Peter Weiss Weiss, Peter

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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Peter Weiss 1916-1982

(Full name Peter Ulrich Weiss) German-born Swedish dramatist, autobiographer, novelist, scriptwriter, nonfiction writer, filmmaker, translator, journalist, and illustrator.

The following entry provides an overview of Weiss's life and works. For additional information on his career, see CLC, Volumes 3, 15, and 51.

Weiss is considered to be among the most important and controversial dramatists to emerge in post-World War II Europe. Throughout his career, he viewed his work as an instrument for self-discovery and political debate. His dramas, autobiographical novels, films, and other artistic endeavors are informed by his lifelong commitment to Marxism, his sense of displacement from society, and the guilt he harbored for having escaped the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust.

Biographical Information

Weiss was born on November 8, 1916, in Nowawes, an industrial province near Berlin. His father, Eugen Weiss, was a textile manufacturer of Jewish descent who had converted to Christianity; his mother, Frieda Hummel Weiss, was a gentile. They raised their children in the Lutheran church. In 1934 the family moved to England, and, two years later, to Czechoslovakia. Weiss enrolled in the Art Academy in Prague, where one of his paintings was awarded a first prize. At this time he began a correspondence with the novelist Hermann Hesse, whom he viewed as a father figure. Weiss fled Czechoslovakia in 1938 before the Nazi occupation and moved to Sweden, where his parents had permanently settled. Disillusioned by his family's adherence to bourgeois values while most of Europe was under siege, Weiss joined a commune of German-speaking artists and refugees in Stockholm. He exhibited his work in single and group shows and sold one painting to the National Museum. He taught courses in art and film theory, and made a number of short documentary films. In 1944 he married a Swedish painter with whom he had a daughter, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1947. In 1952 he began to live with Gunilla Palmstierna, an artist who became his collaborator, designing the sets and costumes for his plays. The couple married in 1964. Throughout his life Weiss experienced feelings of isolation and alienation—recurrent themes in his novels and plays—and he underwent psychoanalysis for many years. He was the recipient of many awards for his work, including the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize of the German Academy of Language and Literature, which he received shortly before his death of a heart attack in 1982.

Major Works

In Weiss's autobiographical novels Abschied von den Eltern (1961; The Leavetaking) and Fluchtpunkt (1962; Vanishing Point), he recounts the alienation and guilt he experienced during his adolescence and his eventual triumph of self-realization, juxtaposing his maturation with the rise of Nazism, World War II, and his family's flight from Germany. Weiss also published three installments of Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, a series of novels centering on the artistic and ideological maturation of a young German intellectual. In these works, he draws upon his own experiences to chronicle Europe's turbulent political climate preceding World War II.

Weiss's dramas incorporate the same themes as his fiction. Die Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean Paul Marats, dargestellt durch die Schauspielgruppe des Hospizes zu Charenton unter Anleitung des Herrn de Sade (1964; The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, commonly referred to as Marat/Sade) illuminates his pessimistic view of human existence since World War II. Set in an insane asylum and freely mixing dramatic genres, the play revolves around the two protagonists, the Marquis de Sade and the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, who embody for Weiss the dualism of humanity. Marat is the ideological, pre-Marxist intellectual who commits violent acts for the good of society, while Sade symbolizes self-indulgence and mindless anarchy. Marat/Sade won a Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best foreign play. Weiss's next major drama, Die Ermittlung (1965; The Investigation), consists of transcribed testimony taken from the Auschwitz War Crimes trial held in Frankfurt in 1964 and 1965. By deliberately omitting the words “Jew,” “Nazi,” and “German” from the text, Weiss implies that the atrocities committed at Auschwitz were universal in nature and that all of humanity should share in their responsibility and guilt. His final dramas focus more on individuals than on historical incidents. Like his previous plays, these pieces are informed by Marxist doctrine. In Trotzki im Exil (1970; Trotsky in Exile), Weiss employs flashbacks to chronicle the life of Leon Trotsky, documenting his role as a leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution, his ideological differences with Joseph Stalin during the early years of the Soviet Republic followed by his expulsion from Russia, and his murder in Mexico City in 1940.

Critical Reception

Weiss is recognized as a significant German dramatist in the post-World War II period and his plays have garnered much critical attention. Commentators discuss the central thematic concerns of his work, such as alienation, the mechanisms of history, and the conflicts between individualism and collectivism, reality and illusion. The influence of such dramatic movements as the Theater of Cruelty and the Theater of the Absurd, as well as the writings of Franz Kafka, André Gide, and Bertolt Brecht, has also been studied by scholars. Critics maintain that Weiss created highly unorthodox plays that are imbued with vivid sensory perceptions intended to shock and assault the sensibilities of his audience. Because the majority of dramas revolve primarily around his Marxist beliefs and his nihilistic vision of postwar society, Weiss's works have sometimes been judged lacking in artistry. Yet his work has been acclaimed for its courage and honesty in exploring sensitive issues such as the Holocaust, the effects of war on society and the individual, and the destructive power of the Nazi regime.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Från ö till ö [published in German as Von Insel zu Insel] (sketches) 1947

De besegrade [published in German as Die Besiegten] (sketches) 1948

Die Versicherung [Insurance] (play) 1952

Duellen [published in German as Das Duell] (novel) 1953

Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers [The Shadow of the Coachman's Body] (novella) 1960

Abschied von den Eltern: Erzählung [The Leavetaking] (novel) 1961

Fluchpunkt: Roman [Vanishing Point] (novel) 1962

Das Gespräch der drei Gehenden [Conversation of the Three Wayfarers] (novella) 1963

Nacht mit Gästen (play) 1963

*Die Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean Paul Marats, dargestellt durch die Schauspielgruppe des Hospizes zu Charenton unter Anleitung des Herrn de Sade: Drama in Zwei Akten [The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade: A Play] (play) 1964

Die Ermittlung: Oratorium in Elf Gesängen [The Investigation] (play) 1965

Diskurs über die Vorgeschichte und den Verlauf des lang andaürnden Befreiungskrieges in Viet Nam als Beispiel für die Notwendigkeit des bewaffneten Kampfes der Unterdrückten gegen ihre Unterdrücker, sowie über die Versuche der Vereinigten Staaten Von Amerika die Grundlagen der Revolution zu vernichten [Vietnam Discourse] (play) 1967

Notizen zum kulturellen Leben in der Democratische Republik Viet Nam [Notes on the Cultural Life of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam] (nonfiction) 1968

Der Turm [The Tower] (play) 1968

Trotzki im Exil: Stück in Zwei Akten [Trotsky in Exile] (play) 1970

American Presence in South East Asia (nonfiction) 1971

Hölderlin: Stück in Zwei Akten (play) 1971

Die Ästhetik des Widerstands: Roman. 3 vols. (novel) 1975-81

*This work is commonly known as Marat/Sade.

Otto F. Best (essay date 1976)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Best, Otto F. “Self-Analysis and Confession: Leavetaking and Vanishing Point.” In Peter Weiss, translated by Ursule Molinaro, pp. 14-23. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1976.

[In the following essay, Best examines the novels Leavetaking and Vanishing Point as works of confessional literature.]

Abschied von den Eltern (tr. Leavetaking) and Fluchtpunkt (tr. Vanishing Point) are important contributions to the genre of confessional literature. Both works are marked by the attempt to reconstruct the past in its entirety, to create an “objective” image of childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. In the course of the confession events that are in the narrator's past take on shape and form in the present.

In each work a narrator gives an account of the contradictory nature which he discovers within himself and which he considers typical of his world and of his time. The authenticity of subjective frankness characterizes both works. The intensity of experience is controlled by a clear prose style that adheres to the exigencies of strict classical tradition. If Leavetaking is closer to the tradition of Rousseau's Confessions in its combination of self-analysis and truth-telling, Vanishing Point follows the pattern of the formative novel and especially of the novel of development, which delineate the confrontation with the formative environment from a negative angle. In the end the prodigal son's sole possessions are freedom and language.

The narrative Leavetaking, written in the period 1960-1961, is a record of psychological captivity. Its points of departure are the death of the narrator's father during a business trip to Belgium, the son's return home with the urn, and the definitive destruction of the family, which had begun with his sister's death in Berlin. Impulses from the narrator's “earliest life” surface in the act of leavetaking. Once again he lives through “the helplessness, the feeling of having been handed over and the blind rebellion” of those days, when strangers' hands “tamed, kneaded, and did violence” to his being.

Even as a child he suffers from the contrast between the “stuffiness,” “the confinement” of the house—the same sensation Weiss attempted to express by the image of the tower in his first play—and the “world outside,” in which he sees a kingdom belonging to him alone. When the narrator describes the child's favorite hiding places, he speaks not of refuge, but of “exile,” a place of banishment. This image may be considered a key concept.

The awareness of being excluded, different, forced into a mold shaped by strangers, of which his name is a part, impels him to ignore his name, to pretend that he is deaf. Naming becomes the first outrage. In The Tower Pablo relinquishes his name, calls himself Niente, and struggles to earn his own name by self-liberation.

The first schoolday increases the narrator's fear to the point of panic, which takes on reality in images of obsession. The world becomes “enchanted”; buildings are “fortresslike”; men appear with “knives.” The classroom becomes a torture chamber; nights are filled with “inconceivables,” with “horror.” “Every night,” the narrator says, “I died, strangled, suffocated.” The daytime world, with its shocks and its pain, continues in nightmares and nocturnal excursions. But a new experience is added to the misery and the pain: desire. “This alloy of pain and pleasure set its stamp on the fantasies of my dissipations.” The hero “savored all the sorrows of humiliation.”

The titles of the books that “pierce the heart” of the adolescent reflect the stage and level of development of body and mind. “The Possessed, The Insulted and the Injured, The House of the Dead, The Devil's Elixir, Black Flags, Inferno—these were the titles that suddenly flared up in front of me and lit up something within me.” Fear and a feeling of menace become tangible and the stuff that shapes one's fate when he listens to a speech that sounded like “an incoherent screaming from hell.” His experience of Hitler's voice marks a crucial change: the boy learns that his father is a Jew. The news comes as a “confirmation” of something he had long suspected. He begins to understand his past. It becomes clear why he has been persecuted, jeered at, stoned. The narrator instantly feels “entirely on the side of the underdog and the outcast”; he comprehends his lostness, his rootlessness.

His experience and the subsequent recognition—which suddenly furnishes an explanation, a reason for suffering that had previously been incomprehensible—allow him to define his own position. Culminating in the public dialogue between Marat and Sade—a clarifying conversation between the author and himself—this awareness becomes the existential reason for writing.

When his favorite sister is run over by a car, shortly before the family's emigration to England, the dissolution of the family begins, and the author paints his first large picture. “Three figures in white costumes, doctors or judges, loomed out of the black background, their faces were bowed in an oppressive severity, their lowered glances refused all mercy.”

He paints what he feels, in order to come to terms with it. Art is used as a means of successfully objectifying personal problems.

In London the narrator becomes an unpaid clerk in a department store. He feels that he has been “banished.” This stint is followed by many months in his father's office. He senses accusations, estrangement, lack of comprehension.

Jacques brings a new dimension into his life. “By evoking my pictures for Jacques I was reminded that I possessed another life, a different life from my life between sample catalogues and rolls of material.” In his conversations with Jacques the hero suddenly loses all fear of life. “Jacques had already fought himself free, he had already conquered his consuming freedom. He had exposed himself to unprotectedness and wounds. In his life there was the wildness and unruliness that I had sought, but also the hunger and the distress.” This friendship causes serious disagreements with his parents, the “totem poles of father and mother.” The son finds himself faced with the alternatives of severing all bonds with his old life or reverting to his former self. He takes leave of his alter ego, the figure that had in many respects been “a wish image,” and drops back into the old captivity, into lostness and “instability.”

In Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf the young man finds a description of his situation, “the situation of the bourgeois who wants to become a revolutionary but is crippled by the weight of established convention.”

However, he also realizes that this book has trapped him “in a romantic no man's land, in self-pity.” “I could have used to advantage a harder and more cruel voice, one which would have torn the veil from my eyes and made me rise and shine.”

Meanwhile the family has moved to Czechoslovakia, where his father had been assigned the management of a textile factory. The narrator enrolls in the art academy in Prague—his parents have granted him a trial year. During his first night in the city he hears his “name” called as he sleeps, the name he had denied, which had been violently forced upon him, like Pablo's in The Tower.

He lives in Prague for a year. Family tyranny is replaced by self-tyranny. He feels guilty, cursed, incapable of commitment; in his sexual impotence he tends toward sadism because “the core of life” seems unattainable. The experiment in freedom and independence is a failure. He is tormented by thoughts of suicide. Gradually he comes to the realization that only one solution remains; to return to the house of his parents like a prodigal son who is “offered the grace” of shelter.

In the meantime the family has moved on to Sweden. There the narrator goes to work in his father's factory. He is a “foreign body,” living in the “vacuum between the world of my parents and the world of the workmen.” He feels his return as a “defeat.” Emigration now seems to him like the confirmation of the “not-belonging” he has been experiencing since earliest childhood. The following two years are “a period of waiting, a period of sleep-walking.” When it is over, at the end of the book, the “break-up” begins “with a violent blow.”

To sum up, it may be said that if the child and the adolescent found the experience of menace and suffering explained by his Jewish origin, the young man found in his emigration the reason for his not-belonging, which implied his failure. The child's fears suddenly appear in a worldwide political context. A dream experience marks the beginning of the break. The appearance of a “man in a hunter's outfit” symbolizes the awakening, the abandonment of passivity, the end of weakness and discouragement; the hero is on the road toward a life of his own. The hunted becomes the hunter, stalking himself. He is filled with the vital force that will give his outcast state a proper core. Henry Miller takes the place of Kafka, as the author puts it in Vanishing Point.

Written in the period 1960-1961, Vanishing Point is a more expansive novel. The searchlight of memory has a wider beam, illuminating a number of secondary experiences.

While Leavetaking was centered on the confrontation with the family, with its conventions and restrictions, the narrator of Vanishing Point begins to question a world that has always been divided into antitheses, into the two camps of victim and executioner, the weak and the strong, the oppressed and the oppressor. At particular times political constellations may reflect these oppositions. A feeling of internal schism is added to the sensation of lostness. The narrator embodies the notion that he contains within himself the dual possibility of victim and executioner.

In Leavetaking the hero briefly experienced the good fortune of admission to the ranks of the strong, although he knows that he belongs to the weak. Vanishing Point refers back to this event when the narrator joins “the party of the stronger” whom he “outdid in cruelty” “out of thankfulness at being spared.” He adds, “The only thing I saw clearly was that I could be on the side of the persecutor and hangman. I had it in me to take part in an execution.”

In almost suicidal fashion, commanding respect and gratitude, Peter Weiss touches on one of the century's basic questions. The brutal fact of lambs turning into wolves, of respectable family fathers becoming assassins, has exposed fissures in humanity's aspect that can no longer be understood in Dostoevskian terms. It is the question posed by Büchner's Danton—“What is this thing inside us that lies, whores, steals, and murders?” The potential for negative unmasking is immanent in man, a permanent feature of his existence. A crucial point, however, will emerge subsequently. To Peter Weiss the excrescences of civilization, of a repressive society, seem to exist only in what he considers the “bourgeois” world.

His self-accusation as potential “persecutor” and “executioner” is a key to the author's entire work. Images of obsession, murder, shooting, and hanging multiply. The young man who had broken with his family, who had refuted middle-class security and intended to consecrate his life to his calling as an artist, now sees himself faced with another alternative: “The only milieu I had wanted was the one I created for myself. I had been allowed to cut out and make the most of it, or die in the attempt.” But “leaving the family” does not bring the “creative explosions” he had anticipated. The “prodigal son” finally returns to the family “castle.”

At this point the narrator discovers in Kafka's work a world that no longer knows the “chance of retreat.” He is alerted to the trial in which he himself is entrapped. Like Kafka's heroes, he feels torn from a way of life dictated by birth and destiny. He is unable either to penetrate or to interpret existence. But his encounter with Kafka's writings teaches him more than the realization of “impossibility and no way of escape.”

The process of being wrenched away, the moment of self-forgetfulness, the confrontation with the truth of being, leads the narrator—as it does Kafka's heroes—to examine his life as if it were something alien.

The transition from universal law to autonomy, which remains a utopian projection for Kafka, is realized in the author's reflection, which is imbued with thoughts of obsession. “The purpose of your survival may be to find out where the evil lies and how to fight it. You are still burdened with the ballast of your bourgeois origins. You know it is all rotten and doomed to decay. Yet you do not dare make a clean break with it. Your attempts at work will be in vain as long as they do not contribute to the struggle to remold society.” Kafka's existential problem is overcome with the help of ideology. The “wall” against which Kafka finally “battered himself to death” consists, in the narrator's opinion, “of laws handed down” which he thinks he can circumvent by a simple “step sideways.”

Before gaining distance from his own past, the author, continually haunted by obsessions, must endure periods of “discouragement,” of “inability to work.”

Finally he carries destruction to the point of deliberate self-abasement, thus experiencing release and a new beginning. “This was the world of madness and I could alter it … it had only eaten away the happy childhood years, but I could find other years, could discard humbug and burst into the laughter of contempt that had once previously been restrained.” Laughter and change—one leading to Marat and to the post-Marat period, the other to Mockinpott and Sade.

In the spring of 1945 the narrator sees the end of the “development” in which he had “grown up.” The horror then being exposed to the eyes of the world, the sight of mountains of corpses, again poses the question: To whom does he now belong, as a living person, as a survivor? Has he been a passive victim or does his passivity rank him among the executioners? The step toward commitment leads to the rough recognition of his personal truth, self-analysis. Who was this self “laden … with dirt, with crap”?

The writings of Henry Miller deal the “death blow” to the world in which the author used to hold “dialogues with Kafka.” Everything was “tangible and possible” in “the dazzlingly bright world of daylight” of Tropic of Cancer; “sex, which in Kafka lay dimly in the background, assumed a tropical luxuriance”; all that had been concealed is exposed. Instead of Kafka, it is Henry Miller now, and his rebellion against any form of authority. The author apparently failed to realize at the time that Miller is actually a product of this “corrupt civilization which was longing for death”—the unintentional reverse side of the coin, so to speak—while Kafka's K “struggles” for the right to be himself.

In the spring of 1947—after a failed marriage, an intense love relationship that ended soberly, and the vain attempt to conform—the narrator arrives at the moment of definite liberation. The wish expressed in Leavetaking to take “fate” into his own hands and to make “the fact of my not belonging a source of power for a new independence” has now become a reality.

In this sense the two autobiographical works refer to one another and join in a single perspective. Leaving home, self-liberation, and setting out for a life of his own—directed chiefly at the realm of feelings—was the condition for mental and artistic autonomy and self-discovery in language; this is the effort and aim that runs through Vanishing Point. In terms of perspective, the vanishing point is that point where straight parallel lines meet in infinity.

Both works have had to be presented in detail because they furnish the basic material, a kind of skeleton key, for Peter Weiss's later work. Perhaps one of Goethe's frequently quoted phrases may be used once more in the twentieth century, the one about “the great confession” of which his works were segments. It undeniably applies to few contemporary writers as much as to Peter Weiss.

The persona of this author as presented in his writing shows his subjective personal conflicts not only as typical of his time but also as a distinct reflection of universal problems. They are thus endowed with a unique prismatic quality, a relevance beyond agreement or contradiction. The result of functioning as a ready mirror is an expansion in scope and dimension, but the themes remain essentially uniform. The subject will invariably be liberation, rebellion—and revolution.

We noted at the outset that at the end of Vanishing Point the prodigal son is left with freedom and language as his sole possessions. To these must be added the awareness of guilt—an emotional reality which even freedom has not done away with. Together they are potential indicators of the future. The narrator feels guilty when, in 1945, he sees “the end of the development” in which he grew up; killing grounds, mountains of corpses, an informal world. He is guilty because he survived, because he knew and thought about “the misery of the world” in general terms, instead of risking his life, daring to change the world. He reproaches himself for not having mustered “the strength to rebel.” The thought of childhood friends tortures him. In 1965 he once again speaks of the “great sin of omission” in a comparison of his own situation with that of Dante. “Who is my Beatrice?” he asks. A childhood love whom he had not dared approach. He was expelled, driven into exile; Beatrice remained behind. If he had had the courage, he would have taken her along on the flight. “Perhaps she was murdered, perhaps she was gassed.”

They meet again in “paradise.” But a modern Dante can see Beatrice “only as a dead person”; for him a description of paradise would be “a description of the oppressed and the tortured.”

Awareness of guilt leads to commitment. The writer becomes a “spokesman” and advocate. Kafka, with whom Weiss had identified at one time, becomes the representative of the “twisted, guilt-laden, doomed, and damned bourgeoisie,” as he put it in Partisan Review.

Kathleen A. Vance (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Vance, Kathleen A. “Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers: The Phenomenology of Alienation.” In The Theme of Alienation in the Prose of Peter Weiss, pp. 6-54. Las Vegas, Nev.: Peter Lang, 1981.

[In the following essay, Vance investigates the alienation of the characters in Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers, concluding that “the degree to which the characters are self-absorbed in their occupations measures the extent to which they are estranged from themselves, from each other, and from the world about them.”]

The central theme of Peter Weiss's narrative, Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers, is that of alienation. The concern of the novel is with alienation as a phenomenon, that is, with alienation as it is experienced by the characters in relationship to themselves, to one another, and to the world about them. The following study consists of an examination of the characters of Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers in order to identify and elucidate the central theme of the novel.

Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers is the description, by the narrator, of life on an isolated farmstead. The narrator lives on the farmstead with the Tailor, the Captain, the Doctor, Herr Schnee, the Housekeeper, the Farmhand, and the family which consists of the Father, Mother, Son, and Infant. The only character in the novel who does not live there, the Coachman, arrives at the farmstead toward the end of the narrative. The narrator keeps a written record of his observations of life on the farmstead, and it is this written record which forms the text of the novel. This unusual relationship between the narrator and the text is pointed out by Rose Zeller in her study “Peter Weiss: Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers. Erzähler und Autor”:

Der Erzähler dieses Textes tritt als ein Mann auf, dessen Beschäftigung das Schreiben ist. Peter Weiss stellt ihn als den Verfasser hin, indem er ihn seine Arbeitsweise, die Bedingungen, unter denen er schreibt, die Schwierigkeiten und Widerstände, die bei der Abfassung seines Berichts auftreten, den Verlauf und die Fortschritte seines Unternehmens schildern lässt.1

Weiss's use of the narrator as the fictional author of the text accounts for much of the complexity of the novel. As Rose Zeller has suggested in the passage cited above, the narrator is the author not merely in the sense that the text is the record of his observations but also in the deeper sense that the keeping of that record is the occupation of the narrator within the novel. Thus, the narrator keeps a record of his observations and he observes in order to record. It is this intimate connection between the narrator's observing and the act of recording those observations which suggests a link between the act of recording and the narrator's observations. At one point in the narration the narrator explains why he has chosen the woodpile as his post of observation for the scenes which follow:

Mit dem Bleistift die Geschehnisse vor meinen Augen nachzeichnend, um damit dem Gesehenen eine Kontur zu geben, und das Gesehene zu verdeutlichen, also das Sehen zu einer Beschäftigung machend, sitze ich neben dem Schuppen auf dem Holzstoss, dessen knorplige, mit Erde, Moos und welkem Laub beklebte Wurzelstücke einen bitteren, morschen Geruch ausströmen. Von meinem erhöhten Sitz aus überblicke ich …2

In this case the act of observing and the act of recording occur at the same time. Rose Zeller draws attention to this passage from the novel in order to emphasize the programmatic nature of the narrator's observations:

Der Erzähler hat seiner Beobachtungsstudie ein ganz bestimmtes Programm zugrunde gelegt: er will “dem Gesehenen und Gehörten Wortreihen nachformen, … um damit dem Gesehenen eine Kontur zu geben und das Gesehene zu verdeutlichen, also das Sehen zu einer Beschäftigung machend.”

(p. 646)

Much of Helmut Lüttmann's study of Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers in Die Prosawerke von Peter Weiss is concerned with explicating the programmatic nature of the narrator's acts of observing and recording his observations. Since Lüttmann's study involves an exhaustive compilation of textual evidence for all his assertions regarding the activities of the narrator, I shall merely summarize Lüttmann's findings. Lüttmann refers to the method of the narrator as an “Ausprägung der Wahnehmungsweise.”3 According to Lüttmann, the narrator purports to register the totality of his observations. Thus, Lüttmann explains the narrator's preference for observation posts such as the top of the woodpile: such a vantage point provides the narrator with an overview of the entire scene. This vantage point also allows the narrator to record the scene while he is observing it (see pp. 12-13). The narrator is not only concerned with registering the totality of his observations but is also, according to Lüttmann, concerned with registering them objectively:

Für den Erzähler des Schattens sind die Hauptkriterien bei der visuellen Erfassung seiner Umwelt: Objektivität und Totalität. Beide Faktoren bedingen sich gegenseitig und führen in der jeweiligen Beobachtungssituation zu einer Systematisierung der Sehweise.

(p. 31)

Lüttmann points out that even in cases where the narrator is unable to record his observations at the same time in which he is making them, the narrator nonetheless records only what he has seen at the time of his observations. For example, Lüttmann considers the scene from the novel in which the Farmhand is unloading sacks of coal from the Coachman's wagon. The narrator records this activity as a series of discrete actions: “In die Kniebeuge gehend, drückte der Hausknecht seinen Rücken gegen den Sack, hob seine Hände über die Schultern, senkte sie hinter die Schultern herab, packte den Sack, straffte die Beine, beugte sich, den Sack auf dem Rücken festhaltend, vor und …” (p. 93). It is clear that the Farmhand is bending down in order to pick up the sacks, a fact which even if it is not clear to the narrator at the time of his observing of the Farmhand's movements must be obvious to him at the time of his recording of the scene since he has by then witnessed the results of the Farmhand's actions, that is, seen the entire wagon unloaded. However, to ascribe purpose to the Farmhand's actions is to provide those actions with a subjective interpretation. Thus, according to Lüttmann, the narrator only records that which he technically saw and thus preserves his objectivity (see p. 24). In this manner, the same values of “Objektivität” and “Totalität” which determine, for example, the narrator's choice of an observation post, also influence the record he makes of his observations. Through showing the applicability of these values to both the narrator's observations and the record of those observations Lüttmann is able to link the narrator's observations with the act of recording them.

Otto F. Best in his study of Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers in Peter Weiss: Vom existentialistischen Drama zum marxistischen Welttheater. Eine kritische Bilanz refers to such a method as an extreme form of Naturalism in its attention to intricate detail and in its avoidance of interpretative information: “Peter Weiss' Methode, die man mit Alfred Döblin ‘streng, kaltblütig’ nennen könnte, ist demnach nichts anderes als eine Fortführung dessen, was Flaubert, Spielhagen begannen, was den Naturalismus, den Expressionismus und Futurismus trug und im ‘nouveau roman’ unserer Zeit weiterwirkt.”4 From this passage it is clear that Best, unlike Lüttmann and Zeller, identifies the narrator with Weiss.

Zeller, Best, and Lüttmann have all been keenly aware of the link between the narrator's observations and the act of recording them. This fascination with the narrative technique of the novel (which is related to the tendency of current literary criticism to “rediscover” the relevance of the modes of narration) has caused these critics and others to pay less attention to the other characters of the novel than would otherwise be the case. Rose Zeller suggests even that since the novel is formed according to the programmed observations of the narrator and therefore has no plot per se, aspects of character which would be of interest in a traditional narrative are of no interest here:

Die geschilderten Personen fungieren nicht als Akteure im Ablauf einer einheitlichen Handlung. Ihre Beziehungen zueinander interessieren nicht. Ihre Erlebnisse werden nicht verarbeitet. Der Erzähler erzählt keine Geschichte.

Stattdessen hat er hier offenbar die Absicht, seine Umwelt in der Art einer Studie auf exakteste Weise zu beschreiben …

(p. 645)

Thus, according to Zeller, the programmatic nature of the narrator's record, his “Studie,” renders the other characters in the novel of little consequence. This is a contention with which I would seriously disagree.

In their concentration upon the figure of the narrator, Lüttmann and Zeller themselves imply aspects of the novel which would seem to suggest that more attention should be given to the other characters of the novel. Rose Zeller points to the ways in which the arrival of the Coachman is foreshadowed in the text through the title of the novel, through the attention drawn to the empty seat at table which the Coachman is later to occupy, and through a series of sexual motifs. The foreshadowing of the arrival of the Coachman is evidence for Zeller of an “authorial” presence. In stressing the fictional nature of the narrator, Zeller is able to point to ways in which the programmatic nature of the narrator's observations is used by the author to achieve certain effects of traditional fiction: “Mit der von seinem Erzähler betriebenen Art des Sehens versucht der Autor offenbar, ähnliche Anteilnahme, Empfindungen und Spannungen im Leser hervorzurufen, wie sie in traditionellen Erzählungen von der Handlung erweckt werden” (p. 655). In other words, certain effects produced within the scope of the narrator's program cannot themselves be accounted for by that program but rather indicate an “author”-consciousness which Weiss permits at times to emerge and become a concrete additional voice in the narration. In his compilation of textual evidence to describe the systematic nature of the narrator's observations and act of recording them, Lüttmann emphasizes a number of cases in which the system followed by the narrator cannot account for the text itself. One such case considered by Lüttmann is the passage in the text in which the Doctor's room is described in minute detail (see pp. 61-63). The fact that the narrator is able to observe the entire room at a quick glance and then, sometime later, able to give a complete inventory of the entire room leads Lüttmann to the conclusion that the narrator possesses “ein ‘übermenschliches’ Erinnerungsvermögen” along with “eine ‘übermenschliche’ Beobachtungsgabe” (p. 83). Another case of some importance considered by Lüttmann is the partial rendition of conversations overheard by the narrator which cannot be explained by his physical distance from or inattention to the speakers. For example, the words of the Father in the room of the Housekeeper are not completely given even though he is shouting and the narrator is in the same room with him. The reply of the Farmhand concerning how so many sacks of coal could have possibly fitted in the wagon is not given in its entirety even though it is given in answer to a question posed by the narrator himself, thus attesting to the narrator's interest in the response. For Lüttmann, the impartial rendering of conversations by the narrator appears not as description but as symbolism. He concludes, “Vielmehr scheinen sie mir symbolhaft eine sehr tiefreichende Kluft zwischen dem Erzähler und den übrigen Personen anzuzeigen, eine Kluft, über die hinweg ein so elementares Kommunikationsmittel wie die Sprache nur schadhaft zu ihm dringt” (p. 39). These cases in which the system followed by the narrator cannot account for the text suggest to Lüttmann that “der Erzähler eine fiktive Gestalt ist, von einem Autor erfunden, und dass der Autor diese Gestalt Grenzen überschreiten lässt, die er ihr zunächst selbst gezogen hat” (p. 83). Lüttmann further observes that even when observations are made in accordance with the limits set by the narrator through his own program of systematically recording his observations, their full significance can only be apparent to the author. For example, the fact that the narrator lives on the top floor of the house implies a symbolic distance between the narrator and the other persons living there. In light of this evidence, Lüttmann concludes the following:

Während der Erzähler auf die Oberfläche der Erscheinungen verwiesen bleibt, zeigt der Autor deren Hintergrund. Auch durch diesen Unterschied wird dem Leser der fiktive Charakter des Schattens zum Bewusstsein gebracht, und es wird ihm gleichfalls, wenn auch in deutlich beschränktem Masse, eine Erwartung erfüllt, die er traditionellerweise immer an die (erzählende) Literatur noch stellt, die Erwartung nämlich, dass bestimmte Elemente des Dargestellten eine übergreifende, ihre blosse Erscheinungsform transzendierende Bedeutung besitzen. Insofern ist auch dieses Werk nicht radikal von einer herkömmlichen Erzählweise abgeschnitten.

(p. 85)

This would imply that it might be helpful to examine the characters of the novel as though the narrator were one of these characters.

Explanations of the characters of Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers, when they appear at all in the critical literature, tend to be in the form of parallels drawn to Weiss's other works or to consist largely of a cataloguing of textual description.

An example of the use of parallels to Weiss's other works to explain the characters of Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers is to be found in R. C. Perry's “Weiss's Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers: A Forerunner of the Nouveau Roman?” which contains parallels drawn between the characters in this novel and those in Weiss's Fluchtpunkt. Perry introduces these parallels with a general remark regarding the autobiographical nature of Weiss's Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers: “Like all Weiss's works, Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers stands in close connection with his personal history and his own experience of life.”5 This remark would seem to indicate that the use of parallels to explain characters in Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers is based upon an appreciation of autobiographical elements as integral to an understanding of the works of Peter Weiss. Peter Weiss's two most obviously autobiographical works are Abschied von den Eltern and Fluchtpunkt. In a direct reference to these two works, Otto F. Best points out the following in his study of Weiss's works:

Wenn es gestattet ist, heute im 20. Jahrhundert noch einmal das vielzitierte, zerredete Wort Goethes von der “grossen Konfession” zu gebrauchen, zu welcher seine Dichtungen Bruchstücke seien, so gilt das fraglos nur für wenige Autoren unserer Zeit im gleichen Masse wie für Peter Weiss.

(p. 37)

In other words, incidents and characters in Abschied von den Eltern and Fluchtpunkt are viewed as based upon Weiss's own personal experiences. The presence in Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers of characters and incidents similar to those found in Abschied von den Eltern and Fluchtpunkt is attributed to the fact that the source of such incidents remains the same, namely Weiss's own personal life. However, not all incidents and characters from Abschied von den Eltern and Fluchtpunkt recur in Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers, and even those which do recur are merely similar and not the same. My objection to the drawing of parallels between the works to explain incidents and characters in Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers is that such a view held by Best and Perry evades the obvious question of the significance of these incidents and characters for the specific work by Weiss in which they occur. The significance of these incidents and characters cannot automatically be assumed to be the same for all the works because otherwise they would recur with obvious regularity and uniformity, which they do not. A more detailed reference to Perry's study “Weiss's Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers: A Forerunner of the Nouveau Roman?” should further clarify my objections to the use of parallels to Weiss's other works to explain the characters in Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers.

In his study of the novel Perry draws a parallel between Herr Schnee, the collector of stones in Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers, and Hieronymus, the collector of fragments from books, catalogues, and newspapers in Fluchtpunkt. Perry refers to a number of other “manic collectors” in Weiss's writings and concludes that “Herr Schnee would thus seem to be a projection from these real-life figures” (p. 217). Perry also points out the resemblance of the isolated farmstead in Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers with the isolated lumber camp in the North of Sweden described in Fluchtpunkt. From this description of the lumbercamp in Fluchtpunkt Perry concludes that the camp cook is the “prototype of the Haushälterin” in Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers (p. 217). While a number of “manic collectors” do appear in Weiss's works and Herr Schnee is an example of such a collector, the mere drawing of a parallel between Herr Schnee in Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers and Hieronymus in Fluchtpunkt does not in itself clarify the significance of Herr Schnee in the novel in which he appears. The categorization of these characters as “manic collectors” merely serves to point out their similarities and does not finally explain the significance of the characters in either work. The drawing of parallels between the characters in Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutchers and other characters in Weiss's works actually removes from scrutiny the central issue in a study of character in the novel. This issue would concern the significance of the characters in regard to the larger themes of the work and would consider the relationships of the characters to themselves, one another, and to the world about them.

In regard to the larger themes of the novel, formulation of those themes also relies principally upon parallels drawn to Weiss's other works. This treatment of theme is particularly noticeable in Lüttmann's study of Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers since his discussion of the novel in all its other aspects is almost exclusively based upon textual observation. Lüttmann refers to the description in Fluchtpunkt of a farmstead in Sweden as “ein Ort der Verbannung, der Verdammnis.” In order that the similarity between the description of the farmstead in Fluchtpunkt and that in Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers may be more easily discerned, the appropriate passages in the two novels are cited. The passage from Fluchtpunkt is as follows:

Die Tür des Abtritts hing schief in den Angeln und ein Bündel langer Bohnenstangen stand in der Ecke, neben dem Schleifstein. Hinter dem Stall war ein Gehege für die Schweine, und ich sah ihre schnuppernden feuchten Rüssel zwischen den Balken und hörte, wie ihre Füsse im Matsch wühlten und ihre borstigen Leiber sich am Holz rieben. Immer wenn ich mich hier aufhielt, war mir, als könnte ich ewig hier bleiben. Es war ein Ort der Verbannung, der Verdammnis, ein Ort, der an ein Bild erinnerte, das Swedenborg von seiner Vorstellung der Hölle aufgezeichnet hatte.6

The farmstead in Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers is described as follows:

Durch die halboffene Tür sehe ich den lehmigen, aufgestampften Weg und die morschen Bretter um den Schweinekofen. Der Rüssel des Schweines schnuppert in der breiten Fuge wenn er nicht schnaufend und grunzend im Schlamm wühlt. … Dies sind die Geräusche; das Schmatzen und Grunzen des Schweinerüssels, das Schwappen und Klatschen des Schlammes, das borstige Schmieren des Schweinerückens an den Brettern …

(p. 7)

Lüttmann considers the similarity between the two passages to be so striking that he concludes “es scheint mir durchaus gerechtfertigt zu sein, wenn man dies Fluchtpunkt-Zitat zur Erhellung des früheren Werkes heranzieht” (p. 93). Considering Fluchtpunkt as a description of Weiss's life in exile, Lüttmann then views the characters in Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers as exiled to the isolated farmstead of the novel. Since any of the political and social conditions which may have resulted in the exile of the characters to the farmstead remain unidentified in Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers, Lüttmann defines exile in the following manner: “Im Schatten erscheint es als ein existenzieller Zustand, und nicht als eine historisch determinierte Situation” (p. 93). However, Lüttmann does not elaborate on any of the particulars of this “existenzieller Zustand” as it is portrayed in the novel. Otto F. Best also refers to the farmstead described in Fluchtpunkt as an “Ort der Verbannung, der Verdammnis” and makes this reference the focal point of his discussion of Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers. For Best it is the description of the “Ort der Verbannung” which explains the role of the narrator in the novel: “Nicht mehr mit dem Blick des leidend Betroffenen wird die Hölle gesehen: sie wird vermessen, aufgelöst in die Groteske, entlarvt. Die Sprache ist dem Autor Mittel, sich die Welt vom Leibe zu halten, als Kunst” (p. 42). It should be emphasized here again that for Best Weiss and the narrator are one and the same. The significance of the novel for Best lies in the narrative technique, in “der absurdistischen Überspitzung der naturalistischen Technik … in der manisch-kühlen Notierung von Abläufen, der Entblössung der Poren einer Realität, deren überwältigende Nähe Ahnung und Wissen bestätigt, Angst und Ekel hervorruft” (p. 53). It is this very narrative technique in its use of detailed description and lack of interpretative information which renders, for Best, the world described in the novel “ein Ort der Verdammnis.” Best elaborates upon this world: “Sie [this minutely described world] bietet sich dar, wie oben gezeigt wurde, nackt, fremd, zerstückelt, herausgerissen aus dem freundlichen Panorama von Tradition und menschlicher Gemeinsamkeit” (p. 51). The world of Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers may be described as “herausgerissen aus dem freundlichen Panorama von Tradition und menschlicher Gemeinsamkeit,” but it is not unpopulated and the narrator is only one of its inhabitants. If this world is an “Ort der Verbannung, der Verdammnis,” it is presumably such for all its inhabitants. In order to derive significance from such a description of this world in Fluchtpunkt, it would seem appropriate to examine the relationships of all the characters of the novel to the world about them. Perry also refers to the description of the farmstead in Fluchtpunkt and concludes that “Weiss's likening this place to Hell leads us back to a consideration of his earlier text as a whole, and tempts us to speculate on the meaning of the world described in it” (p. 218). Parallels drawn between Weiss's texts may serve as particularly fruitful grounds for speculation on the meaning of the world in Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers, and those parallels achieve relevance by a more detailed examination of the relationships between the characters who make up this world.

Lüttmann's examination of the characters of the novel consists largely of a cataloguing of textual description. Lüttmann remarks upon the fact that while the family members are designated by their position in the family (Father, Mother, Son, and Infant), the other characters are designated according to occupation. Lüttmann notes, “Die generalle Kennzeichnung der Personen macht diese Art des Benennens verständlich, denn sie lässt jeden von ihnen als Typus erscheinen” (p. 85). Lüttmann proceeds to assemble the textual references for each character, noting the specific type, or in some cases, anti-type, to which each belongs. For example, in regard to Herr Schnee, the collector of stones, Lüttmann notes, “Schnee verkörpert den Typ des eleganten Privatmannes und Sammlers, der z.B. immer einen silbernen Nagelreiniger bei sich trägt …” (p. 88). In this sense, Lüttmann's understanding of the characters of Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers parallels that of R. C. Perry in his study of the novel. In his study Perry defines the characters as follows: “the characters have little in common with real people—they are exaggerated types, each with one or two special attributes or characteristics which serve to define them” (p. 218). Perry compares the Doctor who cannot heal himself and the Tailor whose clothes are a patchwork of rags with “fairy-tale or parable figures” (p. 218). Perry's use of the word “type,” then, refers to a literary convention, whereby characters are described through one or two attributes rather than through a fuller characterization. Lüttmann also employs the term “Typus” in this manner as is clear from the following statement in which he contrasts characterization in Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers with that in other literary works: “Die relativ selbständig und souverän agierende Persönlichkeit, wie sie für bestimmte Bereiche traditioneller Literatur kennzeichnend war, findet sich unter ihnen [among the inhabitants of the farmstead] nicht mehr” (p. 89).

In summarizing the relationship of the characters to one another, Lüttmann concludes the following: “In ihrer Unfähigkeit, ihren Typus zu verlassen, bleiben diese Personen einander fremd” (p. 91). The inability of the characters to free themselves from the typical (“ihren Typus zu verlassen”) is here an existential predicament, and in this sense it is difficult to understand “Typus” as a literary convention. From the foregoing it is apparent that there is a theoretical confusion involved in the use of “Typus” to describe also an existential state (“bleiben diese Personen einander fremd”). This confusion extends to Lüttmann's reference cited earlier to exile as an “existenzieller Zustand.” Lüttmann's attribution of existential states to types is due to his confusion in levels of analysis. This theoretical obscurity is what Alfred North Whitehead called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” meaning the transferral of terms developed at one level of abstraction to define events at another level. The error involved in Lüttmann's use of the term “Typus” is that he has applied a term which refers to a literary convention employed by the author in portraying character to the states of being of the characters in the novel itself. Thus, Lüttmann's use of types to summarize the textual descriptions of each character in Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers remains an inadequate explanation of the characters of the novel.

In order to examine the characters of the novel attention will now be turned toward the character of the Tailor. Lüttmann refers to the Tailor as an anti-type in the sense that he fashions his own clothing out of rags, and as a clown-figure in his movements and general appearance. The narrator refers to the Tailor as having been given his name by the other people at the farmstead “weil er sich aus alten Stoffetzen seine Kleider selbst näht” (p. 13). What follows is a description of the Tailor's difficulties which Lüttmann refers to as a “Clownsnummer” (p. 89):

Der Schneider erschien auf der Küchentreppe und kam auf den Abtritt zu, in Pantoffeln, auf den Zehenspitzen vorsichtig um die Pfützen stelzend, den Kopf tief herabgesenkt, die Pfeife im Mund. Ich räusperte mich und er fuhr auf. Wie immer wenn er unvermutet einem der übrigen Gäste begegnet, geriet er in einen Zustand völliger Fassungslosigkeit; die Pfeife fiel ihm aus dem Mund und indem er sich bückte und nach ihr tappte, fielen ihm auch die Brillengläser von dünnem Draht zusammengehalten, von der Nase. Seine Hände wühlten in dem gelblichen Lehnwasser; ich kam ihm zur Hilfe, reichte ihm die Brille und die Pfeife und eine Weile versuchte er, sich die Brille als Pfeife in den Mund zu stecken und sich die Pfeife als Brille auf die Augen zu setzen, bis endlich die Gegenstände ihren zubehörigen Platz gefunden hatten; Tropfen des aufgeweichten Lehms rannen ihm über das Gesicht. Er wollte sich unwenden und zurücklaufen doch er kam nicht vom Fleck, seine Hände schlugen abwechselnd auf und ab und wanden sich ineinander. …

(p. 13)

The Tailor's predicament is caused then by an unexpected encounter with one of the other inhabitants of the farmstead: “wie immer wenn er unvermutet einem der übrigen Gäste begegnet, geriet er in einen Zustand völliger Fassungslosigkeit.” Before he is disturbed by the presence of another person, the Tailor is carefully negotiating his passage around the mud. The precarious and somewhat contrived way in which he negotiates this journey is emphasized in the use of the word “stelzend.” It is the artificiality of his movements that renders him so vulnerable to attack. When he is surprised by his encounter with the narrator a chain of events occurs in which all his appurtenances begin to attack him: the delicate balancing of his pipe and eyeglasses necessitated by the forward tilting of his head to negotiate his path through the mud is upset. Just as he initially tries to put his glasses in his mouth and his pipe before his eyes, so when the narrator leaves him the delicate balance of motion initially necessary for his negotiation of his passage through the mud has degenerated into wild but ineffective motions: he is stuck in the mud. There is a second reference in the text to the manner in which the Tailor's elaborately executed motions confound him, and again it is the artificiality of these motions which finally causes the distortion. The narrator describes the motions of the Tailor at table—and the narrator emphasizes that the presence of others is not problematical in the same manner here since it is expected—as “Bewegungen die so durchdacht sind, dass sie ständig über sich selbst hinaussteigen, grosse Bogen, verschnörkelte Arabesken und fuchtelnde Winkel beschreibend” (p. 24). Lüttmann points to this description of the Tailor's motions as “ein Merkmal des Harlekins aus der Pantomime” (p. 89). What Lüttmann fails to note is that, according to the textual description, what is comic about the Tailor's movements is that in their contrivance they so outreach their original function as to achieve an independence and distance from their originator which becomes self-mocking. It is in this sense of being self-mocking that the Tailor is a clown-figure. Just as in the incident in which he is stuck in the mud and his final wild gesticulations are a mockery of the contrived way he set about his initial journey in order to avoid the mud, so here his exaggerated motions mock the initial self-conscious attempt to control his movements. Lüttmann's failure to analyse the source of the comic in the Tailor's movements is only pointed out because of the parallel which exists between my understanding of the Tailor and Lüttmann's analysis of the comic elements involved in the narrator's self-conscious attempt to record his observations. In regard to the comic elements of the narrator's record of his observations, Lüttmann remarks, “Als eine fast permanente Erscheinung leitet sie [the humor] sich aus der systematischen Pedanterie der Wahrnehmung und Darstellung her sowie aus der damit verbundenen Diskrepanz zwischen dem Aufwand an Worten und der Banalität dessen, was mit ihnen erfasst wird” (p. 103). Just as the motions of the Tailor at table are humorous because of the discrepancy between their elaborate, theatrical complexity and their original intent, i.e., to enable the passage of food around the table; so the humor of the narration, as Lüttmann defines it, results from the discrepancy between “dem Aufwand an Worten und der Banalität dessen, was mit ihnen erfasst wird.” The tendency of the Tailor's movements in their artificiality is to end up as a mockery of their original intent either in their inappropriateness, as in the case of his interchanging his glasses with his pipe or in the theatrical nature of his motions at table, or to end in a state of suspended motion as is the case where he is stuck in the mud. A further example of this tendency of the Tailor's elaborate motions to end in a state of suspended animation is furnished by the narrator's description of the Tailor's attempts at eating. As the narrator describes the mouths of each of the people around the table, he characterizes the mouth of the Tailor as follows: “der Mund des Schneiders, gewählt aufklappend und sich erweiternd zur Maulstarre” (p. 26). The narrator also describes the Tailor's appearance as clown-like: To the left of the Farmhand at the other side of the table “sitzt der Schneider, in seinem fadenscheinigen, zusammengeflickten Anzug, scheckig wie ein Harlekin” (p. 24). The Tailor's suit is also apparently always coming apart at the seams, because he spends most of his time stitching it together. The narrator expresses his surprise that the Tailor eats almost as much as the Farmhand “obgleich der Schneider nicht wie der Hausknecht den grössten Teil des Tages im Freien und mit körperlich anstrengenden Arbeiten verbringt, sondern nur in der Stube über seinen Flicken hockt …” (p. 25). Integral to an appreciation of the Tailor is the awareness that although he was given his name by the other guests because he sews his own clothing, tailoring is in fact his occupation in the sense that it occupies most of his time. Rose Zeller in her characterization of the persons of the novel at first remarks that all the people at the farmstead are possibly a little mad “weil sie so merkwürdige Dinge tun” and considers the Tailor's fashioning of “Harlekinskleider aus Stoffresten” as exemplary of this madness (p. 644). However, she then reconsiders her position and notes that the characters need not be judged insane. In regard to the Tailor, she notes, “in einer Zeit der Armut Kleider aus Flicken zusammenzusetzen … das alles ist so sinnlos nicht …” (p. 644). Even people who refashion their clothing out of rags because of adverse circumstances do not spend all their days doing so. What is unusual about the Tailor, if one were to make references to persons in the everyday world, is that he is a tailor who is his only client. What is humorous about this figure is that as a client he has an incompetent tailor. It is the fact that his occupation consumes his time and his actions that is remarkable. As is attested to by the Tailor's obsession with his clothing and with his movements, it is not a preoccupation with self but a preoccupation with an objective extension of self in terms of his physical appearance and self-image. The Tailor's social life consists largely of playing cards with the Farmhand. He engages in this activity during the socializing in the foyer (see p. 37) and the gathering in the Housekeeper's room (see p. 78). The mannerisms of the Tailor even during card playing retain their exaggerated quality as in the following description where they are contrasted to those of the Farmhand: “Dann ordnen sie die Karten in der Hand, worauf der Hausknecht … eine Karte hervorzieht und sie mit Wucht auf den Boden wirft, und der Schneider, hockend mit übereinandergeschlagenen Beinen, dieselbe Geste, doch ausführlicher, noch einmal vollzieht” (p. 37). The only words spoken by the Tailor, except for those shouted in unison with several others when the Housekeeper and the Mother are locked in the closet and those addressed to the Doctor, are the names of cards which he calls out in the course of the game in the Housekeeper's room (see p. 78). The card game is the only form of social intercourse in which the Tailor is significantly engaged as emphasized in the manner in which he is summoned to the game in the foyer by the Farmhand. The narrator describes the initiation of the game in the following fashion: “Aus dem Schatten unter der Treppe kommen Geräusche die auf eine Veränderung der Lage hindeuten und ich sehe jetzt dass der Schneider, wahrscheinlich kriechend, sich dem Hausknecht genähert hat und dies wahrscheinlich weil der Hausknecht ihn mit einem Kartenspiel herbeigewinkt hat” (p. 37). It seems particularly appropriate that the main form of social activity engaged in by the Tailor should consist of a series of separately executed movements.

