Three Letters from Germany

Marcel Inhoff

A Letter from Germany about its past

William Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun is not among his most famous novels. In fact, many readers primarily remember it for two short lines: “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” It has become a convenient shorthand for journalists trying to evoke the continuity of past events with a tumultuous present. It should come as no surprise that the lines are favored particularly in Germany, where much of our culture and writing is based on a relationship to past incarnations of this country. Our constitution is not derived from first principles—it is a direct reaction to the darkest days of the nation, an attempt to make sure it never happens again. Still, events often give us occasion to remember Faulkner's words.

Most frequently, in recent years, Germans remember the omnipresence of the past when important writers, politicians, or critics are shown to have had a lugubrious career during the late 1930s and 1940s. Historians, journalists and literary critics have been remarkably busy during the last decade, both illuminating and obscuring the careers of many significant figures in German art and culture. Last year, a particularly interesting case has come to light: young Hans Robert Jauss and his role in armed SS troops between 1939 and 1945.

From where I live and work it is not exceedingly far to Konstanz, home to Jauss and Wolfgang Iser for much of their respective careers. A four hour train ride, in fact, could have carried me there last year for the performance of a play by a minor local playwright whose work is not usually notable or important outside of the small-town confines of Konstanz. Yet it was this performance that shook up more than just this sleepy University town at the Swiss border. A play about Jauss and his Nazi past, performed on a stage in the university that Jauss helped found, accompanied by the announcement of a detailed, 132 page exposé on the facts of Jauss' early life. These facts are easily, if uncomfortably, summarized: from the year Jauss entered the Waffen-SS voluntarily, he assumed leadership positions throughout all 6 years of his involvement in the German war machinery, quite possibly committing war crimes as a battalion commander in Croatia. After the war, like many Germans, he donned the mantle of respectability and embarked on a storied academic career.

After studying French literature in Heidelberg under the great Hans-Georg Gadamer, he eventually co-founded the University of Konstanz, which today is one of the leading institutions of higher learning in Germany. He made a significant impact from day one, with his inaugural lecture shaking up literary criticism in Germany and abroad. He taught at Berkeley, Columbia, and Princeton, as well as at universities in Leuven, Los Angeles, Madison, and Paris. After one semester in Yale he turned down the offer of a second year at the prestigious university. I mention this minor fact because of an interesting connection. Jauss is not mentioned in Evelyne Barish's garish biography of Paul de Man, but the two French literature specialists met during Jauss' year at Yale and Berkeley (De Man makes the occasional appearance in Jauss' letters and essays).

There has been unjustified, but interesting criticism of de Man's theory and practice of deconstruction, a school of criticism he can be said to have co-founded, based on de Man's own dubious wartime past. A school of criticism with the declared goal of examining too-easily accepted truths about language and history quickly came under fire after de Man's past came to light, especially in David Lehman's book on the subject. Lehman reads deconstruction as “a program that promotes a reckless disregard for the truth” and implies that de Man's adoption and championing of French theorists was, ultimately, a self-serving attempt to bend cultural attention away from de Man's personal historical truths.

In this respect, it is difficult to imagine a deeper gulf as the one between de Man and Hans Robert Jauss. While, in readings by Lehman and others, de Man's theory appears designed to mask historical contexts in favor of isolated readings in a self serving fashion, Jauss' theory appears to do the opposite. To be clear: both writers rely on the theories of Hermeneutics. Yet, as Gianno Vattimo has claimed as early as the 1980s. Hermeneutics has become a common language for a variety of critics, an acceptance so broad as to be meaningless as a descriptor of individual critical practices; furthermore, Gerald Bruns has pointed out that post-Dilthey, two traditions of Hermeneutics arose, one leading through Heidegger to French theory and the Yale school, over which de Man presided. The other tradition is less specific and more directly tied to the work of Gadamer who stands between both traditions.

It is that second tradition that returns us to Jauss. In his inaugural lecture, entitled “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory” (and collected in English translation in Toward an Aesthetic of Reception), Jauss clearly and carefully theorizes the historical difference between the past and the present not as a Heideggerian gap but as a continuum. Historical facts and narratives become part of how we assume a text was understood in its own time and how we understand it in ours. This is a cruel simplification of a complex oeuvre that, together with the writings of Peter Szondi, provided a Herculean effort in making Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics work for literary criticism. Still, it is enough to see that Jauss' own musings on literature close what one could impishly call the hermeneutic circle of Jauss' own past.

