A Political Introduction to Günter Grass

**Disclaimer: this post also appears on Discourses on Liberty**

-Alex Donovan Cole

The problems of modernity are indeed disconcerting, but they have always been with us.   Chiefly, modernity’s major problem is its lack of a readily apparent vital center for politics, whether in the form of a common identity or a common moral outlook.  This most often appears in the conflict between what Taylor calls “moral sources.”  According to Charles Taylor, “the drive to original vision will be hampered, will ultimately be lost in inner confusion, unless it can be placed in some way in relation to the language and vision of others.”[1]  The primary actor modernity concerns itself with, however, is the individual subject, making the possibility of this relation to “the vision of others” more difficult.

 

Taylor writes, “selfhood and the good” to the moderns “turn out to be inextricably intertwined themes.”[2]  Indeed, subjectivity allows an individual human being to evaluate claims regarding politics and personal ethics and pursue a lifestyle based upon their subjective understanding insofar as this lifestyle does not present a danger to others.  Despite the differences in moral outlooks, Taylor argues that the common claim of modernism is: “We…feel particularly strongly the demand for universal justice and beneficence, are peculiarly sensitive to claims of equality, feel the demands to freedom and self-rule as axiomatically justified, and put a very high priority on the avoidance of death and suffering.”[3] 

Indeed, the problem may not be whether people agree on the content of good, but on how their considerations of the good are expressed.  Every concept Taylor mentions in the previous paragraph contains radically different means of expressing – some of which contradict each other.  For instance, does “self-rule” imply that if one amasses a great amount of money, they are free to stockpile dangerous weapons or scarce resources needed by others in that society?  If so, then our focus on self-rule violates our need for equality.   Does “equality” imply that one should sacrifice one eye for those with none regardless of consent?  If so, then our desire for equality violates our desire for self-rule or bodily autonomy.   In other words, we do not pursue particular goods in isolation from other goods.  We seek multiple goods, usually needing to violate other goods in order pursue one we value more highly at a particular time.

Guenter Grass
Image of Günter Grass, courtesy of The Guardian

 

Such a tension between goods within society is not wholly modern.  The tragedians, Aeschylus and Sophocles, write lucidly on this phenomenon.   Aeschylus’ Oresteia, for instance, posits that different facets of human life provide different sets of obligations for individuals within a society.  The desire for public order and vengeance sets the House of Atreus against itself for generations.  Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon begets the murder of Clytemnestra by Orestes and Electra, for instance.  This cycle ends only with the establishment of Athenian Democracy by Athena, whereby persuasion or a public language and a merciful, non-punitive state are established to balance the sources of moral life, so that when they do conflict, disaster need not occur.  In other words, by means of a language of the right, public discussion can occur in a relatively neutral way that will attempt to balance all claims against one another and arrive at a decision that is fairly enforced and respected by society.

However, is a language of the right enough?  Sophocles’ Antigone enforces many of the same themes of Oresteia, but places them in a different context.  While Oresteia occurs in a state of lawlessness prior to the invention of a just political order, Antigone occurs after the end of a civil uprising, whereby justice has been eroded, and the bonds of state and society (Nomos) have been broken.  It is not that the state is no longer a source of the good in Antigone, but that the state has ignored the validity of other moral sources – namely, the family.  The major conflict in Antigone is generated when Antigone buries her brother Polynices (who led the rebellion against the King Creon) against Creon’s orders.  Creon orders Antigone’s execution, stating that traitors should not be given refuge, even in death, and that to restore Thebes to justice, drastic punitive measures must be taken.

As Hegel argues, what makes this conflict tragic is that it is not simply one of good vs. evil, but good vs. good.[4]  However, unlike Oresteia, Antigone presents the reader with the very real possibility of despotism in the wake of political collapse.  Creon is correct to attempt to restore this balance, but his means are unjust and punitive to the point of authoritarian.  Antigone is right to give her brother a proper burial, but is wrong to ignore the importance of her brother’s punishment in the eyes of public order.  What results is a situation in which no one position sees the merit of the other and any sort of clear moral solution breaks down.

This trend of ignoring the validity of other positions is one that can is easily found in contemporary Western Society.  Many proponents of homosexual marriage, for instance, fundamentally cannot see why older people are uncomfortable with the prospect of expanding marriage rights to homosexuals.  On the other hand, many opponents of homosexual marriage are unlikely to acknowledge the validity of their opponents’ position.  The proponents simply argue that their opponents are old-fashioned and bigoted.  The opponents say that the proponents simply want to do away with marriage and even cosmology itself.  What occurs in this course is no longer a public debate regarding who may marry, but a “culture war,” whereby “bigots” are put at war with “liberalizers.”  Public discourse breaks down and pertinent soicetal issues become spectacle.

