Printer Friendly

The erection of the Berlin Wall: Thomas Brussig's Helden wie wir and the end of East Germany.

The Erection of the Berlin Wall: Thomas Brussig's Helden wie wir and the End of East Germany by Brad Prager

For Thomas Brussig, the author of Helden wie wir (1995), the turn away from the GDR brought about a turn towards one more set of equally confining ideological strictures. However, because redefining public and private life has traditionally been an important political strategy for critics of State-centred societies such as East Germany, post-GDR narratives such as this one raise distinctive interpretative questions. With reference to theoretical work by Judith Butler and Louis Althusser, this article argues that in analysing the novel, one has to take account of the fact that the dividing lines between States and subjects take different forms in East German texts.

Thomas Brussig's novel Helden wie wir (1995) depicts the intersection of the private, or psychosexual, life of its protagonist and the historical changes in East Germany's recent past. As a post-unification novel written by a formerly GDR novelist, it undertakes an examination of the mechanisms of repression in the private sphere in order to explore the officially sanctioned repressions associated with that now-collapsed State. The novel shows how the prohibitions governing the protagonist's home life paralleled the apparently absurd ideological prohibitions of the GDR. Because it deals with how one man, himself a bumbling employee of the State Police, brought down the Berlin Wall by showing his enormous penis to a border guard, it is at times a sexually explicit novel, which has generated some resistance to it. As a revolutionary hero, Brussig's protagonist is neither entirely a subject in nor an object of history; he acts on both conscious and unconscious impulses, closer in spirit to Simplicissimus or Forrest Gump than to Jean-Paul Marat. While some of the novel may at first appear to describe a romantic revolutionary fantasy of political and sexual liberation, Brussig depicts how the turn away from the GDR inevitably brought about a turn towards yet another set of equally confining ideological strictures. However, because the main character's particular entanglement with the GDR State apparatus reflects the unusual position of the author--his curious classification as a post-GDR writer--Brussig's negotiation of public and private spaces is not immediately legible in the terms of GDR or of West German literary history. In the following essay, I account for this context as I examine the author's depiction of the conditions that brought about the Wall's collapse. I argue specifically, through an analysis of the novel's construction of its protagonist's psychic life, that its discourses of political and sexual emancipation are accompanied by a critical reflection on the impossibility of such emancipation for the subjects of either Germany.

There have been many comparisons between Helden wie wir and other novels, but especially with American and West German ones. Some of these comparisons emphasize the novel's explicitly sexual themes--Brussig's depiction of repression, masturbation, and the ever-changing state of his protagonist's penis--while others consider primarily the work's presentation of recent GDR history. This bifurcation reflects the fact that it is in some respects a composite of two novels: on the one hand, it is about its main character's hyperactive libido, and on the other, it is a historical novel about the collapse of the Berlin Wall. As regards its sexually explicit features, Helden wie wir has been compared to controversial works by American authors, such as J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951), in which adolescent rebellion and frustration are represented through Holden Caulfield's transgressions of taboos on decency and profanity. (1) It has also been compared to the works of John Irving, whose The World according to Garp (1978) had similarly sexually explicit motifs and whose A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)--which, like Helden wie wir, dealt with a vexed transition into adulthood--was influenced by Gunter Grass's now canonical West German work Die Blechtrommel (1959). This particular example is often cited as evidence of the mutual influence of German and American traditions. Finally, those critics who choose to underscore only the novel's frank sexual themes compare it with the works of Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, and most of all Philip Roth, whose novels from Portnoy's Complaint (1969) through The Human Stain (2000) are replete with ejaculatory narratives. (2) Roth's famous protagonist Portnoy, to cite one example, is a victim of multiple neuroses, an overwhelming super-ego, and his repressive secular Jewish upbringing. In a scene that was surely familiar to Brussig, Portnoy's most harrowing moment comes as he is almost intruded upon by his mother while masturbating in the bathroom and refers to himself, because of his unconscious desire to get caught in the act, as the 'Raskolnikov of jerking-off'. (3) Without a doubt, Brussig's novel reproduces the stylistic tendencies of these American works in its unreserved exploration of the development of its adolescent protagonist's psychic life.

The other work within the pages of Helden wie wir, however, inscribes itself in a second, more Germanic tradition. It treats the public world of historical events as its primary object over and above the apparently private business of sexuality. None of the American authors just mentioned can be said to have relentlessly depicted historical events such as war and foreign occupation in the manner one generally associates with twentieth-century German narratives. In Helden wie wir, Brussig thematizes the constellation of the subject and history in a way that parallels novels by authors such as Heinrich Boll, for whom history itself constitutes the overpowering horizon that pervades his characters' each and every gesture. Boll's Fahmel family in Billard um halb zehn (1959), to take one outstanding example, personified the author's response--or the presumed attitudes of the generations surrounding him--to the Second World War. If one disregards the explicitly sexual elements of Helden wie wir in favour of these historical themes, there is a basis for comparing it not only with numerous postwar West German texts, but with East German ones as well. To the author's probable chagrin, his protagonist, as a subject with metonymic ties to historical events, could be set alongside Christa Wolf's stoic East German, Rita, from Der geteilte Himmel (1963), who was an articulation of that author's response to the construction of the Berlin Wall. Along similar lines, as was the case with Edgar in Ulrich Plenzdorf's Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. (1973), Brussig's protagonist fails to identify with the ideals of the GDR, has strained relations with his father, and confesses the details of his life story into a tape recorder. In the allegorical vein that one attributes to these novels, each firmly embedded in the ground of German history, Helden wie wir follows a protagonist whose life is directly coextensive with twenty-one years in the development of GDR Socialism. Brussig's main character, Klaus Uhltzscht, was born in August 1968, as Soviet tanks entered Czechoslovakia bringing the Prague Spring to an end. In that character's own voice, the novel recounts his life until the collapse of the Wall, shortly after his twenty-first birthday, rendering obvious the bond between Klaus and East German history.

