Dwelling in GDR literature.
Scholars from diverse disciplines in Germany and the United States continue to be fascinated by domesticity and patterns of dwelling under East German socialism. Historians of material culture seek to understand how "ordinary people" felt about their Wohnzellen in pre-fab apartment blocks. (1) Art historians seek to reconstruct what life was like for artists in GDR cities before southern German real estate speculators left their mark. (2) Social historians offer explanations for the relationship between domestic and institutional spaces. (3) But literary historians of postwar texts have yet to engage with such problems. In this article I seek to fill this gap by asking how the GDR's writers, its most thoughtful minds and most important mediators between state authority and citizenry, responded to the effects of the state's breakneck modernization programs upon perceptions and patterns of dwelling during the peak of prescriptive Wohnkultur, tenement demolition, and the attempted institutionalization of biological need in the mid-to-late 1960s. (4)
In their novels Franziska Linkerhand (1964/73), Buridans Esel (1968), and Nachdenken uber Christa T. (1968), Brigitte Reimann, Gunter de Bruyn, and Christa Wolf represented domestic space in ways that reflected their criticism of the GDR's prescriptive Wohnkultur. They pointed to the suppression of what Hunter Bivens in a recent article calls the "spatial coordinates of the German working-class milieu," and reevaluated institutional control over the life cycles and biological processes that traditionally formed part of home life (142). Like their French contemporaries Henri Lefebvre and Michel Foucault, these writers struggled in their theoretical considerations of the meanings and practices of dwelling to reconceive the political implications of the relationship between human beings and objects in the postwar industrialized world, which involved radical changes in everyday life. The GDR writers and French theorists also share a largely Western Marxist critical perspective, according to which alienation and fetishism in everyday life are central to utopian revolutionary projects. (5) The re-articulation of these concepts across the Cold War divide reveals that the forms, meanings, and practices of dwelling can be understood in terms of classic modern projects, from the reconciliation of planning and spontaneity, to the bridging of the man-made and the biological, and the unification of subject and object. While there was no direct influence between the French thinkers and East German writers, the structural similarities of their shared postwar modernity and modernist preoccupation with integrating individual, psychological emancipation and social revolution justify a comparison that illuminates the significance of the GDR writers' work. (6) Their literary modernism consisted partially in their sophisticated engagement, albeit in relative isolation, with intellectual and social dilemmas of international importance.
For these GDR writers, institutions, including language itself, which they understood as a kind of institution, came under critique in novelistic form. Their reflections on institutionality in the 1960s were intimately linked to an experimental literary reflection on processes of making meaning in language, which they viewed as both limiting in its construction of subjectivity and as a flexible, interventionist tool for shaping political perceptions of the material world. De Bruyn's, Reimann's, and Wolf's literary articulations of the above-mentioned modern dilemmas culminated in literarily innovative texts that mixed autobiography with alternate historiographies of working-class Germany and German intellectual history and entailed formal shifts in narrative perspective, as well as allusions to a contradictory and ambiguous field of textual sources. The novels' formal ruptures and disjunctures are meant to intervene in readers' perception of personal and collective relationships to home interiors and city neighborhoods and to pose fundamental questions about politics, language, and the living of everyday life. (7)
Authors of the most recent studies of East German literature have tried to explain why GDR culture matters now, as Hunter Bivens points out in his review of Benjamin Robinson's 2009 monograph, The Skin of the System, fifteen years after the last wave of field-shifting scholarship on the former East. (8) Bivens's recent article presents Brigitte Reimann's criticism of mid-century GDR urbanism, with its tabula rasa planning and attempts to eradicate historical working-class neighborhoods, as part of an affective structure that she inherits from socialist literature's construction of an imagined history of Germany's working class. In his analysis of the way in which Franz Fuhmann imagined socialism's difference from capitalism and fascism, Robinson approaches the problem of historical otherness in ontological terms and understands the GDR's modernity as symptomatic of attempts at creating historical ruptures. Both Bivens and Robinson are invested in situating GDR socialism within longer-term, ongoing attempts to imagine alternatives to capitalist modernity. In my essay I also point to intellectual parallels across geographic, linguistic, and temporal divides and adopt the historical approach of John Griffith Urang, who in his study Legal Tender investigates the trope of romantic love in literature and film to reach innovative conclusions about ideology formation in the GDR, by examining the ways in which debates over the political value of domestic space were crucial for the production of culture. GDR writers revealed the fragmentation of experience and history as a matter of subjective perception suited to flexible prose experiments. Analyzing novelists' ambivalence toward the power of language to represent spaces and intervene in the contestation of meanings in a time of radical change exposes both the otherness and current relevance of their achievements in the 1960s.
Combating Prescriptions for Living
In Franziska Linkerhand, Reimann traces the trajectory of the title figure, an aspiring architect, as she negotiates the thorny terrain of her own bourgeois past, a traumatic first marriage to an abusive working-class husband, and the design and construction of the socialist city Neustadt. This city is based on Hoyerswerda, where Reimann had been stationed during the first Bitterfeld program of 1959, during which writers were sent to worksites throughout the East. As Bivens shows, Reimann critiques the hostility to tenement life that underlay modernist planning by drawing connections between placeless urbanism and lost utopian hopes (143-45). Yet Reimann also makes the implicit claim that literature can play a crucial role in redirecting architectural discourse away from a focus on over-coded images of architectural forms and toward an understanding of the ways in which forms gain meaning through individual and collective use. (9) Her literary critique of image circulation shares the nuanced focus on use-value and everyday life that one finds in Henri Lefebvre's work from 1957-61. The near-simultaneity of their efforts reflects the structural shifts in the industrialized world at this time and reveals the particular force of literary critique in the architectural discourse of the GDR, which was often characterized by static, one-dimensional, and monoperspectival images.