The conflict is not, in itself, a bad thing.  Kant and Hegel deftly teach that war is, as Heraclitus suggested, “the father of all and king of all.”[5]  According to Kant, “Even in the most highly civilized state this peculiar veneration for the solider remains…War itself…has something sublime about it… On the other hand, a long peace generally brings about a predominate commercial spirit [which] debases the disposition of the people.”[6]  Hegel, likewise argues that “according to the Notion of recognition…each seeks the death of the other…The relation of the two self-conscious individuals is such that they prove themselves and each other through a life and death struggle…And it is only through staking one’s life that freedom is won…”[7]

Indeed, if authentic self-becoming is something we value (and I contend it ought to be), conflict must be preserved.  If modernity brings one great idea to the table, this is it: war must be domesticated.  Conflict is needed for the flourishing of human Spirit.  However, this flourishing is not possible if it erases human life.  Modern moral philosophy has agreed that human life possesses a sort of innate dignity that no institution may deprive without some form of justification.  Therefore, what is at stake is less the efficacy of conflict, but the way positions within this conflict are expressed in society.

Subsequently, the subject is now sovereign in modernity.  But not any subject: the self-conscious subject is sovereign.  Hegel writes this position of modern subjectivity begins with Socrates: “The Greeks had a customary morality; but Socrates undertook to teach them what moral virtues, duties, etc., were.  The moral man is not he who merely wills and does that which is right – not the merely innocent man – but he who has the consciousness of what he is doing.”[8]  However, with self-consciousness comes angst, anxiety regarding the very meaning of one’s existence.  The question becomes less, “what I should do?” but, “who I am?”  Taylor writes, “Moderns can anxiously doubt whether life has meaning, or wonder what its meaning is.”  On the contrary, for premoderns, “some framework stands unquestioned which helps define the demands by which they judge their lives and measure, as it were, their fullness or emptiness.”[9]

As Taylor is correct to point out, such a framework is not as readily apparent in modern life, but it is not completely lost.  Taylor gives us a key concept as to how to recover such a foundation: the development or creation of a creative gentleman.  Taylor argues that the development of a genteel personality is a continuation of the pre-modern “warrior ethos” but in a domesticized form.  He writes, “They share certain discriminations: what is honourable and dishonouring, what is admirable, what is done and not done.”[10]  However, if this genteel soul simply accepted these discriminations uncritically, or never examined custom, we would consider them a very well-spoken robot who is nearly human.  No, a modern self-conscious gentleman is unafraid to take on the injustice or thoughtlessness of society, no matter how firmly engrained it is.  What makes a gentleman a gentleman is how this criticism is carried out.  Taylor makes a great deal about artistic expressionism in that he says: “we delude ourselves if we think that philosophical or critical language for these matters is somehow more hard-edged and more free from personal index than that of poets or novelists.  The subject doesn’t permit language which escapes personal resonance.”[11]  Likewise, we should take art seriously as a means to criticize political maladies with the finesse and nuance that is so often missing in modern times.  Therefore, I propose the candidate whom we should imitate in our late-modern political dealings is the great German novelist, poet, memoirist, and essayist, Günter Grass.

Günter Grass is a Gdansk-born German writer.  In 1999, Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his “frolicsome black fables [that] portray the forgotten face of history.”[12]  Indeed, Grass argues that his writing and is an attempt for language to “become memory.”[13]  Grass writes that the occupation of his hometown of Gdansk by the Soviets and Nazis throughout after and during the Second World War represents a great loss to him.  He says, “Homeland is something one becomes aware of only through loss…These lands cannot be regained.”[14]   However, knowledge of this loss is what connected Grass to others: “My hometown was mostly destroyed but I met refugees who understood how I felt.  We could speak about lost things.”[15]  As a result, Grass argues that his writing primarily serves as a way to “take the goose step out of German”[16] and preserve means of remembering past atrocities so as to prevent them in the future.  The most dangerous prospect of refusing to encounter the past is a situation in which “work and leisure are…subordinated to this one utopian principle – absolute busyness.”  Under a condition of “absolute business,” “utopia and melancholy will come to coincide; an age without conflict will dawn, perpetually busy – and without consciousness.”[17]