The fact that comparisons are made both with erotic novels that detail the many turns of the adolescent libido and with historical ones confirms that the work has a dual thematic concern. Its accomplishment is to draw out the relationship between private and public or psychic and social life, in interfusing historical developments with the vicissitudes of its main character's sex drive. The most apt comparison is probably with Grass, who repeatedly undid the difference between the personal and the political-historical in his novels. The accomplishment of Die Blechtrommel was to deal simultaneously with West German history, Oedipal crises, and a literal and metaphoric stunting of adult development. Likewise, in Katz and Maus (1961) Grass yoked together the Second World War and adolescent sexuality, masturbation, and discussions of penis size. In the case of those and Grass's other novels, the war deformed private life in the way GDR repression and the Berlin Wall did in the case of Brussig. For both authors, sexuality becomes a means to monitor the multiple forms of freedom and constraint that directly and indirectly followed from periods of dictatorship.

Because of this type of interconnection between the novel's psychosexual and historical themes, it would be misguided to suggest that it reduces everything to its main character's genitals, which is the front line of most invectives against it. Roberto Simanowski criticizes the work for this reason, but reluctantly admits that there may be a political position embedded in constantly discoursing about a protagonist's penis. His chief regret about the novel is that the position to which the reader is led diminishes the likelihood of a serious treatment of the problem of the past. In Brussig's work, however, the historical events depicted are hardly the incidental backdrop for its scandal-generating scenes. Any discussion of the novel's uncommon negotiation of psychic and social worlds must account for its position between East and West, considering the moment in which the novel was produced and how the present historical context may condition and influence its reading.

Redefining public and private life in the way Brussig's novel does has traditionally been an important political strategy for critics of State-centred societies such as East Germany. In contrast with life in the former GDR, the boundaries of private life in Western Europe and North America are considered to be stable and firm, and as a matter of fact, this feature defines the identity of most bourgeois subjects. In turn, rewriting GDR lives as bourgeois--in the style of Salinger or Roth, for example--might have been a transgressive tool with which to satirize the self-evidently permeable and monitored boundaries of GDR domestic space. With respect to this set of questions, Helden wie wir is peculiarly situated because Brussig's novel about East Germany is not East German in any traditional sense. It is a post-GDR text that seeks to criticize the administration of private life as it was formerly carried out by that State. It does not seek, however, to valorize the West as a haven or utopia and therefore faces the dilemma of finding a position still critical of Western liberal democracies while standing among the ruins of the Cold War. It calls, in other words, for a different style of reading. In analysing it, one has to account for the fact that the terms 'public' and 'private' as generally employed in Western Europe and North America might make a different kind of sense in an East German context.

Moreover, claims that Brussig's novel deals only with sex stem from a position about his or any other novel that is difficult to defend after Foucault's History of Sexuality. Foucault's project undermined the possibility of saying that something is simply about sex, and it therefore becomes ever more naive to assert that Helden wie wir can be stripped down to its salacious moments. Fortunately for the purposes of a literary criticism that would seek to interpret novels such as Brussig's, Foucault claimed that the discourse on sex is subtended by a greater system of social regulation, and because its regulation is a public matter, even when one protests that it is not, various forms of social control are entangled with its particular governance. Although Foucault meant his research to apply to the history of Western Europe, if one pays attention to Brussig's novel, Foucault's claims appear even more material to Socialism and the GDR. Foucault explains that the discourse on sex rendered public and private lives, or to speak on behalf of Helden wie wir, sexual and world-historical ones, coincident. From the eighteenth century onward, Foucault writes, describing what he sees as the major historical break into modernity, it was essential that the state know what was happening with its citizens' sex, and the use they made of it, but also that each individual be capable of controlling the use he made of it. Between the state and the individual, sex became an issue, and a public issue no less; a whole web of discourses, special knowledges, analyses, and injunctions settled upon it. (4)

This description is entirely appropriate to the web of discourses in the GDR that allowed the state to govern its citizens' private lives. In Brussig's novel, surveillance mechanisms within East Germany appear as grossly exaggerated forms of those that are found in Western Europe as described by Foucault. To allow one's reading to be informed, even in part, by such assertions makes it less and less reasonable to suggest that Brussig's novel about East Germany, the Stasi, and masturbation is simply about sex.

