Since the end of communism and the reunification of Germany, writers from both the former East and West Germany have sounded the alarm against the materialism of German culture, the dangers of capitalist homogenization, and the decline of values. An entire generation of “left-wing” writers, including Heiner Muller, Botho Strau Beta, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and Martin Walser have attempted to defend German culture against the perceived threat of American capitalism and Western rationalism. Their concerns have led to another call to arms launched by critics, who see in such rhetoric an ominous return to themes already taken up by far Right intellectuals during the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, and more recently within the German New Right of the 1990s.
Yet this dispute is not primarily one between Left and Right, nor is it just another episode in a continuing conflict between writers and critics in a literary marketplace. The new interest in myth, traditions, and the sacred is the harbinger of an epochal change in German culture which has been brewing all through the 1980s and which, like the social changes leading to the end of communism, did not begin with the fall of the Wall but were only revealed by it. In contrast to the post-1945 era, the post-1989 epoch in literature is not about new beginnings but an attack on the idea of beginnings and an attempt to find a connection to the past which was suppressed when 1945 was declared a zero hour. For these writers, the postmodern is passe and liberal-minded critics are defending an ancien regime. The post-postmodern has finally come into focus as the pre-modern.
This shift is nowhere more evident than in the case of Strau Beta, whose work throughout the 1980s has been organized increasingly around themes such as myth and the sacred. Yet the implications of this work were not recognized until the publication of his essay “Swelling Song of the Satyr” in February 1993. Strau Beta’s treatment of art as sacred experience and his polemic against an established liberal understanding of culture have provoked passionate responses from liberal critics in a debate left unfinished in 1945 and only now returning as the repressed legacy of that time when myth and the sacred were not just the domain of fascism.
Strau Beta lays out his pre-modern approach to culture in three basic theses. First, he claims that Germany is in a crisis of values. A society founded on economic prosperity will ultimately come into conflict with and be overwhelmed by the power of traditional, religiously-based cultures in which the members are willing “to defend their moral laws against others even to the point of sacrificing their lives.” Second, he claims that a reverent relation to tradition and authority is essential for the building of individuals. The mass media have destroyed relations to a past cultural tradition, and the Left, in breaking down taboos, has destroyed respect for authority. For Strau Beta, the inability to be “shaken” by the past and by authority is the prerequisite for neo-Nazis excesses. Third, following Rene Girard, Strau Beta claims that violence against scapegoats is necessary for the maintenance of order because it unifies the community around certain values by focussing aggression toward a few victims. The values Strau Beta then defends are those imbedded in a German tradition of high art as opposed to American mass culture.
While the Right’s defense of Strau Beta’s ideas has limited itself to making his essay the centerpiece of a collection, The Self-conscious Nation, in which the contributors, aside from generally supporting his ideas, do not attempt an extended evaluation. Liberal journalists and critics have attacked Strau Betas’ essay for its anti-Enlightenment, anti-liberal political conservatism and condemned the references to myth, sacrifice and the sacred as at best naive and at worst proto-fascist. To the extent that both right-wing and left-wing critics have simply accepted or rejected the sacred as a category, they have remained trapped within a postmodern mindset and have failed to recognize the variety of ways of understanding the sacred. Because it was abandoned by virtually everyone but the Nazis in 1945, the sacred has since remained Nazi cultural territory. Straubata’s work, particularly after 1989, provides an excellent opportunity for an exploration of this space of the sacred in an attempt to finally liberate it from this de facto Nazi occupation.
The Aesthetic and the Rational
The first step in this engagement with the sacred is to define its boundaries. Strau Beta does this in his 1992 book, Beginninglessness, by differentiating between two ways of relating to the world. The first is based on science, reason, and the imitation of nature; the second, on art and belief: “In the end one will not have to decide between beautiful and purposive ideas. . . . The beauty of an idea is as useful for the soul and the spirit as rational cognition is for interaction with the bodily organism.” He does not consider these two modes of experiencing the world to be in conflict. Rather, each has a different foundation and structure, the two forms of experience alternating in our consciousness “like the workdays and holidays of understanding.”