On the basis of these observations regarding the Tailor, the relationship of the Tailor to himself, to the other characters, and to the world about him may be characterized as estranged. The fact that he is a tailor who is his only client indicates that the particularity of his occupation is its definitive lack of social relatedness. This lack of social relatedness in his primary occupation is illustrative of his estrangement from the world about him. That he is only induced to leave his isolated corner of the room to play cards, an activity that centers around inanimate objects, is descriptive of his estrangement from the other people at the farmstead. Both the way in which he completely loses control when he encounters his fellow guests and the way in which he attempts excessive control over his movements when the encounter with others is expected indicates that he is so estranged from those around him that the presence of others alienates him from his own actions and objects. This alienation is comically apparent when the Tailor's own pipe and glasses seem to assume a life of their own in retribution against him.

Just as the Tailor is his own client, so the Doctor is his own patient. The Doctor is not only his own patient, but also his only patient. This self-absorption of the Doctor's occupation is suggested in the conversation between the Doctor and the Tailor during the gathering in the room of the Housekeeper. When the Tailor complains to the Doctor about his bad back, the Doctor responds with a self-diagnosis (see p. 73). The Doctor is completely swathed in bandages and even wears dark glasses. The fact that the Doctor is almost completely covered with bandages is emphasized by the narrator's phrase describing the Doctor's hand: “die Hand des Doktors mit Verbandsschlingen zwischen jedem Fingeransatz” (p. 24). The way in which all these bandages serve to nearly immobilize the Doctor is apparent in the descriptions of his difficulties in eating and drinking. Everyone at the table is able to drink normally except the Doctor, “der nur den Mundspalt, dünn wie eine Messerkerbe, an den Wassertropfen netzt” (p. 27). The Doctor's difficulties in eating are illustrated in the narrator's description of the Doctor chewing his food: “der Doktor würgend, ohne die Zähne zu rühren, mit der Zunge das Essen am Gaumen zerdrückend” (p. 26). His bandaged state renders the manipulation of inanimate objects extremely difficult as is apparent in the way in which he must hold his cup: “der Doktor drückt den Becher zwischen die freie Hand und die Hand die den Löffel hält und in gemeinsamer Anstrengung klemmen die Hände den Becher dem Mund entgegen …” (p. 28). As the Doctor's manipulation of the inanimate world is constricted by his many bandages, so his relationship to the other guests is inhibited by his preoccupation with his wounds. During the socializing in the foyer, the narrator notes the Doctor's activities with the following description: “rücklings an den Schirmständer gestützt, ist der Doktor zu sehen … mit der einen Hand den Verband am Gelenk der anderen Hand abwickelnd” (p. 37). The evening for the Doctor consists of the unwrapping of his bandage so that at evening's end his wound is finally revealed: “der Doktor löst, mit verzerrtem Mund, das letzte Stück des Verbandes vom Handgelenk und blickt auf die sichtbar gewordene flammend rote Haut …” (p. 38). At the social gathering in the room of the Housekeeper the Doctor's main activity consists of the unwrapping of the bandage around his head until he has uncovered “eine breite, schwärende Wunde” (p. 78). This obliviousness of the Doctor to others is further emphasized through his inattention to the commotion in the Housekeeper's room over the breaking of the music box (see p. 77). Later on in the same evening when the Mother and the Housekeeper are trapped in the closet, the Doctor does not even turn toward the closet door and during the ensuing tumult sits “unbeteiligt in seinem Stuhl” (p. 85). The dual use of the Doctor's room as both his residence and surgery illustrates the synthesis between his life and livelihood. The futility of the Doctor's medical operations is apparent in his remarks to the narrator in which he claims to have cut “bis auf die Knochen” and comes to the realization that the source of infection “sitzt noch tiefer” (p. 59). His medical exercises are hampered further by vision so impaired that he must work in the dark (see p. 60). Given the above examples, a pattern emerges which suggests that for the Doctor the world of self has absorbed into it the world about him. All relationships to the world of objects and to other persons are inextricably linked to his bandages, his wounds, his treatments. Given this preoccupation, the Doctor's inability to adequately treat his own wounds indicates that the Doctor's estrangement from his world, like that of the Tailor, extends to an estrangement from himself.

Herr Schnee occupies most of his time collecting stones. He has collected three thousand seven hundred and seventy-two stones (see p. 36). The activities of Herr Schnee are described by the narrator as follows:

Grosse Mengen von Steinen hat er schon im Laufe der Zeit aus der Erde gegraben und untersucht, zahlreiche Steine die er als unanwendbar betrachtete, hat er mit einem Schubkarren zu einem Haufen hinter dem Holzschuppen gefahren, andere Steine, denen er sein Studium widmet, hat er in sein Zimmer hinaufgetragen wo er sie in Regalen, die ringsum die Wände ausfüllen, verwahrt.

(pp. 12-13)

As Herr Schnee is absorbed in the collection of stones, so the Captain is absorbed in the cleaning of his sword. Their relationship to each other and to the other guests is best illustrated in the episode during the evening social activity in the foyer in which the Captain shows his sword to the Father and Herr Schnee. Herr Schnee then brings out some stones from his pocket “und hält sie über die Säbelscheide, unter die Blicke des Hauptmanns und des Vaters” (p. 32). Social intercourse for the Captain and Herr Schnee consists of sharing objects of their respective occupation: the stones and the sword. Thus, their social relationships merely serve as further evidence for their self-absorption. Nowhere in the narrative is this more clearly suggested than in the episode during mealtime in which the Tailor loses his tooth. The episode is recounted by the narrator as follows:

Er [the Tailor] hielt den Zahn vor sich hin und starrte ihn an. Der Hauptmann sagte, ein Zahn. Auch die Haushälterin sagte, ein Zahn. Herr Schnee streckte die Hand über den Tisch unter die Hand des Schneiders die den Zahn hielt und sagte, mir geben. Der Schneider senkte den Zahn in die Hand Schnees herab, Schnee führte den Zahn zu sich heran, wischte ihn mit seinem Taschentuch ab, betrachtete ihn und liess ihn in die Brusttasche seiner Jacke gleiten, wobei er sagte, auch Zähne in meiner Sammlung. Der Schneider legte die Brotscheibe die er schon ergriffen hatte, wieder zurück und sass nun unbeweglich da. Der Hausknecht ass unbekümmert weiter. Der Doktor kaute mühsam an seinem Brot. Herr Schnee ass weiter. Die Haushälterin ass weiter. Der Hauptmann ass weiter. Ich ass weiter, um das plötzlich aufsteigende Gefühl der Unendlichkeit dieses Morgens zu ersticken.

(p. 67)

Not only is Herr Schnee only capable of relating to the world in terms of his own occupation, but that occupation seems capable of embracing any novel situation. The Tailor, displaying again the tendency of events in his case to end in a state of suspended animation, merely holds up the tooth and stares at it. The Captain and the Housekeeper name the object as though that were sufficient to define the event in all its importance, i.e., as though the tooth itself rather than the losing of the tooth were the event. Herr Schnee, in fact, acts out their definition of the event by appropriating the object into his collection, that is, by relating to any event in the manner to which he is accustomed. The Tailor is still in a state of suspended animation: “Der Schneider legte die Brotscheibe die er schon ergriffen hatte, wieder zurück und sass nun unbeweglich da.” The Farmhand, the Doctor, Herr Schnee, and the Housekeeper continue eating. That the Farmhand is completely oblivious to the event is noted in the words “ass unbekümmert weiter.” That the event has no effect on the Doctor is noted in the fact that he eats with the same difficulty as always: “Der Doktor kaute mühsam an seinem Brot.” The repetition of the phrase “ass weiter” for the Housekeeper and the Captain stresses the repetitive nature of the meal despite the unexpected event. The repetitive nature of the meal is emphasized again by the narrator's “Ich ass weiter” and defined as such by his own explanation, “um das plötzlich aufsteigende Gefühl der Unendlichkeit dieses Morgens zu ersticken.” The humor in this entire scene lies in the repetitiveness of the bizarre responses of the characters. There has hitherto been no mention of teeth in Herr Schnee's collection and there is no reason for anyone to assume that a collector of stones would also be a collector of teeth. It is bizarre that Herr Schnee collects teeth and that the collection of the tooth passes without notice. The entire moment becomes suspended in time just as the Tailor's movements are suspended in space. The suspension in time is not due just to the repetitiveness in the actions but also to the way in which novelty is subsumed by them. Lüttmann's suggestion that Herr Schnee's tooth collection is in keeping with his name, his physical features (pale face), and his interest in white stones (see p. 88) only serves to emphasize the arbitrary nature of the criteria applied by Schnee to the appropriateness of objects for his collection. The arbitrariness of the criteria also accounts for the suggestion that any novel event is somehow capable of being subsumed by Herr Schnee's propensity for collecting. Furthermore, the collecting of the tooth suggests that Herr Schnee's relationship to the people about him and to the objects in his world is so estranged that people and objects are only viewed by him in regard to the extent to which they are occupationally useful.

The primary activities engaged in by the Mother consist of the feeding and care of her infant and the sharing of views on child care, food and clothing with the Housekeeper. The first glimpse of the family in the narrative is given in the narrator's description of his view of the family through the open window of their room. He sees the following:

die Mutter … mit entblösster Brust und an der Brust den Säugling; der Vater am Tisch in der Mitte des Raumes stehend, die Hände zu Fäusten geballt, vor sich auf die Tischplatte gestützt … und ihm gegenüber, nicht sitzend, sondern in der Kniebeuge hockend, der Sohn, das Kinn auf die Tischkante gepresst, die Schultern bis zu den Ohren hinaufgezogen, in den Mund des Vaters hineinstarrend.

(p. 14)

The Son's abject posture in relation to the Father is evidence of the extent of the control which the Father exercises over him. The militant stance of the Father, “die Hände zu Fäusten geballt,” expresses his tendency to resort to violence in order to maintain this control. This tendency of the Father to resort to violence is further attested to by the narrator's description of the sounds heard from the family's room during the evening meal: “worauf ein anderes Geräusch erklang, wie von einem auf einen Körper hart niederfahrenden Riemen, mehrmals wiederholt, bis es wieder still wurde” (p. 28). Late that evening the narrator actually witnesses the beating of the Son by the Father, and it is clear that such a beating is a common occurrence (see pp. 39-40). The Father's proclivity toward violence is illustrated in his conversation after he has sent his son on the long journey to town to have the music box repaired which the son has just broken: “und aus den Bemerkungen die der Vater … verlauten liess, war zu verstehen, dass er von Prügelstrafen, Spiessrutenlaufen, Erhängungen, Enthauptungen, Einkerkerungen, Ertränkungen, Verbrennungen und Verbannungen sprach” (p. 77). It is clear from the references in the Father's conversation to acts of violence such as “Enthauptungen” which are not normally acceptable as disciplinary methods to be used on children that the Father's resort to violence in controlling his son is expressive of a fascination with more general forms of punitive, violent behavior. Just as Herr Schnee's collection of stones is enlarged to include teeth, so the Father's concern with the beating of his son involves a preoccupation with other forms of violence as well. However, despite the Father's proclivity toward violence, the Son's beating occurs in a specific context and it is this context which is to be examined here. During the socializing in the foyer, the suggestion is made that the Son might help Herr Schnee in his activities. The Father is interested since he sees his son as “zu nichts nutze” (p. 35). He calls the son into the room and it is clear from his words that he views this as the chance of transforming his son from a passive loafer into a productive member of the society of the farmstead: “Nutzen, Herrn Schnees Tätigkeit, lange genug zugesehn” (p. 36). Herr Schnee assures them that a salary is involved—“auch mit Lohn rechnen” (p. 36)—and it is clear that the Son is to be initiated into adulthood through his participation in an adult activity. The fact that the venture constitutes a rite de passage for the Son is emphasized by the Captain's use of ritual to close the conversation:

Der Hauptmann hat die Scheide des Säbels aus der Hand des Vaters herausgezogen, er hebt die Scheide und schlägt damit leicht auf die niederhängende Schulter des Sohnes, währenddessen hält die Mutter noch den Jackensaum des Sohnes fest und der Zeigefinger des Vaters ist noch im Knopfloch der Jacke des Sohnes verhakt.

(p. 37)

The posture of the Mother and of the Father at the same time attests to the duress under which the ritual is consummated. The beating the son receives later that night further attests to the force necessary to persuade him to follow his parent's wishes. By the following morning order is restored: “Die Bewegungen des Vaters sind kräftig und erwartungsvoll, während die Haltung des Sohnes Schwäche und Ergebung ausdrückt …” (p. 49). The use of the word “erwartungsvoll,” in light of the ritual enacted the evening before, expresses the expectations of a father for his son as his son takes his first step into the world of adulthood. The characterization of the posture of the Son as expressing “Schwäche und Ergebung” is evidence of his repressed disinclination to engage in the activities of the adult world. The Son's engagement in the activities of the adult world consists of the aiding of Herr Schnee in the collection of stones. Herr Schnee's collection exists for himself alone; he is the sole appraiser of his collection. Herr Schnee's occupation is thus marked by the same singular lack of social relatedness as that of the Tailor who is the single client for the products of his occupation. The Son's involvement is of little help to Herr Schnee. The Son's attempts to transport the stones by wheelbarrow across the yard are marked by failure; each time the wheelbarrow tips over and the stones are dumped over the yard. The Son's assistance in initially loading the wheelbarrow with stones was superfluous since Herr Schnee insisted on performing each task involved right along with the Son so that Herr Schnee “selbst die Schaufel hob, deren Gewicht durch die Arme des Sohnes noch erschwert wurde, und die Schaufel in den Schubkarren auslud, wobei er die an der Schaufel hängenden Hände und Arme des Sohnes mit sich riss” (p. 51). The extent to which Herr Schnee performs the tasks right along with the Son indicates the extent to which the task involved is Herr Schnee's task and not that of the Son. The only significance of the Son's participation in Herr Schnee's activities is in terms of a rite de passage into the adult society of the farmstead. Considering the activities of the adults of this world, the rite de passage is successfully executed through the Son's participation in this self-alienating act: he is successfully initiated into the estranged world of the adults.

The Son again confronts this estranged world of the adults during the social gathering held in the Housekeeper's room. The confrontation, which is disastrous in its consequences, forms one of the most humorous scenes in the novel. The Son, like the narrator, stands near the window apart from the rest of the company and as the outsider acts as the catalyst for the events which follow: his overwinding of a music box initiates a chain of events in which the entire party is thrown into confusion by the Housekeeper. However, the role played by the Son in initiating the disaster does not imply that he is responsible for it since the prelude to the event is described in such a way as to make the disaster appear inevitable. The narrator first describes the path taken by each of the guests in entering the room for the party. This description—in a sentence one and a half pages in length, listing all the furnishings of the room as the guests pass by them—is supplemented by an even more exhaustive inventory of the room. The list of furnishings includes all the items which are later to prove problematical: the iron which falls on Herr Schnee's foot as the Housekeeper attempts to reach the music box; the glasses which spill their contents over several guests; the curtains which later fall down as a result of the Son's pulling at them; the planter which is knocked to the floor when the curtains fall down; the music box which the Son overwinds; and the closet door behind which the Mother and the Housekeeper later are trapped. However, no distinction is made in the narrator's description between these objects in the room and any of the other furnishings listed by him. The effect of such a uniform itemizing of all the furnishings of the room is to make the narrator's description appear as an inventory of undifferentiated, potential disaster. Lüttmann discusses the narrator's attempts in his descriptions of rooms to depict all the objects within his view as producing an “Eigenaktivität der Dinge” (p. 20) in that the passive role assumed by the narrator in refusing to grant any one object importance over any other and in relinquishing predominance over any of the objects places the narrator in the position of subordination to these objects. In regard to the specific instance of the party in the Housekeeper's room Lüttmann concludes:

Und alle Personen, ausser dem beobachtenden Erzähler der mit dem Sohn am Rande des Zimmers steht, begeben sich in diese Dingwelt hinein und handeln darin, als wäre ihnen die Verfügungsgewalt über sie gegeben. In dieser Konstellation entwickeln die Dinge eine besondere Eigenaktivität, und so ist die Serie der “Katastophen” unvermeidlich.

(p. 20)

However I would contend that objects appear animated because the people are made to appear as inanimate objects, as items to be distributed—“verteilt” (p. 69)—among the tables and chairs. Whenever the guests attempt to exert control over the situation they only create further disaster: it is the Housekeeper's attempt to retrieve the music box which actually precipitates the original disaster. When the Farmhand, the Father and the Captain finally do force the closet door open with a crowbar, the Mother and the Housekeeper push it down onto the Father's head. The guests appear to be helpless because they are portrayed as objects in a contest with the other objects of their immediate environment. In such a contest they are outnumbered, and the outcome is for this reason inevitable. Thus, it is a disaster in which all those affected are “innocent” victims, none of whom, with the possible exception of the Son who alone is held accountable for his actions and forced to make the long trip to town to have the music box repaired, suffers irreparable damage. Accordingly it is the position of the Son as an outsider (and hence punished victim) which detracts from the humor of the situation.

The narrator's chief activity consists of the recording of his observations of life on the farmstead. As has earlier been noted in regard to the link between the narrator's observations and his act of recording them, the record of the narrator reflects his attempt to observe objectively the events of his world in their totality. The act of recording for the narrator is an attempt to order the world about him as he observes it. Just as the Tailor fashions his own clothing out of bits and pieces of his world, so the narrator is occupied with the ordering of the events of his world into a written text. The narrator's occupation is evidence of an estrangement from the world about him, from the other persons on the farmstead, and from himself.

The narrator's ordering of the events of his world reflects an estrangement from that world to the degree that his activities render him incapable of acting on the world about him. The narrator's diminished capacity to act on the world about him may be illustrated through reference to his description of his walk through the farmhouse to his room. The narrator's passage through the farmhouse is marked by a description of each object which passes into his view. Because the narrator is merely describing each object as it appears in his view, all objects are viewed from the same perspective and are of equal importance. The narrator's passage down the hall is described by him as having been executed with greater ease than his earlier passage through the kitchen and the foyer: “Der schmale Läufer zieht sich von der Treppe aus durch den Flur, seine schwarzen Kanten gleichen Schienen, und im Dahinschreiten war mir als rollte ich in einem Wagen bis vor die Dachstiege hin” (p. 17). Lüttmann concludes the following in regard to the relative ease of the narrator's walk down the hall: “Diese plötzliche Leichtigkeit der Bewegung erklärt sich daraus, dass der Erzähler auf diesem Flur lediglich sechs gleichartige ‘braune Türen mit Messingklinke und Schlüsselloch’ … zu beachten hat: sie können pauschal wahrgenommen werden” (p. 19). In other words, the uniformity of the objects which pass into the narrator's view on his walk down the hall makes his walk down the hall much easier than his walk through the kitchen and foyer, since both these rooms are filled with a variety of objects. Since none of the objects in the kitchen or foyer is an obstacle in the sense of physically impeding his passage through the room, the narrator's greater difficulty in passing through these rooms must lie in his relationship to these objects. The narrator's ordering of these objects whereby each is described as it appears in his view so that each object is of equal importance does not allow the narrator to exert sufficient control over these objects. Thus, these objects are able to impinge upon his movements to the extent that the relative ease of his movements is controlled by them. The extent to which the narrator feels himself to be controlled by the objects in his world is indicated in the manner in which he attempts to escape this world. In an activity which the narrator terms the “Erdenken von Bildern,” the narrator places grains of salt in his eyes. He describes how this procedure affects his perception of his room:

und selbst wenn dieser Raum nichts anderes enthält als einen Tisch, einen Stuhl, einen Waschtisch und ein Bett, und wenn auch an der einen schrägen Wand nichts anderes vorhanden ist als die Fensterluke über dem Tisch, und an der gegenüberliegenden senkrechten Wand nur eine Tür, und an den beiden anderen, durch das Dach abgewinkelten Wänden nichts, so stösst sich mein Blick doch noch an diesen Begrenzungen und festen Formen; mit den Tränen löse ich sie auf.

(p. 18)

Even the objects in the narrator's sparsely furnished room are viewed as a hindrance to him, and the narrator must put foreign objects into his eyes in order to counteract the control the objects in his room exercise over him. In the description of one of his visions, the narrator describes a feeling similar to that which he experiences during his walk down the hallway: “es war als sässe ich, bequem zurückgelehnt, in einem Automobil, einem Omnibus (das Fahrzeug war nicht zu sehen, es bestand nur aus einem Gefühl des Fahrens, des Dahingleitens) …” (p. 56). The similarity of this feeling of the narrator experienced during his vision with his experience during the walk down the hall suggests that the narrator's relationship to the objects in the world of his vision remains unchanged from his relationship to the objects he wishes to escape: his posture expresses a similar passivity in relationship to the world about him. During one of his visions, the narrator attempts to reach out to the figure of a woman: “seine Nähe war so stark spürbar, dass ich die Vorspiegelung mit einer Wirklichkeit verwechselte und eine heftige Bewegung mit meinen Armen vollführte, womit ich unmittelbar das Bild zerriss” (p. 20). The narrator is as incapable of acting upon the world of his visions as he is upon the world about him.

The narrator's activities in relationship to the other persons on the farmstead are subsumed under his occupation: he views them much as he observes the objects in his world and stands in a similar relationship to them. For example, in the description of his walk through the farmhouse referred to in the preceding paragraph, the Housekeeper is described in the same manner as the utensils in the kitchen. In the same manner in which the narrator's perspective rendered all objects of equal importance, his perspective renders persons and objects of equal importance. Just as the Doctor's preoccupation with his wounds inhibited his relationship to others, so the narrator's occupation hampers his relationship to the other persons on the farmstead. Whenever the narrator does assume a more active role than that of detached observer in regard to the other persons, the effect of his actions is to insure the recurrence of the activity in which he has intervened. The narrator watches through the keyhole while the Son is being beaten by the Father. He finally enters the room at the behest of the Mother and helps her to put the Father to bed. The effect of the narrator's intervention at this time is to insure the Father's recovery so that he can presumably beat his son the next night. After the collapse of the Father due to a heart attack brought about by the beating administered to his son, the Son looks toward the keyhole: “sein [the Son's] Blick hatte sich jetzt vom Vater abgewendet und richtete sich auf das Schlüsselloch in der Tür, als könne er meinen Blick in der Dunkelheit hinter dem Schlüsselloch erkennen” (p. 45). The Son's look, since it occurs after the beating, may be understood both in terms of a plea for assistance for his father and also as a look of recrimination directed at the narrator for not having intervened earlier so as to prevent both the beating and the Father's collapse. Each time the Son tips over the wheelbarrow in transporting the stones across the yard, the narrator helps him reload the wheelbarrow so that presumably the Son will have the chance to reenact his failure indefinitely. The narrator is so enervated by the repetitiveness of the failure with the wheelbarrow that he leaves off describing it and turns to a recounting of another one of his visions. What is striking about the narrator's boredom is that, because of the manner of his intervention which insures the recurrence of the activity in which he intervenes, it is self-induced. Similarly, when the Doctor comes to the narrator's room, the narrator takes him back to bed and gets him up for breakfast in the morning so that he can begin his day and his treatments all over again. Just as the Doctor treats his wounds by inflicting greater wounds upon himself, so the narrator acts in such a way as to insure that the very repetitiveness of the events which he suffers to describe will continue. To the extent that the narrator's actions insure the recurrence of the activities in which he intervenes, these actions suggest more than just his estrangement from the other persons on the farmstead: they suggest an estrangement from the self as well. That the narrator is himself alienated from his occupation is clear from the way in which he describes how he continues to write.

obgleich ich deutlich die Gegenkraft in mir verspüre die mich früher dazu zwang, meine Versuche abzubrechen und die mir auch jetzt bei jeder Wortreihe die ich dem Gesehenen und Gehörten nachforme einflüstert, dass dieses Gesehene und Gehörte allzu nichtig sei um festgehalten zu werden und dass ich auf diese Weise meine Stunden, meine halbe Nacht, ja, vielleicht meinen ganzen Tag völlig nutzlos verbringe; aber dagegen stelle ich folgende Frage, was soll ich sonst tun; und aus dieser Frage entwickelt sich die Einsicht, dass auch meine übrigen Tätigkeiten ohne Ergebnisse und Nutzen bleiben.

(p. 48)

However, in this case the narrator is alienated from his occupation to the extent that he views the subject of that occupation as inappropriate, i.e., “allzu nichtig … um festgehalten zu werden.” The suggestion of the self-alienation involved in the narrator's acts of intervention is that the narrator himself is implicated, that it is not the object of his occupation that is inappropriate but the occupation itself. The implication is that the way in which the narrator orders the world through the recording of his observations is itself deficient. The deficiency of the narrator's ordering of the world becomes apparent to him when he is faced with events for which he cannot account. Towards the end of the narrative, the Coachman arrives and he and the Farmhand unload several sacks of coal from the wagon into the cellar of the farmhouse. The narrator cannot understand how so many sacks of coal could have fitted in the wagon. He questions the Coachman and the Farmhand but is dissatisfied with their responses:

Doch auch dies genügte mir, selbst wenn sowohl die Worte des Kutschers wie auch die Worte des Hausknechts einiges enthielten das der Wahrheit entsprechen mochte, nicht als Erklärung; und auch heute, drei Tage und drei Nächte später, habe ich noch keine Erklärung gefunden für den unverhältnismässig grossen Unterschied zwischen der Raumgrösse die die Kohlen im Wagen zur Verfügung hatten und der Raumgrösse in der sie sich im Keller ausbreiteten.

(p. 96)

After a three day hiatus during which the narrator is unable to write, he resumes his occupation with a description of the copulation between the Coachman and the Housekeeper. As in the case of the unloading of the sacks of coal where the narrator could describe the number of sacks being unloaded but could not account for the number, so the narrator can describe the copulation of shadows but cannot account for the activity. As the Doctor was faced with the futility of continuing his operations in the dark, so the narrator is faced with the futility of continuing to record activities for which he cannot account.

The Farmhand is concerned with the physical upkeep of the property as evidenced in his tasks of sawing wood and plowing the fields. His conversations center around the weather and the farm animals. The Housekeeper is charged with the maintenance of the household and her conversations with the Mother are mostly about food and fashion. Lüttmann regards the activities of the Farmhand and of the Housekeeper as relatively meaningful in comparison to the activities of the other persons at the farmstead:

Nur die beiden ersten [the Housekeeper and the Farmhand] und die Mutter, die für die Familie kocht und näht und den Säugling versorgt, gehen einer sinnvollen Beschäftigung nach. Die übrigen Personen, d.h. allgemein gesprochen: die Gäste, arbeiten entweder gar nicht oder betätigen sich auf eine sinnlose Weise: Schnee sammelt Steine, ohne dass man erführe, weshalb und nach welchen Kriterien er dies tut (man vermutet allerdings, dass er monomanisch nur etwas Weisses zusammenhäuft); der Sohn hilft ihm bei deiser Tätigkeit; der Hauptmann pflegt einen Säbel, den er nicht mehr benutzt; der Schneider setzt seine Kleidung aus Flicken zusammen; und der Doktor fügt sich mit seinen Selbstoperationen nur noch schlimmere Wunden zu, als er sie zuvor schon besessen hat.

(pp. 91-92)

That the narrator is also to be included among these guests is emphasized by Lüttmann later in his study: “Der Erzähler befindet sich demzufolge generell in der gleichen Lage wie die übrigen Gäste, denn auch seine Tätigkeiten sind entweder sinnlos oder doch unmittelbar durch die Sinnlosigkeit bedroht” (p. 97). However, as an analysis of the characters indicates, none of their activities is devoid of meaning. All of their activities are meaningful in the sense that they express states of being which are totally alienating. The Son's assistance of Herr Schnee in the collecting of stones is meaningful as a rite de passage into the alienated world of the adults. The significance of the Father is not that he does not work at all but rather that he does participate in the activities of this world: he participates in these activities through his son. The Tailor, the Doctor, and Herr Schnee each act as the consumers of the products of their own labor: the Tailor is his own client, the Doctor is his own patient, and Herr Schnee is himself the only appraiser of his own collection. What is striking about their occupations is their definitive lack of social relatedness. The narrator is not so much confronted with the meaninglessness of his activities as he is with their futility. In his inability to account for the unloading of the sacks of coal and for the copulation of the Coachman and the Housekeeper the narrator experiences the degree to which his estrangement from the world about him renders his occupation futile. The question, which Lüttmann confuses in his distinction between meaningful and meaningless activities, is whether or not the Housekeeper, the Farmhand, and the Mother are any the less alienated because the products of their labor accrue to other people.

In his study of Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers, R. C. Perry suggests the following as a possible interpretation of the characters and their situation:

A possible interpretation of the characters and their situation is that they represent a sort of grotesque “Endstation” of bourgeois life (the reductio ad absurdum of the bourgeoisie is the main theme of Weiss's play Die Versicherung, which was written about the same time as Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers).

(p. 218)

Lüttmann also considers the possibility of such an interpretation and rejects it for the following reasons:

Wollte man die Pension als ein Modell der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft ansehen, dann würde hiermit über diese Gesellschaft ein vernichtendes Urteil abgegeben werden, demzufolge eine Minderheit arbeitet und die Majorität ein parasitär-sinnloses Leben führt. Diese Deutungsmöglichkeit scheint mir nicht völlig der Grundlage zu entbehren. Aber zum einen wäre dies Modell zu schlicht und realitätsfern, als dass es ohne gravierende Vorbehalte betrachtet werden könnte; und zum anderen wäre ein solcher Angriff auf die bürgerliche Gesellschaft von dem Autor Peter Weiss erst nach dessen Parteinahme für den Sozialismus in der Mitte der 60er Jahre zu erwarten gewesen, nicht aber in dessen weitgehend noch unpolitischer Phase, in die auch die Entstehung des Schattens fällt.

(p. 92)

Thus, Lüttmann contends that if the farmstead is to be considered a model for society at all, then society must be judged to be composed of a working minority and a parasitic majority. This contention is related to Lüttmann's assumption that the activities of the Housekeeper, the Farmhand, and the Mother are meaningful while those of the remaining characters are not. As I have indicated, the activities of none of the characters seem to be devoid of meaning, and there is no suggestion in the text that the activities of the three characters mentioned by Lüttmann are to be construed as more meaningful than those of the others. For this reason, Lüttmann's judgment concerning the composition of society appears highly questionable. However, even if one were to accept Lüttmann's contentions regarding the configuration of this bourgeois society (“die bürgerliche Gesellschaft”), the argument is suspect. This becomes clear when one considers Lüttmann's statement concerning Weiss's “socialism.” Although a critical attitude toward bourgeois society is certainly a necessary condition for “Parteinahme für den Sozialismus,” “Parteinahme für den Sozialismus” is not a necessary condition for a critical attitude toward bourgeois society. Furthermore, not all attacks on bourgeois society are political so that whether or not Weiss wrote the novel during his “unpolitische Phase” is irrelevant. The degree to which this model of bourgeois society is “schlicht und realitätsfern” itself acts as a limiting factor of the extent to which such a criticism is political. Lüttmann's argument that the model is too “realitätsfern” is also interesting because it suggests that the farmstead can not be construed to reflect social reality regardless of its configuration. The model itself may be considered to be “realitätsfern” in the sense that it is the existential states of the characters which are depicted. However, insofar as these existential states are portrayed phenomenologically, that is, through the experiences of the characters of the world about them in their respective occupations, this model is not “realitätsfern” but stands in direct relationship to the realities they experience. The question then is to what extent the realities experienced by the characters reflect the realities of modern society.

A number of critics, including Lüttmann, have a tendency to regard Weiss's later works as mainly concerned with man's general social condition while they regard his early works as extremely limited portrayals of social reality. Such a view appears to entail an oversimplification of both the early and later works. It is in the context of this problem that I would like to consider an essay by Marx concerning the nature of capitalist society. I have chosen this essay because it suggests a configuration of the world which is not totally unlike that experienced by the characters in Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers and because as an early essay by Marx it is more descriptive than proscriptive and considers alienation not only in terms of man's relationship to the marketplace but also to his being.

The relationship between alienation and capitalism is discussed by Marx in “Auszüge aus Mills ‘Élémens d'économie politique.’” In this essay Marx argues that the capitalist economy is based on the exchange of products produced by individuals for their exchange value (“Tauschwert”). An individual produces in order to satisfy his own personal needs. Moreover, because of private property, the need of an individual is expressed in terms of his exclusive possession of that product, that is, the product which he produces is produced for himself only, without reference to the needs of others. Traditional economic theory would make a distinction between the product produced to meet an individual's own needs and a product produced in “surplus” of an individual's needs. According to traditional theory, it is the “surplus” product which is traded in the marketplace. This “surplus” product is assumed to have been produced according to the needs of others rather than solely according to the needs of the producer. The producer would then be assumed to have entered into a social relationship with the purchasers of his “surplus” production, a social relationship which is enacted in the marketplace. However, Marx maintains that the product produced by the individual for the marketplace does not represent a “surplus” (“Mehrproduktion”) of his production. Such a product is rather, according to Marx, the product which the producer hopes to acquire through his “surplus” production: “Ich produziere der Wahrheit nach einen andren Gegenstand, den Gegenstand deiner Produktion, den ich gegen dies Mehr auszutauschen gedenke, ein Austausch, den ich in Gedanken schon vollzogen habe.”7 The social relationship between producer and purchaser is thus, according to Marx, “auch ein blosser Schein” because the exchange which occurs in the marketplace is not one in which the producer fulfills the needs of the purchaser, is not a “wechselseitige Ergänzung” but is rather a “wechselseitige Plünderung” in which the producer not only divests himself of his own product in order to fulfill his personal needs but also divests the purchaser of his product (p. 460). In other words, each producer produces according to his own needs and not according to the needs of anyone else. Such production is “keine Produktion des Menschen für den Menschen als Menschen, d.h. keine gesellschaftliche Produktion” (p. 459). The language spoken between these alienated individuals—alienated in the sense that their production consists of their divesting each other of their own products—is the language of the exchange of their products: “Die einzig verständliche Sprache, die wir zueinander reden, sind unsre Gegenstände in ihrer Beziehung aufeinander” (p. 461).

Marx makes the transition from alienated production to non-alienated production through the notion of “mediation.” Embodied in his notion of “mediation” is a principle of reciprocity whereby one's individual products are placed in the service of community. By placing his products in the service of community the producer produces both for himself and for the other since community, unlike the marketplace, involves a recognition of the needs of both producer and consumer and hence an appreciation of value which, in contrast to exchange value, reflects those needs. The producer then experiences himself in a qualitatively different relationship to the consumer. In regard to the consumer he becomes a mediator (“Mittler”) between him and his humanity (“Gattung”):

für dich [the consumer] der Mittler zwischen dir und der Gattung gewesen zu sein, also von dir selbst als eine Ergänzung deines eignen Wesens und als ein notwendiger Teil deiner selbst gewusst und empfunden zu werden, also sowohl in deinem Denken wie in deiner Liebe mich bestätigt zu wissen …

(p. 462)

In other words, the product produced in the service of community does not serve to alienate the consumer from his product but rather supplements the value of that product. If one furthermore accepts the assumption that man is social by nature, then that production could also be construed to be necessary to the other's sense of well-being. This assumption regarding man's social nature also underlies Marx's judgment that only the producer who produces in the service of community actually produces a product which reflects his real needs and his true self:

in meiner Produktion meine Individualität, ihre Eigentümlichkeit vergegenständlicht und daher sowohl während der Tätigkeit eine individuelle Lebensäusserung genossen, als im Anschauen des Gegenstandes die individuelle Freude, meine Persönlichkeit als gegenständliche, sinnlich anschaubare … Macht zu wissen …

(p. 462)

It is, then, not only the individual's needs but the “exchange” between individuals based upon their reciprocal needs which increases the value of a product. This value is objective to the extent that when products are produced the producer recognizes the social use to which they will be put. In this context, there is no “surplus”: there can only be individual and social needs which are met. The individual producer is thus aware of the social relatedness of his product, of the relationship between himself and others. This relationship allows the producer to affirm his existence as a social being—“in meiner individuellen Tätigkeit unmittelbar mein wahres Wesen, mein menschliches, mein Gemeinwesen bestätigt und verwirklicht zu haben” (p. 462).

Marx offers the following description of this “Gemeinwesen” in a capitalist society in which man's social being consists of the alienated relationships between individuals in the marketplace rather than of the reciprocal relationship which occurs in community:

Es hängt nicht vom Menschen ab, dass dies Gemeinwesen sei oder nicht; aber solange der Mensch sich nicht als Mensch erkennt und daher die Welt menschlich organisiert hat, erscheint dies Gemeinwesen unter der Form der Entfremdung. Weil sein Subjekt, der Mensch, ein sich selbst entfremdetes Wesen ist. … Es ist daher ein identischer Satz, dass der Mensch sich selbst entfremdet, und dass die Gesellschaft dieses entfremdeten Menschen die Karikatur seines wirklichen Gemeinwesens, seines wahren Gattungslebens sei, dass daher seine Tätigkeit als Qual, seine eigne Schöpfung ihm als fremde Macht, sein Reichtum als Armut, das Wesensband, was ihn an den andren Menschen knüpft, als ein unwesentliches Band und vielmehr die Trennung vom andren Menschen als sein wahres Dasein, dass sein Leben als Aufopfrung seines Lebens, dass die Verwirklichung seines Wesens als Entwirklichung seines Lebens, dass seine Produktion als Produktion seines Nichts, dass seine Macht über den Gegenstand als die Macht des Gegenstandes über ihn, dass er, Herr seiner Schöpfung, als der Knecht dieser Schöpfung erscheint.

(p. 451)

Alienated man lives in an alienated society because a society is no more than the social relationships of its members. The inclusiveness of this alienation as it permeates the society in which alienated man finds himself then serves to distort man's own image of himself and of his world. It is due to this distortion that man views society, not as created by him as an expression of his own alienated and hence, according to Marx, false sense of self; but as an outside force which alienates him. Society is then viewed as the source of alienation rather than as the expression of the estranged relationships of its members. As the source of alienation society becomes a threat to the individual self with the result that man comes to perceive his social life as demanding self-sacrifice (“als Aufopfrung seines Lebens”) instead of providing a means to self-expression. Man's relationship to persons and to objects in his world is likewise distorted since he comes to view those relationships as non-essential to the self and therefore arbitrary because they are not perceived to be of his own creation. Marx's view, on the other hand, is that while man does not choose to be a social being he does create the relationships which in turn determine his perceptions of himself, of others and of the things surrounding him.

An examination of the characters of Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers indicates that the singularity of the activities of the characters lies in the fact that each acts as the consumer of the products of his own labor. What is striking about their occupations is their definitive lack of social relatedness. In light of the foregoing analysis of alienation in a capitalist society, the characters may be said to be doubly alienated from the self in the sense that the exchange of products occurs within the self. As the examination of the characters has shown, the degree to which the characters are self-absorbed in their occupations measures the extent to which they are estranged from themselves, from each other, and from the world about them. It is this alienation which is the existential condition of the characters, and their exile is an exile from community.


  1. Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie, 87 (1968), 643. All further references to Rose Zeller are to this study.

  2. Peter Weiss, Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers (1960; rpt. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1964), p. 48. All further references to the novel are to this edition.

  3. Helmut Lüttmann, Die Prosawerke von Peter Weiss, Diss. Hamburg, Geistes- und sozialwissenschaftliche Dissertatationen, 24 (Hamburg: Lüdke, 1972), p. 11. All further references to Lüttmann are to this work.

  4. (Bern: Francke, 1971), p. 45. All further references to Best are to this work.

  5. Germanic Review, 47 (1972), 215. All further references to Perry are to this study.

  6. Peter Weiss, Fluchtpunkt (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1962), pp. 130-31.

  7. “[Auszüge aus James Mills Buch Élémens d'économie politique. Trad. par J. T. Parisot, Paris 1823],” in Schriften. Manuskripte. Briefe bis 1844, Ergänzungsband, erster Teil of Karl Marx Friedrich Engels Werke, ed. Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus beim ZK der SED, 1st ed. (Berlin: Dietz, 1968), p. 460. All further references to Marx are to this essay.

Stanton B. Garner, Jr. (essay date May 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Garner, Stanton B., Jr. “Post-Brechtian Anatomies: Weiss, Bond, and the Politics of Embodiment.” Theatre Journal, no. 2 (May 1990): 145-54.

[In the following essay, Garner considers the influence of Bertolt Brecht on Weiss's work and classifies Weiss's dramas as post-Brechtian.]

The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism … is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.

—Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”

forget the rest
there's nothing else
beyond the body

—Weiss, Marat/Sade1


Bertolt Brecht's death in 1956 inaugurated a period in modern political theater whose theoretical and dramaturgical parameters have yet to be defined. It may appear presumptuous to apply the label “post-Brechtian” to a field that contains plays as diverse as Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Churchill's Cloud 9, Fugard's Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, and Müller's Hamletmachine, but the term does find more than historical justification. Much of the political drama since Brecht's death has been written and performed with his formidable theoretical example in view, and even those dramatists who have refused Brecht's political aesthetic have done so in the wake of its radical reconfigurations of theater art. Those dramatists who draw upon Brechtian theory have participated in the broader reinterpretation of this theory in terms of evolving political, cultural, and theatrical milieux. “We should begin with Brecht,” Edward Bond has remarked, “but we shouldn't end there.” In Heiner Müller's words, “To use Brecht without criticizing him is to betray him.”2

There are a number of ways in which one might characterize the “post-Brechtian” in its contemporary manifestations, as well as a number of developments in which one may discern the revision of Brechtian theater practice: the postmodern radicalizing of Brechtian aesthetics and its subversion of dogmatism and “presence” within Brecht's theory of performance; the simultaneous appropriation and revision of Brechtian political theater on the part of feminists and non-Western writers; experiments in decentering the function of dramatic/theatrical authorship; stagings of Brecht's plays that open dialogues with Brecht's own theater practice.3 This article will focus on a prominent signature of post-Brechtian political drama, a feature at the heart of its ideological and representational strategies: the almost obsessive interest in the body as a political unit, its function within the play of political forces, and its role within the contest of subjectivity and subjection. Exploiting the body's centrality within the theatrical medium, contemporary political dramatists have refigured the actor's body as a principal site of theatrical and political intervention, establishing (in the process) a contemporary “body politic” rooted in the individual's sentient presence. This corporealizing of the political field is apparent in Trevor Griffiths's Occupations, a play that dramatizes a socialist uprising in the northern Italy of 1920. Griffiths's play opens with the following theatrical sequence:

The stage is in total darkness. We hear, faintly at first, growing gradually louder and more insistent, a sung version of the Internationale. A projected image slowly emerges: the famous Tbi (“You—have you enrolled as a volunteer yet?” D. S. Moore, Russia, 1920). It's held, red and challenging, for several moments. Cut suddenly, as a fast spot reveals POLYA bending over the bed to inject the writhing ANGELICA. ANGELICA shudders, quietens. POLYA cools her brow with a cloth. Music down. Excited hubbub of conference. Take out spot a second after the VOICE begins. Replace with [a projection of] Lissitsky's 1920 abstract With the Red Wedge Divide the Whites.4

Taking advantage of the technical resources that have created new spatial possibilities for the contemporary theater, Griffiths's stage directions set the stage in a performance dialogue with other media: painting, poster art, slide projection, music. Even as it foregrounds the technological manipulation of space, though, this multimedial juxtaposition discloses the non-technological presence of the histrionic body, which asserts itself (in Griffiths's play as in all theatrical performance) as both visual element and spatializing center. Angelica constitutes an emblem of the play's civil disturbance, and she does so through her corporeal presence: writhing in mute convulsions, the actress's body performs the struggle to escape its internal suffering at the same time that it forces a centering of spatial awareness (for both character and audience) on this point of physical distress. Counterpointed by the pictorial images of Moore and Lissitsky, the center of Griffiths's political and scenic field is the body in space, both site and means of theatrical “occupation.”

