Review: Julian Murpheton Peter Weiss

Named and Nameless Others

Picture the scene. It is early April, 1940. After a couple of very anxious days’ preparation, as German troops mass on Swedish soil to protect the precious supplies of iron that will make the Reich’s bid for the East possible, a shaky Bertolt Brecht boards a ship in Stockholm bound for Helsinki and ports West. ‘On the left, the building of the German embassy on Blasieholmen, and on the right, the German freighters in Stadsgårdhafen, were flying the swastika, the flags flapping in the breeze. Between the two, on his way across the footbridge, Brecht broke down, had to be held up, almost carried on board.’

So ends this second volume of Peter Weiss’ late masterpiece, Die Äesthetik des Widerstands (1975-81), now belatedly (and protractedly) getting its translation from Duke University Press. It is clear by this point that Brecht, in whose close company this volume has spent over 150 pages, is not the missing Herakles, that elusive talisman of Volume I – symbol of a proletarian champion, absent from the Pergamon Altar frieze on which Weiss’ epic launches its complex investigations. Only the paw of Herakles’ lionskin mantle remains preserved on the frieze, delineating the vacant outline of a persistent failure of leadership for the working poor. If The Aesthetics of Resistance occasionally seeks out this missing piece of the puzzle of world history – the titanic World-Historical Individual able to lead forth the masses and abolish class society once and for all – it is equally committed to demonstrating the futility of that search.

Brecht is certainly no Messiah. The book’s company of assistants to the great man’s labour ‘stood helpless in the face of the terror emanating from the forty-two-year-old’. This terror is a paroxysm that runs up and down the spine of the book, as the forces of European fascism gain in strength from page to page, and the scattered resistance, hounded into exile or an early grave, build up their guttering courage out of fragments of a usable past – only to find it smashed to pieces with each advance of the enemy. Heroism after 1938 is a matter of bearing the knowledge of one ignominious defeat after another. Brecht’s shameful collapse is the book’s final declaration that the individual is no answer to the crises of the twentieth century; and that if there is an answer, it lies with the nameless multitude to whom the work of Brecht, and every other toiler for truth on the cultural front line, is committed. The lion’s paw does not herald a coming hero; it indicates a subject of history irreducible to classical embodied form, without salience, anonymous, gaseous, and distributed.

The Aesthetics of Resistance is a work born out of a profound dissatisfaction with the ways we are given to think about history, politics, and those great works of art that offer to do more than merely reflect them. It is also born out of a deep misgiving about the authorial self, and the blindness to which it must give rise, since the existential individual is not a sufficient basis on which to erect an historically relevant aesthetic truth – indeed, it is a screen for masking it. Weiss once wrote that his masterpiece’s impetus was the realisation, years after the events described, that he had lived in close proximity to the anonymous agents of the resistance during their boldest years; but as a privileged middle-class subject, saw nothing of it.

I am now attempting to illustrate what I did not see earlier …. I lived in the immediate vicinity of those engaged in an illegal struggle …. I discovered their activity only later …. I proceed from what is missing and attempt to produce connections.

We might describe the overarching method of The Aesthetics of Resistance as the drawing out of these connections to the point that the ‘I’ is dissolved in them, translated back into the social substance, the lived relations and structural configurations that make it possible in the first place. But that only makes a start, especially for this second volume, in which the ‘we’ pronoun so characteristic of the first volume’s narrative voice is relatively demoted. In its place, an ‘I’ emerges out of the pain of exile and isolation, as first on the battle lines of the Spanish Civil War and then in and around Stockholm, our narrator is cut off from the regular dialogical exchanges about art and politics that dynamize his earlier voice. In stark contrast to the standard novel, then, the ‘I’ here is felt as an exception, even a mutilation of the narrative substance, cut out from a thriving discursive culture and abandoned to its own devices. Hungry, grasping, this stunted singular must find compensation elsewhere.