While each form of understanding has its own characteristics and therefore its own role to play in our experience, in the modern world thought and rational cognition have invaded the territory of art. This territory is the realm of belief and the sacred, which Strau Beta takes to be the undefinable source out of which human values originate. The distinction between the rational and the aesthetic is itself not particularly radical; his insistence on the distinction follows a schema already developed by Immanuel Kant. What raises eyebrows is the way Strau Beta defines the tasks proper to each realm. The liberal understanding believes that a social and cultural order must be based on reason. Joachim Vogel, for example, in his response to Strau Beta essay, states his own commitment to the idea of “a social and cultural order based on an enlightened, historically, and socially conscious reason –the incomplete project of modernity.” Strau Beta, claims that culture must be based on an aesthetic experience of the sacred, which divides the world into separate qualities of profane and sacred, familiar and foreign. In contrast to this attempt to create a qualitative distinction between two types of experience, the liberal perspective seeks to treat all things equally. Vogel writes that “the central concept is not the foreign, but the Other, which must indeed be accepted in its historically determined, social and even magical-sacred Otherness, but which at the same time is the universally equal, equal in terms of rights, of individuality, of dignity.” By transforming the question of the sacred as the intervention of the foreign in a mundane reality into a question of human fights for foreigners, Vogel shifts the discussion from the sacred to equality. Yet, in doing so, he refuses even to consider Strau Beta’s argument about the need of the sacred in the constitution of individuals. This refusal reveals an essential problem with the liberal perspective: it concentrates on the problem of mediating between varying perspectives but never poses the question of the origin of a particular cultural perspective.
Strau Beta faces this problem of the origins of human order head-on and determines that they are always aesthetic rather than rational. In support of this argument, he begins with the idea, derived from chaos theory but ultimately referring to arguments from Kant, that the structures of reason are inadequate for grasping the undefinable and complex meanderings of a “fractal” reality. All scientific models are in fact simplifications whose construction depends on the imagination. Under the veneer of natural laws lies the reality of chaos, and all attempts to impose a form onto this chaos are not a recognition of things in the outside world but mental fabrications providing stable and comforting categories on which to base actions. “Cognition does not have anything to do with things; it is effective action, a restless creation.” Because the possibility of cognition is based on an act of creation rather than of reception, it is based on an originating aesthetic act out of which an ensuing logic develops.
Though Bernhard Greiner argues that chaos theory has led to a revision of Kant’s description of relations to the natural world, the new insights of chaos theory are merely a reaffirmation of the conclusion Kant reached in The Critique of Judgment that the empirical world, though subject to natural laws, is so complex that human experience of this world would not be possible were it not for aesthetic mediation of order. In developing his arguments for the necessity of aesthetic judgment in constructing a human sense of order in experience, Kant uses the same reasoning Greiner attributes to chaos theory. Kant also begins with a concept of nature which is endlessly complex and, thus, from the viewpoint of human understanding, random in its movements and changes. The order imputed to nature is arbitrary, yet necessary for the experience of the world. “And yet we must necessarily presuppose and assume this unity, since otherwise our empirical cognition could not thoroughly cohere to [form] a whole of experience.”[160
In approaching aesthetic experience from the perspective of chaos, Straubet’s notion of presence comes very close to Kant’s idea of the sublime. While Kant defines the beautiful as the experience of an apparent harmony of objects with the human faculties used for perceiving them, he describes the sublime as the experience of a contradiction between human faculties and nature: “However, in what we usually call sublime in nature there is such an utter lack of anything leading to particular objective principles and to forms of nature conforming to them that it is rather in its chaos that nature most arouses our ideas of the sublime, or in its wildest and most ruleless disarray and devastation, provided it displays magnitude and might.”