Of all the forms which the body has assumed on the post-Brechtian political stage, the most pervasive and urgent is the body in its deepest extremity: the suffering, violated body, which Elaine Scarry has analyzed under the rubric “the body in pain.”5 Described through dramatic speech and represented onstage, the body in contemporary political theater is a body tortured, disciplined, confined, penetrated, maimed, extinguished. From the murder, sodomy, and rape in Brenton's The Romans in Britain, the onstage “pricking” scene in Churchill's Vinegar Tom, and the pornographic violence of Daniels's Masterpieces through the recounted horrors of Weiss's Investigation and Rabe's Vietnam plays, the sheer scope of bodily violation in this drama creates a landscape-spectacle of atrocity whose excesses, as we shall see, both mark and transgress the theater's representational space. When Peter Brook characterizes the psychic traces of theatrical performance as a “silhouette” that “burns” in the mind and “scorches” the memory, his language indirectly captures the searing effect of such plays on the audience, the vicarious infliction of pain both during and after performance.6 The stoning of the baby that occasioned such outrage when it was performed in Bond's Saved, like the stage presence of the poet's tortured body in Maishe Maponya's Gangsters, challenges the representational conventions of even Brechtian political theater and claims a new field of depiction and response. Brecht sought an analytic disclosure of power and its relations; subsequent dramatists have sought to represent this power at its most elemental, through its often visceral registers in human tissue. The words of Büchner's Danton anticipate the images of this power as they have occupied and traumatized the modern consciousness—Auschwitz, Hiroshima, My Lai, Cambodia, El Salvador, the Sahel refugee camps—and as they have been dramatized on the contemporary political stage: “These days everything is worked in human flesh. That's the curse of our times.”7

To restrict the staging of the suffering body to the spectacular, however, is to ignore the complexity of this body's presence in the contemporary political theater. For the body as it is subjected within this theater stands, not merely as a figure within representational equations, but also as the source of its own, often ambiguous modes of habitation. Post-Brechtian theater demonstrates a recurrent interest in the phenomenal dimension of the body as a political entity and in the experiential issues which this body brings into focus: the world-constitution of the bodied subject as it interacts with its environment, and the consequences upon this subject of an external infringement directed at the body and the personal world it serves to ground. By appropriating the body as locus of sensory interchange with its natural and social environments, and by investigating the subjective contours of this embodied world, post-Brechtian theater suggests a partial revaluation of the “political,” one which goes—in important ways—against the Brechtian grain. If Brecht worked to politicize the Lebenswelt, or lived world, rendering its components externalized and subject to configuration and analysis, many post-Brechtian dramatists have worked to phenomenalize the political, and to pursue its roots in the personal realities of embodiment and world-constitution. If we seek to understand the powerful disruptions which the suffering body poses for the representational modes of contemporary political drama, we must begin with the body as zero-point of the phenomenal world.

In its powerful and complex habitational presence, the body has constituted an uneasy presence for Brechtian drama and its theory. One can discern within the dramatic development from the pre-Marxist to the Marxist Brecht a suppression of this body and its potentially anarchic claims to attention. The desiring, “carnivalesque” body rendered with such assertion in the figure of Baal (and, to lesser extents, in figures such as Kragler, Anna, Garga, Shlink, and Edward II) is harnessed, in the later plays, through characters less prone to its excesses. Although Schweyk and Azdak belong to a tradition of clown theater that foregrounds the body and its appetites, a tradition that extends through the giullari of Dario Fo, their roles are largely strategic, and the Falstaffian potential of their misrule is precluded by their specifically political functions in their respective plays.8 Likewise, the suffering to which the body is liable—its hunger and pain, its subjection to inflictions from both inside and out—is increasingly controlled in its representation within Brecht's plays: the violence perpetrated (directly and indirectly) by Macheath is narrated through euphemisms, while the physical suffering that forms the backdrop of Fear and Misery in the Third Reich occurs offstage. Baal stabs Ekhart in a phantasmagoric sequence of onstage violence; but of the significant number of deaths figuring in Brecht's later plays, the shooting of Kattrin is one of the few actually presented to view.

This is not to suggest that the body and its needs relinquished their interest for Brecht in his plays of Marxist inspiration; on the contrary, Marxism clarified for Brecht the social dimension of such needs and their function within political/economic systems. As Darko Suvin claims, “[All of Brecht's major plays] deal with people's alienation faced with the historical institutionalizations of their basic strivings for food, sex, friendship and knowledge.”9 These clarifications, though, were accompanied by a representational shift, in which the desiring, suffering body was “taken out of itself” and refigured as an element, subject to analysis, within a rationalized mise-en-scène. Between Baal's boast that “My heaven is full of trees and bodies” and the opening lines of the “First Threepenny Finale”—“Man has a right, in this our brief existence / To call some fleeting happiness his own / Partake of worldly pleasures and subsistence / And have bread on his table rather than a stone”—is a gulf separating the embodied subject from an objectified body displayed to the scientific eye, a gulf essential to the politics of Brechtian reception.10 This objectification constitutes the organizing motif of Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt as it applies to both an aesthetics of staging and a theory of acting. Disjunction of scenic elements within a relationship of mutual estrangement decenters the appetitive body as a zero-point of scenic orientation, while the tenets of Brechtian acting reposition this body both as presentational means and as observational site. The epic actor presents his or her body, not as it lives its sentient world, but as it is alienated by the analytic gaze: “The actor,” Brecht writes, “expresses his awareness of being watched. […] The artist's object is to appear strange and even surprising to the audience. He achieves this by looking strangely at himself and his work.”11 The aim of such moments in Brecht's plays is an acute visibility, in which the body stands clarified as a nexus of social gestures and relationships, becoming, through the resemanticizing of Brecht's theater, a sign of itself. Brechtian gestus foregrounds this body as signifying image etched in ideological outline: “The grouping of the characters on the stage and the movements of the groups must be such that the necessary beauty is attained above all by the elegance with which the material conveying that gest is set out and laid bare to the understanding of the audience.”12 In scene 4 of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Azdak offers a lesson in the self-presentation of epic acting, subordinating the facts of sentience and appetite to their illustration, when he instructs the fugitive grand duke how to eat his cheese with the gestures and expressions of the poor. The moment is revealing, and typical. Characters speak of hunger in Brecht's plays, but seldom of its pangs, its perceptual depletion, and its other forms of internal urgency; his characters speak of pain, but seldom with the voice of its trauma. Whether or not Brecht may have equated embodied subjectivity with the unitary ego he was ideologically compelled to reject, Brechtian Verfremdung is, before all else, a strategic estrangement of the body as phenomenal site.13

A number of subsequent political dramatists have drawn upon the political concerns and modes of staging the body evident in Brecht's plays. Extending Brecht's concern with the signifying body, these dramatists have deepened their critique of its investment, centering attention even more fully on the body's actual subjection to imagistic and other forms of ideological consumption. But even those dramatists most “Brechtian” in theatrical technique have sought to undermine the exclusive hold of objectification over corporeality as it offers itself to experience; they have supplemented the strategic displacement of alienation with a dramaturgical attention to the body as a privileged point within representational systems. Post-Brechtian theater, in other words, explores the political and theatrical implications of an essential fact: that, of all the elements that comprise semiotic fields, the human figure is the only one that is itself a source of semiotic and other forms of meaning-constitution. To express this in more simple terms, the body represents an object of observation that actually looks back. In this sense, Beckett's Catastrophe—a play that stands, in many ways, diametrically opposed to the Brechtian project—offers a revealing prototype of the post-Brechtian politics of the body. For Beckett's play stages the catastrophic reversal that occurs within representational “display” when the body—arranged, exposed, whitened, and illuminated by the resources of theater technology—asserts itself as subject and reorients the field of performance in relation to its own gaze. The continuity with which this gaze extends both into Beckett's own drama (to Vladimir and Estragon, Winnie, the Protagonist of Film, and the Listener of That Time), and into the overtly political theater of Fo, Soyinka, Churchill, and Brenton, suggests that contemporary political theater shares an interest with the theater of Beckett (and other ostensibly apolitical dramatists) in the phenomenology of the theatrical body. Informed by these issues and modes, post-Brechtian theater directs its attention to the politics of human embodiment, and the exploration of this politics in terms of the suffering body stands at a considerable remove from the objectifying scientism of Brecht's Verfremdung. Considering the subversion of this scientism in the drama of Peter Weiss and Edward Bond, we can see the often problematic presence of the body within post-Brechtian political theater, and the extent to which this theater works to achieve a more deeply embodied play of the phenomenal and the representational.14


The reconfiguration of political analysis in terms of the “preobjectivist,” desiring body has significant historical and theoretical antecedents. If a return to corporeality as it lives and suffers its world recalls the theatrical body in early Brecht, it also evokes the early political theory of Marx, before he adopted and refined the scientism of Capital and the works that occupied his later years. In The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and the “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845), Marx formulated a theory of economic life based on human “sensuousness” and its interactions with a nature in which the human subject seeks to externalize and (hence) know itself through productivity: “The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man's species life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he contemplates himself in a world that he has created.” Alienated labor under a system of private property estranges the human subject because it divorces this subject from its creative activity, rendering it an alien object unto itself amidst a dispossessed object-world where even the body's desire becomes estranged, other: “Estrangement is manifested not only in the fact that my means of life belong to someone else, that my desire is the inaccessible possession of another, but also in the fact that everything is itself something different from itself—that my activity is something else. …” Structuring this philosophical and economic vision is the human body, rendered fully “human” and able to inhabit its personal and shared life-world only when liberated from an alienating economic system: “The transcendence of private property is therefore the complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities, but it is this emancipation precisely because these senses and attributes have become, subjectively and objectively, human. The eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object—an object made by man for man.” Through this liberation, in other words, the body becomes itself, both humanized in its sensory communion with nature and vulnerable to a material sentience that the individual subject can never fully transcend: “Man as an objective, sensuous being is therefore a suffering being—and because he feels what he suffers, a passionate being.”15

Marx's analysis of labor and alienation in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts traces a polarity that governs the politics of embodiment in the contemporary political theater. On the one hand, post-Brechtian dramatists have staged the appropriation of object and space by the human subject, an inscription of this subject in its environment through language, gestural projection, and manipulation of the material world. Conceived from this point of view, the subject is fundamentally creative, seeking to transcend its material boundaries in an externalization that nevertheless fulfills the body's sentient and social needs. In gestural terms, this bodily self-projection manifests itself in the instrumental handling of objects to objectify and satisfy these needs, and to extend the individual's power of agency; in larger terms, it constitutes the building of society and its artifacts, for (as Elaine Scarry notes) “[e]very act of civilization is an act of transcending the body in a way consonant with the body's needs.”16 On the other hand, and more urgently, post-Brechtian theater has dramatized the collapse of such self-extension within a radical embodiment, realized within a body that is mortal, isolated within itself, subject to the annihilating force of pain. The suffering body, emblem of this condition, is no longer the seat of an externalizing productivity, the center of an individual and social Lebenswelt; instead, it becomes something inert, thinglike, a self-enclosed point of sensation within a derealized world empty of human content.17 To inflict deprivation, confinement, and violation upon the body is to bring about a phenomenal collapse reflected in the ambiguous term “subject,” for as the body loses its status as the seat of a self-transcending subjectivity, it becomes objectified in its transfixing sentience, “subject” only to its liable corporeality. The survivors of nuclear war in Bond's War Plays use stones, metal, and what tools they can find to begin rebuilding a humanized world, but in the background of this post-nuclear reconstruction lies the corporeal infliction of the holocaust itself: “And as the flesh burned from faces the skulls whistled. … The heart leapt up like a bird in its burning cage and the ribs whistled.”18

Peter Weiss stands as a pivotal dramatist in the contemporary theater of embodiment. Combining Brechtian presentational styles with an Artaudian interest in the afflicted body, his plays situate their political explorations between the phenomenal poles of self-extension and bodily sentience. Vietnam Discourse is firmly Brechtian in dramaturgical mode—simple in costume and gesture, declarative and explanatory in verbal delivery—and its account of human atrocity is tightly contained within a clarity of audience address. Presentation, in this case, mirrors subject, for like the medieval mysteries that serve as its dramaturgical ancestors, the play enacts the discovery and reaffirmation of vision throughout the history of the Vietnamese people, and their continuing will to liberate the present, a self-transcending historical imperative that—like the party loyalty dramatized in Brecht's The Measures Taken—distances individual suffering. The Investigation, on the other hand, drives Brechtian detachment to the brink of collapse by foregrounding this suffering to the point where its horror risks searing the precise language crafted to convey it. If, as Scarry suggests, intense pain is “language-destroying,” resisting expression and description, then the agony of the concentration camps threatens to exceed and cancel the play's documentary format, as the list of atrocities stands mute before an unspeakableness that ruptures the detachment of staged testimony with the weight of suffering.19 Occupying the non-linguistic space behind the play's verbal edifice is the body in extremis: branded, confined (hung from the frame of the sadistic “swing,” crammed forty to an 8′ by 8′ bunker cell), deprived, broken, killed by a numbing variety of means, opened, heaped among piles of other bodies, incinerated, reduced to itself and less, mocking even the possibility of political or other vision with its assertion of mute sentience. The Investigation takes place at a verbal impasse, that point at which language confronts a corporeal world that dismantles its public, private, and historical orderings.

Weiss most fully integrates his investigation of political vision with the problem of corporeality in two plays devoted to the planning and making of revolution. Trotsky in Exile outlines the dialectic of extension and embodiment, world-building and its collapse in bodily self-fixation, with unusual clarity. The choice of Trotsky as documentary subject was no doubt determined, in part, by the historical figure's political internationalism; throughout Weiss's play, Trotsky advocates the widest geographic scope for revolution, discussing the political and economic conditions in Africa, Asia, and South America and defending their importance against those who would restrict the scope of world-remaking within national borders. Trotsky, in short, stands as symbol of political vision itself as it advocates the transcending of its own position, and Weiss emblematizes this self-transcendence through a stage gesture repeated three times: “[Trotsky looks] through a telescope, describing with it a semi-circle to front.20

But like the scientific eye of Brecht's Galileo, Trotsky's telescopic vision is vulnerable to the fact of his historical and personal situation; his travels late in life are those of exile rather than world-repossession. Opposed by others, tsarists and fellow revolutionaries alike, he is subject finally to the restricted space of his body itself, which asserts its own diminished boundaries and personal space. Weiss counterpoints Trotsky at his telescope with Trotsky at his desk, absorbed within a restricted area of attention. To the Trotsky who converses with Diego Rivera and André Breton on international politics, Weiss counterpoints the Trotsky who admits to Lenin:

The body. Feel it all the time. Stomach. Intestines. Heart. Kidneys. These functions often claim my attention for days on end. Growing old. The beginning of death. Time. I thought of that even as a child. Saw it once as something long, like the stone step outside the house. Chronology. Counting. Time is formless. Has no shape til you begin to count. Sometimes I wake up sobbing. Terribly disturbed. Like falling through a strange door. Into a room you don't know. An odd light. Echoing voices. This searching for connections. Books. Unknown words. References you don't understand.


Weiss's fluid shifts of historical time within the play serve, paradoxically, to foreground the individual body as it is vulnerable to time, while Trotsky's disclosures reveal an external world potentially empty to the corporeally-bound subject: “You know, a little while ago I had great difficulty in finding out exactly where I was. Nothing but empty space. Yes. Hönnefoss. Yes. Norway” (97). In the dialectic of body and vision that governs this exploration of revolutionary and political efficacy, Trotsky's exile begins before he ever leaves his country; it is an ever-immanent exile within a body often riveting in its attentional claims, where structures in the external world indicating human presence and efficacy are suddenly drained of sense. Weiss discloses the body both as biological origin of the phenomenal world, and as its “vanishing point” (to borrow the title of one of his novels), that point at which visionary extension yields to enclosure. Underscoring this image of the liable body that constitutes the anatomical base of revolutionary thought and practice, Trotsky in Exile ends in tableau, its protagonist reading a manuscript while his assassin holds an ice-pick poised above his skull.

With this gesture, Trotsky in Exile recalls Marat/Sade, a study of revolution that climaxes in similar tableau—Marat at work in his bathtub, Charlotte Corday holding aloft the dagger that will render his body inanimate. In both subject and representation, the body's presence pervades everything in Marat/Sade, as it pervaded the French Revolution itself, a nexus of political events engineered through, and against, bodily iconographies. Memorialized through the political exploitation of its imagery, the Revolution constituted a spectacle of bodily exigency: the desiring body seeking to redress the poverty that afflicts it, and the body punished within a historical theater of pain. In its organized forms of public violence, it combined the vestiges of an older ritual punition, inscribing marks of power on the body of the accused, with a historically newer, technologized form of punishment, the guillotine, which enabled systematic, mechanical execution.21 Appropriated and adapted by Weiss, the backdrop of Marat/Sade is a bodily violation both torrential, apocalyptic (“Why do the children scream / What are those heaps they fight over / those heaps with eyes and mouths / What kind of town is this / hacked buttocks lying in the street”), and mathematical, precise—as Sade puts it, “technocratic.”22

This body in extremis serves a dual function within the revolutionary ideology represented by Marat. On the one hand, it constitutes the source of needs to be redressed within a transformed order and a newly humanized world, a locus of desire that offers the promise (and threat) of social and political refashioning. On the other hand, it represents an obstacle to be overcome on the path to social metamorphosis, a material resistance to the realization of political vision. This resistance is encountered externally in the increasing number of individuals sacrificed to the revolution; as Marat observes, “Once we thought a few hundred corpses would be enough / then we saw thousands were still too few” (15). But the politics of revolutionary vision as articulated by Marat extends more personally into the intransigence of the flesh, for he includes his own body as a site for the political re-creation of nature:

Against Nature's silence I use action
In the vast indifference I invent a meaning
I don't watch unmoved I intervene
and say that this and this are wrong
and I work to alter them and improve them
The important thing
is to pull yourself up by your own hair
to turn yourself inside out
and see the whole world with fresh eyes


As in Trotsky in Exile, Weiss highlights the eyes as an opening on nature, the site of “vision” through which the bodied subject extends its field of sentience into the external; to “turn yourself inside out” is both to transform the claims of corporeality so that the external world is seen anew, and (conversely) to recast vision in a way that seems actually to refashion the body and its senses—making them more genuinely “human,” to recall Marx's vision of non-alienated faculties. In terms of oneself and others, the path of revolutionary change lies directly through the body, as it impedes both action and political sight and as it presents itself for both punishment and remaking.

This attitude toward the body, of course, is counterpointed within Marat/Sade by a rival political anatomy, one which reverses the vision/body hierarchy advocated by Marat. The Marquis de Sade mocks Marat's political stance with a radical corporealism, rejecting even the possibility of transcendent self-extension “beyond the body”: “[A]s I sat there in the Bastille […] I learned that this is a world of bodies / each body pulsing with a terrible power / each body alone and racked with its own unrest” (92). Sade rewrites the French Revolution in terms of the atomic body, materially and spiritually isolated from anything but its own appetite, its experiential self-regard. Political agitation, revolutionary action—all mask a body moored in itself, relieved only by moments of orgiastic release and by the prospect of its own annihilation. “[T]he only truths we can point to / are the ever-changing truths of our own experience” (31): in this rewriting, the Bastille becomes an emblem, not of personal and social liberation, but of an irremediable incarceration within the body's walls:

these cells of the inner self
are worse than the deepest stone dungeon
and as long as they are locked
all your revolution remains
only a prison mutiny
to be put down
by corrupted fellow-prisoners


To a Marat who insists “We can't begin to build till we've burnt the old building down” (58), Sade charges “So they storm all the citadels / and there they are / and everything is just the same” (61).

The corporeal reduction underlying Sade's epistemological and pragmatic nihilism is reinforced in Marat/Sade's multiple dialectic by the play's asylum staging. By directing the assassination of Marat within this institution, and by casting the physically and mentally disordered as his main characters, Sade establishes the suffering body as his primary performative site, actualizing in theatrical terms the psycho-physiological as the locus of political action. The screams, wails, and gyrations that establish the play's mise-en-scène confront the forestage action with an anarchy of bodily constraint and release, linking the political issues surrounding the French Revolution to the body's tormented agitation.23 Corday's political assassination becomes erotic play, and the Revolution itself a sublimated form of “general copulation” (92). Within such a performance context, the problem of Marat's own corporeality receives heightened attention: played by a paranoiac, Marat is portrayed already deep within the physiological absorption of disease, and the perceptual contraction effected by his fever and itching is underscored by the circumscribed boundaries of his bathtub. Sade taunts him: “Lying there / scratched and swollen / your brow burning / in your world your bath / you still believe that justice is possible” (56), and the Marat he directs is subject to distraction, delirium, and the flight of sense when even words lose their projective meaning: “And now / doubt / Why does everything sound false” (84). From the point of view of this vulnerable physicality, one of Marat's early speeches becomes richly problematic:

Simonne Simonne
my head's on fire
I can't breathe
There is a rioting mob inside me
I am the Revolution


Like the play as a whole, these lines stand poised between the macrocosmic and microcosmic, between a Marat who assumes the Revolution through political self-transcendence, and a Marat who stages the Revolution inside—with pain and its disturbance his actors, and the private “body politic” his mise-en-scène.

This conflict between externalization and embodiment, political transformation and corporeal fixity, reflects the complex representational dialectic at work in Marat/Sade. The claims of vision and intervention find their theatrical form in Brechtian presentation—interruption of action by debate, multiple alienation of actor from role, superimpositions of historical time, and the inclusion of a discursive epilogue (cut from the 1965 Peter Brook production and missing from English editions of the play) where the characters clarify their political stances. Weiss has given evidence that his move into documentary theater, and into history as dramatic subject, was in part motivated—like his Trotsky's internationalism—by a desire to escape the limitations of corporeal perspective. In both their literal and figurative phrasings, his theoretical statements reveal an artistic/political concern with the body as a self-circumscribing impediment to vision—“Instead of showing reality in its immediacy, the documentary theater presents an image of a piece of reality torn out of its living context”—and with staging history: “When I take a theme that is altogether contemporary, it often turns out to be very one-sided, for all I have is the world that immediately surrounds me, and this limits me.”24 The Brechtian devices in Marat/Sade and elsewhere in Weiss's plays acquire particular urgency within the theater, that other field animated and perceived by corporeal subjects, and in light of the vulnerability of ideational structures to the bodies of both performer and spectator. Weiss's Trotsky, after all, concludes his speech to Lenin on the body's claims to attention with a theatrical analogy that highlights, with striking directness, the risks of spectatorship, and the fragility of enactment:

Everything at times like on a huge stage. When I first went to the theater, Ilych, it was overwhelming. Indescribable. Out of my mind nearly at what was going on. Sat through all the intervals in case I might miss something. Afterwards they asked me: what did you see? I couldn't say. What had I seen? What had I seen?


Yet despite his anxiety about the body's assertiveness, Weiss refuses to silence the voice of physiology: his revolutionary theater is grounded in corporeal life, and in the body's ambiguous presence to itself and its world. The claims of the body—ecstatic, afflicted, self-projective, isolated—find expression through the spectacular staging of Marat/Sade, influenced by Artaud and by the Revolution's own Theater of Cruelty, its visual animation powerfully disruptive of Brechtian detachment. That Weiss's declared interpretation of the play moved from the spectacular to the Brechtian, from Sade to Marat, does not diminish the body's claims within his drama of political vision, and its claims to attention both as spectacle and as imprisoned site of a vanishing world.25


The performance field of Edward Bond's plays is one of the most materially and perceptually complex in the contemporary theater. On the one hand, Bond's theatrical landscapes are characterized by a spaciousness of setting unmatched since Ibsen, a geographic expansiveness mapped through seas, rivers, fields, woods, the grounds of country estates, narrow roads to the deep north, the blanket of nuclear winter. In even the urban settings of The Pope's Wedding, Saved, and The Cat, Bond's scenic arena is liable to sudden openings, onto cricket greens, parks, lakes, rooftops. At the same time, and despite their relative paucity of stage props, Bond's plays feel distinctively heavy on stage, much more so than the materially dense performance arenas of Pinter's The Caretaker, Mamet's American Buffalo or Brenton's The Churchill Play. The locus of this weight is the human body, rendered inert by a degree of onstage suffering beyond anything attempted by Bond's contemporaries. “I write about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners,” Bond has written, and his plays stage the consequences of this violence as it is mostly described in The Investigation and Marat/Sade.26 Corpses hanging on the gallows in Early Morning, the workman's dead body lying onstage at the opening of Lear, bodies battered in a makeshift boxing ring in The Fool—the suffering body asserts its physicality within Bond's dramatic world through sheer number, and through the subjective weight of its pain. Physicality and the sentience of pain occupy, transfix Bond's stage, endowing it with a density like that of the stones which feature so prominently throughout his plays. Even the ghosts in these plays have a strange, agonized solidity, as though the spirit were itself a suffering body at one remove.

This obsession with the body reflects the radically biological materialism that underlies Bond's theater, a materialism that grounds the political and the economic in human corporeality. Bond looks not to statistics, institutions, or abstractions, but to the body for the signs of power and the marks of its operation. Like Weiss, Bond explores power as a claim on the body, as the usurping right to turn the body into its sign: the dismembered remains of Shogo's naked body are nailed to a placard in Narrow Road to the Deep North, the Young Woman's gibbeted body hangs in the background in Bingo, Paul's body is staged for execution in The Swing, the child Astyanax is thrown publicly from the Trojan battlements in The Woman. But power (and the conditions it both maintains and reflects) etches itself on human corporeality in less overt ways, and these plays of a writer who has claimed that “[t]ension and aggression are even becoming the markings of our species” repeatedly attempt to “read” the staged body for the signs of power's institutional operations.27 The mutual devouring of capitalist society is literalized as cannibalism in Early Morning, and the Parson's own body displays his privilege when he is stripped and accused by the indigent locals in The Fool: “Where you stole that flesh boy? Your flesh is stolen goods.”28 Whether it originates in open infliction or in more covert operations, violence in Bond's plays is power rendered apparent on the body.

As in Weiss's drama, this interest in the often searing inscriptions of power of human corporeality, its semiological operation, forms part of a broader understanding of the biological as site of political contest. For the body in Bond's plays represents not simply a slate for the marks of power, but a politicized interface between subject and world. In his preface to Lear, Bond discusses this contact between the body and its environment in terms of “biological expectation”: “What ought we to do? Live justly? But what is justice? Justice is allowing people to live in the way for which they evolved. Human beings have an emotional and physical need to do so, it is their biological expectation” (10). Society is constituted equitably when it meets the criterion of “biological justice” (9), when it allows its individuals the assurances that the unborn child expects: “that its unpreparedness will be cared for, that it will be given not only food but emotional reassurance, that its vulnerability will be shielded, that it will be born into a world waiting to receive it, and that knows how to receive it” (6). A society organized in such a way allows the creation of culture as an expression of human need grounded in biological life; a society that fails to meet these biological criteria—such as the contemporary one, with its unjust institutions and the “technosphere” with which it supplants the “biosphere” (10)—denaturalizes human behavior and fosters a cycle of aggressivity where individuals inflict upon one another a violence resulting from their own biological victimization.29

The violence in Bond's plays, in other words, derives from and is directed toward the individual's physical commerce with his or her environment. Against the “world” that power seeks to unify under its operations, bodies offer discrepant “worlds,” the autonomous landscapes of an incarnate subjectivity that realizes, indeed creates, itself through the satisfaction of its needs and the implementation of its desires. Lear represents a particularly intricate exploration of this conflict as it plays itself out in both individual and social terms. The adaptation of a play that also explores the political body, Bond's version of Shakespeare's story dramatizes the control which violence seeks to exert over the biologically-grounded subject, and the transformations it seeks to inflict. As a result of this concern with the suffering body, it also foregrounds the disrupting presence of pain within the Brechtian framework of Bond's “rational” theater.

Violence is organized in Lear through a pattern of enclosure, enacted both socially and personally. On the broadest political level, Lear precipitates the downfall of his kingdom by building a wall, a demarcation initiated to keep the enemy out but which, like the organized enclosures of land in Bingo and The Fool, creates hardships for his subjects and polarizes opposition from without. Descending through the play's spheres of action, one encounters a narrowing or enforced enclosure, a “circle that never stops getting smaller” contracting toward the boundaries of bodily containment.30 This confinement is brought about, most obviously, through incarceration, a motif that runs powerfully through all of Bond's plays (Nazi imprisonment in Summer, Ismene's immuring in The Woman, bodies trapped within rubble in The War Plays). In Lear, the bodies of Warrington and the Gravedigger's Boy are thrown into the well, Lear and his daughters are imprisoned, prisoners march chained together. But these instances of external imprisonment reflect a more fundamental incarceration on the level of the body itself: the perceptual enclosure effected by pain, and a cancellation of the subject's ability to extend itself within the space it inhabits and thereby humanize this space according to its presence. If the senses constitute the means of access to the world, the registers of this world upon the human subject and the primary instruments by which this subject seeks to externalize itself within its environment, then the violence that seems to subsume all else in Lear seeks to attack the individual's spatializing gestures at their origin. The piercing of Warrington's eardrums and the blinding of Lear (effected through the grotesque technology of the blinding machine) emblematize the more pervasive incarceration of the subject within the body's limits, an enforced embodiment achieved through the “radical subjectivity” of pain.31 As elsewhere in Bond, the ultimate aim of this affliction is a penetration of damage to the innermost registers of subjectivity, a reversion of even this field to the material self-reference of objects. As the torture of Warrington and the rape of Cordelia in Lear suggest, power manifests its signs through its claim over the body's very interiority, a claim given anatomical emblem in the autopsy opening Fontanelle's body to view.32 With this ability, power renders the center of bodied subjectivity inanimate, objectival, inert. In the moments before Bodice pokes her knitting needles into Warrington's ears, Fontanelle jumps on his body in sadistic exultation: “Kill it! Kill all of it! Kill him inside! Make him dead!” (28).33 “We must shut him up inside himself,” says Bodice (29), and the effect of their bodily violation is to turn Warrington into “[w]alking offal” (30). These images reflect the reversion of interiority to the purely organic, the effacement of “I”—as locus of subjectivity, in all its self-possessed abstraction—within the material.

Like all of Bond's plays, Lear circles obsessively around the moment of death, when the annihilating spasm of violence is successful and the animated body—once speaking, gesturing, spatializing its world—is rendered inert. But this reduction is only the culmination of a broader process that occupies the play as a whole: the deepening entrapment of the subject within the sphere of materiality, an interiorization that accompanies (and counterpoints) the increased excitations of pain. Lear's recurrent references to animals in cages reflect both the external imprisonment to which he is subjected and the more fundamental bodily incarceration which constitutes the target and the perceptual mode of pain. The self-confined nature of this entrapment is underscored in Lear's lament in the final act, when he appropriates the image of the wall as symbol for the suffering body: “What can I do? I left my prison, pulled it down, broke the key, and still I'm a prisoner. I hit my head against a wall all the time. There's wall everywhere. I'm buried alive in a wall. Does this suffering and misery last for ever?” (94). Lear's gaze in a mirror symbolizes the enforced narcissism of pain, an imprisoning circuit of attention that only intensifies when his eyes are lost. A collapse of subjective field imposed from without, this reversion of subject to body constitutes power's primary achievement, an obliteration of the personal and its reconstitution as object within power's field.

It is important not to restrict this pain, and its transgressive operation upon both body and consciousness, to the fiction dramatized by Bond's actors. Pain reaches across the boundary separating stage and author (“I find the actual business of writing almost painful,” Bond has said, “like touching something hot”), as well as the boundary between stage and audience.34 Even in its dramatized forms, pain violates the perceptual demarcations and the differential spheres of “otherness” essential to representation, including the spectator within its discomfort through a kind of neuromimetic transferal (the impulse to close one's eyes during simulated blindings onstage reflects, not simply an aversion to the sight of pain, but also a deeper defense against its sympathetic arising within the field of one's own body). Bond has theorized this transgression of the audience-play boundary under the label “aggro-effect,” setting discomfort in contrast to the almost exclusive privileging of rationality within Brechtian theory: “In contrast to Brecht, I think it's necessary to disturb an audience emotionally, to involve them emotionally in my plays.”35 Though Bond's description focuses on the emotions, his coinage (designed to offer an alternative to Brecht's “A-effect”) reflects a more physiological grounding: “aggro” suggests both aggressivity and aggregation; both connotations point to a physical discomfort, cramped and edgy, rooted in a suffering that the audience is made to share. That this effect constitutes a mode of bodily intervention is further suggested by Bond's remarks on art: “Society is a surgeon operating on [it]self and art is part of that operation.”36

The portrayal of pain that constitutes Bond's theatrical “surgery” poses risks given the playwright's avowed dramaturgical aims; indeed, much of the power of Bond's plays lies in this problematic extremity of the suffering body and in a corporeal intrusion that Brecht's theater sought to minimize. In Bond's theory of performance, the vicarious infliction of audience discomfort activates a rationality to which it is ultimately subordinated: “[t]he shock is justified by the desperation of the situation or as a way of forcing the audience to search for reasons in the rest of the play.”37 Theoretically, the depiction of pain is subsumed within the broader system of representation governing the play, constituting merely the most extreme point within the representational continuum of what Bond has called his “rational theater.” But this formulation risks underrepresenting the disruptiveness of pain within a dramaturgy of rational detachment, and the effect of its urgency on intellectual analysis. For pain is marked by its excessiveness, by a surplus that swamps the representational structures erected to contain it. Like the sea that reappears throughout Bond's plays, pain is characterized by receding horizons, passing beyond the boundaries of articulation toward deeper regions of sentience. This pain tends to overcome its enactment, mocking the disbelief that would relegate it to an actor's performance or refer it to the safety of a playwright's script. The enactment of pain within Lear and Bond's other plays asserts itself with visceral certainty, as a trauma suddenly and physically erupted, with a subjectively-located reality that exceeds the attempt to figure it externally. Although the suffering body serves as emblem, a material reification of power's hold over the body, pain itself annihilates abstraction, transfixes consciousness on its own insistent facticity. Anthony Kubiak observes that “[a]lthough terror can only occur in history, it is felt as a naked singularity, existing outside all possible representation.” As Bond himself says, “A scream from a wounded man is not rhetorical.”38

As the representational orderings of its own world collapse within the contracted sphere of sentience, therefore, the suffering body subjects the plane of theatrical representation to similar (if often momentary) rupture. From this perspective, one might speak of enacted pain as a “trauma of representation,” whether that representation be organized according to illusionistic or epic tenets. The staging of this pain may indeed lead to outrage, reflection, political will. But unlike the measured, alienated representations of physical suffering in Brecht's theater, offered to rational digestion, its unmeasured portrayal on Bond's stage risks transfixing the stage with its agonized presence. The violent audience reaction to Saved (and the high walkout rate for other, especially earlier, Bond plays) suggests the risks posed to a rationally-articulated mise-en-scène by the evocation of pain and its aversiveness.

The staging of pain presents a further destabilization within Bond's theater of committed reason. As theorized by Bond, the enactment of human suffering and its vicarious replication in the audience serves to motivate action within the politico-economic sphere that fosters and institutionalizes this suffering. The witnessing of pain, in other words, is an awakening to political awareness and intervention, within “the world we prove real by dying in it” (Author's Preface to Lear, 12). But to the extent that this witnessing is itself a vicarious re-experiencing of pain, a mimetic inhabiting of the suffering body, it finds itself subject to the perceptual modulations effected by pain. As we saw in our discussion of Weiss, these modulations operate in contrary directions, tending not only toward a radical materialization of the body as object, but toward an equally radical derealization of the world itself. As sentience contracts within the circle of pain and the bodied subject is displaced by body as object, the subject/body/world continuum is characterized by increasing disengagement: the body toward thingness, and both subject and world toward a condition of disembodiment. Pain annihilates abstraction as an extension from bodily experience, but it also reinstates abstraction of a different order in its aftermath: the abstraction of a subject detached from the violated body, and of a world no longer available to the body's sensory reifications. Like other Bond plays, Lear is peopled by ghosts, the dead-but-not-dead, who represent (among other things) a subjectivity detached from the moorings of biological life. And like the other plays, Lear explores the perceptual detachment from nature and society that exists as a corollary of pain, a vision of the human body against vast emptiness that recurs with Shakespeare walking through the snowy field in Bingo, and Hecuba and Mary facing the sea in The Woman and Summer. Describing his forced march with other prisoners, Lear recounts his perceptions: “There was so much sky. I could hardly see. I've always looked down at the hills and banks where the enemy was hiding. But there's only a little strip of earth and all the sky” (69). As Weiss's Trotsky discovers in moments of bodily duress, the world of action and efficacy gives way to a perceptual blankness, disengaged from history and freed from its suffering—a detachment from the material whose quasi-mystical overtones are represented most consciously, in Bond's work, by the hermit/poet Basho in the opening scenes of Narrow Road. In terms of the life-world of the bodied subject, to die in the world is (for Bond's characters) to prove it unreal, to effect its disappearance within a self-emptying phenomenal world.

The very pain that objectifies the human body in its material being, in other words, also dereifies the world as it exists for the subject, both imprisoned within and distanced from a body rendered alien in its sentient materiality. Lear envisions escape from this imprisonment—“The animal will slip out of its cage, and lie in the fields, and run by the river, and groom itself in the sun, and sleep in its hole from night to morning” (54)—and seeks to begin this liberation by tearing down the wall of compulsory enclosure. Such moments have obvious political import: the burden of action and social reconstruction falls on those who remain, and on those (on stage and off) who witness the revolutionary gesture. But the complexity of social organization that the play has dramatized leaves little room for the primitivism underlying Lear's vision of escape, or for the pastoralism that represents its nearest social equivalent: the farm that Cordelia wishes to protect with a fence is vulnerable to the outside world, and in combating this world, Cordelia appropriates the dehumanizing violence to which she was subjected. Beyond this, the call to action and change, with its implicit faith that the walls of enclosure can be torn down and the cycle of violence ended, is counterpointed (in Lear and in Bond's work as a whole) by the insurmountable enclosure of corporeality itself, and by the disengagements of self-alienated embodiment. Against his urgings that the world be changed, rendered just, Bond dramatizes the erasure of this world within the canceling gestures of pain. Cordelia directs her troops in their war of liberation, but Bond's attention in Act 2, scene 3 is on the Wounded Soldier, and on his dematerializing, extinguishing world as it is known from within: “It's dark, there are stars … look […] The stars … Look … One … Two … Three … [Silence.]” (59).

Biological justice is problematic in Bond's theater, not only because (as Brecht might say) we're not good enough yet, but also because of the difficult fact of human embodiment, through which the subject is both self-transcending in acts of individual and social creation and bounded by its suffering corporeality. This body asks to be confronted on its own, paradoxical, terms—as a phenomenal zero-point within the world of which, objectively observed, it forms only a part. Like Peter Weiss, Edward Bond stages the politics of this embodiment, and the implications of its voices: the voice of self-projections, and the annihilating voice of pain. And like Weiss, Bond confronts the problem of embodiedness for representation itself: the fact that the body, subject to biological exigency, subsumes narrative and ideological pattern as readily as it does its own disembodying self-projections, engulfing representational ordering within the vortices of self-regard that characterize sentience. Both dramatists seek to incorporate this problematic sentience within their analysis of political interaction, and to reconfigure political issues within a corporeal intersubjectivity. Pursuing dramatic subjects and representational modes appropriate to this reconfiguration, both dramatists complicate the Brechtian project by grounding their plays in the bodied subject, suffering and whole, and in the precarious anatomy of its political and theatrical worlds.


  1. Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845) in Selected Writings, ed. David McLellan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 156; Peter Weiss, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, English version by Geoffrey Skelton, verse adaptation by Adrian Mitchell (New York: Atheneum, 1984), 91.

  2. Edward Bond, “On Brecht: A Letter to Peter Holland,” Theatre Quarterly 8 (Summer 1978): 34; Heiner Müller, quoted in Klaus Völker, “Brecht Today: Classic or Challenge,” Theatre Journal 39 (1987): 433.

  3. For discussions of these currents of the post-Brechtian, see Philip Auslander, “Toward a Concept of the Political in Postmodern Theatre,” Theatre Journal 39 (1987): 20-34; Janelle Reinelt, “Beyond Brecht: Britain's New Feminist Drama,” Theatre Journal 38 (1986): 154-63; Elin Diamond, “Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Toward a Gestic Feminist Criticism,” The Drama Review 32 (Spring 1988): 82-94; Joel Schechter, “Beyond Brecht: New Authors, New Spectators,” in Beyond Brecht/Über Brecht hinaus, ed. John Fuegi, Gisela Bahr, and John Willett (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983), 43-53; and David Bathrick, “Patricide or Re-generation?: Brecht's Baal and Roundheads in the GDR,” Theatre Journal 39 (1987): 434-47. See also Elizabeth Wright, Postmodern Brecht: A Re-Presentation (London: Routledge, 1989).

  4. Trevor Griffiths, Occupations, rev. ed. (London: Faber, 1980), 17.

  5. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985). This article owes much to Scarry's powerful conceptualization of the suffering body, the relationship between embodiedness and self-extension, and the political exploitations of pain.

  6. Peter Brook, The Empty Space (Middlesex: Penguin, 1968), 152.

  7. Georg Büchner, Danton's Death, in The Complete Collected Works, trans. Henry J. Schmidt (New York: Avon, 1977), 67.

  8. On the politics of the “carnivalesque” body, see Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984). Joel Schechter discusses the political tradition of clown theater on the modern stage in Durov's Pig: Clowns, Politics and Theatre (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985).

  9. Darko Suvin, To Brecht and Beyond: Soundings in Modern Dramaturgy (Sussex: Harvester; Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1984), 70.

  10. Bertolt Brecht, Baal, trans. William E. Smith and Ralph Manheim, in Collected Plays, vol. 1, ed. Ralph Manheim and John Willett (New York: Random House, 1971), 31; The Threepenny Opera, trans. Ralph Manheim and John Willett, in Collected Plays, vol. 2, ed. Ralph Manheim and John Willett (New York: Random House, 1977), 177. On the scientific foundations of Brecht's theatre, see David Roberts, “Brecht and the Idea of a Scientific Theatre,” in Brecht: Performance/Brecht: Aufführung, ed. John Fuegi, Gisela Bahr, John Willett, and Carl Weber (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987), 41-60. Roberts writes: “The individual as object and not subject of events is not only the constant theme of [Brecht's] plays, it determines the method [of] presentation of figures and events as objects of investigation, whose formula from the mid-thirties on was the term alienation” (42).

  11. Bertolt Brecht, “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting,” in Brecht on Theatre, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 92. Elsewhere, Brecht has written: “It is only after walking all around the entire episode that he can, as it were by a single leap, seize and fix his character, complete with all its individual features” (“A Short Organum for the Theatre,” Brecht on Theatre, 200).

  12. Ibid., 200-01.

  13. Throughout Brecht's theoretical writings, images associated with bodily appetite denote a surrender to empathy conceived in physiological terms, a mimetic engulfment in the body's life: the Dramaturg of The Messingkauf Dialogues says of Brecht's theater: “His actors weren't waiters who must serve up the meat and have their private, personal feelings treated as gross importunities”; see Bertolt Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues, trans. John Willett (London: Methuen, 1965), 71. The very image of a “culinary theater,” and its attendant dismissal, suggests Brecht's mistrust of a theatrical experience grounded in corporeality.

  14. Because of the range and complexity of the attendant issues, this article will forego discussion of the politics of embodiment as it is engaged within the equally important field of gender representation.

  15. Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, ed. Dirk J. Struik, trans. Martin Milligan (New York: International, 1964), 114, 156, 139, 182. For an analysis of embodiment and self-extension through labor in Marx's writings, see Kostas Axelos, Alienation, Praxis, and Technē in the Thought of Karl Marx, trans. Ronald Bruzina (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976), esp. 123-42, 217-69; and Scarry, The Body in Pain, 243-77. For discussions of Marxist thought from the perspective of corporeality and the “life-world,” see Ludwig Landgrebe, “Life-world and the Historicity of Human Existence,” in Phenomenology and Marxism, ed. Bernhard Waldenfels, Jan M. Broekman, and Ante Pažanin, trans. J. Claude Evans, Jr. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 167-204; and John O'Neill, “Merleau-Ponty's Critique of Marxist Scientism,” ibid., 276-304.

  16. Scarry, The Body in Pain, 57. Scarry discusses “the human being's capacity to move out beyond the boundaries of his or her own body into the external, sharable world” (5). Writing from the perspective of medical phenomenology, Herbert Plügge observes that “All things take their rise in the live body … since, phenomenologically viewed, perception is the indispensible presupposition for every emergence of all things in the world”; see “Man and His Body,” trans. Erling Eng, in The Philosophy of the Body: Rejections of Cartesian Dualism, ed. Stuart F. Spicker (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1970), 294.

  17. Scarry writes: “[I]ntense pain … destroys a person's self and world, a destruction experienced spatially as either the contraction of the universe down to the immediate vicinity of the body or as the body swelling to fill the entire universe” (The Body in Pain, 35). Anthony Kubiak observes that “[t]he moment of terror, like the instant of pain, is a moment of zero time and infinite duration. … In pain we experience history as pure subject, isolated and detached; we experience history, in other words, as a-historical”; see “Disappearance as History: The Stages of Terror,” Theatre Journal 39 (1987): 82. On the body's emergence as a “thing” within phenomenal self-perception, see Plügge, “Man and His Body.”

  18. Edward Bond, Red Black and Ignorant, in The War Plays, vol. 1 (London: Methuen, 1985), 5.

  19. Scarry, The Body in Pain, 35.

  20. Peter Weiss, Trotsky in Exile, trans. Geoffrey Skelton (New York: Atheneum, 1972), 70; Trotsky repeats this gesture on 87 and 97.

  21. On the history of public forms of penalty, see Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Random House, 1979), esp. 3-14.

  22. Weiss, Marat/Sade, 20, 49.

  23. Weiss makes similar use of the agitated body in Trotsky in Exile, during the scene of the 1903 Brussels conference: “During the discussion there is constant unrest: some scratch themselves, stand up, wave their arms, kick their legs, throw books in corners. Now and again a participant wanders about like a sleep-walker” (25).

  24. Peter Weiss, “Notes on the Contemporary Theater,” trans. Joel Agee, in Essays on German Theater, ed. Margaret Herzfeld-Sander (New York: Continuum, 1985), 296; “Conversation with Peter Weiss,” trans. Joel Agee, Essays on German Theater, 303. The play's epilogue has been translated and published by Roger Gross in “Marat/Sade's Missing Epilogue,” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 2 (1988): 61-67.