Reimann's protagonist engages critically with a cultural policy that involved prescribing fixed political meanings for architectural forms and practices of dwelling. Franziska's encounter with the detached, single-family house of her boss in Neustadt, Schafheutlin, exemplifies this engagement: "Es war eines dieser standardisierten Einfamilienhauser, die aussehen, als ob sie alle in derselben Form gebacken worden sind, nach hygienischen Vorschriften, sachlich, aber unter gemutvollem Satteldach" (280). Up-to-date standards of hygienic comfort are reflected in the matter-of-fact character of the house, while traditional preferences are accommodated in the hipped (rather than flat) roof. The implicit assumption that the official codification of such forms' meanings reinforces the new bureaucracy of the state lacks any hint of tension between historic inheritance and modernization. (10) But the author of the novel does not characterize any lingering preference for the traditional as explicitly fascist, either. Rather, the blend of modern standardization with inherited taste reveals the double-sided banality of a new formalism that detaches historical forms from their historically developed functions and reduces modernist abstraction to a sign of lifestyle choices and upward mobility. Reimann's flexible mix of architectural criticism and social satire invites readers to intervene in the processes of making meaning through textual and visual languages.
Important GDR critics, architects, and planners sought to replace historical and contextual justifications for formal choices with an abstract logic based on the political significance of such forms within the project of state socialism. The home furnishings journal Kultur im Heim was a chief forum for the propagation of a concept of "socialist living" that disregarded us e and historical inheritance. (11) Reimann criticizes it directly in the novel, while using descriptions and multiple historical references to produce a more complicated picture of the state's new spaces. When Franziska visits Schafheutlin, she describes his living room:
Das Wohnzimmer war mit neuen Mobeln und Sesseln in vier Farben ausgestattet und glich einer Illustration aus Kultur im Heim, auch das Arrangement auf der Anrichte, Birkenzweige im rustikalen Tonkrug, und die mexikanischen Bauern, die zum Arrangement gehorten, Rivera als Dekoration, na danke, ... Das Zimmer war taubstumm. Sie konnte nirgends einen Gegenstand entdecken, der eine Eigenart oder Liebhaberei seiner Besitzer verriet, und keine Spur von Trodel, der sich gewohnlich in einer Wohnung ansammelt und pietatvoll oder aberglaubisch aufbewahrt wird. (282-83)
Reimann evokes the model interior spaces presented in Kultur im Heim and extrapolates from their forms the characters that might inhabit them. She represents multiple layers of perception in her novel to underscore the disconnect between everyday human activity and those household objects whose forms are over-determined. The Rivera painting's reduction to "Dekoration" indicates the destructive alliance between state socialism and a simplistic and authoritarian regime of assigning meanings to forms. The work of a well-known painter of a left-wing revolutionary movement is made ornamental, a sign or projection of socialism rather than a material contribution to its continuing revolution. The neutralization of revolutionary art in Kultur im Heim constructs a flimsy semantic substitute for value created through use, which, according to the logic of modernization, earns the epithet "aberglaubisch."
This critical reflection on the creation of political value in everyday life has parallels in Henri Lefebvre's work from the late 1950s, including his Introduction to Modernity (1959-61) and his introduction from 1956-57 to the second edition of the first volume of Critique of Everyday Life. In their work, both Reimann and Lefebvre drew upon changes in everyday life in order to reformulate ideas about revolutionary possibilities for social change. They also pointed to the fetishistic quality of mid-century image culture. Schafheutlin's mode of dwelling, in which objects are mere tokens of socialism, is reflected symbolically in the text when he dutifully cleans dirt from Franziska's fashionable West German boots, a caricature of the Freudian fetishist (274). Lefebvre defines the fetish in Marxist terms, as an assignation of value that conceals and compensates for the alienation between subject and object (Trebitsch xxiii-xxiv). In the forward to the first volume of Critique of Everyday Life, he describes the way in which commodified images of the ideal "modern life" become totemic signs of and substitutes for an everyday life that has become emptied of meaning, if not revolutionary possibility:
Compared with lower or degraded standards of living, everyday life with all the superior mod cons takes on the distance and remoteness and familiar strangeness of a dream. The display of luxury to be seen in so many films, most of them mediocre, takes on an almost fascinating character, and the spectator is uprooted from his everyday world by an everyday world other than his own. (9-10)
This complication of the term "standard of living" revives old debates within Marxism and reflects a linguistic mission not wholly unlike Reimann's literary intervention in the perception of objects. Trebitsch argues that both Lukacs and Lefebvre shifted from an aesthetico-spiritualist, modernist view of art as a way to overcome alienation to a Marxist belief in the proletariat as an historical agent that could end alienation by defeating capitalism (xvi-xviii). The goal of uniting theory and practice to redress alienated, bourgeois life remains the same. But class-consciousness replaces aesthetic consciousness as the means to achieve it. Thus, Lefebvre's phrase, "lower or degraded standards of living," does not refer to poverty in a conventional sense, but to the experience of alienation in the body. For Lefebvre, this corporeal experience is characterized by lack or need and is therefore an important possible catalyst for revolutionary action in the postwar period.
