by Marion May Campbell
Published February, 2013
Ulrike Meinhof died in Stammheim Prison on 9 May 1976, the year my generation began university. In 1976, we (or perhaps it was only me) already felt as if we were too late. We were nostalgic for the heady days of Oz magazine and the anti-Vietnam War movement. We were looking for a righteous cause and joined in the obligatory strikers’ marches, but the revolution was over. The reaction was setting in.
Some ten years later, I was in the audience at the Anthill Theatre in South Melbourne watching Margaret Cameron perform Ulrike Meinhof Sings by Christopher Barnett. Ten years is not such a long time. Certainly in Germany, as late as 2005, the exhibition, Regarding Terror: The Red Army Faction, which included Gerhard Richter’s controversial paintings of the dead Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader, provoked families of RAF victims to campaign against the show. In Australia, far removed from the repercussions of RAF actions, ten years was long enough for the process of mythologising to begin: art was being made of der Rote Armee Fraktion and Ulrike Meinhof’s revolutionary polemic.
The playwright, Christopher Barnett, enfant terrible of the Melbourne punk arts scene in the 1980s, left Australia in 1990 and continues to work as a writer and activist in self-imposed exile in France. In 2011, during the Melbourne Fringe Festival, Nadia Townsend reprised Barnett’s Meinhof:
I wanted to destroy
to destroy the buildings where my lovers shrink
to destroy the streets where my lovers fell
to destroy the earth built to drain my lovers’ arms
to destroy constructions where my lovers explode
I needed to build an earth to strengthen my lovers’ arms
Meinhof’s song of 1986 is a chant, a diatribe, a call to arms. The lines Marion May Campbell writes for Meinhof in konkretion have a different quality: her Meinhof dances towards self-erasure, speechlessness, silence. If Barnett’s Meinhof is the heroic destroyer, then Campbell’s Meinhof is closer to self-destruction:
My new blankness is close to holy.
I’ve put my mouth in the gutter, to show Gudrun I’ve come a long way, baby.
One must write or be written; one must write out or be written out!
I’ll not be written out by them; I’ll write myself cleanly out so there is only revolutionary fervour left.
The afterglow of the emptied page!
In 1986, Meinhof is a trope for revolution. By 2013, she has become a shade; the mortified female-body in the process of disintegration. That gap of nearly thirty years expresses the difference, to paraphrase Guy Debord, between poetry at the service of the revolution and the revolution at the service of poetry. The language of revolution has acquired the patina of a quaint artifact. Meinhof once scrawled ‘tone just too hysterical’ across a poem by Ensslin. Contemporary sensibilities seem to find revolutionary polemic not only hysterical, but somewhat ridiculous. The irony is that the Baader-Meinhof Gang has now become a commodified brand (reproductions of their wanted posters can be purchased from the online store at www.baader-meinhof.com), subject to the power they most dreaded: capitalism. It goes to show that there is a fashion in revolution as much as there are fashion trends in literature and criticism.
Recently, at The Real Through Line poetry symposium in Melbourne, Felicity Plunkett said that non-fiction poetry is kept alive by the ghosts of the real. Reality, it might be inferred, provides poetry and fiction with a narrative scaffold from which a truth greater than the sum of facts might be derived. During the same symposium, the poet πo promoted the idea of a novel contained within a poem, his version of Shakespeare’s ‘the object of art is to give life a shape’. Facts, he said, are material for poetry, but reality is not truth. The facts of Meinhof’s life provide Campbell with a foundation from which to unravel the skeins of her ideas.
The novella konkretion contains the promise of a novel, a dramatic monologue, poem(s) and the ghosts of several lives. It is a matryoshka doll of refracting voices with Meinhof’s story nestled at its core. The word konkretion contains konkret, the left-wing magazine founded by Meinhof’s husband, Klaus Ranier Röhl, and is the German for concretion, meaning the process of coalescence, of making something real or substantial. Konkret/concrete has not only the weight of the building material, but also of an experience made tangible through the process of writing. The novella as container, or edifice for confinement (a prison for the story), is constructed in a process analogous to architectural or sculptural practice.
