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Acting figuratively, telling tropically. Figures of insanity in Gunter Grass's Die Blechtrommel.

Gunter Grass's bestselling novel Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) was originally published in 1959 and rapidly enjoyed a vivid and enthusiastic reception in the non-German world, where the comic vicissitudes of an adolescent midget were read as an accomplished allegory representing the unprecedented madness of the industrialized terror characteristic of German politics during the Third Reich. In the writer's homeland, however, the novel was rejected by public opinion as pornographic and trouble-making. (2) To explain the background of such a diverging reception surely requires a complex sociological investigation, but there is not much doubt that the picaresque and playful undertone of the novel was experienced by the German reading public as irreconcilable with the ongoing process of trauma handling. One of the most noticeable levels on which the incongruity between the novelistic universe and the cultural context of reception was felt, is the exuberant narrative style and the abundant use of figurative speech. Both aspects of the novel are functional under the narrative umbrella of the protagonist's mental capriciousness: as a child Oscar is unable to understand the dynamics of the adult world, as an adult he is deluded into absurd self-incriminations, agonized by the surfacing, but still largely implicit sense of being a non-resistant German during the Second World War. In this sense, the overt joy (or even lust) of telling and the concomitant figurativeness can be seen as the protagonist's disengagement from the excruciating gravity of the world in which he lives, as his escape into a parallel universe. As such, they present themselves as appropriate means of expression for the unreliable and self-admitted insane narrator.

But when analyzed more closely, the novel displays a complex series of processes in which figurative communication, and even figurative behavior, are subjected to practices of negotiation, in which the narrator is not the controlling instance, but turns out to be controlled himself. (3) The result is a form of paradoxical narration that confronts us with a series of fundamental questions about the relation between rhetoric and the representation of madness. In Die Blechtrommel the mental destabilization of the speaker in moments of affective, epistemological and experiential crisis, often (but not always) goes hand in hand with an increase of the density, in which figurative language occurs--an increase which may be read as a rhetorical and narrative disinhibition. In the following, I will investigate several textual instances of such a disinhibition, paying particular attention to the closing chapter of the book, entitled "Dreissig" ("Thirty"). This analysis is part of a larger project to explore the specific narrative potential of rhetorical figures and the networking they engage in. (4)

Figurative Performances

Before I go ahead with the analysis, I should determine more closely the circumstances under which figurative language operates. Many different recent publications on the subject indicate that a variety of tropes typical of literary discourse do not necessarily recur to underlying cognitive procedures ("understanding one thing in terms of another"), but unfold specifically on the level of language and wordplay. As figurative processes, they are triggered by the estranging co-occurrence of two non-reducible concepts and the interaction between these; by doing so, they instigate an interpretive exercise by means of which addressees try to come to terms with the initial estrangement. In this context, it is important to address briefly three theoretical issues.

First and foremost, tropes rely on the addressee's attribution of intentionality to the speaker. Even though tropes more than once have been described as instances of a (category) mistake, (5) the reader has to be convinced of the speaker's intention to transgress a contextually validated norm in order to undertake the interpretive effort (instead of rectifying the mistake). The question is not so much whether the attributed intention corresponds to the actual one or even if there is an actual intention at all. Rather, the addressee must assume the speaker capable of involving the transgressive mode of tropes. In other words, the figurative speech must be embedded in a contextual frame which allows the addressee to perceive it as (part of) a successful speech act. This would explain why addressees are reluctant to deal with anomalous language of not fully competent speakers (such as language learners or young children) or of language users incapable of intentionality (such as computer translators) as figurative.

The second point of interest is the fundamental difference between figurativeness and polysemy. (6) Using a term in an unusual context (probably as a result of "understanding one thing in terms of another") bears witness to the human faculty to re-appropriate or re-functionalize in situations of shortage or limitations traditional and available concepts which have become obsolete. Such re-appropriations, which go hand in hand with the attribution of the concepts concerned to a new spot in the conceptual structure, a new "home," are nothing more or less than indications of the flexibility and the dynamics of the cognitive apparatus, signs of the polyvalence of the instruments it disposes of and the speed with which (linguistic) habits are created and expire. But using old concepts in new contexts is not figurative unless this use intends the violation of a norm and not the setting of a (new) norm and occurs in such a manner that both norm (i.e. standard predication) and norm violation (i.e. ad-hoc-predication) remain active as vectors of significance. (7)

The third theoretical point to be made is that the figurative understood in the manner described above, is not restricted to language use, but can also be observed on other levels of human behavior. An interesting phenomenon in this context is the habit, observed particularly with (young) men, to use the back of a cigarette-lighter as a beer bottle-opener. When they do so, there is no doubt that the lighter maintains its original function--it is even reinforced, so as to emphasize the norm-transgressing symbolic inherent to the entire situation in which this behavior occurs. The gesture communicates that the lighter is used in a wrong, yet functional fashion, both with respect to the drinking a bottle of beer and to being part of a recognizable micro-culture. In this sense, it might be labeled a "figurative," or more specifically, a "metaphorical act." Obviously, it is from an anthropological or psychological perspective quite common that people perform acts with symbolic bearing. (8) Yet, it is reasonable to preserve the term "figurative behavior" for situations in which both levels of behavior are equivalent and interact functionally. Although it requires much more research to fully substantiate this thesis, I think it is safe to suggest that figurative speech can be conceived as a subcategory of the much more encompassing category of "figurative performance."

