Günter Grass believed that it was the duty of writers to engage with the issues of the day.
Do poets have political responsibilities? Should novelists see themselves as defenders of democracy?
I suspect that the German author Günter Grass, who died earlier this week at the age of 87, would have answered both of these questions with “yes.” Grass viewed himself explicitly as a political writer, duty-bound to remind his compatriots of their collective moral failings during the Nazi dictatorship and to do whatever he could to prevent a relapse. “A writer must face up to the test of reality, including political reality; and that can’t be done if he keeps his distance,” he said in a 1972 speech. “A literary style cultivated like a hothouse plant may show a certain artificial purity, but it won’t really be pure.”
Grass and many of his contemporaries were reacting, in part, to what they saw as the naïve traditions of the prewar German middle class, which created a sentimental cult of art and literature that was supposed to rise above the grubby realities of everyday life. Surely it was no coincidence, Grass and other skeptics suggested, that the very same pillars of the bourgeoisie who celebrated the ostensible “apolitical” transcendence of artistic values ended up embracing the Nazis.
Grass wasn’t shy about putting his beliefs into practice. He strove to address political problems in his work, even if he did so in ways that often stretched the boundaries of conventional realism. (His most famous novel, The Tin Drum, describes the war and its aftermath through the eyes of Oskar Matzerath, who, in a sort of protest against the perversities of the adult world, decides to stop growing up, and remains forever in a the body of a child. The whole conceit offered a surprisingly effective way of telling a story about how Nazi ideology’s distortions of everyday life.)
Nor did his political engagement restrict itself to fiction and poetry. He even hit the campaign trail for candidates from the Social Democratic Party, work that he regarded as the logical extension of his literary efforts. For Grass and many of his generation, political detachment was something equivalent to a sin. He expounded his views in countless interviews and speeches. He embraced controversy wherever he could find it.
His willingness to take a stand often backfired, but that was part of the package. As many of the obituaries have dutifully noted, Grass’s status as a moral arbiter suffered a serious blow when he finally revealed, decades into his career, that he had actually served in the Waffen SS as a 17-year-old near the end of the war. (An ill-advised poem about Israel didn’t help, either.)
These failings certainly didn’t do much for Grass’s claim as a moral authority. But do they entirely negate his basic argument — that writers should regard themselves, first and foremost, as citizens? Was he right to suggest that treating art and politics as separate realms is naïve, and perhaps even dangerous?
Many people will be tempted to dismiss such questions out of hand. Of course writers shouldn’t pretend to be politicians, one side will say. Surely you can’t divorce literature from social reality, the other will answer.
My own response is a bit different. Grass, in my view, was framing the problem in the narrowest of terms, as defined by the stark ideological environment of Nazism and the Cold War. In reality, both “art” and “politics” are categories much broader and messier than his simple dualism would suggest, and the lines between them are far less clear than one might expect.
Consider the experience of another German-speaking writer, one of Grass’s rough contemporaries. Paul Celan was a poet from the Romanian city of Czernowitz. Czernowitz, once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was home to a large community of German-speaking Jews that was almost entirely wiped out during the Holocaust. Celan managed to survive (though his parents and many of his relatives did not), and after the war he fled his hometown, moving first to Vienna, later to Paris.
Along the way Celan came up with a dense poetic idiom that constituted his response to the radical civilizational challenge posed by the Holocaust. Writing in the same language used by those who had destroyed his world, Celan crafted verses that came right up to the edge of intelligibility, testing notions of language and meaning.
Like Grass and several other leading writers of their generation, Celan was invited to participate in a series of literary get-togethers known as the “Group of 47.” But it was clear from the start that Celan didn’t fit in. His work was shocking, fragmented, obscure — all qualities rejected by most of the group’s members, who, like Grass, gave primacy to a left-leaning political consciousness. John Felstiner, Celan’s biographer, notes that some in the group denounced his work as “not engagé, ununderstandable.” When Celan recited his verses in a psalmodic singsong — “straight out of a synagogue,” as one of them sniffed — they wrote him off as outmoded, mystical, out of step with the times.
For Grass and his ilk, it was all too easy to dismiss Celan as an adherent of “pure poetry,” the naïve opposite of a properly political writer. But this is a false dichotomy. Celan’s poems, as Felstiner noted, “harbored plenty of fantastic imagery and verbal music,” but criticism that saw them only in these terms “disengaged them from their basis in exile, loss, and mass death.” You can’t get more political than that.
Yes, artists are members of the body politic. But they have other responsibilities, too. We need them to rummage around in odd realms of the mind and spirit, to push back the frontiers of the imagination. This is a quest that may well include involvement in political causes or controversies. But artists should have the freedom to pursue the creative impulse wherever it takes them, without regard to social niceties or, indeed, political constraints. Some of Celan’s contemporaries didn’t get what he was doing at the time; to them his poetry seemed disconnected or irrelevant. Others fully understood its power.
This is why it’s vital that society should defend the principle of artistic autonomy, even when it’s not entirely clear where the artists are going to go with it. (And this why it also seems a bit beside the point to denounce writers like Grass solely on political grounds.)
One thing is for sure, though: No one ever achieved great art just because they had the right political attitude. In the case of Grass, there’s a strong argument to be made that the quality of his literary prosecution moved in inverse proportion to the intensity of his political engagement. Perhaps he wanted it that way — but I’m inclined to doubt it. If anything, Günter Grass will probably be remembered as a writer of considerable talent whose politics often got in the way. It’s by his art, for better or for worse, that later generations will judge him.
Sebastian Willnow/Getty Images
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