and unacceptable conditions with which influential circles in the Federal Republic bind their assistance to the G.D.R.”3 But by that time, the tide had begun to turn. Soon the revolutionary movement for popular renewal in the GDR was no longer the wave of the future. At the same time, the western media began to shift their focus away from the massive popular political unrest and the legitimation crisis faced by the SED to the revelation of the desperate state of the East German economy. This shift supported a reading of the situation that made German unification and the termination of the status of the GDR as an autonomous political entity unavoidable. Almost simultaneously, the balance of political consciousness and its public expression within the GDR shifted from the voice of revolutionary renewal to the voice supporting incorporation into the Federal Republic.

A popular uprising against a repressive regime attests to at least a modicum of revolutionary will and subjective agency on the part of a portion of the population. The ostensibly objective claims of economic rationality, however, lent a fatalistic quality to all predictions of an inevitable unification of Germany under the domination the Federal Republic, giving credence to a kind of economic determinism. Ironically enough, that economic determinism differs only in its ideological coloration from the kind long put forth as the motor of history by the SED's own variety of Marxist theory. From such a standpoint, the economic failures of communism are a simple, though in the case of the GDR, supposedly the strongest of the Warsaw Pact economies, rather shocking “fact” that bears witness only to the inadequacy of a planned centralized economy. The only remedy for the societal ills caused by such an economy would be, seen from that standpoint, the introduction of a capitalist economic system. Given that the leadership of the GDR had never managed or even really tried to posit as a goal any sort of social integration that would break with the ideology of capitalism, i.e., the norms of economic rationality, let alone put any alternative models into practice, it is not surprising that the inevitability of the “reunification” of Germany as a capitalist entity was hardly ever seriously in doubt—not only in the West, in the centers of capitalist economic power, but even, it seems, in what remained of the leadership of the GDR and in the minds of its citizenry.

The idea that something other than capitalism or state socialism was both possible and desirable has consistently been denigrated as utopian thinking by critics and commentators in the West. This view is shared both by those who see in capitalism the economic system that most closely corresponds to the natural condition of humanity and by those who see postindustrial consumer capitalism as a stage that the population of East Germany has to go through before recognizing its limitations and dangers. These voices were joined, as the GDR disintegrated, by their counterparts in East Germany as well. They attributed the insistence of some GDR intellectuals on a democratic socialist alternative as a possibility worth exploring to the longstanding gap between the dreams and aspirations of an “Avantgarde ohne Hinterland” and those of the population in general. What the people of East Germany really need, so nearly everyone agrees, is to live better, but what living better means is where the disagreements start. Is it a combination of consumerism and “Deutschlandsideologie” designed to satisfy a population long deprived of both material satisfactions and self-esteem by a corrupt bureaucratic regime? Or are the real needs for self-determination and free cooperation among equal participants who decide how to live and work together?4 Most importantly, are the two options of material well-being and social self-determination necessarily incompatible?

Discussions of the internal situation of East Germany must address what socialism meant as opposed to what it was supposed to mean for those who advocated a socialist alternative to the Federal Republic as well as for those who, tired of being guinea pigs in failed utopian experiments, were ready to try something that appears to have succeeded splendidly in the Federal Republic. There are numerous issues to be addressed, including the desirability of the type of success achieved in the West. Before that is likely to be seriously contemplated, however, various questions arise as to the plausibility of desirable socialist alternatives: Is the identification of socialism with Stalinism really so far off the mark? And given the failure of any of the state socialist societies of Eastern Europe to combine socialism and democracy thus far in their histories, are those who call for an end to utopian experiments not justified by the course of history?

It may be unconventional though it is certainly not beyond reason to assert that the failure of communism as a politically revolutionary strategy has more to do with what Marxism and capitalism share than with what differentiates them. This idea is hardly a new one. Even literary critics writing about the GDR well before the “crisis” that led to its demise have noted the “remnants” of capitalism within state socialism.5 However the commonalities shared by East German socialism and capitalism go much deeper than those stemming from the old regime's decisions to compete with the capitalist system on its own terms, although those decisions may, as many a voice from within the GDR has asserted, be partly responsible for the fascination that life in the West holds for East Germans.6 Indeed the failure to develop alternative values in the GDR is attributable to the very feature of Marxism that has prevented its success as a source of successful revolutionary praxis: the failure of Marxism to break out of the capitalist historical continuum that is the history of the dominion of economic rationality. This gave rise to a bureaucratic socialism lacking any commitment to the discovery and fulfillment of human needs other than material ones, and unable to conceive, let alone to enunciate possibilities for social solidarity that arise from other spheres than that of material production.

One of the most convincing discussions of Marx's “complicity” with the categories of political economy and of the utopia of production and labor intrinsic to the history of European Marxism is offered by André Gorz in his Critique of Economic Reason. Gorz insists on the discontinuity between preindustrial and industrial society, emphasizing in particular the different values placed on work within them. Pointing out that work in the modern sense of paid labor in the public sphere is “by far the most important factor of socialization” and “that industrial society views itself as a ‘society of workers’ and distinguishes itself, on these grounds, from all earlier forms of society,” Gorz indicates the major transformation that “work” as an anthropological category has undergone in modern industrial society, the reversal of the longstanding premodern exclusion from the full rights of citizenship of the person whose survival depends upon his own work.7 He points out the contradictory role that the category of “work” plays in Marx's writings, citing the famous passage in the third volume of Das Kapital, where Marx locates “the realm of freedom … beyond the sphere of actual material production,” and contrasting to it the more usual notion that predominates in Marx's writing of the “utopia of work” resulting from the transformation of the alienated labor created by capitalism into the collective “Selbsttätigkeit” of mankind.8

Calling the notion of the “utopia of work” into question, Gorz offers an historical explanation of why that view took hold. He points out that the modern notion of labor appears only with the rise of manufacturing capitalism and that material production only came to be governed by economic rationality with great difficulty and in the face of great resistance. The replacement of the system of domestic production by manufacturing capitalism was a revolution, for the subordination of all alternative rationalities to economic rationality was also the destruction of an entire way of life and the invention of something entirely new in its place. The new system destroyed the previous context for and significance of productive activity and reduced it to a means of earning a wage. The economic rationalization of work makes labor abstract and impoverishes and alienates the worker, who turns into little more than an extension of the machine at which he labors. He also becomes dependent for his physical survival upon the commodities produced by the social machine as a whole instead of upon the direct results of his own productive activity. Nonetheless, Marx and Engels asserted the potentially emancipatory implications of “the one-dimensional reductionism of economic rationality characteristic of capitalism,”9 claiming that it “engenders a demiurgic, poietic relationship between Man and Nature as a result of mechanization.”10 That relationship supposedly derives from the movement of history itself, rather than, as was the case with Marx's “utopian” contemporaries, from ethical exigencies.

However, as Gorz points out, it was only after 1856 that Marx based his idea of the necessary advent of communism on the internal contradictions of capitalism. In the German Ideology (1845–46) he attributed the inevitability of communist revolution to the need of the proletariat simply to survive. Simple survival is, however, a far different matter than universal self-realization through labor in the sphere of industrial production. Gorz suggests that the reason for the change in Marx's view had less to do with increased insight into the “movement of the real” than with the actual constitution of the “labouring masses,” i.e., the potential proletariat that was to realize the communist ideal, of his day, which consisted of a large proportion of ruined artisans and homeworkers who still recalled and valued the craft system based on the freedom and dignity of work. It was necessary, therefore, that a communist utopia restore what capitalist rationalization had destroyed in order to attain the allegiance of these workers.

It would appear then that, whatever the other virtues and weaknesses of the Marxian utopia of work, its indebtedness to the contingencies of the nineteenth century sociopolitical context of its origin goes far beyond a fact of merely historical interest. The notion of total rationalization intrinsic to the Marxian utopia arose because it was politically necessary to graft values derived from preindustrial society onto a model aimed at revolutionizing an industrial society governed by economic rationality. Traces of that grafting process were subsequently erased as the claim to universal rationality advanced by Marx's writings surpassed in importance the political exigencies of the day.

In that erasure, that generalization of a particular historical constellation into a universal principle, lies the key to what Gorz has identified as the “pan-rationalist asceticism” of Marxism: a stripping away of all particular or contingently subjective factors through the subsumption of specifically individual factors into an abstract totality. Hence, despite Marx's own assertion of the voluntary nature of the social collaboration that would characterize communist society, the identification of “the rational will of each” with “the will of all” remains problematical. As Gorz states it, that asceticism, with its repression of individual differences in the name of a universal individuality deprived of “all individual interests, attachments and tastes,” is, to a great extent, the source of “communist morality as it developed historically in Stalinism, Maoism and even Castroism.”11

The “coincidence of social labour and personal activity” which Gorz describes as “the ideal of modernity, as expressed in its most complete form in the Marxian utopic vision”12 has, wherever implemented, increasingly led to an expansion of the areas of life subordinated to economic rationality with its commitment to efficiency and quantification. This expansion has inevitably brought about a shrinking of those aspects of human life that resist or are exempt from such rationalization and a concomitant reduction of the role of unquantified subjectivity in social life.

It is striking that the primary area in which economic rationality failed in the GDR was the economic sphere itself, though that failure was certainly unintended. The failure to transform the GDR into an industrial power capable of competing with the western capitalist democracies did not, however, mitigate against the effects of the imposition of the norms of economic rationality upon the population and its internalization of them. As Christa Wolf formulated it in an interview:

… [I]n allen Industriegesellschaften werden menschliche Möglichkeiten einfach dadurch beschnitten, daβ Effizienz und Effektivität die Hauptwerte sind. In der DDR sind Effektivität und Effizienz sehr niedrig gewesen, aber das war ungewollt; es wurde durch die Strukturen verhindert, daβ man effektiver arbeiten konnte. Aber daβ diese Werte im Zentrum der Industriegesellschaften stehen, daβ die Dritte Welt ausbeutet und die eigenen Leute deformiert werden, das kann man nicht bestreiten.13

The deformation of individuals within industrial society has long been a central focus for Wolf, and it has led her to reflect on what the East and West German life have in common. In an interview that she gave not too long after the publication of Kein ort. Nirgends, she acknowledged the differences between East and West German society, but also asserted a significant similarity, claiming that what was experienced in both societies was “ein harter Zug des unbedingten Realismus, in dem Sinne, daβ als ‘real’ offiziell nur noch gewertet wird, was in dieser oder jener Form institutionalisiert ist.”14 She explained that both states had successfully fulfilled those material and communicative needs amenable to institutional and administrative satisfaction. However, what she defined as essential (“das Wesentliche”) could not be satisfied by institutions or by all the provisions for welfare in both German states; “das rutscht zwischen den perfekten Strukturen durch.”15 She then defined the essential need for poetry in life as a need for everything that cannot be counted, measured, or ascertained be means of statistics, in short everything excluded by the system of economic rationality.16

Wolf's evocation of what is essential as that which eludes the efficient institutionalized rationalization of society attests to her rejection of the ascetic dimension of the “Marxian utopia.” Although she by no means opposed the enjoyment by East Germans of a standard of living equivalent to that in the West, she asserted that the enjoyment of such a standard of living was enough neither to guarantee a livable future for humanity nor even to satisfy the nonmaterial needs of East Germans.17

Several of Wolf's more hostile East German critics had claimed all along that the “unorthodoxy” of her Marxism since the mid-1960s was potentially subversive. What had troubled these critics included her exclusion from literary thematization of the realm of material production and her insistence on the recovery of those subjective potentials incompatible with the dominion of economic rationality, that is, her implicit complicity with the direction suggested in the passage from the third volume of Das Kapital identifying the realm of freedom as that which is realized beyond the realm of material production.

As far back as the mid-1960s one may find utterances calling into question the primacy of economic rationalization for the development of a socialist society. In her contribution to “Notwendiges Streitgespräch,” she called into question the confusion of means and ends in the obsessive focus of the East German state on material production, on work for the sake of politics and the economy to the possible detriment of the real purpose of socialism, “der Mensch”:

Mich interessiert natürlich nicht in erster Linie, mit welchen Produktionsmitteln werden wir morgen produzieren. Mich interessiert, was für Menschen werden diese automatischen Anlagen bedienen? Was für einen Menschen bringt unsere Gesellschaft hervor?18

In a similar vein, she asserted in the last of a series of letters written to Gerti Tetzner between June 1965 and January 1969, “daβ Kunst nicht dazu da ist, die ökonomie zu unterstützen.”19

Now it is certainly anything but novel to argue for the importance or even the primacy of the subjective dimension in Christa Wolf's writing. What critics and commentators remark on less often, however, is the link between her valorization of subjectivity and her increasingly explicit calling into question of that understanding of the “Marxian utopia” that Gorz elucidated: the possibility in an industrial society of human self-realization through “social labour” in the production of material goods. Her questioning was based, at least in part, on the perceived similarity of her East and West German readers’ experiences which made it increasingly difficult for her to distinguish in principle between the quality of life lived by those who engage in the realm of material production in the two social systems. At a time when most liberal and even politically moderate western literary critics were still insisting on the primacy of the distinction between East and West German literatures, the roles that they played in their separate societies, and the needs that they filled, Wolf was questioning precisely the territorial division of literature on the basis of different social, political, and economic systems: “Wir leben in modernen Industriegesellschaften, in patriarchalischen Gesellschaften, hierarchisch angeordnet. Es gibt also ähnliche Züge.”20

Probably Wolf's most explicit challenge to the notion of self-realization through participation in industrial production is offered in the lectures accompanying her Kassandra, where she cites a radio broadcast by a recently deceased “western economist,” whose views she summarized approvingly. His theses, which focus on the nature of social production in industrial societies do not differentiate those which are capitalist from those which are socialist, but argue that in all industrial societies, the masses of workers perform work that is monotonous and personally debilitating. They do so for the sake of prosperity, which consists today primarily in the satisfaction of artificially induced needs and cannot be achieved without the monotony of the assembly line. In addition, the working conditions that derive from the amalgamation of large masses of people in the production process are increasingly opaque and dehumanizing since, as sociologists have learned, the maximum size for an effective work group in which individuals could develop meaningful relationships is twelve persons. And finally, the bureaucracy that is an inevitable correlate of such massification of the production process unfailingly makes inhuman decisions because its executives subordinate private moral considerations to the laws governing the function of the enterprise.

Wolf lists the ideals of the unnamed economist—to strive for the good, serve others, and realize oneself—which correspond quite closely to her own, and points out that their realization is impossible in modern industrial societies whose primary tendencies are gigantism, exaggerated complexity, capital-intensiveness, and violence. Although these tendencies are not irrevocable, neither imagination nor technical inventiveness are being expended to develop alternate models.21

The belief that maximal economic rationalization has not only failed to further, but has actually interfered with the self-realization of individuals is a central point of Wolf's critique. She claims that it also poses a danger to world peace because it substitutes institutional norms for individual ethical and moral insights and attitudes and links the upsurge in the rearmament of Europe by the United States and the Soviet Union in the early 1980s with the nature of industrial society itself.22

Wolf's criticism of industrial society and the economic rationality that underlies it is so intense as to amount almost to a complete rejection of it in its current form by the 1980s. In its earlier stages, however, her criticism focused less overtly on the complicity of the industrial system and the inherent dominance of economic rationality in threats to world peace or in widespread danger to the continuation of life on earth than in their impact on individuals. She portrays that impact in its social as well as its purely personal and interpersonal dimensions in her prose fiction.

Certainly one of the earliest instances which exhibits Wolf's problems with the economic rationality of the industrial system has little to do with the sphere of material production per se. In the fourth chapter of Nachdenken über Christa T. (1968), Wolf rather tentatively takes on the professionalization of identity that results from the division of labor in both capitalist and socialist industrial society. Characterizing Christa T. as someone whom one could never ask what she wanted to be, the narrator exhibits some ambivalence toward Christa T.'s resistance to identifying herself in terms of her professional goals. However, although the narrator tends initially to apologize for Christa T.'s recalcitrance and to marginalize her by treating her resistance as an exception to the societal norm, thereby mirroring Christa T.'s self-doubt, the apologetic attitude gives way, after a brief reflection on the problematical act of naming, to a clear enunciation of Christa T.'s underlying rejection of the reduction of human subjectivity to occupational identity.23 Given that social identity is, as Gorz has pointed out, a function of professional or occupational identity in societies governed by economic reason,24 Christa T.'s attitude has a significance that extends beyond the confines of the GDR.

Christa T.'s resistance to the reduction of human subjectivity to a function of economic rationality is frequently thematized throughout the text. It informs her disagreement with a fellow student Günter during her university years. Disturbed by Christa T.'s failure to meet a major academic deadline, Günter criticizes her for not giving society a fair return on its investment in her education. She responds by playing on his use of the phrase “recht und billig,” calling into question his unreflecting reliance on the quantitative notion of “fair exchange” that presupposes the universal interchangeability of dissimilar phenomena and owes its origin to the values of a money based market economy.25

There are yet other instances where Christa T.'s resistance to the dominance of economic rationality manifests itself, but none of them is focused explicitly on the sphere of material production itself. A few years later, however, with the publication of Unter den Linden, a collection of short stories including Wolf's parody of E. T. A. Hoffmann's Kater Murr, it becomes clear that Christa T.'s somewhat ambivalent resistance to the adaptation of human subjectivity to the demands of economic rationality has been superseded by Christa Wolf's own unequivocal rejection.

“Die neuen Lebensansichten eines Katers” was written as a satire of the implications of the “scientific and technical revolution” in the GDR of the late 1960s and early 1970s that placed strong emphasis on the necessity and desirability of the technocratic systematization of the economic realm and of the invasion of technocratic consciousness into other aspects of life. It satirically illustrates the ease with which the Marxian “utopia of work” can be displaced by a distinctly dystopian vision of a humanity whose sole purpose is the production of material goods. The transformation, even if achieved by violent coercion, of human beings into “Reflexwesen,” creatures who consist only of the sum of their reflexes, can thus be justified because the elimination of unquantifiable subjectivity also eliminates personal and interpersonal conflict which inevitably interferes with efficiency and limits productivity. If one “programs” everything but reflexes out of existence, it becomes theoretically possible to “produce” individual happiness as the correlate of economic efficiency. This triumph of instrumental reason is anything but utopian.

Wolf's satire explicitly attacks the belief that the best way to fulfill human needs is by the elimination of unquantifiable subjectivity and the reduction of needs to those that can be met by a combination of intensified commodity production and more efficient institutionalization of social communication. This focus on the question of human needs carries over to Wolf's next major narrative text, Kindheitsmuster, best known as her attempt to confront the National Socialist past and its implications for GDR society. The text is not, however, limited to an examination of the Nazi past, but addresses concerns that go well beyond the specificity of confronting the past, though they are often rooted in that process.

Towards the end of Kindheitsmuster, Wolf describes a conversation between the narrator, her brother Lutz, and her daughter Lenka, which takes place during their journey to the town, now in Poland, where the narrator was born. The subject of the conversation is the relationship between what is designated “Zweckmäβigkeit” and “Menschenmäβigkeit.” That relationship is more complicated than the simple conflict between the demands of economic rationality and the discovery and fulfillment of individual human needs implied by the suggestion of the narrator's daughter Lenka, “das Wort ‘zweckmäβig’ so lange durch ‘menschenmäβig’ zu ersetzen, bis niemand mehr den Zweck des Städtebaus … nur darin sehe, jedem Einwohner seine Schlafstelle zu sichern.”26

The initial catalyst for the discussion is the ugliness of the environment some twenty-five years after the end of World War II. This ugliness, exemplified here in the changes made in a village familiar to the narrator from her youth, was not the direct result of the ruin wrought by the conflict but rather of the improvements, described as “zweckmäβig,” including buildings characterized as “Zweckbauten” undertaken for the sake of more efficient production. After driving past one of the churches, also dismissed by the narrator as functional buildings, in this case, “Zweckbauten verwendbar, solange Menschen glauben müssen,”27 they enter the center of town that had been rebuilt since the war and are struck by its ugliness. This gives rise to question of why the idea that knowledge rather than faith should guide human endeavor has brought forth so little that is beautiful.

The notion of “Zweckmäβigkeit,” purposiveness, functionality, is itself where the contradiction lies, as both the explicit parallelism and the implied divergence of the churches and the buildings housing the industrial production of milk and beef demonstrate. Both are called “Zweckbauten,” but the never explicitly acknowledged beauty of the churches is contrasted to the ugliness of the industrial buildings in the question as to why modernity, characterized by the dominant role of knowledge, has brought forth so little beauty when compared to the rule of faith that preceded it. Both the churches and the industrial buildings are expressions of functionality, but the functions that they fulfill are radically different.

The narrator is far from advocating that rational knowledge be replaced by faith as the guiding principle of human life. She claims that the basic problem is not a conflict between knowledge and faith, but “die Art, den Umfang, die Richtung und das Ziel dieses Wissens,”28 the restriction of knowledge to what is dictated by the requirements of economic rationality. What is required, in her view, before a reintegration of knowledge and beauty could become possible, is the discovery of new human goals and purposes that would undermine the preeminence of the categories of economic rationality within the minds and emotions of individual human beings:

Vorher müβte man dem Menschen neue Zwecke finden, über seine Teilnahme an der Produktion materieller Güter hinaus: Auf einmal würde nichts zu teuer, … weil Reichtum kein Wort für Geld wäre und weil ein Mensch, der in neuem Sinne reich wäre, sein Herz nicht an ein Auto hängen müβte, um sich als Mensch zu fühlen.29

Central here is the idea that human needs transcend purely material desires, which are often developed by people as a surrogate for “real life,” of which they are deprived by the production process.” Needs that cannot be fulfilled by an increasingly efficient economic system, like the completely uneconomical need for beauty, are simply invalidated by economic rationality. The satisfaction of material needs that are themselves, in fact, products of the very system that satisfies them is the vicious circle that maintains the hegemony of that system while depriving most individuals of the means and the time to discover other equally real but socially repressed needs, particularly those that further their spiritual and physical evolution.

Though it is beyond the scope of this paper, a reading of Kein ort. Nirgends, the text Wolf wrote after Kindheitsmuster, could certainly augment the discussion of Wolf's critique of economic rationality. Kein ort. Nirgends portrays the impact of the rise of economic rationality in eighteenth-century Germany, particularly on those who, for reasons of gender, temperament, and background, remain marginal to the newly emergent system and unable to conform to its requirements. The text focuses intensively on that exclusion of the aesthetic realm, touched on in the citation from Kindheitsmuster, from the sphere of what is viewed as essential for society.

The marginalization of literature with its insistence on emotional and ethical values that do not support economic rationality is a theme in Wolf's essay “Der Schatten eines Traumes,” which concludes with an observation on the alienation of artists (and intellectuals) in a society, “deren Maβ Quantität um jeden Preis wird”:

Die Produzenten der materiellen und die der geistigen Werte stehen einander fremd an verschiedenen Ufern gegenüber, daran gehindert, gemeinsam lebbare Umstände hervorzubringen. Der Zerstörung, die nicht immer offensichtlich ist, sind sie alle ausgesetzt.30

This observation applies as much to the contemporary situation in East Germany as to the era about which Wolf was writing.

The current plight of the intellectual “Avantgarde ohne Hinterland” in East Germany is anticipated in Christa Wolf's writing from Nachdenken über Christa T. onwards. The “utopian” demand for a social order that furthers the evolving awareness and fulfillment of genuine human needs that cannot be met by the proliferation of commodities or the ego gratification attendant upon participation in a highly successful capitalist society runs counter to the direction of historical development today and in the foreseeable future. The dominance of economic rationality has so thoroughly informed and deformed consciousness in advanced industrial societies as to make the sacrifice of those nonmaterial and therefore economically and institutionally unfulfillable needs hardly seem a sacrifice at all. Yet the discomfort remains: “Die Mehrheit der Menschen erträgt nicht das laut geäuβerte Ungenügen an dem reduzierten Leben, mit dem sie sich abfinden muβ.”31 This discomfort accounts, at least in part, for the ambivalence towards Christa Wolf and the intellectual tradition in which she stands in Germany today.


  1. Helga Königsdorf, “Das Schmerz über das eigene Versagen,” Die Zeit 8 June 1990.

  2. In her speech at the November 4th rally at Alexanderplatz in Berlin.

  3. The statement was later printed in translation in the New York Times 8 December 1989.

  4. See the comments of the expatriate song-writer Wolf Biermann in “Wer war Krenz?” DDR: Journal zur Novemberrevolution (Berlin: taz, 1989): 158.

  5. See Wolfgang Emmerich, Kleine Literaturgeschichte der DDR: 1945–1988, rev. ed. (Frankfurt A. M.: Luchterhand, 1989) 14.

  6. See, for instance, Rainer Schedlinski, “Gibt es die DDR überhaupt?” DDR: Journal zur Novemberrevolution 26.

  7. André Gorz, Critique of Economic Reason, trans. Gillian Handyside & Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1989) 13–14.

  8. Ibid. 14.

  9. Ibid. 19.

  10. Ibid. 20.

  11. Ibid. 28.

  12. Ibid. 28–29.

  13. Christa Wolf, Im Dialog: Aktuelle Texte (Frankfurt A. M.: Luchterhand, 1990) 143.

  14. Christa Wolf, “Kultur ist, was gelebt wird,” alternative (April/June 1982): 117–127.

  15. Ibid. 126.

  16. Gorz defines economic rationality as one “characterized precisely by the desire to economize, that is, to use the factors or production as efficiently as possible.” Such a rationality “requires that it be possible to measure, calculate and plan … (2–3). His understanding of economic rationality is indebted to Max Weber's analysis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and he cites Weber's definition of an individualistic capitalistic economy as one “rationalized on the basis of rigorous calculation, directed with foresight and caution toward the economic success which is sought” (18).

  17. “Es gibt überall auf der Welt die Flucht in das bessere Leben, das zur Zeit jedenfalls die Industrieländer des Kapitalismus bieten Können. Das ist etwas, was ich verstehe: Menschen, die nicht gut leben, zieht es dahin, wo es ihnen materiell besser geht. Nur bezweifle ich, daβ das kapitalistische System, auf Dauer gesehen, imstande sein wird, die Probleme zu lösen, die vor uns allen, vor der Menschheit stehen—wenn es sich nicht auch noch sehr wandelt.” (Christa Wolf, “Aufforderung zum Dialog: Gespräch mit Gerhard Rein,” Wolf, Im Dialog 88–89).

  18. Joho, Wolfgang, ed., “Notwendiges Streitgespräch: Bemerkungen zu einem internationalen Kolloquium,” Neue Deutsche Literatur 3 (1965): 102–103.

  19. Correspondence, “Gerti Tetzner—Christa Wolf,” Was zählt ist die Wahrheit: Briefe von Schriftstellern der DDR (Halle: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1975) 33.

  20. Wolf, “Kultur” 126.

  21. Christa Wolf, Voraussetzungen einer Erzählung: Kassandra. Frankfurter Poetik-Vorlesungen, 3rd ed. (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1983) 97–98.

  22. Ibid. 97.

  23. Christa Wolf, Nachdenken über Christa T., special ed. (Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1971) 37.

  24. Gorz 13.

  25. Wolf, Nachdenken 85–86.

  26. Christa Wolf, Kindheitsmuster, 4th ed. (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1978) 393.

  27. Ibid. 392.

  28. Ibid. 393.

  29. Ibid.

  30. Christa Wolf, “Der Schatten eines Traumes. Karoline von Günderrode—Ein Entwurf,” Lesen und Schreiben: Neue Sammlung, 2nd enl. ed. (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1981) 283.

  31. Ibid. 282.

Dieter Saalmann (essay date Fall 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5909

SOURCE: “‘We Erect Our Structure in the Imagination Before We Erect it in Reality’ (Karl Marx, Das Kapital): Postmodern Reflections on Christa Wolf,” in Germanic Review, Vol. LXVII, No. 4, Fall, 1992, pp. 159–66.

[In the following essay, Saalmann examines postmodern elements of Wolf's writings, particularly aspects of self-consciousness and indeterminacy, that foreshadow—and perhaps anticipate—the fall of the Berlin Wall and the elimination of binary distinctions between East and West Germany.]

Until the Wende, or turning point, of 1989, West and East Germany functioned as models of putatively unshakable identities dependent upon schemes of division. Postmodernism may well be responsible for their demolition. If we indeed dismantle our structures in the imagination before we do so in reality, to reverse Marx's dictum, then the annus mirabilis of 1989 suggests that the decline of socialism is in fact a postmodern phenomenon with its uncontested privileging of the present (Lock 442).1 Given this premise, the paradigmatic change in Europe deserves to be analyzed in accordance with some of the key principles underlying postmodernism and the coterminous tenets of deconstructionism.

As for Christa Wolf's role in the redrawing of the Central European map, it is peremptory to ascertain why this unwavering proponent of a Marxist philosophy has consistently refrained from treating Berlin and the Wall as literary topics in their own right, aside from their ancillary role in Der geteilte Himmel and belated, if somewhat cryptic, references in other works. Subconsciously, she may well have sensed the multifaceted and disjointed spirit of this urban conglomerate projecting “a permanent condition of ephemerality” (Kalb 15). Thus understood, Berlin is the “first postmodern city” on account of its thoroughly contextualized existence, as defined by the vagaries of the East-West conflict (Borneman 6). In addition, the western part, having become a virtual annex of capitalist culture, typifies a “hyperreality” that the postmodernist would designate as “meta-West” (Kramer 68). In short, Berlin is “a city of surfaces, … unashamed to value texture above color, shape above function, style for style's sake, means at the expense of meaning” and devoid of “a durable iconic image” (Kalb 15). This, of course, is the classic description of postmodernism with its unabashed emphasis on surface qualities. Berlin's postmodern ambiance with its profound diffidence is said to be manifest, most acutely, though, in its propensity for counting on humanity's uncertainties and the concurrent search for identity (Kalb 17).