Strau Beta goes beyond Kant by arguing that the miracle with the work of art is something completely unexpected and unrelated to anything which existed before. While a thought can at best be surprising, it is never a miracle. It remains in the realm of the thinkable. . . . it cannot be anything truly unexpected. Every work of art, on the other hand, enters the world as something absolutely unexpected.” Aesthetic experience consists of an openness to those aspects of an existing order which are anomalous and break into the present like a glowing ember out of the depths of the past. The resulting experience of “presence” depends on a receptivity in which the recipient surrenders to the diffuse and the anomalous.
Surrendering is inevitable, because no individual can control his or her own origins, and myth, as the creator of these origins, becomes the foundation of every individual. “Myth weaves its knowledge beyond our heads — everyone’s origins remain in darkness.” In order to exist, every individual must engage in the struggle with this original darkness. But the individual as individual is incapable of combatting this void. “The self-determined individual is the most blatant lie of reason.” The genesis of the individual is thus an assertion of individuation against the darkness of origins as well as death. This assertion is beyond the power of individuals, who are in no better position to construct their existence during life as they were able to enact their own conception and birth. The creation of the subject must be based on an originating myth beyond the immanent logic of reason. According to Strau Beta, the anomalous, miraculous act of creation in the work of art enacts the miraculousness of the creation of the subject.
In Beginninglessness Strau Beta makes this connection between creation of art and creation of the subject by embedding his reflections on art within the consciousness of a man considering his relation to his son, the final passages of the book describing the man as he watches the infant immediately after birth: “We greet the progeny which is our own and belongs to us and not that which suddenly intervenes and which we do not know, which has been banished by endless wisdom. In truth we have no access to the real mist out of which our consciousness arises. We press our understanding into a world closed to us.” Though we are normally closed to such an experience, art has the function of impressing on the recipient a sense of this surrounding mist, giving the recipient “a feeling for the diffuse occurrence before the event, for the unfinished form — for fog and clouds in all appearances, the stable as well as the ephemeral.”
By showing that individuals cannot construct the foundations for their existence, Strau Beta undermines attempts to base social order on individual rights in order to move toward his aesthetic grounding of order. But in contending that the aesthetic event emerges as something completely foreign, which then breaks into the consciousness of the recipient, Strau Beta proposes a crucial shift in the understanding of the role of the aesthetic. While Kant insists that aesthetic judgment is only concerned with the structure of human experience and not with the things themselves, Strau Beta emphasizes that the aesthetic moment is the result of an “emergent” reality which breaks into an existing order.
By locating aesthetic experience in a qualitatively distinct reality that breaks into human consciousness, Strau Beta treats the source of this emergent reality as foreign to the recipient in order to set up a strict divide between everyday experience and the aesthetic experience of “presence.” But in thereby creating this separation between profane and sacred reality, Strau Beta opposes Kant’s idea that this separation has its origins not in an aesthetic experience but in moral acts. For Kant, by revealing to us our relative weakness in the face of the power of nature, the experience of the sublime forces us to confront physical existence with a spiritual ideal. Rather than submitting to the physical power of nature and allowing our lives to be dictated by material needs and desires, we sacrifice our material existence in order to preserve our principles. The aesthetic experience of the sublime is thus an affirmation of our moral ability to defy the overwhelming power of nature and sacrifice material existence in favor of our “highest principles.” Though Kant refers to these highest principles as practical reason, he also explicitly relates the experience of the sublime to the experience of God, sacrifice and the religious fervor of Jews and Muslims. In all these cases, the power of the sublime and of the sacred is based on the mind’s ability to imagine aesthetically the idea of morality.
As a result, “sublimity is contained not in any thing of nature, but only in our mind, insofar as we can become conscious of our superiority to nature within us.” The experience of the sacred does not depend, as with Strau Beta, on surrender to an outside force which invades the senses, but rather on the moral power to place ideals above physical survival and comfort. “This might actually reveals itself aesthetically only through sacrifice (which is a deprivation — though one that serves our inner freedom — in return for which it reveals in us an unfathomable depth of this supersensible power, whose consequences extend beyond what we can foresee).” The experience of the sublime brings the moral idea into the imagination as a concrete experience, first by forcing the imagination to recognize the limits of its ability to experience (in the mathematical sublime) and to control (in the dynamic sublime) sensual reality, and second by demonstrating to the imagination the mind’s ability to ignore this overwhelming power of the sensual in favor of a supersensual (rational or moral) ideal. The imagination experiences in the sublime a demonstration of the human capacity to sacrifice the sensual in favor of a supersensual ideal.