  25. On Weiss's changing views of Marat/Sade, and the reflection of these attitudes in the play's early productions, see John R. P. McKenzie, “Peter Weiss and the Politics of ‘Marat/Sade,’” New Theatre Quarterly 1 (1985): 301-12; and Sidney F. Parham, “Marat/Sade: The Politics of Experience, or the Experience of Politics?” Modern Drama 20 (1977): 235-50.

  26. Edward Bond, Author's Preface to Lear, in Plays: Two (London: Methuen, 1978), 3. Page references to Bond's Preface and to Lear are to this edition.

  27. Ibid., 8. Bond continues: “Many people's faces are set in patterns of alarm, coldness or threat; and they move jerkily and awkwardly, not with the simplicity of free animals.”

  28. Edward Bond, The Fool, in Plays: Three (London: Methuen, 1987), 106.

  29. Bond also discusses the socio-biological roots of aggression in “Drama and the Dialectics of Violence,” interview with the Editors, Theatre Quarterly 2 (January-March 1972): 9. Terry Eagleton addresses some of the inconsistencies in Bond's analysis of violence and human nature in “Nature and Violence: The Prefaces of Edward Bond,” Critical Quarterly 26 (Spring/Summer 1984): 127-35.

  30. Edward Bond, Narrow Road to the Deep North, in Plays: Two, 188. Shogo is speaking.

  31. Scarry, The Body in Pain, 50.

  32. With this scene, Bond actualizes the image evoked by Shakespeare's Lear in the trial scene: “Then let them anatomize Regan; see what breeds about her heart”; see King Lear, The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), III. vi. 76-77.

  33. Peter Holland offers a fascinating discussion of the role of objects in Bond's theater, and their function as part of a general “objectifying” of characters; discussing Saved, Holland notes: “The action of reducing the human to an object allows it to be used as a pawn in the social transactions of the characters”; see “Brecht, Bond, Gaskill, and the Practice of Political Theatre,” Theatre Quarterly 8 (Summer 1978): 29.

  34. Bond, “Drama and the Dialectics of Violence,” 11.

  35. Edward Bond, “From Rationalism to Rhapsody,” interview with Christopher Innes, Canadian Theatre Review, no. 23 (Summer 1979): 113.

  36. Edward Bond, “The Rational Theatre,” in Plays: Two, xv.

  37. Bond, “From Rationalism to Rhapsody,” 113.

  38. Kubiak, “Disappearance as History,” 82; Edward Bond, letter to Robert Brustein, 9 August 1972, in Malcolm Hay and Philip Roberts, Bond: A Study of His Plays (London: Methuen, 1980), 116. Bond retreats somewhat from the disruptive implications of this statement for his “rational” theater by evoking the notion of illustration: “it is a precise description of a situation, and is reduced to essentials.”

Alexander Stephan (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stephan, Alexander. “The Civil War as Model: Peter Weiss, Spain, and Die Ästhetik des Widerstands.” In German and International Perspectives on the Spanish Civil War: The Aesthetics of Partisanship, edited by Luis Costa, Richard Critchfield, Richard Golsan, and Wulf Koepke, pp. 477-89. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1992.

[In the following essay, Stephan asserts that Weiss's treatment of the Spanish Civil War in Die Ästhetik des Widerstands allows him to explore “the two central themes that have determined his life and writings for years: the possibilities and limits of resistance to violence, and the difficulty in portraying this resistance.”]

Much has been written about the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, especially by those authors that the Nazis had driven out of Austria and Germany after 1933. Alfred Kantorowicz, himself a veteran of the war and a writer, reckons the number of titles at more than a thousand.1 The forms used vary from the combat unit diary to eyewitness accounts from the thick of the front, from narratives to poems, from stage plays such as Brecht's Die Gewehre der Frau Carrar to novels such as Bodo Uhse's Leutnant Bertram, from contemporary documents in the style of Arthur Koestler's exposé Menschenopfer unerhört documentary to reportage such as Ludwig Renn's Im spanischen Krieg, which had to be revised a number of times for political expediency.

Die Ästhetik des Widerstands by Peter Weiss,2 the first volume of which is set largely in Spain, does not fit into any of these categories, since it uses all of them simultaneously. It is more than a history, written as it is in the first person, that of a protagonist who, like the author Peter Weiss, insecure within and persecuted without, tries to find out whether, and if so how, involvement in the Spanish Civil War can afford him stability and certainty. But it is more than a memoir, because that—fictional—protagonist constantly projects himself and the events surrounding him at the highest level of self-awareness into the worldwide confrontation, occasionally stylized even as timeless-eternal, between oppression and resistance.

The result is at once confusing and fascinating. Real persons such as Max Hodann, Willi Bredel and Nordahl Grieg engage in conversations nowhere preserved, although Weiss obviously puts much stress on having them speak as they most probably would have, were there protocols to prove it. The action, if one can speak of that at all in this book, is repeatedly interrupted by reports and digressions full of current historical facts and historical analyses of works of art. Peter Weiss calls his work a “novel” and at the same time reveals in the Notebooks that chronicle the genesis of Ästhetik des Widerstands how painstakingly he worked up his materials, in conversations with war veterans and source research in archives, on the occasion of a trip through Spain in 1974, and through the experience of much reading, screened behind long bibliographical listings. In good historical style, the internal confrontations within the left during the thirties are laid out in similar detail and without regard to political losses: the tensions accompanying the foundation of the Popular Front and the feud between the Anarcho-Syndicalists and the CP, the Moscow Trials and the topic of Stalinism, and the problem as to whether realism or modernism could serve more adequately for aesthetic representation of political struggles. All of which is not to say that the note of authenticity in the more journalistic passages of Ästhetik des Widerstands does not sometimes tempt the reader to check a reference work to see if Peter Weiss wasn't perhaps indeed in Spain in the thirties.

The point of departure for Weiss' novel, as for the writings of many of his colleagues, is the realization that the events of the Civil War amount to a turning point in the confrontation with international fascism. Here, in Spain, after years of verbal resistance, the antifascist left first succeeded in actively taking a common stand. This applies particularly to the exiled writers forced to flee Germany and Austria after the surrender of power to the Nazis. In 1936-37, writers who had never handled a weapon other than their pens hastened to leave the relative security of exile in Prague, Paris, or London, regardless of the perils of the war, for Spain. Communists and Social Democrats, anarchists and unaffiliated independents lay side by side in the trenches on the Ebro and before Guadalajara. Workers, middle class, and intellectuals more quickly joined cause under fire from the Condor Legion than under the umbrella of the Popular Front concocted by functionaries and already crumbling as it was founded.

Weiss worked out and drafted the first volume of Ästhetik des Widerstands in the early seventies. But there is no doubt that the Spanish Civil War, despite the interval of more than thirty years, had lost none of its immediacy for him. On the contrary, it was only this distancing from the events that enabled him to integrate the struggle in Spain in the continuing, worldwide resistance to oppression of every sort. At any rate, he admits no doubts as to the immediacy of his work in an interview directly after the first volume of his novel appeared. Asked “what Spain meant” for the Ästhetik des Widerstands, he said, “… Spain was the Vietnam of the generation I belonged to then. If I had had the political conviction, the strength, I could have already been in Spain in 1937-38. Because what people went through in Spain then is the same as what today's generation experiences in connection with Vietnam. … What I'm really trying to do here is to consolidate my own self—that, I think, was the idea.”3 And the historical perspective also facilitates something else: since in contrast to contemporary chroniclers he has a certain distance from the formal debates of the thirties, Weiss can apply the full breadth of modern writing technique to his own project—the documentary-archival crosschecking of facts; political addresses, historical essays, and analyses of paintings that would do credit to an expert as well as the unfolding of the private feelings and fears of an insecure and displaced self searching for a foothold.

One may praise the Ästhetik des Widerstands as the “book of the century”4 or condemn it altogether as an unreadable, “erratic boulder.”5 No other author writing on Spain has attempted, in this form at least, what Peter Weiss has produced. There have been plenty of reports about victories and defeats in the struggle against the fascists, and much discussion took place among exile authors on how best to present a topic such as the Spanish Civil War, for example at the Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture, which convened in 1937 with a strong German presence in embattled Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona. But the mutual relationship between aesthetics and resistance, to say nothing of an “aesthetic of resistance,” has never, as far as I know, before this book been considered publicly and in detail in the context of the Spanish Civil War. Viewed in this light, Die Ästhetik des Widerstands—and the chapter on Spain is but one example among many from this 3-volume mammoth project of nearly 1,000 pages of small print—fits in among the monumental attempts to come to terms with our modern world both in content and form that extend from Joyce's Ulysses and Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz through Hermann Broch's Schlafwandler and Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus to Zettels Traum by Arno Schmidt. Or to put it differently, the confrontations in Spain are probably above all of interest to Weiss as a model by means of which he is able to consider the two central themes that have determined his life and writings for years: the possibilities and limits of resistance to violence, and the difficulty in portraying this resistance.

To recount what is usually called the “plot” of the Spanish section of Ästhetik des Widerstands is relatively easy. The narrator, a young proletarian inclined toward the KPD but unaffiliated, determines at the end of 1937 to exchange his passive resistance in Berlin and the idleness of exile in Czechoslovakia for the open struggle in Spain. With the blessing of his father, a Social Democrat who does not join him in his trip to Spain only because of his age, he goes via Paris to Barcelona. But to his boundless disappointment he is ordered in Spain not to the front, but to a desk job in a convalescent home. There, in long conversations about the political confrontations within the left, he is forced to measure his ideals and convictions against real events. When he has gradually come to realize that work behind the lines also promotes the common cause, it is already too late. The recovery centers are shut down at the end of 1938 in the wake of the dissolution of the International Brigades. More insecure than ever and threatened by an increasing general sense of resignation, fury, and disappointment, the narrator returns to the anonymity of exile in Paris.

But Weiss apparently cares neither for the kind of action that makes the novels of Ernest Hemingway and Gustav Regler so readable nor for the writing of party history. Battle scenes and love affairs, hairbreadth escapes from pursuit, and heroic sacrifice of selfless heroes hardly interest him. Scarcely a line is wasted on analyzing military actions; none of the novel's characters sees the white of his enemy's eyes. And yet the Spain chapter of Ästhetik des Widerstands sometimes has breathtaking suspense—intellectually and, to my way of thinking, existentially, if such a thing can be. This suspense is created in dialogues and by reports of the narrator. The background against which it is developed are the political confrontations within the Republican left.

Here then is the first main way in which this work differs from the books of almost all other writers on Spain. It is not the struggle of the Republic against the fascists that forms the centerpiece of Ästhetik des Widerstands—these confrontations, their background, justification and outcome, Weiss suggests, are familiar enough already. What interests him and obviously troubles him much more deeply than the brutalities and military victories of the Franco forces are the paralyzing, fratricidal conflicts within his own ranks. Here, where solidarity and discipline, individualism and centralism are debated—his hope of defying reaction stands or falls—in the Spain of the thirties, just as in Vietnam and in the two Germanies of the seventies.

One of the narrator's first experiences after his arrival in Spain therefore has to do not with the fascists but with the armed confrontation in Barcelona in May 1937 between the anarchists and followers of the POUM on one side and the communists and Guardia Civil on the other. For the outsider this civil war within a civil war means at first little more than a sharpening of the conflict between ideological tendencies that he had already come to know in Paris, on his way to Spain. Now, however, squabbles about the opinions and power plays in journals and party congresses had degenerated into bloodshed and into violence: “… every movement needed its simplifications and syntheses. … But this was perhaps again proof that we were repressed by a superior leadership, that we acquiesced to our presumed dependency, that we remained trapped in our tutelage. …”

For the protagonist of the Ästhetik des Widerstands, things in Spain are not going to get any better. What the narrator as a kind of political tourist passively observes from the outside in Barcelona soon becomes physically a real threat in the convalescent hospitals behind the front. Anyone there expressing an opinion deviating from the party line is met first with contradiction and then icy silence. Delegates from the Central Committee appear and see to it that the ideological line is kept pure. Men and women who only shortly before had risked their lives at the front fall silent or are turned into spineless yes-men at the sight of the instruments the party inquisitors exhibit to them. Anyone still holding to his opinions is likely to disappear untried and without a trace:6 “We tried to shut Marcauer up, to protect her from her own words. … But at the same time we knew we would deliberately stop thinking about her. And pretty soon the early morning hour when the military police came and got her paled from our memories. …”

Confused and unwilling, the narrator tries to make sense of what he is forced to witness in Spain. Slowly he begins to realize that the individualism and spontaneity demanded by the independent left from the Communist party have to yield, at least temporarily, the place they hold in the structure of pure doctrine before the oppressive superiority of the fascist military machine. Self-help ideologists who think they can rely on the power of the masses more than on the party's organization, so he allows himself to be convinced, may in fact be holding lost positions against the planes that bomb Guernica and Madrid. The ideals of democracy and free speech that had brought him to the communist movement apparently have to wait until the cessation of hostilities.

But what in civil war Spain may have its justification threatens elsewhere, in the Moscow show trials, to turn into senseless and brutal caprice, a caprice that imperils not just the political convictions but the existential basis of the narrator. It is here, and not so much in view of the worldwide advance of the fascists, that the narrator's descent into Hades, that will accelerate until 1945, begins. The members of the International Brigade amid the Spanish inferno at first greet the news from distant Moscow, for them a far more dangerous inferno, with incredulity. Not unaware of their own convictions and fears, they wait for one of the accused publicly to tear aside the network of lies of the show trials. Confused and disoriented, they perceive how easily the monstrosity of the personality cult can nullify the rules of intraparty democracy. In shock they watch as their paragons of the October Revolution accuse themselves without resistance of the most incredible crimes.

The end of the Spanish phase in the katabasis of the exiles speaks for itself. With his last strength the narrator retreats once more, together with all the others who cannot bring themselves to abandon their convictions in spite of the outrageous news, behind the old but ever-new formula that puts the intensifying struggle against fascism ahead of debates over the disregard of human rights and human lives in their own camp. “We … didn't ask anymore about the ones that were shot in the cellars, nobody wanted to think about the justice or injustice of the sentences … now … it was only a matter of what was most pressing, of mobilizing your last strength, for the impossible holding out, to gain time, before all of Europe would be plunged into the decisive confrontation.”

Peter Weiss ends the Spanish chapter of Ästhetik des Widerstands even more darkly and hopelessly than do most of his colleagues their books on the Civil War. For him the retreat before the fascists, the dissolving of the International Brigades, the flight over the Pyrenees, and internment in the camps of the Western European democracies bent on appeasement not only mark the end of a local conflict but threaten to destroy an entire—and a personal—world. We know from reports and letters of Weiss' fellow exiles how many turned their backs on communism in 1938-1939. The laconic simultaneity with which the worldwide destruction of the left and its hopes is announced in Ästhetik des Widerstands is witness to how complete this collapse was: “The Military College of the Soviet Supreme Court had retired to consider at nine thirty p.m., Blum was making deals, while Negrin waited to be received by him, with the Radical Socialists, who made their participation in a Popular Front administration conditional on maintaining nonintervention in Spanish internal affairs, and in the Hotel in Linz the Conqueror of Austria slept, gathering strength for coming deeds.”

It is in this utterly hopeless situation that the narrator turns his thoughts to a capacity he has apparently detected in himself long ago: the saving, preserving, and clarifying power of the chronicler. “During the summer months—Grieg had left, Marcauer had been arrested, Hodann suffered once more severe attacks of his illness—the foundations began to take shape in me for what I regarded as my future work without being able to put an exact name on it. Only a kind of tonality had been struck that made it seem possible for me to give expression to all thoughts and experiences. Words or images would be the media, as needed.” Still, the intentions of the eyewitness, who later in his report will handle documents and facts as dexterously as he does the subjective resources of fiction, remain for the time being in the subjunctive. The “gag” blocking the narrator's mouth still turns “every word” he tries to say about Spain into an uncanny groan. The narrator-protagonist of the novel will in fact only write when he believes he has found a mode of presentation that not only reflects the conflict between realism and modernism but at the same time gives it form.

None of which, to be sure, prevents the narrator from continuing in Spain what he had begun in Berlin, to inventory world culture for models and examples that might offer him answers to the chaos of his time and aid in the search for adequate means of expression. Now, however, the narrator, deprived of the help of his middle-class, educated friend Heilmann, who had initiated him years before in Berlin into the history of the Pergamon altar, must rely in his undertaking altogether on the instincts and spontaneous thirst for knowledge of the born proletarian. The result of the search, presented in several extended analyses of paintings, provides the second aspect of the Spain chapter that distinguishes the Ästhetik des Widerstands from other Civil War books: that is, the hope that by aesthetic means that free space that has to be contracted in the course of political confrontations to an almost unbearable degree can indeed be once more expanded to make room for at least a moral survival of resistance.

Indeed, works of art convey the narrator's first and last impressions during his time in Spain. Thus there stands at the beginning of the Spain chapter, even before the confrontations within the left in Barcelona are presented, a description of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. The irrational, dreamy Don Quixote and the folk hero Sancho Panza put in appearances in the following pages; Mayakowsky and Tretyakov are contrasted with the “heroic” and “pathetic” in the art of Socialist Realism; failures and outcasts from Forster and Kleist to Büchner and Heine are confronted with the Luthers and Goethes; Willi Bredel's impeachment of Thomas Mann's “nonspecific humanistic antifascism” is cited; there are repeated references to the first All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers of 1934, which the narrator (and Peter Weiss) apparently sees as a kind of culmination in the formal debates of the left. And the end of the Spain report is accompanied by a veritable fireworks display of art analysis, reaching from Picasso's Guernica through Delacroix' Liberty Leading the People and Géricault's Raft of the Medusa to Goya's Execution of the Revolutionaries, Adolf Menzel's The Rolling Mill and Robert Koehler's The Strike.

There is no space here for details of these analyses, although most of them give novel interpretations.7 Two other aspects in connection with the Spain chapter are of greater importance. First, the descriptions of the paintings provide an indirect but none the less illuminating commentary on the events in Spain. Common to all of them is the theme of oppression. They also share the possibility, even though often only in vaguest terms, of resistance to the oppressor. Menzel's The Rolling Mill stands at the lower end of this scale, because, when looked at closely, it not only misinterprets work as surrender of the individual, but also puts the factory owner in the center of the composition's lines of perspective. But in Delacroix and Koehler, too, resistance remains but a pale “possibility,” a gesture already intimating betrayal of the middle-class conformist. Only Géricault's Medusa and Picasso's Guernica get more positive marks. In the one, the narrator pretends to see in spite of the hopeless gloom of the representation at least in the choice of theme a “dangerous attack” on “corruption,” “cynicism,” and “vanity” of “established society.” In the other, Picasso's Guernica, the effort with which “the shreds” are tied together “into a new totality” seems to oppose “a defense against the enemy” that could be “invincible—” “forged into a language of a few signs, the picture contained shattering and renewal, despair and hope.”

But the dialectic of destruction and vision of a better future in which the lot of the exiles and fighters in Spain is reflected is but one aspect of Guernica and the other paintings that fascinates Weiss. Just as important, perhaps more so, might have been the private, existential connection between artistic experience and participation in the struggle of the times. Thus Guernica interests him above all because in it, “as in the structural elements of poetry, … every detail is ambiguous,” challenging the observer to use “the first impression only as an impetus to analyze what is given and examine it from various viewpoints.” And as to Géricault and the Raft of Medusa he has the narrator say: “… madness hung constantly over him, like a revolt against torpor. He, who wanted to intervene in the system of oppression and destruction, saw himself perishing as a casualty. And still it had never before become so clear to me how values were able to be created in art that overcame an exclusion, a lostness, how with the formation of visions the attempt was made to afford relief for melancholy.”

With the analysis of the paintings by Picasso and Géricault Peter Weiss comes full circle, for nowhere in the Spanish part of the Ästhetik des Widerstands does it stand out more clearly to what degree the confrontation with the events in Spain means for him an act of quest for self. In this light the Spanish Civil War is in fact not only a model for the fundamental political confrontations of our century but also a kind of laboratory in which an uprooted and disoriented person contemplates himself under the most extreme conditions. Indeed, what Weiss says about Géricault and Delacroix applies just as well to himself: “… the impulses to paint arose on those levels where the unbearability of life had its roots.” “The painters had wrested one second of survival from overwhelming destruction and converted it into timelessness. From such an effort something uncanny, a silence in breathlessness, had to remain.”

We know from the interviews and notebooks of the years 1960-1980 that Peter Weiss had suffered for his entire life under conditions that harry many of his writer colleagues: a rootlessness and existential homelessness only sharpened by the experience of permanent exile;8 disgust at the brutality with which humans treat each other and an almost perverse pleasure in the portrayal of physical atrocities; the oscillation between the vita contemplativa in the retreats of the intellectual and artist and the vita activa in the trench warfare of class confrontations; and—not least—the quest for public recognition and a deficiency of self-respect in the face of the “locomotive of history” that threatens irresistibly and unfeelingly to run down the individual. We know also that after years of lonely and frustrating attempts as a painter and writer since the middle of the sixties Weiss thought he had found a new identity in closing ranks with the international left. The dispute between the hedonist de Sade and the revolutionary Marat documents this as much as do the plays against colonialism and on Vietnam.

And yet resistance against oppression, as Weiss was also forced to learn, had its price. This is witnessed not only by the reactions to the Ästhetik des Widerstands in the German Federal Republic9 but also by those passages in the second Notebook having to do with the relationships of Peter Weiss to the GDR.10 Unconditional, unlimited political discussions, in the face of real confrontations, seem to be, in the thirties or today, as impossible as a boundless realism. The archives from which, once opened, the narrator and his friends had expected to obtain information about the Moscow trials were still sealed, even after 40 and 50 years. And also in matters of aesthetics there has been but little progress since the time when the KP “wanted to remove” Picasso's Guernica “from the Spanish pavilion of the Paris World's Fair” because it is “antisocial, ridiculous,” and “altogether unsuitable to express the cause of the proletariat.”

In his novel, in which Spain appears as the central and symptomatic exemplary case, Peter Weiss has tried as far as possible to get to the bottom of the potential and limits of an aesthetic of resistance. In spite of the author's immense efforts in collecting and writing up his materials, the book does not reach a final solution in the face of historical realities. Indeed, it seems that Weiss anticipates with the Spain chapter that path into hopelessness with which the third and last volume of the Ästhetik des Widerstands appears to end: the battle against violence and its perpetrators, the powerful, is lost, and the hope that resistance can be combined with generosity and open debate is shattered. Puzzled, the narrator realizes, shortly before fleeing across the Pyrenees, that he has learned essentially nothing about the country for whose freedom he was ready to die. Whether and in what form he will someday pass on his experiences is still unclear. There appear to remain, as Gert Ueding expatiates with sardonic malice in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, only “disappointment, resignation,” and the “automatism of carrying on not out of conviction, but because there is no choice.”11

And still Weiss' novel offers more than a minute description of the left's descent into Hades. For what would the Ästhetik des Widerstands be if not a monumental attempt, using all possible forms and writing techniques, to draw an image of how men at all times and under the direst extremities resist oppression and contempt for human life? The fact that this image is at once of the greatest possible documentary authenticity and the highest subjectivity constitutes its artistic and moral value. For only when an expansion of our capacity for historical knowledge goes hand in hand with a rigorous will for self-exploration, when the “uncompromising struggle” is united with the “absolute freedom of the imagination,” does Peter Weiss see a slim hope of breaking the seemingly eternal chain of violence and resistance to violence.


  1. Alfred Kantorowicz, “Die Exilsituation in Spanien,” in Die deutsche Exilliteratur 1933-1945, ed. Manfred Durzak (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1973), 97.

  2. 3 vols., Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1975, 1978, 1981.

  3. “Es ist eine Wunschautobiographie. Peter Weiss im Gespräch mit Rolf Michaelis über seinen politischen Gleichnisroman.” In Die Zeit, 10 October 1975.

  4. Wolfgang Fritz Haug, “Die ‘Ästhetik des Widerstands’ lesen,” in Kürbiskern 2 (1982): 107.

  5. Hans Christoph Buch, “Deine Rede ist: Ja, ja, nein, nein,” in Der Spiegel 47 (20 November 1978), 258.

  6. Patrik von zur Mühlen says that “most” of the arrested foreigners “survived” and “did not disappear forever into some cellars. … As far as can be estimated from the sources, some 200-300 German civilians may have been arrested and imprisoned. How many of them ‘disappeared’ for good and have to be presumed murdered is not clear, but the number cannot be very large. … Occasional suppositions about thousands of victims are therefore exaggerated” (“Säuberung unter deutschen Spanienkämpfern,” in Exilforschung. Ein internationales Jahrbuch, 1 [Munich, edition text und kritik, 1983], 173-175). See also idem, Spanien war ihre Hoffnung. Die deutsche Linke im Spanischen Bürgerkrieg 1936-1939.

  7. See among others Jost Hermand, “Das Floß der Medusa. Über Versuche, den Untergang zu überleben,” in Die ‘Ästhetik des Widerstands’ lesen. Über Peter Weiss, Heinrich Dilly, “Lektüre und Kritik der ‘Ästhetik des Widerstands’ von Peter Weiss. Bericht über das Stuttgarter Colloquium im Wintersemester 81/82”; Uwe Schweikert, “Kunst als Widerstand, Widerstand der Kunst. Peter Weiss: ‘Die Ästhetik des Widerstands,’ in Text und Kritik 37 (2nd, rev. ed., 1982), 107-114; Klaus Herding, “Arbeit am Bild als Widerstandsleistung,” in Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, ed. Alexander Stephan, 246-284; Heinrich Dilly, “Die Kunstgeschichte in der Ästhetik des Widerstands,ibid., 296-311; Klaus Jochem, Widerstand und Ästhetik bei Peter Weiss. Zur Kunstkonzeption und Geschichtsdarstellung in der ‘Ästhetik des Widerstands’ 60.

  8. For example, Weiss declared in an interview with Peter Roos that the death of his sister had created a much “more decisive upheaval” in his life than “emigration” (in Der Maler Peter Weiss. Bilder. Zeichnungen. Collagen. Filme. Katalog zur Ausstellung in der Kunstsammlung des Bochumer Museums, 8 March-27 April 1980, ed. Peter Spielmann, Bochum, 1980, no page numbers).

  9. See Alexander Stephan, “‘Ein großer Entwurf gegen den Zeitgeist.’ Zur Aufnahme von Peter Weiss' Die Ästhetik des Widerstands,” in Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, 346-366; Volker Lilienthal, “Literaturkritik als politische Kommunikation. Zur Kritik der massenmedialen Rezeption der Ästhetik des Widerstands von Peter Weiss,” in Publizistik 1 (1985), 72-88. Lilienthal's study “‘Das Atavistische in diesem Krieg.’ Spanien in der Ästhetik des Widerstands von Peter Weiss,” in Zeitschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Linguistik 60 (1986), 112-123, which I did not yet have access to while composing this article, overlaps only slightly with my remarks. Genia Schulz, ‘Die Ästhetik des Widerstands.’ Versionen des Indirekten in Peter Weiss' Roman, 1986, deals with Spain only in passing.

  10. Peter Weiss, Notizbücher 1971-1980 Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1981, 67, 24-28 passim.

  11. Gert Ueding, “Der verschollene Peter Weiss. ‘Die Ästhetik des Widerstands,’ Teil zwei,” in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 9/12/1978.

Works Cited

Buch, Hans Christoph. “Seine Rede ist: Ja ja, nein nein.” Der Spiegel 47 (20 November 1978): 258.

Dilly, Heinrich. “Lektüre und Kritik der ‘Ästhetik des Widerstands’ von Peter Weiss. Bericht über das Stuttgarter Colloquium im Wintersemester 81/82.” Kritische Berichte 2 (1982): 38-47.

Götze, Karl-Heinz and Scherpe, Klaus R., eds. Die “Ästhetik des Widerstands” lesen. Über Peter Weiss. Berlin: Argument-Verlag, 1981 (Literatur im historischen Prozeß, NF, vol. 1).

Haug, Wolfgang Fritz. “Die ‘Ästhetik des Widerstands’ lesen.” Kürbiskern 2 (1982), 107.

Jochem, Klaus. Widerstand und Ästhetik bei Peter Weiss. Zur Kunstkonzeption und Geschichtsdarstellung in der “Ästhetik des Widerstands.” Berlin: Argument-Verlag, 1984 (Argument Studienhefte, 60).

Kantorowicz, Alfred. “Die Exilsituation in Spanien.” In Die deutsche Exilliteratur 1933-1945, ed. Manfred Durzak. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1979.

Lilienthal, Volker. “Literaturkritik als politische Kommunikation. Zur Kritik der massenmedialen Rezeption der ‘Ästhetik des Widerstands’ von Peter Weiss.” Publizistik 1 (1985): 72-88.

Mühlen, Patrik von zur. “‘Das Atavistische in diesem Krieg.’ Spanien in der ‘Ästhetik des Widerstands’ von Peter Weiss.” Zeitschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Linguistik 60 (1986): 112-123.

———. “Säuberungen unter deutschen Spanienkämpfern.” Exilforschung 1 (1983).

———. Spanien war ihre Hoffnung. Die deutsche Linke im Spanischen Bürgerkrieg 1936-1939. Bonn: Dietz, 1985 (Dietz Taschenbuch, 12).

Peter Weiss, text & kritik 37, 2nd rev. ed. 1982.

Schulz, Genia. “Ästhetik des Widerstands.” Versionen des Indirekten in Peter Weiss' Roman. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1986.

Spielmann, Peter, ed. Der Maler Peter Weiss. Bilder, Zeichnungen, Collagen. Filme. Katalog zur Ausstellung in der Kunstsammlung des Bochumer Museums, 8 March-27 April 1980.

Stephan, Alexander. ed. Die Ästhetik des Widerstands. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1983 (suhrkamp taschenbuch, 2032).

Ueding, Gert. “Der verschollene Peter Weiss. ‘Die Ästhetik des Widerstands,’ Teil zwei.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 9 December 1978.

Weiss, Peter. Die Ästhetik des Widerstands. 3 vols. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1975, 1978, 1981.

———. “Es ist eine Wunschautobiographie. Peter Weiss im Gespräch mit Rolf Michaels über seinen politischen Gleichnisroman.” Die Zeit, 10 October 1975.

———. Notizbücher 1971-1980. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1981 (edition suhrkamp, N.F. 67).

Robert Cohen (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cohen, Robert. “Early Texts.” In Understanding Peter Weiss, pp. 21-39., Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Cohen offers a thematic and stylistic overview of Weiss's early work.]

Peter Weiss's early life is defined by everything it lacked: familial warmth, friendship, a home country, a language, success, and a future. It was a life of exile and isolation, in London, Varnsdorf, and Alingsås, where the young painter led his attic-room existence. It was a nearly autistic life, an ivory tower existence. This early experience of barely existing, of being dead to the real world, is the theme of Weiss's earliest work published to date, where it appears turned on its head, as its title implies: “Traktat von der ausgestorbenen Welt” (“Treatise about the Died-Out World”). It was written in 1938-39, during the period when the twenty-two-year-old spent his second summer in the southern Swiss region of Ticino, near the revered master Hermann Hesse. It was the time when his parents fled from Czechoslovakian Sudetenland, which had just been annexed by fascist Germany, to Sweden, where Weiss was about to join them.


The world through which Peter Weiss traveled from Switzerland across Germany to Sweden was anything but “died-out”: Rather, it was filled with refugees not knowing where to go, marching soldiers, and screaming victors. But “Traktat von der ausgestorbenen Welt” does not deal with this real world. In the world in which the nameless first-person narrator one day wakes up there are neither victors nor vanquished, there are no longer any people at all, no animals, absolutely no living creatures. For five days the narrator walks through this died-out world, finding traces and collecting artifacts left behind by mankind, which has vanished from the face of the earth. All the fantasy notwithstanding, this is clearly an autobiographical story; down to the fine details there is fundamental kinship between the author and the narrator who, like Peter Weiss at that time, is an aspiring poet who has “written small books and poems” and has “dreamed of one day writing a big work, a modern epic” (56).1 In his wanderings the narrator makes his way from the countryside to the city, passing by suburbs and industrial landscapes, passing by a fair and a circus—all frequent themes in the paintings of Peter Weiss. In the entrance hall of a small, abandoned palace he finds a cembalo, so he sits down and starts to play—precisely as depicted in Weiss's 1938 oil painting “Das Gartenkonzert” (The Garden Concert). Conversely, the 1938 self-portraits—“Selbstbildnis” (Self-Portrait), “Junge im Garten” (Boy in the Garden), and “Jüngling am Stadtrand” (Young Man at the Outskirts of Town)—depict a died-out world of industrial and suburban landscapes wherein the absence of human life is underscored by the lost, lonely figure of the artist. In the last of the five short chapters of “Traktat von der ausgestorbenen Welt,” the narrator finds himself alone on an island. Passing by in the distance is a colorful ship full of merry, smiling people. One of the narrator's hallucinations? The narrator's shout goes unnoticed. Then he is alone again.

Just how this cosmic catastrophe came about remains unclear. Though there are traces of a huge battle, there are neither wounded nor dead; rather, people have “completely dissolved and turned into air” (54). In the midst of very lively and colorful activity, streets, houses, fairs, and circus tents have eerily petrified. This particular end of mankind could certainly not be accounted for by war. The “Traktat” hints at causes of a different kind. Near the fair the narrator comes to a place where people literally must have vanished into the ground. An unearthly power seems to be at work here, and there is repeated mention of God. The concept of God, however, seems broadly conceived, embracing “motherliness” as well as “life, soul, faith, or death” (58). In the passages about this “high, unknown being,” later also termed “dual God,” a tone of religiosity unusual for Peter Weiss enters the narrative, comprehensible only perhaps if the “Traktat” is read as a “call for help from a person sick with loneliness.”2 This religious tone is not present in any of Weiss's later works, and in the epic novel, The Aesthetics of Resistance, the catastrophe of the Second World War is shown to have been brought about not by some unearthly power but by human beings.

The “Traktat” is the earliest literary work by Peter Weiss that has been published in its entirety. Since 1934 Weiss had been writing and illustrating short works, fictional biographies of outsiders and artists based on his own life, and abounding in Weltschmerz and disdain for civilization.3 These texts were greatly influenced by Hesse's work, especially by Steppenwolf.4 Asked to judge these works, Hesse in a gentle and nonhurtful way drew the young artist's attention to their immaturity and romanticization of reality. In his first letter to the twenty-year-old Peter Weiss he advised against publication: there is “much that is beautiful and promising” in these works, according to Hesse, but they “lack independence, the reader feels strongly the literary-romantic atmosphere, but also feels the literary models and impetuses.” Hesse suggested literary exercises, intense work on the text “until you get each word precisely right and can vouch for it.”5 After the “Traktat,” however, these exercises had to be abruptly broken off. At the beginning of the year 1939 Peter Weiss was wrenched away from his language and all the familiar contexts of life. For a long time even painting was hardly possible. Writing? In which language?

Peter Weiss learned Swedish in an “attempt to use the Swedish language to conquer the society in which he [Weiss] was living.”6 Toward the end of the war this attempt was made somewhat easier through Weiss's contacts to a group of Swedish writers, the “Fyrtiotalisterna” (writers of the 1940s). According to Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss, texts from this period by Stig Dagerman, Gunnar Ekelöf, Maria Wine, Erik Lindegren, and Rut Hillarp reflect the influence of surrealism and psychoanalysis and deal with man's anxiety and abandonment.7 There was a basic kinship to this group of artists; for the painter and emerging filmmaker Weiss had just discovered surrealism for himself, and his interest in psychoanalysis had been stirred by the exiled physician and psychiatrist Max Hodann. Especially with Ekelöf and Dagerman, Weiss seems to have entertained close relationships. After the end of the war Weiss created a series of ink drawings as illustrations for poems by Gunnar Ekelöf (1907-68), and in 1947 the publishing house of Berman Fischer commissioned Weiss to do the German translation of Den dödsdömde (The Man Sentenced to Death), a drama by Stig Dagerman (1923-54) who committed suicide when he was barely thirty years old.


Weiss's first Swedish text,8Von Insel zu Insel (From Island to Island), written in 1944, can be characterized as a surrealist rendition of mental states and obsessions. The same might have been said of the “Traktat,” written seven years earlier, on which From Island to Island draws in a surprisingly direct manner. Just as at the end of the “Traktat” the narrator was sitting alone on an island, in the first paragraph of Von Insel zu Insel the first-person narrator is sitting on the shore, abandoned, still “shipwrecked,” looking longingly at an island (42).9 In later passages images and visions from the “Traktat” are drawn on repeatedly. Thus Von Insel zu Insel is not, as has been asserted, the first text in which Weiss depicts his traumatic early life.10

Von Insel zu Insel was written in Swedish and published in 1947 under its original Swedish title, Från ö till ö. The text consists of thirty “prose miniatures,”11 most of them hardly one page long, in which a hypersensitive first-person narrator painfully recalls stations of the internal and external reality of his life. Even the act of birth appears as an insurmountable trauma: “It cost me my whole life to recover from birth” (9). Childhood and youth are rendered as a succession of scenes of horror and torment where the narrator is beaten by his fellow students and slapped by a stranger, and where he himself tortures animals to death, yet at the same time identifies with the tortured animals and people.

Several passages of Von Insel zu Insel depict the absurdity of the world: to put out the flames, a man on fire jumps into a river and drowns; in a prison courtyard inmates must carry a pile of stones from one side to the other, then return them to the original site. The text reaches a bloody paroxysm in a passage where half-naked butchers slaughter horses at an idyllic lake, a dubious aestheticization of horror that ends in a pose of noble suffering: “O … this hopelessness, this despair” (38). (Much more adequate is the depiction of the suffering creature in the painting “Das gestürzte Pferd” [The Fallen Horse], from that same year, 1946.)

One may be tempted to say that Von Insel zu Insel expresses the imagination of a disturbed mind. The fact that Weiss underwent psychoanalysis three years later seems to confirm such a conjecture. But Weiss's art was never created from pure imagination. Even the nightmarish, visionary aspects of his works were based on realistic situations. This is true to a great extent of Von Insel zu Insel. Thus, the first-person narrator is waiting until a factory for dyeing fabrics is built. Then, just like Peter Weiss in Alingsås, he will spend two years of his life working in this factory, writing “business letters” (23). The narrator also describes his sister's death: “We heard the horrible crash, heard the screeching brakes, saw the overturned car, saw people come running from all sides. We came closer without comprehending it. You lay there in your blood, in your blood, in my blood” (41). This is how Weiss's sister Margit died in 1934. The first-person narrator of these passages can no longer be distinguished from the real Peter Weiss. The horrors in Von Insel zu Insel, assumed at first glance to be imaginary, seem to draw on real events and experiences. The same holds true for a passage of a very different kind describing a “new machine for carrying out executions,” built to serve the idea of “humane execution” of men, women, and children (35). This passage, as well as some of Weiss's paintings of the period can be seen as his earliest reaction to the Holocaust. The passage is also obviously influenced by Kafka. Even before the war, his Prague friend Peter Kien had drawn Weiss's attention to the author of “The Penal Colony.” Only now, however, when he needed a model for the literary rendition of an event that defied description, did the Kafka lesson take effect. (Three years later, in his journalistic reports from postwar Germany, Weiss linked a description of the extermination camps openly to Kafka's “Penal Colony.”12) Kafka was to remain a lasting influence on Weiss's literary work, to be joined later by Dante and Brecht.

In the summer of 1947 Peter Weiss was in Berlin to report about postwar Germany for the Swedish newspaper Stockholms Tidningen. Seven newspaper articles from Berlin were published between June and August 1947,13 followed in 1948 by a book on the same topic.


Die Besiegten, the work Weiss wrote in conjunction with his newspaper articles from Berlin, is a complex literary object. Like Von Insel zu Insel, it consists of numerous prose miniatures, many hardly a page in length—impressions and recollections, visions and nightmares of a first-person narrator, and an inventory of life in a war-devastated city. In the first few of these miniatures there is a strong similarity between the first-person narrator and Peter Weiss, as when the narrator speaks of Berlin as the city of his childhood, when he seeks his parents' bombed-out house among the ruins, or when, with his “brother” (probably a reference to one of Weiss's half brothers Arwed and Hans Thierbach, who had become Nazis and stayed in Germany), he looks for his sister's grave in the cemetery (32-33).14 After the opening passages the narrator is continually transformed: he is a German soldier, a student in a lecture hall, an officer or soldier of the occupation forces, a member of the resistance, a survivor recalling a prewar family idyll, a rapist, and a laborer working on reconstruction. In one instance the narration is even provided by a bombed-out house. But this change of roles does not give rise to a chorus of voices, as would be the case in The Aesthetics of Resistance. All these figures speak in the same lyrical and elegiacal tone that generalizes war and its consequences, interiorizes guilt, and deals with the causes of the war by turning them into vague anthropological metaphors—“an epidemic … that eventually went up in flames” (91). Weiss lifted this image almost literally from one of his newspaper articles that had already termed fascism a “dark illness” (147). But fascism is precisely not an illness or an epidemic; it is neither something inherent in nature nor a relic from former times (something “dark”). On the contrary, it is something created by human beings, created in the twentieth century under specific historical circumstances and in the name of definite interests. It is not part of nature, like an illness that must be endured, but something contrary to nature that must be combated. Peter Weiss, whose later work contains these thoughts, did not have such insights at the time. For thirty years he had been among the weak and persecuted, and he had come to consider his weakness a virtue: “I want to preserve my weakness. I want to remain among the weak” (93).

This resigned attitude is accompanied by a complete rejection of ideology. Along with fascism, all ideology is rejected, and in the postwar climate this meant mainly the rejection of socialism—a seemingly nonideological position that was in fact the ideology of the recently ended era of the cold war. For the author of Die Besiegten the history of mankind is an endlessly recurring battle for survival and power (53-55). Suffering also remains eternally the same, as conjured up by Weiss in precious aesthetic images: “wounded horses, their large bloody heads raised in a mute scream” (20); in bombed-out houses “the wind's flute creates crystalline sounds” (22); and from each cross at a veterans' cemetery “a white flame glimmers forth, blurring into the sky's blue-white sea of light” (96). The real horror of these scenes tends to disappear behind flowery aesthetics.

Lacking in Die Besiegten are the ideological and linguistic tools for dealing with the recent history and present situation of Germany. Weiss was by no means unique in his aestheticizations and in his tendency toward vague generalizations. His lack of interest in ideology and in attempts at explaining fascism rationally—hence historically, economically, and politically—fit into the conservative and restorative tendencies of the time, tendencies that would define public discourse in the FRG into the 1960s.15

The two texts Weiss had written in Swedish, Von Insel zu Insel and Die Besiegten, did not lay to rest the doubts about his new language. In early 1948 he informed the publisher Peter Suhrkamp, whom he had met while on his trip to Germany, that he had started a new work and that he was again writing in German.16 The manuscript was given the title Der Vogelfreie (The Outlaw). Suhrkamp rejected it as incomprehensible. (It was published by Suhrkamp in 1980 under the title Der Fremde [The Stranger], with authorship attributed to a certain Sinclair [an author pseudonym once used by Hermann Hesse] and without any reference to Peter Weiss.17)


Der Fremde is a hermetic text. Its narrative prose fits no literary genre—one even hesitates to call it narrative, since nothing is narrated here that can be grasped or summarized, no story, no action, no characters. No reality is described that is familiar to everyone, or to many, or even to a few. The voice that speaks or seems to speak is not a narrator who can be named or described in terms of age, origin, or appearance. Lacking identity and any clear definition, the narrator represents both the internal and external world; in his dreams, visions, and obsessions, which make up this text, reality is present only as a trace element.

There is little that can be ascertained about Der Fremde.18 The text describes a twenty-four-hour period. Early in the morning a first-person narrator approaches a city, enters it, passes through it, and at the end appears to leave it. The narrator seeks contact with the city and its residents. He would like to belong with them: “I am one of you” (63). Looking for work, for any kind of meaningful activity, the narrator turns up at various places: a gymnasium where boxers are training, a glass-blowing factory, a public morgue, and an enormous construction site. To the hypersensitive “I” that narrates the text, all these stations seem places of terror from which he flees in horror. He does not fit into this world and does not even want to fit in. In a passage in the middle of the text the narrator performs an endless and liberating dance (66ff.) as an act of resistance against the constricting structures of normality. This narrator has hardly any reality, he is “a nothing. Nameless. A kind of seismograph” (82), at times losing himself to the point that he beats on himself to assure himself of his own reality (66). He experiences his existence as comparable to that of the “sole survivor after a cosmic catastrophe” (107)—an idea that recalls the “Traktat von der ausgestorbenen Welt,” written ten years earlier. The narrator spends the evening in the “palace of the night” (119) where people are amusing themselves in a world of freak shows and carousels, circuses and brothels, a world made of “cardboard and glitter” (129) that the narrator longs for and nonetheless cannot be part of.

The artist here is at once expelled from and longing for the “delights of normalcy.” A literary topic that conjures up Hesse, Kafka, and Thomas Mann's short novel Tonio Kröger, which contains this turn of phrase. But to Peter Weiss this was more than a literary topic; it was his own fate. The feeling of losing his own identity, of losing himself, derived from an existential experience. Much of this had already been present in his earlier work. In the “Traktat” there was a narrator approaching an unfamiliar city. The self-and-the-city configuration had also been the topic of many paintings, particularly of several self-portraits from the last prewar years. It had been repeated in the just completed work, Die Besiegten. Honky-tonk entertainment and fair and circus scenes were major themes in numerous Weiss paintings as well as in his literary work. Even the frequently evoked image of “palace of the night” in Der Fremde had already been found in Von Insel zu Insel.19

New, in contrast, is the vehemence with which erotic obsessions are depicted. From the opening paragraph the vocabulary and the metaphors make it clear that the image of the narrator penetrating the city, which structures the entire work, is conceived in sexual terms (the city is later also termed an “enormous womb of stone,” 103). There is obsessive eroticism as well in the passages about a street of prostitutes (53) or about the guests in the “palace of the night” who become aroused by a “Negro” with a “phallus … like a cannon barrel.” Although intended to show the emptiness and decadence of society, this passage today seems kitschy, if not vaguely racist (128ff.). The sexual fantasies were undoubtedly intended to shock, in keeping with the program of surrealism: to destroy the sexual and erotic taboos of bourgeois society. It was a program Peter Weiss had largely made his own after his encounter with surrealism, at the end of the war, and especially with Luis Buñuel's (1900-1983) films Un Chien Andalou and L'age d'or. Also evident in the erotic passages of Der Fremde is the influence of Henry Miller (1891-1980)—Weiss would later describe his encounter with Miller's work in Vanishing Point.20 The American expatriate's novels made an overwhelming impression on Weiss. In Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn he found a model for the literary rendition of erotic fantasies and obsessions. However, in Der Fremde not only the sexual taboos of society but Weiss's own sexual and emotional deformations are explored in ways which furthered the author's own liberation. A process of self-liberation that was only to be completed twelve years later with the autobiographical texts Leavetaking and Vanishing Point.