If we accept—and we should not—the argument put forth by Lehman and others, that Paul de Man was attracted to theories that exculpated him of the fine grained details of his own history, then the contrast to Jauss could not be greater, since he wrote criticism profoundly committed to history and the repeated connection and re-assessment of historical texts. While it changes nothing about the dreadful details of his wartime actions, it provides us as readers and citizens born in more fortunate times with the tools to better understand the texts of our past, even the most awful ones. With Gadamer, Jauss echoes Faulkner when he postulates that we can only understand texts of the past when we connect them to the present, when we merge our expectations as readers with those of readers contemporary to the texts. The present and the past are not isolated, they are inseparable. For all the outcries of Jauss defenders last year, as a reader of his work one suspects that Jauss would not have protested quite as vocally. He knew the score. In Germany, the past is never dead. It is not even past.

A Letter from Germany about its poets

It seems fitting that a letter from Germany would echo another letter from Germany, although it cannot hope to attain the same level of literary response. The 'letter' in question, a letter only in name, is a poem written in 1950 by Rainer Maria Gerhardt, a young German poet, editor and translator. Readers of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley might know the letter, at least by name, since Olson's answer is an important poem in its own right, “To Gerhardt, There, Among Europe's Things of Which He Has Written Us in His 'Brief an Creeley und Olson,'” as well as Olson's “funeral poem” to the young poet, “The Death of Europe.” In his brief life, Gerhardt used what little money he had to found his own publishing venture, fragmente, which would in time publish a couple of issues of a poetry magazine (under the same name) as well as a small handful of books. He published and translated American poets like Olson, Creeley, William Carlos Williams, Delmore Schwartz and Pound, most of whom appeared in print for the first time under Gerhardt's watchful eyes. His translations of Pound led to a correspondence with the reclusive American. Eventually, despite his extraordinary talent and achievement, he ended his own life before he even turned 30. German poetry and criticism has ignored this powerful, pioneering poet for decades until in 2007 a magnificently edited collection of his complete work was published by Wallstein Verlag, edited and introduced by Uwe Pörksen, with Franz Josef Knape und Young-Mi Quester.

Many of his contemporaries and admirers did not follow his path. They published poetry with large or growing publishers. Not until this past decade has Gerhardt's example found imitators. Many of the most significant young contemporary poets have bypassed the large publishers; they chose instead to launch publishing ventures, magazines and online communities. Nearly every significant German poet born after 1970 is published in one of those tiny ventures, and nearly all of them are run by poets themselves. There is kookbooks, run by the poet Daniela Seel and the artist Andreas Töpfer. There is poetenladen, a venture run by a pianist and writer, which publishes books and a magazine. There's the Parasitenpresse, run by a poet and editor. Urs Engeler Editor is a veteran of the business, publishing among others important poets like Ulf Stolterfoht, who has decided to launch a publishing venture of his own this year, Brüterich Press. Even more extraordinarily, these publishers do not merely share a commitment to contemporary German poetry, they also publish translations of (more of less) contemporary American poetry. Some specialize in this particular aspect, like Luxbooks, where books by John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, Ben Lerner and Mary Jo Bang have found their way into print. Frequently, these books are translated by the same cohort of exciting young poets.

In his funeral poem to Gerhardt, Olson says that the young German firebrand “should have ridden [his] bike / across the Atlantic instead of [his] mind” - the implied tragedy being isolation, with Gerhardt stuck in Germany among “[t]hose who gave you not enough.” The excellent poets of this current generation, like Sabine Scho, Hendrik Jackson, Ann Cotten, Jan Kuhlbrodt or Nora Gomringer are community oriented, creating magazines, awards, poetry festivals and books. Rainer Maria Gerhardt fought for much of his short life against the gatekeepers of the literature business, and by sheer force of will, ingenuity and a unique literary talent, he almost succeeded in carving out a space for the obsession of poetry. For many years, few writers and editors followed in his path. This new paroxysm of editorial and poetical activity in the last 15 years feels like a fulfillment of what Creeley remembers to be Gerhardt's deep-seated craving for a community of writers and poets. “[C]ome here / where we will welcome you,” Olson wrote in his first poem to Gerhardt, recognizing his desolation among the ruins of a post-war Europe. It took a long time for German poets to weave powerful enough webs of community so we can now say, with conviction: come here, where we will welcome you.