As a result of such postmodern eclecticism and existential precariousness, Wolf may have discerned, to her consternation, the increasingly transparent, diffuse, and, in the final analysis, elusive nature of the Wall itself, in spite of the seeming impenetrability of its concrete mass. Admitting to its growing permeability, or ideological decentering, would undoubtedly have compelled her to acknowledge an immediate threat to her socialist convictions. The resultant blurring of weltanschaulich distinctions would also have jeopardized her artistic criteria by asserting, in postmodern fashion, the inescapable opaqueness of empirical forms. Eventually, confirming her trepidations, “the Wall's disappearance,” with its “deconstructive” impact on the international order, does indeed prove “to be as metaphorically provocative as the Wall itself” (Kalb 15).

As if to anticipate this dramatic testimony to the inherent unreliability of the “objective” world, Wolf herself, in Nachdenken über Christa T., concedes that concrete phenomena evoke merely residual impressions whose import remains unfathomable. In this way, she acknowledges what the postmodernist regards as the utterly perplexing nature of accessing one's “real” referent. Obsessed as it is with the critical distinction between concrete occurrence and meaning-imbued fact, postmodernism problematizes its perception of the factual as it relates to the fictive by recourse to the key notion of “trace.” “Facts,” Wolf asserts in this context in Nachdenken über Christa T., are nothing but “traces” left in us by “events.” In accordance with the poststructuralist concept of “trace” and the postmodern self-consciousness about representation, we can only know and construct—and, in consequence, deconstruct—past and present through its “traces,” or surrogates. Whether they be written testimonies, as in the case of Christa T.'s papers, or any other form of putative “evidence,” they are our only means of approaching “reality” solely by proxy.

Hayden White, for example, has argued that the discourses of literature and history share an underlying narrative basis. According to his theory, so-called facts are already “semioticized,” or encoded, by the time they reach the observer. As the historian Carl Becker noted at the beginning of the century in this respect: “… the reality has ceased to exist. But the reality has left certain traces, and these help us to construct the image” (528; my emphasis). His argument continues as follows: “Everything that happened, so far as any trace of it is left, is already recorded, it seems” (530; my emphasis). Postmodernism has seized upon Becker's insight, as evidenced by Derrida's seminal assertion that “facts” are “always already” inscribed.

This is a crucial poststructuralist argument behind Wolf's understanding of “trace.” For the author of Nachdenken über Christa T. there is, in actuality, no genuine “origin” or “end” with respect to the creative task. Any inclusionary ambition in this regard would be tantamount to granting the teleological nature of her text. Instead, she readily concedes the discursive inscription of Christa T.'s putatively objective testimony. The particular nature of documentary evidence, as the author is prepared to admit, is determined prior to its perception by the narrative consciousness. The latter's Mutmaβungen in tracing Christa T.'s elusive itinerary are per force selective and indefinite. Their most outstanding characteristic, however, is the iterative function of these speculations—“die Mühle der Wiederholungen”—as Wolf is to formulate it subsequently in Sommerstück (19). She thereby confirms, unwittingly, to be sure, the deconstructive spirit of her writings, however tentative it may be.

For Wolf, “trace,” by definition, relates to something other than itself, while holding the “trace” of the very same meaning from which it differs. Consequently, the “trace” is something that can never be absolutely present; it is, invariably, the simulacrum of a presence. In this sense, Wolf's displacing notion of “trace” signals its opposition to any poetics of definitive presence, as denounced by Derrida. Instead, her textual option reflects, consciously or not, the latter's literary “politics” of differentiation and deferral of signification. By underscoring the “presence” of Christa T.'s absence, Wolf is able to do justice to the evidential indeterminacy and attendant suspension of the subject. In keeping with the poststructuralist imperative, she resists the temptation to dissolve difference and contradiction into undifferentiated Marxist dialectic by acknowledging the basically irreconcilable conjunction of the self-reflexive and the documentary in a narrative that is the very antithesis of a totalizing discourse.2 On these grounds, Christa T. serves as the incarnation of the de-centered “I” in an assiduously maintained ex-centric position that is symptomatic of the marginalization afflicting the subject in postmodernity.

There can be no doubt that the (then) GDR's precipitous rush toward self-liquidation is a truly postmodern phenomenon. The Wende accentuates the fragility and evanescence of weltanschaulich commitment, 1989 also reveals the adherence of East German society to the dictum that in postmodernism “evasion is the one fixed rule” (Borneman 199). In this sense, West Germans seek Eindeutigkeit, or unilinear signification. Their eastern counterparts, on the other hand, become per force sensitized to multiple meanings in reading the “text” that is their socialist habitat. They refine their sensory organs by staying attuned to the ever-present contradictions of their existence. They look for layered meanings in literature and everyday life, to escape the intrusiveness of officially preordained discourse. In this way, both contemporary history and creative writing in the GDR turn into signifying systems. Alas, in a strange twist of fortune, this intrinsically poststructuralist disposition is also destined to bring down the very regimen that has spawned such a mindset in the first place (Borneman 220).

In ideological and aesthetic terms, the postmodern condition is a curious admixture of the critical and the complicitous. Postmodernism occasions precisely the kind of insider-outsider status occupied, for example by Christa Wolf within the world of GDR letters. On that account, the crucial question facing the critical observer today is this: to what extent has her artistic effort foreshadowed and, perhaps, contributed to, albeit unwittingly, the postmodern upheaval in East German society and the ensuing dismantling of the conceptual chasm between East and West?3

The logocentric attributes of Marxism as a metanarrative suggest power and control. It is this closed system of ideological signs that has moved inexorably and, in its final days, precipitously, as we may now assert with the benefit of hindsight, toward differing from what Derrida describes as the metaphysics of the center. The very same concepts that used to legitimize Wolf's ideological and ethical positions have undergone a comparable deprivileging and attendant postponement of significance. In view of the notional pluralism that governs the post-Wall/postmodern era, she has become the emblem of a marginalized intellectual, seemingly deprived of a viable presence in unimpaired identity, moral legitimacy, and ideational representation. In fact, what used to be one overriding presence in the Eastern European sphere has now been replaced by an endless series of emerging national and ethnic presences that function as markers of an incessantly reiterated and intensified distinctiveness. Modernist bipolarity has been succeeded by the multiple dissonances of postmodernism. Hence, any reassessment of Wolf's work is bound to be a concomitant reappraisal of another fiction created in the wake of the Second World War and predicated on the now extinct, pre-postmodern binary antithesis between East and West: the German Democratic Republic, its social and political legitimation, and its cultural legacy.

Wolf's entire oeuvre is grounded in the idea of utopia. The latter, according to her own observation, signifies non-place, or non-presence, as the deconstructionist would have it. Yet, the utopian text is referential as well as indefinite. It seeks to represent two worlds: the flawed present and the future perfect. Their relationship is dialectical, inasmuch as they contradict and comment upon each other. Wolf's utopianism, therefore, tends to explore a “country” which, by virtue of its anticipated properties, does not yet exist. Such simultaneous assertion and denial of reality transforms her ostensible proclamation of faith in the socialist doctrine into a purely theoretical discourse of holding its ultimate import in abeyance. Wolf's insistence on a utopian perspective in effect neutralizes and problematizes contemporary history at the same time. As a result, the author's abiding faith in utopia as the vaunted “‘dritte’ Sache” must be held responsible for the social impotence and marginalization of herself, as well as East Germany's “interpreting class” in general, by reason of such self-inflicted “Entmündigung” (Im Dialog 114 and 97). Significantly, it was Václav Havel who defined the true dissident as an implacable foe of utopian politics (Lepenies 24).

Stripped of its rhetorical disguise, Wolf's indeterminate notion of socialism recalls Derrida's deconstructive precept of différance, in other words, the poststructuralist stance of suspending meaning. Like the East German writer's equivalent reasoning, différance suggests, in the philosopher's own words, “before the concept,” i.e., the perennially unsettled movement of distinctions between signifiers in order to prevent perceptual atrophy. It is exactly the latter that has bedeviled the GDR power structure since its inception. This kind of analytical paralysis can be ascribed to the foregrounding of what Wolf terms “destruktive Groβ-Strukturen,” i.e., autonomous “meta-theories,” promoting, as they do, the putatively redemptive qualities of officially sanctioned authoritarianism (Im Dialog 64).

In consideration of such conceptual closure, the postmodernism of Nachdenken über Christa T. assumes its corrective implication in the alleged immutability of the social design.4 To put it another way, Wolf proposes to reveal the machinations of a system that authenticates a specific representation at the expense of dissenting voices. Nachdenken über Christa T. signals the shift from a putatively solid perspective on representation to a fundamental questioning of this concept under the impact of poststructuralist reasoning. The postmodern skeptic explores, rather than takes for granted, the relations between literary and societal practices. Wolf's early effort in Der geteilte Himmel, however, conforms to modernism's instantaneous, self-verifying effect that transcends its stylistic mediation. In contrast, Nachdenken über Christa T., with its distinctive emphasis on undecidability of meaning and displacement of the subject, is symptomatic of the postmodern ethos.

The latter's extolling of the instrumentality of rhetoric is obviously at the heart of Wolf's highly reflective and programmatically inconclusive prose. It tends to reduce emotions to a verbal strategy which has an ulterior, even if irresolute, motive. For that reason, her discourse displays a clear preference for semantic ambiguities, contradictions, and relativizations, as well as for thematic options, thereby deviating from the preestablished norms of the prevailing order as an allegedly unimpeachable referent. On that ground, the author's “quest” for novel solutions favors the postmodern argument of incessantly circulating notional differentiation. In this fashion, Wolf's professed narrative methodology in Nachdenken über Christa T. presents the portrait of an individual and, coetaneously, subverts any stability in or certainty of ever knowing—or truly representing—that same subject. Such speculations in the postmodern vein are both interrogative in mode and “de-doxifying” in intent.

There is ample evidence to support the assumption that Wolf, since her initial readiness to condone the logocentric consequences of the Berlin Wall, has moved inexorably toward the postmodern “other.” This fact should be recognized as such, regardless of actual motivation, i.e., irrespective of whether she may have been inspired by philosophical considerations à la Wittgenstein and Heidegger or by concrete experience. (See Fries 31.) The “other,” however, is not to be equated with a categorical “opposite.” On the contrary, for her this concept implies a type of difference that refuses to sever all links to its antithesis. In this way, she avoids the pitfall of opposing one ideological and stylistic obstruction with a similarly exclusionary encumbrance. The prototypical postmodernist, while at pains to question self-sufficient arrangements, is by no means an iconoclast intent upon destroying them. Thus understood, Wolf insists on inscribing the fundamental maxims of socialism, while impugning some of its more orthodox applications. Her procedure of reformulating, instead of liquidating, the controlling referentials accords with the postmodern canon of “double encoding,” namely, the conformity with, and coetaneous challenge to, the prevailing criteria. At the same time, straddling the rhetorical line is destined to create a dual consciousness, if not a double tongue. As postmodern artist in the East, Wolf agrees to being co-opted by the socialist dominant, just as postmodern aesthetics in the West recognizes its commodification in capitalist culture. In both instances, the idea is to effect a critique of this very same procedure by exploiting its potential.

A case in point is Wolf's use of the postmodern modality of the “other” as an alternative consciousness and sensibility to signal the disavowal of presumably solid “scientific” verities of whatever persuasion, be they technologically or Marxist oriented. Such an effort at demystification is the principal theme of Störfall: Nachrichten eines Tages. Her treatise on Chernobyl paints the vision of a postnuclear void by means of a radical doubting of accepted values and authorial self-incrimination. It should not be forgotten, though, that writers such as Wolf, by their very association and dialog, however, critical, with the antagonist have, at least implicitly, corroborated and sustained a system long since contaminated beyond redemption. This is the “blinde Fleck” the author herself speaks of on various occasions. Significantly, she places the blame on both society and the individual, including herself, for their failure to correct such faulty vision. For example, in a conversation with the narrator's older daughter in Störfall, she redefines, or reinscribes, in poststructuralist parlance, the “blind spot,” in other words, her inclination to be preempted by the power structure, as “eine Art Selbstschutz … ein erworbener Schutz vor den eigenen Ansichten über uns selbst und vor den Angriffen von auβen” (103).

Once again, Wolf's terminology is distinctly reminiscent of Derrida's deconstructive argument against the conceptual obstructionism of western metaphysics. In an analogous fashion, her phraseology echoes the poststructuralist predilection for overcoming the “blind spot” of conceptual closure within the ideological parameters of the GDR. More specifically, she denounces the islands of “Selbstvermauerung” and “Verbarrikadierung” that distort the country's socialist reality (Just 199 and 202). Considering the potentially calamitous implications of such a “Lebenslüge,” to use her succinct and self-referential assessment of the socialist impasse in Störfall, it is specifically encumbent upon the writer to fathom this kind of deficient acuity of vision, including the artist's own impaired gaze (103). As the narrator's daughter further elaborates in the same context by broadening the field of reference: “… warum sollte es nicht eine Chance für eine ganze Kultur sein, wenn es möglichst viele ihrer Mitglieder wagen können, der eigenen Wahrheit ohne Angst ins Gesicht zu sehen? Was ja heiβe, die Bedrohung nicht dem äuβeren Feind aufzubürden, sondern sie da zu lassen, wo sie hingehöre, im eigenen Innern” (104). Wolf's wary response in strictly personal terms is symptomatic of her postmodern disposition: “Ob dies nicht die allerutopischste von allen Utopien ist, habe ich mich, nicht sie [i.e., the daughter] gefragt” (104; my emphasis). The author's endeavor to surmount the epistemological deficiency of the “blind spot” is subject to the classic caveat of postmodernism, namely, the principle of aporia, or apparently insuperable doubt. Her cautious attitude is suggested by the apprehensive tenor that pervades her idea of an ultimate utopia. For this reason, she feels compelled to note rather pessimistically, with respect to humanity's capacity for self-exploration and especially her own quandary concerning the vital question of “was bleibt:” “… wenn [der Mensch] sich überhaupt erfährt” (“Dokumentation: Christa Wolf” 114; my emphasis).

All the same, Wolf's deconstructive mindset does manifest itself in a progressively more pronounced manner. Beginning with Nachdenken über Christa T., her writings have increasingly acknowledged the need for self-contestation. More specifically, they have centered on her penchant for “Unbedingtheiten,” as she confesses in Störfall (103). Her professed proclivity for absoluteness, which, on occasion, tends to overshadow the undeniable antilogocentric strain in her thinking, mirrors the very criterion denounced by Derrida as inimical to the heuristic process. In this way, Wolf has become significantly more attuned to the inescapable limitations besetting her own ideological project, i.e., the glaring disparity between literary activity in the GDR and the latter's political praxis. To put it in more precise terms: the aesthetic precept of “subjektive Authentizität” is being challenged by the “verfestigte Strukturen,” or worsening sociopolitical arteriosclerosis of the 1980s, as demonstrated in Sommerstück (Dimension 773–805 and Sommerstück 175). In keeping with these developments, the author of Was bleibt confesses in a post-mortem reckoning with the regime and her own unwillingness to foresee the ramifications of her self-imposed articulatory restraints: “Nicht zuviel—zuwenig haben wir gesagt, und das Wenige zu zaghaft und zu spät” (68).

Sommerstück may now serve as a case in point to illustrate Wolf's inability to carry her deconstructive bent to its logical conclusion. To wit: her distinctly reclusive, if pragmatic, thought of tolerating, however reluctantly, a repressed discourse, in recognition of political realities. Comparable to the narrative precepts of Der geteilte Himmel, she projects, once more, a prearranged and closed identity for her protagonists. Consequently, they are perceived as subjects predestined for inarticulateness. In Derridean terminology, this is attested to by their phonocentric and logocentric quandary: “Der Schrei, der uns in der Kehle saβ, ist nicht ausgestoβen worden. Aus unserer Haut sind wir nicht herausgekommen. … wie ein von falschen Wörtern und Vorstellungen besetztes Land … jenseits der Sprache” (124 and 137). Thus, Wolf's rhetoric in Sommerstück proves to be the very “blind spot” initially exemplified by the dogmatic strictures of an earlier era and countermanded in her “reflective” phase: “Nicht fragen. Schweigen. Zuhören” (133). This fatalistic acquiescence to a nefarious force occupying the mind—“So daβ die fremde Macht mit meinen Augen sah, durch mich selbst …”—contravenes the axiomatic need to dislodge patterns of identity based on an enforced congruence of logos and empirical reality (137). Yet, her very private version of Realpolitik, or accommodation to the prevailing circumstances, is also grounded in a decidedly self-critical attitude: “Ein mit eigener Zustimmung, aus eigenem freien Willen besetztes Land” (137; my emphasis). This, then, confirms the quintessentially postmodern contradiction of interlocking complicity and disjunction as the author's prime motivating force.

Wolf's semantic and cognitive failure during the crucial days of the Umbruch is presciently described in Sommerstück as her reluctance to embrace, unconditionally, “die Kehrseite der Wörter” (53). It involves the imperative task of admitting to herself, without compunction, the need to articulate those unspoken reservations that constitute the critical Leerstellen, or contentious interstices, of Nachdenken über Christa T. However, her linguistic inhibitions, as evinced in Sommerstück, suggest that she has merely internalized Christa T.'s difficulty of saying “I.” Inevitably, the ensuing tension between narrative dynamism and contrasting rhetorical stasis forces Wolf into the role of “Ausweichler” (95). Such evasiveness produces “Halbheiten,” rather than a conceptual conquest of the “other,” and must, therefore, remain “halbwahr” (147). The result is a counterproductive discourse of dispersing fragmentation. As the author herself recognizes: “… die unbändige Lust, sich in die exzentrischen Bahnen zu werfen, alle Energien zu verschleudern und zu zerstreuen …” (79).

Wolf's consummate art of vacillating between determinate knowing and indeterminate expression for the sake of a mediated representation—“… eine unauflösliche … Wort-Verfilzung, die sich, anstatt sie nur zu bezeichnen, allmählich an die Stelle der wirklichlichen Verhältnisse schiebt”—is epitomized, in an extraliterary environment, by her refusal to appreciate fully the semiotic interplay of “Wir sind das Volk” and “Wir sind ein Volk” (41 and Lepenies 919). The unmediated vision proffered by these formulae is anathema to her equivocal apperception of the world. Instinctively, she invokes, once again, the specter of “eine dritte Sache,” i.e., the notorious German Sonderweg to counter supposedly “false choices”: “Gab es das also doch … Zwischen Schwarz und Weiβ. Recht und Unrecht. Freund und Feind—einfach leben?” (73) However, it turns out that the putatively conflicting signals—“das Volk” versus “ein Volk”—are but two sides of the same German “coin,” with “ein Volk” revealing itself as the rhetorical Kehrseite, or ideational reverse, of “das Volk.” In this light, the author's voluntary peripheral existence and creative abstinence in the wake of 1989 must be seen as a logical, but anguished quest for, and never-ending journey toward, an ultimately unmediated vision of herself as well as the German body politic.

Wolf's advocacy of “beredtes Schweigen,” or revealing silence, in Sommerstück, clearly indicates that her effort to “differ” and, simultaneously, to “defer” the task at hand—“… eine Zukunft …, aber keine Gegenwart”—accounts for her inability to come to terms with the decline of socialism (191). Her confident procrastination inevitably raises the attendant specter of unwarranted teleological certainty as regards the eventual outcome of history itself. It is, therefore, not without a touch of irony to read her unwittingly premonitory observation of 1964: “Die Geschichtsbücher sind voll von kuriosesten Fehleinschätzungen kluger Leute über ihre eigene Zeit. … Ich glaube nicht, daβ wir uns später korrigieren müssen …” (Dimension 398). Perhaps, the last sentence should be modified to reflect her actual problem, namely, “sich korrigieren können.” As she states the task confronting her, in Sommerstück, in no uncertain terms: “Die Grenzen der eigenen Illusionen zu spüren bekommen; sich besinnen, sich neuorientieren und anderes versuchen” (96).

In spite of the acrimonious and, at times, gratuitous nature of the debate over Wolf's alleged involvement in the socialist “conspiracy,” the public dispute has, if anything, served to validate the postmodern progression toward the primacy of unambiguous “dissemination.” The current propensity for untrammelled pluralism of opinion has, in effect, “deconstructed” the rigidity underlying the author's utopian outlook. As a result, the “other,” rather than being surreptitiously alluded to, as in the case of Wolf's literary testimony, has been unequivocally incorporated into the contemporary historical discourse.

From this vantage point, Wolf's attempt to sublimate the problematic in the sphere of “silence”—“Anscheinend haben die Götter vor die Selbstbezichtigung eine Zone des Verstummens gelegt, des Schweigens” (Sommerstück 37)—can be attributed to what has been described, perhaps with an unfair degree of asperity, but not without justification, as an acute example of “Wahrnehmungsschwäche aus ideologischer Verblendung” (Schreiber 285). Given such “Unfähigkeit zu handeln als Schuld,” to quote the author's self-diagnosis, her “eastern metaphysics” has had to yield to the “realities” of the post-Wall order (Sommerstück 95). In a complete reversal of her intentions in Nachdenken über Christa T., the latter's seminal admonition: “Wann, wenn nicht jetzt?” now serves, ironically, as the proverbial “swan song” to the former “other” Germany, which is gradually, but inexorably, developing into yet an-“other” version of German Geschichte. Its dual connotation of “history” and “story” illuminates, quite appropriately, the poststructural emphasis on history's fictional qualities, as established at the outset of this discussion. For the literary experience as such, Wolf's example demonstrates rather acutely the ever so fragile and unpredictable relationship between Dichtung and Wahrheit, i.e., artistic “illusion” and factual “truth” that is also the distinguishing mark of postmodernity.

Even before the events of 1989 unmasked Wolf's utopian vision as a misguided act of faith, her historical optimism had already taken a decidedly skeptical turn, reflecting the diminishing role of rationality in human affairs. As she remarks in her posthumous account, Sommerstück: “Etwas würde sich verändern, heute sagen wir alle, wir hätten gewuβt, daβ es so nicht bleiben konnte. … Aus unserer Haut sind wir nicht herausgekommen, anstelle der Netze, die wir zerrissen, haben sich neue geknüpft” (124). This concession is an outgrowth of her earlier, all too facile equation of socialism with reason as the measure of all things: “Die Vermunft—wir nennen es Sozialismus—ist in den Alltag eingedrungen. Sie ist das Maβ, nach dem hier gemessen, das Ideal, in dessen Namen hier gelobt oder getadelt wird” (Dimension 398). The subsequent evolution of her attitude toward a more dissenting stance bears a striking similarity to the postmodern faith in the redemptive power of “irrationalism.” The latter is to be understood as the endeavor to explore the potential inherent in doctrinal displacement and indeterminacy, thereby repudiating the alleged rationality of the dogmatic impulse.

In the aftermath of the caesura created by the “divided heaven” syndrome, Wolf, as theoretician, feels compelled to “deconstruct” her logocentric creed. Following this new impulse, she denounces her doctrinaire aspirations, in the 1970s, as follows: “Für ‘gegeben’ angenommene Objekte … die in ihren vergegenständlichten gesellschaftlichen Beziehungen (… jenen hierarchisch geordneten gesellschaftlichen Kosmos, in dem Menschenpartikel auf soziologisch oder ideologisch vorgegebenen Bahnen sich bewegen …)” (Dimension 780). However, to judge by the cautious and noncommittal attributes assigned to the protagonists in Sommerstück, Wolf as artist of the late 1980s cannot bring herself to create subjects capable of transcending the temptation to cancel the author's theoretical insights of the previous decade and to exhume the dynamics of the silenced inter-, as well as intra-, textual traces in her work. These, incidentally, contain the nucleus of what Lyotard calls le différend, i.e., analytically fertile nodes of difference and conflict. The illusion of an idyllic exile in Sommerstück—“Was bedeute es denn aber, wenn diejenigen, die sich einst der Veränderung verschrieben hätten, nun schlicht aufs Land gingen? Kapitulation?” (95)—reveals the lasting impact of the Berlin Wall, i.e., its entrenched and paralyzing rhetoric of revealed truths within the presumed harmony of weltanschaulich closure and division. In this way, Ellen's “ausweglose Lage” vis-à-vis the powers that be exposes, vicariously, the author's own plight: “Ein Rückzug auf sich selbst … Fast unsichtbar werden: Das war der Preis fürs überleben. Sie hatte keine Wahl” (24).

In this respect, Derrida's paradigmatic formula concerning the distinction between “Jew” and “Greek” is quite germane to Wolf's particular circumstances. The author, to adapt Derrida's definition, “lives in the difference” between “part” and “other,” i.e., in the perceived need to defend and challenge the authority of the ideological and rhetorical principles being queried: “Ich glaube, wir müβten anders leben. Ganz anders” (24). Meaning, for Wolf, is precisely a function of the relation among two forms of representation, or signs, demanding cognition: “Nicht in starren Antinomien,” i.e., modernist antitheses, “sondern in flieβenden übergängen,” in other words, postmodern transitional or relational modes (Dimension 895). From the anguished interplay of these “productive alternatives” she derives existential, as well as artistic, sustenance and meaning, without being able to escape the practical implications of her seemingly insoluble dilemma, though. To quote the pertinent sentiments in Sommerstück: “Dieses Schwebegefühl … In der Schwebe, immer in der Schwebe. … Balance zwischen Bewunderung und Skepsis …” (94–95 and 108). From a human and aesthetic point of view, Wolf's universe, even under the aegis of post-Marxism, continues to reflect the Derridean concept of suspended meaning: “geteilter Himmel.” So far she has been in no position to excise the “malicious growth” that has prevented her from accepting the new givens: “Und daβ ich denken muβte, den Fremdkörper von mir abzutrennen, würde mich zerreiβen. Fast wünschte ich es, zerrissen zu werden. Tage gab es, da hielt mich nur die Erinnerung an das ‘Fast.’ Die mühselige Heranzüchtung des ‘Nein’ aus dem ‘Fast’” (137).

At first blush, the negligible, indeed defiant part played by GDR literati in the establishment of the new German reality seems to lend credence to the assumption that literature, in the postmodern ambiance of the 1980s, occupies a marginal position. Postmodernism, as the general consensus has it, advocates the principle of Gleich-Gültigkeit, or equi-valence (Lüdke 345). In this sense, the equalization of notional differences between the two Germanies is, as a matter of fact, a postmodern occurrence, albeit at the expense of socialism. By the same token, as far as Wolf and other East German writers are concerned, literature, for their erstwhile audience, has lost its pivotal function as a public issue. Hence, Gleich-Gültigkeit, or ideological harmony, has turned into Gleichgültigkeit, or indifference expressing the country's disdain for its intelligentsia. This is precisely the profound “self-deception” that Wolf speaks of following the wrenching disillusionment of 1989. The extent of her delusion is dramatized by the futile appeal “Für unser Land” that degenerates into a pathetic Rückzugsgefecht on the part of the GDR's creative establishment (Reden 159).

On the one hand, such insight into the intellectuals’ naïveté confirms, contrary to their conviction, the poststructuralist emphasis on the peripheral. From this follows that the abrupt dismantling of socialism outside the parameters of the established venues of author-reader discourse in the GDR emerges, in point of fact, as an authentically postmodern, i.e., “de-centered” phenomenon. Yet, and this typifies the inherently paradoxical character of postmodernism, as well as the socio-political state of affairs it has engendered: the foregrounding of marginality has also evolved into a historical modality of central importance. Poststructural indeterminateness, rather than being “the epitome of lost commitment,” represents the political cutting edge of the postmodern mind (Lüdke 345). To be sure, the “double encoding” practiced by postmodernism, i.e., the validation, and synchronous contestation of, the principles in question precludes any premature claims of absolute guilt or innocence (Martin 51). It stands to reason that such an antinomical bias, as evidenced by the public “trial” of Christa Wolf, would actually reinstate the now discredited principles of binary opposition and logocentric closure that used to be incarnated in the quondam Berlin Wall. Instead of depicting her as an “unreconstructed” Marxist, it would be more accurate to portray her as a “deconstructed” socialist.

The German “heaven” may no longer be rent asunder, at least not physically. In deeply ingrained attitudinal differences, however, the internal schism persists. The country as a whole, akin to Wolf's own perception, has, and at the same time, has not been able to overcome the “geteilte Himmel” syndrome. Yet, the current state of affairs reflects nothing less than the inharmonious nature of the postmodern era “mit ihren unerledigten Widersprüchen und unausgetragenen Konflikten,” to invoke the authority of Wolf's own characterization of the GDR as an artificial construct riddled with antagonisms (Im Dialog 68). In Derridean language, intellectually and emotionally, “Germany” as a holistic entity remains subject to the exigencies of différance, i.e., ideational differentiation and deferral of complete integration. This is, indeed, the old and new Unübersichtlichkeit à la Habermas, who thus functions as an unlikely ally of poststructuralist persuasion.

The resolve to dislodge Marxism's utopian practice of postponing whatever promise it may have held and to unmask the GDR as a dystopia, or experiment in utopia gone awry, is the litmus test of postmodernism (Emmrich 197 and 209). By the same token, the revitalized feeling of “meaningfulness” in unified Germany is already being questioned on account of the logocentric implications ascribed to the “new paradigm.” This turn of events, a striking example of “applied” deconstructionism with its ceaseless interrogation of conventions, is bound to retard the final German balance sheet. As a result, the suspension of signification regarding the “true” meaning of the recreated German polity reconnects the new nation's intellectual inquiry with its empirical facts. In so doing, Germany's postmodern Zeitgeist confronts the theoretical discourse with, and, at the same time, embeds it in, historical reality.


  1. The purpose of this analysis is to demonstrate that postmodernism is more than a term displaying “the faded colors of the intellectual [catchword] of yesteryear” (Lepenies 911; see also 924).

  2. See also Fries’ view on the role of the dialectical (31).

  3. As for the controversy surrounding Wolf, see e.g. the assessments by Lehnert, Martin, and Rey.

  4. See Fries, who is reluctant to apply the label “postmodernism” to Wolf's work (31).

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“Dokumentation: Christa Wolf.” The German Quarterly 57.1 (1984): 91–115.

Emmrich, Wolfgang. “Gleichzeitigkeit, Vormoderne, Moderne und Postmoderne in der Literatur der DDR.” Bestandsaufnahme Gegenwartsliteratur: Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Deutsche Demokratische Republik, österreich, Schweiz. Munchen: edition text + kritik, 1988: 193–211.