In other words, Grass fundamentally argues that the role of art is to maintain conflict in society without leading to the tragedy described by Aeschylus and Sophocles or the Spirit-less “end of history” cautioned by Hegel.  This is done through what Charles Taylor calls languages of personal resonance and “expressivism.”[18] Grass says in a 1991 interview with The Paris Review that his means of expressing the forgotten black history of Germany and the need for a vital center is not exhausted by the novel alone.  Instead, Grass writes, “Prose, poetry, and drawings stand side by side in a very democratic way in my work.”[19]  However, if there is one guiding metaphor in Grass’ work, it is the notion of the fairy tale: “Fairy tales generally speak the truth, encapsulating the essence of our experiences, dreams, wishes, and our sense of being lost in the world.”[20]  In other words, our motivations must be truthful but our means of expressing our motivations must be aided by the use of fiction.  As Grass puts it, “the truth is very boring and you can help it along with lies.”[21]

Grass motivation is, succinctly, campaigning “against the Nazi past” as well as “present[ing] the situation [the reader is] in, or one they may look forward to.”[22]  The goal is radical confrontation with the past, maintaining what is good about it and keeping it close to the heart.  For Grass, language is the primary tool used to “dig up” the forgotten gems of past experiences.  However, as stated early, the “goose step” must be taken out of the language in question.  Grass says, “People are disconsolate, not because everything is so awful, but because we as human beings have it in our hands to change things, but don’t.  Our problems are caused by us, determined by us; and it behooves us to solve them.”[23]  Therefore, attempts to flee into humdrum bourgeois life, or what Heidegger calls the “lostness of the ‘they,’”[24] is unacceptable to Grass.  However, neither is the total acceptance of the “authentic disclosedness of historical existence,[25] or “destiny” of a Volk Heidegger proposes as a response to the problem of anxiety.

In fact, the German media heavily criticized Grass for opposing Reunification.  Grass perceived Reunification as an attempt to ‘colonize’ East Germany by the West in the name of “history” and German “unity.”  He says concerning Willy Brandt’s image of Reunification as a ‘train that has already taken off:’ “No, I do not wish to ride a train that cannot be steered and does not correspond to warning signals.  I have remained standing on the platform.”[26]  Instead, Camus’ image of Sisyphus is one that Grass has infinitely more respect for than Brandt’s “train of history.”  Grass says, “I don’t believe in an end goal [of history]; I don’t think the stone will ever remain at the top of the mountain.”  However, “We can take this myth to be a positive depiction of the human condition….  We are things in flux.  It may be that the stone always slides away from us and must be rolled back up again, but it’s something we must do; the stone belongs to us.”[27]

Such a sentiment carries with it a profound anti-ideological message.  Grass says, “I don’t think politics should be left to the parties, that’s too dangerous.”[28]  Any party that attempts to deliver humanity to an end-goal is bound to disappoint: it will inevitably forget the past and destroy the future.  Grass stands with Voegelin on this point. Grass also agrees with Voegelin that authentic understanding of this past must be expressed through symbols, metaphors, and poetry if it is to mean anything to us in the present.  However, Grass is clear on this point: the past serves as a tool to elucidate and alter the present, but we must do so in a moderate, incremental way.  In Grass’ typically ironic way, the snail is Grass’ preferred symbol for how politics ought to be conducted.

The snail as a symbol for politics is unusual – usually political orders opt for a more majestic animal, such as a hawk or eagle for a political symbol.  The snail is weak, thin-skinned, slow, and small.  This is intentionally ironic.  In 2009, Grass said of the German media’s reaction to his involvement in the SS as a teenager: “I always face the question: should I grow myself a thick skin and ignore it, or should I let myself be wounded?  I’ve decided to be wounded, since, if I grew a thick skin, there are other things I wouldn’t feel anymore.”[29]  Indeed, weakness is the strength of a snail, just as slowness is its cunning.