The narrative of Helden wie wir consists of a transcript of seven cassette tapes intended for Mr Kitzelstem, a reporter for the New York Times. The extensive monologue recounts how the speaker, Klaus Uhltzscht, believes himself responsible for bringing down the Berlin Wall. As there are no other voices in the text besides his, no one contradicts this account. He first recalls the details of his difficult upbringing in his parents' East German apartment, where his father was a Stasi agent (though this was never openly avowed) and his overprotective mother insisted on setting aside a special bar of soap with which Klaus was supposed to wash his genitals. Klaus eventually joins up with the Stasi, who do not refer to themselves by that name, leaving it a riddle, even to him, precisely what organization he has joined. With them, he engages in a number of apparently pointless espionage activities. In one case, under orders, he kidnaps and returns Sara, a seven-year-old girl, on the same day, playing the board game 'Mensch argere dich nicht!' (known as 'Ludo' in English) with her and forgetting to make any demands, and in another he stakes out a potential subversive in order to take notes and practise his Stasi shorthand. Interspersed with his surveillance stories are a wide variety of largely misogynist sexual misadventures, including the story of how Klaus contracted gonorrhea and tales of the repeated humiliations associated with his diminutive penis. Eventually Klaus is approached to donate blood for a special supply that will be given to the ailing Party leader Erich Honecker. Klaus gladly offers his services, but to do so, he is told, he has to be injected with an experimental serum. After receiving the injection, Klaus wanders over to a rally at the Alexanderplatz, where he hears Christa Wolf making her now famous speech in support of Socialism. Incensed by her State-sympathetic suggestions, Klaus is seized with the urge to get up on stage, take the microphone, and make fun of her. As he rushes forward, he slips and falls down some steps, spearing his testicles on an inconveniently placed broomstick. He is brought to the hospital where the Honecker serum has had a magical effect and, because of the injury, he suddenly finds himself in temporary possession of enormous genitals. Days later, when he is well enough to walk, he heads out to show his new penis to a woman who had once laughed at him, but gets lost and accidentally finds himself among a crowd rallying for the opening of the border. Swept up in the excitement, he is inspired to expose himself to a guard at a crucial moment, and the crowd interprets the guard's stunned silence as permission to pass into West Berlin. The Wall opens and Klaus explains that in this way he and his enormous penis were solely responsible for the collapse of the GDR.

In its first stages, the novel spotlights the intersection of the regulating injunctions in Klaus's private life, subjected to his parents, with those of the State and its Stasi. In its earliest scenes, Klaus narrates how he always identified the disciplinary tendencies of his childhood home with the tactics of a Police State. The Police State he sees, however, is an American one. As a child, Klaus imagines himself to be in the United States, and the author thereby presents a blurring of the distinction between these two types of adolescent experience. Klaus reports that he fears nightly dinner conversation because he feels himself regularly put on trial for crimes that include failing to lock the front door. He recalls:

Als ich eines Nachmittags im Fernsehen ein Gerichtsdrama sah and danach an den Esstisch musste, war der Ubergang nahtlos. An unserem Esstisch ereigneten sich Szenen wie in einem amerikanischen Schwurgericht! Ich war der Angeklagte and sass meinen Eltern gegenuber, die gleichzeitig Anklager, Richter, Zeugen and die zwolf Geschworenen waren. Manchmal legte meine Mutter ein gutes Wort fur mich ein, manchmal liess mein Vater oder meine Mutter die Anklage fallen, oft endete es sogar mit einem Freispruch fur mich--abet trotzdem war ich immer der Angeklagte, vom Tode bedroht. (5) Klaus's reversal is significant in that he is still unaware of the control exerted on him by his own State. From his perspective, the home, rather than the State, is the real locus of disciplinary action, and the Stasi have not yet appeared as a concept. Reflecting upon his own developing understanding of the matter, Klaus remarks: 'Irgendwann ging es mfr in Fleisch and Blut fiber, all meme Verfehlungen als Steckbrief zu reflektieren: Gesucht wegen Nichtabschliessens der elterlichen Wohnung ... Tot oder lebendig!' (p. 34). Klaus narrates the process by which domestic regulations become internalized in his super-ego, and how he learnt to police himself with guilt at an early age. Throughout the novel he conceives of his misdeeds in terms of publicly acknowledged bad citizenship. He visualizes banner headlines announcing his public and private failures, such as 'OSTBERLIN LACHT. DER LAHMSTE LAHMARSCH DER STAST (p. 151). Eventually, his desire to please his parents and the State becomes two identical modes of the same single bad conscience.

While Klaus engages in self-policing, he himself becomes an employee of the State Police. Police take on, therefore, important literal and metaphoric roles. For Foucault, 'policing' is a generalized term, referring to the exercise of power over the subject. The regulation of desires, especially the most private ones, can be described as acts of policing. The theorists Mark Cousins and Athar Hussain formulate, as complementary to the central hypothesis of The History of Sexuality, the argument that 'the proliferation of discourses on sexuality from the end of the eighteenth century was prompted by the new political concern with the welfare of the population taken as a totality, on the one hand, and of the individual on the other--a concern denoted by the term "police" as it was used in continental Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries'. (6) Likewise, in D. A. Miller's application of Foucault's ideas to English literature, The Novel and the Police, the term 'police' becomes a widely inclusive metaphor for multiple forms of social control. Working especially with reference to Discipline and Punish, Miller considers the powers that governed Victorian everyday life. In his work, policing extends far into private lives, and, as he puts it, his perspective moves the police 'out of the streets [...] [and] into the private and domestic sphere on which the very identity of the liberal subject depends'. (7) Because his discussion refers to liberal subjects in liberal societies whose very identity may be predicated on forgetting their implication in disciplinary mechanisms, the discussion would have to function somewhat differently when applied to the GDR. In Miller's readings, the appearance of police and police institutions in literature is often 'an "alibi" for a station-house that is now everywhere' (Miller, p. xii). The essence of his Foucauldian argument is to remind people that they are caught up in hidden disciplinary mechanisms, but one does not need that when describing avowedly State-centred societies. Policing was all too evident in the GDR, and the secret police were one part of a large machinery of control that governed public and private life.