To that extent, the whole volume comes across as the wan ghost of a Bildungsroman. Having already learned and lost the joy of being plural, this ‘I’ must go through the literary motions of building itself generically into a One. Its efforts are halting, sometimes agonising, finding ephemeral solidity only in artistic meditations. As a Bildungsroman, indeed, the volume tilts emphatically toward the subgenre of Künstlerroman: the novel of a budding artist. For readers of Volume I, this should come as no great surprise, given how many pages of that instalment were given over to ruminations of the highest sophistication on some of the greatest works of art in human history. That trend is continued here – as we shall see – but now in such a way as to confirm the emergent outlines of a vocation, a calling to labour on and with the aesthetic. The youthful ‘I’ (nameless throughout, yet designated as proletarian) will become a writer; albeit a writer haunted, occupied by the many he is charged with representing:

…after all this preparation, I was edging closer to that which I saw as my vocation. Professional writer: that sounded like professional revolutionary. And just as the many who carried out the revolution stood behind the latter, so too they stood behind the writer, examining what he dreamt up in isolation; and it was only through their mental concentration that his words finally received their true life.

The ‘aesthetics of resistance’ of Weiss’ title are positioned on this awkward threshold between the vocation of professional revolutionary and the calling of a ‘professional artist’, between an uncompromising commitment to the cause of overthrowing the rule of capital, and an equally uncompromising engagement with the provocative manifestos of the avant-garde. The choice of becoming a writer does not entail any reduction in the intensity of the narrator’s (and the text’s) political passions. Rather, fealty to the ‘aesthetics of resistance’ means applying one foot to the accelerator of the revolutionary sequence, and sticking the other up the arse of bourgeois respectability. In the mouth of one of the novel’s signal tutelary figures, Willi Münzenberg, what matters is

not to pit them against one another but rather to bring their parallel courses, their simultaneous creations together to form a common denominator. What did match up was the intensity of revolutionary artistic and political actions, as well as their internationalist objectives. What seemed irreconcilable was the derision, the irony of the one, with the seriousness, the sense of responsibility of the other.

Notoriously, the narrative voice of The Aesthetics of Resistance is firmly planted in the camp of ‘the seriousness, the sense of responsibility’ of the professional revolutionary. It is a voice characterised by a fastidious sobriety and almost puritanical sexlessness, leavened now and then by sequences of exorbitant oneiric associationism and tonal vivacity, but never remotely mistakable for any of the historic avant-gardes. Its analytic proclivities and melancholy oversight of the last century’s smoking charnel house tend to chasten any sporadic tendencies toward frolic or whimsy. That dourness, however, has this affinity with the masterpieces of Surrealism and Dada: it is predicated on the void.

We begin with one of Weiss’ signature sympathetic artistic reconstructions: a 30-page immersion in the material, method, and motivations behind Théodore Géricault’s 1819 painting The Raft of the Medusa. By now, prepared by the extensive readings of Volume I, we understand such episodes to work simultaneously in two directions – inward, toward the historical specificity, the rich contextuality of the work’s original production; and outward, toward the horizon of the narrator’s own situation, for which the work stands in some intensive allegorical relationship, as if to reassure him and us of the unbroken continuity of class society, its injustices, and the work it takes to resist them. Here, the infamous historical incident commemorated by Géricault’s morbid masterpiece – the poorer 147 survivors of the colony ship Méduse, left to drift in the seas off Mauritania in a jerry-rigged raft for thirteen days, by which time only fifteen were left alive – served at the time to indicate the absolute bankruptcy of the Bourbon Restoration, its callous disregard for the revolutionary heritage it had displaced. But Géricault’s obsessive, career-destroying obsession with a work that broke with all tenets of classicism and buried the painting’s viewers under a mound of cannibalised corpses, goes further than any merely political animus.