What is crucial for the comparison with Strau Beta, however, is that the imagination perceives the supersensual, not as a positive entity, but as a lack, an anomaly: “The imagination thereby acquires an expansion and a might that surpasses the one it sacrifices; but the basis of this might is concealed from it; instead the imagination feels the sacrifice or deprivation and at the same time the cause to which it is being subjugated.” The experience of the moral ideal is an experience of deprivation. Yet this lack has a positive content determined by the relation, made palpable in the sacrifice, between the physical and the spiritual in the mind. For Kant, the “exhibition of the infinite can as such never be more than merely negative,” and the experience which surpasses the imagination can only be perceived as such once a rational and moral faculty comes into play. By contrast, Strau Beta treats aesthetic experience as if it were the direct mediator of a diffuse haze outside human experience and action. Consequently, he focuses on the sacred exclusively as a singular aesthetic event and ignores the underlying moral component. For Strau Beta, aesthetic “presence” does not derive from a distinct moral dimension but is itself the source of the moral ideal.
This shift in emphasis becomes most striking in Strau Beta’s attacks on the culture industry: “Whoever allows himself to be gawked at by millions of strangers during a private conversation damages the dignity and the wonder of the dialogue, face-to-face speech, and should be punished with the lifelong withdrawal of an intimate sphere. The regime of the telecratic public sphere is the unbloodiest rule of violence and at the same time the most comprehensive totalitarianism in history.” Such an extreme reaction to German television can only make sense when aesthetic experience itself becomes sacred, rather than the moral order which underlies it. As a consequence of his stance, the solutions Strau Beta proposes for the perceived German crisis of culture are not moral (e.g., stop burning down refugee centers) but aesthetic: “so many wonderful writers still to be read — so much material and models for a young person to become a loner [Einzelgainger]. One only needs to be able to choose: the only thing one needs is the courage to secede, to turn away from the mainstream. I am convinced that the magical sites of seclusion, that a scattered bunch of inspired nonconformists are indispensable for the maintenance of a general system of understanding.” Instead of mediating a collective moral sensibility to the individual, art for Strau Beta turns the individual away from the collective in order to create a minority of “inspired non-conformists” who maintain order for the masses. The aesthetic experience, rather than a moral sensibility, is itself the source of a sacred experience, which occurs in isolation from, and in opposition to, the views of the community and is only accessible to a select group of the “inspired.”
Matthias Schmitz and Thomas Assheuer have described both the aestheticism and elitism of Strau Beta’s conception of the sacred in art in which “emancipation can only be imagined as a ‘being freed from outside,’ the outside understood as a cultural shock.” Yet their critique is misplaced; to the extent that they classify together and reject all attempts at cultural creation, the construction of truth and the search for tradition: “Strau Beta abandons, under the cover of a neo-Gnosticism, the completely enlightened world of the (post)modern through the emergency exit of an imitation authenticity. Like liturgical phrases from a book of prayers, he emphasizes, not ‘critique of the existing order,’ but creation, not play, but truth, not concrete utopia, but ‘origins and tradition’. “ The consequence of Schmitz’s and Assheuer’s blanket rejection of “creation,” “truth,” and “tradition” in favor of critique, “play, and “utopia” is an inability to differentiate between Strau Beta’s fetishization of the aesthetic and other attempts to consider the sacred as an essential category for human experience.