When approaching the problematic relationship between rhetoric and insanity in Gunter Grass's Blechtrommel, it seems crucial to account for these three fundamental insights. Oscar Matzerath, the midget protagonist, displays a constant desire to redefine the reality with which he is confronted. What do his actions and words mean, when they appear in situations in which standard mental operations are represented as derailed? He conceives of the penis of a Iesus infans statue in the cathedral as a "Giesskannchen" ("watering can," 181), uses "Brausepulver" ("fizz powder") as a paradoxical catalyst of sexual fervor with his future stepmother Maria (350) and systematically calls his little brother his son. (9) Insofar as these are the result of his dispositional unreliability, it is impossible to address these instances as "figurative." But it is my contention that the narrator in Grass's novel does not merely lose grip on reality. His way of approaching the historical events whose representation he undertakes, not only displays the fundamental figurativeness of his actions; it also shows that this figurativeness ultimately operates as the means to restore interpersonal understanding between the naively disturbed protagonist and his both psychologically and materially devastated surroundings.

Rhetoric and The Family Romance

The representation of madness often implies the increase of forms which present themselves as figurative only at first sight. They show a norm-transgressive logic and partake in an encompassing movement of freeing the speaker from prevailing conventions. But when the speakers trespass communicative norms, they do not do so with the intention to break a (societal) norm, but rather to replace this norm with a new, highly personalized alternative, based on their idiosyncratic and delusional perception of reality. Hence, it is only logical that their (seemingly figurative) words gradually obtain imperative force and are acted out by the protagonists. That they speak as if they actually interact with the world outside, does not affect the dissolution of the initial figurative appearance. The context makes clear that there is no question of two equivalent and interacting levels of communication. But to what extent is this also the case in Grass' Blechtrommel?

Throughout the novel Oskar fantasizes about and even participates directly in a number of gruesome wrongdoings, but he spares no effort to inculpate himself and to be punished accordingly--telling his story is the most concrete manifestation of this. (10) The novel does not convey a clear image of Oskar's insanity--his stay in the mental hospital is motivated by the argument that he is considered not to be "voll," not taken seriously ("full," "complete," 766). Usually, his madness is interpreted as an allegory of the way in which Adenauer's Germany belittled the scope of its culpability--the voluntary dwarfism of the protagonist serves as a symbol of the unwillingness of post-war society to confess its involvement in the terror and persecution of the Nazi-regime. (11) There is no doubt that some of Oskar's observations are functional delusions: they are destined to release him from a situation of unbearable guilt. But the novel also offers many hints not to overestimate this symbolic or even allegorical subtext. There is indeed an interconnection to be investigated between the personal biography of the protagonist and the communal history of a political landscape--as is the case in many of Grass's other novels--but in this interconnection varying attitudes towards and operations within a figurative repertoire are of much bigger importance than has been established so far.

One way of approaching the baroquely described narrative turns and the "drastic imagery" (Preece 40) of Die Blechtrommel is to read the novel as a literary transvaluation of what Freud has called in a short essay, written in 1909, "a family romance" (Freud 224). (12) A family romance is a personal, biographic narrative resulting from the mythomaniac imagination of a child who feels unloved and rejected by one or both of his parents and thus develops neurotic behavior, which can continue--secretly or overtly--in adult life. Freud consciously refers to this phenomenon with literary terms and describes the workings of this imagination as "dichten" (Freud 225). In the centre of the family romance stands the contestation or even denial of the parental position of the father, which is the pivotal point in the construction of an alternative biography. In his frenetic search for his "proper" descent, the neurotic subject replaces his "real" father by a more prestigious counterpart. Although it avails itself of free association, (13) the family romance normally follows the trails of reality closely, but because of the addition of a new genealogical dimension reality gets gradually overwritten by a heroic counter-discourse often displaying overt or indirect monarchic undertones.

All of this is manifestly the case in Grass's novel. (14) Alfred Matzerath, the German grocery keeper, is not Oskar's father, but his cook--so the protagonist alleges (532). His "real" father, uncle Jan, is, like his mother, of Cashubian descent and an employee of the Polish post office in Danzig, a place with tremendous political symbolism. (15) Later on in the novel, Oskar claims paternity of his younger brother, Kurt. His other relatives are Goethe and Rasputin, and not surprisingly, he describes himself being dressed up as the tsarevitch, thus supplementing the Slavic and the monarchic aspects of his narrative with the aspect of religious supremacy (117; cf. also: the "Zarenfoto," 70). All other characters play their idiosyncratic part in Oskar's "corrective" narrative. This occasionally leads to frictions between the manifest narrative and its "real" subtext, which are either covered by the argument of miscomprehension or incomplete perception or attributed to the flaws of Oskar's memory. Transmitted onto the backdrop of the ongoing Second World War, it may become clear that his counter-narration follows the lines of denegation--it exploits the opportunity to gather reliability through the admission of his proper unreliability or untrustworthiness. (16) When describing his ability to break and even cut glass with his voice, he admits: "Ich weissnicht, wie ich tiber die Fahrbahn des Kohlenmarktes kam" ("I have no idea how I managed to cross the Kohlenmarkt," 128). In the course of the second book, he describes the narrative process as follows:
   Soeben las ich den zuletzt geschriebenen Absatz noch einmal durch.
   Wenn ich auch nicht zufrieden bin, sollte es um so mehr Oskars
   Feder sein, denn ihr ist es gelungen, knapp, zusammenfassend, dann
   und wann im Sinne einer bewusst knapp zusanlmenfassenden Abhandlung
   zu ubertreiben, wenn nicht zu lugen.