Fries, Marilyn Sibley. “Locating Christa Wolf: An Introduction.” Responses to Christa Wolf. Critical Essays, Ed. Marilyn Sibley Fries. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1989.

Just, Dagmar. “Rundgang am Rande, Christa Wolf: Sommerstück.Sinn und Form 43.1(1991): 197–204.

Kalb, Jonathan. “Berlin by Metaphor.” The Threepenny Review 11.3[43](1990): 15–17.

Kramer, Jane. “Letter From Berlin.” The New Yorker 67.40 (November 25, 1991): 55–108.

Lehnert, Herbert. “Fiktionalität und autobiographische Motive, Zu Christa Wolfs Erzählung Was bleibt.Weimarer Beuträge 37.3(1991): 423–44.

Lepenies, Wolfgang. “The Failure of the Interpreting Class or Intellectuals in the Two Germanies.” New Literary History 22.4(1991): 911–25.

Lock, Charles. “Without a City Wall.” University of Toronto Quarterly 59.3(1990): 433–42.

Lüdke, Martin. “German Literature on the Threshold of the Twenty-First Century: A Critic's Perspective.” Literature on the Threshold: The German Novel in the 1980s. Ed. Arthur Williams, Stuart Parkes, and Roland Smith. New York: Berg, 1990: 335–47.

Martin, Jay. “Who's Afraid of Christa Wolf? Thoughts on the Dynamics of Cultural Subversion.” Salmagundi 92(1991): 44–53.

Rey, William H. “‘Wo habt ihr bloβ alle gelebt.’ Christa Wolfs Dilemma in ihrem Verhältnis zur DDR.” The Germanic Review 66.2(Spring 1991): 89–95.

———. “Christa Wolf im Schnittpunkt von Kritik und Gegenkritik. Gedanken zu dem Literaturstreit in der deutschen Presse.” Orbis Litterarum 46.4(1991): 222–39.

Schmidt, Ricarda. “Die Dialektik zwischen Wort und Wirklichikeit, dem Selbst und dem Fremden in Christa Wolfs Sommerstück.German Life and Letters 44.5(1991): 469–76.

Schreiber, Mathias. “‘Bonjour, Christesse.’” Der Spiegel 45.44 (October 28, 1991): 285, 288–89, 292.

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———. Die Dimension des Autors: Essays und Aufsätze, Reden und Gespräche, 1959–1985. Ed. Angela Drescher. Darmstadt und Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1987.

———. Der geteilte Himmel. Halle: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1963.

———. Nachdenken über Christa T. Halle: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1968.

———. Reden im Herbst. Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1990.

———. Sommerstück. Frankfurt/M.: Luchterhand, 1989.

———. Störfall: Nachrichten eines Tages. Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1987.

———. Was bleibt. Frankfurt/M.: Luchterhand, 1990.

Grace Paley (essay date 5 April 1993)

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SOURCE: “The Quest for Christa W.,” in Nation, April 5, 1993, pp. 454–57.

[In the following essay, Paley recounts her personal admiration for Wolf, as well as a meeting with the author, and provides an overview of Wolf's career and writings.]

About ten or twelve years ago I visited my friend Marianne Frisch in West Berlin. I asked her if I could somehow meet the writer Christa Wolf. Yes, they were friends, Marianne said, and took me by way of Checkpoint Charlie through the Wall past the taciturn, well, hostile guards into that other country, the German Democratic Republic.

Christa Wolf is the second writer I've ever sought out; the first was W. H. Auden, in New York in 1939, the year, maybe the day, that 10-year-old Christa stood watching the S.S. march through her town, bayonets pointing toward Poland. She remembers that day, sharp as a wood carving, and tells about it in one of her essays (“Thoughts about September 1, 1939”).

Why did I want to see her? I had read The Quest for Christa T. and Patterns of Childhood. I thought we would talk for hours, this pacifist feminist who might never define herself in this way. What interested me was the woman, the writer who had a passionate commitment to literature and believed at the same time that she had to have a working relationship with society—and a responsibility as well. She seemed to be exactly the writer I wanted to know—not too many like her, though some are dear to me anyway.

And so we came to her apartment in East Berlin on Friedrichstrasse, trolleys rumbling by. I wanted to cry out—don't give up the trolley for the bus; your cars are bad enough. But of course my German was only a failed street Yiddish of about twenty words, and her English had just begun. Still we became friends. For me, a lucky mystery.

When you read the transcribed talks, essays and interviews in The Author's Dimension, you'll be reading Christa Wolf's political and literary history in the country that, after Allied shaping, became, in 1949, the German Democratic Republic, the special concern of the U.S.S.R. Berlin, itself divided, was stuck in the G.D.R.'s chest. Eventually the Wall was built, graffiti on one side, soldiers with guns on the other.

Between 1949 and 1962, Christa studied German literature in Leipzig and Jena, married Gerhard Wolf, a critic and poet, had two daughters, worked in a factory in industrial Halle, hoping to become the worker-artist the First Bitterfeld Conference wanted her (and all other artists) to become (described at the end of her talk, “Contribution to the Second Bitterfeld Conference”). She worked for the G.D.R. Writers’ Union and edited Neue Deutsche Literatur and several contemporary anthologies.

Then what? How does a person, a young woman, learn enough, live enough, read and listen enough finally to become one of the most important European writers, to break through the walls of her own early understanding and narrow education in “the snares of theory,” as she writes? Of course she was by nature thoughtful, interested, loved her native language and its speakers. She also hated not to be truthful, not to know what really happened.

It's a vital fact that she was a citizen of a small country, its history fractured right at the decisive years of her entrance into young womanhood. She was needed—an experience most young American writers don't have too often. The country was poor but lively with direction, socialist direction, newness happening all around her among the ruins, idealism, and a way to turn away from a shameful national past. In a review of Fred Wander's book The Seventh Well, she says, “After the war, we had to learn to live under the eyes of nations that shuddered at our name.”

At the Second Bitterfeld Conference, in 1964, she began her talk by discussing at some length the values of art in a socialist art-valuing society. She described the envy of West German youth at the breadth of the G.D.R. literary themes. Having put participants at a certain smug ease, she offered a couple of harsh stories of repressive narrow-mindedness in the G.D.R., one about a writer sent to talk to a work-crew leader, in which the true facts of the worker's life censor him out of the story; the second about a schoolboy who notices the deadly imposition of stereotypes and falsifications in his textbooks. (She returns often in the years that follow to the impoverished education available to the young in the G.D.R.) She urged her audience to be more self-critical, the writers to be less fearful.

She must have been thinking of her next book, The Quest for Christa T., which was published in 1968. It's about a young woman who cannot, will not, live the rhythm of her society (and dies young). It's an exploration for Christa Wolf, through Christa T., of what it means to say, to be “I,” “the difficulty of saying ‘I.’” In “Interview with Myself,” she asks: Will others be interested? She's not sure, but trusts that her whole life and experience, which grow out of an intense concern for the development of her society, will evoke problems and questions in her that are important to others. “My questions are what structure the book—not events.” The book did provoke discussion, criticism and censorship. For many years it was more available in West Germany than in the East.

Another question she asks herself: “So, while working on this book, you have found out how you ought to write in the future?” She answers: “On the contrary, I have tried out one road, which I cannot take a second time. … I have discovered that one must try at all costs to break out of the ring of what we know or think we know about ourselves, and go beyond it.”

This “Interview with Myself” is only one example of Wolf's need to demystify the artist and her work. In essays and interviews over the years, she offers explications and meditations that may be useful to herself and her readers. Doing so probably frees her to make her novels as complex as they need to be and still feel she has included the reader. I like her solution. I think it's right to say whenever possible, and if asked: This is the way I journeyed into the unknown individual soul, bumping into history, society and myself at every turn.

Patterns of Childhood was published in 1976. It is another fictional autobiographical journey, this time to the near, unspoken, hardly-to-be-borne German past, in which the child who saw, who knew, is hidden. The adult who pushed her aside, forgot and suppressed her, now must find and know her. Wolf called this kind of labor “subjective authenticity,” in which “authenticity” makes the word “truthfulness” look like a barely scratched surface. How hard that must have been to write, how much harder life itself became.

In that year, Wolf Biermann, a popular singer and composer, was allowed to travel to an engagement in West Berlin. He was not allowed to return. Wolf wrote: “1976 was a caesura in cultural policy development in our country, outwardly indicated by Wolf Biermann's expatriation. … A group of authors became aware that their direct collaboration, the kind they themselves could answer for and thought was right, was no longer needed. We are socialists, after all. We lived as socialists in the GDR because that's where we wanted to be involved. To be utterly cast back on literature brought about a crisis for the individual, an existential crisis.” It must have been a political crisis, too. As one of the signers of a protest letter to the government, Wolf was dismissed from the executive board of the Berlin section of the Writers’ Union. A rumor was spread by the Stasi that she had secretly withdrawn her signature. Her denial resulted in more intense harassment from the secret police.

In a 1983 interview, she agreed with me that she had been stopped by that experience and the repression that followed. In another place she wrote: “It was the origin for me among others of working with the material of such lives as Günderrode's and Kleist's.”

These conflicts, this falling back on literature, became No Place on Earth, which I think of as a play of mourning for the Romantic writers of the early nineteenth century—Günderrode, Kleist, Büchner—who were sentenced to suicide and madness. “They wrote hymns to their country,” Anna Seghers said, “against the walls of whose society they beat their heads.” No Place on Earth is the remarkable work in which these writers speak their own sentences from letters, memoirs; then Wolf expands, invents, deepens the history. The silencing of Biermann's expatriation had given Wolf the gift of a new form.

There are several essays dealing with Karoline von Günderrode and Bettina von Arnim in The Author's Dimension. Wolf examines their lives and work almost as if they could be our teachers if only we would pay attention to their personal pain in the historic moment. But it is the hard-squeezed lives of Günderrode in the early nineteenth century and Ingeborg Bachmann in the twentieth that lie heaviest on Christa Wolf's mind.

Heaviest … As much as she cared about her contemporaries and her elders like Anna Seghers or Bertolt Brecht, it was the weight of Bachmann's work, its difficulty and mystery, its social consciousness trapped with no way to turn but death, that influenced her most. It made her think back to the other Germans a hundred and fifty, two hundred years earlier, walled in their particular German geography and culture; it made her decide not to die—or leave the G.D.R., her country, its walls. She and Gerhard would remain. She would struggle on her own terms and answer through work, her literary work, since she and others were prevented from speaking on radio or television and from political reporting.

When she presented the Kleist Prize to Thomas Brasch in 1987, she remembered how she had failed to persuade him to remain in the G.D.R. in 1976. She said: “‘Contradiction,’ in fact, is too cozy a word for the permanent friction which writers of the modern era are forced to experience. … [Brasch] stands between two systems of value, both of which confront him with false alternatives.”

Wolf's fear of coming holocausts to bury all holocausts, a fear normal to any European who has lived through one or two twentieth-century world wars, culminated in the important work Cassandra, accompanied by four essays, accounts of reading and travel with Gerhard Wolf to Athens and Crete, studies in mythology, history, discussions of methodology—how to write this book. There is a determination to go back in time, to get under it all, that place, that time, ancient Greece, which offered to literature forever, by way of great Homer's song, war and a trivialization of ordinary life and, of course, female life. A few years earlier, receiving the Büchner Prize, she had suggested that “literature has to be peace research.”

I think that one of the aspects of Wolf's work that bothers—I mean enrages—the male critics of West Germany, apart from her disinterest in Hemingway, is her criticism of male hierarchical modes, her attitude toward the hero. “As long as there are victors,” there's not too much hope for the world. The only hero is the antiheroine Cassandra, who sees how decent Aeneas will finally, going forth, only recreate the same patriarchal system. “We have no chance against a time that needs heroes.” Cassandra sees her death before her, and all the other deaths. She can't do much, but she can see. That is her task on earth, to see, to teach seeing, to tell.

I have not talked about Accident: A Day's News, a book I admire. It's about Chernobyl, a brother's brain operation, a woman's ordinary anxious day, “the significance of daily structure,” which Christa Wolf says she learned, little by little, by living in the country for half of each year. It's a short book that moves from the newscast to the garden vegetables, to the children on the phone, to the hospital operating room. She wonders as she lives that day's structure: What is the smart two-headedness of science that is beautifully, delicately repairing her brother's brain while it has let descend on the small body of her granddaughter the poisonous nuclear cloud out of Chernobyl? Who are the intensely creative men who've taken on these two tasks?

And then What Remains: a collection of older stories, including the title novella describing Wolf's surveillance by the East German secret police a number of years ago. This story infuriated West German critics, who thought she should have published it much earlier. It was a jumping-off point for a scapegoating attack on Christa Wolf that held her responsible for all G.D.R. corruption, bureaucratic crime and political repression. This campaign chose to disregard Wolf's work, which, in fiction and talk and interview, dealt with the life of the individual in a stultifying society, the pathetic condition of education, which she pointed out prepared young people for a life of dependent thinking, the untold stories of German literary history, as well as German difficulties in facing the Nazi past and the complicity of those still alive—her own generation.

Among the other stories in What Remains, “Unter den Linden” (the name of Berlin's famous and beautiful broadway) is a little difficult for me. Here, Wolf is mining an extremely busy dream and its slower companion, being awake. Again we see “I” laboring to remain “I” in the society. Still, I must say that just when this miner has got us down to the next level, she leans a shoulder on the wall of the shaft and we're next door, in a slightly darker room.

This isn't true of “June Afternoon,” which runs forward, backward for a moment, down deep, up up into the air. It's simply alight with strawberries, a newer and older child, a grumpy gardening father, neighbors, their tales of grief and horror, and a dandelion-murdering, car-washing engineer. Above them there's the darkness of planes flying their air corridor, the helicopters surveying the border between East and West. Throughout the story, the children run in and out of conversation and attention. A fine story without a flaw, as far as my story-loving eye can see.

Then there's the complex, interesting “Self-Experiment,” which Wolf herself describes as an investigation into the next direction for women's emancipation. And the fine first story, “Exchanging Glances,” in which the young woman, on the very day of Hitler's death, Germany's absolute defeat, sees and doesn't see, looks and turns away from the Oranienburg concentration camp prisoners who have just been freed.

The last part of Wolf's selected essays includes some short pieces, a report on a reading in Mecklenburg, “We Don't Know How … to think directly, to tell, we never learned in school.” I'd like to quote from another essay, “Momentary Interruption”:

November 4, 1989, in Alexander Square in East Berlin was the moment when artists, intellectuals, and other groups in our society came together. … That moment was by no means just a fortunate accident, as amazed Western reporters interpreted it. It was the … climax of a long process in which literary and theater people, peace groups, and other groups had been coming together under the aegis of the Church, to meet and share talk from which each … drew encouragement for action. For years we addressed certain tasks in what we intended as our opposition literature: to name the conflicts which for a long time were expressed nowhere else, and thus to generate or strengthen a critical attitude in readers: to encourage them to resist lies, hypocrisy … to keep alive our language and the other traditions of German literature and history from which attempts were made to cut us off …

This talk was given at the University of Hildesheim when Wolf received an honorary doctorate in January 1990. In it there is also the sad sentence: “Our uprising appears to have come years too late.”

Yes. As the young people ran laughing through Hungary into the West and the Wall corridors were opened and the Wall taken down, crumb by stony crumb, and the German election approached, and the currency changed, it was clear that an autonomous free democratic socialist East German nation would not be born. Certainly, when the cry “We are the people” changed to “We are one people,” the heady hopeful weeks in East Berlin and Leipzig, the long candlelight vigils, talk, argument, dissent and planning ended. Freedom, unemployment and colonization of East Germany began. As Christa Wolf writes:

[The] politicians, economic managers, party officials need a fatherland to carry on their enterprises. There is no motherland in sight, no more than before.

Melissa Benn (review date 23 April 1993)

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SOURCE: “Rebel within a Cause,” in New Statesman and Society, April 23, 1993, pp. 29–30.

[In the following review of What Remains and The Writer's Dimension, Benn defends Wolf against public condemnation for her socialist beliefs.]

Angry citizens may have pulled Lenin from his plinth in an orgy of symbolic fury, but the reputations of far more subtle figures have suffered in the post-communist reckoning. Most saddening, perhaps, are the attacks currently directed at the east German novelist and essayist Christa Wolf. Before 1989, Wolf occupied an ambiguous but unique position of prominence both within the GDR and the west; since 1989 she has been castigated, particularly in West Germany, for both her actions and inaction. What should be made of this reversal of fortune?

Criticism of Wolf has turned on two distinct, rather sensational accusations: first, that the delay in publishing Was bleibt—her autobiographical tale of surveillance by the Stasi, the GDR's secret police, in the late 1970s—until after the fall of the wall was a disingenuous attempt to claim retrospective victim status. More recently, it has been suggested that Wolf herself was an “unofficial co-worker” for the Stasi in the late 1950s, along with other prominent GDR writers such as Heiner Müller.

Beyond her own country, Wolf is a distinguished rather than a famous figure; something of a minority taste. Even so, for western media raised on the simplicities of the cold war, the “did she, didn't she?” question fascinates from whatever angle (victim or perpetrator?) far more than the wider political meaning of the affair.

Yet the Wolf debate does not make sense within the spy paradigm at all. Wolf's action in 1959–62 stemmed itself from misplaced cold war certainties, from her belief in the absolute rights of a state that grew out of the defeat of fascism. In that sense, hers was a political act, however chilling or wrong, rather than a betrayal of stated or lived beliefs—our usual definition of espionage. So, too, we should see the attack on Wolf as part of a wider assault on the generation that believed anything was better than fascism: even a rotting state socialism.

And, broader yet, does the case not arise from a confusion in just about everyone's mind—east and west—about the public role of the writer, and whether it lies in not just savouring but saving the world? Should writers be as grand in their deeds as in their words? How should we untangle the fraught connection not just between words and action, but between public figures and private character?

It's a debate that has less resonance in the west, where writers are increasingly marginalised as political figures and instead granted the often puerile status of a limited fame. Not so within the GDR where, as novelist Monika Maron has written, writers were “a particularly spoiled group … [not just in] the privileges given to them by the power elite … [but in] the respect with which they were greeted even by people not accustomed to reading books.”

Wolf herself was almost a state laureate, yet she was also celebrated in the west for a presumed covert dissidence within “really existing” socialism, particularly in her expert use of slave language: the expression of dissatisfaction and contradiction in so subtle a way, it escaped the crudity of the censor. I can still remember my thrill at reading Virago's blurb-description of Christa Wolf as “a committed socialist of independent temper”: at last, a Jane Austen heroine yanked to noble ideals!

We should not doubt that Wolf increasingly lived out this tension to the full. Certainly, Was bleibt (What Remains) shows a finely tuned awareness of the contradictions and failure of someone in Wolf's position. Here is a writer, watched by three agents of the state she is beginning to disbelieve, paralysed by the gap between her “old language” (I guess: the language of state socialism) and her inability to speak out loud the “new language” (I guess: the very words that came with the end of the GDR).

Dissidents appeal to her as the Great Writer, but she can do nothing for them. Of one young poet, she writes, “He could have been my son. I believed I could foresee the fate awaiting him. They would stop at nothing. The young gentleman standing in front of my door would not hesitate to pass through his door. A moat. Would I have to jump over it?” Yet in another passage, she states, “Every day I told myself that a privileged life like mine could only be justified by attempting to go beyond the borders of the sayable, knowing full well that border violations of any kind are punished.”

As a text, What Remains is uncompromising. It clearly states not only Wolf's isolation, but her growing disillusionment with what remains of the GDR and its slogans: GROWTH PROSPERITY STABILITY, words ominously hoisted over a reading given at the end of the story. But as a text that remained in a drawer, it of course stood for nothing at all. It had no material reality, no life.

Put it against the testimonies of We Were the People and one understands the full extent of the failure of all semi-official writers in the GDR. Through a persistent and lovingly critical interview technique, [Dirk] Philipsen draws out the complexity and bravery of the GDR dissidents—feminists, church people, trade unionists—who suffered exile, imprisonment, job loss and routine fear as a result of their protests. Theirs is a quite different story from the state laureates.

Yet even here we should be very careful, those of us who have never lived under “dictatorship” of any kind: those of us who know nothing about power and vanity and fear and ordinary cowardice, and how these work themselves out in each individual. Yes, we can sneer that Christa Wolf could—and did—ring Erich Honecker directly when her own daughter was arrested in a demonstration.

Yes, we can sneer at the extensive privileges. But then we must remember that she was also courageous—in her own way: that the record shows public opposition to the expulsion of Wolf Biermann and the censoring of other colleagues. Nor did Wolf ever go after positions in the official Writers’ Union.

There is no cynicism in Wolf. Her aim, if eventually hopeless, is always to reconcile the old and new languages.

Nowhere is this more poignantly expressed than in her essays and interviews at the time of the fall of the Wall. Here is no easy condemnation of the lust for consumer goods, but again the expressed desire to reconcile a utopian version of socialism with “what the young people have to say … I do indeed hope that this is a defeat for Stalinism. I still hope that what you call ‘utopia’ is not being defeated along with it.”

Again and again, ever more desperately, she urges dialogue between those who are going and those who are staying. More valuable yet, she offers analysis: “People of my generation have talked very little to our children about our childhood in the Nazi time, about the break up in 1945 and about our attempts to ‘find our place for ourselves’ in a new society based on new social principles. And then came the second collapse, brought on by the revelations about Stalin.

“It is uncanny how these unresolved issues—that's a very unemotional term for what I have in mind—persist throughout the generations. No doubt we could discover what those effects are, if we were to thoroughly question the young people who are leaving East Germany.”

In another essay, Wolf echoes the cry of a woman of her own generation—the cry of the parent as well as the political believer: “What did we do wrong?” But if she stands as a scorned member of a generation whom fascism blinded to the dangers of state socialism, it is a failure shared by many in West Germany and a wider Europe; not just Wolf's alone.

Nor is it a failure profound enough to discredit her as a writer. In such works as A Model Childhood,The Search for Christa T. and even What Remains, Wolf remains one of the very few to have grappled with the silences of both the fascist and socialist phases of her country, turning the slave language of dissidence to good account.

She is important for grander reasons yet: Wolf has always understood our need to find a difficult and complex language to express a difficult and complex life, our need not to be seduced by the quick and easy in the electronic era; our belief in truth itself.

So she argues passionately in The Writer's Dimension: “Prose creates people. It breaks down deadly oversimplifications by showing all the possible ways there are to be human.” It is a sad irony that Wolf has herself fallen victim to oversimplification while showing us, at the same time, that writers are human: timid as well as brave, bold and silent all at once.

Yet she remains—with the likes of Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing (once upon a time), Susan Sontag and, in a minor key, Grace Paley—as one of the most important political writers of her time; one rooted in her time. I salute her for that.

Richard Eder (review date 25 April 1993)

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SOURCE: “Dance of the Marionettes,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 25, 1993, pp. 3, 17.

[In the following mixed review of What Remains, Eder discusses Wolf's unique stye of prose.]

It seems impossible right now to write about Christa Wolf's What Remains without writing about Christa Wolf. The author of such luminous accounts of the human spirit as Cassandra and The Quest for Christa T. admitted earlier this year that for three years, three decades ago, she was an informant for the East German security police. She gave them her impressions of the political postures of various fellow-writers and other information about her literary world.

Nothing she told them could have been truly harmful, she says, and by 1962 she had stopped and begun to distance herself from the regime. It is not the business of this review to doubt it. Nor is it a matter, here, of judging an author's work by the author's private life—or more exactly, her private public life—as with T. S. Eliot's anti-Semitism or whether Primo Levi's suicide invalidated his writings.

But with Wolf, it is the work itself that is marked by the moral ambiguity of borderlines. While there was still an East and a West, she placed herself on the frontier, telling of the blight that blew across from both sides. Her writing, which can be powerful and delicate, has always had a complicated integrity. Its choreography is painful and constrained. Were those actual strings doing the constraining? Strings, after all, were one of her great subjects: that is, the dehumanization of lives by social and political structures. We may wonder not just how to tell the dancer from the dance but, if the dance is about being jerked around politically and metaphysically, how to tell the dancer from the puppet.

“What Remains,” the principal piece in this collection, recounts a day in the life of an author who is largely Wolf herself. She has an apartment and a car, lives in a certain comfort and celebrity and can, at times, travel abroad. The system tolerates her writings, partly because of her international eminence, partly because it can accept half of her plague-on-both-your-houses theme, and partly because, though not veiled, she writes too “deep” to be an open threat. She is a storm at sea 500 fathoms down; the regime's sea-level gunboats are not at risk of swamping.

But she is under police surveillance. A car, usually a white one, is always parked in front of her window. The three beefy young men inside go for coffee and sausages, but only one by one. They are not unamiable—one night when she couldn't stand it, she waved from the window and they blinked their lights three times—but then neither are most zoo visitors. She is well-treated, in other words, and for her though not for others, the zoo is cageless. She goes in and out: to shop, to visit her husband in the hospital and, in the evening, to address, in the spirit of dissidence, a literary meeting.

With these materials, Wolf has drawn a powerful and desolate picture of oppression. There is no air in her apartment, she can't settle down to write, she jabs at the phone as if it were an infected tooth. It is; it is tapped. She and a friend drop heavy hints about an assignation and stress the words coffee and tea as if they were a code. They are baiting the phone-tappers, a sour game that leaves them feeling worse.

She has several emblematic encounters. She catches sight of Gunther M., a literary colleague who once confessed, while drunk, that he had been reporting on her. “I was afraid,” he said when she asked him why. She writes with a derisiveness that now will seem dubious. More complex and intriguing is her reaction to a letter from a dear friend. Others have suggested that he too may be an informant—this may be disinformation, of course—and she debates with herself. Perhaps he hasn't told her because it would mean they could not see each other; and perhaps he is protecting her by giving the authorities only innocuous information.

“We are all trapeze artists,” she muses. “But in that case I don't want him for a friend.” That, too, stands out in light of what we have learned—does she want herself as a friend? And yet it comes across not as dissembling but as nine-tenths of a confession. The difference with her account of Gunther M. may seem invisible, but in the white desert that Wolf finds herself in, it stands out.

Like the title piece, the other stories in this collection represent injured writing, but less effectively. If What Remains records a walk through a moral minefield—quailing, bravery, damage and all—the others tend to represent something else about minefields: their ability to enforce standstill. Political repression has produced extraordinary literature, and some of it has been Wolf's. But it also represses, and beyond that, it numbs and exhausts. Several of the pieces—a tired account of a woman's day spent caring for her child and then attending a tedious factory meeting, and a long, choked dream account of a woman arraigning a former lover—are almost entirely inert.

“Exchanging Glances” is a somewhat suspect story of German civilians fleeing at the end of World War II and being strafed by American planes and herded about by sleek American soldiers. The narrator, an adolescent girl, feels briefly guilty when she spots some former concentration-camp inmates, but mostly she is taken up by the unappetizing sight of the Americans and her own apathy.

Better, though slight, is the story of a day spent by a Wolf-like narrator with her husband and baby daughter in their Berlin back yard. The small peacefulnesses—the child brings over a snail—contrast with the roar of aircraft vacuuming up all the garden's sounds. She imagines smug passengers from the West looking down at the poor captive East Berliners. “Somewhere there are three dots in a green area (I am leaving out the snail).”

There are two satirical allegories about the Communist regime. One, which imagines a town populated by the heroes of socialist-realist fiction, has some amusing notions but is weighed down by forced irony. A much better piece, deals from one of Wolf's strengths. The woman narrator, a scientist, takes part in an experiment that turns her briefly into a man. The complexities and contradictions are intriguingly set out. Again, the writing is sometimes cumbersome, and perhaps the translation as well, but Wolf shows some of her ability to unite a sardonic intelligence with an intuitive and prophetic voice.

Michael Hofmann (review date 27 May 1993)

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SOURCE: “In the Doghouse,” in London Review of Books, May 27, 1993, pp. 13–14.

[In the following review of What Remains and The Writer's Dimension, Hofmann acknowledges Wolf's complicated political commitments and literary context, but is critical of what he considers her naive utopianism and her decision to publish What Remains.]

In the wall-month of November 1989 I translated two pieces from an anthology of East German writing for the magazine, Granta, which in the end didn't use either of them. (These things happen.) One of them was by Christa Wolf, an extract, I think, from her book Sommerstück. It was just two pages long, nothing more than a preamble and image, but of a Shakespearean power and amplitude. A group of adults and children (Wolf's habitual, occasionally irritating, panti-social ‘we’), driving in rural East Germany, stop by a beautiful old farmhouse that is in the process of being vandalised by the local youth: doors and windows, furnishings, the massive Dutch stoves in the corners, everything senselessly in ruins. As they leave, a little girl in the party sees a birdcage toppled over in a nettle-patch and walks over to have a look. Then she sees it: the furry remains (what remains) of a cat, locked inside the bird-cage and left to starve and rot.

I thought: could there be a better, more terrible image for what was happening, and what would happen to the East German state? Doesn't it fabulously contain everything: Honecker and his wife in Moscow, in the Chilean Embassy, stalked by reporters (that phrase, ‘embassy compound’); the ransacking of the Stasi offices in the cities (the runde Ecke in Leipzig—they knew how to bend space); the Politburo huntsmen (hunting being the great GDR perk and hobby, equivalent to golf for the Japanese) now behind bars (the great GDR sanction and raison d'être: detention)—all in that one grisly cat? And then I thought: does she know? Could she see East Germany not just (rather obviously) as the abandoned and desecrated house, but as the defunct prison-state which the birds have flown and where the gaolers are now interned? Did she appreciate—or even share—‘the fury of disappearance,’ in a phrase of Enzensberger's? Was it her prophetic insight, or the construction put upon her words by the anthologist and reader? And could she see herself, even then, as the cat stuffed inside the empty bird-cage of her oeuvre, maybe in Santa Monica now and a guest of the Getty Foundation, but for all that still in the doghouse?