With Der Fremde Weiss reached an artistic impasse where there was no longer anything communicated, where no conceivable reader was being addressed. Nonetheless, this text remains part of a contradictory logic in Peter Weiss's development. The surrealist and dreamlike tone developed in texts like Der Fremde will impart with artistic truth even those of Weiss's works most anchored in reason and rationality, The Investigation, Viet Nam Discourse, and The Aesthetics of Resistance.


Der Fremde as a depiction of a loss of self and a loss of reality, can be read as an artistic response to Weiss's own loss of identity. But how had this loss of self, this loss of identity come about? This tormenting question had caused Peter Weiss to resume psychoanalysis in 1948 (after a brief psychoanalytic experience in 1941) with very visible consequences for the next work, The Tower (Der Turm), conceived as a radio play in 1948. The Tower is a psychoanalytic drama, more precisely a dramatized psychoanalysis. The play is constructed on the model of Freudian analysis, as Weiss makes clear in the “Prolog zum Hörspiel” (“Prologue to the Radio Play”). Pablo, the main character, grew up in a tower. Once in the outside world, he finds himself unable ever to really leave the tower. The tower appears as the place of a traumatic childhood, a metaphor for all that had not been dealt with and that had been repressed. Only if Pablo dared once again “to penetrate deep into the tower and deal with his past” would he be able to free himself from his childhood traumas.21

Pablo is a circus entertainer; more precisely (and in keeping with the goal of psychoanalysis), he is a wizard at becoming unchained, at breaking free, in essence an escape artist. At the beginning of the play Niente (Nothing), as Pablo calls himself, appears in the tower. It is home to circus performers with whom he spent his childhood and youth, and where he once performed a balancing act. He would like to perform again, though this time demonstrating his new skill as an escape artist. The tower is run by the “director” and “manageress,” parent figures who once had “trained” him for his performances.22 The two of them grant Pablo (the name once again recalls Hesse: in Steppenwolf Pablo is the name of the protagonist's alter ego) just one appearance, for which he is bound with rope from head to foot. With a supreme effort he succeeds in the course of the performance to free himself. While the director, manageress, and the rest of the circus performers drown, Pablo is free at last with the rope dangling from him “like an umbilical cord” (348).23

The play shows a “liberation process,” an expression Peter Weiss was to use in 1954 to describe one of his experimental films, Studie IV. In The Tower liberation metaphors from psychology seem to have been translated too literally into a work of art. Again, as in Der Fremde, the main character is a “nothing” who tries to become the subject of his own existence. Once again there is the traumatic relationship to his deceased sister (328-29), once again there is the world of the circus with a lion, a dwarf, a female animal tamer, and a magician. In The Tower, however, not much remains of this circus world that Weiss had so often painted. The figures and their appearances are nothing more than metaphors for submission and repression, far removed from the reality of the circus as a creative, cheerful, self-contained world of fantasy. This metaphorical circus has moved into a tower, in Weiss's work a frequently recurring symbol for loneliness and being locked in. However, the circus world as metaphor clashes with the symbolism of the tower, and their real and implied meanings fail to converge. The Tower, nonetheless, is a less hermetic text than Der Fremde: the formal necessities of a play (The Tower was first performed on a stage in Stockholm in 1950) and the creation of actual characters and their placement in an audible and visible world led to a gain in realism. Pablo's struggle against the devastations caused in him by the parent figures of the director and the manageress makes for a credible family drama. It is a drama of revolt, as Manfred Haiduk has noted, but not of revolution.24


Weiss continued to vacillate between languages. In 1951 he returned to Swedish. In the continuing disorientation of his life, Das Duell (The Duel) became a text about disoriented people and their chaotic lives. Clearly influenced by Miller's novels, the text recreates the deformed existence of a deformed bohème, their deformed relationships and especially their deformed sexuality. As in Weiss's previous texts, there is hardly any plot, and the borders between the characters are repeatedly blurred, particularly at the transitions between passages. Das Duell, like the earlier work The Tower, is a “labor in the operating room of the mind” (126),25 as one of the main characters says. In the course of a year, from winter to winter, Weiss recreates the mutual entanglements of four figures. Gregor is a penniless, tortured artist living in an abandoned factory. He has a relationship with Janna but loves Lea, who is pregnant by him (a presumably autobiographical constellation that recurs in Vanishing Point). At the beginning of the text Lea leaves her husband Robert, who works as an anonymous “warehouse manager” in the Kafkaesque wholesale operation of Lea's father, and moves in with Gregor—the name recalls Gregor Samsa in Kafka's The Metamorphosis. Gregor and Lea are psychologically and sexually disturbed figures, incapable of any mature relationship of mutual respect and consideration. Their life together consists of a series of tormented, sadistic, and masochistic attempts to work out their individual tales of suffering and to overcome their emotional limitations. At the end both characters are on the way to a cure—Lea leaves Gregor.

Das Duell continues the attempt begun with the radio play, The Tower, namely to create a more objective depiction of Weiss's biographical theme. For the first time there is no first-person narrator; the third-person narrative alternates between the perspectives of each of the four main characters. The text opens with surrealist passages of a type Weiss had already explored in Der Fremde. In the course of the narrative the surrealist images become fewer; toward the end language and imagery from psychology and psychoanalysis dominate. At the same time, the focus of the text narrows from the four protagonists to Lea and Gregor, and finally to Gregor, the emotionally crippled artist who, alienated from his work and life, is trying to find himself. Gregor's efforts at self-liberation are depicted by Weiss as a pandemonium of gruesome brutalities, attacks, incest, abortions, attempts at suicide, and murder; even Auschwitz is conjured up (127-28). The first part of Das Duell contains passages of unbearable misogyny and violence toward women:

he tore her body, sticky from blood and spit, with his weapon he slit her womb, in her longing for destruction she whispered into his ear commanding, blind words of endearment, and he choked her while the wound of her womb, in death tremors, sucked around the penetrating weapon.


Too little attention has been paid to the literal content of such passages. The issue here is not the fantasies of male dominance and male sadism—depicted openly and honestly—of a figure that, after all, is fictional. What is problematic, however, is that the misogyny of this figure is presented uncritically by the author, and that this has not been commented upon by the critics. The psychoanalytic interpreter, for instance, notes that the bloody rape in the above passage promotes “the liberation of the beloved.” Although the language appears non-gender-specific in translation, the critic clearly refers to the male figure Gregor. This interpretation omits consideration of the woman Janna, bloodied and abused, who is the means by which Gregor furthers his liberation.26 In the misogyny of his text, too, Weiss follows Henry Miller: the erotic liberation that is attempted in this kind of literature is a liberation of the man. It should be kept in mind, however, that Weiss learned much throughout his life (he remains exemplary in this respect). Years later, in a time of heightened awareness created by the women's movements, he will show insight into and understanding for the situation of women in a male-dominated society. In the figures of Lotte Bischoff, Karin Boye, and the mother of the narrator, in The Aesthetics of Resistance, the author of Das Duell provides lucid and accurate descriptions of the experiences of women in dark, violent times.

Literature as therapy. Der Fremde, The Tower, and Das Duell are texts of self-therapy through art. Such therapy is not always successful—one need only think of Lenz, Hölderlin, Kleist, and Büchner among German writers. Among Weiss's friends, the writer Stig Dagerman had killed himself at an early age. Weiss did not succumb to self-destruction. In Gregor's duel with himself and his demons the writer was able to objectify and thereby exorcise his own psychological torments and his struggle to overcome them. The cost of such efforts at objectification is evident in the text, and is itself the subject of the text. In an illuminating passage toward the end of Das Duell, Gregor—and along with him probably Peter Weiss—reflects about his poetic means. His literary output appears to him as the expression of an illness, as “self-help in a desperate situation” (99). The illness, the dark, destructive forces blocking his artistic work must be overcome, and the route of “consciousness” must be ventured (100).

With Das Duell Weiss's artistic consciousness gained strength. He decided to return to the German language and created a text entitled The Shadow of the Coachman's Body.


This work, written in 1952 and generally referred to as a micro-novel, was published by Suhrkamp in 1960, after years of the author's efforts to have it printed. The critics were surprised and enthusiastic about this barely 100-page text by an unknown 44-year-old author, a text for which they found no comparison. The book was generally read as a kind of “word graphics,” with hardly any grounding in reality; a text in which things seemed to be reduced to their “language material” and language seemed to be treated as its own topic.27 The text, completely unlike anything on the German literary scene, was compared to the French nouveau roman.28 It is not known whether Weiss at that time (or later) was aware of the works of Alain Robbe-Grillet or Raymond Queneau (the influence of absurdist French drama, however, from Beckett to Ionesco and Genet on Weiss's later dramatic work is undeniable). In Queneau's Exercices de style (1947), for example, a ridiculously insignificant event is related in more than 100 different ways: a pure exercise in language and style, albeit one of great wit and radical doubt in regard to mimesis. In contrast, the topic of The Shadow of the Coachman's Body is the real world. The narrative takes place in a clearly defined setting; there are individually distinguishable figures and there even is a storyline. The Shadow of the Coachman's Body is very different from Weiss's previous work. The paroxysmal tone and the merging of fantasy scenes and barely autonomous characters—as in The Tower, Der Fremde, or Das Duell—have been replaced by an emotionless registering. The hermetic aspect of those earlier texts is preserved mostly in the visual appearance of the printed page: blocks of text, often several pages long, that are emblematic of Weiss's prose and will recur in all of Weiss's prose works, including The Aesthetics of Resistance.

A first-person narrator relates three days of his stay in a remote, rural boarding house. With compulsive attention to detail he describes the landscape, the buildings, and the interiors, as well as the inhabitants of the boarding house and their doings. These inhabitants, guests and servants, are grotesque figures: the gloomy hired man, the housekeeper, the senile “captain,” and the dreadful family consisting of the brutal father, the mother, an extremely disturbed son, and an infant. There is also a Mr. Schnee who collects stones, and a horrifying physician completely wrapped in bandages who is doctoring himself and wasting away in terrible pain. Soon after the beginning of the story one learns that another guest is expected, and almost imperceptibly the narrative focuses in on this guest's arrival. On the evening of the third day the expected guest arrives: it is the coachman, who remains only for the evening meal. Afterward, in the kitchen intercourse takes place between the coachman and the housekeeper, which the first-person narrator registers as a shadow-play: “the shadow of the coachman's body thrust forward again, and the shadow of the housekeeper's body came to meet him” (56).29 Soon after, in the middle of the night, the coachman drives off.

The narrative tone of The Shadow of the Coachman's Body appears to be that of a visitor from Mars who has absolutely no understanding of the events he observes, makes not even the slightest effort to interpret them, and is content to describe them as precisely as possible. This narrative perspective in The Shadow of the Coachman's Body caused critics to perceive it as an example of “utmost objectivity in describing objects and events,”30 and to compare the first-person narrator to a “mechanical recording device,” such as a film camera or sound-recording equipment.31 Eventually, Gunther Witting's careful reading revealed the apparently disinterested narration in The Shadow of the Coachman's Body as a pose.32 This is particularly apparent in the passage in which the first-person narrator seemingly unselectively notes scraps of the guests' dialogue. From these scraps of dialogue—banalities and tired clichés—one can reconstruct a meaning. The housekeeper, for instance, describes the preparation of a dish, the captain talks about his retirement, the father fusses about the no-good son, and the doctor complains about his suffering. In a grotesquely funny passage the hired man describes how the bull mounts the cow and, as the high point of these absurdly comical linguistic acrobatics, the mother is heard complaining about the father's inadequacy in sexual intercourse. With great mastery of language (and uncharacteristically bizarre humor) Weiss creates a portrait of each character and his or her world. While the narrator appears unaware of the meaning of what he jots down, it is clearly revealed to the attentive reader. The narrator registering events without a trace of involvement turns out to be a role created by an author who is passionately involved in his narrative. In the wake of Der Fremde, The Tower, and Das Duell, Weiss here once again expresses his hatred of and outrage about a (petit bourgeois) world that deforms the psyche of the individual.

How else should one interpret the now famous opening situation? The narrator, his pants lowered, is sitting in a smelly outhouse. The laconic language of the opening passage should not distract from what is actually being talked about here. Aversion and repulsion are induced by this apparent rural idyll, later recalled in Vanishing Point as a “place of damnation,” and as “hell.”33 How else, too, should one interpret that implacable inventorying of the housekeeper's room (38-39), which does not fail to describe in minute detail every small bucolic “china statue,” every “shell-covered box,” every “realistically colored wooden fawn,” and every “basket filled with violets”? The real-life personality, which is absent in the figure of the housekeeper as well as in the other figures of the novel, appears reified in all these objects, this accumulated tastelessness, this trashy bric-a-brac. (Twenty years later the aesthete Peter Weiss still registered his aversion to such petit bourgeois ersatz aesthetics, which he had seen in the apartments of East German communists [N II/101]). But there is another theme in The Shadow of the Coachman's Body that reveals the placid narrator as a role created by a passionately involved author.

There is the family: the irascible father, the oppressed and sexually frustrated mother, the eternally screaming infant, and the disturbed son who is unable to cope with life. In one passage of Weiss's malevolent satire on the bourgeois family idyll, the father chases the misguided son around the room, places him on his knee, and the mother with the infant at her breast starts sobbing. In the middle of the beating he is administering the father suffers a heart attack and, finally, with the narrator's help, has to be brought to bed (22ff.)—a passage of a liberating comical power that evokes the often mean-spirited humor of early silent film comedies. After so many previous attempts, Weiss finally succeeds in turning his own tale of suffering into a masterfully controlled literary work.

Equally successful is the integration of Kafka's influence. The former Czech national's intimate acquaintance with the world of the Prague writer can be traced in the father-son conflict as well as in the narrative tone of The Shadow of the Coachman's Body: this laconic registering of a small, shabby, and miserable world (not unlike the world in Kafka's The Castle), and even in the archaic vocabulary—“outhouse,” “hired hand,” “housekeeper,”“coachman,” and “garrison town.” And, as with Kafka, Weiss's characters are waiting for redemption. This constellation calls to mind still another writer.

The influence of Samuel Beckett (1906-89) on Weiss's micro-novel was noticed early on.34 That same year, 1952, when Weiss described characters waiting for a guest, marked the publication of Waiting for Godot. Obviously this was a coincidence, but then again maybe it was not. Both writers were reacting to tendencies of their time with descriptions of the “dehumanized alienation of the modern individual,” as Leo Kofler states about Beckett's play. According to Kofler, the expression of this alienation is “his [the alienated person's] chattiness, as well as his muteness and lack of articulation, his emptiness, and stupidity and his absurdity bordering on the comical.”35 What Kofler notes with regard to Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon fits without reservation Weiss's captain and hired man, the father and the housekeeper.

But Peter Weiss, who occasionally characterized his micro-novel as “completely realistic” (G/R 35), stopped short of Beckett's metaphysics. In contrast to Waiting for Godot, with Weiss the absurd is not absolute, he does not leave his figures in complete hopelessness. Granted, the coachman who finally arrives and has intercourse with the housekeeper is not Godot nor the Messiah. But in The Shadow of the Coachman's Body, coitus is not reduced to the “purely copulative event,” as has been asserted.36 It is obvious that there is pleasure involved, not only for the coachman but for the housekeeper as well. That some small redemption is possible for the housekeeper, this most lowly of human beings whose miserable existence is reified in accumulated knickknacks, provides Weiss's dark, gloomy text with the trace of hope that is absent in Beckett's work.


In the work that followed The Shadow of the Coachman's Body, Weiss modified the redeemer figure. Instead of the anonymous coachman there is in the play Die Versicherung (The Insurance, written in 1952) a lewd anarchist revolutionary by the name of Leo. Unlike the coachman in Weiss's novel, he screws not only the hired help but the ruling class as well—in the literal as well as in the figurative sense. He seduces the wives of the police chief, the doctor, and other pillars of society, and ultimately places himself at the head of a revolt against this entire corrupt rabble.

Die Versicherung is less a drama—as its subtitle indicates—than a surrealist revue with music, dance, and film projections. The police chief Alfons, a pillar of society, gives a formal dinner party at which he intends to finalize numerous insurance policies covering any conceivable damages to his property. In the course of nineteen grotesque and chaotic scenes, the collapse of this society is depicted. The festive group turns up at the cabinet of one Dr. Kübel, whose delusions of grandeur match those of Dr. Caligari (of German silent film fame). While Kübel tortures his guests, Leo abducts and seduces the wife of the police chief, leaving her in a garbage can. Meanwhile, war and revolution have broken out. After losing his wife, Alfons also loses his personal papers. Drunk, he is mistaken for a bum by his own policemen, beaten, and taken to the police station. Leo has placed himself at the head of the uprising.

There is an undeniable resemblance between this surrealist work and the French theater of the absurd of the late 1940s and 1950s37—to the dramas of Ionesco (1929, The Bald Soprano [1950] and The Chairs [1952]), Genet (1910, The Maids [1947] and The Balcony [1955]), and Beckett. Following his first trip in 1947, Weiss had repeatedly spent time in Paris, as in 1952, 1958, and in 1960. During one of these visits he even met with Beckett.38 Weiss himself has pointed out the importance of Ionesco (G/R 99) and Genet for his own works.39 But all of this comes later. At the time of the writing of Die Versicherung no direct influence can be shown. One can only note that the postwar atmosphere of Western Europe had created in Weiss and in the French absurdist dramatists a similarity of vision and of artistic sensibility. Weiss's depiction of the “dehumanized alienation of the modern individual” once again approximates Beckett's imagery. In the fourteenth scene the chaotic Leo and the bourgeois Erna, smeared with excrement and garbage, climb out of a garbage can: humans as trash. Five years later, in 1957, Beckett will use the same image in End Game. It was through Beckett, however, and not through Weiss, that garbage cans became “emblems of the civilization rebuilt after Auschwitz” (Adorno).40

But Die Versicherung can no more be reduced to its absurd aspects than The Shadow of the Coachman's Body. It is a clearly identified world whose chaotic decline is presented here. The “CATASTROPHES REVOLUTIONS” (63)41 that the police chief learns about from newspaper headlines, are striking at the world of power and wealth. The ridiculous compulsion of this entrenched upper bourgeoisie to insure its property against any conceivable catastrophe, even against “hurricanes, invasions, cosmic storms, explosions in space” (48), is what first sets the play in motion. But the insurance contracts come too late: the world of the police chief and his guests is “in the grips of a severe epidemic” (68) that will cause its demise. As critic Heinrich Vormweg has noted, “There is no amount of insurance that can protect this society.”42

Die Versicherung does not move beyond the pose of an antibourgeois revolt. Leo, with all his macho behavior, is not a revolutionary and, despite the fur he is wearing, he is also no Heracles, whose siding with the oppressed in their fight against the oppressors is repeatedly evoked in The Aesthetics of Resistance. Die Versicherung is the strongest attempt Weiss was capable of at the time of resistance against the prevailing order. Since the end of the war his literary work had been defined by his compulsion of re-creating over and over his own tale of suffering. This compulsion, which had largely blocked the study of social issues, now begins to wane.

At this point, however, Peter Weiss's literary production came to a halt: he escaped from the psychological pressure of the continuing lack of literary success. Before the end of the productive year 1952 he made his first two films, and until the end of the decade—by which time this route also turned out to be a dead end—Weiss was a filmmaker. The literary texts that followed Von Insel zu Insel and Die Besiegten had attracted no interest and were either published privately in minimal editions (Der Fremde, Das Duell, both in Swedish) or many years later (The Tower in 1963, Die Versicherung in 1967). Only one of Weiss's early works eventually managed to escape this fate. In 1960 The Shadow of the Coachman's Body was finally published in a special series by Suhrkamp, in an edition of merely 1,000 copies. It immediately created great interest. Suddenly, unexpectedly, there was success; there was a readership, people willing to pay attention to this new voice. The time of isolation had come to an end. After forty-four years the endless meandering route of the painter, filmmaker, and author Peter Weiss had revealed some kind of inner logic.


  1. The page numbers in parentheses refer to Peter Weiss, “Traktat von der ausgestorbenen Welt” (1938-39), in Der Maler Peter Weiss (Berlin: Frölich and Kaufmann, 1982) 56.

  2. Rainer Gerlach, “Isolation und Befreiung. Zum literarischen Frühwerk von Peter Weiss,” in Gerlach, ed., Peter Weiss (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1984) 153.

  3. On Weiss's thus far unpublished early writings, see Heinrich Vormweg, “Der Schriftsteller als junger Künstler,” in Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss and Jürgen Schutte, eds., Peter Weiss. Leben und Werk (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1991) 24-38.

  4. See chap. 1 above.

  5. “Aus dem Briefwechsel mit Hermann Hesse” (1937-62), in Raimund Hoffmann, Peter Weiss. Malerei Zeichnungen Collagen (Berlin: Henschelverlag, 1984) 163 (Hesse's letter of 21 January 1937).

  6. According to Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss in her foreword to Peter Weiss, Von Insel zu Insel (1947), German trans. Heiner Gimmler (Berlin: Frölich and Kaufmann, 1984). Peter Weiss later described in detail his battle to acquire the new language, in “Laokoon oder Über die Grenzen der Sprache” (1965), in Weiss, Rapporte (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 2d ed., 1981) 170-87, esp. 176ff.

  7. See Palmstierna-Weiss, “Vorwort,” in Von Insel zu Insel; see also Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss, “Nachwort,” in Peter Weiss, Die Besiegten (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1985) 153-57.

  8. Research has not determined whether this and the following texts were written entirely in Swedish. Henceforth, those texts which were first published or performed in Sweden are termed Swedish texts. On the language problems involved in the writing of Von Insel zu Insel, see Jochen Vogt, Peter Weiss (Reinbek b. Hamburg: Rowohlt-Monographie, 1987) 49-50.

  9. The page numbers in parentheses refer to Peter Weiss, Von Insel zu Insel.

  10. See Alfons Söllner, Peter Weiss und die Deutschen (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1988) 45.

  11. Ernst J. Walberg, “Die Ästhetik der Imagination. Peter Weiss' Frühwerk: Von Insel zu Insel,die horen 4 (1984): 137-39.

  12. See Peter Weiss, “Sechs Reportagen aus Deutschland für Stockholms Tidningen” (June-August 1947), in Weiss, Die Besiegten (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1985) 149.

  13. In addition to the 6 articles in Die Besiegten, see also Peter Weiss, “Die Bibliothek in Berlin,” in Peter Weiss. In Gegensätzen denken. Ein Lesebuch, selected by Rainer Gerlach and Matthias Richter (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1986) 14-18 [hereafter G/R].

  14. The page numbers in parentheses refer to Peter Weiss, Die Besiegten.

  15. See Helmut Peitsch's excellent article, “Wo ist die Freiheit? Peter Weiss und das Berlin des Kalten Krieges,” in Jürgen Garbers et al, eds., Ästhetik Revolte Widerstand. Zum literarischen Werk von Peter Weiss (Lüneburg, Jena: zu Klampen, Universitätsverlag, 1990) 34-56.

  16. See Peter Weiss, “Brief an Peter Suhrkamp” (1948), in Siegfried Unseld, Peter Suhrkamp. Zur Biographie eines Verlegers (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1975) 123.

  17. See Sinclair (i.e., Peter Weiss), Der Fremde. Erzählung (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1980). The page numbers in the text refer to this edition.

  18. Concerning Der Fremde, see especially the detailed study by Rüdiger Steinlein, “Ein surrealistischer ‘Bilddichter.’ Visualität als Darstellungsprinzip im erzählerischen Frühwerk von Peter Weiss,” in Rudolf Wolff, ed., Peter Weiss. Werk und Wirkung (Bonn: Bouvier, 1987) 60-87.

  19. See Weiss, Von Insel zu Insel 46.

  20. See Peter Weiss, Vanishing Point (Fluchtpunkt, 1960-61), trans. E. B. Garside, Alastair Hamilton, and Christopher Levenson, in Weiss, Exile (New York: Delacorte, 1968) 217-19. Missing in the English translation, however, is any reference to Miller's Tropic of Cancer. The translation of this entire passage is distorted, conveying the impression that at issue is a book by Amos, a character in the novel, rather than by Henry Miller. For the actual content of the passage, see Peter Weiss, Fluchtpunkt (1960-61) (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 6th ed., 1973) 163ff.

  21. Peter Weiss, “Prolog zum Hörspiel (Der Turm),” in Weiss, Stücke I (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1976) 453.

  22. Ibid.

  23. The page numbers in parentheses refer to Peter Weiss, The Tower (Der Turm, 1948), trans. Michael Benedikt and Michel Heine, in Michael Benedikt and George E. Wellwarth, eds., Postwar German Theatre (New York: Dutton, 1967) 315-48.

  24. See Manfred Haiduk, Der Dramatiker Peter Weiss (East Berlin: Henschelverlag, 1977) 18.

  25. The page numbers in parentheses refer to Peter Weiss, Das Duell (1951), German trans. J. C. Görsch in collaboration with Peter Weiss (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 4th ed., 1982).

  26. See Carl Pietzcker, “Individualistische Befreiung als Kunstprinzip. ‘Das Duell’ von Peter Weiss,” in Johannes Cremerius, ed., Psychoanalytische Textinterpretationen (Hamburg: Hoffmann and Campe, 1979) 216-17.

  27. Gerhard Schmidt-Henkel, “Die Wortgraphik des Peter Weiss,” in Volker Canaris, ed., Über Peter Weiss (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 4th ed., 1976) 15-24; Ror Wolf, “Die Poesie der kleinsten Stücke,” in Canaris, ed., Über Peter Weiss 26; and Helmut J. Schneider, “Der verlorene Sohn und die Sprache,” in Canaris, ed., Über Peter Weiss 46.

  28. This comparison has been made since the earliest reviews. For a more recent example, see Heinrich Vormweg, Peter Weiss (Munich: Beck, 1981) 42ff. On this topic, see also Gunther Witting, “Bericht von der hohen Warte. Zu Peter Weiss' ‘Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers,’” Der Deutschunterricht 37, no. 3 (1985): 57.

  29. The page numbers in parentheses refer to Peter Weiss, The Shadow of the Coachman's Body (Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers, 1952), trans. E. B. Garside, in Weiss, Bodies and Shadows (New York: Delacorte, 1969) 1-57.

  30. Vormweg, Peter Weiss 43.

  31. Sepp Hiekisch-Picard, “‘In den Vorräumen eines Gesamtkunstwerks.’ Anmerkungen zum Zusammenhang zwischen schriftstellerischem, filmischem und bildkünstlerischem Werk bei Peter Weiss,” Kürbiskern 2 (April 1985): 123.

  32. See Witting 57ff.

  33. Weiss, Vanishing Point 154.

  34. See Ror Wolf 27.

  35. Leo Kofler, “Beckett, Warten auf Godot” (1975), in Kofler, Avantgardismus als Entfremdung. Ästhetik und Ideologiekritik (Frankfurt/Main: Sendler, 1987) 203.

  36. Gerlach, “Isolation und Befreiung” 171.

  37. Weiss mentions the French theater of the absurd for the first time in “Avantgarde Film” (1956), in Weiss, Rapporte 17.

  38. See Peter Weiss, “Aus dem Pariser Journal,” in Weiss, Rapporte 93-94.

  39. See Peter Weiss, “Aus dem Kopenhagener Journal” (1960), in Rapporte 51, 67. The narrator of Vanishing Point also points out the great significance of Beckett and Genet for his work. See Weiss, Vanishing Point 140.

  40. Theodor W. Adorno, “Versuch, das Endspiel zu verstehen” (1961), in Adorno, Noten zur Literatur (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1981) 311.

  41. The page numbers in parentheses refer to Peter Weiss, Die Versicherung. Ein Drama (1952), in Weiss, Stücke I 35-87.

  42. Vormweg, Peter Weiss 33.

Katia Garloff (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Garloff, Katia. “Peter Weiss's Entry into the German Public Sphere: On Diaspora, Language, and the Uses of Distance.” Colloquia Germanica 30, no. 1 (1997): 43-67.

[In the following essay, Garloff discusses the issues of exile and diaspora in Weiss's work.]

Bin inzwischen zu einem ‘deutschsprachigen Autor’ geworden. Sitze in Stockholm, mit dem Blick auf Söderns Anhöhen, auf den Turm des Maria-Fahrstuhls, am Zeichentisch, an dem ich vor ein paar Jahren noch meine Filme entworfen, meine Collagen hergestellt hatte, und schreibe in der Sprache, die ich als Kind lernte und als 17jähriger verlor—1

Written in 1961, these sentences capture a crucial moment in Peter Weiss's literary career, the moment when he became a German-language author. Weiss had, in fact, written in German before, but it was only after the publication of Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers in 19602 that he gained that public recognition as a “‘deutschsprachigen Autor’” to which he refers here, as his use of quotation marks suggests, with some uneasiness. At first glance, the success of Der Schatten ended Weiss's tenuous existence as a displaced, or more accurately placeless, artist. The son of a Christian mother and a Jewish father who had converted to Protestantism after his wedding, Weiss left Nazi Germany with his family in 1935, stayed for brief periods in England, Prague, and Switzerland, and finally arrived in Sweden in 1939. For more than ten years, he vacillated between painting and writing, and between Swedish and German, and finally gave up writing for a period in favor of filmmaking. In the early 1960s, however, he experienced an outburst of literary productivity and a rapid integration into the German cultural scene, promoted by postwar West Germany's leading literary institution, the Gruppe 47. Yet even when Weiss's existence as an artist without an audience ceased, his exile did not. While he paid frequent visits to Germany and even considered moving back there, he ultimately decided to stay in Stockholm and observe Germany from the distant perspective captured by his image of the watcher through the window.

The purpose of this essay is to explore this paradox inherent in Weiss's entry into the German public sphere, the fact that he reasserted his exilic position exactly at the moment when he became a recognized exponent of German culture. By pointing out how the theme of exile forms a hidden center of Weiss's writings from the early to mid-1960s, I wish to shift the emphasis from politicization to displacement as the axis along which his work of this phase can be explored.3 My further claim is that Weiss's case reveals something about the critical possibilities of exile, or rather—as suggested by the decision involved in his post-1945 exile—of diaspora. In scholarship on Jewish history, an attempt has been made to distinguish between imposed and self-chosen exile, the latter being designated by the term diaspora.4 This meaning of diaspora reverberates in more recent adaptations of the term by postcolonial critics, in whose analyses diaspora often figures as a key concept. Critics like Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy have defined diaspora as a site of enunciation rather than merely a place of dwelling, and have used it to circumscribe a form of cultural identity which, although mentally bound to a lost origin, recognizes the insurmountable difference between this imaginary spatial center and the lived experience of postcolonial migrants. According to these critics, it is the gap between “here” and “there,” and the refusal to cover this gap through nostalgia and idealization of the lost home, that makes diasporic discourse intrinsically utopian and capable of producing new places from which to speak. In view of mass displacements that elude a clear distinction between imposed and self-chosen exile, these critics replace the criterion of voluntariness by that of cultural productivity. In particular, diasporic discourse may become productive for a critique of the majority cultures which figure as its implicit addresses.5

Although the postcolonial agenda cannot be applied to the situation of post-Shoah German Jewish exiles without qualifications, it has opened up a path towards rethinking the critical possibilities of diasporic discourse at this specific historical juncture. A distinct diaspora consciousness, expressed through ritual reenactment of the bond to the land of Israel in prayer and liturgy, was a constitutive element of Jewish group identity in premodern Europe, yet diminished considerably in the German-speaking countries during the nineteenth-century process of emancipation and acculturation.6 After 1945 a new kind of exile resulted from German Nazism, an exile experienced by Jews who had fled from Germany or from German-speaking Central Europe and were unable or unwilling to return, yet failed to feel “at home” anywhere else and remained linked to their country of origin through their language and memories.

A contemporary of Weiss, Jean Améry, serves as an example of how this predicament can turn into critical impulse. Coming from a mixed Austrian Jewish background, Améry survived Auschwitz and after the war lived in a French-speaking environment in Belgium while continuing to write in German. Like Peter Weiss, Améry struggled with his victimization as a Jew but remained indifferent to Jewish cultural and religious traditions as well as to the state of Israel. In his essay “Wieviel Heimat braucht der Mensch?” Améry objects to the cosmopolitan notion of exile as a positive force, emphasizing that for a post-Shoah German/Austrian Jew the loss of home remains devastating because the experience of having been abandoned so easily by one's homeland and fellow citizens instills a lasting insecurity. Améry neither makes an attempt to reclaim his country of origin, nor does he evoke any hope for another, a potential, or a future home. Instead, out of the bleak state of banishment emerges a voice that does not attempt to mitigate loss by restoring hope to it, but that challenges the Germans, reminding them of their guilt and calling upon them to remember.

Améry's intervening voice is most evident in “Ressentiments,” which levels a bitter charge against the tendencies of normalization during the 1950s and 1960s that succeeded in reestablishing West Germany in a Western political framework at the expense of a deeper confrontation with its past. Traveling through the economically successful, attractive, modern West Germany, Améry notes the discrepancy between his own rage and bitterness and the Germans' complacency about the successful recovery of their country. To their seemingly natural sense of time passing and effacing the past, he opposes the shattered sense of time of the concentration camp survivor who clings to his traumatic past. He calls this disposition resentment, an inability to forget that represents for him the only moral—as opposed to natural—reaction to the Shoah.7

The text's topography, which assigns to the speaking subject the position of a traveler who does not belong to this place but crosses through it temporarily, externalizes and reenacts the tension between Améry and his imagined German readers. Améry draws, and constantly reinforces, a line between victims and perpetrators, for example, by ironically addressing his readers, thus producing a distancing effect and suspending any cathartic relief they might otherwise derive from an identification with the victims. The traveler's position thus inscribes a peculiar distance into a text, or, more precisely, the traveler's text becomes the site of enunciations which rhythmically modulate from closeness to distance, from the hope of being heard to utter resignation and loneliness, from emotional appeal to bitter sarcasm. Améry ends his essay: “Wir Opfer müssen ‘fertigwerden’ mit dem reaktiven Groll, in jenem Sinne, den einst der KZ-Argot dem Worte ‘fertigmachen’ gab; es bedeutete soviel wie umbringen. Wir müssen und werden bald fertig sein. Bis es soweit ist, bitten wir die durch Nachträgerei in ihrer Ruhe Gestörten um Geduld” (129). The sarcasm of this sentence illustrates the utter absence of the benevolence of pedagogy from Améry's attitude toward his readership. His texts do not strive to educate, but rather to disturb and disrupt, thus accentuating the conflict between Germans and Jews.

I would distinguish this stance from that of Theodor W. Adorno, for example, who, while launching similar critical interventions onto the German public sphere, pursues a more distinctively pedagogical goal of making this public conscious of its repressed sociopsychological dispositions.8 The critical thrust of Améry's discourse lies in the way it responds to, and attempts to break through, a sociopsychological disposition he perceives as specific to his German audience. Améry describes this disposition varyingly as complacency, “Ausgeglichenheit” (108), and “Ruhe” (129), reflecting the extent to which the Germans he meets remain unaffected by the monstrosity of their past. As Moishe Postone has shown, this state of mind is by no means confined to the reactionary or politically indifferent forces in German society, but is also palpable in the leftist inclination to theoretical modelings of National Socialism. These theories, Postone argues, have in fact abstracted Nazism at the expense of concretely felt horror and have been instrumental in mitigating guilt feelings (Postone 101f.). Striving to break through such defensive mechanisms, Améry departs from the enlightened, reasonable conversation that was constitutive for the critical function of the emerging bourgeois public sphere. Instead of initiating a dialogue grounded in a common reasoning, he emphasizes the abyss between victims and perpetrators and demands that the crimes become a moral reality for all Germans. Only when the Germans are gripped by real repulsion against their own history, while acknowledging it as their own and renouncing any attempt to distance themselves from it, can they find a common ground with the victims. Such a common ground can never consist in a rational understanding of National Socialism, but only in a painful affect, the urgent and vain desire “nach Zeitumkehrung und damit nach Moralisierung der Geschichte” (124).

Améry touches upon a critical potential of diasporic discourse that Homi Bhabha has conceptualized in his suggestion that one of the strongest critical advantages of diasporic (postcolonial) discourse is its ability to address cultural and historical differences that are incommensurable. Instead of mitigating such differences, diasporic discourse uses them as a disruptive force against the homogenizing discourse of the nation.9 Améry attempts to achieve a similar effect by injecting another time—that of the survivor who clings traumatically to his past—into the organic and progressive time of a West Germany rebuilding from an imagined zero hour. His resentments transform the survivor's words into signs that form a barrier to the discourse of normalization.

I believe that a similar transformation of exile into critical impulse informs the texts Peter Weiss wrote in the years after his first reception in Germany. Like Améry, Weiss uses the autobiographical mode in his novels Abschied von den Eltern (1961) and Fluchtpunkt (1962) to accentuate the conflict between the author's historical perspective and that of his imagined readers. The intrinsically political nature of these novels lies in their recollection and representation of the forgotten victims to a largely indifferent German public. The refugees of National Socialism whose voice Weiss publicizes were widely ignored in favor of a public concern with the German Ostflüchtlinge. In fact, the expulsion of native Germans from former German regions in the East had come to occupy the German historical imagination soon after 1945, displacing the very memory of the refugees produced by National Socialism.10 Weiss's autobiographical texts relate critically to this repression of history, especially after his reception in Germany, through his progressive foregrounding of the theme of exile.11

Weiss's Fluchtpunkt (1962) recounts the life of a refugee and artist in Stockholm from 1940 to 1947, culminating in a cosmopolitan vision that transforms the predicament of forced exile into freedom while, as I will show, exhibiting the necessity of a certain force for this transformation. The text presents its subject in a clearly outlined spatial and temporal setting not previously used by Weiss, a fact that has induced most critics to read it as a more or less authentic representation of Weiss's own biography.12 In contrast to these readings, I suggest that in Fluchtpunkt, Weiss undertakes a rewriting of exile and that the clear-cut topography inscribed into the text is indicative of his attempt to reestablish spatial boundaries and to create a site out of speech. This attempt manifests itself in gestures of self-situating whose desperate character reveals instead how ambiguous and threatened the narrator's position is. The emphatic representation of rooms and houses as intact subjective spaces, for example, contrasts with the restless wanderings of the narrator:

Ich stand in einem neuen Zimmer, an dessen kahlen grauen Wänden die Löcher herausgezogener Nägel, die Flecken von den Abdrücken fremder Hände und Köpfe und die schattenhaften Abrisse verschwundener Gegenstände zu sehen waren. Der Fußboden war verschlissen von Schritten, die jahrelang zwischen Tür und Bett, Bett und Tisch, Tisch und Ofen, Ofen und Fenster hin- und hergewandert waren. Dieser Raum sollte jetzt meine Schritte enthalten. In diesem Raum würde ich umhergehen, mit den Stühlen rücken, arbeiten, mich räuspern, husten niesen, mit Besuchern sprechen. … Ich schlug ein Lager auf und befestigte das Lager mit meinem Eigentum. Selbst wenn der Raum in einer Wüste lag und der Vernichtung preisgegeben war, konnte ich die Dinge, die mir einen Wert bedeuteten, um mich aufstellen.

(W [Werke in sechs Bänden] II 182)

Even though apostrophized as a camp, this room still exhibits the features of a “room of one's own”, a bourgeois interior space based on property. The narrator intensifies his appropriation of this space by indulging in a list of expressions of his own physical presence as he narrates the scene. Even if he will soon leave this specific room again, during his stay he takes entire possession of it. The protective house, characterized by Theodor W. Adorno in Minima Moralia as the spatial expression of a stable and secure self that has become obsolete in a world of mass destruction, is here erected as a shield against the disseminating forces of exile. Another topographical inscription affects the narrator's place of origin, to which he returns temporarily after the war is over:

Die Reise, die ich selbst in das Land meiner Herkunft unternahm, weckte in mir nicht den Wunsch, wieder dort ansässig zu werden. Die Fremde, mit der ich mich konfrontierte, war um so beunruhigender, als mir doch jedes Wort mit solcher Vertrauheit entgegenkam. Es war das Wiedersehn in einem Traum, in dem alles zu erkennen war, in dem alles offen und entblößt lag und doch von einer ungeheuerlichen Entstellung durchsetzt war. Was ich wiederfand, waren Ruinen von Häusern, in denen ich gewohnt hatte, und ein unversehrtes Haus in einem großen verfallenen Garten, doch was hier lag, war nicht wert, wieder angenommen zu werden, es ließ sich nur für Zeit und Ewigkeit verfluchen.


This passage presents an inverted and secularized version of the traditional Jewish concept of exile that presents Zion as the center of spatial imagination and of longing, as the home to which the Jews will someday return. A word like “verfluchen” introduces a sudden heightened, quasi-religious tone into Weiss's otherwise rationalizing account, and signals how the religious exilic imagination retains some of its energies. In fact, the description of the landscape here is reminiscent of the fear of touch characteristic of a taboo, which Freud related both to the psychological disposition of compulsory neurosis and to the religious structure of sacredness. Freud argues, indeed, that the taboo expresses and contains deep emotional ambivalence. This is what seems to happen here with the sense of threat and uncanniness that accompanied the narrator's search for his origins in Abschied von den Eltern and surfaces again in Fluchtpunkt when the narrator reminisces about his childhood. This sense is translated into a topography that features the place of childhood as a taboo zone, as a traumatic center whose power to be “beunruhigend” is diminished only through a gesture of banishing. The taboo structure is also palpable in the narrator's avoidance of the proper name of this place throughout the book and, if we accept Freud's analysis, it indicates that the narrator is full of ambivalence towards the country of his origin, torn between homesickness and rejection, desire and repulsion, feelings expressed by so many post-Shoah German Jews. The taboo structure, in other words, refutes the narrator's attempts at self-interpretation, in which he claims never to have felt at home anywhere.13

My claim is that the cosmopolitan vision at the very end of Fluchtpunkt is predicated on such disavowal of the place of birth as place of origin. The sudden trip to Paris that is described in the last pages of the book initiates the narrator into an absolute freedom which he experiences first as threatening, but then as redemptive as he gains a new sense of self and a cosmopolitan identity. In these scenes, the impact of an existentialism of Sartrian provenance is evident. The narrator's experience of nothingness, of an absolute rupture with his past that subsequently enables him to act freely, stages the subject's emergence out of the unreflected être en-soi into the être pour-soi. One can see the attraction this model holds for a writer who struggles with his lack of home and roots, a lack which, from the perspective of existentialism, is a necessary freedom. Jean Paul Sartre's autobiography Les Mots shows that his own sense of exile arose from the early loss of his father and the natural rootedness that comes with being the successor to a father and an economic heritage. The freedom derived from this isolation, however, was contingent upon access to and legitimation in the cultural realm, as opposed to the more radical dislocation caused by physical exile. As Améry has keenly observed, the grand gesture of breaking away from one's origin is available only to those who have a choice between leaving home or remaining (81), which explains, perhaps, why in Fluchtpunkt, the narrator's break with his past has to be introduced with a last forceful topographical inscription. By evoking Paris, Weiss inscribes a Fluchtpunkt in the technical sense of the word, that is, a point that defines the perspective of a painting and thus renders it coherent and meaningful. Textually, this painting technique translates into visual descriptions which fixate and accentuate the narrator's location through the play of light against the cityscape, such as: “Ich stand auf dem Platz im Zentrum der Stadt, in einem scharf abgewinkelten, von der Sonne beleuchteten Feld in der Mitte des Schattenkraters” (290, my emphasis), or: “Ich stand still, sah Boote vorbeifahren, sah den Abglanz der gesunkenen Sonne auf der Spitze des Eiffelturms” (293, my emphasis). Paris is the vanishing point which gives meaning to the narrator's erratic wanderings, leading him to a cosmopolitan identity and to his original language:

Und die Sprache, die sich jetzt einstellte, war die Sprache, die ich am Anfang meines Lebens gelernt hatte, die natürliche Sprache, die mein Werkzeug war, nur noch mir selbst gehörte, und mit dem Land, in dem ich aufgewachsen war, nichts mehr zu tun hatte. Diese Sprache war gegenwärtig, wann immer ich wollte und wo immer ich mich befand. Ich konnte in Paris leben oder in Stockholm, in London oder New York, und ich trug die Sprache bei mir, im leichtesten Gepäck. In diesem Augenblick war der Krieg überwunden, und die Jahre der Flucht waren überlebt.


This idea of an original language that belongs exclusively to the individual is contingent upon the detachment of language from history and on the disentanglement of the narrator's biography from Germany's history. This is the deeper function of the strange rebirth fantasy preceding this scene, a fantasy in which the narrator, overwhelmed by feelings of nonbelonging, imagines himself as a baby who learns to speak, immersed in the noise of the street yet undisturbed by any other speaker of this language: “ich mußte wieder von vorn beginnen, radebrechend, lallend, in meinem Korb liegend, am dröhnenden Straßenrand” (291f.). The “Korb” is also reminiscent of the Moses motif that serves in Abschied von den Eltern to depict the narrator's estrangement from his family.14 Stripped of its religious connotations, the Moses motif becomes here part of the narrator's gesture of distancing himself from a national collective, announcing: I have never belonged to the people among whom I was raised. I have always only belonged to myself.

It is significant that the site of this reinvention of self is Paris, not Berlin, the more plausible choice from what we know of Peter Weiss's biography. While he indeed spent the spring of 1947 in Paris, that summer he went to Berlin to write a series of articles on the defeated Germany for a Stockholm newspaper. These articles display an amazingly sympathetic view of the people who had, after all, persecuted and expelled him. Weiss later turned the articles into a book, Die Besiegten, which diffuses the voice of the initially identifiable narrator into a series of different voices of both victims and perpetrators, thus dissolving any possible site for the narrator's identity and location. In Berlin, Weiss also met the publisher Peter Suhrkamp who encouraged him to pursue his literary attempts in German more intensively. Weiss followed this advice and, in 1949, submitted a manuscript that was, however, published only decades later under the title Der Fremde. In short, Weiss's stay in Berlin in 1947 had a large impact on his development as a writer, and his overall attitude towards Germany and the German language and culture was far more ambivalent than the narrator's in Fluchtpunkt. Shifting the place of his retrieval of the German language from postwar Berlin to existentialist Paris in Fluchtpunkt, Weiss performs a gesture of distancing himself from Germany, paradoxically at the very moment when he was being reintegrated into German culture through the recent success of Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers. Certainly, the abrupt transitions in Fluchtpunkt, the sometimes stilted language and the imposed teleology interrupt the impression of a convincingly developed narrative. I would suggest that these stylistic features express the desire for, as well as the instability of, a cosmopolitanism that grounds the self in a place of symbolic origin rather than in a place of birth.