   I have just reread the last paragraph. I am not too well satisfied,
   but Oskar's pen ought to be for writing tersely and succinctly; it
   has managed as terse succinct accounts so often do to exaggerate
   and mislead if not to lie. (318)

The disconnection between the narrating I ("ich") and the experiencing I ("Oskar"), who dispose of different portions of knowledge of the narrated world, indicates that the overlap between reality and representation is very partial. This observation supports the hypothesis that the central narrative principle in Die Blechtrommel is the rhetorical gesture of the oxymoron: the novel itself discloses that what is to be narrated is not what is narrated. (17)

The roots of this organizing principle are to be found in the narrative setting of the novel, which combines a retrospective stance (the vicissitudes of Oskar) with an explanatory, simultaneous perspective (Oskar spending his last days in the mental hospital). Oskar indicates explicitly that it is his intention to write literature, because he believes "Dichtung" to be more truthful. (18) In the course of the novel, there are several excerpts in which the narrator unfolds his poetic mastery of language. In the chapter entitled "Brausepulver" Oskar describes the peaceful state of mind he finds himself in when sitting next to the swimming pool: "Der Sand schlief, die See schlief, die Muscheln waren zertreten und horten nicht zu" ("The sand slept the sea slept the shells had been crushed and did not listen,") (352). Not much later, he concludes: "Da wurde es sehr still in unserem Wohnzimmer, nut die Standuhr sprach immer lauter" ("A deep silence fell in our living room, only the grandfather clock spoke louder and louder") (377). In both cases, a personification is combined with a question of communicative exchange (or the lack thereof). The two examples bear witness to Oskar's eagerness to engage in human encounter and presuppose the possibility of such an encounter. The narrator thus displays his intention to speak figuratively and even makes this intention explicit from time to time. When he tells in "Desinfektionsmittel" ("Disinfectant") how Herr Fajngold treats Oskar's medically inexplicable fever, the narrator practically translates his proper metaphorical description of the disinfection therapy: he "setzte ihn [Oskar] auf cinc Lysolwolke, was heissen soll, er desinfizierte mich."("lifted him up on a cloud of Lysol, that is to say, he disinfected me") (543) And when the old city of Danzig is destroyed, the figurative register is expanded to its extremes:
   Da schwammen mitten im Pazilik zwei machtige, wie gotische
   Kalhedralen verzicrte Flugzeugtrager aufeinander zu, liessen ihre
   Flugzeuge starten und versenkten sich gegenseitig. Die Flugzeuge
   abet konnten nicht mehr landen, hingen hilflos und rein allegorisch
   gleich Engeln in der Luft.

   In the middle of the Pacific two enormous aircraft carriers done up
   to look like Gothic cathedrals stood face to face, sent up their
   planes and simultaneously sank one another. The planes had no place
   to land, they hovered helplessly and quite allegorically like
   angels in mid. (505)

Oskar's reflexivity with respect to his use of language even entails the conscious use of sociolects and the situations in which they are used. (19) When the narrator reproduces or represents critical experiences, a manifest increase in figurativeness can sometimes be observed. This is anything but surprising. When confronted with unexpected sensations or with extraordinary affects, with a sudden rescheduling of the relationship between self and outside world, with moments of acute existential density, narrators often shift to a figurative mode, signaling the inappropriateness of language for that kind of human experience. Awaiting impatiently the homecoming of sister Dorothea, Oskar stands on a coconut carpet and transfers the craved for penetration in reverse direction onto his own confrontation with the carpet: "Die Kokosfasern teilten sich meinen blossen Fussen mit, die drangen mir durch die Haut ins Blur" ("The coconut fibers pierced my bare skin and crept into my bloodstream") (676). Here it is the erotic tension of the expected meeting that psychologically activates the figurative register, at other points it is the outburst of laughter or the feeling of distress. (20)

Figurative Narration as Outbidding and Negotiating

This is not the only form in which tropes manifest themselves. As already suggested, family romances follow the path of the real, but cover it up with new masks or disguises. To do so, the narrator falls back on a mechanism of transference, by means of which he can relocate evidential events. The most obvious instance of this dynamic is the negotiation of the position of the father in the first book, but it reoccurs for instance when the narrator compares himself with Parzifal, one of the heroes of Germanic mythology:
   Kennen Sie Parzifal? Auch ich kenne ihn nicht besonders gut. Einzig
   die Geschichte mit den drei Blutstropfen im Schnee ist mir
   geblieben. Diese Geschichte stimmt, weil sie zu mir passt.
   Wahrscheinlich passt sie zu jedem, der eine ldee hat. Abet Oskar
   schreibt von sich: deshalb ist sie ihm fast verdachtig kleidsam auf
   den keib geschrieben

   Do you know Varsilall? I don't know it very well either. All that
   has stuck with me is the story about the three drops of blood in
   the snow. There is truth in that story because it fits me like a
   glove. It is probably the story of everyone who has an idea. But
   Oscar writes about himself; that's why it's almost suspicious how
   well the story fits to him. 623)