To disavow the mechanisms of State control in the style of Western bourgeois subjects would have been impossible in the context of the GDR. In turn, Brussig's novel equates Klaus's parents and the police, the private and public spheres, rejecting the bourgeois notion of autonomous private life. In so far as the police make a very real appearance in the novel, it may be useful to consider not only Foucault's metaphoric approach, but also that of Althusser, whose work often concerns itself with the literal presence of the police. In his essay 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses', the man on the street becomes a subject only when spoken to, or 'hailed', by a policeman. (8) Althusser depicts a subject or citizen that is identified as such in the moment it turns around to respond to the call of the State. For Althusser, policemen, as representatives of a State, take on an important role in constructing subjects. Though Althusser's famous description can be read allegorically to refer to innumerable scenes of interpellation, it may also be taken to describe what it says it does: an interaction with the police. In order to account for the policing and self-policing in Helden wie wir, it may be necessary to draw both on how self-policing functions as a metaphor in Foucault's work and on the literal appearance of the police in the text as informed by Althusser's essay.

Through the prohibitions on masturbation Klaus learns at home, he becomes acquainted with the self-policing voice of conscience. His conscience develops in concert with the admonition not to touch his penis, and he thereby comes to understand what it means to be a bad son. Foucault describes how, since the nineteenth century, the prohibitions on masturbation have been the site of convergence of various governing institutions. (9) He adds:

Educators and doctors combated children's onanism like an epidemic that needed to be eradicated. What this actually entailed, throughout this whole secular campaign that mobilized the adult world around the sex of children, was using these tenuous pleasures as a prop, constituting them as secrets (that is, forcing them into hiding so as to make possible their discovery), tracing them back to their source, tracking them from their origins to their effects, searching out everything that might cause them or simply enable them to exist. (p. 42)

In Foucault's argument, which seems especially applicable to the GDR as depicted in Brussig's novel, doctors and teachers are representatives of institutions that form one pole of the policing mechanism while the mother forms the other. They combine to constitute a single, unavoidable apparatus of ideological control. Masturbation and the legitimated prohibitions against it stand at the midpoint of a nexus of social regulation. The subject internalizes the mechanisms of surveillance so that self-control is seen to be in one's best interest, and the rules concerning bodily regulation may pervade the most apparently private relations.

Along precisely these lines, Klaus associates guilt and shame with sexual arousal and his urge to masturbate. Monitored by his Stasi father and domineering mother, Klaus learns to avoid or conceal erections, sometimes carrying a Rubik's Cube in his pocket to divert the gazes of fellow students (p. 69). Once, after he locked the bathroom door, his mother forced him to open it and discovered that he was inside with a stubborn erection. Though he claims 'Es geschah von allein!', he feels that he is now accused of a crime. He thinks:

Welch furchterlicher Verdacht lastete auf mir! Dass ich mit meinem Schwan spiele! ... Also werden Sic nachvollziehen konnen, dass ich die nachsten Jahre pausenlos damit beschaftigt war, meinen Steifen zu eliminieren--Stoff fur ein wissenschaftliches Werk Der Pubertdtsstdnder: Methoden seiner Verhinderung. (pp. 68-69)

At the sight of a semen-stained sheet, product of a nocturnal emission, his mother assumes that Klaus has been masturbating, and says, euphemistically, that he must really try to break the habit. In Klaus's subsequent reflection on the tone of his mother's admonition, Brussig indicates Klaus's increasing awareness of the entanglement of his sexual and State-controlled existences. Klaus thinks to himself:

Ist dock nicht ihre Schuld, dass Masturbation wie der Paragraph 412 des Strafgesetzbuches klingt, zwischen Paragraph 411 (Korruption) and Paragraph 413 (Kollaboration). Genauso Onanie, ein Wort, das sie auch ein-, zweimal benutzte, abet mit einer Scharfe, als hatte sie beim Volksgerichtshof-Freisler Sprecherziehung gehabt. (p. 90)

Eventually, the domestic and institutional mechanisms of power, the voice of his mother, and that of the chief minister of operations for the Stasi, who ultimately becomes his boss, completely converge. These twin domestic and administrative spectres speak in his conscience with equal fervour, shaming him as he touches himself. At one point, Klaus masturbates in a stairwell after a botched sexual encounter. In the middle of an act of intercourse to which his partner, a woman he met outside a dance hall, had long since demurred, he suddenly realizes that he is in the process of committing a rape. He feels guilty and remorseful, and flees her apartment in a desperate attempt to shift from a bad son and citizen to a good one. He thinks: Der Gedanke an meine Eltern veranlasste mich, die Vergewaltigung abzubrechen. Was fur ein wohlgeratener Sohn ich dock war! 'Mama, Papa, letzte Woche war ich gerade mitten in einer Vergewaltigung, abet als mir einfiel, wie sehr ihr so was missbilligt, habe ich sofort zu vergewaltigen aufgehort.' Welche Eltern waren nicht stolz auf einen Sohn wie mich? (p. 192)

In the woman's stairwell, however, where he has subsequently begun to masturbate, his thoughts drift from his parents to the State, and he begins to wonder how he would explain his particular situation to the authorities should they catch him in this compromising position. He thinks:

Was wurde ich dem Gerichtspsychologen sagen? Was meinem Richter, meiner Mutter, meinem Minister? [...] In meiner Angst, entdeckt and verhaftet zu werden, bastelte ich schon mal an den Satzen, mit denen ich mich meinem Minister erklaren wurde, wenn er mich in sein Dienstzimmer zitiert, mir die Balkenuberschriften der westlichen Gazetten prasentiert and mich zur Schnecke macht. (pp. 194-96)

Klaus disingenuously rationalizes his actions with the argument that he, now standing in the woman's stairwell, had returned to the scene of the crime in order to affirm the principles of GDR criminology. He composes his speech in the same rhythm with which he masturbates (as indicated by the onomatopoeic interjection 'floggfloggflogg'):