Géricault ended up ‘under the yoke of Hades, and the strain of rebellion passed away, leaving only a necrotic husk’. His researches – including longs days and nights studying corpses in the morgue of the Hospital Beaujon, interviewing survivors, reading every available account of the wreck, and travelling to Le Havre and the English Channel to study storms at sea – are the stuff of legend, and are recreated here in a parallel montage of prose, alternating between a study of the painting, the conditions of its making, and the context of its reading. It is as if the narrator cannot rest until all the coordinates, all the contributing elements are arranged on the page; description making way for explanation before ceding ground to evaluation. The result is a bravura demonstration of the power of attention and preparation needed to unpack the greatest works of art, which are themselves restless and ambiguous to the extent that they are thrown back upon their own historical conditioning – on the irreconcilable moments of their production and their reception. We take leave of the artist having come to terms with the way in which ‘he formed part of the universal relationship and connection which constitute the background of artistic creativity’.

That background, which bleeds through to the textual foreground in a manner that the reader can only come to grips with over time, is the canvas on which the ruling class paints its will to power in the inky monochrome of Tartarus. ‘[I]nexorably, the poison from the realm of depravity and the greed for profit seeped into every group, syndicate, and organization, dissolved their ties, their mutual relationships, undermined the integrity of their representatives’. Our narrator is drawn to The Raft because it speaks to his brief exile in Paris, as one of many evacuees from the failed Spanish Resistance, a displaced international brigade of defeated fighters for the precious Republic, now clearly feeling the iron heel of fascism descending on the neck of Europe. In the Louvre, momentarily free from the discipline of the front to pursue aesthetic questions once again, he finds in Géricault’s ‘yellowish, bluish, greenish tones’ a fitting image of his and his comrades’ abandonment to fate: ‘the impression of a sudden extinction and death’.

This oppressive Schopenhauerian dimension to Weiss’ epic is compensated for by ‘effervescent, dreamlike elements’ which dance across the wasteland in sudden arabesques and leaps of ardent faith. One jumps out from the walls of the Louvre: an extraordinary panel from a Tuscan altarpiece by Sassetta (1437), featuring the Blessed Ranieri freeing the poor from incarceration in Firenze, ‘St. Rainerius flew through the air, in front of the smooth wall of a prison in which he had blown a hole, with a wave of his hand, in order to free the paupers who had been thrown into the cellar. The saint wasn’t floating: he was roaring around like a bullet, his legs disappearing in a flaming cloud.’ Another finally allows us to see Brecht in his heroic aspect:

The detective novels, cried Brecht [at the departing police officers who have been ransacking his library], you’ve forgotten the detective novels, rushing up the steps to the little mezzanine where he slept, jumped down with stacks of the cheap, dog-eared books that he liked to read in the evening, tore open the window, threw them after the police, and there they lay in the garden, Wallace, Doyle, Christie, Chandler, Carr, Carter, Quentin, Sayers, and all the rest, lying in the puddles and the mouldering leaves.

Such moments, splendid in their utopian luminescence and comic lucidity, punctuate a narrative threatened by absolute darkness. If other artworks offer succour to the narrator’s vanishing sense of solidarity – Meryon’s etchings, Sue’s novels, Breughel’s Dulle Griet and the Triumph of Death, for instance – they are necessarily located at the far edges of an historical unfolding that brands the twentieth century with the mark of Hell. Dante once again presides over the imaginary organisation of this landscape, as we cascade down the various bolge of contemporary political reality, the gibbering devils massing on the borders of sense. As in Dante, they are named, presented in all their infamy and shame. Not the Nazis, not the fascists themselves, whom Weiss refuses to portray, but their dupes and lackeys in the liberal West. Here is Neville Chamberlain, exhausted, prostrated by the responsibility of averting war and appeasing Hitler, awaiting the award of the Nobel Peace Prize; here is that ‘stocky petit bourgeois’ Édouard Daladier, fellow-signatory to the Munich Agreement, striking ‘patriotic tones, attempting to tauten his bloated face and present himself as a respectable man burdened by the obligations of France’s alliances’. Here are all the petty party functionaries and apologists, of Social Democracy and the Communist Party both, who in one way or another justified and normalised Hitler in the name of the working class. Finally, here is that truly Dantean figure of Jakob Rosner, ‘the dwarf’, editing Die Welt for the Comintern in Stockholm, mumbling snatches of Mahler while reeling off all the fine reasons why Sweden should acquiesce peacefully to the German occupation, to support the USSR, ‘crouching in his nightshirt’ and lisping through his dentures.