The adverb "kleidsam" re-metaphorizes the slightly amended saying that he is cut out for the story (here: "geschrieben" [written] instead of "geschnitten" [cut out] or "geschneidert" [tailored], as if inscribed into his body). The rhetorical gesture going along with the use of figures of speech is thus not restricted to specific phrasings and choices of words. It also entails the narrative act itself; the validity of this act depends on the degree to which it fits the narrator. It is no coincidence that apart from Oskar, two other narrators come to the fore: his nurse Bruno and his friend Gottfried Vittlar. Inconspicuously, the novel thus structures itself narratively in terms of the card play which Oskar's parents usually play on Mondays with Jan Bronski--a play varied in the parallel staging of the attack on the Polish post and the construction by Jan and Oskar of a card house during that very attack (303f., 308, 314). "Skat" is played with three players (67), and the person who outbids the others is allowed to choose trumps. The German word for the process of bidding is "reizen," which means teasing or provoking, and hints at the merging of narrative competition, erotic attraction and political opposition, materialized by the black (German) and red (Polish) cards. (21) Furthermore, the process of outbidding makes the reader aware of the fact that beneath the dominant narrative a weaker counter-narrative is hidden. (22)

The superpositional or even allegorical dimension uncovered in this manner enhances the symbolic potential of the novel as a whole, dense as it is with objects that display manifold figurative references: the knotted creatures made by Bruno, metonymically replaying Oskar's trial (e.g. 41 or 552ff.); sister Dorothea's ring finger, discovered by a dog called "Lux" in a rye field (741), transformed by Oskar backwardly from an accusatory index into a relic, a synecdochic object of worship; and most importantly, the title object, object of multiple figuralization--instrument of separation and remembrance, phallic substitute, narrative mouthpiece, imitation of a moth fluttering against an electric bulb, metonymically referred to as "die Rotweissgelackte" ("red and white lacquered cylinder," [667]) or "Blech" ("tin," e.g. 366). (23) But even though the drum must be seen as the trope of the "outbidding" narrative, all of these heavily charged symbolic motifs turn out to be strictly personal means to intervene in or reorganize one's strictly personal narrative sphere. The drum, for instance, has for Oskar's mother nothing to do with the "Erinnerungsarbeit," but rather with the opportunity to secretly meet her lover--that is why she keeps on replacing the toys when her son has beaten them to pieces (124). And for the visitors of the "Zwiebelkeller," the beating of the drum offers a strangely violent way to release intolerable existential suffering ("onion cellar") (685ff.).

Occasionally, the different orientations of symbolical objects are conflicting and submitted to open negotiation. This is the case when, for the first time, Oskar shrieks glass to pieces, provoked by his father's attempt to take away his drum, which has a torn surface. The longcase clock is in pieces, Alfred Matzerath cries; no, Oskar realizes, only the glass is broken ("Es warja auch nicht die Uhr kaputt, nut das Glas") (79). But exactly this metonymic difference is extremely significant both for Alfred and for Jan; the broken glass announces the imminent outburst of disaster (cf. Jan's "Miserere nobis," 79), since the clock materializes the human ambition to gain control over creation, whereas Oskar's mother comfortingly falls back on the old saying: "<Scherben bringen Gluck!> rief sie fingerschnalzend, holte Kehrblech und Handfeger und kehrte die Scherben oder das Gluck zusammen." ("<Shards are good luck!> she cried snapping her fingers, blought dustpan and brush and swept up the good luck") (80).

A second moment of figurative disinhibition and rhetorical negotiation occurs in the well-known chapter "Karfreitagskost" ("Good Friday Fare"). On a day that is in itself the object of religious arbitration, the protestants go to church, while the catholic inhabitants of Danzig clean their carpets with loud and heavy beats, thus commemorating the nailing of Jesus to the cross (187). The Matzeraths go to the beach with Jan Bronski for a holiday picnic. "Die Ostsee leckte trage und breit den Strand," the narrator ominously remarks ("Broad and lazy the Baltic lapped at the beach") (189). During the walk, Matzerath and Bronski cease to be amorous adversaries, but become more and more each other's double. (24) The scene reaches its apogee when a stevedore lifts the head of a horse with which he is fishing for eels. The view of the horse's head, pervaded by a slippery crowd of giant, manifestly phallic eels, reminds Agnes of her own multiply penetrated, unwantedly impregnated body, yearning for abortion. (25) Whereas to Matzerath the eels represent a culinary bargain (he pays much less for them than the stevedore asks), the opening of the horse's mouth forces Agnes to violently throw up and, later on, to cleanse herself with a diet of "fish and eel oil" (the geminating assonance significantly also occurs in German: "Aal" and "Ol").

The density of tropes in this chapter simulates the intensity with which the young protagonist experiences the scene and reinforces the hypothesis that critical circumstances cause a figurative disinhibition. This is. however, noticeably not always the case. In the highly dramatic chapter "Glaube, Hoffnung, Liebe," ("Faith, Love, Hope") depicting the slaughter of four cats against the backdrop of the simultaneous "Reichskristallnacht," the pate of the narration definitely mounts, yet the emphasis lies wholly on the narrator's indignation about the cats and his disappointment after the destruction of the Jewish toy store where his mother buys the drums (259ff.). Here, the dissociation between the personal crisis and the encompassing catastrophe reaches its climax, perpetuated in the absurd theatre performance on the Norman war bunkers. The bunker reminds the narrator of a turtle and is anthropomorphically named "Dora sieben" (436), a private reminiscence of sister Dorothea and a historical reference to the Nazi-concentration camp where long distance projectiles were manufactured. The name signals the living nature of the bunker, reinforced by the burial of a young dog in the foundations of the bunker--"denn da muss was Lebendiges rein" ("it's the custom to pur something living in the foundations," 438). The almost unnoticed removal of nuns walking on the shore (cf. the stage direction "Felix macht einen Kopfstand. Im Hintergrund fliegen funf Nonnen mit Regenschirmen gen Himmel", "Felix stands on his head. In the background five nuns with umbrellas are seen flying heavenward") (449), betrays, however, that the personification does not induce an empathic reaction on behalf of the dramatis personae, but rather reinforces a strategy of dehumanization. Here it becomes clear that the narrator is indeed able to observe, but not to understand the rhetorical code underlying the narrative he has "outbid."