Fluchtpunkt sets the tone for Weiss's appearance within the German public sphere during the next few years. In interviews and letters following his initial success in Germany, he occasionally referred to himself as a “Weltbürger” before publicly embracing an internationalism of socialist provenance in 1965. Weiss's Weltbürgertum, which is based on the separation between language and place, harks back to a German humanist tradition, reaching from Goethe to Thomas Mann, that identifies German culture with an intrinsic universalizing tendency. While Weiss's familiarity with this tradition may have facilitated his sudden shift from haunting placelessness to redemptive cosmopolitanism, this cosmopolitanism nonetheless remains tenuous. The analysis of his texts reveals that the self-chosen Weltbürgertum is only one facet of his discourse on exile, that this concept remains haunted by other, nonrationalizable forms of exile, which are most prominently represented by Jewish refugees.15 This tension, I argue, not only encouraged Weiss's politicization as a Marxist, but translates into peculiar uses of language in texts that do not narrate but perform the violent rupture between the subject and its place of origin.

Weiss's rarely quoted pseudo-ethnographic report Bericht über Einrichtungen und Gebräuche in den Siedlungen der Grauhäute is an interesting example of his critical diasporic gaze directed towards West Germany.16 There is a hint in Weiss's notebooks that his encounters with the Entschädigungsamt, that is with the West German administrative discourse on the plight of those persecuted under Nazism, were a possible inspiration for the Bericht. During the early 1960s, Weiss and his brother sought compensation for the damages their father suffered because of war and emigration. The application process proved protracted and difficult, with the German administration demanding ever more medical evidence and legal opinions.17 In the midst of excerpts from ethnographic works, we find in Weiss's notebooks observations on the ritualistic moments of this application procedure, which might have been in his mind when he wrote the Bericht: “Haus der Entschädigungen, Versicherungen—wie man versucht, die Überlebenden zu umgehen, zu betrügen mit Zaubersprüchen—Medizinmänner werden entsandt (Entschädigungsamt)” (Nb Notizbücher] 106). Furthermore, an unpublished note suggests that the traveler is Jewish and afraid of being found out as a Jew because of his physical difference:

mit Schrecken?

wieder die Vorstellung der anders gearteten Kleidung und—z.B.—der Nase—Soweit er es aus der Entfernung sehen kann—Vorhaut—18

The Bericht mimics the perspective of a traveler who enters into a Western industrialized city lacking the cultural knowledge that would enable him to recognize everyday objects and actions like cars, cigarettes, shopping, reading the newspaper, etc. Adopting an ethnographer's point of view, the traveler circumscribes the observed incidents and actions meticulously, using ethnographic terms to understand their ritualistic meaning. Gross misreadings of situations (busses as “Ruhebetten,” 130) emphasize the discrepancy between the traveler's horizon of interpretation and that of the culture he visits. The text as a whole harks back to the Enlightenment tradition of using the foreigner's perspective as a hermeneutic device to launch a critique of Western European societies.19 Its depiction of commodities as fetishes that are guarded and protected by those who bought them (120), for example, reads like a satire of Western consumerism. Yet the text betrays a seriousness which indicates that more is at stake here. There is a pervasive sense of danger. The traveler has heard rumors about the cruelty and vindictiveness of the inhabitants (121) and is constantly afraid of being discovered by them as a stranger. Simultaneously, he undergoes an uncanny process of assimilation, adopting a “Mimikry” “die ihm das Dasein hier ermöglicht” (121). Walking through the cramped space of the city, whose wake pulls him into the masses, the traveler gradually loses his panoramic and distanced view. He discovers similarities between his own physiognomy and the species he researches, or more precisely, the differences between the two become blurred and indeterminable:

nur glaubt er, in der Hautfarbe das Grau zu erkennen, das den Bewohnern dieser Gegend bei uns ihren Namen gibt, doch auch dies ist ungewiß, denn wenn er jetzt seine eigene Hand betrachtet, so erscheint sie ihm in derselben schmutzigen Bleichheit, die die Farbe des Himmels und des aufgetürmten Gesteins widerspiegelt, und die auch von dem glühenden Klumpen der Sonne nicht erwärmt werden kann.


What happens here, and what happens increasingly during the traveler's walk, is that his perceptive categories cease to keep his objects of research at a distance from himself.20 He gradually loses his sense of orientation, as well as the control over his steps while following a tramp as if hypnotized. He moves underground, and enters into a public restroom which he perceives as the sacred center of this society. At this moment, the text breaks off, necessarily, for its very composition depends on distance, a distance that alone enables the traveler to write his report. Furthermore, it seems significant that the text breaks off at that very moment when the mark of the traveler's particularity—the circumcised penis—is in danger of becoming exposed. Without stretching this point too far, we may say that the Bericht epitomizes the difference between Weiss and the Enlightenment, which had used the stranger's perspective in order to confirm its premise that cultural differences ultimately dissolve—and should dissolve—in view of universal reason. In Weiss, the discovery of the unity underlying cultural difference does not lead to a redemptive universalism, but to anxiety, thus making distance the necessary prerequisite for an encounter with this country.

The most unsettling effect of Weiss's Bericht derives from its radicalization of the monkey's perspective in Kafka's Ein Bericht für eine Akademie. Kafka's monkey tells a story of assimilation, the transformation of an African monkey first into a domesticated animal and then into an almost-human civilized European. The narrator-monkey presents his report to a scientific academy, that is an institution that represents the society that captures monkeys to display them in zoos or to make them objects of scientific research. It thus brings to a head the double bind of the minority writer who is forced to explain herself to the very culture that denigrates her. I would argue that Weiss's Bericht establishes a similar double bind. Throughout the text, the narrator invokes a collective “we” or “our” that establishes the horizon of interpretation for the strange incidents and habits the traveler observes and that simultaneously addresses a readership as the inscribed audience of the report. Aimed at a German-speaking audience, this text constructs a specific diasporic perspective, a perspective that draws its readership into the paradoxical situation of observing its own society as if from a distance.

Gleichzeitig arbeitet sich, von vorn her kommend, eine Gestalt zwischen den Angesammelten hindurch, die ihren [sic] Ausdruck und ihren Gebärden nach dem Hüter entspricht, dem der Reisende bereits in den Höhlungen der festen Gebäude begegnet ist, und führt, im Zusammenwirken mit den Händen der Insassen, das schon bekannte Spiel des Tauschens aus, und diesmal scheint er den Sammlern den Genuß des eng aneinandergedrückten Dahingleitens zu geben, und dafür reichen ihm die Hände die kleinen Marken hin, die er in einem umgehängten rachenförmigen Gebilde verschwinden läßt, und er streckt den Händen die bereits angefertigten, in dicken Schichten zusammengehaltenen, schnell losgerissenen Bilder oder Beschreibungen hin, die ihrem neuen Besitzer das Recht zur Teilnahme an diesem Zusammensein verbürgen.


The bureaucratic, pseudo-scientific language is reminiscent of Kafka's Bericht. However, Kafka emphasizes the monkey's mimicry of gestures he does not understand to alienate the readers from their own behavior. Weiss instead creates the sense of distance and noncomprehension entirely through his peculiar use of language. The exacting technical descriptions using ethnographic terms of the most common and recognizable events makes the reader thoroughly aware of the force being used to tear her away from habitual, familiar language. Through such long-winded circumlocution, Weiss makes the German language alien to itself.

In 1964, shortly after composing the Bericht, Weiss left for Frankfurt to observe the Auschwitz trial which became the subject of Die Ermittlung, one of his best known and most controversial works. Situating this play with a number of other, partially unpublished, texts, I argue that Weiss's diasporic perspective has shaped his representation of the trial and of its particular discourse on history, that is, the pursuit of historical truth via pieces of evidence and oral testimonies which are verified and evaluated by a codified system of juridical rules. Weiss's specific angle on the trial expresses and intensifies the crisis of witnessing brought about by the Shoah, the difficulty of testifying to events which shatter human forms of perception and comprehension. Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, who have theorized on this crisis, emphasize the performative aspect of testimony as a mode of narration in which the witness does not possess but instead embodies a truth that constantly eludes him or her. Felman and Laub draw attention to the situational context of testimony, which is essentially a dialogic event between a witness and an addressable other, an empathetic listener. The effect of such dialogicity can be shown by the example of the interviews with survivors that are currently being conducted and collected in the Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale. During these interviews, the stories the survivor tells frequently break down, as traumatizing memories interrupt the flow of his or her speech. The interviewer then helps the survivor to resume speech by listening attentively and empathetically or by asking questions, so that like a psychoanalytic session, the interview provides a dialogic situation appropriate to the recollection of traumatic experience (70ff.). Felman and Laub emphasize that testimony does not aim at an “objective” historical truth but that it creates a meaning for the past, a meaning that emerges from and reflects upon the community which is formed in the act of giving testimony. In this case, not only the individual sessions, but also the larger context of the Video Archive, which was founded to preserve the survivors' testimonies and to learn from them, encourages survivors to tell their life stories and thus to break “the frame of death.”21

Weiss's texts on and around the Auschwitz trial, in particular the unpublished Divina Commedia project, the essay “Meine Ortschaft” (1964), and Die Ermittlung (1965), reflect on the possibilities and the limits of testimony in the case of witnesses who, in contrast to the interviewed survivors, lack a sympathetic audience or, worse, who speak in front of a decidedly unsympathetic audience. This dilemma affects the witnesses of the Auschwitz trial as well as the diaspora author. At no time does Weiss seem to have been more skeptical about contemporary Germany, and about his own role with respect to a German audience, than during his attendance of the Auschwitz trial. His notebooks of the time feature, for example, notes on the dulled faces, the monotonous culture and the latent readiness to chauvinism, racism and anti-Semitism he observed during a reading tour through Germany (Nb 190ff.). Scraps of language, overheard in everyday situations, further testify to a linguistic and ideological continuity between the Third Reich and the West Germany of the 1960s:

“Schacher doch nicht so, bist ja schlimmer wie ein Jude!”

das gab ihm den Rest, dieser Antisemitismus im Bus

“Bis zur Vergasung” heute im Sprachgebrauch—ein scherzhafter Anfang

(Nb 227)

From the very beginning, Weiss was highly attentive to the position of the witnesses in the trial, which he perceived as problematic because of the intrinsic bias of the trial. In his notebooks he further draws an analogy between the situation of the witnesses and that of the returning exile, who is subject to the same discursive strategies of scrutiny and denial that devaluate the witnesses' voices. This analogy culminates in a vision depicting the returning exile as a belated victim of Nazi persecution:

Paradiso: die Zeugen stoßen immer wieder auf die (fast gleichgültig, mechanisch ausgesprochenen) Ablehnungen, Verneinungen der Angeklagten—

Studenten können “Emigration” mit ihm diskutieren—völlig unwissend (und im Grunde uninteressiert)

(Nb 275)22

Die Wiederaufnahme

Der Besuch des Emigranten in Deutschl.—Er stirbt daran, wird also verspätet doch noch gemordet—”

(Nb 226)

Originally, Weiss had planned to incorporate the material from the Auschwitz trial into a modern adaptation of Dante's Divina Commedia. Weiss's fascination with Dante's world theater was related to his own attempts to universalize the meaning of the Holocaust by linking it to other forms of violence and exploitation. Moreover, Dante's inferno was the metaphor most widely used in connection with Auschwitz. Yet this metaphor, as it was employed sensationalistically by the media, also implied a highly problematic shift of meaning: Dante's inferno, originally the site where sinners suffer brutal punishments, came to depict the suffering of innocent Holocaust victims (Walser 190f.). Weiss evidently planned to rescind this shift of meaning by foregrounding the stubbornness of the inferno's sinful inhabitants—which he reinterpreted as the complacency of the perpetrators in contemporary Germany—rather than the drastic images of suffering itself.23 However, Weiss intended to adopt the Divina Commedia not as an objectifying frame to depict the reality of contemporary Germany, but as a subjective perspective. In fact, his notebooks show almost more concern with the figure of Dante than with the imagery of the inferno, and it is clear that Weiss endows his Dante with features that he identified in himself: Dante knows no “Heimat” (Nb 253), is emotionally attached to a dead woman (Nb 254), is Jewish (Nb 258), suffers from phobias (Nb 284), and is persecuted (Nb 289).

In Weiss's Nachlaß several sketches exist which portray Dante as a half-Jewish exile returning to the inferno of postwar West Germany, sketches that reflect on Weiss's own position at the time. Although he seems to suggest in his “Vorübung zum dreiteiligen Drama divina commedia” that his main insights upon his own return from his visit in Frankfurt concerned his own faults, his historical blindness and his failure to act, something else transpires in these sketches: they depict the returning exile as instrumentalized and silenced by the German public. The first version, for example, transforms the allegories of human vices, which appear at the beginning of Dante's journey, into three deceptively friendly beings who draw an ideological picture of a modern country that has come to terms with its past, and who try to persuade the exile to return.24 The next scenes, then, show how the phraseology of peace and harmony serves to cover up the continuity with the past. An all-pervasive philosemitism barely conceals the underlying anti-Semitism, and the returning exile is treated in a friendly manner only to improve the public image of the country. As soon as he resists conforming to the role that is imposed on him, he is silenced, sometimes by rebukes, sometimes by violence. And while this modern Dante does not face a homogenously hostile front—there are hints that he has some genuine allies on the Left in this country—the sketches foreground the loneliness and the vulnerability of the exile who, in contrast to the original Dante, cannot even rely on the support of his Virgil. This does not mean that Weiss fashions Dante exclusively as a victim. The self-criticism hinted at in “Vorübung” is also evident in the preliminary sketches, for example in Giotto's reproaching Dante for narcissism.25 Yet the figure of Dante, in all its ambiguity and faultiness, continues to embody the only voice of testimony in these sketches. Dante's exilic biography and his inability to comply with the alleged demands of the present are all that is left of the past.

Why did Weiss abandon this focus on the subjective perspective of the returning exile? Why did he choose instead a form of representation that claims the utmost objectivity, the documentary theater of Die Ermittlung? As is well known, the play is based on documentary material from the Auschwitz trial, on testimonies of both victims and perpetrators, which Weiss compiled, condensed and rearranged without radically altering the wording. It has not gone unnoticed that the play nonetheless conveys a distinct interpretation of the Shoah, one which has drawn criticism from the very beginning. James Young has formulated a compelling critique of Die Ermittlung, contending that Weiss uses the alleged objectivity of documents—their “rhetoric of fact”—to conceal his own particular reconstruction of the Shoah, a reconstruction undertaken from a reductionist, economic Marxist point of view. According to Young, this point of view effaces the Jewish identity of the victims, and subordinates the specific role anti-Semitism played in National Socialism to a universal critique of capitalism and fascism.26 It is certainly true that Weiss intended to show that German industry collaborated with and profited from National Socialism, and that the continuity of the German administrative and economic elite after 1945—at least in the Western part of the country—prevented a deeper confrontation with the past and fostered a latent continuity of National Socialism itself. By focusing exclusively on questions of representation, however, Young overlooks the play's reflection on what I would call the location of testimony. Weiss certainly does not use the courtroom motif to establish an objectifying framework and a discursive authority, as Young contends (72), nor does he pretend to present the documents from the trial in an entirely unmediated fashion. Rather, by drawing attention to the particular constellation of motivations and relations between witnesses, defendants, and juridical authorities, he unmasks the hidden bias of juridical discourse. Throughout the play, it becomes evident that the juridical categories for objectifiable enunciations do not match the witnesses' forms of memory. In the name of these categories, the defense claims that the emotions and traumata that surface as the witnesses have to face their persecutors once again renders their testimony unreliable:

Herr Vorsitzender
es ist lange her
daß ich ihnen gegenüber stand
und es fällt mir schwer
ihnen in die Gesichter zu sehn
Dieser hat Ähnlichkeit mit ihm
er könnte es sein
Er heißt Bischof
Sind Sie sicher
oder zweifeln Sie
Herr Vorsitzender
ich war diese Nacht schlaflos
Wir stellen die Glaubwürdigkeit des Zeugen
Die Übermüdung des Zeugen
kann keine Grundlage bilden
für beweiskräftige Aussagen

(W [Werke in sechs Bänden] V 22f.)

In view of such references to the witnesses' vulnerabilities, it seems remarkable that the play does not show the witnesses' reactions and emotions in a more expressive manner. Their language is impersonal, descriptive, and utterly devoid of emotional investment.27 In contrast to this, the defendants oscillate between emotionalized, personalized forms of speech when defending themselves and abstract, passive, euphemistic forms when referring to what they did in Auschwitz.28 As for their expression of emotions, the defendants occasionally exhibit friendliness or anger, but more important, they repeatedly break out into a collective, ritualistic laughter. “Die Angeklagten lachen” reads the monotonous line that is almost the only stage direction Weiss uses in this play, all the more astonishing if one considers the wide range of theatrical forms he employed in his previous play, Marat/Sade. Only in one case does a stage direction refer to a witness, that is, when a woman falls into silence after having been asked to testify to the medical experiments to which she was subjected (88f.) However, this silence is not an expressive silence; it evokes an extreme absence of affect rather than nonverbalized loss and trauma, an absence of affect that is also palpable in the witness's depersonalized language as she resumes her speech: “Die übrigen Ärzte des Lagers / erstellten das Menschenmaterial” (88).

Given this scarcity of expressive moments, the collective laughter of the defendants is all the more effective. It recalls the musical form of an oratorio—Die Ermittlung bears the subtitle “Oratorium in 11 Gesängen”—in which the laughter of the defendants represents the chorus, while their individual, whining vindications correspond to the arias.29 Considering that the original function of the chorus in drama was to represent the public and common reaction to the dramatic events,30Die Ermittlung implies a sharp criticism of the Auschwitz trial as a form of public discourse: the alleged objectivity of the trial proves to be contingent upon a public consensus that allows the subjectivity of the defendants to resonate within a collective, while it excludes the subjectivity of the witnesses. In other words, Weiss has transformed the theme of the Divina Commedia project—the exile's loneliness within the German public sphere—into a critique of the discourse established in the Auschwitz trial.31

What kind of speech is available for the witnesses in this constellation? Interestingly, Weiss originally planned to use the material of the Auschwitz trial for the Paradiso part of his Divina Commedia project, and his notes suggest that topographical precision and a factual, detailed language were to mark the witnesses' discourse. “Die Ermittlung (Paradiso), mit äußerster Genauigkeit nach jeder Einzelheit fragen, wieder und wieder—kamen sie von rechts? Wo lag die Tür? Wie sah sie aus?” (Nb 282); “vor allem im Paradiso: ganz einfache, kurze Sätze, äußerste Sparsamkeit, zentrale, gegenständliche Angaben” (Nb 255). Another note suggests that heaven and hell were to represent two different discursive spaces, allowing for two different modes of speech.32 Given that Weiss intended to rewrite the Divina Commedia from a radically secular perspective, rejecting the possibility of other-worldly compensation for earthly suffering, it seems consistent that the victims' testimonies figure as the sole substitute for paradisiacal redemption. The sober, largely descriptive language of the witnesses in Die Ermittlung still betrays Weiss's intention to set a sober recounting of facts against the distortions of the defendants.33

The problem, however, is that such a descriptive language cannot be separated from the language of instrumental reason that Weiss shows to be complicit in industrial genocide. We may speculate how the scraps of Nazi language overheard by Weiss on the German streets of the 1960s must have affected him and how his sense of an affinity between the German language and National Socialism must have interfered with his attempt to use this language as a neutral, objective tool. Weiss's decision to discard the Dante model, with its division into different realms of speech, perhaps reflects the insight that the perpetrators' and the victims' modes of speech can never be clearly separated. This is true particularly when the witnesses describe their jobs within the administrative apparatus of the camps, but also when they refer to KZ practices in general: “Es fielen bis zu 300 Tote pro Tag an” (59); “Und auch hier wurde Einsperrung / mit Kostentzug praktiziert” (165). The victims' testimonies, then, are confined not only by a trial constellation in which their memories cannot find full expression, but also by the fact that they have to articulate their experience within a language that reproduces the system of persecution. Weiss intensifies this linguistic predicament by depersonalizing the witnesses in Die Ermittlung to a degree that they are nothing but “Sprachrohre,” mouthpieces of a language that itself testifies to the crimes of Nazism.34 This is testimony in a modest, nonemphatic sense, far from the means of resistance and healing Felman and Laub envision it to be. Yet it is, perhaps, the only adequate form of testimony in a situation in which the witnesses lack both an empathetic audience and a language able to express their memories.

I would argue that this aporetic position of the witness shapes Die Ermittlung as a whole. Read against the backdrop of Weiss's earlier sketches and the play's reflection on the location of testimony, Die Ermittlung constructs a specific author persona, that is, the figure of a distant observer, a nonpersona whose essential characteristic is to remain unaffected by the trial he witnesses. Just like the witnesses within the Auschwitz trial, Weiss functions as a medium of a discourse detached from himself as he travels to Germany to attend the Auschwitz trial, to compile the documents and to present them to the German public. The shift from the Divina Commedia project to documentary theater transforms the vulnerable subjectivity of the returning exile into a hyper-objectivity that may be regarded as a protective mechanism on Weiss's part, but that was also likely to produce an unsettling effect on its audience. As other critics have noted, Die Ermittlung was meant to have an impact on its (German) audience beyond its rational insight. Huyssen defines the effect of the play as numbing, devised “to affect the consciousness rather than emotions of sadism or horrified empathy” (Huyssen 110). Söllner argues that the cold shock-technique employed by the play potentially induced a kind of collective psychoanalysis in the German audience (Söllner 181ff.).

I have attempted to show that this performative force of the drama derives from a continuous, experimental reconfiguration of the diasporic perspective. This reading is also supported by Weiss's short essay “Meine Ortschaft,” which describes his visit to the Auschwitz death camp in 1964 as the collapse of an empathetic understanding of history. Walking over the camp and registering meticulously the material remnants of the Shoah—the barracks, the crematoria, the prison cells, but also the piles of hair, clothes, and shoes—the narrator is incapable of establishing any imaginative relationship to the events that happened here. Filled with an anaesthetic indifference, he can neither empathize with the victims, nor identify with them, nor mourn them. In other words, although designed as a memorial space, the camp utterly fails to function as a lieux de mémoire (Pierre Nora) that would enable its visitor to create in his imagination a connection between history, collective, and individual.35 I would argue that the lengthy topographical descriptions of Die Ermittlung as well as its topographical macrostructure are attempts to reproduce just such a sense of overproximity to a place of death that nonetheless remains withdrawn from the imagination. The structure of Die Ermittlung parallels that of the inferno part of the Divina Commedia in that it moves gradually toward the center of horror: from the ramp, to the inmates' barracks, the examination and torture rooms, the “black wall” where people were shot, the hospital where medical experiments were conducted, the bunker cells, the gas chambers, and finally to the ovens. This structure forces the audience into the camp while it stares at a stage which, according to Weiss's own instructions, is stripped of any decorative setting, of anything that would make it a place, and which thus reproduces the incommensurability of place, narration and subjectivity that I have shown to be a central moment in Weiss's rewriting of exile. Less optimistic than the cosmopolitan vision of Fluchtpunkt, Die Ermittlung suggests that catastrophic exile cannot be converted into freedom, but that the fissure between the subject and its place of origin, which returns as the fissure between the subject and its language, can be performed upon an audience with a radically different historical perspective.


  1. Weiss, Notizbücher 1960-1971, 54f. These notebooks were published only after the great success of the Notizbücher 1971-1980, which appeared at the request of Suhrkamp as a commentary to Die Ästhetik des Widerstands. Although they came out only after his death, the Notizbücher 1960-1971 were prepared for publication by Weiss himself. Unfortunately, the Suhrkamp edition fails to make the readers aware of the fact that Weiss edited his original notes quite extensively. He not only omitted some notes, but inserted whole passages, i.e., part of the text was actually written around 1980, and not during the 1960s. This is important because the alterations affect some of the most explicit passages on Peter Weiss's outsider status in the West German literary scene. The published version occasionally takes on an aloof and rationalizing tone at the expense of more impulsive, emotionalized impressions. The quotes in this paper are drawn from the published Notizbücher, hereafter referred to in text as Nb. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this paper are also in the unpublished version, although sometimes with slightly different wording.

  2. The book was originally written in 1952, yet the first excerpt appeared in the magazine Akzente in 1960, and the book was published by the prestigious publishing house Suhrkamp in 1961.

  3. The phase of Weiss's writing examined here (1960-65) has thus far largely been researched under the aspect of his politicization as a Marxist. This focus was sustained partially by Weiss's own representation of his transformation from an idiosyncratic, self-centered surrealist into a politically engaged writer. From this perspective, Weiss's experimental prose texts of the 1960s, for example, appear as mere “relapses” into apolitical subjectivism and aestheticism. See for example Gerlach 177. A notable departure from this teleological model is Söllner's study, which shows that Weiss's allegedly apolitical early writings (written before 1953) present an aesthetically and politically intricate expression of Weiss's “exile after exile.” By drawing on techniques from the modern avantgardes, especially from surrealism, Söllner argues, and by transforming them in a way that lends a voice to the victims of the Shoah, Weiss challenged both the literary paradigm of realism and the repression of the past prevalent in postwar German culture, which in turn proved unreceptive to his voice. Söllner's excellent analysis of Weiss's initial exclusion from the German public sphere, however, does not explain why Weiss insisted on his exilic position even when his voice was welcomed in Germany.

  4. This definition of diaspora reflects the insight that since the establishment of the state of Israel, Jewish life outside of Israel has become largely self-chosen, as it has been in previous periods of Jewish independence or compact settlement in their own land. In contrast, the term Galut (Hebrew/Yiddish for “exile”) refers to the forced dispersion of the Jewish people. For a discussion of the terms “Diaspora” and “Galut,” see the Encyclopaedia Judaica, 6: 7-19 and 7: 275-95. For diaspora in the contemporary German Jewish context, see Gilman, Jews 1-16. Gilman suggests that the two concepts of exile correspond to different notions of the Jewish body, the inherently distinct and unchanging versus the infinitely malleable Jewish body.

  5. For postcolonial concepts of diaspora see Bhabha, Hall, Said and Gilroy. For recent theories on Jewish diaspora that share some concerns with postcolonialism, see Boyarin/Boyarin and Finkielkraut. See also Jean Améry's claim that there is an analogy between Frantz Fanon's works on colonized subjects and his own attempts to restore dignity to the victims of Nazi persecution (142).

  6. This generalization brackets such related issues as the rise of Zionism and the persistence of religious belief, particularly in some parts of the Habsburg Empire. Futhermore, the process of emancipation clearly remained incomplete, situating Jews rather uneasily within German-speaking cultures, a process that Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have described as “deterritorialization”. However problematic such integration into new “fatherlands” was, it nonetheless represents a significant shift from the earlier bond to a distant homeland.

  7. The word “resentment,” in fact, picks up on a catchword that has served in West Germany to exclude the voices of emigrants after 1945. With its Nietzschean undertones, the word insinuated that the refugees from Nazism were in an overly subjective state of mind, unable to abstract from their past experiences, and therefore could not seriously and rationally contribute to the debates on Germany's responsibility for Nazism and on its future. Peitsch quotes, for example, Alfred Andersch's request that the exiles should switch from “Ressentiment” to “Objektivierung” (Peitsch 109). “Objektivierung” soon came to denote a rejection of the Kollektivschuldthese and to imply an exculpation of large parts of the German population, especially of its army. The devaluation of the victims' voices continued, and grew even stronger, in the 1960s when psychological discourses were pathologizing and marginalizing these voices instead of taking them seriously as testimonies to the Nazi crimes. By accepting the representation of the survivor's subjectivity as damaged, tortured, and extremely sensitive, Améry recuperates it as a valid moral reaction, thus challenging its ongoing psychologization and marginalization.

  8. For examples of Adorno's more positive attitude toward pedagogy after 1945, see his Erziehung zur Mündigkeit.

  9. For the connection between nationalism, diaspora and the “other temporality” of migrants, see Bhabha, especially the chapter “Dissemi-Nation: Time, narrative and the margins of the modern nation” (139-70).

  10. Santner has analyzed such a strategy of displaced memory as a “narrative fetishism” indicative of the inability to mourn: “Narrative fetishism (…) is the way an inability or refusal to mourn emplots traumatic events; it is a strategy of undoing, in fantasy, the need for mourning by simulating a condition of intactness, typically by situating the site and the origin of loss elsewhere” (144).

  11. The word “exile” appears already in a pre-1952 Swedish text variant related to Abschied von den Eltern, although not in very prominent places. The unpublished manuscript Abwechselnd lag der Garten, which was probably written in 1958 or at the beginning of 1959 and is already quite close to Abschied von den Eltern, returns to the notion of exile in the narrator's childhood alienation. I am indebted to Jürgen Schutte, Freie Universität Berlin, for the details about these earlier sketches. During my own research in the Peter-Weiss-Archiv, I noticed that Abschied von den Eltern (written between 1959 and 1960) foregrounds the theme of exile more strongly than Abwechselnd lag der Garten. Some of the most explicit phrases first appear in Abschied von den Eltern, for example: “Diese Spiele waren wie Psychodramen, in denen wir uns mit der Emigration auseinandersetzten, in meiner Arbeit war alles nur ein Abgewandtsein und ein Verbergen” (WII 123; Weiss's Werke will be referred to parenthetically following citations). For a more detailed discussion, see my forthcoming dissertation. I argue there that in Abschied von den Eltern, the surface psychological narrative of exile, that is, the story of a youth who is alienated from his bourgeois family, is gradually undermined by the historical dimension of exile.

  12. Even Bohrer, who focuses on the formal features of Weiss's work, writes of Abschied von den Eltern und Fluchtpunkt: “Ohne literarische Überanstrengung, ohne den Versuch, sich selbst zu stilisieren, hat Weiss hier in einfachen Sätzen buchstäblich seinen Fluchtpunkt getroffen” (197). Among the few critics who have stressed the constructed character of the text is Grimm.

  13. See for example his self-presentation at the beginning of Fluchtpunkt 146 ff.

  14. In Abschied von den Eltern, the narrator twice likens his mother to the Egyptian princess who found him as an infant in a basket (63, 93).

  15. In my forthcoming dissertation, I show how the narrator of Fluchtpunkt arrives at his vision of self-chosen exile only by separating himself from two other exiles in the novel who are associated with Jewishness and who embody forced exile and persecution. These figures are the narrator's father and the painter Anatol.

  16. The text was written in 1963, yet remained a fragment and was first published in 1968.

  17. For some documentation on the application process see the letters by Weiss's lawyers Kröll and Gregor. Stiftung Archiv der Akademie der Künste (abbreviated: SAdK), Berlin, Peter-Weiss-Archiv, 76/86/1272-1 to 76/86/1272-5.

  18. SAdK, Berlin, Peter-Weiss-Archiv, Notizbuch 2, 86/76/2-53. In the published Notizbücher, this note would have appeared on 110. The Notizbücher also contain a reminiscence of what seems to have been Weiss's own circumcision during his first years of exile in Sweden. Unfortunately, we have little documentation of those years and of the circumstances that may have convinced Weiss to undergo circumcision. The description is nonetheless highly interesting. Not the act of circumcision itself is depicted, but its negative reflection on the face of the female assistant; the circumcised penis, then, is not a positive sign of Jewish identity, but a sign of the disgust felt by others: “Die Beschneidung wurde vollzogen als ich schon erwachsen war, bei dem Arzt in Alingsås—seine Assistentin ekelte sich—fühlte selbst nichts, sah nur dieses verzerrte Gesicht” (Nb 105). For the significance of circumcision as a mark of male Jewish difference, see Gilman, “Male Sexuality.”

  19. For examples of this tradition see Goldsmith and Montesquieu.

  20. See also 131: “glaubt, daß er mit seinem Gesicht, seinem Leib, den ringsum vorbeischwankenden Gesichtern und Leibern gleicht, und er nimmt an, daß auch die grundsätzlichen Bedürfnisse, die bei uns gelten, nicht von denen der Ortsbewohner unterschieden sind” (my emphasis).

  21. See, for example, the scene where a survivor remembers the Auschwitz uprising, during which one of the crematory chimneys was blown up. She, however, remembers the destruction of all four chimneys. As Laub argues, this distortion of the historical facts is marginal considering the deeper meaning of her testimony. “She had come, indeed, to testify, not to the empirical number of the chimneys, but to resistance, to the affirmation of survival, to the breakage of the frame of death” (Felman and Laub 62).

  22. Inferno and Paradiso refer to the parts of Dante's Divina Commedia.

  23. See Weiss: “Inferno / beherbergt alle die, die nach des früheren Dante Ansicht / zur unendlichen Strafe verurteilt wurden, die heute aber / hier weilen, zwischen uns, den Lebendigen, und unbestraft / ihre Taten weiterführen, und zufrieden leben / mit ihren Taten, unbescholten, von vielen bewundert. Alles / ist fest hier, geölt, gesichert, nichts bezweifelt, und jegliches Leiden / ist weit abgeschoben” (“Vorübung” 137).

  24. “Luchs: Wir werden alles tun um Dante Alighieri / in seinem schwierigen Unternehmen behilflich zu sein / Löwe: Jedem der als Freund kommt / erleichtern wir die Schritte / in unserem Land des Friedens und der Gerechtigkeit / Luchs: So wie wir auf der Hut sind vor den Kräften / die die erreichte Harmonie stören und gefährden wollen,” SAdK, Berlin, Peter-Weiss-Archiv, no. 76/86/6095-2°, Mappe 17-1/1.

  25. See SAdK, Berlin, Peter-Weiss-Archiv, no. 76/86/6095-2°, Mappe 18-26/3.

  26. This reductive explanation of National Socialism has been noted by most critics. See for example Huyssen 111. Young's critique goes further than this, maintaining that Weiss consciously uses the documentary form in order to make his ideological point of view more credible.

  27. Weiss's representation of the witnesses as devoid of emotional reactions is one of the few and striking instances where he departs from the documents, which frequently depict witnesses as being horrified, angry, or crying. See for example Naumann 89, 108, 115, 123. In Die Ermittlung, the witnesses prefer the pronouns “we” and “one”, and they mainly use passive verb forms. They refer even to their own bodies as if to objects outside of themselves, as one witness recounts his own beating: “Vor allem aber waren die Geschlechtsteile / den Schlägen ausgesetzt” (70). If they mention personal emotions at all, they do so in a most laconic manner: “Zeugin 5: Ich konnte nicht darüber sprechen / Verteidiger: Warum nicht / Zeugin 5: Es hat persönliche Gründe / Verteidiger: Können Sie uns die Gründe nennen / Zeugin 5: Ich habe seitdem nie mehr / ein eigenes Kind haben wollen” (63).

  28. In contrast to the witnesses, the defendants often use the personal pronoun “I” and recount moments of their personal life (e.g. 21, 24). They show friendliness when facing a witness they know, and anger when they feel wrongly accused (e.g. 33, 48). For the change of linguistic registers, see for example: “Angeklagter 7: Wahllos zu schießen / wäre mir nicht eingefallen / Hätte ich schießen wollen / dann hätte ich auch den getroffen / den ich aufs Korn nahm / Scharf war ich / das kann ich schon sagen / Aber ich habe nur getan / was ich tun mußte / Richter: Und was mußten Sie tun / Angeklagter 7: Zusehn daß der Betrieb klappte / Kinder wurden grundsätzlich / gleich übergestellt / auch Mütter die sich von den Kindern / nicht trennen wollten / Alles ging reibungslos / Die Transporte kamen an / wie warme Brötchen” (48). For other examples of the strategies of the defendants to play down their agency in the camps, see also Salloch 131.

  29. For the form of the oratorio, see also Salloch 137.

  30. For the function of the chorus as public in Greek drama, see Lehmann 48.

  31. This critique is all the more important since the publicity of trial procedures in court was an important element of the emerging bourgeois public sphere (Habermas 83). Weiss profoundly questions the Enlightenment's notion that public debate can “transform voluntas into a ratio that in the public competition of private arguments came into being as the consensus about what was practically necessary in the interest of all” (my emphasis).

  32. See for example: “Die Hölle vielleicht nur aus Verhören, Anklagen, Fragen, Lügen, Verteidigungen bestehend. Im Himmel dann die Opfer” (Nb 216).

  33. The play also attempts to establish a truth by means other than description. Witness 3 (81-88), who explains fascism in terms of its links to capitalism, stands for the possibility of political resistance. He speaks with more emphasis and persuasiveness than most of the others. I argue, however, that even his position is undermined by the aporetic constellation created when a witness stands in front of a German audience and uses the German language.

  34. For Weiss's portrait of the witnesses as “Sprachrohre” see his annotations (9).

  35. The narrator's inability to identify empathetically with the victims is especially striking in view of his awareness that he himself was meant to perish in Auschwitz. The only tenuous link between the narrator and the victims of the camp is the negativity inscribed into the exile's origin. Although he emphasizes the singularity of Auschwitz, as the only fixed point in the topography of a life which otherwise features only transitory spaces (114), the narrator goes on to compare Auschwitz with his place of birth, a town near Berlin: “Auch sie [i.e., Auschwitz] trägt einen polnischen Namen, wie meine Geburtsstadt, die man mir vielleicht einmal aus dem Fenster eines fahrenden Zugs gezeigt hatte” (115). Just as Auschwitz lies outside of experience, memory, and narration, such a place of birth fails to be an imaginative point of departure from which to recollect the fragments of one's life.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. Erziehung zur Mündigkeit. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1970.

———. Minima Moralia. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1993.

Améry, Jean. Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne. Stuttgart: Klett, 1977.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

Bohrer, Karl Heinz. “Die Tortur. Peter Weiss' Weg ins Engagement—Die Geschichte des Individualisten.” Peter Weiss. Ed. Rainer Gerlach. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1984. 182-207.

Boyarin, Daniel and Boyarin, Jonathan. “Diaspora: Generation and the Ground of Jewish Identity.” Critical Inquiry 19 (1993): 693-725.

Encyclopaedia Judaica. 16 vols. Jerusalem: Keter, 1972.

Felman, Shoshana and Laub, Dori. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Finkielkraut, Alain. The Imaginary Jew. Trans. Kevin O'Neill and David Suchoff. Lincoln & London: U of Nebraska P, 1994.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem und Tabu. Frankfurt a. Main: Fischer, 1990.

Gerlach, Rainer. “Isolation und Befreiung: Zum literarischen Frühwerk von Peter Weiss.” Peter Weiss. Ed. Rainer Gerlach. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1984. 147-81.

Gilman, Sander L. Jews in Today's German Culture. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1995.

———. “Male Sexuality and Contemporary Jewish Literature in German: The Damaged Body as the Image of the Damaged Soul.” Reemerging Jewish Culture in Germany: Life and Literature Since 1989. Ed. Sander L. Gilman and Karen Remmler. New York and London: New York UP, 1994. 210-49.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Goldsmith, Oliver. The Citizen of the World. London: Folio Society, n.d.

Grimm, Reinhold. “Blanckenburgs ‘Fluchtpunkt’ oder Peter Weiss und der deutsche Bildungsroman.” Basis II (1971): 77-82.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Trans. Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederic Lawrence. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT, 1989.

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. Ed. Jonathan Rutherford. London: Lawrence, 1990. 222-37.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1986.

Kafka, Franz. “Ein Bericht für eine Akademie.” Sämtliche Erzählungen. Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1970.

Lehmann, Hans-Thies. Theater und Mythos: Die Konstitution des Subjekts im Diskurs der antiken Tragödie. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1991.

Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat. Persian Letters. Trans. John Ozell. New York and London: Garland, 1972.

Naumann, Bernd. Auschwitz: A Report on the Proceedings. Trans. Jean Steinberg. New York: Praeger, 1966.

Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.Representations 26 (1989): 7-25.

Peitsch, Helmut. “Die Gruppe 47 und die Exilliteratur—ein Mißverständnis?” Die Gruppe 47 in der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik. Ed. Justus Fetscher, Eberhard Lämmert, Jürgen Schutte. Würzburg: Könighausen & Neumann, 1991. 108-134.

Peter Weiss im Gespräch. Ed. Rainer Gerlach and Matthias Richter. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1986.

Postone, Moishe. “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism.” New German Critique 19 (1980): 97-115.

Said, Edward. “Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals.” Representations of the Intellectual. New York: Pantheon, 1994. 47-64.

Salloch, Erika. Peter Weiss's Die Ermittlung. Frankfurt a.M.: Athenäum, 1972.

Santner, Eric L. “History beyond the Pleasure Principle: Some Thoughts on the Representation of Trauma.” Probing the Limits of Representation. Ed. Saul Friedlander. Cambridge and London: Harvard UP, 1992. 143-54.

Söllner, Alfons. Peter Weiss und die Deutschen: Die Entstehung einer politischen Ästhetik wider die Verdrängung. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1988.

Walser, Martin. “Unser Auschwitz.” Kursbuch 1 (1965): 189-200.

Weiss, Peter. “Bericht über Einrichtungen und Gebräuche in den Siedlungen der Grauhäute”. In Gegensätzen denken: Ein Lesebuch. Ffm: Suhrkamp, 1986. 119-35.

———. “Meine Ortschaft.” Rapporte. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1986. 113-24.

———. Notizbücher 1960-1971. 2 Vols. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1982.

———. “Vorübung zum dreiteiligen Drama divina commedia.” Rapporte. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1968. 125-41.

———. Werke in sechs Bänden. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1991.

Young, James E. “Documentary Theater, Ideology, and the Rhetoric of Fact.” Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1988. 64-80.

Robert Cohen (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cohen, Robert. “The Political Aesthetics of Holocaust Literature: Peter Weiss's The Investigation and Its Critics.”1History & Memory 10, no. 2 (1998): 43-67.

[In the following essay, Cohen examines the critical reaction to The Investigation and elucidates the central themes of the play.]

In the mid-1990s a critic referred to The Investigation (Die Ermittlung, 1965), Peter Weiss's play about Auschwitz and Nazi mass extermination, as one of those rare literary works able to overcome the “confusion, silence, and despair” produced by the “naked testimony” of witnesses at Holocaust trials. Lawrence Langer, whose words are quoted here, should know. He himself had for a few days attended the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial which lasted from the end of 1963 through the summer of 1965 and on which The Investigation is based. In his article Langer holds that “Weiss lowers the barriers of the unimaginable” and “gradually narrows the space separating the imagination from the camp.” The play, in Langer's congenial interpretation, crosses a border which prevailing views on representations of the Holocaust consider to be nearly impassable: it allows the imagination to be “drawn into the landscape of Auschwitz,” it transforms the “literal truth” of the witnesses' testimonies into the “imagined truth of Auschwitz.”2

Langer did not always see it that way. In The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (1975), a foundational text in the academic study of the representation of the Holocaust in literature, Langer denied the very qualities of The Investigation that he was to praise twenty years later. Langer's erstwhile judgment started a trend. Over more than a decade other books which came to constitute the emerging discourse on the ethics and aesthetics of the Holocaust in literature followed Langer's example in rejecting Weiss's play ever more radically, among them Alvin H. Rosenfeld's A Double Dying, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi's By Words Alone and James E. Young's Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust.3 The attacks of these critics on The Investigation and its author are startling in their ferocity. In their view Weiss's play was a distortion and exploitation of the Holocaust for ideological reasons; it was artless, lifeless and mechanical and, most disturbingly, it wasn't even about the Jews. It had to be excluded from the canon of the new discourse.


The concerted effort by these critics to deny The Investigation any status in the emerging academic field raises issues about the process of institutionalization of the study of Holocaust literature and its attendant canon formation, and specifically about the politics of inclusion and exclusion. These politics are most apparent in the discussions, uniquely central to the literature of Auschwitz, of facticity and authenticity, and of legitimacy: who is allowed to speak for the victims? the perpetrators? Who defines the victims and perpetrators? The politics of discourse also inform the debate over which master narratives, “Freudian, Marxist, formalist, structuralist, or linguistic”—Rosenfield rejects all of these (19)—are appropriate for representations of the Holocaust. Rosenfield's position suggests that not only the deaths of millions should be considered senseless but also attempts at finding explanations; particularly if those explanations would remove Auschwitz from the pure realm of religious, metaphysical, or mythological discourse, and insert it into a continuity of secular, man-made events. If the Holocaust is explained in rational terms, it seems, its enormity is somehow diminished. Discourse politics also play themselves out as a subtext in the four critics' discussions of the aesthetics of Holocaust literature, the forms, language, narrative and dramatic techniques and the conceptions of literary and dramatic figures considered acceptable in representations of the Holocaust.

Those who would define the new discourse tended to erect almost insurmountable walls around it. A closer look at the language of Rosenfeld's opening paragraph shows this gesture at work. In the first few lines alone the Holocaust is referred to as an “inexplicable and almost incomprehensible tragedy,” as “not just death but total destruction,” as not just murder, but “annihilation on so massive and indiscriminate a scale” (3). This is a discourse of disempowerment, a discourse designed to intimidate and control.4 The Holocaust is constructed as a realm so incommensurate and inaccessible that only a chosen few may enter.5 There is a chasm separating this position from the view presented by a key witness in The Investigation: “We must drop the lofty view / that the camp world / is incomprehensible to us.”6

In mapping out the new academic field the four critics investigated works from numerous countries and in many languages. There is, however, a striking absence at the center of their discourse. The specific Germanness of the extermination of the Jews, refocused in 1996 by Daniel Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners, did not provoke a substantive interest in how German literature deals with the Nazi past and the Holocaust. In the books of Langer, Rosenfeld, Ezrahi and Young there are only limited references to German texts and they are overwhelmingly to the canonized poetry of Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs, and to Rolf Hochhuth's 1963 play The Deputy. Key participants in the postwar German literary discourse on the Holocaust, such as philosopher Günther Anders or playwrights Max Frisch and Heinar Kipphardt, are ignored entirely; others like Jean Améry or Alfred Andersch draw minimal attention.7 Another segment which is overlooked is Holocaust literature from the German Democratic Republic. Stephan Hermlin, Bruno Apitz, Fred Wander and Jurek Becker are some of the more prominent GDR authors of Holocaust novels and testimonials. Apitz, Wander and Becker are Holocaust survivors (Hermlin survived in Switzerland); Wander, Becker and Hermlin are Jewish. For what reason were they excluded from the Canon?8 Then there is the near total absence of Adorno, without whose reflections on the status of post-Auschwitz ethics and aesthetics any understanding of German-language literary texts on the Holocaust must remain limited.9

It is obvious that survey books such as those by Langer, Rosenfeld, Ezrahi and Young cannot cover every aspect relating to their topic. But these omissions occur in a sphere which has a “special pertinence” to this discourse, as Berel Lang has stated in the introduction to his own book on Writing and the Holocaust which commits the very same omission.10 There is a void in the books of the four critics into which not only German literature on Auschwitz largely disappears but also the specific aesthetic, ideological and historical dimensions which form the backdrop of works such as The Investigation.


The Investigation subverts the notion of literature as a sphere distinct from other institutions in society. It insistently blurs the boundaries between reality and its representation, between documents and their interpretation, between authentic persons and stage characters. Interpretive strategies of Weiss's play need to confront this radical collapsing of traditional aesthetic categories.