Mired in the infernal bog, the conspirators of the night are counterbalanced by agents of the light, named and sanctified in turn. The important companions of Volume I – Coppi and Heilmann especially – have receded to the outer distance, but in their place come others equally charged with youth and intensity. Sixten Rogeby is ushered onto the stage with a true flourish, his early years dispatched with an almost Balzacian eye for the telling sociological detail – early years in Karlstad with his carpenter father, autodidactic course in romantic fiction, hired out as help to peasants in Charlottenberg, then abroad in the cabin-boy corps, sailing around the Kattegat in a three-master, before work as an ordinary seaman and then time on the front as a communist fighter in the Spanish Civil War. Once again, what is most striking about such characters in Weiss is the way such a determinedly proletarian countenance is invested with the most world-absorbing spiritual and intellectual hunger:

Until the outbreak of the civil war in Spain, he worked at sea as an ordinary seaman and machinist, hired illegally, saw harbors that were identical to one another, read books, from which he always learned something new, began himself to write stories, letters, addressed to people whose names he didn’t know, and who lived all over the place, and the writing was just as natural as the manual labor on board, not corresponding to some desire, but to a necessity.

Most fiction treats workers as fully external creatures, carrying their physicality as a symbol of their position within the division of labour; Weiss presents them as the authentic bearers of our collective human cultural destiny. It is a question of how these workers, who pay for the very possibility of culture with the surplus created by their labour, attain it, and even come to represent it, themselves. By sheer force of will, and the necessity of an inner compulsion, these young men and women return from the shop floor, physically exhausted but spiritually on fire, to study, debate, and reflect.

Another new character, Rosalinde Ossietzky, daughter of the martyred pacifist Carl von Ossietzky (who died in the Esterwegen concentration camp under Nazi supervision, ‘a trembling, deadly pale something, a creature that appeared to be without feeling, one eye swollen, teeth knocked out, dragging a broken, badly healed leg … a human being who had reached the uttermost limits of what could be borne’), supplies a relatively novel note to the book. Not only is she a descendent of the ‘homeless left’s’ chief contemporary representative, and therefore a figure of generational endurance; but she is a young woman, and that in itself is reasonably rare. So rare indeed that she briefly becomes something like an unresolved love object for the narrator, who is caught at one surprising moment simply repeating her romantic name. But she is above all a tragic figure, who speaks up for the enormous dignity of suicide in an epoch of moral collapse:

Now, and once again came this yes, which was like a loud groan, now you all see them as lost souls, because they hang themselves, because they drink poison, put a bullet in their heads; perhaps later on you lot will recognize in this a dignified response to an all-encompassing extortion.

The extortion is felt on all sides, most cruelly from the Soviet state. If the core political problem rippling through the communist left in Volume I concerned the Moscow Trials, Stalin’s ruinous liquidation of most of the most talented members of the Party, then Volume II is obliged to grapple with that other inexcusable tactical catastrophe that was the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between the USSR and Hitler’s Germany, signed August 23, 1939. It is around this nadir of Soviet foreign policy that the bulk of this book buckles and bends, as fiercely intelligent communists beat their brains trying to justify, to explain to one another and the mocking Social Democrats, to nobody’s satisfaction, just why appeasing Hitler will delay or even prevent war, protecting the worker’s state from imminent invasion, and giving hope to the German proletariat. The cumulative effect of these tortuous exercises in collective bad faith is to weaken, if not destroy, the organic link between the radicalism of youth and the October Revolution. The first-person plural returns to underscore the immensity of this transformation:

We felt ourselves to be at the mercy of a politics that could not be influenced and that crushed all individual considerations. The nightmarishness of it resided in the fact that a seemingly unreal entity was claiming to be the sole representative of reality. What was really engulfing us at that moment was the renewed realization of how divorced we were from everything that made up the affairs of the state. We had become accustomed to accepting the deformities that were nothing but a reflection of our own insignificance and mental weakness.