As opposed to both Strau Beta’s emphasis on the primacy of the purely aesthetic and the equally one-sided liberal rejection of the sacred as the basis for social order, Kant maintains the primacy of moral ideas for the construction of individual aesthetic experience. The ability to experience the sacred depends on the cultural development of moral ideas in a community. Thus an individual who does not exist in a proper cultural context will not be able to perceive the sublime. “What is called sublime by us, having been prepared through culture, comes across as merely repellent to a person who is uncultured and lacking in the development of moral ideas.” The importance of aesthetic experience is a result of the fact that moral ideas are based in a collective and must be mediated to each individual.
The sacred is necessary as the aesthetic experience which performs this mediation. The experience of the sacred cannot be made by one artist for the benefit of the community, as in the case of science. Rather, because morality cannot be carried out by the few for the many, the sacred must be experienced independently and individually. This necessity explains the efficacy of “primitive” forms of social organization supported by taboos. As opposed to written laws, taboos only exist within the consciousness of individuals in a community. Though he describes the mechanism of taboos in a different way, Strau Beta recognizes their significance: “The old held rules to be sacred. Consider, on the one hand, how matter-of-factly, how ‘efficiently’ the taboo was able to provide protection and on the other, the arduous paths which must now be traveled by the enlightened in order, after the desolating destruction of taboos which has afflicted both nature and the soul, to construct safe zones against violent determination.” Because they are inseparable from the community members’ everyday actions, the taboos form a cultural system which is constantly being extended, reduced, and revised according to the exigencies affecting the people in the community in their everyday experience. As opposed to this self-regulating system, enlightenment attempts to replace taboos with a codified legal system that is complex and arduous, and which is consistently unable to simultaneously maintain the discipline and flexibility necessary to prevent the breakdown of values.
As the example of taboos illustrates, the aesthetic construction of order must be taken up anew everyday. “Everything which today seems to simply remind us of or seems to be like this struggle (the struggle with constricting ideas, with something bigger than life) is and remains this same old continuing struggle with the angel.” The inescapability of the struggle is a result of the fact that it must occur continuously within each individual in a community in order for moral ideas to survive. But while Strau Beta’s insistence on the continuing significance of the struggle with the sacred is a valid response to the liberal attempt to deemphasize the importance of the sacred, his understanding of the terms of this struggle leads to serious problems in his political views.
Sacrifice and Scapegoat
Strau Beta claims that “the community is the truly mystical (deeply incomprehensible, most moving) human dimension.” But his vision of the sacred as the experience of the unexpected and foreign leads him to a specific notion of community based on the ideas of horror and victimization. In “Swelling Song of the Satyr” he discusses neo-Nazi violence as a breaking of taboos but also as a form of sacrifice. He explains the functioning of sacrifice not as sacrifice of material comfort in favor of spiritual convictions but as a violent victimization of a scapegoat, which serves to reinforce the belief of the community in its values: “In Violence and the Sacred Rene Girard writes: ‘The rite is the repetition of an original spontaneous lynching which guaranteed order in the community.’ The stranger, the traveler is captured and stoned when there is unrest in the city. The scapegoat as the target of violence is never just an object of hate, but also a thing of worship: it attracts the common hate of all in order to liberate the community of this hate. The scapegoat is a metabolic vessel.” The scapegoat idea is based on the assumption that aggression constantly builds in a society and must periodically be released. If this excess aggression is not vented on a sacrificial victim or scapegoat, it will ultimately explode in a frenzy of violence which will destroy society. Two difficulties with this argument are that the assumption of an ever increasing excess of aggression in society has never been satisfactorily demonstrated and that Girard ignores an essential distinction between scapegoat and sacrifice.
