Friday, March 23, 2018

A Translation of "Literatur ist Monolog" (2002), Wolfgang Hilbig's Georg Büchner Prize Acceptance Speech

Literature Is a Monologue
When Hans Erich Nossack was awarded the Georg Büchner Prize in October 1961, the Berlin Wall was still brand-spanking new, so to speak; perhaps it was even still only nearing its completion; I can no longer precisely remember.  And I also can no longer precisely remember what I then thought of this most richly consequential European edifice.  What a colossal expenditure, what a colossal misappropriation of manpower and materials, are being expressly devoted to the erection of a makeshift structure whose meaningfulness will be called into question as a matter of course in no time flat!--such or similar thoughts must have been passing through my mind on that Monday, the first workday after the Sunday on which the construction of the Wall began.  The scene in which we, the workers on a gigantic factory-floor on which were assembled headstocks for machine tools, or the monstrous barrel-channels for planing or sanding machines—all of them valuable export goods that the GDR’s metals industry had rendered marketable worldwide, as the sermon incessantly preached to us went—were apprised of the government’s resolution, has remained reasonably clear in my memory; it was a rather unsettling scene.  We were called together for a brief pause in the main hall of our shop; the din of the machines fell silent for about twenty minutes; and a person from the plant management office announced that the western border of the GDR, the border with the imperialistic FRG, as well as the border with the special territorial entity, the front-city of West Berlin, were to be considered closed as of yesterday’s date in order to forestall the bleeding to death of the young GDR’s economy and to put an end to the constant interference of enemy elements from the West.  The speaker read his speech from a prepared text with a pale and unmistakably nervous expression on his face; it was remarkable that after speaking he received no or only very scattered applause; the men in their oil-stained work uniforms silently took cognizance of his remarks and pensively—with shaking heads and fairly inscrutable miens—returned to their work-stations.  I gave no thought to any sorts of consequences that the newly begun construction of the Wall might have: I simply couldn’t imagine a barrier without freely accessible exits and entrances.  But I already found the scene unsettling: it was unsettling because I now all of a sudden found myself imprisoned in a country that I somehow regarded as my own house, as my home—I had been furnished with a homeland by governmental force, and, as soon became apparent, by armed force, and nobody had asked me whether I wanted this homeland or not.  A forcible attempt had been made to instill in me a sense of having a homeland—if there is one means of permanently excluding a so-called sense of having homeland from a human being’s heart, from his mind, it is precisely this exertion of governmental force.  

The first consequences of the construction of the Wall became evident very quickly: at the beginning of the heating season of ’61, skilled workers from the production division were condemned to repair to the boiler house for a month straight and stoke the furnace there.  Admittedly, this was a necessity, because at our factory, as at almost all factories in the GDR, there was a perpetual shortage of stokers owing to the fact that the prevailing working conditions there had not kept pace with operational development, and the fact that there were far too few opportunities for making money there.   But the manner in which this was now happening was entirely new: the people were no longer talked into accepting the necessity of such a measure; they were now banished to the boiler house by orders from on high; all protestations proved ineffectual.  My own turn came, in November or December of ’61: what had to happen happened; I took a sudden fancy to the solitary sedulousness of a stoker in his boiler room; when my appointed term came to an end, I didn’t report back to the floor.
It was probably there, in my first boiler house—on whose door was posted a sign reading Authorized Personnel Only!—that I found myself first giving serious consideration to my future, and perhaps also first thinking the thought that I was living in the middle of a fraudulent environment—even if in this environment a refuge had suddenly opened up for me, a refuge in which I could form such thoughts—all of a sudden I knew I wanted to write, and indeed never, ever do anything but write.  I no longer remember whether this thought was immediately bound up with a decision—it is more likely that at that time I began carrying around that thought as a kind of non-material ambush; every view that was brought to my notice stumbled into the trap of this ambush, where, in my mind, it was immediately sabotaged: I didn’t want anything that other people wanted from me, or that they might want from me; I didn’t tell anybody else that I wanted it, that I wanted to write and do nothing else; it was a secret [Geheimnis], a secret that had irrupted within me in that boiler room with its rusty heating appliances.  And a secret that has remained within me all along—admittedly it has been an open secret for a very long time, but, I hope, still always a secret.  I shall presently come back to a certain way of keeping company with this secret.
There is a remarkable sentence in Hans Erich Nossack’s Speech on Georg Büchner that immediately seemed enlightening to me: “Bizarrely enough, from time immemorial, all party-political doctrines, all theologies, all sociologies, all chambers of commerce and public health departments, have been in agreement on one point despite all their mortal hatred of one another:  that there is nothing more deserving of prohibition than the desire to be alone.”
And most likely the so-called support service divisions that are responsible for supplying heat to industrial plants may be unhesitatingly regarded as affiliates of the aforementioned series of institutions.  But the advantage—or disadvantage, depending on your point of view—of support service divisions is that once you’re there you can’t go any farther down.  Once a stoker has proved that he is competent, that he can do his job satisfactorily, nobody takes any further interest in what else he is thinking or philosophically concocting.  So he’s left alone with his secret.  And once or twice, if merely in passing, I even directed a Stasi officer’s attention to the door with the Authorized Personnel Only! warning on it.  Naturally that didn’t work anymore in dealing with the German Postal Service, which of course is a service organization, but by no means one with the status of a support services division.  And because I used the Postal Service, specifically for the delivery of my manuscripts, which I always kept a few copies of in reserve, it was finally becoming known that I was writing.  And from then on, people were always trying by various means to find out my secret: first it was the Stasi; at the end it was the mass media—I wouldn’t presume to draw a comparison between the two institutions; they figure here only as items in a chronological sequence.
Because the Stasi no longer exists, except in the form of a phantom in a smattering of scattered minds, I have subsequently come to find the mass media much more interesting.  The mass media are apparatuses for the exposure of every kind of secret, and they are therefore apparatuses that abet forgetting.  It seems to me that in the palaces of the mass media there exists no other aim whatsoever than to snatch at everything new, everything that appears to be new, no matter how old this newness may be, and hold it up to the light of publicity, to clothe it in the terminology of up-to-date-ness in order to put it up for sale.
And then to cross it off the list and to forget it so that there will be room [Platz] for the next batch of up-to-date things.  For the mass media live off this circulation; it is the sole foundation of their existence.  It degrades the newspaper-reader to a mere information-receiver who must cross off and forget every new piece of information as quickly as possible, so that each and every day he has enough room--and this room may safely be termed a void--for new, for up-to-date, pieces of information.  And in a comparable fashion the television-viewer is degraded to a mere object of the entertainment industry; he is quite automatically consigned to the herd of cattle that guarantees ratings and drives them as stratospherically high as possible.  And it must be mentioned that a certain bit of terminology is really quite erroneous: the television receiver isn’t the box with the screen but rather we ourselves, who sit in front of the apparatus with the remote control in our hand so that we can be sprayed with information in the form of entertainment, information that we can instantly forget during the commercials interspersed throughout each program.   
Hans Erich Nossack’s speech contains an uncommonly harsh sentence; I recall yet again that it had already been written in 1961; in other words, at a time when I was just beginning my first serious attempts at writing.  If I had had the opportunity to read this sentence back then, I believe I would have been beset by scruples of incomparable severity: “The profound contempt in which literature stands now that it is being alternately regarded as a harmless pastime and lavished with plaudits when it allows itself to be abused as an instrument of power politics, is so aggrieving that every literary person is obliged to ask himself whether there is any longer any point whatsoever in writing at all.”
“How is its situation looking today?” I ask myself.  I grew up in a country, I used to write in a country, in which some very serious attempts were made to subordinate literature to a power-political ideology—but here?  Now, in this reunified Germany?  The position of literature is so vague and diffuse, so marginal and compulsorily self-sustaining, that nobody can any longer think of using it or abusing it for any sort of purpose; anybody who did either would be slinging an albatross around his own neck, would be making a laughingstock of himself.  As for its plaudits, literature collects them itself when it dances at all the festivities of the media, when it devours the charity bread that is handed to it in the palaces of the newspaper publishers and television networks.  Sometimes I get the impression—but this may be a paranoid suspicion that arose in my mind when the hunting hounds of the media laid into me after it became known that I was this year’s Georg Büchner prizewinner—that literature is involved in a constant onslaught on the palaces of the public media, palaces in which a place [Platz] for it is nowhere to be found.  I am coming better and better to understand what Hans Erich Nossack meant when he wrote: “All that will ever possibly survive of our literature is monologue.”  The literature of our time has vacated its place; in any case, it is in the process of doing this, and if it surrenders itself more and more swiftly and unresistingly to this process, one fine day there will no longer be any place for it anywhere at all.