The dissociation between personal and collective crisis occurs in more or less the same manner in the chapter "Ameisenstrasse" ("The ant trail") in which the Russian invasion of Danzig is depicted. The narrator falls back on a metaphorical register specifically addressing his individual loss; alarmed by the approaching Russian troops, Alfred desperately tries to get rid of his Nazi-badge, in German also referred to as a "bonbon." What used to be a (reduplicating) reference to the colorfulness and the attractiveness of the badge ("bon-bon"), is reinterpreted in the suspense of this critical moment by Matzerath as a candy and hidden in his mouth. Unmoved by the simultaneously occurring multiple rape of one of the elderly women in the cellar, the widow of his former neighbor Greif, the narrator gratefully observes his father synecdochically choking on the badge, on his membership of the party the badge symbolizes, as well as on his attempt to cover up his membership: "Wahrend mein mutmasslicher Vater die Partei verschluckte und starb, zerdruckte ich, ohne es zu merken oder zu wollen, zwischen den Fingern eine Laus, die ich dem Kalmucken kurz zuvor abgefangen hatte" ("While my presumptive father was swallowing the Party and dying I involuntarily and unaware of what I was doing squashed between my fingers a louse I had just caught on the Kalmuc") (518). Oskar's involuntary crushing of the louse (by means of which he indirectly declares his alliance with the marauding Russian troops) indicates that he rhetorically wants to partake in the death of his father and in order to do so he creates an implicit and paradoxical metaphorical relationship between Alfred and the louse--hereby reverting the dehumanizing denomination often used to refer to Jews.

The rhetorical dissociation diagnosed in these chapters, upon which I can only touch briefly, clearly illustrates the protagonist's almost autistic focus on his own figurative register. Consequently, the narratability of Oskar's personal observations is only guaranteed when they suppress all other perspectives. Within the framework of figurative behavior, this is what I mean by a narrative oxymoron. Oskar is incapable of experiencing any other reality than that of his proper family romance. This explains why he instantly understands the codex of evil the sadist artist Lankes uses, when he is raping a young novice Agneta during a post-war holiday in the Norman bunker and her fellow-sisters ask Oskar for help while looking for the lost novice:
   Eigentlich war Oskar froh, als seine Trommelei gestort wurde. Die
   Oberin, Schwester Scholastika, kehrte mit ihren funf Nonnen zuruck.
   Sie sahen mude aus und hielten die Schirme schief und verzweifelt:
   <Haben Sie eine junge Nonne gesehen, unsere junge Novize gesehen?
   Das Kind ist so jung.... Wo sind Sie denn, Schwester Agneta?!> Mir
   blieb nichts anderes zu tun ubrig, als den diesmal vom Ruckenwind
   geblahten Pulk in Richtung Ornemundung, Arromanches. Port Winston
   zu schicken.... Die Nonnen gehorchten meinem Daumen, wurden auf dem
   Dunenkamm sechs immer kleiner werdende, schwarzwehende Locher

   Oskar was glad when his drumming was interrupted. Sister
   Scholastica, the mother superior, was coming back with her live
   nuns. They looked tired and their umbrellas slanted forlornly:
   <Have you seen a little nun our little novice? The child is so
   young.... Sister Agneta where are you?> There was nothing I could
   do but send the little squadron now with the wind in their stem off
   toward the mouth of the Orne, Arromanches and Port Winston The nuns
   obeyed my thumb and gradually turned into six receding black wind
   blown spots on the crest of the dune. (724) (26)

Whereas he metaphorically conceptualizes the six desperately searching nuns as a military formation ("Pulk") obeying promptly the metonymic command of his thumb, his inability to surpass the boundaries of his figurative solipsism culminates in the metaphor by which he multiply reduces the nuns to nothingness ("receding black wind blown spots" or "holes" [Locher]). Oskar remains unable to read and interpret the suffering of the victim, whose subsequent suicide he cannot understand otherwise than in the way Lankes has suggested: as her having a swim. (27)

Interpersonal Understanding

In the cases presented here, there is really no question of psychological disintegration or decay on behalf of the narrator. On the contrary, the dominant, highly rhetorical code of the protagonist's experiences is delicately intertwined with the suppressed code of historical events. As far as the narrator's performance is concerned, this combination suggests that the different styles of representation trace back to an encompassing problem of rhetorical literacy. Die Blechtrommel consistently shows that narrative is inherently violent and cannot escape the interplay between dominante and submission. Still, the final chapter of the book seems to open a (utopian?) prospect for interpersonal understanding.

This chapter, entitled "Dreissig," ("Thirty") starts off with a paradox between the narrated "surrender" or "arrest" of Oskar in Paris and his imminent release from the mental hospital, on his thirtieth anniversary, since it has been established that he is not the murderer of sister Dorothea. It is no coincidence that the summit of figurative disinhibition comes about exactly when Oskar is believed to be sane enough to leave his cell. The instigations leading up to this are distributed symmetrically on two levels: when the narrating Oscar turns thirty, his stepmother/lover Maria advises him to become "sensible" ("vernunftig") (764), which is paralleled by the narrated Oskar's decision to leave Germany and to abandon his drum.