In her description of Schafheutlin's house, Reimann also implicitly redefines the aesthetic or metaphysical term "alienation" as a materialist category. The space is over-coded and empty of meaning, and, as such, it resonates with Lefebvre's notion of a "degraded standard of living." Reimann's investment in the power of literary texts to change readers' perceptions of the material world parallels the germ of aestheticist-modernism still present in Lefebvre's thought and underscores the difficulty of connecting formalist concerns with materialist conceptions of change. (12) This GDR writer's confrontation with the very problems that preoccupied a canonical mid-century French theorist points to the structural similarities of their social situations and reveals their sustained, modernist concerns over the value of theory and literature in relation to new regimes of image circulation.
In his Introduction to Modernity, Lefebvre reconceptualizes revolution in everyday life as the adaptive reuse of over-coded objects. (13) Architect-designed objects in the new towns of the 1950s "signal" their particular purposes (118-20) and thus "challenge [...] men to create human life" by using them in ways that diverge from their intended purposes (Lefebvre, Introduction 124-25). In Lefebvre's thinking, alienation resulted from the way mid-century design reduced life to a set of specialized signals of objects' functions. This very alienation, however, is also generative of creativity, in that it reveals new kinds of material human needs that will, in turn, reshape the spaces of everyday life and their meanings.
Reimann also explores such possibilities for users to reshape the meanings of everyday objects by assigning those objects an agency that, in turn, requires the agency of users. Franziska describes her apartment in Neustadt:
Das Fenster nahm fast die ganze Wandbreite ein und sah wie eine Buhne aus mit seinem geschlossenen Vorhang in Rotbraun [...] und die Mobel waren hell und von aufdringlichem Zweckbewusstsein: ein Tisch, ein Stuhl auf dem man sitzen, ein Schrank, in den man Kleider hangen konnte und ein Bett, das ausschliesslich dem Schlaf, der Reproduktion tagsuber abegenutzter Krafte diente und niemandem erlaubte, auf seiner Matratze hemmzuhupfen, in sein Kopfkissen zu heulen und unkeusche Traume zu traumen. (157-58)
Objects are here accorded "Zweckbewusstsein," as each piece of furniture is considered in relation to a discrete purpose--the chair is only for sitting, the bed only for sleeping. Reimann satirically juxtaposes pseudo-scientific jargon ("Reproduktion tagsuber abgenutzter Krafe") with an outburst of adolescent subversion ("auf [der] Matratze herum[ ]hupfen"). Though Neustadt's social discord at the end of the novel contrasts with Lefebvre's more hopeful view of modernist design, Franziska does discover her own agency by using objects in unconventional ways: "Sie stieg auf ihr Bett, dieses tugendhafte Funktionsmobel, das man maltratieren musste, um es sich zu unterwerfen [...]" (159). While Reimann places an individual character's subjectivity at the center of her narrative, the political act of "mistreating" furniture echoes Lefebvre's notion of the collective reclamation of modern spaces. Both writer and theorist were important critics of modernist architecture and the institutional structures that propagated it at mid-century, and both made implicit claims for the force of their respective media.
Related to this critique of prescriptive Wohnkultur were GDR writers' re-evaluations of tenement neighborhoods and the consequences of the uneven, contemporary reshaping of urban life. In Franziska Linkerhand and Buridans Esel, Reimann and de Bruyn use contrasting urban textures (sanitized, new, and planned vs. dirty, old, and chaotic) to reveal the historical processes that gave rise to them. Both authors represented spaces of everyday life in a multilayered prose style that was adequate to the complex textures of the urban environment in the 1960s. De Bruyn's use of different textual registers and Reimann's representation of her main character's split subjectivity constitute linguistic experiments that captured and critiqued the architectural experiments that were being built around them.
One finds international parallels for the reconsideration of working-class neighborhoods, not only in Lefebvre's oeuvre, but also in Alexander Mitscherlich's Die Unwirtlichkeit unserer Stadte (1965) and Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), two left-leaning assessments of traditional neighborhoods and urban planning. In fact, Reimann had read the works of both these thinkers, as Taverne has shown. (14) But Reimann, de Bruyn, Jacobs, and Mitscherlich can also be considered together because each struggled to reconcile a positive view of traditional, dense urban life with an acknowledgement of the necessity for governmental city planning. Together these authors illustrate the diverse intellectual inheritances that led to a simultaneous articulation of this classic modern paradox. The clearing of tenement neighborhoods and attempts to standardize urban dwelling became a shared historical flashpoint. What distinguished literary writers' engagements with the problem was their use of intertextuality and innovative narrative strategies to destabilize fixed notions of subjectivity and mark their own historical moment as a radical break from the past that nevertheless remained embedded in history.
The idea of historical rupture is at work when Franziska is assigned the task of sketching the foundations of an old neighborhood that is to be demolished. Franziska sees the district as a "schmuddelige Poesie" of crooked, narrow alleys and small door openings, even as she recognizes that "Strassenkrummungen den Verkehrsplanern ein Argernis [sind]" (207). Ultimately, she fulfills her bureaucratic function by approving the demolitions. Before its destruction, the old quarter of the city, with its small, independent butchers and bakers, had gained new life as residents from surrounding towns came in search of fresh meats and breads. Franziska tries to convince herself that the charms of the old city were bought at the cost of the militarism she sees as symbolized by a local castle.
