The Aesthetics of Resistance

Peter Weiss

translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel
Duke University Press 2005
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006
In a museum in Berlin in 1937, three young communists — the unnamed narrator and his friends Coppi and Heilmann — contemplate the Pergamon Frieze. They walk back to Coppi's apartment, where they continue their debates about art and politics along with his parents. The narrator then returns to his own apartment and talks to his father — or remembers conversations with him — about his experiences as an activist; they have taken different sides in the divide between Communists and Social Democrats. While waiting to go to Spain to fight, the narrator tries to help a retarded Jewish man being beaten by teenagers.

And that's pretty much all the foreground story in Part I of The Aesthetics of Resistance; it could be fitted into half a dozen pages. This is just a framework, however, on which Weiss hangs a panoply of artistic and political and historical debates and monologues. A stunning description of the Pergamon Frieze. A reanalysis of Heracles as a revolutionary. A discussion of the narrator's family's books and the problems facing workers trying to study and appreciate art. A study of how painting broadened its subject material to include peasants and workers, and of the extent to which bourgeois art is relevant to socialists. An account of the brief-lived socialist republic of Bremen. Debates over cooperation between Communists and Social Democrats, readiness for revolution, and the Moscow Trials. A critical analysis contrasting Kafka's The Castle and Neukrantz' Barricades in Wedding.

Part II, with the narrator in Spain, proceeds similarly, though with more in the foreground. A brief account of crossing the border into Spain is followed by an excursus on Gaudi's Sagrada Familia and travel from Barcelona to the headquarters of the International Brigades at Albacete. Because of some medical training the narrator ends up working in hospitals at Cueva and then Denia, under Max Hodann.

There are some details of hospital administration and the management of peasants and patients, and Hodann's ideas about sexual hygiene and freedom get a mention, but the story is dominated by debates over how tightly Party discipline must be enforced. Looming over this is the recent suppression of anarchists and independent Marxists (and the killing of Andrés Nin) and the existence of a United Front with socialist and bourgeois parties. There's one set piece debate at a meeting of leaders — Hodann, Ilya Ehrenburg, Willi Bredel, and Karl Mewis, among others — and a chilling, understated climax when one of the narrator's too outspoken colleagues is taken away by the military police.

There's no direct account of battle. This is approached indirectly, through conversations with the journalist Nordahl Grieg and the historian Lindhoek, working on a history of the Thälmann brigade; they face the challenge of reporting and writing during an undecided struggle. Listening to the radio, in the same weeks they and the narrator follow the perilous military situation of the Republic, the trial of Bukharin in Moscow, and the German incorporation of Austria. A letter from Heilmann returns the narrator to the myth of Heracles; while the International Brigades are being disbanded he looks back to Phocaea, the ancient Greek colonies and mines in Spain, and the history of Spain down to the present. And, as the narrator prepares to leave Spain, he and a friend Ayschmann explore Picasso's Guernica and paintings by Delacroix and Géricault and Goya; he also looks back at some of the paintings his father educated him with, contrasting the work of Menzel and Koehler.

It needs some examples to give a feel for Weiss' style. Here is the famous opening sequence describing the Pergamon Altar:

"All around us the bodies rose out of the stone, crowded into groups, intertwined, or shattered into fragments, hinting at their shapes with a torso, a propped-up arm, a burst hip, a scabbed shard, always in warlike gestures, dodging, rebounding, attacking, shielding themselves, stretched high or crooked, some of them snuffed out, but with a freestanding, forward-pressing foot, a twisted back, the contour of a calf harnessed into a single common motion. A gigantic wrestling, emerging from the gray wall, recalling a perfection, sinking back into formlessness. A hand, stretching from the rough ground, ready to clutch, attached to the shoulder across empty surface, a barked face, with yawning cracks, a wide-open mouth, blankly gaping eyes, the face surrounded by the flowing locks of the beard, the tempestuous folds of a garment, everything close to its weathered end and close to its origin. ..."

... and so on, for eight pages, in which there are just a few scattered sentences to set the scene in the museum and provide background on the three friends. (Weiss uses paragraph breaks only to divide sections, which are the only divisions within each part.)

And here's a brief interlude in the discussion of painting towards the end:

"But, asked Ayschmann, did you not always feel your disadvantage vis-à-vis the people who could pursue their studies unhindered. His words knocked me out of an equilibrium that I had claimed I possessed. My education had no solid underpinnings, it was acquired through sporadic readings. I could not produce a so-called Gymnasium degree. On the other hand, I had legitimized myself by laboring in workshops, warehouses, factories. For an instant I was hostile toward Ayschmann, who had laid claim to an academic formation entirely as a matter of course. I felt rebellious against his world, but then I was ashamed of my reaction, for his question was premised on the idea of solidarity."

Abstractions in The Aesthetics of Resistance are grounded in the specifics of the narrator's experiences or in analysis of individual artworks and books; and the narrator's limited knowledge and personal perspective are consistently maintained. Fascism is an everpresent menace, but remains in the background: uniformed figures in a museum, triumphant Nazi propaganda on the radio, Franco's armies pressing in on the Spanish Republic. Similarly with the communist hierarchy: there's only a glimpse of the International Brigades' leader André Marty, the prosecutors in the Moscow Trials, or the military police.

A fifty page introduction by Fredric Jameson sets Weiss in the context of post-war German literature, provides details of his life and background, and offers a sometimes abstruse theoretical analysis. For most novels such an introduction would be overkill, but here it seems appropriate.

Elements of The Aesthetics of Resistance are autobiographical: Weiss was of the same generation as his narrator, his parents also left Czechoslovakia for Sweden (though they were bourgeois rather than working class), and he too was mentored by Hodann. Weiss was not a communist as a youth, however — his late conversion to Marxism came in the 1960s — and he didn't fight in Spain, so his narrator is perhaps a vision of himself as he might have been. The artistic explorations also reflect a mature sophistication; they are not plausibly those of a twenty-year old, working class autodidact or not. The other characters are mostly historical figures, but fictionalised: a glossary provides some brief biographical information on the more prominent of the many that appear.

It's an extraordinary achievement, with its sustained stylistic virtuosity and integration into narrative of art criticism, politics, and history. But The Aesthetics of Resistance is not a novel which will command a wide audience. This is not because of Weiss' style, which is much easier to read than initial impressions might suggest. The problem is that the work demands an interest, preexisting or nascent, both in the politics of left wing parties and movements in pre-WWII Germany and Europe and in the relationship of socialism and art, especially pictorial art.

Those who are prepared for that, or willing to be challenged, will find plenty in The Aesthetics of Resistance. It might perhaps inspire an interest in the Spanish Civil War, or open up new perspectives on painting.

Note: This work was originally published in 1975 as volume one of Die Ästhetik des Widerstands. The other two volumes have not yet been translated into English.

April 2006

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%T The Aesthetics of Resistance
%V 1
%A Weiss, Peter
%M German
%F Neugroschel, Joachim
%I Duke University Press
%D 2005
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0822335468
%P xlix,325pp