The perspective of change and possible redemption is first and foremost linked to a generalization of communicative partners. Particularly the means of transportation which Oskar uses on his escape to Paris are not merely carriers away from the place of doom, but rather the voices of a suppressed past. The general overtone of this transportational communication is initially not grim: "Waren es die Schienenstosse, war es das Liedchen von der Eisenbahn?" ("Was it the rhythmic thrusts of the rails, the rattling of the train?") (768)--Oskar conceived of his escape as a kind turn to his friend Vittlar, yet gradually he claims to pur anxiety into his own head, which opens the doof to a real exchange: "o wie furchtete ich mich in Belgien, als die Eisenbahn sang: Ist die Schwarze Kochin da? Jajaja! Ist die Schwarze Kochin da? Jajaja ..." ("Oh, what a fright I was in when the rails sang: Where's the Witch black as pitch? Here's the black wicked Witch! Ha ha ha!" 768; cf. also: "Jajaja! sagte die Eisenbahn, die den fluchtenden Oskar nach Paris trug,") ("Ha ha ha, said the train carrying Oskar the fugitive

to Paris," [769]). The generalized identification with the black cook (the subway and its passengers) can be interpreted on the one hand as the ultimate outburst of insanity for Oskar, and on the other hand as an indication of him becoming abruptly literate in the language of guilt and error. That the latter reading actually presupposes the former, becomes clear when the protagonist takes the escalator; this reminds him of Dante's climb from the inferno or of the "Himmelsleiter,"("ladder to heaven," "Jacob's ladder") seen by, among others, E.T.A. Hoffmann as an instrument of transgression and surpassing. (28) The escalator is the moment of Oskar's psychological rebirth and his way to peace and quiet, under the auspices of the forgiving mother: "Wenn Maria schlaft, schlafen auch alle Mobel um sie herum.... Ich jedoch wunsche mir eine Scheibe von Marias Schlaf, denn ich bin mude und habe kaum noch Worte" ("When Maria sleeps the furniture round about her sleeps too.... But what I wish myself is a slice of Maria's sound sleep for I am tired and words fall me") (772f).

But the generalized communication is not the only indication; for the first time in the novel Oskar develops through his figures of speech an attitude of reciprocity: 'Was meinte Herbert, wenn er das Holz berannte?" ("Whom was Herbert after when he assaulted the wooden statue," 778) (29) Here Oscar not only sees the perspective of another character, but he is able as well to question the rhetorical stance behind Herbert's half metaphorical, half metonymic act. (30) And he goes beyond that: he observes figurativeness in the outside world, which is not the result of his rhetorical attribution: "wo der Rolltreppe die Luft ausging" ("where the escalator ended," 776); "Die ausgeknipste Zigarette liess ich fallen. Zwischen den Latten des Rolltreppenstufenbelages fand sie Platz." ("I threw away my cigarette. It fell in one of the grooves in the escalator step," 777) (31) All these examples show that Oskar's proper family romance here derails, yet for the better; what he had conceived of as an escape, now turns out to be a new beginning. Hence, the protagonist re-enacts his entire narration, concisely, but interacting with the "real" world. (32) The petting couple on the escalator is clearly reminiscent of Oskar's parents--although it remains indistinguishable who the real father is, Jan or Alfred. And the old lady behind his back, with the fruit decorations on the hat, is a recollection of Oskar's grandmother, with whom the family romance began. Of course, they may be camouflaged policemen as well, but since every little instance of Oskar's narrative universe has become figurative, everything is and has always been the black cook. Due to the generalization of the figurative, which does not substitute the real for an imaginary alternative, but supplements it with an interactive counterpart, the closing chapter succeeds in sketching the outline of an overall restoration, an apokatastasis pantoon, yet not without a preceding overall destruction. "I am Jesus," Oskar says in three languages (777). The final chapter shows the inescapability of negotiating figurative codes. In this state of imminent madness, Oskar is indeed figuratively disinhibited, but his unceasing rhetorical creativity does not merely rely on projection and overwriting, but actively seeks support and affirmation from other speakers. His madness is the door to sanity. Already in the penultimate chapter, Oskar abandons his outbidding rhetorical code, calling it "Allegorisches Geschwatz" ("Allegorical rubbish," 743). At the end of the day, he cannot but detect that he is out of words: "Fragt Oskar nicht, wer sie ist! Er hat keine Worte mehr. Denn was mir fruher im Rucken sass, dann meinen Buckel kusste, kommt mir nun und fortan entgegen." ("Don't ask Oskar who she is. Words fail me. First, she was behind me, later she kissed my hump, but now, now and forever she is in front of me coming closer," 779) We may thus conclude that in Die Blechtrommel communicative failure, as ominous and threatening as it may be, ultimately becomes the precondition of communicative success, or at least, a prospect of a new (communicative) start. The fact that the situation described at the end of the novel, is exactly the moment from which the entire narrative action has emerged, indicates the perspective of at least an aesthetic deliverance. (33)


Oskar's spyhole perspective and his selective memory are obviously two important factors that influence the narrative style so typical of Grass's novel. Unlike his precursors in the representation of insanity in modern German literature, Grass does not deploy apparent figurativeness in the context of the abolition of communicative norms and the liberation of strictly personal exchange. In Die Blechtrommel figurative processes appear to be rhetorical impulses to negotiation and interaction, not only on the level of the individual utterance, hut also--in the sense of a figurative behavior--on the level of the narrative act itself. Although the metaphors, metonymies, synecdoches and oxymora operate predominantly within the framework of provocation, dominance and suppression, they in the end also leave room for the ultimate discovery of reciprocity and exchange.