Reading the two books now published by Virago is a peculiar activity and leaves a strange taste. They are neither of them new—both cover the best part of thirty years—nor yet good. Christa Wolf isn't a short story writer, or there would be more epiphanies like the one about the cat: her best books are tissues she weaves between people (The Quest for Christa T.), between themes (Accident: A Day's News), between ages (No Place on Earth). She proceeds by indirection—the short story gives her no space. You know more than you usually know as a reader, and you are looking for still more, a tense and unhealthy looking, a looking for tragedy: you read for dramatic irony, for the Greek words, hubris, peripeteia, anagnorisis, catharsis; you follow a person of stature, someone associated with an idea, the representative of a society. You don't know quite where you are—is it Act IV, or the second part of a trilogy, ‘Christa Wolf at Colonus’?

The discrediting of Christa Wolf is in large part a West German achievement. With Unification, the West bought a cat in a sack, is peeved about it, and complains. Everything from the East has suffered revaluation, and East German literature—which thought itself something special, was thought in the West to be something special, even was something special—has been degraded as well. Christa Wolf, as its Aushängeschild, its best-selling literary export and the best-known spokesman—even apologist—for the country, has copped her considerable share of vilification.

The West has always had an ambivalent attitude to East German writing: athletes, spies and writers were three things the East seemed to be worryingly good at producing. East German books were published in the West (some houses—like Luchterhand, Wolf's publishers, specialised in them), and were read in large numbers. My old copy of Christa T. is an 18th printing, and that was 11 years ago. But East German literature was always valued inasmuch as it offered criticism of the East German state: reading it in the West was an exercise in ill-will. On the one hand, there was the country, which you feared and hated and claimed didn't exist (die Zone, ‘the Eastern Zone’); on the other, there were its books (Zonenliteratur, disparagingly—it sounds like science fiction), which you devoured. It is like the principle of Mariolatry: ‘There is no God, and Mary is his mother.’ Christa Wolf's work, implying criticism much of the time, was highly prized, and partly it was her failure to ‘deliver,’ in West German terms, that provoked their anger. Having wasted their time on a tool which didn't do what it was supposed to do, and turned out not to be needed anyway, they threw it away. The acknowledgment that had been extended to East German literature (though never to the East German state) was revoked in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and elsewhere. Christa Wolf surely knows what she is about, following Thomas Mann to Pacific Palisades fifty years later.

Not that Wolf is completely without blame herself. It seems to me that she did three things wrong: she retained her allegiance to (an idea of) East Germany when it was too late for that; she pulled out of her desk-drawer an old and lachrymose piece of writing, Was bleibt (What Remains), written in June-July 1979, revised in November 1989, published in 1990), about how she was made to live for a time under the all too visible eye of the security forces; and, in deadly contrast to that, she herself—it emerged a little while ago—served the Stasi as an informant between 1959 and 1962. The first of these is all her: she was so constituted it would have been impossible for her to do anything else. The third is all GDR and force of circumstance—I can't see how anyone from the West, not having had to suffer similar temptation and duress, can pass judgment on her for that. Her only real ‘error’—one she was free to commit or not—was the publication of What Remains.

Within the GDR, Wolf's role was quite complicated. It seems to me she was something like a tribune of the people, both within the system and against it, establishment when seen from outside East Germany, helpfully and tolerably anti from within. Her essays refer many times to the letters she receives from people all over the country; ‘Reply to a Reader,’ for example, is a letter to a West German medical student about peace and the future of mankind; in that private to public, unknowns to celebrity, MP's-postbag way, she was in touch with many hundreds of people. What Remains has her being visited by a young woman writer, getting poems from a young man, discussing the future (What Remains) after a reading: unofficial channels—she was denied access (she says) to East German radio and television. She seems always to have been helpful to other writers: few can have had a bad word to say of her—she was like a slightly out-of-touch mother-figure to her younger East German colleagues. What she valued about East Germany was the feeling of being plugged into the life of the society. The readings in factories, which the Government probably grew progressively less keen on, may now sound chi-chi, but she was not ‘alienated’ and ‘marginalised,’ as she felt Western writers were. Goethe's ‘creativity without society’ she glosses impulsively: ‘what a horrible thought!’ You could say that her need for the GDR to exist was greater than its own.

Reading through The Writer's Dimension (edited down from almost a thousand pages of speeches and addresses and essays in the original—what other writer speaks for a thousand pages!), one senses her attitude to her country cooling a little. It is worth checking the dates at the end of each piece. (The place is never cited, though many of these talks were given in the West or abroad. Wolf was a perfectly trustworthy recipient of the privilege of foreign travel, notably staunch at a colloquium in New York, say.) Still, such things as the terms in which she talks about ‘science’—a key locution, which at times seems like a synonym or code-word for ‘socialism’—change drastically in the course of the book: in 1968 she calls for a prose appropriate to ‘the age of science’: by 1989 she is ‘perfectly happy’ to be ‘highly critical’ of it. When the crunch came in that year, she was in favour of continuity with spoonfuls of change: she had a hand in the appeal of writers and artists to which Egon Krenz and other Politburo members then stupidly and infamously added their names: she was booed for using the word ‘socialism’: she asked the demonstrators ‘to consider whom they would benefit’; and she called Reunification ‘a dangerous nonsense.’ At the same time, the bones she threw her listeners were laughably and amateurishly literary: she quotes a crowd's slogans back to them, calls for ‘many samples of the popular literary creativity’ to be ‘collected and preserved,’ notes that ‘incidentally, we writers can learn valuable lessons by associating with groups like these.’ The note she sounds here is precisely that of the insincere and unteachable politician promising meaningless concessions. Her words as a writer are regularly vitiated by political clichés and considerations: ‘grass-roots democracy in action’; ‘Picture this: Socialism arrives and no one goes away!’ (surely a crib from the Sixties poster: ‘What if they gave a war and no one came’); or the foul, licensing phrase ‘subjective authenticity.’

There is a dichotomy in Christa Wolf's work between the politics of the day and the politics of the long view: in the latter she got nothing wrong—the role of women, freedom, peace, the planet—in the former nothing right. In the long run, it is senseless to be anything other than utopian; in the short term, to be utopian is to be stupid. Christa Wolf ends her last piece, from February 1990, by lamenting that ‘there is no motherland in sight, no more than before.’ The nominal cabinet-representing, heavy-industry-dominated, goose-stepping and abortion-happy three-letter state (GDR) was never a candidate. It was carried by women, on the backs of women, but not for their benefit.

Christa Wolf's movements and thoughts in the last weeks of the GDR can be pieced together quite closely from her essays, and very revealing they are too: a radio interview with a Western journalist on 8 October; on 9 October to Moscow for a week (!) then a hard-hitting but uselessly late article on conformism and false education (‘Perhaps now we will … admit that torch processions and mass gymnastic exercises are signs of an intellectual vacuum’) for the East German Wochenpost on 21 October; on 30 October, a long and indulging and horribly ironic interview about a story of hers that had been adapted for Eastern television; a big speech in the Alexanderplatz on 4 November; and another on receiving an honorary doctorate at Hildesheim in the Federal Republic, where for the first time, and very oddly, we encounter the words ‘opposition literature.’ Imagine that in the original, after a thousand pages!—‘what we intended as our opposition literature.’ And then: ‘We seem to have been mistaken. Our uprising appears to have come years too late.’

In those months she must have got out her old manuscript, Was bleibt, revised it and sent it off for publication. It was her decisive mistake: the one time she really tried to play to her audience, and played them false. The slim book appeared, blue sky through a net curtain on its jacket. It describes the course of a single day spent under police surveillance, ‘the lowest level of surveillance, the warning kind, the instructions for those carrying out the task being: Conspicuous presence.’ The men in the parked car in front of the window all day; the telephone; distrust of friends; an evening reading packed with the wrong people, with her real public locked out and provoked by the police. Its publication was a masterpiece of bad faith and bad timing, an arrant case of me-too-ism: At the very moment the West German press were asking ‘Who's afraid of Christa Wolf?’ she came forward with a tremulous, back-dated book about her own fears. Elsewhere, in the essays, she talked airily of ‘the total commitment of one's personal moral existence,’ and of how ‘strength of character and loyalty to convictions have the power to shape a person's writing style.’ How could she begin a story with such a false crust of breathless excitement? The effect of the tenses is still more monstrous in German, with its stricter conjugations:

Don't panic. One day I will even talk about it in that other language which, as of yet, is in my ear but not on my tongue. Today I knew would still be too soon. But would I know when the time was right? Would I ever find my language? One day I would be old. And how would I remember these day then? Something inside me, which expands in moments of happiness, contracts in fright, When was I last happy?

The enormous turning-circle apparent behind those questions made the politicians appear adroit. Did she actually have to live on Friedrichstrasse and wait for it to be dismantled to notice what had gone on there—entry-point for West Germans and exit for fortunate East Berliners, a less exalted Checkpoint Charlie? Then, later, it emerged that she had once allowed herself to be used as an informant in the way that she now, a kind of demi-ingénue, claimed to fear. The stone-throwing West Germans exercised their Schadenfreude to the full; they had always envied her success, but what they had found unendurable was the spectacle of her virtue, her decency, her incorruptibility. She had sought to bridge the historic German gulf between ‘ideas’ and ‘the people’; now it claimed another victim.

We won't judge Christa Wolf; we are too close, too remote. The subtle grey gradations of East Germany and its bizarre puncturing are lost, except to the imagination. Someone like Christa Wolf will come along one day—as she did for Günderrode and Bettina von Arnim—and happen upon her case, the woman who was active in ‘the most petrified decade’ of the century (the 1830s, the 1970s). She will write uninvasively and enthrallingly—perhaps with some future style in her ear, the dream of scientific prose—of this bold woman living among ‘an inwardly divided, politically immature people,’ where ‘a well-organised government and security operation stifled every free impulse,’ and, impassioned by her heroine, she will say: ‘We should change our lives. But we are not.’

Gertrude Postl (essay date Summer 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10051

SOURCE: “The Silencing of a Voice: Christa Wolf, Cassandra, and the German Unification,”1 in Differences, Vol. 5, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 92–115.

[In the following essay, Postl examines Wolf's attempt to reconcile socialist ideals with Western-style postmodern feminist concerns.]

In the early summer of 1990, four months before the German reunification, a little book was published in Germany, initiating a heated debate not only about the political integrity of its author but also about the role of literature in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), the inter-relatedness of writing and politics, and the status of German intellectuals in general. The book was Christa Wolf's short narrative Was bleibt (What Remains), an account of a period in the author's life in which she was put under surveillance by the secret police. According to Wolf the text was originally written in 1979, never published, and revised in 1989.

Immediately after the publication several articles appeared in the West German press that, due to the extreme harshness and arrogance of their critique, can be called a “media campaign” against Wolf.2 The critics saw the delayed date of publication as indication of her alleged opportunism and collaboration with the communist regime, which in turn lead to a general attack on Wolf's topics, her language, and her literary style.

Ulrich Greiner in Die Zeit calls Wolf “the painter of the idyllic” and blames her for creating “the well known protected domain of the inner, which builds fortresses for literary escape.” He talks about “this comfortable Christa-Wolf-sound, this flat melody of non-commitment” and the “typically vague relation between the real world that shimmers faintly in the distance and the poetic world of her texts.” According to Frank Schirrmacher in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, she has only a limited ability to grasp complex political structures: “Christa Wolf could think about the GDR-society … only in categories of sentimentality, as if it were a private crisis of relationship. … She perceived the society she lived in … as a larger variation of the bourgeois, authoritarian family structure.” And with reference to Wolf's silence concerning the invasions in Czechoslovakia or Afghanistan, Schirrmacher remarks: “Her frequent silences are not only a sign that from the beginning the interests of the other German state were her own, but also a compulsive fear of serving the ideological enemy.” Hellmuth Karasek in Der Spiegel ridicules her by pointing to allegedly typical petty bourgeois features, which he considers to be very German and very Protestant, even if they are “this time painted in the red colors of the Socialist Unity Party” (166).3 And Hajo Steinert in Die Weltwoche simply claims that her views are filled with self-pity and opportunism.

That the controversial issues surrounding Wolf are not only a German problem but mark Western reception of GDR literature in general can clearly be seen from an article published in the New York Review of Books in December of 1990. Apart from reducing Wolf's work to an expression of mourning over the loss of “Heimat” and comparing her to Hans-Jürgen Syberberg,4 the author, Ian Buruma, merely echoes his colleagues from the West German press. Not only does he display the same arrogance but he also makes the same mistake of judging literature on the grounds of its author's willingness to challenge the political powers that be. Thus we have to read again that Wolf “played to many galleries at once,” that “she never wavered in her political commitment,” that “she made it easier for people to live in a quasi-totalitarian state,” that “she made the personal sacrifices, the spiritual hardship, seem virtuous. … Not revolt, but a stiff upper lip; that was Wolf's prescription for the long-suffering citizens of the GDR” (39).

In summary, one wonders how someone so highly acclaimed for more than two decades, can, all of a sudden, fall so deeply. It seems that Was bleibt was used as an opportunity to do what some critics probably wanted to do all along: to ridicule, dismiss, and destroy Wolf entirely.5 Some of her colleagues, like Walter Jens and Günter Grass, came to her defense, initiating a controversy about the so-called “state writer” which lasted several months and eventually turned into the current debate over GDR literature in general. At stake in this debate is the moral integrity of East German authors, their decision to stay, their political ideals, and their right to write altogether.6

Following the unfolding of this debate, one cannot help but suspect that Wolf is the first author measured by a newly established standard of the victors—a standard for ethics as well as aesthetics. But do the accusations made against her really tell us anything new about Wolf, or do they rather shed some light on the accusers, thereby offering us discouraging insights into the real meaning of the German reunification? It seems that the critics judge literary production on grounds of economic and political superiority, and thus introduce new exclusions and new sanctions. With the breakdown of the communist regime, the “merits” of the West as well as the “failures” of the East are suddenly treated as self-evident. This leads to a conception of ethically correct political behavior that legitimates itself simply through positions of power. In the case of Wolf, who never attempted to leave East Germany, such a concept sets up the alternative between being a coward and therefore a bad writer, or being politically correct but silent. Both critical positions may be viewed as an attempt to retrospectively erase GDR literature from the literary landscape, either by blaming the writers for having published at all or for not publishing everything they wrote.

I argue in this paper that Wolf's later texts, in particular the Cassandra project, mark an intersection between her commitment to a socialist ideal on the one hand and a radical questioning of epistemological models as well as modes of writing provided by the Western tradition on the other. The first of those two intersecting lines accounts for elements of socialist realism in Wolf's texts, the second moves her close to contemporary forms of discourse in the West, in particular to the postmodern, deconstructive side of the feminist debate. Furthermore, I claim that it might have been exactly this intersection that her critics in the West found disturbing since it sabotages any attempt to categorize Wolf. Looking first at Wolf's relationship to communism and then analyzing her feminist position with a focus on the Cassandra project, this paper is going to argue in favor of Wolf's attempt to find a “third way.” This metaphor of the “third way” is not only a key term for Wolf but was also used during the fall of 1989 to indicate a political solution for East Germany that would neither continue the communist past nor seek integration into West Germany.7


Wolf was a member of the Socialist Unity Party, leaving it only in the summer of 1989. Between 1963 and 1967 she was a candidate for the Communist Party's Central Committee, and she obviously enjoyed all sorts of privileges the regime provided its intellectuals. Furthermore, now disclosed secret police files reveal that between 1959 and 1962 Wolf was an unofficial informer for the GDR secret police. The author herself admitted to this fact only hesitantly and under severe public pressure. Her explanation shifts between obliviousness and seeing herself as a victim.8

But there is also the other side of Wolf. We must remember that it was her novel The Quest for Christa T. (1968) that broke with the dogmatic and restricting norms of socialist realism. Her books were not always welcomed by the GDR regime; their publications were delayed and in several cases she was forced to censor them. She never went so far as to risk an open confrontation with the authorities. But is this enough to make her a state writer? Moreover, what is a “state writer”? Is anyone who lives and writes in the capitalist West an enthusiastic supporter of capitalism? Does the fact that writers in the West enjoy the privilege of expressing opposition toward the system make them morally superior to those in the East who are denied this privilege?

If the accusations of her critics are true, namely that she did not take a clear political stand, how, then, can one explain her function as figure of identification for various liberation movements in the West, from “feminism, environmentalism and the peace movement to Eurocommunism” as Schirrmacher sarcastically asserts? But even this—or should I rather say especially this—is held against her. The fact that she was able to be heard by readers beyond the closed borders of the GDR is now seen not as positive but as proof of her inability and unwillingness to speak more explicitly to the people within those borders.

It appears that Wolf's enemies are bothered more by her popularity in the West than by her alleged lack of political integrity. Wolf had to be recast as an opportunistic communist hard-liner in order to dismiss and ridicule the obvious influence she has had in the West. Two points are extremely bother-some for firm believers in the freedom of Western democracy: how one can voluntarily choose to stay under a repressive system, and even worse, how one can still believe that there is anything good about such a system. Wolf did both, thereby providing us with a literary approach to the problems of freedom and oppression, state and individualism, or reality and ideality, rather unique among West German writers.

From 1968 on Wolf pursued the narrow path of upholding the ideal of a better—and this meant in her understanding “socialist”—society. At the same time she used her position as a highly respected writer to confront the public with views that not only contradicted the standard communist ideology but also went far beyond issues derived from the polarization between socialism and Western capitalist democracy. Her novels during the 1980s deal with problems revolving around the alternatives of war and peace, around ecological issues, gender differences and patriarchal power in general, the question what is reality and what particular kind of reality (if any) does a writer create. One can hardly call these issues mainstream communist thinking, even less so the way Wolf deals with them.

Quite to the contrary of her critics, Wolf goes beyond considerations about a particular political system. Given this, she can be criticized for an escape not only into the inner self but also for an escape into empty generalities, into matters of human existence as such. Yet, such criticism overlooks the fact that Wolf points the finger at very particular generalities, at problems that cannot be reduced to any type of political organization. The oppression of women, the technological rape of nature, the connection between war, violence, and cultural definitions of maleness are topics that can hardly be called unpolitical writing. What West German critics obviously did not like about this approach seems to be the fact that it moves the West dangerously close to the East. Wolf dares to talk about problems capitalism and communism have in common. In her monograph on Wolf, Myra N. Love claims that Wolf's “writing, particularly in recent years, has been directed more towards a critique of the blind spots of modern western (European-North American) male-dominated industrial civilization, of which both capitalist and ‘real socialist’ societies have been part” (4–5). But, since the end of World War II, the self-identity of the West was built on the construction of an absolutely dehumanized, dystopian order in the East, on a clear distinction between “good” and “bad” society, on the high visibility of a border. Thus, any possible similarities between the two systems were perceived as threats.

The impossibility of dismissing Wolf as a simple communist hard-liner might partly account for the strong emotional undertone of the responses. Not limiting herself to communist rhetoric while at the same time professing communism was obviously viewed as provocative; this did not fit the standard ideology of the West. Wolf deals with issues of a broader scope, not from a neutral position, but one that is bound to her life under communist rule. This not only exposed her to the experience of oppression and resistance but also provided her with ideals, so-called moral values, and with hope—something the scattered, cynical, postmodern attitude of Western intellectual practice is unable to accept any longer.

To be creative within a system of thought control and censorship requires special care but at the same time might cause patterns of escape, disguise, and coding. These patterns produce a level of meaning that due to oppression is restricted but that concurrently explores options, creates spaces, and invents paradigms for a life in spite of oppression.

In other words, Wolf could not have written what she wrote had she lived in West Germany. Being exposed to bureaucratic pettiness, to the possible threat of surveillance, to publicly stated norms of thinking, to an exodus of friends and colleagues to the West does not necessarily have to result in depression and despair. Wolf's example shows that an authoritarian regime can produce a level of stubborn resistance that is not to be described as either “revolt” or “adaptation.” The ultimate challenge for many writers who decided to stay were not the countless obstacles on a daily basis that made their life close to unbearable, but the willingness to uphold an ideal while watching its obvious deterioration. Wolf's popularity in the West rests on the way she combines something we have been deprived of for quite a while (ideal humanistic values and the belief in a better society) with something we know only too well (the breakdown of these very same values and the cultural attempts to cope with it).

This willingness to uphold an ideal accounts for what I describe as the elements of socialist realism in Wolf's writing. It can be seen as the last relic of a literary dogma in which the education of its readers was one of the main goals. Not only is the search for a social utopia an ongoing topic for Wolf, but it also provides us with—mostly female—exemplary protagonists, with models that represent human qualities of the noblest kind, such as strength and affirmation, truthfulness and reliability, trust and belief in moral values, and the willingness to make sacrifices for them. Contrary to dogmatic models, those protagonists are only vaguely related to the concept of the “positive hero.” They are heroic but also self-destructive and fraught with doubts, alienated from the rules and structures of the social organization of which they are a part. Their greatness, their heightened self-knowledge, and their moral integrity is partly self-defeating and their belief in a greater common good has not yet been realized. Constantly in conflict with the surrounding norms, they are not heroes or heroines because they support the respective state but, rather, because they subvert and boycott it. No wonder, in most cases, their lives end with an early death.

In a twofold move, what remains of socialist realism turns against it. The possible exemplary, representative character of her protagonists is not what primarily interests Wolf; rather their very individual features and particularities, psychological as well as historical. And by confronting them with repressive state structures (the GDR in The Quest for Christa T., the Prussian state and Napoleon in No Place on Earth, Troy at the time of the Greek siege in Cassandra) these characters have no option other than to fail. They endanger not only the notion of the socialist positive hero/ine but also the utopia they represent. As a result, we are left with the rather uncomfortable question of whether Wolf wants to convince us of the reality of a heroic subject or whether she dissolves it in front of our eyes.

Given that many of her protagonists, especially the female ones, are partly to be identified with the author herself, it should be clear that Wolf's position towards the state (be it the communist or any state) is not to be understood in simple either-or-designations. To talk about her in terms of “supporter of the system” versus “enemy of the system,” of “communist” versus “anti-communist,” can do nothing but totally miss the point of her writing.

Wolf is writing about—and from the place of—an “in-between”: “In this other language, which rings in my ear but is not yet on my tongue, some day will I be able to talk about it. Today, as I knew, it would still be too early” (Was bleibt 7).9 She locates herself in between times and in between language(s), tries to bring into words what has not yet been said, thereby relating the unrelatable, admitting to contradictions, dismissing the all too well-known solutions. It is the metaphor of the “third way” which we have to employ in order to somehow understand what her enterprise is all about: a way of thinking, a quest for another language, a pattern of political practice that goes beyond simple oppositions like West/East, right/left, good/bad, right/wrong, male/female. “Nevertheless, was there something that we had been instinctively seeking when the wrong options forced us into a tight squeeze: a third thing? Between black and white. Just and unjust. Friend and enemy—simply living?” (Sommerstück 73).

Wolf appears to use the metaphor “living” or “life” for any form of “undividedness” but also for the space in-between these necessarily limiting oppositions. It functions as an attempt to escape rigid and excluding thought patterns, as the expression of a desire for an integrative force as well as for the unknown and unsaid, for what remains absent between the familiarity of words and sentences, for what gets sacrificed between the major political ideologies. As exemplified by the citation above, Wolf shows a profound rejection of allegedly self-evident hierarchies and orders, given that the price we pay for these hierarchies and orders is nothing less than life itself.

Applying this to the question of Wolf's relationship to communism, it can be said that her problem is not the communist regime, and the solution is not Western democracy. To place her in either of the two would mean to miss the “third thing.” What the reader finds in Wolf's writings is neither a program nor a solution, it is another “in-between”: the realm between death and utopia.


Wolf does not call herself a feminist nor would I provide her with this label. Nevertheless it cannot be overlooked that the problems discussed above are developed in, and from, a gendered space. It is no coincidence that Wolf's most impressive self-seeking individuals are women. It is also no coincidence that these female figures become the carriers of the voice of the author. A direct line can be drawn from Christa T. to Günderrode to Cassandra and to Wolf herself. In order to find out what is remarkable about these heroines, especially about Cassandra, a brief general account of some philosophical features of the contemporary feminist debate is necessary.

If one wants to characterize the original theoretical foundations of the women's movement during the seventies, the key term is without doubt “equality.” Developed within the tradition of Enlightenment philosophy and liberal theory, the goal of this approach has been to extend the notion of the free and rational subject of the emancipatory Enlightenment program to women, thereby guaranteeing them the same rights and liberties traditionally assigned only to men.

In the wake of postmodern theories, the gender question has become intrinsically linked with the project of a fundamental cultural critique, establishing a very different line within the feminist debate. According to this approach, primarily represented through French feminist writers such as Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, or Hélene Cixous, the very notion of rationality, prevalent throughout the entire Western theoretical tradition, is to be identified with masculinity. Its hierarchical structuring in complementary and binary oppositions (good/bad, right/wrong, light/dark, rational/emotional, mind/body, culture/nature, male/female …) clearly associates the less-valued part with the female, thereby providing a dichotomous structure that systematically assigns woman the space of the “Other”—silenced, outside, unaccounted for, and radically different from man. Accordingly, the free and rational subject of the Enlightenment tradition, unique, self-identical and distinct from other selves and from the world, in control of its own acting, capable of producing true meaning, and clearly positioned within the process of history, is necessarily inapplicable to woman and needs to be fundamentally dismantled.

The alternative offered by postmodern theories is a fragmented, dispersed, and decentered “self,” a point of intersection for unconscious drives, bodily functions, power structures, and constantly changing configurations of linguistic signs. Postmodern feminist writers consider only this notion of a “self” as an adequate framework for the theoretical localization of the female, making obvious the close link between male cultural achievements such as scientific progress, theoretical certainty, or social order and the repression, exclusion, exploitation, and marginalization of woman.

Thus, we are currently dealing with two very distinct notions of a female subject: one derived from Enlightenment concepts of emancipation and equality and remaining within the traditional notions of rationality; the other accounting for a dispersed, decentered, fragmented “self,” a drive-dominated bundle of body-functions, producing constantly changing multidimensional meanings.10

Reading Wolf with this background it is my claim that she provides us with a type of female subject that cuts across or employs elements of both the models described above. Love calls this “the creative tension between the implicitly deconstructive and the explicitly assertive impulses in Wolf's treatment of ‘the subject’” (3). Although applicable also to the literary figures of Christa T. and Günderrode, most clearly these features can be shown for Cassandra. Furthermore, Cassandra is the most elaborate account of Wolf's position with respect to feminism.


It seems obvious that the aforementioned concept of the “positive hero,” typical for socialist realism, is to be related to the Enlightenment notion of the human subject. This exemplary character can function in the appropriate manner only if provided with reason and the freedom to act and decide on the grounds of this reason. To value the common good more highly than individual interests necessarily requires a process of desensualization and the capacity to control immediate demands and desires. Cassandra, in some respects, fulfills exactly these criteria.

There is no doubt about her rationality: “Now I can put to use a skill I have practiced all my life: to conquer my feelings by thought” (8). She is conscious of the distinctions surrounding her and, accordingly, her thinking operates within dichotomous categories (Trojans/Greeks, rulers/subordinates, emotion/thought, women/men, right/wrong, friend/enemy). Only eventually will she start to question these categories.

As daughter of the king, she is part of the dominant power structure, aware of the state laws, of the laws of her father, and up to a certain point acts in accordance with them. As one of the women puts it, she has always been driven back and forth between her “inclination to conform with those in power” and her “craving for knowledge” (62–63). Becoming a seer satisfies both of these tendencies and turns her urge to know and her uncompromising search for truth into a professional obligation. Choosing a strictly “male” profession can be interpreted as an attempt to go her own way, as a sign of her independence and autonomy. The price she pays, however, is the denial of her gender role (28; Conditions 153),11 a deterioration in her relationship to her beloved father, and the social role of an outsider who is more feared than respected.

Her entire narrative can be described as a process of finding oneself (Selbstfindung). She is presented as a heroine with almost classical features, true to herself, even if it costs her life. That no one wants to hear her does not force her to change her message but leads to a withdrawal into her inner self. As Sigrid Weigl says, “Cassandra's objective failure gets reconciled through her inner moral victory” (183) and so “she becomes an exemplary figure for inner independence and superiority” (181). The last, the final truth, Cassandra tells to herself (and to the reader), transcending the necessities of factual reality into the higher realm of untouchable moral integrity.

This view of Cassandra can be traced to the programmatic prescriptions of socialist realism. No doubt, Wolf distorts these prescriptions, moving the struggle of the individual into the foreground. Nevertheless Cassandra's goal is as utopian as the realization of communist society: “I lived on to experience the happiness of becoming myself and being more useful to others because of it” (12). The description of this experience is somehow beyond time and space and also outside of the actual narrative; it is less a goal that Cassandra has reached than one she offers. And this goal is intrinsically linked with self-change and self-realization, with the intentional attempt to improve oneself in order to serve an altruistic aim. In times like ours, such features seem somehow old-fashioned and anachronistic. One is lead to ask with astonishment: does she mean this seriously? Yes, Wolf does. Like Cassandra, she has a task to fulfill.

The goal for both Wolf and Cassandra is not only to speak the truth about the predictable fate of Troy, of the GDR, and of the world in general. The goal is also to step outside of history in order to provide us with an ahistorical ideal, an ideal that goes far beyond any realization within a given society in history. Cassandra knows that she has no place in her time; the ideal she represents is from a past time as well as from a time still to come. Her time is the time of the hero, of the fable, of male rationality, of war and victory. She can only set against this a female utopia, based on pre-history, a narrative of the events told from the woman's point of view, her death as the ultimate symbol for denying the present.

Given the chance to escape an otherwise unavoidable death by leaving with her lover Aeneas, Cassandra resists, discovering that he too, like the others, is in danger of becoming part of “real” history. “You, Aeneas, had no choice: … ‘Soon, very soon, you will have to become a hero.’ … I cannot love a hero. I do not want to see you being transformed into a statue. … You knew as well as I did that we have no chance against a time that needs heroes” (136).