Strau Beta suggests that neo-Nazi violence in Germany conforms to Girard’s idea of scapegoating in that victims are chosen at random and not according to any particular guilt or distinguishing characteristics. As Enzensberger notes about the neo-Nazis, however: “Germanness is a slogan lacking content, while only serving to occupy the empty spaces in the brain. Just as easily as Turks or Vietnamese, the perpetrator could be ‘bashing’ cripples, homeless, the retarded, the elderly, or schoolchildren, or even, if he were not too cowardly to do so, West or East Germans, depending on the perpetrator’s geographic location.” But Girard’s theories notwithstanding, this neo-Nazi scapegoating does nothing to reinforce community values. Strau Beta admits this, but only because he believes condemnation of the neo-Nazis amongst the German people is not as universal as the condemnation of left-wing terrorism, to which he ascribes the status of successful scapegoating. Both instances of terrorism broke taboos. For Strau Beta, the earlier terrorism was successful because the entire population in Germany, in its unified rejection of violence, reaffirmed the broken taboo: left-wing terrorism, contrary to its intent, “created a negative harmony in the rejection of horror.” Though Strau Beta criticizes left-wing terrorism for breaking taboos, he contends that its violence also led to a reaffirmation of values — a “negative harmony” in the face of horror. In this Girardian reading, violence is considered sacred because it horrifies horror, infusing a sense of morality into a community through fear and awe at the consequences of the breakdown of order. Even when Strau Beta describes the outbreak of right-wing terror, its horror has the same structure as that of an aesthetic event: “we fear it, we seek to prevent it with all our remaining powers, yet we have no secure means of defense when Bromios, naked horror, breaks into our abstract world, and the structure of simulacra and simulators, which seemed to stabilize reality so well, from one day to the next begins to crumble.” The inevitable breakthrough of the unmediated and uncontrollable horror of Bromios (one of the manifestations of Dionysos in Greek legend) is both Strau Beta’s fear and wish to the extent that horror is the ultimate aesthetic experience and fear the foundation of moral order.
Against this vision of morality as a surrender to horror and fear, Kant defines the sacred and the moral as an overcoming of it. According to Kant’s interpretation, fear cannot be the basis of morals or of the sublime because it is based on a concern for one’s own physical well-being, whereas both morality and the sublime depend on a disdain for the physical in favor of a supersensible reality. The experience of the sublime only originates with reference to an act of self-sacrifice. Individuals negate their physical being for the benefit of a value considered greater than the individual. But although sacrifice negates the individual, it also lends spiritual value to the individual through the linking of the individual to the ideal. As Enzensberger notes: “One must even ask oneself whether what one calls culture would be possible without this willingness to sacrifice one’s own life.”
Unlike acts such as self-sacrifice, the scapegoat mechanism does not create moral values. Rather, it is the symptom and continuation of a total collapse of collective values. “When [the neo-Nazi] has a choice between Germanness and a motorcycle, there is no difficult decision. Since his future is unimportant to him, it is not surprising that he does not care about his own country either.” Scapegoating does not create morals but is a consequence of their disintegration, and such “sacrificial violence” cannot be the source of moral order. “Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the end it pursues.” In order to avoid instrumentalization, sacrifice must itself constitute the rejection of instrumentalization. It does this by enacting the moral act of self-sacrifice for a higher good. The creation of a distinction between the profane and the sacred is thus not prior to the moral act, as Strau Beta contends, but the essence of it.
Community and Nation
The sense of self-sacrifice described by Kant and Enzensberger, as opposed to Strau Beta’s invocation of the scapegoat mechanism, only functions properly in face-to-face context. Enzensberger points out that it is important to “form a close tie between the helper and the needy. This not only allows a concentration of material and emotional energy. In place of abstraction, there is a concrete relation. Every attempt to help and to be aided brings unavoidable conflicts which can only be dealt with if the parties know each other.” Face-to-face contact is not only necessary for properly resolving conflicts, it also guarantees the legitimate functioning of sacrifice. As with taboo, a sacrifice for the community can only make sense if the individual has a concrete and everyday interaction with the people who are meant to be aided by the sacrifice. Otherwise, the sacrifice will become as abstract and destructive as the scapegoat mechanism, in which there is no concrete relation between victim and aggressor, and the victims are chosen precisely because of their foreignness.
