Monday, June 4, 2012

Günter Grass’ Bombshell Poem “What Must be Said”

i got this print in germany while working on grass' novel The Flounder

Two months ago today the Nobel-Prize winner published a poem in the Süddeutsche Zeitung that elicited some thoughtful remarks:

Günter Grass is a NAZI. Günter Grass is an anti-Semite. Günter Grass is odious. Günter Grass has committed a mortal literary sin. Günter Grass has propagated blood libel. Günter Grass is persona non grata in Israel. 

Not since Heinrich Heine's "The Silesian Weavers" earned jail time for anyone caught with the poem on their person ("A curse on God, King, and Fatherland!") has a poem drawn such attention.

The poem has three basic threads of thought. The first is about why the poem’s persona has remained silent about a country he hesitates to name because of his own country’s guilt vis-à-vis that other country. The second is about the threat of nuclear weapons in the Mideast, about Israel’s nuclear capabilities and Iran’s potential nuclear capability, and about a threatened strike by Israel against Iran. The third is about the morality of supplying a German-built submarine to Israel.

First thread:
Why, however, was I silent until now?
Because I thought my ancestry,
afflicted by a never-to-be-overcome stain,
requires that this fact never be spoken as truth
about the land of Israel to which I am bound
and want to remain bound.

Second thread:
It is the asserted right to a first strike
that could eliminate the Iranian people
enslaved and made into organized celebrants
by a mouthy hero because in his realm an
atom bomb is supposed to be in construction.   

Third thread:
. . . my country . . .
is to deliver an additional submarine
to Israel, whose specialty
is to have the capability of directing annihilating warheads
to where the existence of a single atomic bomb is unproven,
though fear wants to provide the proof . . .

Why does the persona break the inhibitions of thread one to assert what he sees as the facts of thread two in order to hinder the business transaction of thread three?

Only thus can all find succor, the Israelis and Palestinians,
and beyond that, all people who live densely packed together 
as enemies in these 
regions occupied by insanity
and finally we too.

What will be the punishment for doing so?

. . . the verdict “anti-Semitism” is understood.

Vergangenheitsbewältigung! This eight-syllable word with its hanging and rising consonants (four g’s! htblt!), this single word that might translate as an overcoming of or a coming to terms with the past, raises a powerful question: how might the German language be remade as a tool of reason and peace and humanity after having been a blunt perpetrator of Nazi ideology? The answers are legion and their names are Günter Eich, Ilse Aichinger, Heinrich Böll (Nobel Prize), Ingeborg Bachmann, Günter Grass (Nobel Prize), Peter Handke, and so on. 

Grass once argued that “Adorno’s claim that after Auschwitz no more poems could be written has provoked so many misunderstandings that the following interpretation ought to be appended, at least tentatively: poems that have been written after Auschwitz will have to submit to being measured by Auschwitz.”

Measuring his own silence and then his own desire to speak by that standard, Grass’ persona says what he thinks must be said. He says it carefully, almost torturously, bending and twisting his sentences and lines to say it with strong nuance.

He says it in the context of six decades of literary work that includes The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, Dog Years, Local Anesthetic, The Flounder, and other works that investigate ideologies and mythologies and lies perpetrated by the German language (and by extension by all languages and even by himself: "I am skeptical even of my own skepticism"). My analysis of some of these can be found HERE and HERE.

And now, because he has dared to utter the word "Israel," he is suddenly and certainly a Nazi, an anti-Semite, a persona non grata.
The furor is telling, indicative of a coercive herd mentality, of "accepted ideas" a la Flaubert, of a level of intelligent public discourse that has gone extinct.

In 1996 Peter Handke ran into a similar buzz saw when he published, also in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, his long essay A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia (the English version, in my translation, Viking, 1997). Like Grass, Handke was concerned about the use of language, of rhetoric, of silence. Like Grass, Handke was branded an unregenerate and dangerous enemy of democracy. While Grass’s sin is anti-Semitism, Handke’s was being a Serbenfreund, a friend of the Serbs. Like Grass, Handke was accused of saying what any reader of his text knew that he hadn’t said. In The New Republic, for instance, the German writer Peter Schneider, like many others elsewhere, accused Handke of denying the massacre at Srebrenica. Because he couldn’t or wouldn’t read, Schneider ignored explicit passages of the text: “’What, are you trying to help minimize the Serbian crimes in Bosnia, in the Krajina, in Slavonia, by means of a media critique that sidesteps the basic facts? . . . You aren’t going to question the massacre at Srebrenica too, are you?’ ‘No,’ I said.”

How does one argue the merits of a text, of an argument in words, with zealots who don’t care what the text says? How does one argue with zealots who demand that there be no argument? How does one break silence when silence is demanded?

For my fairly literal translation of the poem as well as Michael Roloff’s comprehensive (and amazing) collection of links to responses to the poem (and to a second poem Grass published about Germany's relationship to the Greek financial meltdown), see the hundreds of comments to this earlier post

Michael Roloff has a most thoughtful summary discussion of the controversy HERE (scroll down just a bit to find the colorful essay).


* said...

hi mr abbott, not much to say or add except i love the sentence of how to break silence when silence is demanded.


Couldn't agree me and congratulate you on being far more efficient than prolix me. Grass, of course, as this collection makes clear http://summapolitico.blogspot/05/defense-of-beast-post-mortem-part-ii-of.html

or as one can glean from this huge archive that has accumulated about this event [Three Cheers for the Internet, Hail Glory be to the Google Spiders!]

received far more near instant support and understanding than Handke did at the time, whose modus operandi, that of a phenomenologist, when he was just that, did not take an explicit position. As I am completing a synopsis of the controversy it has become evident to me that two parties, that sometimes overlap, have taken an especially harsh attitude to what Grass said, which in many ways is a commonplace, well know but for thos U-Boots, confirmed this weekend, to be outfitted with special large rockets that have atomic warheads. [1] The Neo-Cons, both in the US, Germany and Israel reacted as though they had been snake bit! [2] Then there is the official German position which is terrified of being regarded as anti-Semitic, which would imply an endorsement of or complicity in the Holocaust, or not being regarded as right-minded. Schirrmacher of the FAZ comes to mind there, as he did during and for years of the Handke controversy, which, after all, had at least three major comings. 1993/ 1999 - Kosovo/ 2007 was it, the Milosevic funeral; with some minor events such as visits to the Milosevic trial and endorsement of the current Serb president to keep the pot boiling. The Neo-Cons, who you might think would hang their heads in forever shame and cower off in a corner, however see the Israeli wish to take out Iran as an opportunity for a second coming. Our President is reading one of their ideologues Kagan, oversees assassinations, conducts cyber warfare... their Manhood wants this to be a 21st American century it seems. And these masters of the Universe will not be the ones who are dying. Grass, li'l old Guenter Grass has upset their shaky applecart it seems.