This justification only thinly veils Reimann's attempt to positively reevaluate historic cities and the street life associated with them. The year 1964-65 represented a broader international transition in thinking about cities, a shift of which Reimann was aware. This shift was reflected in the publication of Mitscherlich's Unwirtlichkeit, a stinging indictment of planned cities from the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century, European urban planners' adoption of the Venice Charter in support of rehabilitating old neighborhoods, and the increasing international popularity of Jacobs's Death and Life. Marxist and non-Marxist thinkers alike rejected urban models that obscured human need and maintained a conviction that CIAM's planning principles of separating residential from commercial uses and accomodating cars led to social alienation. Key Marxist terms thus played a crucial role, not just in Reimann's fascination with historic patterns of living, but also in the broader discourse that would lead to an increasing appreciation of inherited urbanism through the 1970s, even in the GDR. (15)
De Bruyn's Buridans Esel can also be seen as a contribution to changing views of cities in the 1960s. The intrusive narrator tells the story of Karl Erp, a married suburbanite and library bureaucrat, and his live-in affair with Fraulein Broder, a young, beautiful, and aloof library intern who lives in a Mietkaserne at the edge of Berlin's Scheunenviertel. Most of the text is devoted to the love affair and its slow, painful dissolution, as Erp falls to adjust to daily life in Broder's cramped, dirty, noisy, and outdated top-floor apartment. The tenement apartment and the ways of life it contains and represents are central to the structure of the narrative. De Bruyn uses Berlin's urban geography to give depth to the main characters and to indicate broader social and intellectual problems, but he deftly avoids turning shifts in the city's fabric into simplistic metaphors of class anxiety or of an opposition between history and the present. To give shape and character to tenement apartment life itself, he constructs a playful narrator in order to explore multiple epistemological frameworks (literary, legal, and micro-historical) for understanding the legacy of these iconic buildings in the East. In this way, de Bruyn reveals different forms of everyday alienation and exposes instrumentalized perceptions of inherited modes of dwelling. (16)
On his first visit to Broder's apartment, Erp sees her building through the lens of those canonical literary modernists who had represented such structures in their work: "In ein paar Jahren werden die Touristen die letzten dieser Hauser besichtigen wie wir heute die Fachwerkbauten Quedlinburgs, und Reisefuhrer werden Doblin oder auch Arno Holz zitieren: Ihr Dach stiess fast bis an die Sterne, vom Hof her stampfte die Fabrik, es war eine richtige Mietskaserne [...]" (47). De Bruyn ironically positions Erp as a cultural voyeur within the unfamiliar halls of the tenement building. That Erp sees a present space as a quaint historical relic shows his inability to grasp the ways in which processes of modernization inscribe themselves into everyday life in disjointed, uneven, and undesirable ways. Like Party bureaucrats in suburban Pankow, he is keen to view the socialist revolution, here reflected in the replacement of Altbau with Neubau, as a completed project. Erp's subjectivity has been rewritten by official pronouncements that characterize the new architecture of the scientific-technological revolution as an inherently socialist architecture and that brand the Altbauten as remnants of a capitalism best represented by Naturalists and Expressionists. (17) The narrator's critical distance from these associations, however, opens space for the reader to imagine different sets of meanings for architectural modernization and its effects on dwelling. The narrator's faux-legalistic assessment of the tenement thus gains political value:
Denn dort oben [im obersten Stock] hatte die neue Ordnung noch nicht gesiegt, dort herrschte noch immer das Chaos und die Gesetzlosigkeit der offiziell langst erledigten Nachkriegszeit, dort endete die Wirksamkeit samtlicher Hygiene-, Brand- und Luftschutzgesetze, dort wurden die ordnenden Vorstosse der Kommunalen Wohnungsverwaltung in Schmutz und Spinnweben erstickt. (49)
The upper story is a gap in the SED's dragnet of modernization and a loophole in its monopolistic semantic regime. De Bruyn's experimentation with different linguistic registers opens a potential site for critique, historical slippage, and the consideration of alternative practices of everyday life.
De Bruyn's subsequent portrayal of the building's use over time indicates the connections among urban form, dwelling, and history in a way that, like classic historical materialism, reveals processes of production in order to overcome the obfuscating fetishizations of the present. After relating Erp's schoolboy excitement over being in the spaces Holz and Doblin had depicted in literature, the narrator reveals further lacunae in Erp's knowledge by telling the story of Aaron Wallstein, a Jewish man who came through Berlin's Rosenthaler Tor on the same day as Moses Mendelssohn in 1743. Wallstein's descendents lived in an eighteenth-century building that was later converted into a conventional nineteenth-century Mietskaserne, until a neighbor informed on them to the Nazis in the late 1930s. Wilhelm Broder, Fraulein Broder's father, lived in the same building and lost his job as a result of his friendship with the Wallstein family. Fraulein Broder, who still lives in the building, now has a constant reminder of the story of her dwelling space and its users, for her room overlooks the Alter Judischer Friedhof where Moses Mendelssohn is buried (35-43).