This account of the narrative as told by the exemplary heroine who sacrifices herself rather than forswearing her beliefs is just one side of Cassandra/Wolf. There is another subjectivity, another side to Cassandra, and another view on the events surrounding the fall of Troy; moreover, there exists another text, Wolf's Conditions of a Narrative: Cassandra, which is a series of lectures she gave at the University of Frankfurt in 198212 on the process of writing Cassandra. There are elements in the Cassandra enterprise that resemble some of the most important features of the second notion of subjectivity, the one I called postmodern. Of course, just as I do not call Wolf a feminist, I also do not call her a postmodernist. However, Wolf's dealing with the Cassandra material, her style, her own reflections, point in a direction that contradicts, intertwines with, goes beyond the ideal-guided perception of the events. Wolf creates a web of two different versions of female subjectivity that exist next to each other, affect each other, challenge and question each other, and thereby produce a notion of woman that is—at least in my account—very original and hardly to be found anywhere else within the current feminist debate.

There is ample evidence in the text that undermines the conceptualization of Cassandra as an ideal classical heroine. First and most important, Cassandra's voice is not heard. Holding on to this central feature of the original myth, Wolf's narrative of Cassandra's ordeal can be read as a statement on the female voice in general. This voice does not have a place within the male parameters of domination, suppression, war, and victory. Its scattered and shrieking expressions are not considered as conveyers of meaning. The outbursts and convulsions of the female body not only cause fear and resistance, they are taken as clear indications of Cassandra's insanity and serve to justify the disregarding of her message. Irigaray's account of the speech of the hysterical woman reads like a description of what happens to Cassandra: “What she ‘suffers,’ what she ‘lusts for,’ even what she ‘takes pleasure in,’ all take place upon another stage, in relation to already codified representations” (140).

But contrary not only to previous treatments of the Cassandra figure but also to a historical development that denied women linguistic representation, Wolf reinserts the female voice into history. In her account the events are told from Cassandra's perspective. The tale we read, narrated in her own words, is a detailed account of the very process that lead up to the silencing of the female voice. Furthermore, as Heidi Gilpin points out in her investigation of the female voice in Cassandra, due to Wolf's narrative techniques, her use of an open literary form and a combination of fiction and essay, Cassandra's words become “a communal female voice,” “a female voice of past and present” (360).13

Again, the features of this voice bear close connections to a psychoanalytically based postmodern notion of the subject. Cassandra's words are not always the product of a conscious, deliberate, rational process; they are not codified, they do not follow a linear narrative order, they are memory traces of conscious evaluations of the situation as much as of bodily states, dreams, and revelatory insights. At crucial points, when she delivers her warnings, it is not she who is speaking, it is something in her, through her: “Until finally the dreadful torment took the form of a voice; forced its way out of me, through me, dismembering me as it went; and set itself free” (59). This voice that finds its way through her body renders her a pure medium for the expression of meanings unknown and inaccessible even to herself; in a different context it might simply be viewed as the Freudian unconscious. Or to phrase it in the words of Lacan: “… it is not only man who speaks, but that in man and through man it speaks [ça parle] …” (284). And what she took for freedom and autonomy—mainly represented in her decision to become a priestess and seer—is actually a product of unknown forces, a task others had decided for her: “What if that, too, is prescribed? What if that, too, is worked by strings that are out of my hands …” (23).

The further the events progress, the more Cassandra is willing to discover and accept unknown sides of herself and of the environment surrounding her. Crucial for this process is her own location between two distinct social groups. As daughter of the king she is a member of the ruling class inside the city walls. The progressing deterioration of this context causes her to search for alternative explanations of the events, for another type of social community. She moves more and more towards the women's community outside the city, to the river, the mountains and caves. This move from the center to the periphery dislocates her; she finds herself alienated from her royal origins but also incapable of becoming a fully accepted member of the women's community. In her constant movement back and forth between those two social settings, she actually occupies a space in between them. A stranger to both, she nevertheless profits from having access to not only contradictory social arrangements and values, but also contradictory views of reality. The “truth” Cassandra knows is partly revealed through her position in a space not clearly defined and circumscribed.

More precisely, it is the contact with the female community outside the city walls which undermines the traditional notion of the subject, a notion Cassandra conforms to as much as she questions it. The very process of becoming a subject is viewed in terms of repression, force, and self-denial, resembling notions of the (female) subject found in postmodern feminist theories. The heroic Cassandra who engages in a process of Selbstfindung, and who voluntarily chooses death in order not to betray her ideals and values, is only one side of the character. There is also her awareness of a split, an awareness of the pain it takes to become this unique, heroic subject she would like to be. Wolf about Cassandra:

Is it possible to conceive of beings endowed with reason who do not know how contemporary man is divided into body/soul/mind, who cannot understand this division? Cassandra experiences this divisive operation alive and in the flesh. That is, there are actual forces in her environment which, as the need arises, require of her a denial of part of herself. She learns techniques to deaden emotion. … So, is pain the point at which I assimilate her, a particular kind of pain, the pain of becoming a knowing subject?

(Conditions 230)

However, Cassandra will find out that knowledge based on pain and denial provides access only to a limited view of reality, that it opens up a truth which hides as much as it reveals. The further the events progress, the more Cassandra replaces a certainty of knowledge and a stable subject position with a new notion of truth and reality. She engages in the ritual dances performed by the women in their cave, perceives her body not only as subordinate to her mind but as a means of gaining knowledge of aspects of reality otherwise unknown, and sets free what was supposed to be repressed and denied. In her article on the connections between Wolf and Ingeborg Bachmann, Sara Lennox points out that Wolf was particularly interested in Bachmann's “struggle to formulate a different epistemology, to articulate a different model for truth” (129). And Wolf herself when talking about the impact of the Cassandra material on her, admits in the fourth lecture: “When I try to realize what is happening, what has happened, I find that … there has been an expansion of what for me is ‘real’” (Conditions 278).14

But the most crucial aspect, if one wants to interpret Cassandra from a postmodern feminist point of view, is Wolf's equation of Western tradition with male tradition. The transition from Trojan culture to Hellenism, symbolized in the final fall of Troy, presents a shift from mother-oriented societies based on the communicative power of words and a sensual account of reality to a patriarchal order.15 The implications of this shift, as viewed by Wolf, are a strictly hierarchical order of thinking, a detachment from nature, a rule-guided and closely watched social and political life, new exchange-systems, the replacement of a divinely protected royal power with bureaucracy, the establishment of “defeat” and “victory” as primary political categories. It is the replacement of images by words, the final silencing of the voice in favor of the domination of writing, the rise of a concept of knowing based on a restricted notion of reason. In short, it is the beginning of the devaluation of the female and the rise of the male hero.

“To learn through suffering”—this seems to be the law of the new gods, and likewise the way of masculine thought. This way does not seek to love Mother Nature but to fathom her secrets in order to dominate her, and to erect the astounding structure of a world of mind remote from nature, from which women are henceforth excluded.

(Conditions 216)

To view the fall of Troy as the starting point for a particular kind of reasoning, as the origin of all our cultural and political values, means ignoring the brutal circumstances of the transition and the establishment of violence in different shapes and forms as cultural and political regulator. In Wolf's account, the alleged progress commonly associated with the beginning of Greek civilization is the beginning of a time of systematic war and destruction as political tools, of reason based on repression and exclusion, of hierarchies engraved into our minds and bodies. It is the time of men, our time, the time of the Greeks, of socialism, of capitalism alike. It is the time that needed to make women into victims and objects, into pictures and war prizes.

However, it would be wrong to assume that the counterpart, the positive alternative to the restrictions and dehumanized values of patriarchal time, is the period before the transition. We cannot simply turn back to the unknown past of a women- and mother-oriented community and inject it with utopian dimensions. Rather, the search for a less destructive and less misogynistic future has to develop along the narrow path between the “caves” of our foremothers and the non-distorted Enlightenment ideal of subjectivity and reason. In Love's words:

… Wolf is not simply positing a positive matriarchal prehistory … as a contrast to the negative abstraction of contemporary “delusionary thinking.” Instead she locates in the image of the cult and in the ecstatic rituals attendant upon it … a utopian moment repressed in the course of the development of western civilization, which cannot, however, simply be redeemed from oblivion as is, but must be rescued from its self-estrangement … through an act of conscious interpretation and contextualization, that is, an act of mediation between what has been repressed and the very development of consciousness that enforced its repression.


Again, while Cassandra aspires to freedom, autonomy, and self-determination, she also engages in a way of knowing, a use of language and an approach to others that undermines this very freedom and autonomy. That is, she holds a male position but suffers as a woman. Within her, past and present intersect; thereby she is able not only to “see” the future but also to offer a utopian vision derived from female prehistory and from a female response to a male present. Furthermore, Cassandra's ambiguous position allows for a traditional as well as a postmodern reading of the figure. In the narrative this is most clearly represented by her constant shifting between two forms of social reality and by her attempts to find a “third way,” a “third way” that is not to be realized during the time of the hero, but is nevertheless a perspective for a future to come. “The third alternative constitutes the utopian content of Kassandra” (Love 153).

For the Greeks there is no alternative but either truth or lies, right or wrong, victory or defeat, friend or enemy, life or death. They think differently than we do. What cannot be seen, smelled, heard, touched, does not exist. It is the other alternative that they crush between their clear-cut distinctions, the third alternative, which in their view does not exist, the smiling vital force that is able to generate itself from itself over and over: the undivided, spirit in life, life in spirit.

(Cassandra 106–07)

The question however remains, who is this “we”? Women? The Trojans? A culture simply different from ours? An earlier one? Or anyone who—like the author of these lines—wants to raise a voice against artificial but powerful divisions, against a “spirit” that a long time ago separated itself from what it means “to live”? Anyone who cannot find a place within the given social systems, within structures of thinking that force us to forget parts of ourselves, within a language that is not heard if we speak between the established signs?


Turning from what has been said about Cassandra to Wolf herself, the resemblances between the literary figure and its author become evident. Just like Cassandra, Wolf situates herself between two distinct political orders, between two ways of perceiving reality, between a “female” and a “male” point of view. Just like Cassandra, the author undermines the clearly identifiable historical position from which she talks by intertwining past and future. Neither Cassandra's heroic move towards death nor Wolf's upholding of a utopian communist ideal can be understood without taking into account a knowledge of a bygone past: the women's culture in the case of Cassandra, the probable enthusiasm for the program of a perfect society right after the breakdown of fascism in the case of Wolf. Just as Cassandra's voice is not heard, so the attacks on Wolf can be interpreted as attempts to silence her,16 thereby fighting off the gloomy outlook both of them offer, as well as the threatening ideal that continues to shine.

In both cases, Wolf's and Cassandra's, the oppressive reality, as well as the ambiguity of their situation, creates a highly contradictory condition for expressing their voices: the truths they know are bound to the untruth surrounding them; the human values they offer as the foundation for a better life can be directly correlated to a progressing dehumanization of the system in which they live; the subtlety of their linguistic subversion needs the blunt clumsiness of a clear cut either-or-ideology as contrast.

If we include into our considerations Wolf's Frankfurt Lectures (Conditions) on the Cassandra material, it is apparent that the author's voice ultimately becomes that of her protagonist. Reading the two texts in parallel we are confronted with two reflexive narratives, both presented by a female voice, and both describing the fulfillment of a task that is half chosen, and is half forcing itself on the narrator. Using a deconstructive Derridean approach, Laurie Melissa Vogelsang shows how Wolf inverts the hierarchical relationship between author and literary creation, between herself as subject and Cassandra as object of the narrative. With this move Wolf not only manages to question the position of the author but she also admits that the narrated material has a dynamics of its own. As if she herself as author were just part of an interplay between texts—texts she read and texts she wrote.

What we have here is an object—the figure of Cassandra—capable of possessing, controlling, seeing. Christa Wolf discovers and demonstrates in the object these characteristics, which one traditionally associates with the subject and through which the subject reigns superior over the object. Conversely, the author-subject is affected, shaped, and changed by her encounter with the material for a story. … By inverting the binary opposition, Wolf undermines the traditional conception of subject and object.

(Vogelsang 370–71)

Furthermore, reading Wolf/Cassandra from a feminist perspective clearly shows that her interpretation of history diminishes the distinctions between Western democracy and any form of communist rule. The shift established with the fall of Troy is the beginning of a notion of rationality as opposed to senses, emotions, and bodies. It is a rationality that at least since Plato and Aristotle is associated with maleness, its manifestations and signs are accessible to men only. In a next step, the modern concept of a human subject is built on this particular account of rationality, perpetuating and affirming the old exclusions and oppositions, thereby further rendering women, not only incapable of reason, but of gaining subject status at all.

And it is this very same concept of the enlightened, rational male subject that functions as the foundation for both the political systems under debate here. The various liberal forms of state protected private rights and private properties presuppose it just as much as the final goal of a classless society. The freedom and equality the one system claims to have reached already exists in the other one as an utopian program only. Nevertheless, both cases require independent, self-conscious, responsible individuals, capable of controlling themselves and the world around them. Violence and physical force are accepted as legitimate means of dealing with conflicts; and woman as the “Other” is manipulated into purely complementary functions, designed along the needs of male rationality and productivity, and used to reinforce—in a reversed move—systems of thought and political organization upon which she has never decided.

Given these conditions it should not be surprising that on the practical level definitions of maleness do not differ all that much between the West and the East. “Heroes” in Wolf's or Cassandra's sense are to be found on both sides of the now eliminated border. Both systems originate in male-designed theories, and were established, consolidated, and executed by men. The participation of women in the various processes of political decision-making was and still is insignificant. Gender relationships in the West and in the East are regulated through the distinction of private and public, through a sophisticated division of labor along gender lines,17 and gender-bound clusters of complementary psychological traits and sets of behavior. Patriarchy, in the broadest sense of its meaning, does not know borders, cultural distinctions, historical periods. As Mary Daly has said: “Patriarchy appears to be ‘everywhere.’ Even outer space and the future have been colonized” (1).

This reading of Wolf, as offered here, does not serve to excuse her failure to speak out against the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia or Afghanistan; nor can it fully explain why various representatives of Western self-righteousness chose her as the first target. This reading serves to show that part of her alleged loyalty to a system that in the meantime had discredited itself was not so much a matter of loyalty but of ambiguity.

Wolf's vulnerability sprang from her absolute unwillingness to fit into established patterns of classification and judgement. Yes, she held on to the ideal of a more human society, but some of her protagonists, chosen to represent this ideal, had to die. Yes, she did not speak out against many of the offenses committed by the GDR regime or the Soviet Union, but she did not hesitate to address crimes of a larger scale. Yes, she published Was bleibt too late to use it as proof of her victimization by the state, but it is exactly this book which offers a merciless analysis and scrutiny of the factual and mental conditions underlying the female narrator's hesitancy to risk open conflict as well as her willingness to compromise (see Anz 23–25).

It should be clear that the refusal to take a unique position seems quite appropriate in times where clear criteria for right/wrong or good/bad are vanishing. Being familiar with the recent feminist discourse, and knowing what it means to be a woman writer within a male-dominated literary establishment,18 might account for elements in Wolf's writing that bring her close to theoretical developments in the West. Ambiguity, multi-dimensional levels of meaning, and the expression of contradictions are not only signs of opportunism and a lack of position. Within a postmodern framework of thought they can be options for a textual treatment of reality. Explaining her “failure” to offer her own poetics, Wolf herself uses the term fabric (Gewebe) to characterize what the Cassandra project is all about:

I want to set a fabric before you. It is an aesthetic structure, and as such it would lie at the center of my poetics if I had one. But this fabric which I want to display to you now did not turn out completely tidy, is not surveyable at one glance. Many of its motifs are not followed up, many of its threads are tangled.

(Conditions 141–42)

A similar approach is to be found in Wolf's account of the West's tradition in terms of a web or network rather than of clearly circumscribed “truths”:

It is the feeling that everything is fundamentally related; and that the strictly one-track-minded approach—the extraction of a single “skein” for purposes of narration and study—damages the entire fabric, including the “skein.” Yet to put it in simplified terms, this one-track-minded route is the one that has been followed by Western thought: the route of segregation, of the renunciation of the manifoldness of phenomena, in favor of dualism and monism, in favor of closed systems and pictures of the world; of the renunciation of subjectivity in favor of a sealed “objectivity.”

(Conditions 287)

Wolf's attempt to escape a one-dimensional, unified and pre-coded position moves her far beyond the somewhat limited thought patterns of her critics. Presenting democracy as “better” follows the same erroneous pattern as aiming for the ideal of the classless society. West German critics attacking Wolf for her lack of an anti-communist stand are as much out of touch with the actual state of the world as communist hard-liners who defend their own corruption by referring to a notion of “common good.” Using the breakdown of communism to diminish the problems of the West is as unsatisfying as the tendency of mainly West German intellectuals to idealize a system with obvious massive deficiencies. This is not to take a relativistic stand but to point out that positioning oneself morally and politically is not as easy as some of Wolf's critics would make it seem to be.

By admitting ambiguity, by acknowledging contradictory forces, on the individual as well as on the political level, by creating protagonists who go in different directions rather than on one straight path, Wolf escapes the pretentious and outdated attitude of those who claim to have knowledge of a “good society,” of a politically correct cultural production, of a truth about human existence. But contrary to what could be called a Western postmodern position, she admits to the phenomena of the difficulty to live without ideals of a better world, with contradictions only, with hope turned into some laughable relict from the past. The postmodern account of our state of being, with its dissolution of any form of center and stability, creates enormous desires for what is allegedly lost forever: true knowledge, the idea of a good society, the reliance on ourselves as free, autonomous subjects. To combine those two and call it “life” or “living” is what in my view Wolf's metaphor of the “third way” stands for.

The old borders were established along geographical lines. They fell, and a new map of Europe becomes necessary. If there are to be new borders at all, they will be more subtle. They might—on the grounds of political and economic superiority—establish a division between “politically right” and “politically wrong” literature, between true and false knowledge, between “us” as the “One” and “them” as the “Other.” If this becomes the case, it will, in a frightening way, resemble the relationship between the Trojans and the Greeks as Wolf presents it in Cassandra. Cassandra's prediction at the end of her narrative has by now become an all too true reality: “The new masters would dictate their law to all the survivors. The earth was not large enough to escape them” (138).

GDR literature is already history. Neither Christa Wolf nor her colleagues will be able to continue writing as they did in the past. But in order to go on at all, they will have to use as a starting point the tradition they themselves established, without being directed by West German critics. Perhaps then, at least within the literary framework, there is a chance for the “third way” which, however briefly, appeared on the horizon in the fall of 1989.


  1. This paper is a revised version of a talk given at the sixteenth annual meeting of the International Association for Philosophy and Literature (IAPL) at the Université de Montreal, 16–18 May 1991. I want to thank Valerie Parks and Astrid Wimmer for their suggestions and comments on the final draft of this manuscript.

  2. Direct reference is limited here to some of the earliest and most influential articles, specifically these by Greiner, Schirrmacher, and Karasek. Any translations from these articles are my own. For a detailed discussion and a chronological listing of all the contributions involved in the debate, see Anz.

  3. The Socialist Unity Party was the communist party of the former GDR.

  4. Syberberg, a filmmaker and writer, is an elitist “neo-aristocrat” and self-acclaimed rescuer of German culture and tradition, whose work can most aptly be described as high-culture Kitsch. His political views show strong elements of a fascist ideology—his longing for the recreation of a superior race of men, his obsession with German roots and the German Volk. What distinguishes him from fascism, however, is an absolute dislike of any form of mass movement. The alleged similarities between Syberberg and Wolf which Buruma points out range from their search for a utopia and a critical attitude towards the U.S. and liberal democracy, to a fascination for the German Romantics and the mourning over the loss of “Heimat.” The respective attachments of both artists stem from different reasons; these reasons, however, are not accounted for in the article. Furthermore, Wolf's relevance for feminism is not discussed at all.

  5. In a 1987 article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, one of the most influential literary critics in West Germany, had already characterized Wolf as “provincial,” “garrulous,” “the German writer with the least humor,” and “modest in her artistic and intellectual possibilities.” A review of the English translation of Cassandra written in 1984 by Mary Lefkowitz for the New York Times Book Review also shows a rather critical approach to Wolf. However, contrary to the more recent attacks on Wolf, Lefkowitz criticizes the author solely on the grounds of her text and not with respect to her moral and political correctness.

  6. For a discussion of the debate with respect to the position of German intellectuals, see Huyssen. Also see the anthology by Deiritz and Krauss for a reflection on this “Literaturstreit” and a recent article in the New York Times Magazine by Hafner on the current state of affairs of GDR literature.

  7. The term “third way,” in its political sense, was used in the period between the fall of 1989 and the reunification on 3 Oct. 1990, to indicate a political position that was critical of the country's communist past but did not see the solution for the GDR in a unification with the Federal Republic and an adaption to its party systems. The slogan most popular for the “third way” was “Socialism with a human face,” understood as a return to the original socialist ideal before its distortions through communist reality. This position was taken by a variety of mostly intellectual opposition groups who were, from the beginning, in the minority. Thus it came as no great surprise that the majority of the GDR population, in its first general election on 18 Mar. 1990, opted for a government in favor of unification as soon as possible, thereby not destroying the idea of the “third way” but diminishing its political significance.

  8. This disclosure will surely be seen—not only by her critics—as another indication of her opportunism and willingness to cooperate with the regime. However, it should be remembered that her service for the secret police ended in 1962 and after this she herself became the target of its surveillance. See the following articles with respect to Wolf's activities in the GDR secret police: Anonymous, Raddatz, Demetz, and Gitlin. The occasion for the last two articles was the English translation of two books by Wolf, including Was bleibt: What Remains and Other Stories and The Author's Dimension.

  9. Quotes from Wolf's narrative Was bleibt and the novel Sommerstück are my own translations.

  10. This rather schematic presentation of two different feminist notions of the female subject shall not deny any attempts to connect those two approaches. See, for example: Braidotti, Hirsch and Keller, Nagl-Docekal, and Nicholson.

  11. In the English translation the novel Cassandra and the lectures Wolf gave on the Cassandra material in May 1982 at the University of Frankfurt, entitled Conditions of a Narrative: Cassandra, are published in one volume. Conditions of a Narrative: Cassandra is referred to as “Four Essays” in the title of the English translation. The references here are from the novel Cassandra and Conditions of a Narrative: Cassandra, respectively. Neither the West German nor the English edition follow the order of Wolf's lectures which included a draft of the Cassandra narrative as the fifth and final part.

  12. See note 11.

  13. On the topic of a female voice see also Neumann.

  14. Lennox discusses this issue of Wolf's own change of perspective at length (143).

  15. Again, a resemblance between Wolf's position and Irigaray's psychoanalytic approach can be noted here. Irigaray's theory is built on the claim that Western tradition owes its alleged progress to a forgetting and repression of our origin, of the body of the mother. In Irigaray's view, any form of female liberation has to acquire and rediscover this origin. See Irigaray (in particular her reading of Plato's cave allegory in the section “Plato's Hysteria,” 241–364).

  16. Apart from a collection of speeches and interviews, given in late 1988 and throughout 1989 and published shortly before Was bleibt, Wolf did not publish anything since 1990. See Wolf, Im Dialog.

  17. This does not deny the equal participation of women in the labor force in socialist countries. Nevertheless, this equality did not prevent exclusive female responsibility for household and child raising tasks.

  18. Nearly all the original participants in this debate were male, Wolf's accusers as well as her defenders. Is this the repetition of a very old pattern: a woman used as a battlefield for sorting out male conflicts?

Works Cited

Anonymous. “The Ängstliche Margarete.” Der Spiegel 25 Jan. 1993: 158–65.

Anz, Thomas, ed. “Es geht nicht um Christa Wolf.” Der Literaturstreit im vereinten Deutschland. Munich: spangenberg, 1991.

Braidotti, Rosi. Patterns of Dissonance: A Study of Women and Contemporary Philosophy. Trans. Elizabeth Guild. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Buruma, Ian. “There's No Place like Heimat.” New York Review of Books 20 Dec. 1990: 34–43.

Daly, Mary. Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Boston: Beacon, 1978.

Deiritz, Karl, and Hannes Krauss, eds. Der deutsch-deutsche Literaturstreit oder “Freunde, es spricht sich schlecht mit gebundener Zunge.” Analysen und Materialien. Hamburg: Luchterhand, 1991.

Demetz, Peter. “The High Cost of a Dream.” New York Times Book Review 4 Apr. 1993: 1–19.

Fries, Marilyn Sibley, ed. Responses to Christa Wolf: Critical Essays. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1989.

Gilpin, Heidi. “Cassandra: Creating a Female Voice.” Fries 349–66.

Gitlin, Todd. “‘I Did Not Imagine That I Lived in Truth.’” New York Times Book Review 4 Apr. 1993: 1–29.

Greiner, Ulrich. “Mangel an Feingefühl.” Die Zeit 1 June 1990: 63.

Hafner, Katie. “A Nation of Readers Dumps its Writers.” New York Times Magazine 10 Jan. 1993: 22–48.

Hirsch, Marianne, and Evelyn Fox Keller, eds. Conflicts in Feminism. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Huyssen, Andreas. “After the Wall: The Fall of German Intellectuals.” New German Critique 52 (1991): 109–43.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Karasek, Hellmuth. “‘Selbstgemachte Konfitüre.’ Spiegel-Redakteur Hellmuth Karasek über die Diskussion um Christa Wolfs Erzählung ‘Was bleibt.’” Der Spiegel 25 June 1990: 162–66.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock, 1977.

Lefkowitz, Mary. “Can't Fool Her.” Rev. of the English translation of Cassandra.New York Times Book Review 9 Sept. 1984: 20.

Lennox, Sara. “Christa Wolf and Ingeborg Bachmann: Difficulties of Writing the Truth.” Fries 128–48.

Love, Myra N. Christa Wolf: Literature and the Conscience of History. DDR-Studien/East German Studies. New York: Lang, 1991.

Nagl-Docekal, Herta, ed. Feministische Philosophie. Vienna: Oldenbourg, 1990.

Neumann, Gerhard. “Christa Wolf: Kassandra. Die Archäologie der weiblichen Stimme.” Erinnerte Zukunft. 11 Studien zum Werk Christa Wolfs. Ed. Wolfram Mauser. Würzburg: Königshausen, 1985. 233–64.

Nicholson, Linda, ed. Feminism/Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Raddatz, Fritz J. “Von der Beschädigung der Literatur durch ihre Urheber. Bemerkungen zu Heiner Müller und Christa Wolf.” Die Zeit 5 Feb. 1993: 17–18.

Reich-Ranicki, Marcel. “Macht Verfolgung kreativ.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 12 Nov. 1987: 25.

Schirrmacher, Frank. “‘Dem Druck des härteren, strengeren Lebens standhalten.’ Auch eine Studie Über den autoritären Charakter: Christa Wolfs Aufsätze, Reden und ihre jüngste Erzählung ‘Was bleibt.’” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2 June 1990, supplement: 5.

Steinert, Hajo. “Vermeintliche Atmosphäre der Bedrohung. ‘Was bleibt,’ die neue Erzählung der DDR-Autorin Christa Wolf: Für diese Prosa ist alles zu spät.” Die Weltwoche 14 June 1990: 57.

Vogelsang, Laurie Melissa. “Killa's Tertium: Christa Wolf and Cassandra.” Fries 367–77.

Weigl, Sigrid. “Vom Sehen zur Seherin. Christa Wolfs Umdeutung des Mythos und die Spur der Bachmann Rezeption in ihrer Literatur.” Christa Wolf. Ein Arbeitsbuch. Studien—Dokumente—Bibliographie. Ed. Angela Drescher. Weimar: Aufbau, 1989. 169–203.

Wolf, Christa. The Author's Dimension. Trans. Heike Schwarzbauer and Rick Takvorian. New York: Farrar, 1993.

———. Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays. Trans. Jan van Heurck. New York: Farrar, 1984.

———. “Conditions of a Narrative: Cassandra.” Cassandra 139–305.

———. Im Dialog: Aktuelle Texte. Frankfurt A. M.: Luchterhand, 1990. Also published as Reden im Herbst. Berlin: Aufbau, 1990.

———. No Place on Earth. Trans. Jan van Heurck. New York: Farrar, 1982.

———. The Quest for Christa T. Trans. Christopher Middleton. New York: Farrar, 1970.

———. Sommerstück. Frankfurt A. M.: Luchterhand, 1991.

———. Was bleibt. Frankfurt A. M.: Luchterhand, 1990.

———. What Remains and Other Stories. Trans. Jan van Heurck. Ed. Alexander Stephan. New York: Farrar, 1993.

Wilson Quarterly (review date Summer 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of What Remains and The Author's Dimension, in Wilson Quarterly, Vol. XVII, No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 90–91.

[In the following review of What Remains and The Author's Dimension, the critic finds Wolf's writings “dated” and tainted by her collaboration with East German authorities.]

These stories and essays by the former East Germany's most famous writer arrive here under a cloud: the recent revelation that from 1959 to 1962 Wolf was an Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (I.M.), an informal collaborator for the East German secret police, the dreaded Stasi. Suddenly Christa Wolf, who was once considered her country's dissident Joan of Arc, appears to be a quisling who slept with the enemy. With this knowledge, how should a reader respond to her novella What Remains, which evokes the life of a person living under constant Stasi surveillance?

Wolf recently said she fears “being reduced to these two letters”—I.M. Although Wolf did not confess her Stasi connection until police records were made public, those records suggest that the secret police found her ultimately of little use. Indeed, her role changed when she became the object of Stasi surveillance between 1969 and 1980. The year 1969 is significant. It was the year after the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, an event that caused many behind the Iron Curtain to rethink their positions on communism. Wolf, a strong believer in the possibilities of a true socialist state, retreated into her writing, trying to transcend through literature the evil she now suspected lay around her. She watched as other writers opted to leave, staying on herself, apparently deciding that it was better to try to change things from within the country, however muted her voice might become as a result of government censors.

Now that East Germany is no more, can it be said that Wolf chose wisely? Can her writing survive the dual cataclysm of that regime's collapse and the stain of her former collaboration?