Works Cited

Arnold, Heinz-Ludwig, ed. Blech getrommelt. Gunter Grass in der Kritik. Gottingen, 1997.

Astic, Guy. La Tambour Litterature. Gunter Grass Romancier. Paris: Kime, 1994.

Biebuyck, Benjamin. Diepoietische Metapher. Beitrag zur Theorie der Figurliehkeit. Wurzburg: Konigshausen & Neumann, 1998.

--. "Gunter Grass." Duitse literatuur na 1945. Deel 1: Duitsland 1945-1989. Ed. A. Gilleir & B. Philipsen. Leuven: Peeters, 2006. 227-49.

Brode, Hanspeter. Gunter Grass. Munchen: Beck, 1979.

Delaney, Antoinette T. Metaphors in Grass, Die Blechtrommel. New York: Lang, 2004.

Devreese, Daniel. "'Der einsamste Deutsche,' Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche in de Duitse geschiedenis. Een proeve ran psychobiografic in het licht ran zijn familieroman en prinsenfantasme." Diss. Ghent University, 2006.

Dolgin, Janet L., Kemnitzer, David S. & Schneider, David. M., eds. Symbolic Anthropology: A Reader in the Study of Symbols and Meanings. New York: Columbia UP, 1977.

Engels, Benedikt. Das lyrische Umfeld der "Danziger Trilogie" von Gunter Grass. Wurzburg: Konigshausen & Neumann, 2005.

Ferguson, Lore Schefter. Die Blechtrommel von Gunter Grass: Versuch einer Interpretation. Diss. Columbus University, 1967.

Freud, Sigmund. "Der Familienroman des Neurotikers." 1909. Psychologische Schriften. Studienausgabe. Vol. 4. Ed. A. Mitscherlich et al. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1970. 223-26.

Grass, Gunter. Die Bleehtromme/. Roman. Ed. V. Neuhaus. 1959. Gottingen: Steidl, 1997.

--. The Tin Drum. Trans. R. Manheim. 1969. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Hoffmann, E.T.A. "Die Irrungen. Fragment aus dem Leben eines Phantasten." Poetische Werke, vol. 11. 1821. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 1993.52-97.

Johnson, Susan M. "Sexual Metaphors and Sex as a Metaphor in Grass" Blechtrommel" Modern Language Studies 22.2 (1992): 79-87.

Jurgensen, Manfred. Uber Gunter Grass. Untersuchungen zur sprachbildlichen Rollenfimktion. Bern: Francke, 1974.

Just, Georg. Darstellung und Appell in der "Blechtrommel" von Gunter Grass. Frankfurt am Main: Athenaum, 1972.

Leroy, Robert. "Die Blechtrommel" von Gunter Grass. Eine Interpretation. Paris: Beiles Lettres, 1973.

Loschutz, Gert, ed. Von Buch zu Buch--Gunter Grass in der Kritik. Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1968.

Martens, Gunther. "Extending and revising the scope of a rhetorical approach to unreliable narration." Narrative Unreliability in the Twentieth-Century First-Person Novel. Ed. Elke D'hoker & Gunther Martens. Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 2008.77-105.

Mayer-Iswandy, Claudia. "Vom Gluck der Zwitter: Geschlechterrolle und Geschlechterverhaltnis bei Gunter Grass. Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1991.

Moser, Sabine. Gunter Grass: Romane und Erzahlungen. Berlin: Schmidt, 2000.

Neuhaus, Volker. Gunter Grass: Die Blechtrommel. Interpretation. Munchen: Oldenbourg, 1982.

--. Gunter Grass. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1993.

Preece, Julian. The Life and Works of Gunter Grass. Literature, History, Politics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Prince, Gerald. "The Disnarrated." Style 22.1 (1988): 1-8.

Roberts, David. "Aspects of Psychology and Mythology in Die Blechtrommel. A Study of the Symbolic Function of the 'hero' Oskar." Grass: Kritik, Thesen, Analysen. Ed. M. Jurgensen. Bern/Munchen: Francke, 1973.45-73.

Schilling, Klaus von. Schuldmotoren. Artistisches Erzahlen in Gunter Grass 'Danziger Trilogie." Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 2002.

Schneider, Irmela. Kritische Rezeption." "Die Blechtrommel als Modell." Bern/ Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1975.

Steen, Gerard. Understanding Metaphor in Literature. An Empirical Approach. London/New York: Longman, 1994.

Stolz, Dieter. Gunter Grass zur Einfuhrung. Hamburg: Junius, 1999.

Turbayne, Colin Murray. The Myth of Metaphor. Columbia (South Carolina): U of South Caroline P, 1970.

Benjamin Biebuyck

Ghent University (1)


(1) The author wishes to thank Kirsten Kumpf (University of Iowa) and the editors of this volume for their valuable comments.

(2) Cf. Hans Magnus Enzensberger's dictum: "Dieser Mann ist ein Storenfried" (in: Loschutz 8) and the outrage of the reviewer in the periodical Unser Danzig: "Von der Kinderschandung his zur allerubelsten Pornographie" (in: Loschutz 26). See also Preece 47-48.