The rich history of this space is an indication of the ways in which everyday life is shaped by competing historical forces that exceed Party bureaucrats' attempts to rewrite the histories of spaces. (18) The connection of the building to intellectual history and the history of Jewish Berlin, along with the unsanitized spaces it contains, render it an organic antidote to the GDR's culture of prescriptive modes of living and the complacent bureaucracy that Erp represents. However, this history ends in the trauma of the Nazi past, which drives a rift through the building's community. Thus, the past of the structure is both positively and negatively charged, with the Nazis figuring as right-wing revolutionaries, whose modern mass politics had disturbed historical continuity. This ambivalent view of the past is similar to Reimann's when she satirizes the SED regime's assumption that historical and modernist architectural forms might easily coexist within the new bureaucracy. De Bruyn represents the varied legacies of tenement life as a productive challenge to intellectuals seeking a synthesis between the left-wing glorification of improvised modes of dwelling and the planning and order of the modern present amidst the specter of a traumatic past. That no such synthesis arises in de Bruyn's work indicates that he embraces an aesthetics of entanglement with such intellectual problems, rather than seeking an enlightened solution to them. (19)
De Bruyn and Reimann viewed the process of tenements' growing estrangement from upwardly mobile technocrats with trepidation. In their concerns, they were among those leading intellectuals who were working toward a new appreciation of the historic urban fabric in the East. Florian Urban has shown the extent to which such historical sensitivity became an important part of official policy, starting with the rehabilitation of the Arnimplatz area in the early 1970s, not far from Fraulein Broder's building. Urban confines his analysis to urban planning discourse, but this shift in official thinking was anticipated by artists' and writers' "rediscovery" of traditional street life. (20) In the GDR of the 1960s and early 1970s, when the shift away from Stalinist historicism in design was still quite recent, literary discourse was more advanced than actual building policy in its presentations of imagined subjectivities in critical interaction with the political values at stake in architectural structures and official policies. At the same time, GDR literature was in tune with broader cultural shifts in Europe and the US.
In fact, Reimann celebrated the bombast and exuberance of Berlin's Karl-Marx-Allee as a distinctive architecture that defined public space. (21) Yet Brecht, in a draft of a letter from 1955 to Hermann Henselmann, architect of the Stalinallee, articulated paradoxes that de Bruyn and Reimann would grapple with ten years later. For him, the Schinkel-esque ornamentation of the buildings of the Stalinallee could not conceal the way in which the project continued the divergence of modern urban planning from the medieval city:
Anfechtbar das lineare Grundkonzept unseres Bauens. Die Harmonie hangt nicht von der Regularitat ab. Wo bleiben die Hofe, die krummen Strassen, die Uberschneidungen der Gebaude, wo bleibt der Kontrast, die Uberraschung der plotzlich sich offnenden Sicht, das Spezifische eines Blocks, das ihn dem Gedachtnis einpragt und durch die Jahre hin anziehend macht? Wir lassen unsere Kinder in der Geometrie aufwachsen, in Einheitsstallungen. Der Zufall (und der "von aussen" kommende Zwang, sich gerade hier einzurichten, das Beste aus einer Zwangslage zu machen usw.) des anarchischen Bauens der Vergangenheit hat Hassliches und Schones hervorgebracht. Wie setzen wir sein Schones planmassig? (Brecht, Journale 2 364)
The first-person plural in the first and last lines refers to a group broader than the citizens of the GDR. Brecht is responding to the GDR's planning apparatus, which is an iteration of a longer-term rationalist project that Brecht represents through the metaphor of the "straight line." Whereas Brecht's naive tone softens the paradox in the call in the last line for planned spontaneity, the literary experiments of de Bruyn and Reimann seek to highlight the multiple tensions between working-class self-organization and the need for central planning. These writers did not just seek a metaphor for modernity. Instead, they used estranging textual strategies to explore the effect of their own moment's historical ruptures on ways of perceiving the world.
Dwelling and Life Cycles
The relationship between life cycles and domesticity in de Bruyn's and Reimann's novels entails a similar set of problems which are also connected to their reconsideration of tenements. If for those two authors scenes of birth and death in homes or apartments show the way these bodily processes have been institutionalized and sanitized, for Christa Wolf in her Nachdenken uber Christa T., the exploration of the spaces in which birth and death take place belongs to a broader rumination on the dialectic of language as both an alienating force and an interventionist medium for resisting alienation. In her novel she shows nothing other than the narrator's attempt to make meaning out of Christa T.'s life, which, in turn, had revolved around interrogating the relationship of language to social change. In de Bruyn's novel, the narrator's momentary, ironic assumption of Erp's perspective as his father is dying constitutes a self-reflexive literary response to the mid-century institutionalization of death. This focus on ambiguous new forms of alienation in connection to the status of language exhibits parallels to Michel Foucault's contemporaneous exploration of the interaction between linguistic regimes and the institutional disciplining of the human body. These parallels again reveal the shared structural and historical framework of mid-century intellectuals. However, they also indicate the crucial role of literature in the GDR, where sociology as a discipline remained taboo in the 1960s and philosophical faculties had been under intense pressure since Ernst Bloch was forced to resign from his position in Leipzig in 1957. Wolfs indebtedness to Romanticism, like de Bruyn's skillful combination of realist traditions and playful narration, was also linked to broader epistemological questions. The literary mediation of socialist Wohnkultur occurred within a deeply intertextual and interdisciplinary framework in which authors sought to generate political meaning through flexible textual strategies and a diversity of philosophical stances.
In Nachdenken, Wolf tells the story of Christa T.'s struggle with terminal illness and her efforts to build a house for herself. In the novel, ambiguous confrontations in the home and at the hospital with the natural, unavoidable aspects of the life cycle, including pregnancy, birth, and death, become a way for Wolf to criticize the alienated relationship to life and death fostered by modern institutions. (22) Toward the dose of the novel, Christa returns home from the hospital after receiving the latest dire prognosis. At first, her house seems to be an anti-modern refuge from the rationalized space of modern medicine. She eagerly assumes the role of head of the household, directing the workings of the kitchen and orchestrating daily life in what appears to the narrator to be spontaneous improvisation. This behavior contrasts with the antiseptic hospital room where she had given birth earlier and where she receives treatment before her death.