The issue of concrete relations between people is the point at which Strau Beta’s notions of the sacred and community deteriorate into a nationalism depending much more on scapegoating than on sacrifice. The community for Strau Beta is not based on everyday interaction but ultimately on the German language. “But today the idea of the German people (Volk) does not exist as a secret treasure in the soul of the individual, which could be the basis of his or her power. The German people is nothing more than a moody, complacent majority power; an extinguisher of all ideal force. It only speaks German out of laziness. Most of its impulses and interests would be better expressed in American English.” By focussing on the German language, Strau Beta commits himself to an abstract idea of both community and culture. He assumes that by reading texts by Goethe or Kafka instead of watching movies by Coppola or Spielberg, the Germans could maintain a sense of both the sacred and the community. This literary and nationalist understanding of culture ignores the crucial significance of concrete actions and social relations for the constitution of a community. Taboos and sacrifices-the everyday expression and basis of community — are also the basis for the aesthetic significance of works of art. Once art is separated from this everyday context and defined in terms of the German language, it has moved from the self-constituting realm of community to the manipulated level of the nation. Instead of arising out of the taboos and sacrifices individuals negotiate with each other in their everyday lives, culture becomes fixed not only within a canon of texts, but limited to an attitude of passive reception.
The Aesthetics of the Nation
Strau Beta conceives of participation in culture not in terms of decisions and actions but in terms of a passive reception of the aesthetic. This understanding of culture whose goal is “to allow oneself to be overwhelmed” is not only valid for the reception of poetry or music but also of social experience. The opening to “Swelling Song of the Satyr” describes in the third person an admirer of the complexity of society, which “must appear to every outsider, so long as he is not afflicted with a political malady, as an incomprehensible piece of art rather than as a boiling kettle, a ‘hell of others’.” The individual does not relate to the group as a participant engaged in Sartre s hell of human interaction but rather as an outside observer. As this passage suggests, Strau Beta extends the attitude of reception and submission beyond the relation to the work of art into the relation to a collective, thereby rejecting concrete human interaction in favor of the adoration of society as an aesthetic vision.
In his recent play, “Final Chorus,” Strau Beta depicts this transposition of the aesthetic attitude of wonder into the social realm. The most prominent effect of this transposition is the immediate subsumption of the community within the nation. This subsumption occurs as a direct consequence of Strau Beta’s attempt to construct identity out of the sacred moments of “presence.” The first of these moments occurs in the first act, in which a group of people stand before a camera in order to be photographed as a group. Instead of being constructed along acts of obedience, domination, and sacrifice, which occur between specific people tied together by their common context, the unity of the group is constructed in the scene as a photograph. While Greiner argues that the focus on a photographic document rather than on human interaction is meant as a critique of West German society and the aesthetics of representation, the problems with Strau Beta’s depiction lie in that he reinforces an understanding of community which has been subsumed under the idea of a German “Volk.” The photographer’s manipulation of the group into an abstract unity is repeated by Strau Beta when he situates identity within the group photograph.
The conflicts which arise in the scene — how individuals can be defined within such a photograph, who will choreograph and take the photograph, who might be left out of the picture — are all issues which can arise if community is conceived only as a nation. In this case, representation takes precedence over the mechanics of concrete relations, and in the scene the constant bantering of the group must stop and is in fact silenced by the snap of the camera at the end of the scene: “The Woman: If you would be so kind as to stop your conversation while I photograph you. The Chorus begins to hum quietly. Darkness.” Talk gives way both to the picture and to the unifying hum, regardless of whether it is the professional photographer or the passerby who takes the picture. Like the cry of “Germany,” which in the middle of the scene brings the group to silence and attempts to create one of the moments of “presence” in the play, there is no issue of direct interaction and sacrifice which would be the basis for the experience of the sacred. Instead, there is only a suppression of interaction for the benefit of a unifying because homogenizing moment.