Der Staatsanwalt kann mich nut wegen versuchter Vergewaltigung anklagen--floggfloggflogg--wenn es ein Verbrechen ist--floggfloggflogg--dann zieht es mich--floggfloggflogg--nach einer kriminalistischen Grundregel immer an den Ort meines Verbrechens zuruck--floggfloggflogg--was blieb mir denn ubrig-floggfloggflogg--ware ich nicht zum Wichsen wiedergekommen--floggfloggflogg--hatte ich meine Ausbildung und meine Ausbilder entwertet. (p. 197)

There is never any real danger that the Stasi would catch Klaus while masturbating or doing anything else. Brussig never suggests that he or any of the novel's characters would be seriously harmed by the GDR's secret police. They are inept, and their representatives are more witless than the most dimwitted of Kafka's bureaucrats. The outspoken GDR dissident Wolf Biermann laments that the Stasi are rendered harmless in Brussig's work and speculates that it may be for that reason that some who are nostalgic for the GDR have taken so much pleasure in the book.- Simanowski is also disappointed that Brussig takes the GDR terror apparatus too lightly, referring to it as the 'Dauerwitz' running through Brussig's novel. He writes, 'Brussig bejammert nicht and hebt keinen Zeigefinger. Er will unser Lachen. Den ernsthaften Blick uberlasst er anderen.' (11) Simanowski rightly points out that Brussig rejects earnest writing, disposing of Hegel, Marx, and Christa Wolf with equal enthusiasm. The novel mocks both the employment of serious philosophy in the GDR and the idea that the State Police might have been a genuine threat to its people, with the innocuous character of Lieutenant Eulert, nicknamed the Owl ('die Eule'). The officer's name itself might be taken as a teasing reference to Hegel, whose speculative philosophy came to be metonymically identified with the owl after he famously invoked the owl of Minerva in the preface to his Philosophie des Rechts. (12) Eulert, Klaus's superior at the Stasi, explains that philosophy is his hobby and that he is particularly interested in the Hegelian category' die Negation der Negation'. He begins his explanation of this philosophical paradigm to Klaus in the following way: 'Du kennst doch auch Das Lacheln der Sixtinischen Madonna von Leonardo.' Klaus then thinks:

Es war verwirrend. Meint er Das Lacheln der Mona Lisa von Leonardo oder Die Sixtinische Madonna (die abet--und das weiss ein Sohn meiner Mutter and Besitzer von mittlerweile vier Bibliotheksausweisen--von Raffael ist)? Hat Eule die Sixtinische Madonna mit Mona Lisa verwechselt? Oder hat er der Sixtinischen Madonna ein Lacheln untergeschoben, um dann Leonardo mit Raffael zu verwechseln? (pp. 156-57)

The Owl subsequently explains:

Der Maler, der dieses Kunstwerk geschaffen hat, war sehr gleubisch. Unsere Menschen sind nicht mehr gleubisch. Aber trotzdem bewundern sie dieses Bild and erfreuen sich an seiner Schonheit. [...] Und wenn du noch mehr uber Philosophie wissen willst: Frag mich ruhig. (p. 158)

Brussig lampoons the Stasi by mocking their strategy of pseudo-academic self-legitimation. Through Klaus's eyes, Brussig depicts his employers' false foundation upon a misrepresentation of cultural capital, much as academic Marxism was the legitimizing basis of State ideology in the GDR. To respond to Biermann's claim seriously, then, and to account for the specificities of Brussig's authorial position, the author may have de-emphasized the brutality of the police in order to avoid falling into a mode of criticism of the GDR that valorizes other--by default Western European and American--police. Any country, in other words, might be subject to one or another version of Keystone Kops.

To return to the book's principal themes, through parodying Stasi procedures Brussig depicts Klaus's discovery that both the State police and the policing of his private desires at home are equally absurd. Once he has acknowledged this, Klaus's maturation is signalled through his liberation from both State and parental authority. By the book's end, he imagines that he no longer needs the State or his family with its declarations that he is a bad son or a bad citizen. His father, as the household representative of the secret police, and his mother lose their power to acquit or absolve him of guilt. Brussig is aware that in depicting Klaus's overthrow of the authorities that parented him, he is staging an Oedipal drama. Some passages are almost cliched re-enactments of Freudian scenes (see Frohlich, p. 23). Towards the end of the text, Klaus narrates the events of one of these explicitly Oedipal moments that took place by his deceased father's bedside. He says:

Ich schlug die Decke zurack and sah mir das an, was er immer vor mir versteckte: seine Eier. [...] [ich babe] Hoffnung, dass auch mein Vater sah, wie ich seine Eier in die Hand nahm and quetschte. Los, dachte ich, wenn du so allmachtig bist, dann wirst du jetzt aufschnellen, meine Hand wegschlagen and mir eine runterhauen. Aber dafur war er zu tot. Ich konnte far zwanzig Sekunden seine Eier quetschen. Er hat meine zwanzig Jahre gequetscht, so wie sie aussehen. (p. 268)

In this scene, to borrow the literary historian Stephen Brockmann's phrase, 'Klaus castrates the man who had symbolically castrated him.' (13)