The evidence of her nonfiction, collected in The Author's Dimension, suggests that it cannot. In a final essay written just three months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, her pain is evident: Wolf lobbied briefly for the creation of a postcommunist, democratic East German state; seeing her efforts frustrated, she abandoned her literary crusade, declaring that “the politicians and the economists have the floor now.” In earlier pieces, Wolf's insights are occasionally brilliant, but the effect of the whole is that of a dated, sometimes self-serving historical document. By contrast, the fiction in What Remains may outlive the situations that inspired it. The poignant story “June Afternoon,” for example, is intriguing precisely because it vividly brings to life a world that has passed out of our knowing. In it, the narrator is enjoying an idyllic afternoon in East Berlin, a peaceful moment that is interrupted by the sudden appearance of an American helicopter patrolling the border. Such intrusions, where the personal is forfeited to harsh social realities, are typical of Wolf's stories. The “forbidden fruit” her characters have eaten is not that of good and evil but the knowledge that they cannot escape living at a particular moment in history.

D. J. Enright (review date 2 July 1993)

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SOURCE: “A Bruised Loyalty,” in Times Literary Supplement, July 2, 1993, p. 11.

[In the following review, Enright offers a mixed assessment of What Remains and The Writer's Dimension.]

“Our uprising appears to have come years too late,” Christa Wolf lamented when receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Hildesheim (West Germany) in January 1990. That is, it should have come before things had grown too bad to be redeemed, and abuses of power had discredited the values in whose name the abuses were committed. No suggestion here that the values in any way condoned, let alone created, the abuses. In itself the East German uprising was fine, but what would happen next? “Our society” has had no time “to develop an immunity against the economic slogans of Western nations,” and many East Germans “are disoriented and are sinking into depression.” And what has happened to art? Books which “met with opposition” only a few months ago are now passé, because radical social criticism is coming straight from the public's mouth, and the theatres are half empty. But literature will still be called on to perform its eternal and ubiquitous task, “to investigate the blind spots in our past, and to accompany us into our changing future.” In short, business as usual; it is only prudent of writers to ensure their continued employment.

“We are the People” was a noble utterance, Wolf remarks a month later, in “Postscript to an Autumn,” but doubtfully so the second version: “We are One People.” Political loyalties, however inadequately rewarded, die hard. That West and East should come together after such bitter hostility had to be a good thing. That so little violence occurred during the process was undeniably good. Yet it was shocking that so many young East Germans should promptly walk out of the Democratic Republic, without saying anything and “laughing as they go.” It sounds as if they ought to have stopped and listened to Christa Wolf before tying up their bootlaces. They must have heard all too many speeches in their short lives. They wouldn't particularly care to be told (in words from “Postscript to an Autumn”) that “It's time to stand on the solid ground of facts. Only now the ground we stand on is in a different country. It is no small feat to do what we must do.” (A horrid pun, that, but only in English.) The politicians and economists, she wound up sorrowfully, need a fatherland for their enterprises, but “there is no motherland in sight, no more than before.”

Going back in time, the first piece in The Writer's Dimension is a contribution to the second Bitterfeld Conference, in 1964, on what had happened in or to socialist art since the first conference five years earlier. Wolf claimed that what was essential in this field became immediately apparent if you spent a few days in West Germany. There she spoke with young people waking up from the spell of the so-called economic miracle, who were “fed up with the shallow anti-Communism of their official propaganda” and all agog to know the truth about the GDR. She heard them singing satirical songs, including one against the police: “over there the police have to be notified about any demonstration, and accompany the demonstrators in jeeps at the front and rear.” They felt let down by West German literature, and they wanted books, not necessarily Communist, like those written in East Germany, about “the real everyday conflicts of young people, the daily life of millions, the vast theme of the worker in a highly developed industrial society. …” Wolf commented smugly that for art the advantages of East German society “lie in the fact that by nature it is tune with the objective laws of social development, with the objective interests of human beings.” A writer in love with the word “objective”!

Disagreements can arise later, she admits, when you come down to particulars. She cites a reporter commissioned to write a true story about a worthy leader of an engineering crew, a story perfect in every way except, it turned out, that the man was about to get a divorce and his son happened to be doing time for attempting to flee the country. Having no family life was not typical of socialist man, nor was having a criminal son, and there was no getting round these facts, well known to local people, so the story was scrapped, and the newspaper found another, more suitable crew leader to celebrate. The writer was paid, “so in that sense the thing ended peaceably,” but “just imagine two, three or four experiences like the one I just described and any writer would pack up his notebook and try his luck somewhere else.” It seems somewhat mild compared with the experiences of Akhmatova, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn. Couldn't Wolf have come up with something better (that is, worse)? The story could be held to show that in all endeavours some small price may have to be paid for the good of the greater number, that what is known to be imperfect must be preferred to what is perceived as wrong. A line of reasoning followed by capitalists, too. Yet it was courageous of her to say what she did, for its implications were not inconsiderable.

In the same conference paper she said, “I already knew that we have a responsibility for West Germany; now I feel responsible for particular people.” Being so conscientious a spokesperson, such an assiduous maker of speeches and statements, will have left its mark. Michael Hofmann describes her as “something like a tribune of the people, both within the system and against it” (London Review of Books, May 27). Nietzsche wrote that it isn't when telling the truth is dangerous that it lacks advocates, but when it is boring to do so. Wolf never finds it boring to tell what she sees as the truth. In 1984, she gave a lecture at a conference of the Work Group on Psychosomatic Gynaecology, a body “which I was amazed to find exists.” She launched briskly into a comparison of the words “psyche” and “soul,” the former more acceptable scientifically, the latter “meekly turned over to the arts,” and followed with a disquisition on gynaecology—where least of all should soma and psyche be separated—as historically reflecting a deep-seated male contempt for and fear of women. She has always earned her engagements. We have to admire such individuals, so convinced and unflagging in their beliefs: but admiration can wear thin.

The pieces on writers (which include protests against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann and the expulsion of Stefan Heym and others from the Writers’ Union) are a dense mixture of intimacy, pedantry and generosity, as it were superior guided tours of lives and works. Most notable is the essay on Karoline von Günderode, briefly noted in histories for her romantic poems and for stabbing herself to death in 1806 at the age of twenty-six when the man she loved finally decided to stay with his dull dependable wife. Wolf's advocacy is touching, but it all seems fearfully overwrought, and one sympathizes with Goethe (who gets a slap on the wrist) for averting his gaze and failing to make any comment at the time. “Existence is duty,” and you can't allow yourself to be dragged down by the miseries of others.

When in 1965, apropos of her young daughter's fantasy life as a princess in a magnificent castle, waited on by a horde of animals, Wolf explains that “It goes against her sense of social propriety to employ people as servants, even in her imagination,” it is hard to tell whether she is smiling. In her fiction she can be a trifle more humorous or at any rate less earnest. “What is it that urges the true author to speak of the most dangerous things again and again?” asks the cat Max in “The New Life and Opinions of a Tomcat,” her follow-up to E. T. A. Hoffmann's Kater Murr. Michael Hofmann finds the title-story of What Remains, written in 1979 but not published till ten years later, “a masterpiece of bad faith and bad timing, an arrant case of me-too-ism.” It seems to me revealing in other ways, and certainly the most striking thing in the collection. “Don't panic,” the narrator begins, one day she will be able to talk about it, but not yet. Would she know when the time was right? She might grow old and forgetful. Then she goes on to talk about it, at length. As she moves around in her Berlin apartment, tidying up, making coffee, she looks out of her window to see if the three young men are there, sitting in their car (at times, rather nicely, a white Wartburg named after Luther's castle. Only one car, which signifies the lowest level of surveillance.) One of them goes to buy hot dogs, and from where she stands she can see how his hair is thinning. “For a brief moment I revelled in the notion of being the first one to notice the young gentleman's encroaching baldness, even before his own wife, who presumably never studied him so attentively from above.”

In such situations one's feelings are complicated. But can she persist in so carefree a fashion? What is the opposite of carefree? Careworn? She looks up “care” in the dictionary, and this leads her to think of Martin Luther abusing the Pope, “that gluttonous pig”; but for her animal names can be used only of animals, she can't apply “pig” or “dog” to the young gentlemen parked outside. “I was probably lacking in good, healthy, levelling hatred.” She regrets that she hadn't obeyed her first impulse, when it all started on a cold November night, and taken them some hot tea. “Enough is enough. Just another example of my shameful need to get along well with all kinds of people.” A privileged life like hers has to be earned, even if it means jeopardizing one's privileged life. She reads her mail, some of the envelopes have been resealed; goes out shopping, thinks about an old friend, such a brilliant student he was, who is avoiding her, who has been spying on her for years, the person perhaps to whom the young gentlemen report. …

Thoughts rise up like huge, sluggish bats in a frightening flock. This nervy, vagrant, pertinacious scrutiny seems distinctly female, in that a man's musings, in similar circumstances, would take a different form, less sensitive, more decisive. Though let me dissociate myself from those male critics in West Germany who, according to Grace Paley in her introduction to The Writer's Dimension, are enraged by Wolf's “criticism of male hierarchical modes, her disinterest in the hero”: on that score, more power to her elbow (One of the tales in What Remains, a mildly amusing fantasy, fuzzily satirical, concerns a place called Hero Town, populated by heroes of books, films, television and radio, and the writers who create them and kill them off or reshape them when circumstances change and they become obsolete or unsuitable.) But this sustained, introverted worrying, this twisting and turning, does grow exhausting, claustrophobic, at least for a male reader. “Enough, enough!” one is tempted to cry, “Either shut the woman up or get her locked up!” The novella becomes more animated, more “real,” when other people enter it; above all in the neatly managed account of a talk the narrator gives at the People's Solidarity Club, her uneasy welcome by the cultural activities officials, and her nervousness lest people in the audience put themselves at risk through the questions they ask (but “what right did I have to protect them from themselves?”) Despite the police being called in to disperse the supposedly unruly overflow of peaceful, unprovocative youngsters, and restoring order, as the director of the centre proudly claims, “without bloodshed,” the event will be officially reported as “a normal reading in a liberal atmosphere with a satisfied audience.”

The narrator ends as she began. “This time they had almost got me. … One day I will be able to speak easily and freely, I thought. It is still too soon, but it won't always be too soon.” To have published the story at the time would have been offensive (to complain that she didn't is akin to cheering on the Christians in a Roman arena); to publish it now is merely defensive. Her reasons for delay, I would venture, were the considerations already suggested; in short, a bruised loyalty in someone who could locate nothing better to be loyal to. Not cowardice, at all events. Which of us can throw stones? Surely those who might be thought to have earned the right will be the last to do so. Speaking generally, perhaps it's a good idea not to think of writers as heroes, and then later we won't be so ready to find them villains.

Nikki Lee Manos (review date Fall 1993)

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SOURCE: “A Woman-Centered Politics of Peace,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 61–62.

[In the following review, Manos offers a favorable assessment of What Remains and The Author's Dimension.]

When I first read The Quest for Christa T., I knew that Christa Wolf was presenting a notion of the self that I could identify with as a woman, that underscored the forces, within as well as without, that combine so effortlessly to discount our individual quests for self-fulfillment. Wolf assigns her narrator in Christa T. a seemingly impossible task: to return her dead friend to a living presence by reconsidering memories of Christa T. and scrutinizing their correspondence over the years. The narrator discovers, in the process of completing her quest, that she is actually validating her own being. What struck me even more profoundly was another quest underway in the novel: Wolf's own, as author, to probe the interplay between self-exploration and self-assertion that has governed the act of writing for her. Indeed, when I finished reading Christa T., I realized that the work was highly autobiographical—not only for the narrator and Christa Wolf, but also for me. In my determination to understand the novel, I too had been invited to engage in my own process of self-validation.

Still, I knew that my initial response merely tapped the surface meaning of Wolf's highly subjective, experimental prose style. After all, Wolf appeared to be a distant, even exotic author who repeatedly professed her loyalty to a Communist country. She had refused to join her East German colleagues who emigrated to the West, despite enduring harsh censorship and routine surveillance by the secret police. Instead, she used her writings and addresses as a public forum to promote her definition of East Germany (the GDR) as a socialist experiment, an ongoing attempt to realize a Marxist utopia. At the heart of her writing lay the conviction that, of all forms of government in the 20th century, socialism alone foreshadowed a promising future for humanity. We cannot ignore Wolf's political idealism when addressing her preoccupation, as a writer, with the self-defeat that clearly awaits the individual who seeks self-realization in a totalitarian state. We must be careful not to read the character Christa T.'s legacy as simply the few lines of poetry she hurriedly scribbled onto scraps of paper and then squirreled away in drawers.

Looking back over a decade of reading and rereading Wolf, including the two recently published anthologies of short stories and prose, I can state with confidence that her writings have been essential to my growth as a feminist thinker. Wolf's protagonists—the doomed Cassandra comes immediately to mind—have established the possibility that I can create a definition of myself based on my own passions and my own inner sense of truth. They have confirmed that I do not need to accept the terms of others that are clearly not of my own making or of the making of centuries of women who have preceded me. In her interpretation of Cassandra, Wolf freed the Trojan seer from the objectification of male writers, from the portrait of a prophetic voice doomed never to be believed. Instead, Wolf gives us an intelligent, courageous woman who is believed. Having lived through the brutal end of a civilization she holds very dear, Wolf's Cassandra speaks commandingly of a woman-centered politics of peace. In varying degrees, all of Wolf's protagonists are Cassandra figures. They place their own personal experiences at the center as they pursue, first, inner truths and then, historical and social truths. They offer us, in short, a model for women's empowerment.

The Author's Dimension is a selection of Wolf's prose from 1964 to 1990. The pieces—essays, talks, interviews—offer us the opportunity to grasp the highly autobiographical nature of Wolf's evolution as a postmodern writer. For example, in the essay “Interview with Myself” she uses a question-and-answer format to explore the ethical concerns that underlie Christa T. Written while she was completing the novel, the essay documents how the act of writing, for Wolf, is an act of self-discovery. Many of the pieces in this invaluable anthology function as epilogues for particular works or prefaces for ensuing rereading.

Rightfully, the anthology includes two substantial sections devoted to Wolf's comments on war, peace, politics, and the end of the GDR. These sections are strikingly similar in theme and tone. Clearly, socialism is a far-reaching ideal, signifying for Wolf more than the GDR's defeated Stalinist regime. As she observes in one of the essays, “socialism as an alternative needs to be redefined, and it will take time to do that.”

If we begin to assess Wolf's motivation as a writer, we must begin with the phrase world peace. As she declares in one of the pieces in the anthology, “The alarming conclusion arises irrefutably from my work of the last few years. I am haunted by the thought that our society—which could achieve what it calls ‘progress’ only by violence, by internal suppression, by the annihilation and plunder of foreign societies … that a society like this was bound to end up where it is today.” To understand the novels Cassandra,Accident, and What Remains is to understand Wolf's insistent call for a politics of world peace.

As its title suggests, the most consequential work in the anthology What Remains and Other Stories is the highly controversial “What Remains.” In it Wolf candidly recalls the horror of living under the surveillance of East Germany's secret police. More important, she explains how the writer's block she experienced was the consequence of the self-censoring practices she unconsciously devised, ironically, to ensure that her work would be published. In an attack of ruthless ad hominem proportion, Wolf was charged with cowardice and opportunism for having waited until after German reunification to publish such a damning account of the GDR. I believe that Wolf's radical pacifism provoked such scapegoating, not the timing of the novel's publication.

These two anthologies are a welcome addition to Wolf's writing in English translation. The translations are admirable; the introduction by Grace Paley, a close friend of Wolf's, is illuminating. Above all, the selections confirm that Wolf's writing is a painstaking, deliberate attempt to express a way of thinking that lies beyond hierarchical aggression. They encourage us to judge the present controversy surrounding Wolf as I believe we should—on her own terms.

Nancy Derr (essay date Fall 1993)

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SOURCE: “The Last Word: Christa Wolf—Moral Force or Farce?,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 63–64.

[In the following essay, Derr discusses Wolf's literary career and her future as a writer after drawing public condemnation for her admitted collaboration with East German authorities.]

As mother, wife, and avowed Marxist, Christa Wolf is one of Germany's best-known living writers. Literary darling of the former East German government, Wolf had an apartment in Berlin, a summer house, and the freedom to travel anywhere. She was a vocal critic of German unification to the very end. But with the collapse of the East, the publication of her short story What Remains, and the revelations about Wolf in the East German secret police files, she has come to represent all that was wrong with the former German Democratic Republic (GDR): opportunism, elitism, and deceit. Once touted among supporters as a leading moral force in literary and political circles, Wolf—who is currently living in California—is now considered by many to be a moral farce. Most of her supporters have turned from her in anger, disappointment, and sadness, while even the most loyal among us must admit to a nagging discomfort when trying to defend her case. How did this onetime literary star turn literary refugee?

Born Christa Ihlenfeld in 1929 in Landsberg on the Warthe River (now part of Poland), Wolf was the oldest of two children. Her father ran a grocery. After the war, Wolf's family remained in what would become the Communist GDR. After completing high school in 1949, Wolf joined the Socialist Unity Party and undertook studies in Germanic languages and literature at the universities at Jena and Leipzig.

Wolf wrote first as reviewer and critic. From 1955 to 1976 she was a member of the executive committee of the Writers’ Union. She became an enthusiastic member of the Bitterfield Movement, a government-sponsored attempt to bring about cultural revolution by encouraging workers to write. As a result of the formation of numerous writers associations, “workers’ literature” began to emerge. Wolf played her part by moving to Halle and writing about her experiences in this industrial setting. From 1962 until her recent move to the United States, Wolf lived as a freelance writer with her husband and two daughters in East Berlin.

Inspired by a trip to Athens and Crete in 1981, Wolf wrote Cassandra (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984), for which she is best known in the United States. In this reworking of the story of the fall of Troy, Wolf addresses the historical role of woman in society. Apollo gives Cassandra the gift of prophecy but then makes it worthless after she refuses his advances. Using this gift, Cassandra warns of the fall of Troy, but to no avail. Wolf's version is a reflection on the impotence of women and the destructiveness of patriarchal society. A pacifist, Wolf sees society's survival in the creation of a world order in which women and men have the freedom to pursue self-realization rather than be compelled to play the game by its current rules.

Most of what is known about Wolf's life is documented in her books, particularly in the autobiographical Patterns of Childhood (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980). In this work, first published in 1976, the narrator (Wolf) returns to the village of her youth and, in the course of wandering through the town and its surroundings with her brother, husband, and teenage daughter, reconnects with her child-self through recollections of the past. The reader meets Nelly, an intelligent, introspective girl who “was possessed by a more than average inquisitiveness.” In addition to submitting herself to continual self-evaluation, Nelly possesses an uncanny ability to detect the subtlest of meanings in the words, deeds, and looks of others. In one instance, Wolf describes a situation in which “Nelly … splits in two; one Nelly is innocently playing … while the other Nelly watches the others and herself from the corner of the room, and sees through everything.”

Unfortunately, Wolf's acute sensitivity was not attuned to the atrocities of the Third Reich. As a result, she was one of many in her generation who enthusiastically supported the ruthless fascist regime. Addressing this legacy has been an important theme in Wolf's work. She believes that all Germans must learn to say “I” and “Auschwitz” in the same sentence. Wolf is not alone in her conviction that Germans must take this first step if they ultimately are to come to terms with their past. Wolf's efforts to do just that have drawn admiration, especially from those who believe that literature has an important role to play in the process.

Today, however, Wolf faces the daunting task of coming to terms with her role in yet another brutal German dictatorship. And her part was not a minor one. Although increasingly critical of the East German government, Wolf, an ardent Communist, chose to stay while many of her colleagues fled to the West and became a kind of “mother superior.” She was highly respected on both sides of the Wall as a political moral voice. Wolf's moral superiority seemed guaranteed when she appealed in 1989 to her compatriots not to give in to the materialistic West, but to stay in the East to redesign an independent, new, socialist GDR. The sound of a million pounding feet heading west, however, presented shocking evidence of how out of touch Wolf was with her fellow citizens.

During the months that followed the collapse of the GDR, the successes and failures of German socialism were the only topics of conversation. From the West came smug “I told you so's.” Many Easterners countered by illustrating how important social reforms had been achieved during 40-odd years under socialism. However, mounting revelations about the activities of the East German secret police and about the number of people who collaborated (millions) soon silenced socialism's defenders.

When What Remains finally was published, Wolf was charged with opportunism and, for a time, she became the focus of attacks against the East German government. This conflict overshadowed most everything until January 1993 when, pressured by events, Wolf confessed that she had worked from 1959 to 1962 as an unofficial collaborator for the secret police (the Stasi). Three Stasi files had surfaced containing statements she made to them during the three-year period. According to Wolf, she had not mentioned this before because she had forgotten. Wolf was 30 years old at the time, and the information she revealed about others was not damaging. Yet people were outraged, so much so that they easily forgot the 40 additional files of information the Stasi had collected from others on her and her husband.

Today, Wolf draws criticism on two basic counts: How could she possibly have forgotten that she had worked with the Stasi? And why has she withdrawn to California, of all places, the epitome of what she has fought against all of these years? According to reports, Wolf is holed up in Santa Monica working on a rewrite of the story of Medea.

What remains? For now, there are many questions: about the future of unified Germany, about Germany's success at addressing its past and its present, about Wolf's motivations when she decided to cooperate with the Stasi, and whether she really thought people would believe she had forgotten this transgression.

Most important to those who have followed the evolution of Wolf's writing over the years are questions about her future. Will she pull through these difficult times? Will she write the definitive story on the former GDR and provide insight on her role as a writer? Or is Wolf drawn to Medea because of a shared sense of betrayal and failure? After all, Wolf has spent most of her life obediently aligned with first one, then another misguided societal experiment. Perhaps Wolf feels that, more than anything, she has betrayed herself.

As Wolf approaches the final decades of her life, she, too, may be thinking about what she has left to do, but only time will provide the answers to these questions. It is possible, of course, that Wolf will withdraw even more and fade away like the political system that once nourished her. This loyal supporter certainly hopes not.

Robert Phillips (review date Winter 1994)

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SOURCE: “Five Women and One Man,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XLVI, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 765–72.

[In the following excerpt, Phillips judges What Remains to be “an uneven volume,” but concludes that it is a welcome collection of Wolf's short fiction.]

When The Quest for Christa T. was published in 1970, I recall discussing with friends the brilliance of this new “girl” writing in Germany. Her jacket photograph seemed to depict a teenager. It is with some surprise one realizes that Christa Wolf is sixty-four today, the author of seven books, and that the new photographs resemble Golda Meir. What Remains purports to collect her short fiction, from the early work in the 1960s to the title story, recently published in Germany and the subject of some debate there. (Strangely missing from this collected stories is “Divided Heaven,” Wolf's long story published in 1963, about a working woman who prefers East Germany to the supposedly more easy life in West Berlin.) In addition to that omission, the editors and/or translators have not provided dates for the eight collected pieces, which span thirty years. Dates would be of especial interest in the case of a writer so engaged in social and political commentary.

What Remains is an uneven volume, but collectively it poses questions about survival and existence. The best story, “Unter den Linden,” is a leisurely, almost rambling, tale of self-discovery which occurs on a walk down the famous strasse, and begins, “I have always liked walking along unter den Linden. And most of all, as you well know, alone …” The story is a mixture of dream, reverie, and revelation. At the conclusion the narrator realizes the woman she has encountered on her stroll is herself: “It was I. It had been myself, none other than myself, whom I had met …” She had been intended to find herself once and for all, and the revelation is totally self-liberating for the repressed narrator. The story is at once fine fiction and a feminist tract.

“Exchanging Glances” is another admirable story, also about liberation, but an entirely different kind. An older woman writer engages in memories of the day Germany was liberated by the Allies in 1945. Wolf captures all the uncertainty, confusion, relief and humiliation: “The world consisted of the victors and the defeated. The former were free to express their emotions. The latter—us—had to lock them inside ourselves from now on. The enemy should not see us weak.” The story poses questions of the need to specify exactly what one has been “liberated” from, and to what purpose as well.

The third important story, or so it seems to me, is the apparently autobiographical title piece. It concerns a writer's frame of mind when she knows she is under surveillance by the secret police. The tone veers from frustration to despair to high humor: “I still regretted the fact that I hadn't followed my first impulse right away back then when it started, on those cold November nights, and brought them down some hot tea.” As her personal history unfolds, so does the history of the city of Berlin: “The city had turned from a place into a non-place, without history, without vision, without magic, spoiled by greed, power, and violence. It divided its time between nightmares and senseless activities …,” like the three men who sat in a car every day watching her apartment. For Wolf those secret police came to symbolize the new Berlin.

Other stories are less successful, particularly Wolf's efforts at speculative fiction. In “A Little Outing to H.,” the narrator visits Herotown, where ordinary residents wear orange badges inscribed with the letter P (for Person), while those who wear no badges at all are Heroes. It barely works. “Self-Experiment” is a witty fantasy in which a woman subjects herself to a sex change, only to reverse the procedure when she discovers she was not able to shed the sensations of womanhood when she became a man. She comes to be homesick for the absurdities of being a woman. While the plot allows for some neat satire on the sexes—and the sexism of males—it remains decidedly slick. (But not so slick as another story, narrated by a cat.)

Despite lapses, it is good to have Christa Wolf's shorter fiction in one volume and in English. The translation by Heike Schwarzbauer and Rick Tavvorian is bright and fluent. One wishes they had provided a few intercultural notes, such as one to explain why the narrator of “What Remains” finds it so hilarious that a “Jewess” be named “Elfi.”

Robert Sayre and Michael Löwy (essay date Winter 1995)

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SOURCE: “Romanticism as a Feminist Vision: The Quest of Christa Wolf,” in New German Critique, No. 64, Winter, 1995, pp. 105–34.

[In the following essay, Sayre and Löwy discuss the connections between nineteenth-century Romanticism and Wolf's feminist and anti-capitalist perspective.]

Few modern authors have given such powerful expression to the “elective affinity” between Romanticism and feminism as Christa Wolf.1 When we refer to her as a Romantic writer, we not only take into account her explicit interest in the German Romantic tradition of the early nineteenth century, but also—and above all—her own Romantic worldview [Weltanschauung]. Our interpretation of Wolf's writing is based upon a conception of Romanticism which recognizes it to be not only a literary school from the past, but a worldview that pervades all spheres of culture from poetry and the arts to theology, philosophy, and political thought. Due to its pervasiveness, Romanticism has been a significant cultural force from the latter half of the eighteenth century until today.

Considered as a worldview, Romanticism can be defined as a form of cultural criticism of “modernity”—the capitalist/industrial/technological civilization born in the eighteenth century and still predominant—which is inspired by premodern values. The disenchantment of the world, the quantification and reification of social relations, the destructive force of machinization, the reign of abstract rationality, and the dissolution of communitarian bonds are among the aspects of this civilization criticized or rejected by the Romantics in the name of a constellation of values including imagination, subjective experience, fantasy, community, and reintegration with nature. This passionate protest against some of the central features of modernity, while referring to social or cultural values attributed to the past, is not necessarily regressive. Romanticism can take revolutionary as well as conservative, utopian as well as restorationist forms.2 Christa Wolf's Romanticism belongs indeed to the utopian/revolutionary current—reinterpreted in feminist terms.

Romanticism and feminism have not always been associated in the same intellectual configurations. Many Romantic authors, such as Proudhon, Ruskin, and others, actively opposed feminism and women's emancipation, harking back to a patriarchal past in order to celebrate traditional feminine roles. On the other hand, the egalitarian and modernist approach of liberalism and even utilitarianism has attracted feminists, especially as some of its exponents, John Stuart Mill, for example, clearly supported the struggle for women's rights. However, since Romanticism's incipience, there has also existed a “philogynic” Romanticism, represented in the thought of Charles Fourier. In addition, certain female writers, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Georges Sand, and the Brontë sisters, were simultaneously concerned with the emancipation of women and attracted by Romanticism. Christa Wolf belongs to this last tradition, although her style of thought and writing has little in common with the great female novelists of the nineteenth century.

In spite of its diversity and its undeniable evolution, Wolf's work as a whole can be characterized by this double perspective: feminism together with Romanticism in its utopian/revolutionary dimension, which in Wolf's case assumes the form of a Marxist humanism. Viewed chronologically, her literary career, begun in 1960 and having produced various forms of expression—novels, short stories, autobiographical sketches, essays, interviews, and other works which resist traditional classification—exhibits certain significant changes in form and content. In regard to Wolf's feminist and Marxist/humanist vision and frame of reference, Anna Kuhn, the author of the first full-length study of Wolf's work to appear in English, has pointed to an evolution both “from Marxism to feminism” and “from the Enlightenment to Romanticism.”3

While Kuhn's study of Wolf's developing career through detailed analyses of her works is a fine, illuminating one, Kuhn's formulations seem to suggest an either/or dichotomy in which feminism and Romanticism replace Marxism and Enlightenment. In contrast to Kuhn, we would stress an underlying continuity to Wolf's work—one to which Kuhn is, in fact, often attuned—and argue for an increasing consciousness and elaboration of Romantic and feminist problematics which were present in Wolf's writing from the start. The maturation of Wolf's feminist and Romantic awareness has not canceled her Marxist/Enlightenment perspectives; rather, she has reinterpreted them, integrating them into a context in which the emphasis has shifted.