The same lack of human interaction characterizes the second attempt to depict a transcendent moment in the play, when an architect searching in an apartment for his client opens a door and sees her naked in front of the bathtub. This “oversight” becomes an experience of sacred immediacy which structures the relation between the two for the rest of the act. Here the transformation of experience which Titania attempts in vain to enact purposefully by exposing herself in The Park is successful because the experience is accidental. Strau Beta describes such a moment in Beginninglessness as that of “blind passion” opposed to the Enlightenment tendencies of a love story. “Every woman can become a saint of desire when the fleetingness with which we gaze upon her leaves behind a heightened, clear imagination. When she becomes totally and absolutely present to us for a moment in this single point in time every adventure, every story, every word disappears like material beyond the horizon of events.” Instead of a moment of decision, and an embeddedness in everyday events, Strau Beta’s construction of the basis of the sacred is a sudden, accidental and unexpected vision, as if the sacred were a random event. Once again, he elevates the abstract photographic moment to a sacred level. There is no concrete relation between the spectator and the naked woman. Instead, the situation of an accidental exposure creates the sacred as a random intervention of fate which transforms history.
In this construction of the sacred, the oversight exposing the naked woman is equated with the oversight which opened the boundary between Hungary and Austria leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of East Germany. These events are described in the third act of the play: “They’re at the brink of chaos over there. They open the border today and close it again tomorrow. Simply as an oversight. Perhaps something will happen, merely because they are constantly confused.” The fateful intervention which changes history is disconnected from any human agency. Rather than an outgrowth of individual acts of rejection of the East German state system adding up to an overwhelming collective power opposed to the violence of the state, Strau Beta constructs the fall of the Berlin wall as a consequence of the state’s chaos and confusion, as if the “emergent” reality of revolution had come from above as a kind of divine intervention.
Instead of East German mass demonstrations, church gatherings, and mass exodus (all results of a collection of private decisions), Strau Beta chooses to focus exclusively on the East German government decision to open the borders. For the play, this is the moment that changes history and causes events to unfold. But in fact this primarily aesthetic moment in the play was much more a consequence than a cause, and the true history-making decisions lay in the private choices of the East German people, one by one withdrawing support from the government and risking their lives to defy it to the point that the government was no longer able to use violence against them because its soldiers no longer obeyed government orders. Strau Beta decision to focus on the fall of the Wall as the history-making event which changes lives is perhaps a typically West German reaction to events for which West Germany remained a passive onlooker. Yet it is also an expression of Strau Beta idea that history and the sacred are unexpected and therefore alien to individual action.
In addition to presenting history as spectacle, the final act also considers history as individual memory. Here, Anita struggles with her mother and then with Patrick, the historian, in order to determine the role her father played within her family history, on the one hand, and in German history, on the other. However, because the family drama concerning her mother’s and father’s loyalty to each other is merged with the national drama of resistance to Hitler, individual identity is immediately understood in terms of national identity. Though Anita’s emotions within the scene are most excited by intimations of her mother’s possible unfaithfulness to her father and vice versa, in the play these issues of personal loyalty within her family are not important in themselves but only insofar as they relate to the role the father played in national history. After the argument with the mother is abruptly interrupted by her departure to participate in the “fall of the Wall” celebrations, the argument with Patrick revolves around this historical role, and his reference to personal family history is regarded by Anita as “taboo.” But this taboo is a consequence of the overriding importance of the family drama for her psyche: she reacts violently to Patrick’s suggestion that her father’s main preoccupation was not with resistance to Hitler but with sleeping with the wives of Nazi officials: “Anita stands up and strikes Patrick in the face. ‘You twisted, cold, dirty slanderer . . .’.”
Though for Anita the family drama is the primary site of memory and emotion, this drama is pushed aside at the end of the play by Anita’s allegorical encounter with the eagle. The entire scene merges personal and national identity, which is precisely the problem of a German nationalism which links a concrete struggle between individuals with an abstract problem of what to do with an oversized German eagle. The obscuring of the family drama by the symbol of nation is the consequence of Strau Beta’s preoccupation with aesthetic “presence” and national identity — to the detriment of the moral foundation of the sacred in which individual sacrifices define community.
[Telos; Fall95 Issue 105, p57, 20p]