Therefore, what the problem of modernity calls for is not an attempt to flee modernism.  To use Brandt’s imagery described previously, that train has left the station and we are all on it whether we like it or not. In salving Grass’ worries about being on that train, I suggest the political importance of the artist should be resurrected.  The artist must derive and uncover symbols needed to steer the train and ensure a safe arrival at whatever stop it finds itself – even if it can never reach its final destination.  Grass argues that “Critics aren’t usually very good teachers” even if a critical faculty is needed in late modernity.[30]  However, Grass has stated that a “Mixture of critics and authors [is] altogether a good experience for me.”[31] Consequently, Taylor makes an interesting analogy on this point:

“The philosopher or critic tinkers around and shapes images through which he or another might one day do so.  The artist is like the race-car driver, and we are the mechanics in the pit; except that in this case, the mechanics usually have four thumbs, and they have only a hazy grasp of the wiring, much less than the drivers have.  The point of this analogy is that we delude ourselves if we think that philosophical or critical language for these matters is somehow more hard-edged and more free from personal index than that of poets or novelists.  The subject doesn’t permit language which escapes personal resonance” (Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, p. 512; emphasis his).

This remains one of my favorite analogies in all of political philosophy.  However, it is missing a vital facet: the artist who drives and the tinkerer who criticizes is usually the same person and for good reason.  Ethics and justice for a society depend on the accessibility of symbols developed in art.  However, reception to those symbols fundamentally alters their import to society.  What is needed in response to modernity’s maladies is the development of a personality with a sense of style capable of speaking many philosophic and artistic languages and expressing this style in an ironical, but not cynical, fashion that fundamentally respects the limits of human comprehension and action.  Hence, we should let all ideas remain in our theorizing and all means of expressing them stand side-by-side in our arsenal against the true enemy of the soul: thoughtlessness and tastelessness.

Works Cited:

Arendt, Hannah. 1989. Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. ed. Ronald Beiner. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Gaffney, Elizabeth. 1991. “Günter Grass, The Art of Fiction No. 124.” The Paris Review (119). http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2191/the-art-of-fiction-no-124-gunter-grass.

Grass, Günter. 1997. From the Diary of a Snail. Reprint. Vinerva.

Hegel, GWF. 1977. Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hegel, GWF. 1960. The Philosophy of History. Revised. New York: Willey Book Co.

Heidegger, Martin. 2008. Being and Time. Reprint. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Thought.

Heraclitus. 2011. “Heraclitus.” In Ancient Philosophy, Philosophic Classics Series, ed. Forrest Baird. Boston: Prentice Hall/Pearson.

Jaggi, Maya. 2010. “A Life in Writing: Günter Grass.” The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2010/nov/01/gunter-grass-interview-maya-jaggi.

The Nobel Foundation. 2014. “The Nobel Prize in Literature 1999: Günter Grass.” http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1999/.

Taylor, Charles. 1989. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

[1] Taylor, Charles. 1989. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 37

[2] Ibid p. 3

[3] Ibid p. 495

[4] Hegel, GWF. 1977. Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford: Oxford University Press., p. 443

[5] Heraclitus. 2011. “Heraclitus.” In Ancient Philosophy, Philosophic Classics Series, ed. Forrest Baird. Boston: Prentice Hall/Pearson. p. 20

[6] Kant, quoted in Arendt, Hannah. 1989. Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. ed. Ronald Beiner. Chicago: Chicago University Press. p. 53

[7] Hegel, GWF. 1977. Phenomenology of Spirit. p. 114-5

[8] Hegel, GWF. 1960. The Philosophy of History. Revised. New York: Willey Book Co., p, 269

[9] Taylor, Charles. 1989. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. p. 16

[10] Ibid p. 21

[11] Ibid p. 512

[12] The Nobel Foundation. 2014. “The Nobel Prize in Literature 1999: Günter Grass.” http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1999/.

[13] Grass, G. quoted in, Jaggi, Maya. 2010. “A Life in Writing: Günter Grass.” The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2010/nov/01/gunter-grass-interview-maya-jaggi.

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Grass, Günter. 1997. From the Diary of a Snail. Reprint. Vinerva.

[18] Taylor, Charles. 1989. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. p. 506

[19] Grass, G. quoted in Gaffney, Elizabeth. 1991. “Günter Grass, The Art of Fiction No. 124.” The Paris Review (119). http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2191/the-art-of-fiction-no-124-gunter-grass.

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] Heidegger, Martin. 2008. Being and Time. Reprint. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Thought. p. 312

[25] Ibid p. 449

[26] Grass, G. quoted in Gaffney, Elizabeth. 1991. “Günter Grass, The Art of Fiction No. 124.”

[27] Ibid

[28] Ibid

[29] Grass, G. quoted in, Jaggi, Maya. 2010. “A Life in Writing: Günter Grass.”

[30] Grass, G. quoted in Gaffney, Elizabeth. 1991. “Günter Grass, The Art of Fiction No. 124.”

[31] Ibid

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