A Letter from Germany about its translators

In the cauldron of Romanticism, Classicism and the steely post-WWI modernism, one of the most overlooked writers is Rudolf Borchardt. Friends with Hugo von Hofmannsthal (a selection of his work was published in 2008 by Princeton University Press (edited and partly translated by the wonderful J.D. McClatchy)), and a member of the George-Kreis, a loose group of writers and intellectuals centered around the impenetrable figure of Stefan George. Much as it was for many American writers of their day, translation was a means of not merely introducing the literature of other cultures into their own, but a way of working on their own poetics. Among the many writings of Rudolf Borchardt, the most under-appreciated and yet thrillingly unique was his translation of Dante, which was published in multiple installments starting in 1923. It is only in print as a part of his collected works, but it's a momentous achievement, a translation that reaches into a German dialect to produce equivalents for Dante's Tuscany-inflected Italian, and combines it with words derived from various medieval German dialects to create a language that he hoped would feel as new to his audience as Dante's Italian felt to his. In a way, his translation is a version of the extraordinary achievement of Hölderlin's translations.

The very same year that Borchardt published his Dante, a much more famous text on translation, also in awe of Hölderlin's achievement, found its way onto German bookshelves: Walter Benjamin's translation of Baudelaire's Tableaux Parisiens, which was accompanied by an essay called “The Translator's Task.” In it, Benjamin creates a vision of a translator whose translation is translucent – it doesn't overpower or hide the original, it foregrounds it. In many ways, this essay has become the foundational text of German translation studies, but as time went on, more and more was eroded by academic teaching and forgetfulness, to the point where students are now only taught that following Benjamin simply means following form over content, ignoring the complex argument in Benjamin's essay on the relationship between language and meaning. Where translation was once an important task, undertaken by poets and scholars, and its results hotly debated, the lapse in reading Benjamin has become accompanied by a lapse in the practice of translation itself. These days, it is sometimes difficult to make out the translator of a given book, texts are translated from English which were not originally published in that language. After Hölderlin, Borchardt and Benjamin, critics now delight in praising translations that are easier to read than the original. With a few luminous exceptions, the state of translation in Germany is dire.

It seems odd, then, that it is Germany that saw a new direction in translation studies being examined. In 2011, I found myself at a symposium about the relationship of hermeneutics and translation. This symposium, which kicked off a whole series of publications, was led by John Stanley of the University of Applied Sciences in Köln, with support from Hermeneutics scholars Radegundis Stolze and Larisa Cercel. Leaning equally on Heidegger and Gadamer, the two main branches of 20th century German hermeneutics, the symposium strove to return the debate to a more responsible and linguistically exciting level. A call for papers for the third symposium, scheduled for summer 2016, has just gone out, and a volume of selected papers from the first symposium, at which I had spoken myself, has been published earlier this year (Translational Hermeneutics: The First Symposium, Zetabooks); the papers in it cover a wide enough area to include topics from the poetry of Wisława Szymborska, the novels of Ha Jin and translations of the Qu'ran to more broadly programmatic texts by Douglas Robinson and John Wrae Stanley himself. As I look upon the landscape of translation, not only in Germany, but in the United States, as well, there's a hope that projects like these help all of us to see clearer in as essential an area as literary translation.

And yet, I am not currently a contracted translator myself, nor are many of the symposium's participants. It could be argued that complaints about this country's translation ethics should be directed at publishers, editors or the reading public. Surely, nobody can deny that many shortfalls of translations are due to economic constraints, and finally, it is entirely valid and accurate to point out that despite having lost a certain obligation to the original text, German translators sometimes unearth and translate rare and exceptional texts. Earlier this year, Fischer published a pioneering translation of Stefano D'Arrigo's difficult masterpiece, the 1400-page Horcynus Orca, translated by Moshe Kahn. It's the first translation of the novel into any language. Without the ubiquitous nature of translation in Germany and the openness of publishers to undertake even risqué projects, books like this would not exist. Borchardt himself, aristocratic aesthete to the bone, dismissed concerns about accessibility by saying that he didn't care for the concerns of readers who read him because they could not read Italian. It is my hope that academic projects and practical issues of contracted translators will find each other help—and insightful. Maybe Walter Benjamin can serve as an example. In him, the philosopher reaches out to the admirer of Baudelaire and translator of his work.

MARCEL INHOFF is a German scholar, poet, translator and graduate student at Bonn University. His interests range from American poetry to memory studies and postcolonial literatures. His first book of poetry Prosopopeia was published by Editions Mantel in 2015. He is currently completing a PhD dissertation on midcentury American poetry in Bonn.