(3) Delaney identifies over 860 metaphors in the entire novel (63); she gives no details about their distribution, yet indicates a decrease in metaphor density in Book III (148).

(4) See also Gunther Martens' article in this volume and his discussion of "rhetorical narratology" in Martens 96-97.

(5) Particularly by Gilbert Ryle; cf. Turbayne 11-13 and Biebuyck (1998) 195-96.

(6) Jongen, for instance, explains metaphor as an instance of polysemy; cf. Steen 17.

(7) Cf. Biebuyck (1998) 168-173.

(8) Cf. Dolgin, Kemnitzer & Schneider.

(9) Cf. with respect to the paradoxical nature of the "Brausepulver": Johnson 84.

(10) Cf. Leroy 48-54.

(11) Cf. e.g. Roberts 70: "His life is the symbol of the journey of a nation into collective schizophrenia, guilt and denied guilt", see also Brode's political-allegorical interpretation (72-81) and Schneider (38-116).

(12) Roberts develops this interpretation from a Jungian point of view (55ff.). Cf. also Devreese 5-23 and Biebuyck (2006) 232-234.

(13) Cf. also: Just 180-182.

(14) Cf. the manifold references to Grass's combination of "realism" and fantasy: e.g. Brode 68 and Stolz 128 ("seine wirklichkeitsgesattigte und zugleich hochartifizielle Lebensgeschichte").

(15) Preece 8-10.

(16) Cf. Astic 130: "la figure d'Oskar, douee d"une vraie fausse omniscience"; Neuhaus (1982) 23.

(17) Cf. in general Prince 1-8, and with respect to Grass: Moser 35-36. Oxymora are usually defined as the combination of two contradictory predications (e.g. Celan's famous "black milk"). In the light of the proposed extension of figurativeness to behavior or activity, I would suggest to define a "narrative oxymoron" as a (linguistic or extra-linguistic) act that cannot be fully realized unless it is interrupted or retracted.

(18) Cf. Oscar's remark when coping with his first "sexual" experiences with Maria: "Merkwurdigerweise erwartete ich von der Literatur mehr Anregungen als vom nackten, tatsachlichen Leben" ("Strange to say I expected more inspiration from literature than from real naked life," 362).

(19) See for instance: "Auf der Hauptwand hob sich erhaben das ab, was die Steinmetze einen Korpus nennen" ("a large richly carved slab featuring what is known in the trade as a corpus," 574f.).

(20) Cf.: "als das Lachen in ihm ausbrach, herausfand und gegen die Zimmerdecke schlug" ("when laughter burst out of him and dashed against the ceiling," 668).

(21) Interestingly, the two erotic competitors are referred to as "Skatbruder" ("skat brothers," 528); Johnson does not pursue this aspect of the sexual metaphors in the novel. Cf. also: Just 183f. and Neuhaus (1993) 45-46.

(22) Another fascinating instance of this kind of hidden narrative are the storytelling scars on Herbert Truszinski's back (228ff.); cf. von Schilling 46-48.

(23) See also: Ferguson 91-94 and 212-217.

(24) Conspicuously, they end up being buried on the same churchyard, "Saspe."

(25) Cf. also Ferguson 114 and Neuhaus (1993) 50. In this respect I do not agree with Johnson's reading of the horse's head as a "helpless and pathetic" symbol of male virility (81).

(26) The point seems to be that sister Agneta turns up as a reminiscence of Oskar's mother, both onomastically and behaviorally (since she starts eating fish after she gets out of the bunker). Cf. Engels 92ff. and von Schilling 64.

(27) "<Wahrscheinlich will sie baden gehen, wegen der Abkuhlung.> ... Sie schwamm, schwamm geschickt, ubte sich in verschiedenen Stilarten und durchschnitt tauchend die Wellen." (726) ["<Probably means to go swimming. Wants to cool off> ... She swam, she swam, well practicing several different strokes and dove through the waves."]

(28) For instance in his novella Die Irrungen (Hoffmann 90).

(29) An earlier, but chronologically almost simultaneous indication of this kind of reciprocity occurs already at the end of the first book: "Heute weiss ich, dass alles zuguckt, dass nichts unbesehen bleibt, dass selbst Tapeten ein besseres Gedachtnis als die Menschen haben." ("Now I know that everything watches, that nothing goes unseen and that even wallpaper has a better memory than ours," 247)

(30) The metaphoric part lies in the transposition of Herbert's rapidly approaching the statue with a military assault ("berennen") as well as in the blending of this assault with aggressive sexual advances; the complementary metonymic dimension emerges from the shift from the Niobe-statue to the material from which it is produced ("Holz"). See Johnson 82 with respect to Herbert's storming the Niobe as a "reverse rape."

(31) In both cases, the metaphors have dissolved in the translation. See also with respect to the motif of "finding one's place": "Alle zusammen hatten in unserem Bunker kaum Platz gefunden," ("There would hardly have been room for all of them in the pillbox," 724).

(32) Earlier in the book, Oskar refers to this kind of mutuality to motivate his dislike for the paedophile greengrocer Greif, who embarrassed his customers with the words: "Ich liebe die Kartoffel, weil sie zu mir spricht!" ("I love a potato because it speaks to me," 380).

(33) Cf. von Schilling 75.
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Date:Sep 22, 2009
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