In describing the novel as Oedipal, one should not make the mistake of assuming that Klaus's interest is only in overthrowing his father. His fantasy of autonomy implies freedom from his GDR mother as well. Adopting the perspective of this Freudian claim that freedom from sexual repression is possible, and then drawing its consequences for political liberation, Brockmann notes that Klaus's chief aspiration is to free himself from his mother's 'hypermoralism'. According to Brockmann's argument, 'the novel depicts Klaus's struggle to be born again, to break out of the oppressive womb of GDR conformism. This struggle is presented specifically as a battle between mothers and sons, with the GDR taking on the role of the all-too-powerful scolding mother. The defeat of socialism is thus the defeat of a female principle and the triumph of unfettered male subjectivity' (14) In some respects, her demonized role in the subjection and infantilization of Klaus typifies the narrator's, if not the author's, problematic misogyny. Klaus's seizure of phallic power involves degrading his mother and all the other women in the novel. Klaus regularly mistakes his mother for any of the numerous other women in the text, turning all older women into variations on the same single image. His mother looms over his shoulder when he has his first erection inspired by Dagmar Frederic, the hostess of the GDR talk show Ein Kessel Buntes. Frederic is an explicitly maternal figure, who is, in Klaus's words, 'ungefahr so apart wie Nancy Reagan' (p. 67). He experiences a similar attraction when he sees the ice-skating trainer Jutta Muller. He confuses the figures of Muller, his mother, and Christa Wolf at the 4 November rally on the Alexanderplatz, hearing Wolf's speech and mistaking her for the skating coach. He explains:

Ich war bis auf achtzig Meter an die Tribune herangekommen. Nahe genug, um zu erkennen, wer da sprach: Jutta Mallet, die Eislauftrainerin, Idol meiner Mutter and als 'Frau, die noch jeden hochgebracht hat', die Altersprasidentin meiner sexuellen Phantasien. Was sell das werden, wenn so eine als Rednerin engagiert wird! (p. 285)

Then, in a textual turn that indicates to the reader that Brussig is aware of Freud's essay 'Das Unheimliche', he has Klaus add: 'Wer spricht als nachstes? Das Sandmannchen?' (ibid.).

Not only is Klaus's mother the dominant influence in his psychosocial development, but she is directly employed by the State in so far as she is the hygienist at her son's school; she serves the same function in public that she does at home. Here Brussig shares common ground with Hans-Joachim Maaz, the East German psychotherapist whose popular and well-known post-GDR work Der Gefuhlsstau (iggo) parallels the themes taken up by Brussig's novel. As has been accurately portrayed by his critics, including Julia Hell, Maaz blames East German women for the social retardation of GDR citizens as a whole. (15) In a key point of Maaz's argument, GDR women, in accord with the mandates of GDR life, spent too much time in the workplace rather than protecting their children from the sadism of Communist nurseries. GDR parents on the whole, according to Maaz, failed to stand up against the violence of uniform toilet training, to take one example, because they themselves were deluded by Party ideology. (16) This parental failing led to the emotional underdevelopment of the East German people sketched out in Maaz's 'psychogram'. While there is indeed some basis for a comparison with Maaz, it would be insufficient to say that the only theme of Helden wie wir is the rejection of the mother. For Brussig, the mother is only one part of the repressive equation. Considering the role played by the Stasi, the father, and Erich Honecker, Brussig's perspective cannot be entirely accounted for by his intention to jettison his mother and thereby the motherland.

Even though the novel's concerns are not completely described by a determination to overthrow the mother, one of the key female figures in the text, Christa Wolf, is repeatedly vilified for her adherence to the principles of Socialism and her perceived willingness to rationalize its failures. The Oedipal drama associated with her presence is only in part about the overcoming of GDR women; it is also about overcoming the legacy of GDR writing. Klaus, and thereby Brussig, overthrows the canonical author, lampooning her work, and especially Nachdenken fiber Christa T. (1968). He equates her position with that of all women of his mother's age, telling Mr Kitzelstem:

[D]iese Mutter and Eislauftrainerinnen hangen wirklich am Sozialismus. Sie sind aus den Trummern der tausend Jahre gekrochen. Die Angst vor den Luftangriffen sa[ss] ihnen so grundlich in den Knochen, da[ss] sie noch heute bei jedem Feuerwerk an die Flaks denken. [...] [D]iese Generation [war] vielleicht das erste Mal stolz auf sick, and alle soffen sich selig an einer gro[ss]en Pulle, auf deren Etikett Sozialismus stand. Das hielt warm. Und sie schwarmen noch heute vom wahren Sozialismus- abet sie meinen damit eigentlich ihre Lagerfeuergefuhle. (pp. 287-88)

Klaus's assault on Wolf is relentless. It is troublesome that this appears to be Brussig's rather than Klaus's voice, in so far as in these passages, which frequently ripen into polemics, Klaus sounds like an author taking a position in GDR culture debates. As Margrit Frohlich notes, Klaus's aggressive and sexualizing re-employment of a passage from Nachdenken fiber Christa T. reproduces the gendered politics of the GDR literary controversies in which Wolf was especially targeted (Frohlich, p. 28). While the deliberate assault on and dismissal of Wolf can be read as an allegory for Brussig's attempted break from GDR writing, his novel may not be the radical break that he believes it to be. In overturning Wolf, he may have reproduced many of the selfsame themes one finds in her writing. Julia Hell's book Post-Fascist Fantasies analyses Wolf from the perspective of how her work is engaged in a 'reconstruction of symbolic power' by inscribing itself in the legacy of resistance to Fascism that was appropriated by GDR Party leadership. Wolf's writing, with its attention to how personal lives were structured in the context of politicized GDR daily life, does not stand at such a great remove from Brussig's work. His novel, because of its depiction of ideological formations based on the family and its response to explicit GDR political discourse, inscribes itself, perhaps unwillingly, alongside Kindheitsmuster (1976) and Nachdenken fiber Christa T. in a lineage of GDR literature similar to that that described by Hell.