In one of the lectures connected with her novel Kassandra (1983), Wolf compares her recent exposure to feminism with her earlier initiation to Marxism:

With the widening of my visual angle and the readjustment to my depth of focus, my viewing lens … has undergone a decisive change. It is comparable to that decisive change that occurred more than thirty years ago, when I first became acquainted with Marxist theory and attitudes; a liberating and illuminating experience which altered my thinking, my view, what I felt about and demanded of myself.4

In no way in this passage does Wolf affirm that feminism supplants Marxism. Wolf significantly uses a camera metaphor to express her second, feminist awareness as a widening and deepening of focus rather than as a substitution of one lens for another. Moreover, in response to criticism from the same period (1983) that she was making an anti-Enlightenment “retreat” into Romanticism, Wolf denied that either she or the historical movements of early Romanticism and Sturm und Drang were anti-Enlightenment, calling such a claim a “very undialectical view.”5

Yet, Wolf's early work was never that of a pure partisan of the Enlightenment [Aufklärer] and had always possessed a strong undercurrent of Romanticism. Her contact with historical Romantic trends—at least in the form of Sturm und Drang—dates back to her student years (the late 1940s and early 1950s). During this time, Wolf was able to read and use the Sturm und Drang writers—especially the young Goethe—who were considered politically progressive, as a model; only much later did she assimilate the early nineteenth-century German Romantics.6

Also during her student years at the University of Leipzig, she first came under the influence of two heterodox Marxists—Hans Mayer and Ernst Bloch—who were teaching there and who could be characterized as utopian/revolutionary Romantics. In a 1987 address to Hans Mayer, Wolf traced her relationship with him, starting with her studies under his direction and continuing through the publication of his Outsiders [Aussenseiter] in 1975, which she greatly admires.7 In this address she claims that like Mayer, she was drawn to the Communist movement by a “longing” [Sehnsucht] to belong to a “community” [Gemeinschaft].8 The impact of Bloch's philosophy on Wolf's writing has been amply documented, most notably by Jack Zipes and Andreas Huyssen. In particular, they discuss Bloch's linked concepts of “homeland” [Heimat] and the not-yet-attained “upright posture” [aufrechter Gang] of humanity, which together form a quintessentially utopian-Romantic configuration, as constituting an integral part of Christa Wolf's worldview as well.9

Drawing on the Romantic tradition in both its early and late stages then, Wolf develops her own vision through a process of feminist reappropriation and reinterpretation. In what follows we will attempt to explore the chronology of this intertwined elaboration of utopian/revolutionary Romanticism and feminism.

In Wolf's first published piece of creative writing—“Tuesday, September 27” (1960)—it is striking that one already finds indications of both a feminist and a Romantic sensibility. In this submission to a literary contest, proposed by the Soviet newspaper Isvestia on the subject: Your day of 27 September, 1960, the narrator pointedly comments that at a meeting of the Party management at the factory where she works, someone brings up the idea of inviting women to an important brigade meeting simply because that is “the trend of the times. Nobody can publicly argue against this; however, it becomes clear that the suggestion has no fiery advocates. Don't the women have enough to do with the children … ? says one of them.”10 At the end of the piece, the narrator speaks of the difficulty of writing a longer text (clearly what will later become Divided Heaven), because she is unable to animate the banality of the factory life that is her subject. This oppressive banality of her everyday reality stands in stark contrast with her lucid dream just before she falls asleep, evoked in the closing paragraph:

A street appears leading to that landscape I know so well without ever having seen it: the hill with the old tree, the softly inclined slope up to a stream, meadowland, and the forest at the horizon. That one can't really experience the seconds before falling asleep—otherwise one wouldn't fall asleep—I will forever regret.”11

This yearning for a communion with nature—this utopian vision of integration with the natural world—will echo throughout Wolf's later work.

Her first book, Moscow Novella [Moskauer Novelle (1961)], in fact celebrates the happy union of its heroine with that world and with a unified human community as well. Vera, an East German pediatrician, visits Soviet Russia with a delegation of her compatriots and has a relationship with Pawel, a Russian she had known earlier as a girl. She falls in love with the Russian countryside as well as with Pawel. The natural surroundings thus become identified with the people, seen as a lyrical whole: “This is life, thought Vera longingly [sehnsüchtig]. This sun and this land and these people.”12 When the delegation visits a kolkhoz they are welcomed and féted; Vera feels entirely a part of what seems a joyous community, just as she is more durably linked to the other members of her delegation by strong bonds of friendship. Unlike “Tuesday, September 27,” Moskauer Novelle does not problematize the reality of actually existing socialism; in many ways, Wolf's first novel glorifies it as the ground for the realization of Romantic aspiration.

Yet the picture given us in the novel is not quite so simple. In a central passage the characters discuss the qualities they imagine the socialist human being of the future will exhibit. Pawel asserts, in Blochian language, that humankind finally “will walk upright [aufrecht] over the earth”; he adds that the most important characteristic of the new human being will be “brotherliness” [Brüderlichkeit].13 Human relations will not be competitive and mistrustful. This picture of a future of open and affectionate communication implicitly suggests a contrast with the present; in Moskauer Novelle liberation remains utopian, or in Blochian terms, the not-yet-attained.14 The love affair between Vera and Pawel exhibits the main traits of this utopia, but only as a fugitive premonition [Vorschein]; it marks a caesura in their normal lives, about which we know little and to which they voluntarily return at the end.

With Divided Heaven [Der geteilte Himmel (1963)], separated from Moskauer Novelle by the erection of the Wall, the tone becomes more openly critical; now the center of attention becomes “normal” life in actually existing socialism. The appreciation of a life close to nature in the previous novel turns here to an unhappy consciousness of the alienation of city life and of the incursions of polluting industry even into the countryside. The heroine Rita, coming from a small village with “just the right amount of woods, meadows, fields and open sky” which she loves, is assailed by loneliness when she moves to the town, and by the ugliness of industrial sights and smells both in and out of town (Divided Heaven 11).

Divided Heaven is ultimately ambiguous in its depiction of East German society both in relation to Romantic longing and to its feminist project. On the one hand, an opposition is set up between the workers and the bourgeois professorial milieu. The workers show devotion and idealistic selflessness in the herculean effort to build a new society—Meternagel is compared to “a hero in some old legend, set out upon a seemingly hopeless task”—whereas the professors are petty, egotistical, and opportunistic (Divided Heaven 75). The workers are in principle egalitarian with regard to the sexes—Rita is impressed by the equal division of housework by the Schwarzenbach couple—while the wives of the professors are dominated objects. The professors are identified with the capitalist West, to which Rita refuses to emigrate because it represents greed, a total lack of community, ideal, or hope, as well as alienation from nature. Significantly, she sees the dreary, run-down little garden in West Berlin, in which she says goodbye to Manfred, as a symbol of the West (Divided Heaven 195).

On the other hand, there is an unmistakable undercurrent of doubt as to whether East Germany constitutes a true alternative to its western counterpart. In addition to the pollution that threatens the environment, the productivist, technocratic mentality taken from the West predominates: after all, it is solely to increase industrial production that the workers sacrifice themselves. Manfred's point of view—that what people really want is “a house that runs like a well oiled machine”—is hegemonic; he only emigrates to the West because there they do the same thing, only better (Divided Heaven 106). Even Schwarzenbach admits at the end of the novel that “sometimes we think we're changing something when all we're doing is giving it a different name” (Divided Heaven 203). The conclusion also questions male-female relations among workers, when Rita visits Meternagel's wife and discovers the cost to her of his monomaniacal devotion to stepping up productivity (Divided Heaven 216–17).15 Although Divided Heaven thus does take a step further than its predecessor in critically analyzing actually existing socialism, it remains at least partially within the framework of the socialist-realist Bildungsroman, with a matured Rita returning to play her part in socialist construction at the end.

Wolf's Romantic and feminist critique makes another crucial leap in her next novel, The Quest for Christa T. [Nachdenken über Christa T. (1968)], in which for the first time the heroine is an “outsider” (as they will be in following novels), a misfit who is unable to integrate herself into her society, yet who is shown to be the incarnation of values that could help that society to become what it should be.16 Christa T. manifests many characteristically Romantic traits, some of which had already appeared in earlier heroines, including, but not limited to, a love of nature, an attraction to simple peasants, and an empathy with children that comes from being in touch with the child in oneself. Some traits—in particular, the urge for self-expression and self-exploration, and an openness of the self to experience—are carried much further in Christa T. than in earlier heroines. But with her emerge several new areas: fantasy, art, and the transforming power of the imagination. The new interest in the free play of the imagination had in fact already been signaled in “June Afternoon” [“Juninachmittag” (1965)], notably when the narrator's family engages in a word game, similar to those of the Surrealists, in which they recombine the elements of fixed, stereotyped expressions to produce marvelous, suggestive absurdities. When applied to political terminology and clichés, the game turns briefly into political satire.17

In Christa T. the imagination involves a double movement: a nostalgic yearning on the one hand and the opening up of possibilities on the other. She chooses to study Theodor Storm because his work is a lyrical “landscape of longing [Sehnsucht]” (Quest for Christa T. 97); near the end of her life she herself writes sketches of the traditional peasant communities around her new home (Quest for Christa T. 171). Yet, she refuses to accept limitations and gives herself up to limitless dreaming of what could and should be—an activity which Bloch calls future-oriented: dreaming “forward” [nach Vorwärts] (Quest for Christa T. 114). The imagination has a moral dimension for her as well. Such an orientation imbues her life and her Romantic sensibility—overtly non-political, although Christa T. is committed to socialism and eschews the capitalist West—with political import. She is a living reproach to East German society, since she incarnates the impulse towards human liberation that it claims to be building, while she is incapable of living in that society as it really is.

A number of critics have pointed out that Christa T.'s consciousness also has a feminist dimension. In particular, Myra Love remarkably demonstrates how, although Wolf does not use the term “patriarchal” until ten years after the publication of The Quest for Christa T., both the character Christa T. and the narrator break down a whole set of either/or, mutually exclusive oppositions that have marked patriarchal culture, through the process by which the narrator recreates Christa T. and changes herself in so doing. Love also notes the utopian potential of Christa T.'s feminine consciousness: “By appropriating the sort of subjectivity which Christa T. embodies, the narrator is also appropriating, by a process of solidarity, the utopian potential of a historically female subjectivity.”18 Love's article elucidates striking similarities between Christa Wolf's novel and the work of several Western feminists, in particular Adrienne Rich and Mary Daly. Inta Ezergailis does the same in a book studying Ingeborg Bachmann, Doris Lessing, and others.19 In addition, her book makes clear the elective affinity between feminism and Romanticism; for although it does not use the term, it reveals the archetypal Romantic configuration in the authors studied: a sense of loss and the yearning to recreate a paradise.

It is difficult to know the extent to which Christa Wolf reacted to the Romantic dimension of the European events of 1968; in any case, in that year she wrote her essay The Reader and the Writer, which contains one of the most beautiful formulations of the Romantic-utopian ethos: “We preserved for ourselves a memory of previous times [Vor-Zeiten], which offered a simpler and serener way of life; this rememoration gives form to our nostalgic image of the future [Sehnsuchtbild von der Zukunft].”20 One could hardly imagine a more striking summary of the Romantic dialectical bond between the past and the future, nostalgia and utopia.

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the rather intolerant internal climate in the GDR—Wolf's The Quest for Christa T. had been condemned by the Party leadership at the sixth conference of writers in the GDR (May 1969)—created the historical context for a new stage in her intellectual and literary evolution, characterized by a sharp critical stand and a growing interest in the German Romantic tradition. Other GDR writers shared similar concerns. In fact, Wolf's ideas were part of a larger constellation, which included other well-known GDR writers like Heiner Müller, Volker Braun, and Christoph Hein. During the 1970s and 1980s, each in his or her own way developed a criticism of reification and alienation that was clearly inspired by the Romantic protest against modern Zivilisation (and to a certain extent by the Frankfurt School's critique of instrumental reason). They all seemed to consider that the limitations or failures of East German socialism were the result of an insufficiently radical break with Western civilization. And their apocalyptic vision of history gave back to utopia its full force. Confronted by a Western civilization doomed by the curse of its instrumental destruction, the jump into the “otherwise” becomes a question of survival for the human species.21

Christa Wolf's own version of this pattern is subtly colored by Romantic irony and feminist subversion. One of the first writings of this new stage, the short story “New Views on Life by a Cat” [“Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers”]—written in 1970, inspired by E. T. A. Hoffmann's ironic masterpiece “Views on Life by Murr the Cat” [Lebensansichten des Katers Murr], quoted in the epigraph of Wolf's story—provides a biting satire of techno-bureaucratic, scientific ideology.22 Max, the tomcat who tells the story, enthusiastically shares the views of his master, Prof. R. W. Barzel, and those of his associates, Dr. Lutz Fettback (a transparent reference to cybernetic feedback), dietician and physiotherapist, and Dr. Guido Hinz, cybernetic sociologist. Their aim is grandiose: nothing less than TOHUMHA (Total Human Happiness)! Unfortunately, the present human species has not achieved the maturity to understand its needs and has to be forced to become happy. This will happen, thanks to the obligatory introduction of a strictly scientific and error-proof system called SYMCOSH (System of the Maximum Corporeal and Spiritual Health).

How is SYMCOSH to be implemented? According to the three illustrious scholars, all that is needed is the elimination of some superfluous and useless aspects of human life, the soul [Seele] for instance, a reactionary illusion which serves only to assure a profitable existence for such unproductive economic branches as literature [Belletristik] (“NLK” 99). The same applies to other anachronistic and pre-scientific ideas or values such as “creative thinking,” “audacity,” “altruism,” “pity,” and “pride.” The result of this process of purification will be the “normalized human being” [Normalmensch], a purely reflexive being that answers in a precisely predictable way to stimuli (“NLK” 121).

In other words, the aim is an exhaustive programmation of that span of time signified by the antiquated word LIFE. Until now humanity has had an irrational and mystical attitude toward this time-span, leading to disorder, squandered time, and wasted strength. Now, thanks to SYMCOSH, we have a logically unavoidable system of rational life conduct, applying the most modern technique of calculation (“NLK” 110–11).

Women do not seem to share the faith of the three male scientists—and of their feline follower, the tomcat Max—on the virtues of SYMCOSH. In general, as Prof. Barzel sadly acknowledges, they seem to resist stubbornly the most advanced experimental methods of science. Isa, the young daughter of the Professor, sharply formulates feminine feelings by calling her father a “progress philistine” [Fortschrittsspiesser] (“NLK” 115).

By ridiculing this kind of scientific project, Christa Wolf not only pokes fun at the positivist ideology of the ruling elites both East and West, but also draws attention to the dangers of technological dehumanization and authoritarian standardization resulting from a certain form of instrumental rationality. Like E. T. A. Hoffmann's Murr, Christa Wolf's tomcat Max is an ironic device to unmask the philistine attempt to eliminate human imagination and human feelings in the name of reason.

“Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers” is one of three stories published under the sub-title Three Improbable Tales [Drei unwahrscheinliche Geschichten]. In a conversation with Hans Kaufmann, Christa Wolf offers some important insights into her intentions:

I wrote the three stories between 1969 and 1972, and they are representative of that phase of my work. … I hope that their ‘improbability,’ their dreamlike, utopian, and grotesque character will produce an alienation-effect towards certain processes, circumstances, and modes of thought which have become so very familiar that we no longer notice them, are no longer disturbed by them. And yet we should be disturbed by them—and I say this in the confident belief that we can change what disturbs us.23

The third “improbable” tale is also a critique of scientism, but this time with gender as the key issue. “Self-Experiment,” her first work with an explicitly feminist and anti-patriarchal ethos, supposedly takes place in the near future (the year is 1992!), when scientific progress will permit the transformation of women into men, thanks to a new drug: “Peterine Masculinum 199.”24 The story assumes the form of a letter, written to the Professor leading the project, by one of the female scientists participating in the research team, who agreed to experiment with the drug on herself. The letter is both a description of her feelings and reactions during the experience and a more general reflection on gender relations. As a man, she (or rather, he) has a love affair with the Professor's daughter; but after a few weeks, a feeling of the “barbaric senselessness” of the experiment leads him/her to interrupt it and return to the female condition.

She now understands much better that the Professor and his male assistants share a “superstitious worship of measurable results”; they are caught fast in their “net of numbers, diagrams, and calculations” (“SE” 113). Believing in scientific neutrality, they try to remain always dispassionate, unattached, and impersonal; according to the narrator, the secret of their invulnerability is indifference (“SE” 128). In their eyes, problem-burdened women, who hesitate between happiness in love and the urge to work, are like a “falsely programmed computerized mouse” “zigzagging” from one side to the other (“SE” 120). And they don't understand “what fiendish spirit possessed me to break off the successful experiment prematurely” (“SE” 113).

Back in her female form, the narrator opposes “the words of my inner language” to the unreal neutrality of “scientific” speech (“SE” 113). She refuses the attitude of non-involvement and impassivity of the male scientists and criticizes their way of life:

Unknowingly, and without wishing it, I did indeed act as a spy in the adversary's home territory and so discovered the thing that must remain your secret if your convenient privileges are to remain inviolate: that the activity you immerse yourselves in cannot bring you happiness, and that we have a right to resist when you try to drag us into them.

(“SE” 128)

At the same time she rejects the dangerous division of labor which “gives women the rights to sorrow, hysteria, and the vast majority of neuroses while granting them the pleasure of dealing with outpourings of the soul (which no one has yet found under a microscope)” and with the fine arts, while men, on the other hand, devote themselves to the realities: business, science, and world politics (“SE” 128).

This improbable tale shares a key element with “Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers”: the Romantic protest against the tyrannical domination of the quantifying, calculating, cold, and impersonal form of modern scientific and technical rationality. As Christa Wolf stressed in a remark about “Self-Experiment,” the story questions “certain types of positivist thought that barricade themselves behind so-called natural scientific method and ignore the human aspects.”25 However, its tone is radically distinct from the previous tale. It is not ironical or satirical, but betrays unease and even bitterness. And the essential point is not the absurdity of the plans for scientific management of the soul, but the intimate link between this positivist ideology and patriarchal hierarchy.

“Self-Experiment” also contributes to the continuing feminist debate on the choice of equality or difference as the main vector of women's liberation. The heroine of the experiment does not deny the need for equality, but she criticizes the “assimilationist” tendency of emancipated women, that is, their imitation of masculine patterns of behavior. In the above-mentioned conversations with Hans Kaufmann, Christa Wolf offers some highly personal comments on this issue:

The kind of questions I attempted to provoke through my story might be: should the aim of women's emancipation be for them to ‘become like men?’ … As the material conditions allowing the sexes an equal start improve—and this must necessarily be the first step towards emancipation—so we face more acutely the problem of giving the sexes opportunity to be different from each other, to acknowledge that they have different needs, and that men and women, not just men, are the models for human beings. This does not even occur to most men, and really very few women attempt to get to the root of why it is that their consciences are permanently troubled (because they can't do what is expected of them). If they got to the bottom of it, they'd find it was their own identification with an idealized masculinity that is in itself obsolete.”26

In their introduction to the first English translation of “Selbstversuch,” Helen Fehervary and Sara Lennox highlight the tale's feminist dimension and Wolf's reinterpretation of Marxism through women's experiences:

From women's lives, Wolf derives an entirely new potential of experience and knowledge. … What has been attributed to Wolf in all her works as her ‘critical,’ ‘human,’ or ‘utopian’ Marxism is her female perception of history; and the utopian ‘traces’ and ‘hopes’ which Bloch talks about in his theoretical works take on an indelibly material character in the reality of women mediated by Wolf. And this, indeed, is the very radicalism of Wolf's work, not as an alternative to Marxism but as a qualitatively new and autonomous dimension that is a prerequisite for its renewal.27

One must add, however, that the values which inspire her Marxist/feminist utopia and her rejection of positivist/patriarchal ways of life are deeply rooted in the Romantic tradition of Zivilisationskritik. This connection, already suggested in her earlier writings, will become central in her next works: No Place on Earth [Kein ort. Nirgends (1977)] and the corresponding essays on Karoline von Günderrode and Bettina von Arnim.28

No Place on Earth is one of the most interesting expressions in the literature of the second half of the twentieth century, of the subterranean continuity between the Frühromantik circa 1800 and the Romanticism of our times—a continuity which does not exclude, of course, very significant differences. Despite the numerous quotations from Kleist and his friends which appear in the dialogues, the novel is an entirely modernist one in style, content, and meaning.

Why did an East German writer of the 1970s feel the urge to write a novel about an imaginary meeting between Kleist and Karoline von Günderrode? Christa Wolf's choice should be placed in the specific cultural and political context of the GDR at that particular time. For many years the reception of Romanticism in the GDR was dominated by Lukács's aesthetics of realism, which rejected the Romantic tradition in general and Kleist's works in particular, as subjectivist, irrationalist, and reactionary. As early as 1937, Anna Seghers had already challenged this view in her (published) correspondence with Lukács, but her standpoint was marginal in relation to the established doctrine. Only during the seventies did there begin to be a reassessment of Romanticism by East German writers and literary historians, which can be seen as part of a general tendency towards cultural criticism of the official ideology.29 Christa Wolf's novel and essays are related to this movement, but by focusing on Romantic women writers virtually ignored by the German literary canon—such as Karoline von Günderrode or Bettina von Arnim—and their conflict with patriarchal norms, she strikes a new note and creates her own, singular, and unique literary universe.

But there is also another, directly political background for her personal interest in the Romantics: the situation created by the expulsion of the dissident poet and singer Wolf Biermann from the GDR. In reaction to this arbitrary measure in November, 1976, a group of concerned writers and intellectuals, including Stephan Hermlin, Christa Wolf, Gerhard Wolf (her husband), and Sara Kirsch, sent an open letter of protest to the official Party newspaper and the French news agency, urging the authorities to reconsider their action. In reprisal for this first public, collective protest, Christa Wolf and other well-known writers were expelled from the board of directors of the Berlin branch of the Writers’ Union. The Vice-Minister of Culture, Klaus Höpcke, referred to the signers of the petition as “enemies of socialism.” A few months later Gerhard Wolf was excluded from the Party.

For Christa Wolf these events were a crucial turning point in her relation to the GDR power structure—soon afterwards she suffered a heart attack, perhaps signaling her deep personal investment in this crisis as well. From that moment on, she felt herself to be an outsider—much as the Romantic writers perceived their relation to society. In a conversation with Frauke Meyer-Gosau some years later, Wolf tried to link her personal experience to some general patterns of modern civilization:

What most interested me was to investigate when this dreadful split between individuals and society had really begun. … In industrial society … neither women nor intellectuals have any influence on the key processes determining our lives. It was the severity of this transformation into an outsider, which I felt within my own self existentially, that I wanted to examine. … Where and when did it begin? In the writings and lives of the Romantics you find an abundance of documentation on this; they perceived with some sensitivity that they were outsiders, that they were not needed in a society which was in the process of becoming industrial society, of intensifying the division of labor, of turning people into appendages of machines. … The fact that we really can detect similarities here to our own reactions … prompted me to take this so-called step into the past.30

In other words, the early Romantics—particularly the women among them—had already discovered thanks to their remarkable sensitivity some of the negative aspects of modern industrial society, as it was beginning to crystallize in the early nineteenth century. By revisiting their writings, one can find the roots of present problems, both in the East and the West. According to Christa Wolf in the same interview, there are some basic human needs that are not satisfied by the social and economic systems of the two German states:

I mean the need for … poetry in one's life. For everything that can't simply be counted or measured, or put in statistical terms. And here literature has its role as a means of self-assertion. … And here we're back on the path that takes us straight to Romanticism again …31

Christa Wolf's novels and essays of the late seventies are Romantic not only because their subject matter is the life of poets and writers of 1804, but because they give literary expression to a deep elective affinity with the dilemmas, values, and desperate hopes of the early Romantics. At the same time, her specific interest in women writers and poets reflects her increasing concern with gender issues and patriarchal structures.32

Let us now attempt a closer examination of No Place on Earth. The structure of the novel is somewhat static: it describes an imaginary meeting in 1804 between Heinrich von Kleist and Karoline von Günderrode (who would soon commit suicide), at the house of Merten, a merchant, in Winkel on the Rhine. Among the other guests are the poet Clemens Brentano; the philosopher of law Savigny who is married to Clemens's sister, Gunda; the physician Wedekind; and the scientist Nees von Esenbeck. Günderrode previously had an emotional attachment to Savigny but presently is trying to liberate herself from this bond. During the afternoon, she and Kleist are drawn to each other by a common feeling of dissatisfaction with the shallow conversation of the tea room. They leave together for a short walk, during which they reveal to each other their innermost feelings, ideas, and doubts. They soon separate, and Kleist returns to Mainz. The first part of the novel is mainly composed of Kleist's and Günderrode's interior monologues, while only in the last part does an authentic dialogue take place between them.

The two poetic and tragic figures stand in stark contrast to the others. Joseph Merten, a “wholesale dealer in spices and perfumes” and a patron of the arts and sciences, is the ideal bourgeois philistine (KON 43). He cannot understand why works of poetry should not be written with the same order and transparency as his own accounting books—“why should the rules that have been tried and tested in one discipline not be valid in another?” (KON 78) Ness von Esenbeck is the classic “scientific philistine” who rejects the hypochondriacal lamentations of the literary gentlemen in the name of “spirit of the times” and “scientific progress” (KON 79) His only wish would be to live two hundred years later, in the paradisiacal condition humanity will then enjoy, thanks to the development of science. Finally, Savigny, the founder of the arch-conservative Historical School of Law, represents the philistine intellectual, who insists on the neat separation of the realm of thought from the realm of action, and who categorically refuses to measure life by an ideal.

Against this gray and conformist background, Kleist's figure stands out as the embodiment of a higher spiritual imperative. In spite of his vacillating political loyalty between Napoleon and Prussia, he believes in certain values which he is not willing to compromise. When Merten suggests that he make a living out of his literary production, he answers with “unexpected vehemence” that he refuses to “write books for money” (KON 65). He explains to Savigny that he cannot accept the established views on what is honorable and what is contemptible: “I carry an inner rule in my breast, against which all the exterior ones, even if they are signed by a king, have no value whatsoever” (KON 68). And in a debate with Esenbeck, he sharply criticizes the “cyclopic one-sidedness” of the scientific disciplines, while praising the human thirst for knowledge and enlightenment: “without Aufklärung the human being is little more than an animal” (KON 80–81). However, like most of the Romantics, he believes that science has been perverted in modern society: “as soon as we enter the realm of knowledge, it seems an evil spell turns against us the use we make of our learning” (KON 81).

Kleist's state of mind is one of desperation. Deeply disappointed by his experiences in France and Prussia, he does not believe that he can find a place on earth that would fit him: “Unlivable life. No place on earth” (KON 108). It is in fact not so much a question of place as of time: it is the Zeitgeist that makes life so miserable. And here is the point where he intuitively feels that Karoline von Günderrode shares his feelings. While people like Merten “praise the advantages of the new times in relation to the old ones, … myself, Günderrode, myself and you, I think, we suffer under the evils of the new ones” (KON 86).

Christa Wolf's Günderrode possesses a rebellious mind. When she wants to break loose from her bonds of dependence towards Savigny, he complains of her “republican sentiments” (which he defines as “a little residue of the French Revolution”) and her “extravagant independence” [outrierte Selbständigkeit] (KON 50, 59). But she clings with all her forces to this proud autonomy, whose terrible limit is the dagger she carries always with her, in order to be ready at any moment to put an end to her life. In one of her poems, published under the male pseudonym “Tian,” she rejects as disloyal those (such as Savigny) who with “cold consciousness” [kaltes Bewuβtsein] “judge,” “calculate,” and “measure” things of love (KON 75). Unlike those artists who seek only glory and success, poetry is for her the product of an inner need, of a burning and nostalgic desire [Sehnsucht] to express her life in a permanent form (KON 36).

While the other men at the tea party (Clemens Brentano, Savigny) treat her as an object, a sort of “private property,” she finds in conversation with Kleist the possibility of a meaningful human (not necessarily erotic) exchange.33 Beyond the barriers of reified gender identity and gender hierarchy, two human beings meet and disclose to each other their highest feelings and ideas. The following dialogue is characteristic of their shared Romantic and utopian striving:

Kleist: I often think: what if the first ideal condition [Idealzustand], which nature produced and that we had to destroy, never leads to that second ideal condition, through the organization that we give ourselves?

Günderrode: If we stop hoping, then what we fear will certainly happen.

(KON 117)34

It is difficult not to hear in this last phrase an echo of Bloch's philosophy of hope. Although many of the dialogues in No Place on Earth are more or less literal quotations from the writings and correspondence of the historical figures, Wolf has of course selected and re-interpreted this material, in the light of her own critical and feminist sensibility.

At the same time as she was writing the novel, Wolf prepared a collection of Karoline von Günderrode's writings (poems, prose, letters), which Wolf published in the same year (1979) with the title (taken from one of Günderrode's letters) “The Shadow of a Dream” [Der Schatten eines Traumes].35 This text reveals the reasons for Christa Wolf's keen interest in early German Romanticism, and the topicality of this cultural universe for the problems of the contemporary world.

First of all Wolf emphasizes the strong anti-bourgeois character of the movement. The Romantics of 1800 were a small group of intellectuals—“a vanguard without backing, as so often in German history since the Peasant Wars”36—that fought a lost war against the narrow-minded spirit of the German bourgeoisie—an under-developed class which took from the bourgeois catechism only one commandment: “enrich yourselves!” and whose only moral interest was “to bring the unbridled urge for profit into harmony with the Lutheran-Calvinist virtues of diligence, thriftiness and discipline” (“ST” 7). They were a generation which rebelled against the arid rationalism of those times (not unlike the vulgar materialism of ours)—a “shallow state of mind” [Plattheit] which pretended to explain everything but did not understand anything—against icy abstraction and the irresistible consolidation of destructive structures, against “pitiless utilitarian thinking” [erbarmungsloses Zweckmäβigkeitsdenken] (“ST” 10). In one word, against all the aspects of modernity that lead to fear, depression and self-destruction (“ST” 7–10).

She quotes a philosophical poem by Karoline von Günderrode as a testimony to the reaction of this Romantic generation to the “downgrading of the great intellectual climax of the German Enlightenment [Aufklärung] into a low pragmatic reasoning [pragmatische Vernünftelei]” (“ST” 10), into the flat and colorless world-image of these times:

The heavens have collapsed, the abyss is filled,
And covered up with reason, and very comfortable to walk.