konkretion begins in the terminus of Charles de Gaulle airport. Like the train station at the beginning of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001), the airport is vast and impersonal. Monique Piquet sits and contemplates the indignities of ageing. For a moment she feels ‘characterless’. To pass from this liminal space, she need a ‘fictional sheath’ strong enough to hold her identity together. Her work as an academic and writer is in doubt. Her ‘pearls-and-tweed’ literary agent has insisted she write about ‘proper’ characters. Like Brian Castro’s alter-ego Brendan Costa in Street to Street (2012), she laments the state of literary publishing in Australia and her own lack of success. Like Costa, she sees poetry and literary fiction as ‘the cultivation of failure, the work of endless patience and attentiveness’. Her colleagues’ scorn makes her ‘seethe with rage’. The plot of her vaguely lesbian road-novel is in danger of imploding. Can a character’s own words save her? asks the writer whose most successful construct is herself: Monique Piquet, we discover, is the deliberate translation of plain Monika Pickett. It is the name of a stylish agent provocatrice and the mask behind which Pickett hides. Pickett is too obvious a reminder of the picket line, the peg, the post. Piquet is the character’s escape from the confines of the picket fence; she will not be ‘nicely narrated’ or easily domesticated.
Piquet has returned to Paris to escape the embarrassment of a public debacle in Sydney. Invoking Walter Benjamin, she becomes a flâneur wandering the streets, the passing geography a guide to her inner landscape. The would-be muggers and improbable saviours she encounters give shape to her ruminations on life, sex, relationships, failure, fear in general – and her fear, in particular, of meeting her former student, Angel Beigesang, who has written a successful book about Meinhof.
Following in Campbell’s discursive footsteps, I have the fancy that ‘Monique Piquet’ may also be an allusion to author Maurice Pinguet – the phonetic resemblance of the two names is too good to pass up. Pinguet is best know for his study of seppuku or Japanese ritual suicide: death written across the belly with the calligraphic gesture of a slashing knife. And Piquet’s unravelling is a minor-suicide of sorts; the necessary death of the ancien régime to make way for the new. Campbell uses the body as a metaphor for writing; writing the story becomes a consolation and a means of escape from the body’s confines and infirmities. To move ahead it is necessary to ‘unwrite, unwalk the clotted circulation; undo the blockage of old stories.’
Academic credentials give Piquet licence to cite every writer of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who might have piqued (Piquet-ed?) her interest. The authors’ names – Mallarmé, Kafka, Celan, Adorno, Apollinaire, Serres, Artaud, Irigaray, Lacan, Benjamin, Lautréamont, Leduc, de Beauvoir and Sartre, Cocteau, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Mina Loy, Wittig, Duras, Sarraute, Foucault, Barthes, Deleuze and Guattari, Genet, Marcuse, Reich, Rimbaud, Marx, Gramsci, Fanon, Brecht, Beckett, Bachmann, Ponge, Camus, Sebald, Bataille – are strung through the text like a map to exotic locations. A multiplicity of meanings can be extrapolated from Piquet’s extra-textual referents. Even for readers without a background in modernist literature or French cultural theory, the insistent naming creates a rhythmic counterpoint to Piquet’s interior monologue.
Alluding to texts beyond the story may also be Campbell’s way of escaping the confines of traditional narrative, shattering the form from within. Meaning is accrued through the reverberations set up by naming and punning. When Piquet reflects on Francis Ponge’s influence on her early poems and finds herself ‘ex-ponged’, or when she rants about Beckett’s need to ‘reJoyce’ himself, Campbell’s wordplay seems awkward and overly contrived. But eliciting a cringe of embarrassment may well be her intention.
Piquet is obsessed with her ex-student Angel Beigesang’s ‘lowbrow’ success and her part in Beigesang’s radicalisation, yet the corporeal Beigesang is curiously absent. She lives only through Piquet’s scrutiny of her writing. In a way, Beigesang has been erased by her immersion in Meinhof’s consciousness: ‘I was going down and dirty, and I dreamed myself as her, as Ulrike Meinhof, crawling under the barbed wire of her convoluted sentences, through the thicket of her reasoning and out into the insane spaces.’ Piquet reads this and flinches. ‘This is no heroine’s story,’ she writes in the margin of the text. Meinhof was driven by a desire to outrun her bourgeois origins, by her desperation to belong, Piquet continues in a one-way conversation. Was disowning personal grief and admitting public anger enough to catapult Meinhof into monster-dom? she asks. Piquet identifies with Meinhof’s instability; Beigesang is in thrall to anyone destructive. Beigesang’s Meinhof text and interview stand in for her person; like Stéphane Mallarmé’s ‘ptyx’ (another of Piquet’s obsessions), she is the mysterious presence who may exist only in Piquet’s fevered imagination.