However, Wolf is not simply a critic of modernity. Rather, she seeks to bridge modern institutions and improvised domesticity through a literary intervention that integrates reflection on the status of language with the belief in its necessity for political intervention. On the one hand, the hospital is the site of impersonal health administration and modern technologies that institutionalize the individual's confrontation with sickness and death. Modern medicine removes both from the realm of everyday experience that the home interior constitutes. On the other hand, the hospital is the site of a moving scene in which Christa receives a blood transfusion:
Sie sieht das fremde, gesunde Blut aus dem Glasbehalter in ihren Arm tropfen und denkt, es gibt keine Macht der Welt, die ihr Knochenmark hindern konnte, ihr eigenes rotes Blut mit den zerstorerischen weissen Zellen zu uberschwemmen. Zu fruh gelebt, hat sie vielleicht gedacht, aber kein Mensch kann sich wirklich wunschen, in einer anderen als in seiner Zeit geboren zu werden und zu sterben. (203-04)
Christa observes modern technology's ability to combine the body of another with hers, revealing how new forms of an intimate confrontation with mortality can emerge precisely in those institutions that reflect the rationalization projects of modernity. Neither Christa's house nor the modern institution of the hospital, it would seem, have a monopoly on the creation of political value. This implied complexity parallels both Lefebvre's insistence on productive alienation and de Bruyn's rejection of officially propagated meanings of tenement living. Wolf makes a similarly modernist gesture by suggesting that the meanings of spaces are inherently in flux and that literary intervention in the processes of making these meanings is possible. (23)
Like Foucault, Wolf was interested in the way subjectivities are inscribed in the interaction between the body and institutions of power. Scholars have demonstrated Christa's awareness of those Stalinist patterns of thinking which shaped her own thought from an early age, just as the prose of official newspapers inflected her speech and writing. (24) Her rumination on the blood of another entering her body can be described in Foucauldian terms as a momentary reappropriation of the medical gaze, which the French theorist sees as a spatial category. This textual moment becomes a reclamation of institutional space that shifts control over the meanings of material manifestations of modernity from the institution back to the individual subject. If modern institutions can regulate birth and death, literary writers can intervene by reshaping language and meaning in order to reclaim the way life cycles are understood from institutional regimes. For Wolf, the reclamation of the body through language becomes an integral part of what it means to "dwell" in a world shaped so strongly by institutions. She goes a step beyond her less experimental colleagues by dissolving the concept of home and dwelling into a reflection on the construction of ideas about social practices in language.
While Reimann's Franziska Linkerhand is less sophisticated linguistically, she nevertheless calls into question the institutionalization of life cycles within a broader critique of the GDR as a rationalized, modernized society. In the novel, the representation of fractured subjectivity becomes a literary vehicle for articulating a characteristically Western Marxist longing for totality, for which the community of women in Franziska's building in Neustadt becomes a symbol. The immediacy of these women's connection to one another, particularly as they gather around one woman giving birth in the building, forms a stark contrast to the facelessness of their hastily built, concrete apartments (236-37). If Franziska imagined that her architect-designed bed was not made for crying or romance, it is clear that the functionally designed rooms in Franziska's apartment building certainly were not conceived as gathering places for childbirth. The emotions Franziska feels while watching the young woman in labor defy not only the coldness of the space, but also the significatory potential of language itself. The laboring woman is
unerreichbar fur eine menschliche Sitmme, fur die fremdsprachigen Vokablen Schmerz, Kind, Gluck, ausschliesslich mit der Arbeit des Gebarens beschaftigt und in einer Einsamkeit, die nur der des Sterbens vergleichbar ist. (234)
For Franziska, the woman is not alienated in her aloneness. Rather, she is in an authentic space beyond the reach of semantic language, which, in terms of the physical language of the birthing body, has become "foreign." Her willingness to witness the birth along with the other women in the building gains Franziska a measure of acceptance among them and even leads her to view her imperfect modernist city as a "zu Hause" (238). Reimann adds irony to the birth scene by revealing at its end that an ambulance had in fact been called to take the laboring woman to the hospital. The birth happened in the apartment building because the ambulance driver could not tell one unornamented, faceless building from another and, as a result, lost his way in the city. The anonymity of Neustadt's modern architecture becomes an unintended hindrance to the modern hospitalization of birth.
In showing the spontaneous appropriation of controlled space and the limits of modernist planning regimes, this scene resonates with Lefebvre's contemporaneous investigations of the way the meanings of new towns could be reshaped through practices that counter the alienation fostered by the their pared-down forms. In his preface to Philippe Boudon's sociological study from 1969 of dwelling practices in Le Corbusier's modernist Pessac settlement of the 1920s, Lefebvre claims that the functionalist settlement forced its users to identify their elemental needs and to overcome alienation by reshaping the over-determined spaces according to their own social practices. The birth scene in Reimann's novel reflects a similar utopian hope, for natural life processes are reclaimed in the collective domestic space of the apartment block. As the prospects of Neustadt receiving the government attention it deserves dwindle and as the colossal failure of its planners' attempts at social reform is laid bare, Franziska's inability to have a child with her lover Ben becomes symbolic of the shortcomings of the GDR's planned revolution.