(“ST” 10)

Equally opposed to narrow-minded feudalism and to the sorry acquisitive spirit [tristen Erwerbsgeist] of the new times, Günderrode longs for a lost paradise: “This epoch seems to me dull and empty; a nostalgic pain [sehnsuchtsvoller Schmerz] draws me strongly towards the past” (“ST” 22). As a Romantic woman poet, she is doomed to become an outsider; and in her complex relationship with three men (Clemens Brentano, Karl von Savigny, and Friedrich Creuzer) she achieves nothing but, in her own words, “the shadow of a dream” (“ST” 19). According to Wolf, one can find in her letters and poems the desperate hope that “between men and women there could exist other relations than those of domination, subordination, jealousy, property: egalitarian, friendly, helpful ones” (“ST” 21). Through her writings, she struggles to be an autonomous subject, but “this process of becoming a subject goes against the grain of the Zeitgeist, which presses for utility, valorization [Verwertbarkeit], and the metamorphosis of all relationships into exchange-value. As if an evil spell had been cast on things and people” (“ST” 21).

Reading the correspondence between Günderrode and her friends (Lisette Nees and Bettina von Arnim), Wolf comes to the conclusion that these young women, the first feminine intellectuals, “experience the beginnings of the industrial era, the division of labour, and the divinisation of Reason as a violation of their nature” (“ST” 28). The signs they left can only now be again perceived, accepted, and understood. Not accidentally, it was precisely among women that the evils of the times were so uncompromisingly judged. Their economic marginality and the impossibility of their striving for a position, a public charge, liberated them from the need to legitimate the spirit of subjection [Untertanen-Ungeist]. By a strange inversion, it was from a situation of total dependency that grew “an entirely free, utopian thinking,” poetically conveyed in Karoline von Günderrode's dream: “Yes, a time must come when each being will be in harmony with itself and with others” (“ST” 51). Poetry, comments Wolf, has an affinity with the essence of utopia, because it has “a painful/joyful inclination to the absolute” (“ST” 51).

Günderrode was rescued from oblivion by her friend Bettina von Arnim, who published a revised version of their correspondence in 1840. In a postface to the 1980 republication of this book, Die Günderrode, Christa Wolf wrote an essay on this other impressive woman writer, too often defined only by her relation to male figures (Clemens Brentano's sister, the friend of Goethe, or the wife of Achim von Arnim); Bettina von Arnim's works are among the few that keep alive the radicalism of early Romanticism during the first half of the nineteenth century. Because of her sympathy for the proletariat, Bettina was accused of communism and her books were forbidden by the Prussian authorities: “The soulless mechanicism that was transposed from the rising machine system to social relationships and human beings, was for her an abomination.”37

Commenting on their correspondence, Wolf is fascinated by the way the two Romantic women “symphilosophized” over “a religion of humanity and of life-joy,” radically opposed to the male cult of aggression (“NJ” 312); their friendship was a utopian experiment, an attempt to give life to a different sort of reason and progress, a kind of enlightenment thought opposed to the “one-sidedness of instrumental and reified thinking” and to “the soulless mechanisms of a philosophy that kills any form of spirit [geisttötenden]” (“NJ” 314). They both dreamt of an alternative to the exploitation of nature, the inversion of means and ends, and the repression of all feminine elements in the new civilization. Bettina's melancholic writings and Günderrode's suicide bear witness to this lost battle (“NJ” 312–314). These two essays constitute one of Christa Wolf's most illuminating and articulate attempts to uncover the common roots, the secret solidarity, and the intimate kinship between Romantic protest and feminist utopia.

With the publication of Cassandra in 1983, the whole process of maturation of the combined feminist and utopian Romantic worldview of Wolf culminates. For in this work, Wolf gives these two tendencies—which were present from the start and which had become increasingly prominent in the course of her development—their most conscious, explicit, and elaborated form. She intertwines them into equally important facets of a single, seamless vision. While in No Place on Earth Wolf had linked herself with an earlier Romantic tradition, in Cassandra she articulates the essential core of the utopian Romantic impulse: reaching to the past for inspiration in imagining a future that can transcend a degraded present. Cassandra most clearly manifests the overall structure of the Romantic vision. Here also Wolf's feminism, which had remained to a certain extent latent in earlier productions, comes to be overtly and forcefully expressed as one of the central focuses of the work.

Cassandra is a series of five “lectures” delivered by Wolf at the University of Frankfurt in 1982, the first four made up of accounts and reflections involving her recent travels in Greece and readings in ancient Greek culture, while the last piece takes the form of a short novel which reinterprets the Cassandra legend. The first four pieces were originally published separately as Conditions of a Narrative [Voraussetzungen einer Erzählung], but Wolf has made it clear that these and the novel “together form an aesthetic whole.”38

In the preface to the Conditions, Wolf states that in Cassandra, her “overall concern is the sinister effects of alienation”;39 the preliminary lectures are indeed first and foremost a landscape of alienation, a bleak portrait of the “barbarism of the modern age” (CNFE 159). Beginning with her unease in the antiseptic atmosphere of airports and airplane, a microcosm of society in which no one cares about anyone else, the travel account records her discovery of modern Greece, defaced by pollution (fast destroying remnants of the past, including the most sacred sites, like Eleusis) and architectural ugliness (“concrete cubes,” indicating that the Greek sense of beauty has given way to the “domination of effectiveness over all other values” [CNFE 203]). In Athens she finds an “overcrowded, hurrying, homicidal, money-chasing city that pumps out smoke and exhaust fumes, trying to catch up … [with more ‘advanced’ countries],” in which all that holds together the “city-monads” is “the hunt for the drachma” (CNFE 159–60). In her later reflections, Wolf develops her thoughts on modern civilization more generally, notably focusing on mechanism, the alienation of labor, and the ideology of scientism and bureaucracy (CNFE 151). Within this civilization, she evokes particularly the “desperate plight” of women, who find themselves in a worse situation even than that of Cassandra, victim of an early stage of modern development (CNFE 195).

Wolf notes the existence of a few pockets of life held over from the past—several gypsy women who carry “a circle of relatedness around with them” (CNFE 163), or the traditional Greek village she visits—but they represent no solution for her, since in them community and meaningful value also imply the total subservience of women. For her religious belief is impossible as well—modern skies are “mute and meaningless” (CNFE 158)—as is “adventure,” or rather all but “an adventure of the spirit” (CNFE 199); it is this sort of adventure that Wolf engages in as she attempts the imaginative journey from modern Greece back to ancient times.

That journey into the past reveals that the Homeric period—the period of the Trojan war and the Cassandra legend that will be her theme—is already “late”: that is, by then the first, crucial historical mutations have already taken place, on the road that will lead to modernity. Classical Greek civilization worships “false gods” similar to ours (CNFE 237). In one passage Wolf asks when the “turning points” were and also whether they were inevitable (CNFE 251); although she does not try to pinpoint the historical moments of transition, in this and several later passages she seeks to define the nature of these transitions. This attempt attests to the integral connection between feminism and Romanticism in Wolf's thought; she sees the historical process involving simultaneously the advent of patriarchy and of a group of characteristics that will later evolve into modern, capitalist civilization: private property (CNFE 282); class hierarchy (CNFE 296); and the early pursuit of economic efficiency and of “products, more and more products” (CNFE 251). In psychological and ideological terms, this change was accompanied by the body/soul/mind split.

Before these disastrous turns were taken, there existed agricultural matriarchies which worshipped fertility and earth goddesses, in which magic was practiced by female elders or priestesses, and in which a holistic interrelatedness of all aspects of life prevailed. This period, which Wolf suggests is at the very roots of humanity since it was then that the human race developed its specificity in relation to its animal ancestors, clearly exercises a great fascination on her (as does the later Minoan matriarchy that she also discusses).40 Yet she painstakingly distinguishes her position from that of some radical feminists (represented in the text by the Americans Sue and Helen), who make these originary cultures into idealized promised lands. Minoan society, she is aware, included feudal hierarchy and slavery; the primitive agricultural matriarchies were pre-rational and did not yet know individual selfhood. The fact that Wolf cannot accept such societies as a model and warns of the dangers of pure irrationality, illustrates the degree to which her Romantic perspective fully integrates Enlightenment thought within itself.

Her point of view, then, is ultimately oriented towards the future—towards the creation of a future which, while drawing on the past, would be fundamentally new, an Aufhebung of the past. Throughout the Cassandra lectures Wolf raises the question of this future, asking whether there is an alternative to the “barbarism” of modernity. She is assailed by doubts and sees a future transformation of life—a new Renaissance—as merely a possibility, one that the present situation makes difficult to believe in. Her only assurance is that this new future, if it were to come into being, would be at the same time a generalized human phenomenon (she decisively rejects feminist sectarianism or particularism) and one in which women would play a central role, through the contribution of positive aspects of historically constituted feminine consciousness. The last of the preliminary lectures ends by warning that the “words” of women, which “could have the power to cast spells,” are threatened by the danger that women simply come to think like men, so that in spite of formal equality, men would continue to rule through the perpetuation of their mentality—the mentality of destructive modernity. This, claims Wolf, is “Cassandra's message today” (CNFE 305).

The utopian-Romantic structure-of-feeling is articulated in fictional terms in the novella Cassandra—the dynamic of a present that is fallen in relation to the past and beyond which the possibility (but solely a possibility) of a different future remains open. The principal difference between the lectures and the novella in this respect is that, while the lectures do not identify any utopian enclave in contemporary reality, in her story Wolf is able to project a utopian vision within her imaginary Troy. This Troy—based on the one described in the Iliad—already has been corrupted by the vices of modernity and, in fact, can be read as an allegory of our own world.

Wolf refers to the past of this present as a “Golden Age” of “remotest antiquity” before there occurred a “chain of events ruinous to our city … under the sovereignty of a shifting succession of kings” (CNFE 37). Thus patriarchy is well established in Troy at the time of the war, as well as in the camp of the enemy Greeks. Wolf's retelling of the Trojan war demystifies the patriarchal “hero,” revealing his hypocrisy, cowardice, and brutality. She also criticizes the well-established mercantile mentality in Troy and in Greece: in Cassandra's childhood memories she associates the “ascetic, clean odor of my father” with “the goods we traded or transported … the figures of our income and the debates about their expenditure” (CNFE 13–14). Troy at war (and even before the war per se) shows the marks of the police state; Eumelos heads this apparatus, engaging in quasi-Orwellian language manipulation and rewriting of history, as well as having Cassandra followed and then imprisoned.

Within this totally alienated society (or almost—there are some signs that the Trojans have not become quite so corrupt as the Greeks), there exists a utopian “counter-culture”: the women who secretly worship Cybele, an ancient fertility goddess, on the slope of Mount Ida. This worship constitutes an “atheistic religion,” since at least the more sophisticated members of the group recognize that Cybele really stands for “the things in us that we do not dare to recognize” (CNFE 124). A fully egalitarian society in which slave and servant women are as prized as the daughters of royal blood, a tightly-knit community based on giving and sharing, and one whose activities bring into play the whole human being, this group refreshes Cassandra's waning faith in humanity, “by being different, by extracting from their nature qualities I hardly dared dream of” (CNFE 79). Consisting mainly of women, this community is not exclusionary since it includes old Anchises, a carver of beautiful objects in wood, which he then gives away. Possibly the figure of Anchises obliquely alludes to Ernst Bloch, since he “never tired of maintaining that it was always possible” to do what their group was doing, that is, “to slip a narrow strip of future into the grim present … ”; and he “was teaching us younger ones how to dream with both feet on the ground” (CNFE 134–35).

The community of women thus becomes a Blochian Vorschein, a glimmer in the present of what a liberated future might be. This group wonders about the human being of the future: “But more than anything else we talked about those who would come after us. What they would be like. … Whether they would repair our omissions, rectify our mistakes” (CNFE 132). Whereas the group in Moskauer Novelle is affirmative about the future, the community of women in Cassandra is interrogative, reflecting Wolf's uncertainty about a future utopia. In Cassandra, at least, the future remains open and utopia a hope.

In the works following CassandraAccident [Störfall (1987)], Sommerstück (1989), and What Remains [Was bleibt (1990)]—Wolf's pessimism deepens and hope seems to dwindle dangerously. The concluding chapter of Anna Kuhn's Christa Wolf's Utopian Vision addresses the pessimism in Accident and raises the question of whether the very basis of Wolf's vision has not crumbled under the pressure of the most recent developments. The subtitle of Kuhn's chapter is couched in the interrogative: “the destruction of utopia?” An examination of the totality of Wolf's last three books published to date illustrates that, despite a pessimistic tendency, Kuhn's question must ultimately be answered in the negative.

As Kuhn rightly points out, “the tension between hope and despair, so characteristic of Wolf's work since No Place on Earth, is the structuring principle of Störfall.41 In the face of the event that occasions that piece—the explosion of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl—despair weighs heavier in the balance, without however entirely crushing hope. Wolf now sees the modern world, which brings itself to the brink of destruction with Chernobyl, as a system in which “everything fits together … : the desire of most people for a comfortable life, their tendency to believe the speakers on raised platforms and the men in white coats … seem to correspond to the arrogance and hunger for power, the dedication to profit, unscrupulous inquisitiveness, and self-infatuation of the few.”42 This system is seen as monstrous, with humankind having become a monster in relation to the natural order. The dolphins, with “their playful existence, and their friendly behavior,” are favorably compared with humans; try as hard as we may, Wolf feels, “friendly we cannot be,” since “we have accepted the gifts of false gods” (A 98).

Yet the science, technology, and material, quantitative “progress” that have become modern gods are not rejected per se; rather they have been elevated to the status of gods, that is, of supreme values supplanting all others. Wolf recognizes the potential for good in science when she juxtaposes Chernobyl against the (successful) brain tumor operation undergone by her brother. Also, when the narrator of Accident reaches out mentally to her brother on the operating table, communicating with him and helping him in an intuitive, non-scientific way, she projects other values—particularly, the very “friendliness” of which she despairs—as a forceful alternative to the ethos of the modern world. The text ends on a dark note, with a dream in which a voice calls out, “A faultless monster,” and in which a “putrescent moon” sinks out of sight (A 109). But the conditional tense of the final sentence—“How difficult it would be, brother, to take leave of this earth”—still leaves open the door of hope.

While the next work published, Sommerstück, does not close that door either, it does emphasize failure and resignation.43Sommerstück recalls the attempt by a number of friends—artists, intellectuals and others who feel “marginal” in relation to their society—to achieve a fulfilling community by acquiring, restoring, and living (part-time) in a number of peasant houses in a country village. This work may allow us to understand why the Conditions of the Cassandra narrative do not include any utopian enclave of the kind imaginatively represented by the worshippers of Cybele in Cassandra.Sommerstück refers to an experience in Wolf's life mainly before the composition of Cassandra.44 Since Sommerstück is the account of an aborted utopia, we can surmise why the Conditions of 1982–83 did not bring in that subject matter. For in Cassandra as a whole, Wolf still wished to foreground the principle of hope.

The very first page of Sommerstück tells the reader that the experience is now over, that “destiny” did not will its success. And as it draws to a close, Ellen, the character most closely resembling Wolf herself, reflects on the basically unsatisfactory nature of retreat to an island of rural bliss on the part of people who aspire to the transformation of the whole of society. The body of the text nonetheless evokes many moments of “magic” and sympathy in the relations between the friends, and periods of contentment in the beauty of their environment. At the same time, it records tensions and conflicts and depicts how even in such a village, the human and natural environment suffers the incursions of modernity (it also includes a vision of impending ecological disaster). The effort to create conditions of life inspired by the past is threatened throughout and finally doomed. Significantly, near the end when the group conceives the idea of writing a book together with a collective name, like the art workshops of the masters in earlier times, someone comments simply that the present is not the past, and that they no longer have that freedom.

The last published book, What Remains, also a revision of a work first written much earlier, recounts the activities and reflections of one day in the narrator's life.45 One of its main focuses is the possibility of a future different from the present. The situation is bleak, the prospects dim. In one passage the narrator finds that the very language in which she formulates her desire shows that she has begun to think like those who rule the present:

If only there were a machine that could gather up all the hope left in the world and shoot it like a laser beam at this horizon of stone, melting it, breaking it open. Now you're thinking like them. Machines, radiation, violence. Now you're extending their little bit of current power into the future. Then they'd have you where they want you.

(WR 270)

The conditional of the final sentence, though, reaffirms that all is not lost; and the conclusion of the work as a whole firmly reestablishes the Blochian perspective of hope.

For at a talk the narrator gives at the end of the day, a young woman asks during the question period, “how a livable future for ourselves and our children was going to grow out of this present situation.” The question sets off an impassioned discussion of the idea of the future, in which someone softly speaks the “utopian” word “brotherhood”; the atmosphere then becomes relaxed, “as on the eve of a celebration” (WR 286–88). The terms in which Wolf describes this scene leave no doubt that it has itself become a glimmer [Vorschein] of a liberated future. The conclusion of the story reveals the meaning of the title—What Remains is precisely the future, clearly signaling that utopia has not been entirely destroyed for Christa Wolf.

What Remains also largely focuses on the narrator's surveillance by the Stasi; this aspect of the work threw its author into a violent political controversy immediately upon publication. For since she has waited to publish it until after the fall of the Wall and of the East German regime, Wolf was accused of compromising herself with the latter (she has been called by some a state poet [Staatsdichterin]). Further fueling the controversy, Wolf revealed in January 1993 that she had herself been an informal collaborator with the Stasi between 1959 and 1962. Although a full treatment of this question clearly falls outside the framework of this study of Wolf's Romantic/feminist vision, in conclusion we will offer a few remarks on the controversy, particularly insofar as it relates to our conception of her work.

With regard to Wolf's actual collaboration with the Stasi, several things should be emphasized. First, this “pact with the devil” took place over a short period, early on in Wolf's career; corresponding to the composition of Moskauer Novelle, it was a period in which Wolf was quite naive politically and still strongly swayed by an inferiority complex in relation to the anti-fascist aura of the regime's leaders. It was also a limited collaboration, about which Wolf had misgivings and which apparently proved to be rather unfruitful for the Stasi.46 But more importantly, her collaboration was short-lived—unlike that of many other East German artists.47 Wolf's attitude became increasingly critical, and beginning in 1968—with her refusal (along with Anna Seghers) to sign the Writers’ Union statement of support for the Soviet repression in Czechoslovakia—she became suspect herself and was harassed by the Stasi for incomparably longer (more than twenty years) than the period of small-scale collaboration.

As for the doubts cast on Wolf's position in the later period and the suggestions that she was guilty of hypocrisy, they seem highly unfair. As was pointed out by one of her supporters among prominent intellectuals, Günter Grass, she never relinquished hope in the possibility of a transformation of East German society.48 Indeed, for Wolf's utopian-Romantic sensibility the capitalist West—the very root of modernity—was never an attractive alternative. After all, the so-called socialist countries were at least founded on an emancipatory project, although ultimately they had completely travestied it. Christa Wolf chose the contradictory path of affirming the utopian hope of true human self-realization within the constraints of “actually existing socialism.” One must admit, as she herself does, that her political criticism of the East German regime was insufficient; however, her achievement as a writer far overshadows this weakness. As David Bathrick has pointed out, while she never questioned the fundamental political structures of the GDR (the one-party system, the lack of democracy), she at least is “someone who at a moment of danger spoke the unspeakable,” denouncing aspects of East German society that resembled the West and creating “a genuine cultural alternative”49—one, we would add, that is indissolubly feminist and Romantic.


  1. On the concept of “elective affinity” in cultural studies, see Michael Löwy, Redemption and Utopia. Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe. A Study in Elective Affinity, trans. Hope Healey (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1992).

  2. We first presented our interpretation of Romanticism in “Figures of Romantic Anti-Capitalism,” New German Critique 32 (Spring-Summer 1984). This article sparked a debate that can be followed in the collection of essays edited by G. A. Rosso and Daniel P. Watkins, Spirits of Fire: English Romantic Writers and Contemporary Historical Methods (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1990). More recently, we have developed our thesis in a book published in France. See Sayre and Löwy, Révolte et mélancolie: le romantisme à contre-courant de la modernité (Paris: Payot, 1992).

  3. Anna K. Kuhn, Christa Wolf's Utopian Vision: From Marxism to Feminism (New York: Cambridge UP, 1988) 26. The first quoted phrase is the subtitle of the work.

  4. Wolf, Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays, trans. Jan Van Heurck (New York: Noonday, 1984) 278. Hereafter referred to parenthetically within the text as CNFE. For a description of her discovery of Marxism, see Wolf, “Zu einem Datum,” Lesen und Schreiben: Aufsätze und Prosastücke (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1972) 47–53.

  5. Wolf, The Fourth Dimension: Interviews with Christa Wolf (London: Verso, 1988) 111. Hereafter referred to as Fourth Dimension.

  6. Wolf, Fourth Dimension 112.

  7. Hans Meyer, Aussenseiter (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1975). Translated into English as Outsiders: A Study of Life and Letters, trans. Denis M. Sweet (Cambridge: MIT, 1982).

  8. Wolf, Ansprachen (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1988) 42.

  9. See Jack Zipes's introduction to Wolf, Divided Heaven (New York: Adler's Foreign Books, 1976); See also Andreas Huyssen, “Auf den Spuren Ernst Blochs. Nachdenken über Christa Wolf,” Christa Wolf Materialienbuch, ed. Klaus Sauer (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1979) 81–87. For a discussion of the Romantic worldview of Bloch, see Sayre and Löwy, Révolte et mélancolie, chap 6.

  10. Wolf, “Tuesday, September 27,” What Remains and Other Stories, trans. Heike Schwarzbauer and Rick Takvorian (London: Virago, 1993) 35.

  11. Wolf, “Tuesday, September 27” 39.

  12. Wolf, Moskauer Novelle (Halle: Mitteldeutscher, 1961) 21. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are our own.

  13. Wolf, Moskauer Novelle 54.

  14. A similar point is made by Anna Kuhn, Christa Wolf's Utopian Vision 26. Jack Zipes rightly sees in this passage a key not only to understanding Moskauer Novelle but all of Wolf's later work as well. See Zipes, intro. to Divided Heaven 1. The following references to the novel Divided Heaven, indicated parenthetically within the text as Divided Heaven, are to Wolf, Divided Heaven, trans. Joan Becker (Berlin: Seven Seas Books, 1965).

  15. See also Kuhn, Christa Wolf's Utopian Vision 46.

  16. Wolf, The Quest for Christa T., trans. Christopher Middleton (London: Virago, 1988): 97, 171. Hereafter referred to parenthetically within the text as Quest for Christa T.

  17. Wolf, “June Afternoon,” What Remains 53–54.

  18. Myra Love, “Christa Wolf and Feminism: Breaking the Patriarchal Connection,” New German Critique 16 (Winter 1979): 42.

  19. Inta Ezergailis, Woman Writers—The Divided Self (Bonn: Bouvier, 1982).

  20. Wolf, Lesen und Schreiben. Neue Sammlung (Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1980) 45–46.

  21. On this point, see the interesting (but unsympathetic) essay by Richard Herziger and Heinz-Peter Preusser, “The GDR Literature in the Tradition of the German Critique of Civilization,” Text und Kritik. Sonderband. Literature in der DDR—Rückblicke (Munich: H. L. Arnold, 1991).

  22. Wolf, “Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers,” Gesammelte Erzählungen (Frankfurt/Main: Luchterhand, 1981) 97–123. Hereafter referred to parenthetically within the text as NLK.

  23. Wolf, Fourth Dimension 36.

  24. Wolf, “Self-Experiment: Appendix to a Report,” trans. Jeanetts Clausen, New German Critique 13 (Winter 1978): 113. Hereafter cited parenthetically within the text as SE.

  25. Wolf, Fourth Dimension 35.

  26. Wolf, Fourth Dimension 34–35.

  27. Helen Fehervary and Sara Lennox, Introduction to Christa Wolf, “Self-Experiment,” New German Critique 13 (Winter 1978): 111–12.

  28. Wolf, Kein ort. Nirgends (Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1981). Hereafter referred to parenthetically within the text as KON.

  29. No Place on Earth can be seen as part of an attempt by members of the socialist literary avant-garde to rehabilitate the Romantics.” (Kuhn, Christa Wolf's Utopian Vision 142). See also Monika Totten, “Zur Aktualität der Romantik in der DDR: Christa Wolf und ihre Vorläufer(innen),” Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie 101.2 (1982): 244–62.

  30. Wolf, Fourth Dimension 91–92.

  31. Wolf, Fourth Dimension 100.

  32. Kuhn, Christa Wolf's Utopian Vision 143, 174.

  33. Kuhn notes that “the dialogue between Kleist and Günderrode, the climax of No Place on Earth, distinguishes itself from the conversations at Merten's, which both view as empty chatter, in that it is an exchange of intellectual equals who are able to perceive each other as autonomous subjects.” See Kuhn, Christa Wolf's Utopian Vision 164–65.

  34. The dialogue is constructed in such a way that it is difficult to know always who is speaking, thus emphasizing the spiritual community of the two Romantic writers.

  35. “The Shadow of a Dream” is also the name of the essay which introduces the book—one of Wolf's most brilliant pieces. To say that it illuminates the novel and brings out its historical context is not enough. It is a literary and critical gem and a decisive contribution to the rediscovery of the life and works of the young Romantic poet who killed herself in 1806 at the age of 26.

  36. Wolf, “Der Schatten eines Traumes,” Karoline von Günderrode, Der Schatten eines Traumes. Gedichte, Prosa, Briefe, Zeugnisse von Zeitgenossen (Darmstadt and Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1981) 7. Hereafter cited parenthetically within the text as ST.

  37. Wolf, “Nun Ja! Das nächste Leben geht aber heute an. Ein Brief über die Bettine,” Lesen und Schreiben. Neue Sammlung 287, 311. Hereafter referred to parenthetically within the text as NJ.

  38. Wolf, Fourth Dimension 118.

  39. Wolf, Cassandra 142. The English edition comprises all five texts in the same volume, but places the novel first, in spite of the fact that the term applied to the other pieces—Conditions [Voraussetzungen]—implies precedence. In discussing the work we will therefore restore the original, intended order.

  40. For Wolf's discussion of Minoan culture, see Wolf, “The Travel Report Continues, and the Trail is followed,” Cassandra 182–224.

  41. Kuhn, Christa Wolf's Utopian Vision 221.

  42. Wolf, Accident: A Day's News, trans. Heike Schwarzbauer (London: Virago, 1989) 17. Hereafter referred to parenthetically within the text as A.

  43. Wolf, Sommerstück (Frankfurt/Main: Luchterhand, 1989).

  44. Wolf wrote the first versions of Kassandra in the late seventies and very beginning of the eighties. Revised in 1987, it was published only in 1989.

  45. In Wolf, What Remains and Other Stories, see note 10. Originally published as Was bleibt: (first version: 1979; revision: November, 1989; publication: 1990). Hereafter referred to parenthetically within the text as WR.

  46. See Todd Gitlin's article on Wolf based on several interviews: “I Did Not Imagine That I Lived in Truth,” New York Times Book Review (4 Apr. 1993).

  47. See “Sleeping with the Enemy: Stasi and the literati,” Newsweek (8 Feb. 1993); and “Intellectuels est-allemands sur la sellette,” Le Monde Diplomatique (April 1993) 11.

  48. “Intellectuels est-allemands sur la sellette” 11.

  49. David Bathrick, “Intellectuals After Stalin,” forthcoming.

Mona Knapp (review date Summer 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of Auf dem Weg nach Tabou, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 579–80.

[In the following review, Knapp offers a mixed assessment of Auf dem Weg nach Tabou.]

Christa Wolf describes her ideal form of writing as a mixture of subjectivity and objectivity, in which her personal encounters and literary efforts are recorded simultaneously. Accordingly, the collection Auf dem Weg nach Tabou mixes diverse levels of experience, often leaving the reader to sort out the relevance of one to the other, and to establish the boundaries between the writer's private and public spheres.

These twenty-eight minor works (nine of which were previously unpublished) can be sorted into four basic categories. The first is made up of journal entries, letters, speeches, and autobiographical reflections, which give an ample glimpse into Wolf's private world. Most notably, she observes and critiques the reunification process as it affected private citizens (and the literary community) in the former German Democratic Republic. Very subjective in quality as well are the texts in the second group, her commissioned pieces on nonliterary subjects such as “Cancer and Society” or contemporary art. When outside her area of expertise, Wolf is earnest but generally uninspired. Her verbose commentaries are accompanied by illustrations (artwork by Nuria Quevedo and others).

In welcome contrast, a third group of essays reveals Wolf's insights about other twentieth-century authors. Here her pen tends to mimic its subject in style and niveau; thus it is not surprising that the volume's strongest pieces are the portraits of Heinrich Böll (a posthumous eulogy on his seventy-fifth birthday), Anna Seghers (a second reprint of Wolf's introduction to a 1994 photobiography), and Max Frisch (on the author's death). Other writers addressed include Friederike Mayröcker, Grace Paley, Otl Aicher, Paul Parin, and the Germanist Hans Mayer.

The volume's most salient reason for being, however, is presumably the cluster of texts documenting Wolf's response to the criticisms recently leveled at her by the popular press. German authors have always been closely scrutinized for their political correctness, and Wolf is not the first suddenly to find herself on a conspicuous side of the perpetually shifting ideological fence. Attacked by Der Spiegel on the basis of her brief involvement with the East German secret police (under an assumed name) in 1959–60, Wolf describes the experience as comparable to witnessing one's own public vivisection. She documents her side of the controversy with letters from and to friends (Günter Grass, Volker and Anne Braun) as well as with lengthy journal entries, describing her shock and depression over an episode “which will forever remain a painful, dark spot” in her career. Wistfully, Wolf admits that in her weak moments she “envies those who were always on the right side at the right time.” Whatever one's view of East-West literary politics, it is certainly not a media prerogative to determine the “right side” and pass judgment on those who ostensibly transgressed—some thirty-five years ago.

All in all, the volume's purpose is to document in a convenient and accessible form this prolific writer's activities in the turbulent five-year period beginning in late 1989: her redefinition and reintegration of self as her country radically reshaped its identity. As such, the book is also her farewell to the poignant world of Kindheitsmuster—the dual Germany that formed Wolf's work and the literary life of her generation.

Peter Graves (review date 4 October 1996)

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SOURCE: “A Scapegoat, not a Sorceress,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 4, 1996, p. 17.