Der Gesang is German for singing and ‘Beigesang’ might, at a pinch, be interpreted as ‘singing together’. Piquet and Beigesang are, after all, two sides of the same coin: age and youth, conservatism and rebellion, intellect and action. konkretion abounds with multiples, reflections and dichotomies, such as hospitality and hostility, hostage and host. The body, the ego, human relations are all fragile. To refuse help is tantamount to refusing contact. ‘Reciprocity binds,’ says Piquet, and concludes that connection may be the only way to redeem the past, the only way forward. Even the most mundane cause for shared mirth, the rantings of a disgruntled youth on a bus, for example, is a source of the connection which enables the survival of grief and pain. Truth, according to Georges Bataille, ‘is not to be found where humans consider themselves in isolation; it starts with conversations, shared laughter, friendship, eroticism and only takes place by passing from one to the other.’
Another truth is that revolution is seductive and that death is moving, even the death of a murderer, and especially one who began her life as the serious critic of a flawed society unable to deal with the aftermath of its atrocious history. What might have changed, asks Beigesang, if Meinhof had found a poetry which could ‘channel her refusal, her despair, her outrage, a circuitry through the body, a red irrigation of poetry as sensation?’ The cynic in Piquet (and me) would remind her that teenagers with Che and Ulrike posters on their bedroom walls grow up to be lawyers, developers and politicians; that poets of the revolution end up in the boardroom.
When Piquet does finally meet up with her protégé, she is disarmed by Beigesang’s genuine warmth and amused by her antiquated Australian vernacular. She admits to the delusion of having invented Beigesang: ‘I’ve been sleepwalking through these last days and I don’t know what I’ve dreamed up anymore and what actually I’ve lived through. I even started to think I wrote your stuff.’ Her habitual mask of disdain slips to reveal a fragile and disintegrating ego.
The edifice of konkretion is composed of slabs and spaces, fragments, silences, masquerades. It is an infinity of Chinese boxes, of texts embedded within the text and meanings radiating out beyond the narrative. It is also a novella of grief – over losses, deaths, love withheld and love withdrawn – and of the failure of parents, patriarchies, governments, lovers and especially mothers, be they biological, adoptive or academic. konkretion might be a humanist novella masquerading as a postmodernist text: at its heart is the idea of language and politics betrayed by materialism and commercialisation.
Campbell gives a survivor, Felix Ensslin, Gudrun’s son, (almost) the last word: ‘the measure of your humanity is what you make of the stories you inherit.’ Like Scheherazade, Campbell deliberately offers another chance: ‘Maybe in the next draft …’ With this tantalising farewell, Campbell hands over the story to see what we might make of it, in whatever way we can, as readers, writers or artists. For my part, the words of Louise Bourgeois suffice: ‘Art is a guaranty [sic] of sanity.’
Christopher Barnett, ‘Ulrike Meinhof Sings, Nadia Townsend performance,’ Melbourne Fringe Festival (2011) .
Louise Bourgeois, ‘Art is a guaranty of sanity,’ crayon on paper (2000).
Brian Castro, Street to Street (Giramondo, 2012).
Vincent Kaufmann, ‘Angels of Purity,’ Guy Debord and the situationist international: texts and documents, edited by Tom McDonough (MIT Press, 2004).
Annika Priest, ‘Fitzroy poet and playwright, enfant terrible Christopher Barnett’s work caught on film,’ Melbourne Leader (6 February 2013).
Maurice Pinguet, Voluntary Death in Japan (Basil Blackwell, 1993).
Felicity Plunkett, ‘Host and Ghost: Hospitality, Reading and Writing,’ The Real Through Line: A Poetry Symposium, Monash University Centre for Australian and Postcolonial Writing and RMIT (5 April 2013).