The Investigation is based almost to the letter on documentations of the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt, foremost on newspaper articles by Bernd Naumann published during the trial and later as a book.11 The play's near identity with its sources is the basis for its aesthetic deprecation by the four critics. The Investigation is perceived as little more than a “condensed version of the proceedings of the trials” (Ezrahi, 36), as “singularly undramatic” (Langer, 31), as doing little more than “endlessly cataloguing atrocity” (Rosenfeld, 156). Its figures are judged to be “without notable distinction of individual character” (ibid., 155), its language “toneless and undifferentiated” (ibid., 158). It is “sanitized” of all emotions, it offers no “catharsis or resolution of any sort” (Ezrahi, 38), and thus appears to be less than the journalistic documents from which it is constructed. These criticisms seem to be driven by a normative impulse. Their assumptions are that dramatic representations of the Holocaust should use individually drawn, fully rounded characters who invite audience-identification, naturalistic dialogue, a recognizable dramatic structure with a beginning, middle and end, a story-line presumably built around issues of personal guilt, fate, punishment and redemption, and resolution. In short, they should use the kind of mimetic representation of the world found in Hochhuth's The Deputy to which Rosenfeld devotes one of the most extensive interpretive passages in his book (132-52). Lawrence Langer, on the other hand, has since joined those critics who have long argued that The Deputy, its undeniable impact on the Auschwitz debate notwithstanding, is a play whose naturalism and aesthetic conventionality fall far short of an adequate representation of the Holocaust.12 To those, however, to whom Hochhuth's Schillerian dramaturgy with its linear progression toward resolution, its pathos and its grand gestures emits all the traditional, pre-Brechtian, even premodernist signals of high art, Weiss's avant-gardist minimalism can easily appear as inferior, if not as belonging outside the sphere of art.

The apparent minimalism of The Investigation, as well as its fragmented, non-dramatic, epic structure reflect the sum total of Weiss's aesthetic existence: his twenty years as a painter and filmmaker whose masters ranged from Brueghel to Buñuel and the surrealists, and his subsequent ascent as a writer involved in a lifelong dialogue not only with Brecht but also with Kafka, and especially with Dante.13 Most of Weiss's works after Marat/Sade, from plays such as Song of the Lusitanian Bogey and Hölderlin to his two stage adaptations of Kafka's The Trial and his magnum opus, the one-thousand-page novel Die Ästhetik des Widerstands,14 owe their structural and aesthetic concepts to the Divine Comedy. None more so than The Investigation (though not in any simplistic sense of equating Auschwitz with “hell,” for in Weiss's appropriation of Dante's poem, paradoxically enough, Auschwitz was to be located in the Paradiso). The most obvious reference to Dante is the division of The Investigation into “Gesänge.” The German word means songs but is also the translation of Dante's “Cantos.”15 From the number of Cantos—thirty-three—to the conception of the figure of Lili Tofler in Canto five, the numerous traces the Divine Comedy has left in The Investigation have been documented repeatedly.16

Far from being a condensed version of the trial transcripts, The Investigation, in its obsession with the destruction of the human body, is a surrealist text. It is organized according to a topography of atrocity whose aesthetic is hallucinatory and oneiric rather than factual. This obsession is what sets The Investigation apart from other literary texts about Auschwitz. It is also what Rosenfeld objects to as an “endless cataloguing,” as a retracing of the fate of the victims in “gruesome and revolting detail” (155). Rosenfeld's reading produces a subtle shift of focus from the atrocities of Nazi mass extermination to the implied transgressions of the playwright who should have had the good taste to spare his readers or spectators the “revolting details.” But it is precisely the play's unrelenting recitation of atrocities which forces the reader/spectator to confront the essence of the Nazi state. The Investigation leaves us no choice but to try and understand a sphere inaccessible to most of us. Weiss's narration of physical suffering crosses into a territory where no linguistic code is readily available. Like other writers of Holocaust literature he repeatedly reflected on the necessity as well as the impossibility of entering this terrain.17 But unlike many other writers Weiss had prepared for this task throughout his life. His paintings and films, as well as his literary texts before The Investigation, from the agony of the “doctor” in The Shadow of the Body of the Coachman to the torture of Damiens in Marat/Sade, are an exploration of suffering in its most physical form, of the pain—and sometimes the lust—which can be inflicted on the human body. Weiss's kinship with Brueghel, Kafka and Dante, as well as with Buñuel and Henry Miller, was an elective affinity. Weiss evolved a surrealist aesthetic of shock which confronts readers and spectators with the realization that, in the words of the Marquis de Sade, “this is a world of bodies.”18 It is this realization which all thinking after Auschwitz has been forced to acknowledge. Adorno's statement that after Auschwitz metaphysics, the sphere of the mind, is reduced to the pondering of its material other, “the somatic … stratum,” the “wretched physical existence,” refers to just this world of bodies.19 It is the most difficult reality for the intellectual who survived Auschwitz to accept, as Jean Améry repeats almost compulsively in At the Mind's Limits.20 Being reduced by torture to a mere physical presence, a body, is the trauma which for Améry superseded all others. It is for the representation of this primal sphere that Weiss's aesthetic reductionalism—which to the four critics appears as a lack of artistic intervention—proves uniquely suited.

Lack of artistry was also the verdict on the language of The Investigation which supposedly shows Weiss relying “uncritically on the Nazis' own bureaucratic rhetoric” (Young, 79). To say that Nazi jargon indeed plays a key part in Weiss's play is a tautology. In a work where there is no attempt to reproduce Auschwitz on stage and where Auschwitz is never even mentioned, the site of the Holocaust becomes not Auschwitz but language; specifically the Nazi jargon. In his critique of Heidegger's language and its contiguity to Nazi jargon Adorno defined the effect of jargon as causing “the true object of the suffering … to disappear.”21 Weiss's insistent use of jargon—as though nearly every line needed to be read in quotation marks—makes the disappearing reality of the Holocaust and the suffering it produced reappear. The play's use of grotesque bureaucratic idiom, for Rosenfeld little more than a “code of raw data” (158), is all the more revealing since even the victims' language is deformed by it. Elie Wiesel refers to this phenomenon: “We speak in code, we survivors, and this code cannot be broken, cannot be deciphered” by anyone who is not a survivor.22 Wiesel's last point notwithstanding, deciphering the Nazi code is precisely what the language of Weiss's play accomplishes. In Lawrence Langer's revised assessment of The Investigation, “the language of the victims finally sheds a terrifying light on the ordeals they succumbed to.”23

There are no fully rounded characters in The Investigation. The “judge,” the “prosecuting attorney,” and the “counsel for the defense” are composites, as are the nine “witnesses” who represent the victims. They remain, as Weiss's critics point out, anonymous figures without discernible individuality (Rosenfeld, 155, 157). These composites are the equivalent, in the literary sphere, of that which Adorno has expressed in the language of philosophy, “that in the concentration camps it was no longer an individual who died, but a specimen.”24 Even the perpetrators, though they bear the actual names of the defendants at the Frankfurt trial, are meant to be mere stand-ins who represent many others like themselves.

Weiss outlines this concept in the summary “Note” which precedes the play. The four critics' rejection of the way the characters are constructed is based on this “Note,” rather than on an analysis of the figures themselves. Consequently, the critics remain unaware of how the play overrides the author's stated concept in one of the most subtly unsettling moments of The Investigation. At its exact center, in Cantos five and six, two individual fates are related: the death of a young woman named Lili Tofler; and the deeds of one SS Corporal Stark, a nineteen-year-old Nazi who had not yet finished high school. Lili Tofler is the only individually drawn victim, and Stark is the most psychologically differentiated character, the perpetrator the play tries hardest to understand. The contiguity of these two lives in this place hints at something the mind refuses to acknowledge: that given different circumstances, these two young people might have been friends, even lovers. Weiss's avant-gardist aesthetic is able to restore their individuality to these figures without suggesting a facile familiarity.

According to Ezrahi, “the stage is bare, emotion has been eliminated” (38; similarly Rosenfeld, 158). For proof, reference is made once again to the introductory “Note” where Weiss relates his need to eliminate the emotionalism of the actual confrontation between the witnesses and the defendants. This kind of emotionalism is indeed gone from the play. The play's language is even, laconic and monotonous, its unemphatic tone signaled by the absence of punctuation. It is a language designed to create distance between the reader/spectator and the events. But all of the play's distancing devices notwithstanding, The Investigation stretches one's capacity for experiencing emotion to the limit and at times overwhelms it. Readers and spectators may find themselves trying to anesthetize their feelings in order to work through the text. That, however, is very different from denying the emotional impact of the play. Ezrahi ascribes what she perceives as a lack of emotion to Weiss's concept of restricting the expressions of emotion of the stage figures (37-38). The critic's assumption seems to be that in the theater emotion can only be created by actors acting—and experiencing?—emotions and that the sphere of emotions is separate from and opposed to the sphere of the rational. In The Investigation emotions are produced, not through conventional psychological devices as in Hochhuth's The Deputy, but rather through a blend of Brechtian and surrealist aesthetics. To expect a “catharsis” (Ezrahi, 38) from such an aesthetic is to disregard its fundamental assumptions. It also implies that Holocaust literature should convey the reassuring notion that the human spirit triumphed even in the concentrationary universe.


According to Lawrence Langer The Investigation tries to convey “the authentic reality” of Auschwitz (31). In this endeavor it rarely rises above “mere factual truth” since it uses “only the language of history” (ibid.)—a metaphor which hides what it seeks to conceptualize: that history has no language and that the language of history is the language of the men and women who relate it—an institutionalized discourse with all that that implies. That The Investigation should be considered as historiography rather than literature is the result of several misconceptions. The play belongs to the genre of German postwar Documentary Theater (DT) of the 1960s among whose proponents may be counted Hochhuth, Kipphardt, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Alexander Kluge, Tankred Dorst, Dieter Forte, and others.25 While this genre does make extensive use of historical documents and records, its concepts cannot be inferred from its name. It does not try to repeat or reproduce reality. It lays no claim to objectivity, as Young (65ff.) and Rosenfeld (154ff.) persistently maintain. (What would constitute an objective representation of Auschwitz, anyway?) Its topics are not presented as “natural and unmediated fact” (Young, 68). Its mode of representation may include caricature, songs, the use of a choir, mime and parody.26 The DT needs to be critiqued as a theatrical practice within a specific historical and cultural context. It is a descendant of the revolutionary Proletcult and Agitprop movements of the Soviet Union of the 1920s and their Weimar versions propagated be Erwin Piscator, among others. After his return from exile Piscator was instrumental in its revival in the 1960s, most notably with his stagings of both The Deputy and The Investigation.

The DT uses facts, documents and authentic figures as raw material in the same way other types of drama use imagined events and characters. The concept of the preexisting material as the matter of artistic creation was propagated by artists and theoreticians of the left in the Soviet Union and Germany from the 1920s. It signaled a rejection of the bourgeois notion of the creative process as intuitive, even mystical, which had evolved by the turn of the century. Brecht, Benjamin, Eisler, Bloch, Heartfield, Eisenstein, Tretyakov, Mayakovski were some of the proponents of the new “materialist” aesthetic. It is not easy to determine why this concept reemerged in the theater of the FRG of the 1960s. In the early postwar years wholly imagined plays about the war and the Holocaust, such as those by Max Frisch, from Now They Sing Again (Nun singen sie wieder, 1946) to Andorra (1961), dominated the theater scene. It was only in the 1960s that the recourse to preexisting documents became the dramatists' preferred strategy for communicating with a public unable and unwilling to face its recent past. The mode of perception of this public was largely shaped by the no-nonsense reality of the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) and by unlimited access to facts and data provided by the media, especially by the emerging omnipresence of television. It was a public ready for artistic communication in the language of facts. For this aesthetic strategy to work, however, the facts in question had to be readily available. In the case of the Holocaust they were amply provided by media coverage of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, and especially of the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt. It is the combination of both previous knowledge and the linguistic signals and gestures of the plays which suggests to the reader/viewer that what is being represented is generally factual. At the same time there is no doubt that these works belong to the realm of literature, and art. For the theatergoers the institutional context of a play like The Investigation is the same as if they were seeing a play by Tennessee Williams, while for the readers the title page of the book clearly announces “a new play by Peter Weiss—author of Marat/Sade.” The fusion of these two modes of discourse, the impossibility for the reader or spectator to distinguish between the historical record and its literary representation, is the defining element of the DT.

As both Bernd Naumann and Hermann Langbein explain in the introductions to their respective documentations of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, they reduced, edited and organized the immense records they themselves had created (no official court records of the proceedings exist27). This process does not differ in substance from Weiss's own shaping of the material. Neither does there appear to be a substantive difference in the degree of intervention in the material, though that would be difficult to measure. Rather, the difference between these two types of textual representations of historical events is determined by the cultural institutions to which they belong and which their formal practices ultimately reflect. Naumann and Langbein followed the accepted journalistic rules of their day as regards the adherence to facts, the disclosing of sources, the identifying of dates, places, individuals, as well as authorial interventions (Langbein uses italics). The Investigation on the other hand is formed in accordance with what in the most general sense might be called the paradigms of artistic creation.

Still, one needs to keep in mind that the author of a documentary drama, unlike the author of a fictional play, is not free to manipulate the raw material any way he or she likes precisely because the documents are readily available. Many of the published plays of the DT, including The Investigation, contain bibliographies as well as introductory notes or afterwords which refer to their source material.28 While emphatically insisting on the factuality of their plays, however, Weiss and others often used appendices to indicate the type and extent of their intervention in the material, thereby openly renouncing all pretense at objectivity. The distinction between factuality and objectivity is crucial, for as its lineage would indicate the DT takes sides, it is designed to intervene in the political reality of the day.29 In none of this is there any gesture of masking or concealing; the DT is far from trying to hide its “seams of construction,” as Young claims (68).


The critics, with the exception of Langer, were scandalized by the fact that in The Investigation the word “Jew” is never mentioned. Among the issues this raised for Ezrahi and Young was Weiss's own identity. According to Ezrahi “Weiss insists that, although he himself is half Jewish, he has never thought of himself as a Jew” (39). There is a suggestion here that in some way Weiss is denying his Jewishness. Young in a similar vein refers to unnamed critics who “have hinted darkly” that a repression of “Weiss's own half-Jewishness” is behind his not using the word Jew (72). The phrase performs a rhetorical substitution whereby darkness refers not so much to the unnamed critics as to Weiss himself for ignoring his Jewishness. Why wouldn't he? His father was a Jew who had converted to Protestantism, his mother was a Protestant, he himself was brought up a Protestant. According to Jewish law he wasn't a Jew anyway. According to the Nazis he wasn't an “Aryan.” The Nazi obsession with defining Jewish identity eschewed any possibility of multiple, shifting and overlapping identities. By reducing their victims to their Jewishness the Nazis stripped them of their humanity, which, as for anyone else, resided in a variety of identities: professional, familial, political, national, economic, cultural, sexual, etc. How many victims of Jewish ancestry were murdered by the Nazis as Jews, even though they had never thought of themselves as such?

According to Ezrahi, “Weiss clearly considers himself at least as much a German as a Jew” (39). This ignores the basic facts about Weiss's life. Weiss never was a German citizen. He was raised in Germany holding the Czech citizenship of his father. Whatever fragile sense of a German identity he may have developed was taken from him at age eighteen, along with his language and his future. His life for the following twenty years, in his own perception, was a series of catastrophes. He survived the war in Sweden and eventually became a Swedish citizen. His writing was an endless struggle to retain and regain the use of the German language. All his interviews from around the time The Investigation came out show his alienation from and deep distrust of German society and his fear of a continuity from the Nazi years to the FRG. There is no hint of his considering himself German. Though he several times thought about moving back to Germany, where he had friends both in the East and in the West, and even though he felt himself to be an outsider in Sweden, he continued to live there.

Weiss's disclaimer, in the interview Ezrahi refers to, notwithstanding, he often reflected on his Jewish side, not only in essays and interviews, but also in his autobiographical novels Leavetaking (Abschied von den Eltern, 1961) and Vanishing Point (Fluchtpunkt, 1962). He was, in fact, obsessed with it, for according to his own narrative of his life it had prevented him from joining the perpetrators, as his half brothers and many of his childhood friends had done.30 In Vanishing Point the narrator, who is substantially identical with Weiss, remembers how, at the end of the war, film footage of the concentration camps led him to identify with the Jewish victims. The camps become for him “the places for which I had been destined,” and he is tormented by guilt for “not having been one of those who had had the number of devaluation branded on their flesh.”31 The profound sense of what Adorno has called “the drastic guilt of him who was spared”32 never left Peter Weiss. It eventually found expression in The Investigation, as well as in an essay Weiss wrote during the conceptual stage of the play, after he had visited Auschwitz. “I was not unloaded from the train,” this text reads in part, “I was not driven with truncheons into this place. I come twenty years too late,” and: “I look into these places, which I myself eluded.” The title of this short prose text, which should have its place in any anthology of Holocaust literature, definitively performs Weiss's identification with the Jewish victims: “My Place.”33 As was the case for many survivors, Weiss's Jewishness was defined by Auschwitz. He was the “Jew without positive determinants, the Catastrophe Jew,” in the words of one who had actually survived Auschwitz, Jean Améry.34

Referring to Weiss as a survivor is, of course, a transgression, as Weiss's critics would be the first to point out. Nelly Sachs seems to be another matter. Rosenfeld counts her among the “survivors” (110). Why is she granted this status? Because she “was forced to flee from Nazi Germany” and “found a haven in Sweden”—(Ezrahi, 138)? So did Weiss. Rosenfeld refers to Beckett, whose work he praises as reflecting the world after Auschwitz, as “not a direct survivor of the death camps” (7), the inference being that Beckett (who participated in the French resistance) may in some indirect way be considered a survivor of the concentrationary universe. The problem of terminology is very real, for it determines the status of the writer within the literary discourse on the Holocaust. This in turn has implications for the degree of authenticity ascribed to a text. Rosenfeld's categories include “the victims, the survivors, the survivors-who-become-victims” (a reference to Celan), as well as the “kinds-of-survivors, those who were never there but know more than the outlines of the place” (19)—presumably people like Beckett. For Ezrahi the distinction is between survivors and “those who had been remote from the events themselves” (22), for Young between “survivors,” “non-victims,” and “other writers” (68). Though they may be necessary for the construction of certain arguments, the difficulty of creating workable cognitive categories is obvious. Any classification of writers of Holocaust literature, however, that includes Sachs among the victims but excludes Weiss discredits itself.

The politics of identity surrounding the discourse on Holocaust literature come into their own over the issue of The Investigation's apparent refusal to identify the victims as Jewish. The authority from which some of the four critics have taken their cue appears to have been Eli Wiesel himself. “A prominent European playwright wrote a play about the Auschwitz trials and managed not to mention the word ‘Jew’ therein,” Wiesel wrote in 1977.35 The statement is made in a paragraph where Wiesel expresses outrage over Holocaust deniers. While it would seem difficult to surpass the denunciatory gesture this context produces, Young manages to do just that by calling The Investigation “Judenrein” (72). The term, of course, refers to the Nazis' characterization of a landscape after the extermination of the Jews. Young thus associates Weiss with those who would have sent him to Auschwitz. This rhetoric of self-righteousness has already provoked an expression of revulsion.36 It is an extreme example of a kind of moral displacement Holocaust literature may produce. Writers as well as critics who participate in this discourse find themselves driven at times by an overwhelming desire to contribute to a bringing to justice of the perpetrators, if not in fact then at least rhetorically. Peter Weiss himself was well aware of this need, but also of the impossibility of having literature perform such a gesture (The Investigation ends before the sentences are rendered). Critics such as Young—and nearer to the present and in a different sphere Daniel Goldhagen—let themselves be transported by their outrage to a moral ground so high that events appear as either black or white, and people as either perpetrators or victims (or Jews or non-Jews). They let the awesome “injustice” of the Holocaust distort their narrative to the point where it victimizes the victims.

The rhetoric of Weiss's critics suggests that by not using the word “Jew” he not only played down or hid the fact that overwhelming numbers of victims were Jewish, but even tried to deny it. But Weiss also did not use the word “German,” or Auschwitz. The four critics do not discuss this. Maybe they did not notice? That would not be surprising for from the authentic names of the defendants and the mentioning of the likes of Dr. Mengele to the minute descriptions of every aspect of the physical layout of the camp and of the procedures of mass extermination there can be no doubt that The Investigation is about Auschwitz. Neither can there be any doubt that, with very few exceptions, the victims in the play are Jews. One may, in fact, doubt whether many readers/spectators of The Investigation would have noticed the absence of the word “Jew” if Weiss himself had not brought it up in interview after interview. Also, the four critics do not pay much attention to the near total absence of references to any other nationalities or ethnic groups, from Czechs, Poles, French, Dutch, Ukrainians, Hungarians, etc., to Gypsies (Naumann makes numerous references to all these groups).

The absence of the word “Jew” needs to be seen within this context. Weiss deliberately draws attention to the fact that no Jewish or other national or ethnic identity is ascribed to the victims. For example, in Naumann's report Lili Tofler is identified as both a Slovak and a Jew. When asked about this by the judge in the play, however, the female 5th witness answers that she had no knowledge of Lili's background.37 This exchange is obviously not driven by a desire on the author's part to conceal Lili's Jewish (or Slovak) origins, for if that had been his aim he simply could have dropped it. By including it the play makes the point that the national or ethnic background of Lili Tofler, who stands for countless unknown victims of genocide, does not matter. The strategy at work here was expounded on repeatedly by Weiss, for example in the interview with Oliver Clausen referred to by Rosenfeld, Ezrahi and Young. It is a strategy designed to produce a universal meaning not limited to the specifics of Auschwitz and the Holocaust. The Investigation, in accordance with the concepts of the DT, was intended to intervene in its own time, specifically in the genocidal events in Vietnam and South Africa.38 In this aim it paralleled Adorno's post-Kantian categorical imperative: that mankind should “arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen.”39

However, if one accepts this imperative and the universal aim it suggests for the play, there still remains Ezrahi's valid argument that the kind of universalizing The Investigation performs detracts from the specifics of the Holocaust and from “historical accountability” (40). I share this unease—not because the play leaves any doubt about the identity of the vast majority of victims; rather, because Weiss's concept of removing references to the victims' nationality or ethnic background in order to increase the universal meaning of the play is based on a fallacy. Adherence to historical, geographical, ethnic, etc. specifics tends to strengthen a work's universality. Even if Weiss's play had contained numerous references to the Jewishness of the victims, only the most narrow reading would have interpreted it as being exclusively about the genocide of the Jews.

For Young the scandal of not identifying the Jewish victims is surpassed only by the fact that The Investigation repeatedly refers to Soviet victims. Weiss allegedly “merges kinds of victims,” namely “Jews” and “socialists”; he mixes “Jewish and military ‘crimes’,” leading Young to conclude that “political and racial killings are thus co-valued here.”40 They shouldn't be? One should distinguish between the genocide of the Jews and the millions of murdered Soviet civilians, men, women and children? To the extent that Young refers to the Nazis' own distinction between political and racial victims, his argument carries little conviction. For the German forces in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union the distinction between Slavs, Soviet citizens, partisan resistance fighters, communists and Jews tended toward disappearance. Communism was a “Jewish Bolshevik system,” Jews were Bolsheviks and Bolsheviks were Jews. All were equally considered as “subhumans” (Untermenschen) and the stated goal of the Nazis was to “rid the German people of the Asiatic-Jewish danger once and for all.”41

The books by Christopher Browning and Goldhagen have destabilized some fundamental assumptions about the Holocaust. The focus is shifting away from the gas chambers as the predominant means and the extermination camps as the main site of the Holocaust. This shift is driven by the realization that up to fifty per cent of Jewish victims may have been killed in the more “traditional” manner of mass shootings, starvation and burning in countless sites all over eastern Europe.42 That, of course, is how the Soviet civilians were destroyed. The questions raised by The Investigation about the distinction between the genocide of the Jews and of Soviet civilians have gained a new legitimacy. Yet in searching for comparisons to the Nazi genocide of the Jews, scholars often refer to events from the near annihilation of Native Americans to Rwanda, while the genocide which most obviously resembles the Jewish Holocaust in intention, execution and numbers of victims—the extermination of eight million Soviet civilians (the total number of Soviet victims of Nazism is closer to twenty million)43—is rarely given more than lip service.

While it may at times be useful to distinguish between different motives behind the Nazi mass extermination of civilians, the insistence, by Young and others, on the difference between annihilation for political and for racial reasons creates an impression that certain deaths should be valued more highly than others. There is a suggestion of a hierarchy of victims, wherein Jews implicitly rank at the top (and Soviet citizens at the bottom). This is the result of a conceptualization of the Holocaust based on race exclusively, on a notion of race so theoretically abstract and “pure” that any victims other than Jews are excluded. The question of the status of racism within the Nazi system is far from resolved. Elimination based on race did not at all times supersede all other considerations. The first wave of atrocities was directed at German citizens most of whom would have fit the Nazi definition of “Aryan” but who were presumed to be socialists and communists. The annihilation of whole populations identified as communist is just as defining an aspect of Nazism as the extermination of the Jews. Nor is there any indication that German Nazis and non-Nazis alike were any less zealous or less effective in the extermination of men, women and children for so-called political reasons than they were in the extermination of Jews.44


According to Young, Weiss tried to make Auschwitz appear not as the result of “antisemitic terror” but of “monopoly capitalism gone mad” (72). Aside from the fact that the formula “antisemitic terror” explains very little and should be a starting point for an analysis of the Holocaust rather than its result, and aside from the implication that “monopoly capitalism” is normally rational rather than “mad,” there is a problem with Young's methodology. Nowhere in the play itself is capitalism shown either directly or indirectly to be the cause for Auschwitz, though it is implicated in it. Young's critique of what he perceives as the play's ideology is based on other writings by Weiss. The work Young mostly refers to is Weiss's essay “The Material and the Models.” It was written in 1968, three years after The Investigation and after the more typically documentary plays Song [Canto] of the Lusitanian Bogey and Viet Nam Discourse. Its political context is the struggle for emancipation in the “Third World” which the latter two plays are concerned with. It repeatedly refers to places like Indonesia, Indochina, Angola, Mozambique, the South African Republic, Cuba and Vietnam. There is in the whole text only one indirect reference to the Holocaust.45 Other than this text Young's (and Rosenfeld's) ideological criticism of The Investigation is based on views expressed in various interviews by the historical subject Peter Weiss. While the author's views and intentions may shed light on his work, they belong to a separate sphere. They are no substitute for a hermeneutics of the work itself. The play cannot be reduced to an illustration of Weiss's theories and intentions.

The Investigation's perceived ideological bias seems to be, at least for Rosenfeld and Young, its most unacceptable transgression. Under the no-holds-barred chapter heading “Exploiting Atrocity” Rosenfeld indicts Weiss for “misappropriating” and “misusing” the suffering of others; Weiss “shapes” and on occasion “misshapes” facts in order to serve “a specific ideological vision of history” (154). The latter is cold-war code for Marxism and communism. Young refers more directly to Weiss's “Marxist credo” (78) in his stated goal of exploring the playwright's “Marxist grasp of events” (65). How and when the dramatist came by such a Marxist grasp and what it might consist of is not explored. Notwithstanding the fact that up to 1964 Weiss had given no indication that he was about to become a Marxist, that he did not join the Swedish (Euro-)Communist Party until 1968 and that there is very little evidence of his ever having acquired any extensive theoretical knowledge of Marxism, he had nothing near a “Marxist grasp” of Auschwitz. Young's assumption stands the chronology on its head. It was not Weiss's Marxism that produced The Investigation but rather Weiss's work on the Auschwitz material that intensified his interest in Marxism. In the play he seems to have used some basic Marxist concepts in a similar way he used Dante's poem: as a kind of grid around which to shape the material aesthetically as much as conceptually. This aspect is far from clear and deserves further exploration. Weiss's turn toward Marxism also needs to be looked at within its historical context. There was in the early and mid-1960s a general trend among restive intellectuals toward a transformation of the Adenauer era of political restoration and cultural stagnation. At the core of this project was the reconstruction of Marxism as a theory which might provide some understanding of Auschwitz and of the Nazi period without being itself tainted by it.

For Rosenfeld (157) and Ezrahi (38) The Investigation reduces fascism to a form of capitalism. Young suggests that Weiss manipulated the details “in such a way that they become comprehensible as evidence against capitalism” (72) and that in the play “representatives of the capitalist system are on trial” rather than the likes of Kaduk, Boger, Stark and the other defendants (77). Marxists, it appears, blame capitalism not only for fascism but even for Auschwitz, though Young names no sources to substantiate this opinion.46 In their single-minded attempt to reduce The Investigation to a critique of capitalism, Young and Rosenfeld appear to want to reject any link between capitalism and Nazi mass extermination. Raul Hilberg saw it differently. I. G. Farben, the German industrial giant of the prewar and war years, “was a major factor in the destructive machine.” Appropriately enough, it named its installation at Auschwitz “I. G. Auschwitz.”47 According to Joseph Borkin this installation was so vast that it “used more electricity than the entire city of Berlin.” Without I. G. Farben “Hitler could never have embarked on the war or come so close to victory.”48 And that is without even mentioning Siemens, Krupp and other large German corporations which helped bring to power, cooperated with and profited from the Nazi regime. (Borkin also refers to the well-known fact that economically “I. G. Auschwitz was a miserable failure.”49) At any rate, the (re)discovery in 1996 of large amounts of Nazi gold, as well as of moneys belonging to Jewish victims, in the banks of Switzerland, Sweden, Portugal and the United States points to the fact that the extent of capitalist involvement in the Nazi enterprise is still not fully known.

Aside from half a dozen passing references throughout the play, part II of the Canto of Lily Tofler is the site of The Investigation's exploration of the industrial-capitalist exploitation of camp inmates. No one, including the four critics, has questioned its factuality. This scene is unrelenting in its exposure of the close cooperation between German industry and Auschwitz. Still, one should not lose sight of the fact that of the thirty-three segments of the play this topic takes up exactly one. Nor should one overlook the fact that the most disturbing references in the play to capitalism are not in anything that is said but in the language itself, this jargon of commodification, of keeping stocks, of assets, write-offs, inventories, work hours, timetables, of facts and figures, of debit and credit, of production quota and surplus, all of which suggests a vast industrial-type complex and its administration. The play confronts readers and viewers with the unbridgeable gap between this familiar and seemingly benevolent jargon of the world of production and its product: millions of corpses.

Less than a year after the war the price of shares of I. G. Farben was “skyrocketing.” In the 1970s the three major successor companies to I. G. Farben, Hoechst, BASF and Bayer, “were among the thirty largest industrial companies in the world” and each of them was “bigger than I. G. at its zenith.”50 The investigation of that kind of continuity in The Investigation was not the result of some hidden ideological agenda on the part of Peter Weiss. The Auschwitz trial itself, like all trials, collapsed the boundaries between past and present, between deeds and their consequences. The continuities from the Nazi state to West German society of the Adenauer years were a constant subtext in Frankfurt. The trial revealed what had been an open secret all along: that values and attitudes prevalent under Nazism had not suddenly disappeared in 1945, any more than had those who held them. On the one hand, this produced insistent calls for a statute of limitations for war crimes; but it also led to the formation of opposition movements throughout the 1960s. Twenty years after the end of the war, these movements finally forced the debate on Germany's Nazi past into the public discourse. Weiss's play was a key element in this development.


Is there a literary representation of the Holocaust that does not serve an ideology? Is there a critique of such a representation that does not serve an ideology? (One's own?) Is communism an ideology and anticommunism not? Is there any way of emplotting the Holocaust that does not instrumentalize it? Zionism and Israel have at various times used Auschwitz for various ends: to reject the diaspora and to encourage immigration and state building. Right-wing Israeli governments of the 1980s have used it to rally guilt-ridden Europeans against the Palestinian intifada. It has been used for religious ends as a narrative of Jewish suffering and of Jews as the chosen people.51 It has been invoked as an alibi for leftist denunciations of Zionism. There is no ideologically “pure” narrative of the Holocaust untainted by the historical context and the subjectivity of the remembering subject. This is not to advocate a Hayden-White-like belief that truth ultimately lies with whoever can “make their story stick.”52 What needs to be determined in each instance is whether ideological instrumentalization promotes the empowerment of those who may become victims of oppression and annihilation, whether it promotes analysis and understanding of Auschwitz for the specific goal of preventing a recurrence, in short: whether it serves an emancipatory purpose. That might be the one thing that critics engaged in a dispute as all-involving as ours can agree on.


  1. Many thanks to Helmut Peitsch, Ulrich Baer and Bernd Hüppauf for their generous comments.

  2. Lawrence L. Langer, “The Literature of Auschwitz,” in idem, Admitting the Holocaust: Collected Essays (New York, 1995), 97, 89, 97, 98.

  3. Lawrence L. Langer, The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (New Haven, 1975); Alvin H. Rosenfeld, A Double Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature (Bloomington, 1980); Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature (Chicago, 1980); James E. Young, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation (Bloomington, 1988). (References to these four books appear parenthetically in the text.)

  4. On the “rules of exclusion” (original emphasis) which accompany the production of discourse, see Michel Foucault, “The Discourse on Language,” trans. Rupert Swyer, in idem, The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York, 1972), 216.

  5. In his critique of this gesture in Rosenfeld and Ezrahi, David Roskies states: “In seeking to express their sense of moral outrage, the critics have set the Holocaust apart from the world.” David G. Roskies, “The Holocaust according to the Literary Critics,” Prooftexts 1, nos. 1-3 (1981): 215.

  6. Peter Weiss, The Investigation, trans. Jon Swan and Ulu Grosbard (New York, 1966), 108.

  7. There is a short, insightful passage on Améry in Langer, The Holocaust, 70-72.

  8. Ezrahi has begun to rectify this lacuna with her perceptive reading of Becker's Jacob der Lügner (Jacob the Liar). Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, “Representing Auschwitz,” History & Memory 7, no. 2 (1996): 139-41.

  9. Again Langer is the exception with a highly visible discussion of some of Adorno's theorems in the opening pages of his book (The Holocaust, 1-3). The references to Adorno by Ezrahi and Young are minimal, while Rosenfeld's short passage about Adorno's vehement rejection of Celan is misinformed (A Double Dying, 13-14). See Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. C. Lenhardt (London, 1984), 443, 444. On the centrality of Auschwitz for Adorno's thinking, see Detlev Claussen, “Nach Auschwitz: Ein Essay über die Aktualität Adornos,” in Dan Diner, ed., Zivilisationsbruch: Denken nach Auschwitz (Frankfurt/Main, 1988), 54-68; and Peter Stein, “‘Darum mag falsch gewesen sein, nach Auschwitz liesse kein Gedicht mehr sich schreiben.’ (Adorno) Widerruf eines Verdikts? Ein Zitat und seine Verkürzung,” Weimarer Beiträge 42, no. 4 (1996): 485-508.

  10. Berel Lang, ed., Writing and the Holocaust (New York, 1988), 13.

  11. Bernd Naumann, Auschwitz: A Report on the Proceedings against Robert Karl Ludwig Mulka and Others before the Court at Frankfurt. With an introduction by Hannah Arendt, trans. Jean Steinberg (New York, 1966). See also the even more voluminous and detailed documentation by Hermann Langbein, himself a Holocaust survivor and witness at the Frankfurt trial, Der Auschwitz-Prozess: Eine Dokumentation, 2 vols. (Vienna, 1965).

  12. Langer, “The Literature of Auschwitz,” 95.

  13. On Weiss (1916-1982) as a painter and filmmaker, see Robert Cohen, “Der Maler und Filmemacher: Versuch über die Erfolglosigkeit,” in idem, Peter Weiss in seiner Zeit: Leben und Werk (Stuttgart, 1992), 29-53; on Weiss and Brecht, see idem, “Annäherung und Distanz: Zu Weiss' Rezeption von Brechts literarischem Werk,” in idem, Versuche über Weiss' “Ästhetik des Widerstands” (Bern, 1989), 155-80; on the influence of Kafka and Dante on Weiss, see idem, Understanding Peter Weiss, trans. Martha Humphreys (Columbia, SC, 1993).

  14. It is currently being translated as The Aesthetics of Resistance by Joachim Neugroschel and will be published by Maisonneuve Press.

  15. This second meaning is lost in the Swan/Grosbard translation which renders “Gesang” as “song.” The lesser-known translation by Gross uses “canto.” Peter Weiss, The Investigation: Oratorio in 11 Cantos, trans. Alexander Gross (London, 1996). Overall both translations are unsatisfactory. I have prepared a revised English translation for publication in 1998 in the German Library series by Continuum, New York.

  16. Arrigo V. Subiotto, “Dante and the Holocaust: The Cases of Primo Levi and Peter Weiss,” New Comparison 11 (Spring 1991): 70-89; and Hamida Bosmajian, “Peter Weiss's ‘The Investigation’: Report about a Locale Called Auschwitz,” in idem, Metaphors of Evil: Contemporary German Literature and the Shadow of Nazism (Iowa City, 1979), 171ff.

  17. Peter Weiss, Notizbücher 1960-1971, 2 vols. (Frankfurt/Main, 1982), 211, 226.

  18. Peter Weiss, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade [1963], trans. Geoffrey Skelton (New York, 1981), 92. (The play is generally referred to as Marat/Sade.)

  19. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York, 1987), 365-66.

  20. Jean Améry, At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities, trans. Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld (Bloomington, 1980), 28, 33, 38.

  21. Theodor W. Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity, trans. Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will (Evanston, IL, 1973), 48.

  22. Eli Wiesel, “The Holocaust as Literary Inspiration,” in idem et al., Dimensions of the Holocaust, 2d ed. (Evanston, IL, 1990), 7.

  23. Langer, “The Literature of Auschwitz,” 97 (emphasis added).

  24. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 362. My repeated references to Adorno should not obscure the political-ideological differences between Weiss and Adorno. In the centrality of Auschwitz for their thinking, however, and in the way they conceptualized its consequences in the realm of ethics and aesthetics, there is a striking proximity.

  25. See Klaus Harro Hilzinger, Die Dramaturgie des dokumentarischen Theaters (Tübingen, 1976); and Brian Barton, Das Dokumentartheater (Stuttgart, 1987). See also Jack D. Zipes, “Documentary Drama in Germany: Mending the Circuit,” The Germanic Review 42, no. 1 (1967): 49-62; and Laureen Nussbaum, “The German Documentary Theatre of the Sixties,” German Studies Review 4, no. 2 (1981): 237-55.

  26. Peter Weiss, “The Material and the Models: Notes towards a Definition of Documentary Theatre,” trans. Heinz Bernard, Theatre quarterly 1, no. 1 (Jan.-Mar. 1971): 43.

  27. Gerd Weinreich, Peter Weiss: Die Ermittlung (Frankfurt/Main, 1983), 39.

  28. Like Weiss's following plays, The Investigation originally contained a list of sources. It was later dropped. See Peter Weiss, Die Ermittlung: Oratorium in 11 Gesängen (Frankfurt/Main, 1965), 211.

  29. Weiss, “The Material and the Models,” 41, 43. Weiss also addressed these issues in many interviews; see esp. Rainer Gerlach and Matthias Richter, eds., Peter Weiss in Gespräch (Frankfurt/Main, 1986). See also Walter Wager, ed., “Peter Weiss,” in idem, The Playwrights Speak (New York, 1967), 189-212; and the centrally important interview from 1965, published in 1994, “Kann sich die Bühne eine Auschwitz-Dokumentation leisten? Peter Weiss im Gespräch mit Hans Mayer (Oktober 1965),” Peter Weiss Jahrbuch 4 (1995): 8-30. See also Oliver Clausen, “Weiss/Propagandist and Weiss/Playwright,” New York Times Magazine, 2 Oct. 1966, 28-29, 124-34; and Paul Gray, “A Living World: An Interview with Peter Weiss,” Tulane Drama Review 11, no. 1 (1966): 106-14.

  30. Peter Weiss, “Leavetaking,” in idem, Exile, trans. E. B. Garside, Alastair Hamilton and Christopher Levenson (New York, 1968), 44. For discussions of Weiss's Jewishness, see Jochen Vogt, “‘Ich tötete und ich wurde getötet’: Zugehörigkeitsprobleme bei Peter Weiss,” in Jost Hermand and Gert Mattenklott, eds., Jüdische Intelligenz in Deutschland (Berlin, 1988), 126-38; and Irene Heidelberger-Leonard, “Jüdisches Bewusstsein im Werk von Peter Weiss,” in Michael Hofmann, ed., Literatur, Ästhetik, Geschichte: Neue Zugänge zu Peter Weiss (St. Ingberg, 1992), 49-64; and Ingo Breuer, “Der Jude Marat: Identifikationsprobleme bei Peter Weiss,” in Irene Heidelberger-Leonard, ed., Peter Weiss: Neue Fragen an alte Texte (Opladen, 1994), 64-76.

  31. Peter Weiss, “Vanishing Point,” in idem, Exile, 194, 196.

  32. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 363.

  33. Peter Weiss, “My Place” [1964], trans. Karen Jackiw, Chicago Review 29, no. 3 (1978): 145, 148. See also the translation by Christopher Middleton, in idem, ed., German Writing Today (Harmondsworth, 1967), 20-28.

  34. Améry, At the Mind's Limits, 94.

  35. Wiesel, “The Holocaust as Literary Inspiration,” 19.

  36. Jean-Michel Chaumont, “Der Stellenwert der ‘Ermittlung’ im Gedächtnis von Auschwitz,” in Heidelberger-Leonard, ed., Peter Weiss, 79.

  37. Naumann, Auschwitz, 122, 130; Investigation, 135.

  38. Clausen, “Weiss/Propagandist and Weiss/Playwright,” 132.

  39. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 365.

  40. All quotes in Young, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust, 73-75. In Young's reading the play even performs a veiled substitution wherein socialist victims replace the Jews. Such a reading has no basis in the text.

  41. Reinhard Kühnl, Der deutsche Faschismus in Quellen und Dokumenten, 6th ed. (Cologne, 1987), 376, 378.

  42. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York, 1996), 521 n. 81 and 523 n. 4; see also Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York, 1992).

  43. Michael Schneider, Das “Unternehmen Barbarossa”: Die verdrängte Erblast von 1941 und die Folgen für das deutsch-sowjetische Verhältnis (Frankfurt/Main, 1989), 21.

  44. This is one of the points to emerge from the exhibition “Vernichtungskrieg: Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941 bis 1944” (War of Annihilation: Crimes of the Wehrmacht, 1941 to 1944) organized by Jan Philipp Reemtsma and the Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung and shown widely in Germany in 1996 and 1997. See Rudolf Augstein, “Anschlag auf die ‘Ehre’ des deutschen Soldaten?” Der Spiegel, 3 Mar. 1997, 92-99. See also the interview with Reemtsma, “Auf spezifische Weise ratlos und verstört,” Freitag, 21. Mar. 1997, 3.

  45. Weiss, “The Material and the Models,” 42. There are several earlier essays by Weiss which are more pertinent to the play's “ideology”: “Vorübung zum dreiteilingen Drama divina commedia,” in idem, Rapporte, 2d ed. (Frankfurt/Main, 1981), 125-41; “Gespräch über Dante,” in ibid., 142-69; “Laokoon oder Über die Grenzen der Sprache,” in ibid., 170-87; “10 Arbeitspunkte eines Autors in der geteilten Welt,” in idem, Rapporte 2 (Frankfurt/Main, 1971), 14-23; and “Antwort auf eine Kritik zur Stockholmer Aufführung der ‘Ermittlung’,” in ibid., 45-50.

  46. Books on Marxist (as well as non-Marxist) conceptualizations of fascism in a German context include Wolfgang Wippermann, Faschismustheorien (Darmstadt, 1972); and Reinhard Kühnl, Faschismustheorien (Reinbek b. Hamburg, 1986). See also Georg Lukács's important essay “Schicksalswende” of 1944, in idem, Schicksalswende (Berlin, 1948), 333-56, where the Holocaust is explained in terms of Germany's history and nationhood, rather than in the narrow economic and anticapitalist terms Young imputes to Marxism.

  47. Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (Chicago, 1967), 590, 594.

  48. Joseph Borkin, The Crime and Punishment of I. G. Farben (London, 1978), 127, 157.

  49. Ibid., 127.

  50. Ibid., 158, 163.

  51. For references to these kinds of emplotments of the Holocaust, see the statement by Saul Friedländer in Lang, ed. Writing and the Holocaust, 287-88; and the statements by historians Gulie Ne'eman Arad and Moshe Zuckermann quoted in Jörg Magenau, “Gedenken macht frei: Der 27. Januar als ‘Gedenktag für die Opfer des Nationalsozialismus’—Ein Symposium über die Shoa-Rezeption in der dritten Generation in der Berliner LiteraturWerkstatt,” Freitag, 31 Jan. 1997, 11.

  52. Hayden White, “Getting out of History: Jameson's Redemption of Narrative,” in idem, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore, 1987), 167. For a critical discussion of White's theorems, see various articles in Saul Friedländer, ed., Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution” (Cambridge, MA, 1992).

Klaus L. Berghahn (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Berghahn, Klaus L. “‘Our Auschwitz’: Peter Weiss's The Investigation Thirty Years Later.” In Rethinking Peter Weiss, edited by Jost Hermand and Marc Silberman, pp. 93-118. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

[In the following essay, Berghahn regards The Investigation as “one of the best representations of the Holocaust for the stage” and chronicles the critical controversy surrounding the play.]

A living man has come and what happened here hides itself from him.1


My reflections on Peter Weiss are tinged with the subjective memories of how I received the message of the Holocaust. As was typical for my generation, I heard nothing about it in high school. The Holocaust was the best kept secret of postwar Germany until the German translation of The Diary of Anne Frank was published in 1955. I saw the theater production in 1956 and read the book afterwards, but the full extent of the Holocaust was still shrouded in mystery. This changed at the beginning of the sixties, when I read Hannah Arendt's report Eichmann in Jerusalem (1961), when I saw Rolf Hochhuth's play The Deputy (1963), and when I followed the heated debate about Pope Pius XII's indifference toward the suffering of the Jews. Finally, Peter Weiss's documentary drama The Investigation opened my eyes to the full extent of the Holocaust. In 1978 I saw the television production Holocaust, first in the United States and then a year later in Germany, and I was surprised at its impact on the German audience, as if it were the first revelation of the Nazis' extermination campaign against the Jews. Much later Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List renewed interest in the Holocaust for yet another generation, but at the same time it clouded the issue of German guilt by presenting a good German as savior of the Jews.

I want to demonstrate with this abbreviated chronology of Holocaust reception in Germany the simple fact that there were at least four distinctive phases of public discussion. All are connected with artistic representations, which suggests how important literature and film have been in coming to terms with the Nazi past.2 For me, they are an essential part of my own life experience as a German, perhaps even part of my own identity formation. Thus, my perspective on Weiss's Investigation is embedded in historical as well as personal experience, and thus, my observations echo Martin Walser's “Our Auschwitz.”3

My critical reading of Weiss's Investigation has a threefold purpose. First, I wish to counter the claims of many Germans that they knew nothing about the Holocaust until they saw its “most recent” representation, be it the television series Holocaust in 1979 or the film Schindler's List in 1992. From my perspective Weiss's Investigation was a belated turning point in Germany's coming to terms with its Nazi past. Second, I will demonstrate—against all aesthetic, moral, and political criticism of Weiss's documentary drama—that The Investigation is one of the best representations of the Holocaust for the stage. Third, I will explore the limits of representing the Holocaust in Weiss's documentary drama and the clash of ideologies of the author and his critics that led to its negative reception in Germany and the United States.