To read beyond the specificities of literary history, however, and render the novel's Oedipal drama in the terms of a psychohistory of the GDR, the scene at Klaus's father's bedside in which he squeezes his dead father's testicles is a prelude to the historical accumulation of political capital that takes place in the final pages of the text, when Klaus opens the Berlin Wall by displaying his massive and swollen organ. According to Maaz's argument, the real, historical collapse of the Wall was the inevitable consequence of lifelong conformity and subjection to endless performance evaluation. Maaz's position, in other words, is Freudian and can be, to some extent, brought to bear on Helden wie wit. In his historical schema, the repression of energies in the GDR brought on a subsequent, violent eruption. Working along these lines, Brockmann asserts that the deathbed scene typifies the way Klaus becomes a man as he disposes of his father's Party and the weight of GDR history. In this way, the novel's end can be viewed as a revolutionary emancipation. Brockmann writes, 'within Maaz's framework, the fact that the offspring's aggressive energies are directed toward the father and not directed toward others (as Klaus's energies had been previously) is relatively positive and healthy' (Literature and German Reunification, p. 158). From either a literary-historical or psychohistorical perspective, however, the overthrow of the father is illusory. Bearing this in mind, Brockmann qualifies the Maazian approach he has just outlined, adding: 'within a more strictly Freudian analytic framework, the death of the father is precisely the event which perpetuates the father's rule: in death the father acquires more power than he ever had in life' (ibid.). As is always the case with the Oedipal drama, the abolition of the father culminates in his reinstatement. To take this point seriously, whether the novel's key question turns on the tradition of GDR writing or on the deployment of power, neither authority is readily transcended.

If Klaus overcomes the parental authority of the GDR, but Oedipal logic demands that the father be reinstated, with whom does the work then replace that paternal authority? The novel's very form, a protracted confession, signals Klaus's attempt to turn to Mr Kitzelstein of the New York Times. Klaus discloses his story to him and he is thereby the one from whom Klaus expects to receive absolution. Helden wie wir can, in this way, be understood as a long narrative of confession. Foucault's argument asserts that the injunction to confess was an important aspect of the history of self-policing. In describing the seventeenth-century obsession with confession, for example, Foucault writes:

I am not talking about the obligation to admit to violations of the laws of sex, as required by traditional penance; but of the nearly infinite task of telling-telling oneself and another, as often as possible, everything that might concern the interplay of innumerable pleasures, sensations, and thoughts, which, through the body and the soul, had some affinity with sex. [...] this obligation was decreed, as an ideal at least, for every good Christian. An imperative was established: Not only will you confess to acts contravening the law, but you will seek to transform your desire, your every desire, into discourse. (pp. 20-21)

As Foucault explains, confession always takes place in 'the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession, prescribes and appreciates it, and intervenes in order to judge, punish, forgive, console, and reconcile' (pp. 61-62). Likewise, Klaus chooses to confess to Mr Kitzelstein because as a reporter for the New York Times-a representative of the West-he is in a position to judge, mediate, or forgive. To continue to read Helden wie wir allegorically-as about the author's desire to break with GDR literature-Klaus's choice of a Western confessor, and in particular a writer, might be construed as another intimation of Brussig's own desire to distance himself from that tradition. This desire for acceptance also accounts to some extent for his stylistic and thematic overlap with Salinger, Roth, and Bukowski.

Yet another rationale for confessing to Mr Kitzelstein is that in Klaus's mind, sexual liberation goes hand in hand with the West. After his first act of sexual intercourse, he claims finally to understand the meaning of the Beatles' 'Happiness is a Warm Gun' (pp. 128-29), and one of the strictest household prohibitions had been against wearing jeans, the standard symbol of capitalism, a prohibition he finally breaks after losing his virginity (pp. 130-31). In his longing for sexual liberation through the West, he reproduces the repressive hypothesis; Klaus hopes to be emancipated by looking Westward, not realizing that the centres of power from which his sexual and political identity are deployed will elude him there as well.

Through Klaus's confession to Mr Kitzelstein, however, he comes to terms with his status as a disenchanted citizen of the GDR who has fallen out of love with the system under which he has lived for so long. Klaus turns away from the GDR, but this cannot be understood as liberation from all authority any more than the death of the father abolishes the super-ego. Klaus explains his new frame of mind, as he narrates the novel's major turning point, his fateful decision to attend the political rally:

Es waren tatsachlich meine Schuldgefuhle, die mich zu der gro[ss]en Demonstration auf den Alexanderplatz trieben, trotz ausdriicklichen Verbotes der Dienststelle. Jawohl, ich war am 4. November auf dem Alexanderplatz, um, von Schuldgefuhlen gejagt, nach meinem Murder zu suchen. Vielleicht wurde mich Sara erkennen and mit dem Finger auf mich zeigen. Mit ihrem Ausruf 'Mama, das ist der Mann, mit dem ich Mensch argere dich nicht! spielen mu[ss]te!' ware ich geliefert, mein Spiel ware aus, die Stunde der Abrechnung gekommen. (p. 281)

In a curious contrast with Althusser's man on the street, Klaus does not expect to be hailed by the police, but rather is himself a policeman who longs to be hailed by the crowd. Klaus's position is that of the hailed subject before it has been hailed. In that he hopes the crowd will accuse and punish him, he is complicit with the power that disciplines him. Brussig here takes the position that it is not only the State that hails, but that the subject can hail as well, driven by guilt or conscientiousness.