It is in this dire context that Brecht and his circle come to substitute, in the mind of our narrator, for the failing Soviet apparatus; for Brecht’s unsparing critical honesty, and his radical openness to all voices, all positions on every question, is felt not as a weakness to his authority, but its secret strength. Where Stalin butchers every antagonistic sentiment, Brecht internalises them, gaining in moral magnitude with each dialogical incorporation.

The narrative crux of the book concerns the extensive preparations, research, discussions, disagreements, and gradual artistic evolution of one of Brecht’s great projects: the play about the medieval Swedish hero Engelbrekt (to whom our playwright is drawn, we gather, first by the homonym within his name). It is a work of such massive undertaking and ambition that the end result – an unfinished heap of fragments – is presupposed in its beginning; but what matters to Weiss is just how this process-over-product achievement, and the nature of the work that goes into it, can stand as the most satisfactory illustration of an ‘aesthetics of resistance’ for our broken times. This restive, difficult, protracted business of collective researching, reading out, blocking, drawing the stage, writing, arguing, rejecting, is as close as we get in this book to the central dynamic promise of an aesthetic praxis designed for the losers of history: the peasants, workers, and unemployed.

In that, it speaks to the Künstlerroman structure, and sublates it in the same gesture. Brecht here provides a rare opportunity for the narrator (one of his worker-bees) to occupy the living organism of a developing work of art. This whole, enormous recreation of the collective effort put into to an unrealised, or failed masterpiece, serves a number of related ends in the novel. It serves as an objective correlative for its own intuitive method: juxtaposing moments of the historical past with the convulsive events of the present. It shows a great artist at work, not as a single individual or ‘genius’, but precisely as a porous sponge for the outpourings of insights of others: the artist as medium for a properly collective enterprise. It demonstrates the limit of this method and this model of art, since ultimately the parallel is felt to be insufficient, the allegory weak and unpersuasive: ‘those models were subjected to their own historical laws and couldn’t help us out of our crisis situations’. And further, it suggests that aesthetic ‘completion’ or finishedness is not the final requirement of the art of resistance; that fragmentary incompletion, laboratory experimentation, is the life-essence of this work: ‘he was more interested in experimentation than the effort to create a finished work. The concept of failure didn’t seem to exist for him.’

It all leads our protagonist – that shadowy incomplete provisional construct – towards a declaration of his method, the very purpose of his textual self. It is here that the intensely earnest sincerity of his revolutionary voice is gene-spliced with the compositional DNA of the avant-garde, namely montage: ‘conflicting themes, abrupt shifts in perspective, the following of contradictory impulses’, and so on.

The composition of the notes documenting these conversations was dictated as if by a chorus. It was not just Rogeby’s or Ström’s voices I heard but the voices of all those who were named, who had appeared and were now taking on form. I began my new occupation as a chronicler who reproduced collective thought. … From now on, my consciousness was filled with the process of writing, which included registering impulses, statements, recalled images, moments of action; everything that had come before had been a preparatory exercise, all the hesitation, all the fragments and ambiguities, the seething monologues, became the medium in which my thoughts and reflections resonated. I gained a glimpse into a mechanism that sifted and filtered, that brought apparently unconnected elements together into segments, that organized what I had heard and experienced into sentences, that was continually searching for formulations, striving for clarity, ceaselessly forging ahead to new heights of vividness.

The Künstler, then, as what Faulkner called a ‘barracks’ of overlapping inconsistent voices, the voices of the living and the dead, the false and the true, all brought together in the medium of what Weiss calls ‘universal connections’, or the totality itself. ‘I’ is an other, all the named and nameless others, and his text is their braided threnody, the swansong of our history’s last best hope, sounding out in piercing pain as the night gathers balefully around.