In point of fact the place of literature is the monologue: here there is a solitary writer, a poet or literary prose author, who is violating the prohibition of solitude and committing his thoughts to paper.  As he is doing so he may be thinking of a reader, but he doesn’t know this reader.  If this monologue turns into a text or a book, the latter, via the detours of sales and distribution, reaches an equally solitary reader who reads the monologue; as he is reading it he may be thinking of the author of the monologue, but he doesn’t really know him; perhaps he knows only very little about this author, and if things turn out well, a monologue will likewise develop in the reader’s mind.  This is the way in which literature functions, and it can only function in this way.  Everything beyond this that a writer divulges about his text is no longer a part of literature; it’s a part of the mass media and the marketing of literature.  In any case, it demolishes the mystery [Geheimnis] that consists in the peculiar coupledom of writer and reader, and in so doing, perhaps it even demolishes the reader’s interest in literature.
Thus did he pass his life, reads the last sentence of Georg Büchner’s Lenz, a text that Hans Erich Nossack refuses to regard as a fragment on the grounds that this sentence is “the most decisive conclusion imaginable.”  What may such a sentence set loose in the mind of a reader?  Doubtless at the very least the question of the way in which he, the reader, is passing his own life.  And at this point the monologue has already begun, a monologue that is actually a dialogue, a centuries-long dialogue of a kind that can only be attained with the help of literature.  And this reader will, perhaps, immediately stumble into a contradiction in another of Büchner’s sentences, one that comes from Woyzeck: He was the same as everybody else in all his actions.* And this very contradiction can be the beginning of a transformation.  Perhaps the mystery and the greatness of man inheres in that very moment at which he begins to ponder the possibility of transformation. 
Ladies and gentlemen, I am thankful for my receipt of the Georg Büchner Prize; I don’t precisely know in which institution these thanks would have found their proper place: such being the case, I thank you, who have been patiently listening to me.  You have given me courage and strength to continue further along my path; you have made me hopeful that my words and sentences aren’t completely pouring into the void; such being the case, you deserve all the credit for this prize-giving ceremony; I am solely and merely your protagonist, and I have no wish to change this.  I thank you, and I hope you accept my thanks in freedom.

 *Hilbig is either mistaken or using comes from [stammt aus] in a non-philological sense (i.e., one according to which Büchner came up with the idea of a person who is “the same as everybody else in all his actions” in the course of writing Woyzeck), for the quoted words are in fact from the penultimate sentence of Lenz.


Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2018 by Douglas Robertson