Peter Weiss's Investigation marks a turning point in the literary as well as political sphere of the Federal Republic of Germany. The year 1965, when it was performed concurrently on fifteen stages in Germany (not to forget the television production, which reached an even wider audience),4 was also the year that witnessed the conclusion of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial and that ended the debate on the Statute of Limitations for Nazi crimes in West Germany. There is a reciprocal relationship between these events. Weiss's documentary drama confronted an expanded audience with crimes against humanity committed by the Nazis in Germany's name; at the same time the debate surrounding the play amplified the political discussion about Germany's responsibility for these atrocities. Literature no longer seemed to be merely the “conscience of the nation,” as critics in the fifties and early sixties widely considered it to be, but rather it had become an “instrument of political opinion formation and of influencing the public sphere,” just as Weiss hoped.5 The German euphemism Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) became an educational project for a nation which up to this point had collectively repressed its guilt for what had happened between 1933 and 1945.

Historical markers, such as the one I have just erected, are always too simplistic for explaining the complexities of history. There are, of course, always incubation periods which precede turning points. In our case it is no different. I would venture to say that the transition time lasted from 1961 to 1965. 1961 was not only the year when the Soviets dropped the Iron Curtain by building the Berlin Wall, heating up the Cold War, and leading to stronger anti-communist sentiments in the West; it was also the beginning of the end of the Adenauer Era. With the elections of 1961 the intellectual climate of the Federal Republic was slowly beginning to change. For the first time intellectuals discussed the possibility of a political alternative to Adenauer's government. Martin Walser asked twenty colleagues: Do We Need A New Government?6 Their meager answers aimed at Gewissensbildung (conscience raising), but they had as yet nothing to offer that could contribute to political opinion formation. Yes, they were all troubled by Adenauer's authoritarian government; and they had every right to worry, as the Spiegel-affair demonstrated one year later. Moreover, disturbing signs of continuity between the Third Reich and the Federal Republic came into public view. Adenauer's personal secretary of the chancellory, Heinrich Globke, had been a commentator of the 1935 racial Nuremberg Laws, a fact that everyone knew, but no one bothered to notice. In 1962 the highest judge of the Federal Republic was exposed as member of the Nazi judicial system, and the President of the Republic had to dismiss him. That same year 143 high judges and prosecutors were forced into early retirement for similar reasons, a special law allowing them to retire with full pensions.7 Slowly the repressed past was returning with a vengeance, nowhere more obviously than in the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem (1961) and in the Frankfurt trial against Mulka et. al. (1963-65), for they demonstrated that not a small clique of criminals around Hitler had seduced the German people, but that ordinary Germans willingly participated in the slaughter of millions of Jews and other “enemies” of the Third Reich. The “banality of evil,” as Hannah Arendt called it, became visible as never before.8

Between 1961 and 1965, the theater more than any other political or educational institution confronted the German public with its repressed past. For a short time the theater became once again a moral institution that amplified what the trials in Jerusalem and Frankfurt had exposed through the judicial process. Plays like Rolf Hochhuth's The Deputy and Peter Weiss's The Investigation, both so-called documentary dramas, provoked public debates which the trials themselves had never been able to stimulate. In both cases, literature reflected and amplified reality so that it influenced public opinion.

To be sure, there were earlier theatrical attempts of coming to terms with the Nazi past, but they either appeased and pleased the audience or they merely provoked tearful pity that dissipated outside the theater. Cases in point are Carl Zuckmayer's The Devil's General (1946) and Frances Goodrich's and Albert Hackett's Broadway production based on The Diary of Anne Frank (1956). Zuckmayer returned triumphantly from his American exile with a play that portrays a German air force general, Harras, as a tragic hero opposing Hitler, the devil incarnate. By demonizing Hitler and the Third Reich and by presenting a noble general who opposed their policies, the audience could easily identify with the hero and forget about their own involvement in the Nazi past. This was an easy way out for a German audience of the late forties and guaranteed the play's success.

The staging of Anne Frank's diary was a different matter altogether. Here the audience experienced such strong emotional identification with the confinement and observations of young Anne that—according to Adorno—one German lady lamented: “But really, this girl should have been spared.”9 Catharsis resulted from an individual's feeling of pity for the killing of this one nice Jewish girl without understanding the enormity of the genocide. The collectively repressed guilt of the German people for atrocities against the Jews became comprehensible only on an individual level in a gesture of empathy. The silent rejection of German complicity in the murder of the Jews was reflected in the stunned silence at the end of the play. Something dawned on the German audience about the Holocaust, but it found an outlet only in individual pity without breaking through the denial of their responsibility. To recognize the totality of the Holocaust and to demonstrate the German involvement in these crimes against humanity, more was needed than empathy for just one Jewish victim.

A new form of representation was required, one which connected the repressed past with the present. As Martin Walser demanded from his fellow playwrights: “Today a German author has to present exclusively characters who either conceal or express the years from 1933 to 1945. […] Every sentence by a German author which says nothing about this historical reality conceals something.”10 In his own theatrical attempts he undeniably demonstrated this continuity, but he failed for a different reason: by using rather traditional dramaturgy. Der schwarze Schwan (1964) employs the form of a family tragedy, while Eiche und Angora (1965) is a dramatic parable. They are well constructed plays, critiquing the denial of the recent past and they are even emotionally provocative, and yet they are unable to recall the horror of the Third Reich adequately. Not even the parable form, propagated and used so successfully by Brecht in Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui, was capable of such expression, since it distanced the events and made them historically ambivalent.

The best example of a famous play that nevertheless faltered in capturing the essence of the Holocaust was Max Frisch's Andorra (1961). By employing two modes of representation, the play invites the audience to identify with Andri, the Jew, while maintaining the recent past at a safe distance—which holds true both for Swiss and German audiences. The Swiss could say that they were threatened by outside forces, the Blacks, clearly recognizable as Fascists, but that they were not responsible for Auschwitz; the Germans on the other hand could identify with the Jewish victim without reflecting on their own responsibility for Auschwitz, since the parable form abstracts from place and history. It displaces the recent past to a fictitious place called Andorra. The strange mixture of identification and distancing is repeated on a more existential level in the character of Andri. As long as the audience can identify in the first part of the play with Andri as the Jewish outsider of Andorra, it feels empathy with the victim of anti-Semitism; in the second half, however, when the townspeople learn that Andri is not a Jew but one of them, the play's emphasis shifts to more universal concerns. Since Andri insists on his “Jewish” identity and is killed in the end as a Jew, his “Jewishness” becomes a matter of existential choice, and the issue of racial anti-Semitism is far removed from the historical events of the Holocaust. The parable form and its technique of estrangement gradually transforms the play into a model for a general rationalization of identity formation as social construct and of anti-Semitism as just another form of prejudice. The far more complex questions—why did the Holocaust happen in Germany? how was it organized and executed?—get lost in the ahistorical parable form. And yet, the final scene marshals all the elements of repressed guilt: The citizens of Andorra pretend that they have seen and heard nothing; they refuse any knowledge about Andri's fate; and Barblin goes mad in mourning for her murdered brother. Perhaps her insanity is Frisch's final word on the incomprehensibility of the Holocaust.

Rolf Hochhuth's The Deputy is the most unusual example, since it mixes traditional dramaturgy with documentary commentary and succeeded in provoking a public debate without precedence in the Federal Republic. The rather conventional historical drama à la Schiller would not have provoked such an uproar, had not the subject matter and documentation implicated Pope Pius XII: Why did the Pope keep silent about the genocide of the Jews, which he had known about?11 The dramatic conflict centers around this question and how the central character, Pater Riccardo, deals with it. This Catholic priest is torn between his helplessness vis-à-vis the SS officers, who organize the deportation of Roman Jews and the acquiescence of Pope Pius XII to Nazi policy. Since he cannot influence the papal authorities to intervene or to protest against this barbarism, he takes it upon himself to act as the deputy of Christ. He accompanies the Roman Jews to Auschwitz, where he is murdered with them. The audience is asked to identify with the hero's inner turmoil and to confront their own responsibility for the deportation of Jews during the Third Reich. However, the Jews are only marginal figures in this historical drama in which all the fear and pity of the classical tragedy are heaped onto the hero Riccardo. Jews appear in only two scenes which ask the audience to identify with their suffering. Act III shows the capture of a prominent Jewish family in Rome, and in the last act they are “mere” victims. This is the most problematic scene, for it aims to represent Auschwitz on stage. Although powerful scenes, they demonstrate the limits of representation of the Holocaust. Hochhuth simplifies the complex history of the Final Solution by presenting it as a classical tragedy in which the struggle of an idealistic priest against the evil of the Third Reich becomes an issue of one individual's moral responsibility and in which Auschwitz, the symbol of the industrialized extermination of Jews, becomes the cathartic locus of the tragedy.12 In spite of these flaws, Hochhuth's Deputy provoked more public debate than either The Diary of Anne Frank or Andorra. Nevertheless, it failed both to explain the roots of anti-Semitism, which in a Roman Catholic setting could have been age-old anti-Judaism, and to represent Auschwitz on stage.


This short historical overview may suffice as a backdrop to one of the most convincing representations of the Holocaust, Peter Weiss's The Investigation. Weiss realized from his visit to Auschwitz in 1964 that no visitor could comprehend or imagine what had happened there twenty years earlier. For him, Auschwitz was a place of pilgrimage; it had no connection to the present. The traces of railroad tracks, barracks, rubble, and barbed wire stared at him in silence, and as a museum Auschwitz was merely another horrible place, about which it was too late to do anything. The only connection he could find was the knowledge that “it is a place for which I was destined but which I managed to avoid,” and he continued: “I have had no experience of this place, I have no relation to it, except that my name was on the lists of people, who were supposed to be sent there for ever.”13 He had to pay a price, however, for his estrangement from the place and his luck of escaping it: He felt guilty, like most survivors who mourn the loss of loved ones murdered there. Perhaps it was precisely this tension between his experience of estrangement and his personal identification with its victims that catalyzed an artistic response. While watching the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, he contemplated another artistic possibility, one he considered “dry and emotionless,” documentary theater.

As far as I know, this is one of the few places where Weiss reflects on the limits of representing Auschwitz. What has by now become a commonplace in discussing the Holocaust—that it is impossible to comprehend this catastrophe, or to represent it artistically—seems not to have been a major obstacle for Weiss.14 He knew, of course, that the bureaucratically organized destruction of life scorns any moral judgment, that the mechanized extermination of life numbs the faculty of reason, and that Auschwitz is beyond human imagination, yet he tried to rationalize the horror nevertheless. Auschwitz may be incomprehensible, but for Weiss it was not beyond representation. He strongly believed that documentary theater and rational analysis could counter any mystification of Auschwitz and could also contribute to our understanding of the present. “We must drop the lofty view / that the camp world / is incomprehensible to us.”15 This provocative statement by the Third Witness stands as Weiss's answer to our doubts about the limits of representing the Holocaust.

When Weiss addresses this issue in a short dramaturgical introduction to his play, he states categorically that “any representation of the camp on stage would be impossible.” (118) However, this has less to do with the impossibility of representing the Holocaust than with the limits of the theater. Of course, Auschwitz, the concentration camp, cannot be reproduced on stage and any attempt to identify with the victims would be futile. The same holds true for any theatrical reenactment of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, for it would only fictionalize reality, or as Weiss states again in his introduction: “In the production of this play, no attempt should be made to reconstruct the courtroom before which the proceedings of the camp trial took place” (Ibid). What he does, however, is to investigate, document, and report what happened in the concentration camp, how and why it happened. His Investigation confronts the audience with facts, numbers and names, with testimony of medical experiments, with torture and murder, with methods of exploitation and of extermination. Weiss leads us through eleven stages of Hell on earth, from the ramp through the camp to the fire ovens. He demonstrates emotionlessly what took place in Auschwitz, analyzes it rationally, and confronts the German audience with “their Auschwitz.”

And yet, Weiss knew all too well that facts do not speak for themselves and that documentary drama is not a mere reproduction of reality, of which it is often accused.16 He had learned from Brecht that neither facticity nor photorealism says anything about the depicted reality. They do not make it speak, or as Brecht stated: “One has indeed to construct something, something artificial, something formed.”17 It is, therefore, not sufficient merely to document the barbarism of Auschwitz or to let the facts tell the “whole truth” about it, since these are always already insufficient. Some form of art is indeed necessary, but not the kind of dramatic form which relies on plot and character, illusion and identification in order to transform Auschwitz into an emotional experience. Rather, a distancing technique is needed that makes the underlying social causes of reality transparent.

Weiss's first artistic device is the oratorio form. It is well known that Dante's Divina Commedia, which he was studying at the time, inspired the structural arrangement of The Investigation, using as his model the Inferno. Following this example, he divided the material into eleven cantos with three sections each. The proportional arrangement of the dramatis personae (three jurists, nine witnesses, eighteen defendants) employs the Christian symbolism of the holy trinity, standing in stark contrast to the subject matter, the extermination of European Jewry. The play's subtle irony is revealed in the way Weiss plays with this Christian typology and stages the oratorio as a passion play of Jewish suffering. Accordingly the oratorio form, which forgoes traditional scenic devices, costumes, and props, is usually presented as a solemn reading (with a minimum of props), underscoring the estrangement effect of the play.18

Montage is the second device Weiss uses.19 The documentary drama, which is rather undramatic, static, and bare of action, is a collage of quotes, or as Weiss called it: Konzentrat (a condensation of evidence). It has by now become a commonplace that documentary drama relies on fact, reports, and quotes, which often lead to the erroneous conclusion that it only reproduces or doubles reality, meaning that the documentary theater is a tautology. Less understood is its montage technique, which distorts, distances, and estranges reality. The documentary material is neither invented nor fictitious and, even more importantly, it is not mediated by a narrator or integrated into the dramatic form. Rather it uses ready-made, found material (reports and quotes) that is then collated into a new pattern, to be analyzed and criticized. In short, the montage distorts existing reality in order to make it recognizable. Cuts, ruptures, and montage, Weiss explained in his “Notes on the Documentary Theater,” isolate details of the chaotic material of reality: “By confronting contradictory details, it makes us aware of existing conflicts.”20 The audience is encouraged to be an observer and critic of these contradictions.

The Investigation, Weiss insists, contains no more than a condensation of evidence presented at the trial (118).21 The documentary material is based—sometimes verbatim—on Bernd Neumann's trial reports for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and on his own protocols. He compressed, rearranged, and collated it, allocating the quotes to specific players who represent a judge, a prosecutor, defense attorneys, defendants, and witnesses. He retained the names of the eighteen defendants, which is “significant” since they are “distinct figures” who actively participated in the atrocities. At the same time they “stand merely as symbols of a system that implicated in its guilt many others who never appeared in court” (119). The more than four hundred witnesses who had lost their names in the camp are represented by nine “anonymous voices” who testify to the victims' experiences. Consequently there is no courtroom drama, no plot development, and no emotional confrontation, only questions and answers, interrogation and dialogue, report and memory. Auschwitz is triply distanced: what happened in Auschwitz that cannot be represented; what was revealed during the Auschwitz trial by the survivors and was reported by Bernd Neumann; and what was filtered through Weiss's own imagination while watching the trial. As Andreas Huyssen has aptly observed: “Auschwitz is represented through language only.”22 In the survivors' reports it is the language of memory, in the defendants' replies it is the language of denial.23 Weiss reconstructs the past through the survivors' memory, while attitudes toward the Holocaust are articulated by the defendants. It is precisely this tension between past and present which makes The Investigation such a powerful and convincing play.

Yet Weiss seeks not only memory and mourning but also understanding and criticism of a system which produced such well organized and mechanized murder. More than a mere reconstruction of the past through memory—as another prejudice against documentary theater would make us believe—is presented on stage through interrogations and reports. While documentary dramas exist that reproduce the past as realistically as possible and make it emotionally digestible,24 Weiss's Investigation confronts the audience of 1965 with present attitudes toward the Holocaust for which they themselves should accept responsibility and/or show remorse. Auschwitz is brought to the fore through language and memory and it is made accessible through the reactions of witnesses and defendants. By making use of alienation effects, the documentary theater reflects on the past from present perspective, it historizes contradictions of society, and makes them recognizable—setting them up for criticism. “The strength of the documentary theater,” as Weiss understood it, is precisely the fact, “that it reconstructs out of the fragments of reality a usable model for explaining present social conditions.”25The Investigation is neither a surrogate for the Auschwitz trial, which is long forgotten, nor just another historical Holocaust drama, but a well-made play, which makes use of the dialectic of past and present in order to construct a model. “The Investigation is, therefore, not solely a play about Auschwitz, not even as a precedence, but about our Auschwitz, namely how present conditions are reflected in relation to Auschwitz.”26 What happened in the concentration and extermination camps becomes a provocation for the living and for the society they live in.

Peter Weiss did not exclude himself from this provocation, which cut into his own flesh. When he visited Auschwitz, he realized that he had been destined for this place—and by sheer luck avoided it; when he attended the Auschwitz trial another possibility dawned on him, that he could have been one of the perpetrators himself. He remembered how enthusiastically he had participated in the paramilitary and often sadistic activities of the youth movement before 1933 and how close he had been to becoming a part of this murderous system. “The horror of both possibilities never again left him,” as Robert Cohen observed.27 In the play Weiss demands nothing less than the same painful recognition on the part of the audience. The Third Witness rejects any mystification of Auschwitz as something inconceivable, and he then draws the provocative conclusion that prisoners and guards could have easily exchanged their places:

If they had not been designated prisoners
they could equally well have been guards
We must drop the lofty view
that the camp world
is incomprehensible for us
We all knew the society
that produced a government
capable of creating such camps
The order that prevailed there
was an order whose basic nature
we were familiar with.


The prevailing order or the “system”, as Weiss called it in the introductory note, is, of course, capitalism, which for him not only explains Nazi barbarity but a familiar continuity between the present and the past. This unbroken continuity between the Third Reich and the Federal Republic is addressed in the play both by the still suffering survivors and the First and Second Witness, who are transitional figures between victims and perpetrators. They stand for many others, also implicated in the atrocities, who were never brought to trial: civil servants, engineers, physicians, scientists, and other ordinary men and women, like “Papa Kaduk”, one of the most bestial capos who is now admired by his patients for his gentleness. These handymen of the murderous machine called Auschwitz were integrated into the “new” society of the Federal Republic, where they were prosperous or even occupying leading positions. Their testimonies were meant to trigger an alarming recognition of continuity: In Auschwitz they were railroad specialists, now they are Bundesbahn executives. They pretend that they only followed orders, did their duty, and knew nothing of what was going on inside the extermination camp:

You heard nothing
about people being exterminated
1ST Witness:
How could anybody believe a thing like that.



What did you see of the camp
2ND Witness:
Did you see the chimneys
at the end of the platform
or the smoke and the glare
2ND Witness:
I saw smoke
And what did you think
2ND Witness:
I thought
those must be bakeries
I had heard
they baked bread in there day and night
After all it was a big camp.


The real provocation was, however, that Weiss dragged on stage those former directors of German corporations, those who willingly participated in the systematic exploitation of prisoners and who were now receiving high pensions and living comfortably with their repressed past. By naming Krupp, Siemens, and IG Farben, which at that time “made profits / that annually amounted to billions” and which are now in “a new phase of expansion” (206), the theater became a tribunal for the underlying forces which had made Auschwitz possible and profited from it.28 The spotlight focused on the capitalistic system as participant in and profiteer of the Holocaust—an implication that West-German industry had avoided for two decades and wished to pass over in silence. In the play these witnesses avoid responsibility, especially since they are not among the defendants, and they make the tired excuses that they had only done their patriotic duty: “We were all concerned with / only one thing / winning the war” (204). They emphatically reject any guilt and call these accusations defamations:

when our nation has worked its way up
after a devastating war
to a leading position in the world
we ought to concern ourselves
with other things
These recriminations
should have fallen
under the Statute of Limitations
a long time ago.


With this statement and with the “loud approbation from the Defendants” the play ends. It is precisely against this prevailing sentiment of repression and denial that Weiss wrote The Investigation.

As could be expected, many critics reacted with polemics, even slander against Weiss's indictment of the capitalist system, as if the subject matter, the extermination of Jews, Poles, Russians, Gypsies, and other “enemies” of the Nazi state, were of minor importance. Since Weiss had meanwhile given up his “comfortable third position” between capitalism and socialism and had publicly opted instead for socialism,29The Investigation was called a propaganda piece of communist agitation against the Federal Republic.30 Another critic considered the implication of German corporations to be simply an expression of Weiss's “ideology,” as if it had nothing to do with the murder of two million Jews in Auschwitz, claiming as well that “this murderous machine had been a heavy economic burden for the Third Reich”.31 (As if Auschwitz had not been a death factory in itself; as if Auschwitz had been a hindrance in the war effort and not an important element of the total war.) These and other critics objected to nothing less than the political tendency of Weiss's play that offended the bourgeois civility of the theater by implicating major German corporations in the Holocaust and violated its good taste by being tendentious. In short: Weiss had contradicted the bourgeois concept of art, a concept based on autonomy.

This is indeed what he had intended to do, as Weiss affirms in his “Notes on the Documentary Theater.” What his critics called propaganda was for him a necessary element of documentary theater: partisanship. Many of the play's themes can no longer be treated “objectively,” Weiss insists, “they can only be presented as crimes.”32 What he demands is nothing less than a political theater, which confronts the audience with a repressed past and opens up the present for a critical re-evaluation. The Investigation is neither a piece of disinterested art nor a drama in the Aristotelian fashion, but “a form of tribunal”, operative art. And yet, Weiss also knew that it is still theater. The documentary theater is no surrogate for reality or political action, “it must be a product of art, if it wants to have any justification.”33

This is precisely the point I want to stress. The political tendency is embedded in an aesthetic structure, as my observations about the montage technique, the alienation effects, and the model function of The Investigation have demonstrated. The montage of authentic material from the Auschwitz trial articulates Weiss's personal interest and political tendency; the alienation effects are suppose to break the numbing emotional experience of the trial as well as the perturbing reports of the witnesses; and the model character of the documented reality allows for a dialectical understanding of the Nazi period, which makes the present transparent in its disturbing continuity.

Yet, despite Weiss's intentions to understand Auschwitz and to criticize the prevailing attitudes toward the Holocaust, there still remains a residue that escapes any attempt to rationalize Auschwitz. As a result, the audience did not hear the underlying message of the play (or at least not until much later). Enduring the relentless reports and descriptions of unbearable suffering, they heard about the extent and brutal details of the Holocaust, which shocked them into silence. There was no applause at the end of the performance. The audience sat numb in their seats for a long while and then filed out quietly. This response is quite different from any catharsis or cleansing of emotions. The audience had been shocked into recognition.

But of what? Certainly not of their complicity in the Holocaust or their collective responsibility for it, although they must have had some feeling of shame for what had been done in Germany's name. Perhaps, they felt even some remorse. The silence, however, marked their recognition of the magnitude and monstrosity of the Holocaust. They had been confronted with detailed reports of survivors who described relentlessly the many forms of destruction of life: by torture and starvation, by shooting and injection, by gas and fire. It was precisely this confrontation with the unbearable horrors and cruelties of Auschwitz that shocked the audience into recognizing the Holocaust's enormity.

The general public could have known about all of this at least since the Eichmann and Auschwitz trials, but the full impact of the Holocaust did not sink in until Weiss staged the terror of Auschwitz. If they were not overwhelmed by this burden of the past, the audience became the judge of what they had just seen. Weiss's Investigation, transforming the theater into a tribunal, not only informed the public about one aspect of the Nazi past, which they had repressed or denied, it also stimulated a public debate about this past which went far beyond the theater's threshold. His play truly became an “instrument of political opinion formation,” as Weiss had demanded of the documentary theater, and it influenced in no small part the outcome of the parliamentary debate about the Statute of Limitations for Nazi crimes.


In spite of the play's tremendous success, the public debates it triggered, and its educational function, the critical reaction in the Federal Republic was anything but enthusiastic. I already mentioned two critics who faulted Weiss for his ideology and called his play mere communist propaganda. Blinded by their own ideology of anti-Communism and/or their aesthetics of autonomous art, they overlooked not only the fact that Weiss's criticism of the capitalistic system comprises only one aspect of the play (roughly one tenth of the text), but, even more importantly, they rejected his dialectical perspective connecting the present with the past. Willingly or not, the critics continued the German politics of denial, although they couched their criticism in aesthetic terms.

A more interesting critique is Ernst Wendt's suspicion that Weiss was fascinated by cruelty or, even more strongly, that “the intensity of his representation of cruelty changes into ‘pleasure’.”34 Joachim Kaiser raises a similar point in his criticism of Weiss's “Theater-Auschwitz” by observing that the audience had no respite from the “enormity of horror” and the “magnitude of facts.”35 This is indeed one effect of the play, and it could explain the audience's numbness and silence at the end. Weiss's oratorio is, however, not to be confused with Antonin Artaud's “Theater of Cruelty”, as both reviewers seem to suggest.36 It is a superficial analogy at best and at worst a grave distortion of Weiss's representation of Auschwitz. There are major differences between what an author imagines as cruelty and what happened in Auschwitz, between figments of the imagination and brutal reality. When the Living Theater staged Death in the Gas Chambers (1965), they were certainly able to produce raw emotions on stage and horror and fear in the audience, but they could not explain why it happened. They choreographed a dance of death and manipulated audience emotions to the extreme, but it was indeed nothing more than “Auschwitz-Theater,” which cannot compete with the reports of Weiss's witnesses. The dance of ecstasy and hysteria lacks any forms of distancing which would allow the audience to reflect on what it sees. This kind of raw emotional experience does not even lead to catharsis, which would entail some sort of emotional cleansing or moral response, and it certainly does not enhance the understanding of Auschwitz, as was the aim of Weiss's representation of cruelty. Weiss's “theater of cruelty,” if it can be called that, shocks the audience emotionally, and they leave the theater in silence, but it later also provokes reflections on what they heard and saw.

Aside from these misunderstandings, Kaiser's finer points are directed against the poetics of Weiss's documentary theater. It leaves the sphere of “Kunstwahrheit” (truth in art), which is, of course, the sphere of autonomous art; and it is only a surrogate for truly coming to terms with the past, which could be understood as a direct attack on the documentary drama of the sixties as well as a more general critique of postwar German literature.37 Wendt draws a much cruder conclusion when he states “that Weiss was obviously more interested in the representation of suffering than in unmasking the perpetrators and the tacit accomplices.”38 By insisting on suffering and cruelty as the main effects of the play, Wendt obviously missed the most important point in Weiss's documentary drama: His insistence on the continuity between Auschwitz and present day German society, and consequently on the ongoing process of repression. These conclusions return us to the focal point of German denial in the disguise of aesthetics.

If the German reception of Weiss's Investigation can be characterized—with a few exceptions39—as apologetic, regressive, and polemical, the American reaction was altogether different. If the Germans were painfully reminded of a past they would prefer to forget but could not escape, the American audience, fascinated and appalled by the monstrosity of the concentration camps ever since they were discovered in 1945, expected a mimetic representation of crime and punishment, collective guilt and remorse, catharsis or some kind of resolution.40 Instead they saw a documentary drama in which Auschwitz and the murdered Jews were not even mentioned. In Germany, the documentary drama of the sixties was the most innovative theatrical genre, confronting Germans with the facts, names, and places of their racial war; for many American critics, like Lawrence Langer, the play was nothing more than an journalistic documentation “with a minimum of alterations from the testimony of witnesses at the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt …,” and he concluded that “the result on the stage is singularly undramatic.”41 Many American intellectuals were introduced to the Holocaust by Alain Resnais's film masterpiece Night and Fog, which had also used documentary clips, but nothing so factual, so brutal, and so “artless” as Peter Weiss's Investigation had confronted them.

Other, more sophisticated arguments developed over time in the United States, dealing with questions of identity and ideology.42 Eli Wiesel, the moral authority on all matters concerning the Holocaust, apodictically stated: “A prominent European playwright wrote a play about the Auschwitz trials and managed not to mention the word ‘Jew’ therein.”43 One should add that Weiss also did not mention Auschwitz. While this omission is not so obvious, since text and context clearly delineate Auschwitz, the absence of the word “Jew” is indeed startling. But instead of asking why Weiss, himself a Jew, did not clearly identify the Jews, who made up the vast majority of Auschwitz victims, Wiesel denounces him as if he were a Holocaust denier. The simple truth would be, of course, that Weiss wanted to honor all Holocaust victims and that he refused to establish any hierarchy of victims. This explanation, well intended as it may be, will not do.

I forego the somewhat fruitless discussion about whether this omission had anything to do with Weiss's doubts about his own Jewish identity. Instead I summarize the obvious: He identified with the Jewish victims of the concentration camps, he felt guilty like many survivors who were spared, and he defined his own Jewishness by the Holocaust—a typical “Holocaust Jew,” as Jean Amery called all Jews who redefined their Jewishness after the trauma of the Holocaust.44

Weiss's omission of the word “Jew” is a different matter altogether. In interviews he insisted that he deliberately erased the national and ethnic identity of the victims in order to stress the play's universal message. Universality, a category usually employed in the traditional drama of illusion and identification, is a strange concept in documentary drama, which privileges authenticity and specificity. Its provocation is based on facts, places, and names, indeed it points out the perpetrators and the places of their crimes against humanity. And yet, the victims should have no names, no nationality, and no ethnic identity? It is a contradiction in terms for documentary theater to sacrifice the victims' particularity in the name of universal meaning.

Weiss must have noticed this contradiction, otherwise he would not have identified one victim by name or referred repeatedly to the Soviet victims. Lili Tofler, who also has no national or ethnic identity, could be understood as a synecdoche, representing the countless unknown Holocaust victims. But why are the Soviet victims singled out? Is it, as Weiss's American critics love to point out, that he is first and foremost a communist? or as his defenders have suggested that Weiss wanted to make the audience aware as well of the millions of Soviet civilians who were killed in this total war?45 This has become a major point of contention and irritation for American critics.46 It would not be, if Weiss had also mentioned the Jews, for then it would have become intelligible to the audience that this was a total war of extermination, especially in the East, for racial reasons. Many scholars have argued that one of the major differences between fascism and National Socialism was the racial plank in the Nazi's political platform. By not naming the Jewish victims, Weiss overlooked or downplayed this most important racial component of the Holocaust. It is the play's gravest fallacy, even if the audience did not notice it, because of the simplified message of universal suffering.47

How could this happen to an author who had been so sensitive to the sufferings of the Jewish victims, identified with them, and felt so deeply the guilt of a survivor? This can only be explained by the political tendency of the play, which his American critics were eager to pinpoint as Weiss's “Marxist Credo”48: his fixation on the capitalist system and its continuity in the Federal Republic. For Weiss, the concentration camp functioned as a model for the brutal exploitation and extermination of human beings by the Nazi state, which he understood as the most extreme consequence of the capitalist system. He had good reason to pursue this line of thinking, since I. G. Farben, Krupp, and Siemens exploited slave laborers in the vicinity of Auschwitz and since Auschwitz itself was a well organized death factory. It could well be, as Cohen has surmised, that “it was not Weiss's Marxism that produced The Investigation but rather his work on the Auschwitz material that intensified his interest in Marxism.”49 To represent Auschwitz he was not satisfied with a mere description of the death camp or reports of the cruelties committed in this place, he was also searching for a convincing model that could explain the Holocaust's social complexity. He found it in the industries surrounding Auschwitz as the most obvious signifier of capitalism. By implicating the German corporations who profited from the exploitation of slave labor, he used a well known Marxist critique of capitalism, the so-called Dimitroff doctrine, which interprets fascism as an extreme form of capitalism. In interviews Weiss repeatedly stated that he wanted “to stigmatize capitalism, which lends itself to profit even from gas chambers.”50

Before we hastily join Weiss's critics in blaming him for his turn toward doctrinaire Marxism and his rather simplistic ideological criticism of capitalism, let us not forget the time of which we are speaking. It was the time of the cold war and anti-communist propaganda, whose codes can still be detected in the language of Weiss's American critics.51 At the same time many intellectuals in the West were rediscovering and reconstructing Marxist theory in order to analyze capitalism and fascism—and also to understand Auschwitz. “We will not have come to terms with the past until the causes of what happened then are no longer active. Only because these causes live on does the spell of the past remain unbroken—up to this very day.”52 Adorno's 1959 lecture “What does it mean: Coming to terms with the past?” demonstrates even in its somewhat cryptic language that he too defined fascism's continuity in terms similar to Weiss; and he agreed with his friend Max Horkheimer that the essence of anti-Semitism and an understanding of Auschwitz can only be found in a critical analysis of the society that produces them.53 If even Adorno and Horkheimer, not to mention other early theorists of fascism, proposed the equation that fascism equals capitalism in its most brutal form, one should be more careful before blaming Weiss for his ideological blinders. Historians established long ago the close cooperation between German corporations and the Nazis.54 Recent events like the scandals surrounding the “forgotten” Swiss bank accounts of Holocaust victims, the disappearance of records of Nazi gold in Swiss, German, and American banks, or the just settled swindle of German and Italian insurance companies, remind us again to what extent international capital had been involved in the enterprise of the Third Reich.

Nevertheless, in his attempt to make Auschwitz comprehensible by using a one-dimensional Marxist critique of capitalism and by constructing the death camp as an allegory of history, Weiss left himself vulnerable to criticism. With his monocausal explanation of fascism combined with his failure to reflect on anti-Semitism and its history in Germany, he “came dangerously close to depriving the victims of their personal and collective history and identity as Jews, and he just about instrumentalizes Auschwitz in order to advance a questionable interpretation of fascism.”55 Weiss's political rationalization of Auschwitz distracted from its artful representation through memory and language, which is after all the main effect of his oratorio.

For all that, I still insist that Weiss's Investigation was a turning point in the literary as well as in the political history of the Federal Republic of Germany. As operative literature his documentary drama provided an impulse for confronting the Nazi past and for coming to terms with it. In the following years the student movement amplified this critical confrontation with the Third Reich's legacy and contributed to educational efforts to disseminate knowledge about the Holocaust in universities and schools. After 1965, no one in Germany could pretend not to know about the Holocaust. In a certain sense Weiss's Investigation contributed to a new conscience or to what Adorno called a new categorical imperative: That mankind “should arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen.”56


  1. Quoted from Weiss, “Meine Ortschaft” (1965), trans. Christopher Middleton, German Writing Today (Baltimore 1967), p. 28.

  2. I forego the more recent public debates, such as the historians' debate (1987), the controversies surrounding the German translation of Daniel Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners (1997), the Wehrmacht exhibition (1997-98), and the ongoing discussions about the Berlin Holocaust Monument, which all demonstrate the burden of the past that cannot be laid to rest.

  3. For a similar perspective with different results see Alfons Söllner, “Peter Weiss's Die Ermittlung in zeitgeschichtlicher Perspektive.” In: Deutsche Nachkriegslliteratur und der Holocaust, Stephan Braese et al., eds. (Frankfurt a.M. 1998), p. 99-128. I chose the title of this essay with Martin Walser's “Unser Auschwitz” in mind in order to mark the stark contrast between his famous essay of 1965 and his “Sunday Sermon” about “looking away” from Auschwitz and “repressing” German guilt/shame in his acceptance speech of the German Publishers' Peace Prize at Paul's Church in Frankfurt am Main in October 1998. See Martin Walser, Erfahrungen beim Verfassen einer Sonntagsrede (Frankfurt a.M. 1998).

  4. In the same year it was also staged in London, New York, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Moscow, Warsaw, and Prague.

  5. Peter Weiss, “Notizen zum dokumentarischen Drama” (1968). In: Rapporte 2 (Frankfurt a.M. 1971), p. 96.

  6. Martin Walser, Die Alternative. Oder brauchen wir eine neue Regierung? (Hamburg 1965).

  7. Werner Stein, Kulturfahrplan (Vienna 1974), p. 1310.

  8. The reception of her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, was quite different in Germany than in Israel and the United States. Many Jews were offended by her harsh criticism of assimilated Jews and especially of Leo Baeck, who did not resist the Nazis but went so far as to help them round up fellow Jews. For them, her book was and is a provocation, while we missed that completely. For my generation, it was an eye-opener, since it demonstrated for the first time how the extermination of the European Jewry was organized and executed with bureaucratic efficiency and technological know-how and how ordinary civil servants participated in this genocide.

  9. Theodor W. Adorno, Eingriffe (Frankfurt a.M. 1963), p. 143.

  10. Martin Walser, “Vom erwarteten Theater.” In: Walser, Erfahrungen und Leseerfahrungen (Frankfurt a.M. 1965), p. 64.

  11. See Summa iniuria oder Durfte der Papst schweigen?, Fritz J. Raddatz, ed. (Hamburg 1963), which documents a selection of the over 3000 responses to the play.

  12. Theodor W. Adorno criticized Hochhuth severely for these aesthetic blunders. See his “Offener Brief an Rolf Hochhuth.” In: Noten zur Literatur IV (Frankfurt a.M. 1974), p. 137-146.

  13. Weiss, “Meine Ortschaft,” p. 20.

  14. Let us recall that this fairly recent debate was triggered by the “linguistic turn” in historiography and by deconstruction in literary theory. See Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution,” Saul Friedländer (Cambridge, MA and London 1992), especially Friedländer's introductory essay.

  15. Peter Weiss, Marat/Sade, The Investigation, and The Shadow of the Body of the Coachman, Robert Cohen, ed. (New York 1998), p. 191. This edition is quoted in the text.

  16. For critical positions in this debate on documentary theater (Baumgart, Harich, Kesting, Walser, Handke), see Klaus L. Berghahn, “Operative Ästhetik: Zur Theorie der dokumentarischen Literatur.” In: Deutsche Literatur in der Bundesrepublik seit 1965, Paul Michael Lützeler und Egon Schwarz, eds. (Frankfurt a.M. 1980), p. 277ff.

  17. Bertolt Brecht, Der Dreigroschenprozeß, Brecht, Werke (Frankfurt a.M. and Berlin 1992), vol. XXI, p. 469.

  18. Erika Salloch, Peter Weiss's “Die Ermittlung”: Zur Struktur des Dokumentartheaters (Frankfurt a.M. 1972), p. 47ff. She reads The Investigation from a rather positivistic approach as a “Gegenentwurf” of the Divina Commedia.

  19. Montage and collage are familiar techniques in avant-garde art forms, yet in literature they are usually overlooked, and in Weiss's play they are not even recognized as such since the material seems to be so “realistic”.

  20. Peter Weiss, “Notizen zum dokumentarischen Theater.” In: Rapporte II, p. 97.

  21. A detailed comparison of Weiss's play with all documents of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, which would go beyond Salloch's study, is yet to be presented. It could demonstrate Weiss's collage technique as well as his use of the Third Witness as protagonist for his own political perspective.

  22. Andreas Huyssen, “The Politics of Identification: ‘Holocaust’ and the West German Drama.” In: New German Critique 19 (1980), p. 131.

  23. Claude Lanzmann uses a similar montage technique and estrangement in his documentary film Shoah, which is also solely based on language and memory. His film shows us the places of destruction, which are now quiet landscapes, museums or monuments; there he interviews survivors, whose memories bring back the past. Past and present intermingle, and the Holocaust becomes present in its absence. Whereas Lanzmann's film and his interrogations seem to be mainly interested in the “how” of the extermination program, leaving the answer as to the “why” up to the audience, Weiss also wants to know why it happened.

  24. As for instance Rolf Schneider's Prozeß in Nürnberg (1967), which is “simple information,” as the author even admits in his preface and which seems to prove the critics of documentary drama right.

  25. Peter Weiss, “Notizen zum dokumentarischen Theater,” p. 97.

  26. Klaus Harro Hilzinger, Die Dramaturgie des dokumentarischen Theaters (Tübingen 1976), p. 53. I am very much indebted to this book, which is still the best theoretical treatise on German documentary drama of the sixties.

  27. Robert Cohen, “1964—On March 13, in the middle of rehearsals for the premiere of Marat/Sade, Peter Weiss attended the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial.” In: Yale Companion to Jewish Writing and Thought in German Culture, 1096-1996, Sander L. Gilman and Jack Zipes, eds. (New Haven 1987), p. 723.

  28. Smaller firms as well, like Degesch (Cyclon B) and Töpfer und Söhne (crematoria), should not be forgotten.

  29. Peter Weiss, “10 Arbeitspunkte eines Autors in einer geteilten Welt.” In: Rapporte 2 (Frankfurt a.M. 1971), p. 14-23.

  30. Otto F. Best, Peter Weiss (Bern 1971), p. 141.

  31. Marianne Kesting, “Völkermord und Ästhetik.” In: Neue Deutsche Hefte 113 (1967), p. 96.

  32. Weiss, “Notizen zum dokumentarischen Theater,” p. 99.

  33. Weiss, “Notizen zum dokumentarischen Theater,” p. 96.

  34. Ernst Wendt, “Was wird ermittelt?” In: Theater heute 10 (1965): 18. Others used more existential terms to describe Weiss's “fascination with evil.” See Salloch, Peter Weiss's “Die Ermittlung,” p. 154f.

  35. Joachim Kaiser, “Plädoyer gegen das Theater-Auschwitz.” In: Süddeutsche Zeitung (4 September 1965), and “Theater-Auschwitz.” In: Die Zeit (2 November 1965).

  36. For a historical overview of the representation of cruelty on stage from the 17th century to Artaud and for a refutation of understanding Weiss's play as “Theater of Cruelty,” see Ernst Schumacher, “Die Ermittlung von Peter Weiss: Über die szenische Darstellbarkeit der Hölle auf Erden.” In: Über Peter Weiss, ed. Volker Canaris (Frankfurt a.M. 1970), p. 83-87.

  37. Or as Jochen Vogt observed, “Denn was haben ihre Autoren, von Heinrich Böll bis Christa Wolf, anderes betrieben als Erinnerungs—und Trauerarbeit—stellvertretend für eine Gesellschaft, die solche Arbeit in ihrer großen Mehrheit und in ihren repräsentativen Institutionen abgelehnt hat.” Jochen Vogt, Peter Weiss (Hamburg 1987), p. 96.

  38. Wendt, “Was wird ermittelt?” p. 18.

  39. At least four reviewers should be mentioned: Ernst Schumacher (see note 37), Walter Jens, “Die Ermittlung in Westberlin.” In: Die Zeit (19 October 1965); Martin Esslin in Die Weltwoche (29 October 1965), and Gerhard Schoenberner, “Die Ermittlung von Peter Weiss: Requiem oder Lehrstück?” In: Gewerkschaftliche Monatshefte 12 (1965).

  40. A typical expression of this kind of expectation can be found in Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature (Chicago 1980), p. 38.

  41. Lawrence L. Langer, The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (New Haven 1975), p. 31. Twenty years later he changed his mind and called Weiss's Investigation one of the best representations of the Holocaust; see his essay “The Literature of Auschwitz.” In: Admitting the Holocaust: Collected Essays (New York 1995), p. 97f.

  42. For a critical overview of recent literary criticism on The Investigation in the United States, see Robert Cohen, “The Political Aesthetics of Holocaust Literature: Peter Weiss's The Investigation and Its Critics,” History and Memory 10.2 (1998), p. 43-67.

  43. Eli Wiesel, “The Holocaust as Literary Inspiration,” In: Dimensions of the Holocaust, Wiesel et al., eds. (Evanston 1990), 19. In an even more denunciatory gesture James Young calls The Investigation “judenrein,” see James E. Young, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and Consequences of Interpretation (Bloomington 1988), p. 72.

  44. See Robert Cohen, “The Political Aesthetics of Holocaust Literature,” p. 54f. For further discussion of Weiss's Jewish identity, see Irene Heidelberger-Leonard, “Jüdisches Bewußtsein im Werk von Peter Weiss.” In: Literatur, Ästhetik, Geschichte. Neue Zugänge zu Peter Weiss, Michael Hoffmann, ed. (St. Ingberg 1992), p. 49-64.

  45. Cohen, “The Political Aesthetics of Holocaust Literature,” p. 58f.

  46. James Young is almost beside himself that Weiss “co-valued political and racial killings,” as if it were an issue of first and second-class victims (Young, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust, 75). For a detailed metacritic of Young's book see, Jean-Michel Chaumount, “Der Stellenwert der Ermittlung im Gedächtnis von Ausschwitz.” In: Peter Weiss: Neue Fragen an alte Texte, Irene Heidelberger-Leonard, ed. (Opladen 1994), p. 77-93.

  47. As far as I know, only one West German critic noticed this omission but then drew no conclusion, stating that Weiss presented the crimes of the camp “by abstracting from the race ideology” of the Nazis. See Hilzinger, Die Dramaturgie des dokumentarischen Theaters, p. 89. Söllner overlooks (or avoids) this problem altogether and is satisfied with Weiss's view that the nameless witnesses are merely “Sprachrohre.” See Söllner, “Peter Weiss's Die Ermittlung in zeitgeschichtlicher Perspektive,” p. 118.

  48. Young, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust, p. 78.

  49. Cohen, “The Political Aesthetics of Holocaust Literature,” p. 60.

  50. Interview with Stockholms Tidningen, quoted in Der Spiegel 43 (1965), p. 155.

  51. See Cohen, “The Political Aesthetics of Holocaust Literature,” p. 60.

  52. Theodor W. Adorno, “Was bedeutet: Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit?” In: Eingriffe (Frankfurt a.M. 1963), p. 146.

  53. See Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “Elemente des Antisemitismus,” Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialektik der Aufklärung (Frankfurt a.M. 1971), p. 185-230. For Horkheimer, see his essay “Die Juden und Europa.” In: Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung VII.1-2 (1939), in which he subsumes fascism and anti-Semitism under the broader concept of capitalist crisis: “He who does not wish to speak of capitalism should also be silent about fascism.”

  54. Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (Chicago 1967), p. 590 and 594, and Joseph Borkin, The Crime and Punishment of I. G. Farben (New York 1978).

  55. Huyssen, “The Politics of Identification,” p. 133.

  56. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialektik (Frankfurt a.M. 1966), p. 356.

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Best, Otto F. Peter Weiss, translated by Ursule Molinaro, New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1976, 150 p.

Offers a thematic and stylistic examination of Weiss's major works.

Cohen, Robert. Understanding Peter Weiss, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993, 206 p.

Full-length critical analysis.

Jost, Hermand and Marc Silberman, eds. Rethinking Peter Weiss, New York: Peter Lang, 2000, 199 p.

Collection of critical essays.

Pakendorf, Gunther. “‘I Have Arrived Twenty Years Too Late’: The Intertext of Peter Weiss' Investigation into Auschwitz.” Acta Germanica 23 (1995): 69-78.

Underscores the theme of the search for identity in The Investigation.

Vance, Kathleen A. The Theme of Alienation in the Prose of Peter Weiss, Las Vegas, Nev.: Peter Lang, 1981, 228 p.

Delineates the theme of alienation in Weiss's work.

Additional coverage of Weiss's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48, 106; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 15, 51; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 69, 124; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists; Drama for Students, Vol. 3; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; and Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3.