The connection between life cycles and domestic space is at play in similarly loaded terms in de Bruyn's Buridans Esel. As Erp slowly turns away from his extramarital affair with Fraulein Broder, he reaches a personal turning point when he is forced to confront the illness and death of his father, whom he describes as a small-town Prussian relic with an outdated set of values (201-04). During the father's death scene, de Bruyn's narrator frames Erp's reflections on life and death by pointing to the acts of story-telling and the telling of history that take place in the narrative. In the text, de Bruyn thus explores the meaning of death from multiple perspectives and registers the impossibility that any one of them might adequately represent its object. With a proliferation of genitive constructions that parody academic prose, the narrator gives a faux-rationalist account of the purpose of the scene:
Zweck dieses Kapitels ist die Darstellung von Karls Erinnerungen. Nein: die der Erpschen Vergangenheit. Die Erinnerungsbrille legt man besser beiseite [...] unbrauchbar zur Markierung von Entwicklungskurven, oder vorsichtiger gesagt, zum Versuch dazu; denn so eindeutig Tatsachen sein konnen, so fraglich ist oft die Art ihres Einflusses. (200)
What follows is a pseudo-scientific description of Erp's father's hometown and biography, which is, in turn, followed by a reflection on the all-too-questionable "influence" of these facts on the main figure's self-perception. This ironic framing links the way we know and speak of death to Karl's subjective reflections on it.
De Bruyn's literary modernism consists in articulating a paradoxical situation in which spaces of death, which are constructed through different registers of language, materially house the central biological reality of human existence. Karl's father wants to die at home: "Ich will sterben, wo ich gelebt habe" (208). Erp, as a bureaucrat in a modernizing state, initially fails to see the value of confrontation with death in the home:
[Der Vater] stirbt altmodisch, wie er gelebt hat, dachte [Erp]. Wer mutet das heutzutage seinen Angehorigen noch zu? Geboren und gestorben wird im Krankenhaus, aseptisch, abseits, ungestort und nicht storend. Wer kann das heute noch ertragen: die Schreie der Kreissenden, das Rocheln der Sterbenden? Nur Leute, die dafur ausgebildet wurden, fur die das Dienst ist, die Geld dafur bekommen. (208)
The thought of witnessing his father's bodily suffering leads Erp at first to reaffirm the institutionalization of life cycles and specialization of medical labor that are characteristic of modern economies of health. He celebrates the subjugation of the biological to the mediating relationship of the medical gaze and affirms his allegiance to a brand of socialism in which the specialization of labor and economic efficiency are prized over attempts to overcome alienation.
However, even as he develops this argument for the modern sanitization of death, Erp becomes increasingly sympathetic toward his father's views: "Man lebt, als gabe es den Tod nicht, lugt sich uber ihn hinweg. Aus Feigheit? Je perfektionierter die Totungsmethoden werden, desto hartnackiger wird jeder Gedanke an ihn verdrangt" (208). The word "lugt" acknowledges that the modern hospitalization of death is a form of deception, while the chilling compound "Totungsmethoden" conjures associations with the mechanized killing of the Holocaust. This rhetoric points to the dialectic of Enlightenment, in which the technological advancement that allows for improved healing also facilitates the development of more deadly and impersonal technologies of killing. The difficulty the narrator had had at the beginning of the chapter in narrating Erp's father's death is given new meaning, as it is linked at the chapter's close to the difficulty of telling history in the wake of the Shoah.
This layered reflection on the interaction among institutions, the body, and the telling of history was in consonance with Foucault's project of critically revealing the roots of institutionalization and with Lefebvre's hope for revolutionary possibility to arise from the adaptability of the human animal. The French philosophers shared with the GDR writers the need to respond to rapid, authoritarian modernization programs and to rethink notions of alienation amid postwar shifts in everyday life. These writers and thinkers also all sought to combine Marxism with other strands of thinking or to use its terminology in relation to other foci. For Foucault and Wolf, these other foci included semantics and subjectivity; for Lefebvre, concepts of biological adaptability and sociology; for de Bruyn, a deeper understanding of historicity. There is a longer intellectual trajectory here, too, of "death [as] one of the key challenges to any materialist philosophy or aesthetics," as proclaimed in the introduction to a recent volume of the Brecht-Jahrbuch, Brecht und der Tod (24). For the early Brecht, the mortality of human beings, the trope of tenement living, and the inhumanity of modern cities are strongly linked, especially in his poetry. Indeed, his representation of death in and after Hauspostille and Aus einem Lesebuch fur Stadtebewobner was characterized by an oscillation between celebrating man's alienation from death in the modern world and pointing to ways beyond such alienation. (25) The GDR writers, in their ruminations on institutionality, were faced with a similar paradox in a state they increasingly perceived as too modern in some respects and not modern enough in others. If, as Marie Neumuller has pointed out, Brecht's fascination with death was connected to alienation in the modern city, his reevaluation of traditional urbanism in his postwar context represents an increasing fascination with traditional modes of facing death as well.
From National to International
The GDR writers I have analyzed in this article distinguish themselves in the extent to which their reflections on living space and its use went hand in hand with a rediscovery of the flexibility of literary form to accommodate a self-reflexive exploration of the language that might represent daily life in its fragmentation and historical depth. In Reimann's novel, the central figure's fractured subjectivity registers the relation of contemporary domesticity and urbanism to institutionality. With her narrative, Reimann thus calls upon her readers to recognize the importance of individual alienation amid profound material change and to see aesthetic considerations and the necessities of daily life as reconcilable. For de Bruyn, playful literary strategies became a way to recast language as a medium for questioning the meanings of changes in the urban fabric, rather than simply representing them in a conventionally realistic way. In Wolf's novel, language plays the dual role of a repressive medium that inscribes subjectivities and a self-reflexive tool for thinking about the ways in which institutions can account for the processes of the human body.
These writers dealt with far-reaching ideas by examining the radical changes of their own time as they manifested themselves in everyday life in the GDR. It was not only in France, Great Britain, and the United States that keen minds probed the disjunctures of the present as consumer culture and institutionalization entered their next phase. For writers in all of these nations, a specific postwar set of conditions was the basis for critical reflection and the lens through which the presence of the past was viewed. Although they were interested in historical specificity, these writers nevertheless engaged with ideas of lasting importance in their reassessments of changes in practices and conceptions of the domestic. Though they treated the German past, their considerations were not provincial. However, to appreciate the connections between these GDR modernists and their West German, American, and French counterparts, one must also understand that they all responded to their specific temporal, local, and political conditions, regardless of how widely their work resonated. What constitutes the special contribution of these GDR writers is that, in their observations of changing institutional frameworks and practices of everyday life, they reflected on language itself as analogous to institutionality in its capacity both to constrict subjectivities and to shape new realities. Just as seemingly soulless, pre-fab apartment blocks could become sites of new life entering the world, so, too, could language, manipulated and degraded in the GDR's lecture halls and television studios, become a flexible medium for probing different ways of knowing, the status of historical inheritance, and changing patterns of dwelling.
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(1) See Betts and Crew.
(2) Kaiser examines the milieu of artistic resistance in Dresden.
(3) See Muller, Jarausch, and Bauerkamper.
(4) Bathrick's groundbreaking work in The Powers of Speech established this paradigm.
(5) In his work, Martin Jay differentiates the Western Marxist focus on such categories from that of Soviet Marxists, who rejected the early Marx and focused on the so-called scientific socialism of Das Kapital. Thinkers in the GDR were situated between these models, as was the (Stalin-influenced) Communist Party in France in the 1950s and 1960s. This is a context that Lefebvre in particular shares with the GDR writers. He remained in the Party in France until 1957 and had given a paper at the Akademie der Kunste in East Berlin as late as 1956. However, his work remained largely unread in the GDR and would not be more broadly received until the 1970s.
(6) These are the factors Gluck cites in her reductive, though useful, definition of modernism, which she traces from the avant-garde of the interwar years to Foucault's postwar work (879-82).
(7) These writers were theoretically savvy, but their influences were more often literary than philosophical. In her diaries, Reimann refers to Zola, Balzac, detective novels, architecture journals, Rilke, and the mid-century Soviet writer Daniel Granin. De Bruyn was interested in literary history and the intersection between the textual and the sociological aspects of literary production. His fascination with place paralleled a fascination with literary voice, as is evident in his parodies of leading authors in Maskeraden, a work that was published shortly before Buridans Esel. Wolf was the most theoretically informed. Andreas Huyssen has traced the way Ernst Bloch's concepts of alienation and utopia permeate her Christa T (Huyssen 101-03).
(8) See Bivens, "The Measures Taken."
(9) Reimann and her title character show their fascination with the interaction of spatial use and meaning when, for example, Franziska recalls the central staircase of a palace in her home city for her lover Ben: "Gott, was fur eine Treppe! Eine Treppe, die man nicht raufgeht, sondern emporschreitet, falls du verstehst, was ich meine" (73).
(10) Reimann's critique thus echoes the concerns of West German leftist artists in the late 1950s and 1960s. Diederichsen points out that the SPUR group, among others, tried to reveal the ways in which the goals of the new, self-stylized "ahistorical technocrats" dovetailed with those of "history-repressing former Nazis" (Diederichsen 138).
(11) The journal was founded in 1956 and had a small but influential audience.
(12) See Trebitsch, xvii-xix.
(13) Bivens emphasizes the role of the novel as an articulation of crisis in part by setting Reimann's text in dialogue with Ernst Bloch, who, while seeing "hope" as a central category, understood modern architecture in Das Prinzip Hoffnung as an expression of technocracy. My reading connects the novel to the work of Lefebvre because both Riemann and Lefebvre shared a fascination with the way objects gain meaning and value over time as part of traditional rituals and patterns of life. Lefebvre's view of pared-down, modernist architecture was also more nuanced than Bloch's (Trebitsch xxii-xxiv).
(14) Taverne traces the connection between the provisionality of life in Hoyerswerda and the novel's structure. My argument makes the specific connection to Kultur im Heim, tracing international parallels and exploring the theoretical implications of Reimann's literary intervention in shaping objects' meanings. Kaufmann has noted the ways in which Jacobs's definitions of street life influenced Reimann (115-16).
(15) See Urban.
(16) See Urban and Betts on the anti-tenement propaganda of the early GDR.
(17) Peter Muller cites the replanning of central Berlin between Bebelsplatz and Alexanderplatz as an example of the way GDR architectural rhetoric loaded architectural forms with specific political values.
(18) This sequence provides an only partially accurate account of Berlin's geography.
(19) See Fehervary.
(20) Wolf Biermann and Ulrich Plenzdorf both lived in historic buildings.
(21) Franziska Linkerhand 319. Reimann was friends with Henselmann and acquired Mitscherlich's and Jacobs's works through him in the mid-1960s, at an early stage in the process of writing Franziska Linkerhand (Kaufmann 114).
(22) Cheryl Dueck sees the narration of encounters with death as characteristic of GDR women's writing in the 1980s. She links explorations of death to the decline of the state (108-38). Muller's Der Bau and Neutsch's Spur der Steine are examples of works in which pregnancy plays a role.
(23) Sheringham has argued that the turn to the everyday as a held of literary exploration could as easily yield literary experimentation as it could lead to a return to realism (11-13).
(24) Nagele and Finney are chief among them.
(25) See Neuweiler.
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|Title Annotation:||German Democratic Republic|
|Publication:||The German Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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