Like Judith Butler in her reading of Althusser's essay, Brussig contemplates the meaning of reversing the scene with the police. Butler highlights how Althusser himself had called for the police once he had murdered his wife, and 'how he rushed into the street calling for the police in order to deliver himself up to the law'. (17) She reads the substance of Althusser's essay alongside this detail from his life and emphasizes the need to examine the relation between the subject who turns when hailed and the hailing authority. Butler summarizes the connection between the two positions: Although there would be no turning around without having first been hailed, neither would there be a turning around without some readiness to turn' (p. 107). She then writes: 'calling for the police is a peculiar inversion of hailing which [Althusser's essay 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses'] presupposes without explicitly thematizing. [...] The very possibility of subject formation depends upon a passionate pursuit of a recognition' (p. 113). Because the subject really only becomes a subject when recognized as such, it must have a desire to hear the call of authority. Such recognition would give Klaus his desired absolution, a desire made evident not only by his prolonged confession, but by the fact that he goes towards the crowd at the Alexanderplatz, where he hopes to be denounced. His guilty conscience is, by the book's end, beholden to an authority beyond that of his parents and the State.

Brussig's novel never openly avows that the turn away from the GDR would have to be accompanied by a turn towards another authority. There are only hints of it in the inversion of the scene of hailing and in the attention the novel pays to confession. Klaus's fantasy of autonomy is akin to his dream of freedom from sexual repression. It goes hand in hand with the fantasy that there is something like 'human nature' beyond the grasp of the political, and that one system would distort it, but another not. Brussig writes:

Das System war nicht unmenschlich. Es war nicht so, da[ss] es nichts mit uns zu tun hatte. Es war menschlich, es verwickelte Menschen wie dich and mich, auf die eine oder andere Weise. Und daruber mussen wir reden. [...] Das System war nicht unmenschlich. Aber es war menschenfeindlich. Es war nicht am Menschlichen vorbei, sondern gegen das Menschliche. Es verunstaltete Menschen. Es brachte sie dazu, zu lieben, was sie hassen ma[ss]ten. Und das mit einer Intensitat, da[ss] sie das nicht mal heute wahrhaben konnen. (p. 105)

Still, Brussig's novel takes into account some of the contradictions that inhere in this utopian assertion. While it never explicitly cites the New York Times and Mr Kitzelstein as the authorities to whom Klaus turns, it does allow for the reading that his turn was not the act of a revolutionary agent, but rather a virtual accident; that he was not a world-historical individual but that he simply stumbled into the role. On one level, Klaus is, by the novel's end, politically powerful. Brockmann offers the reading that Klaus's 'individual coming of age is associated in Brussig's novel with the opening of the Wall and thus with German reunification: the now potent Klaus is able to force open the barrier created by his father's party, thus achieving both full manhood and national reunification. Both man and nation have come of age' (Literature and German Reunification, p. 158). Aspects of the novel support this reading. Shortly before the death of his father, for example, Klaus reflects on his own desire to have sex with a woman who (in a moment of overdetermined symbolism) found his lost wallet containing everything but his Stasi ID-card. Brussig underscores Klaus's acknowledgement of his own experience of desire. He explains that he is beset by confusion because this woman seems nice and interesting, yet he wants to sleep with her. He thinks:

[I]ch geriet in eine echte ethisch-moralische Notsituation, weil ich merkte, da[ss] ich sie jetzt-nennen wir die Dinge beim Namen--ficken will. [...] Da[ss] ich (ich!) ficken (ficken!) will (will!), ist verwerflich genug-abet warum ausgerechnetsie? (pp. 235-36)

Brussig appears in other words to take the naive position that at this point in the text Klaus is beginning to acknowledge that he has inclinations not determined by his parents or the State, and that this acknowledgement is the first step in their overthrow.

One should not, however, overplay Klaus's acknowledgement of his own desires. He also recognizes that he is caught up in a historical flow of events over which he has no control. Describing himself as one among many participants in the Wall's rupture, he explains: 'Mr. Kitzelstein, niemand wollte die Mauer in diesem Moment noch haben. Sogar die Grenzer waren es leid, sie zu bewachen. Auch sie waren froh, da[ss] endlich einer kam, der das Ding wegputzen wollte' (p. 317). Here, Klaus's version of events runs closest to that of Maaz. In accord with Maaz's thoroughly Freudian schema, he attributes the opening of the Wall to a massive build-up of pressure after forty years of oppression. Maaz writes:

Der Fall der Mauer war der emotionale Hohepunkt der Entladung, ein kathartischer Durchbruch des Unbewu[ss]ten. [...] [D]as Verdrangte kam an die Oberflache and die abgespaltenen Teile vereinigten sich. Ein kollektiv-emotionaler Proze[ss] wahrhaft historischer Dimension--abet eben kollektiv and nicht individuell geerdet, eine Uber-schwemmung von Gefuhlen, eine Art 'Massenpsychose'. (p. 152)

If one takes seriously the novel's discourse of sexual and political liberation from the GDR, then it is primarily a story detailing the revolutionary actions of a man who discovers his emancipatory power as the State itself is collapsing. Alternatively, the novel is a satire in the spirit of Candide in which the narrator tumbles headlong through history, finding himself momentarily on centre stage. In either case, Brussig is conscious that the liberation he has depicted is hardly absolute. In the text's final and foreboding scene, after the Wall has opened, Klaus indicates his awareness of his own fears about the future. He tells Mr Kitzelstem:

[A]ls ich wieder eine Kamera vorm Gesicht hatte, stie[ss] ich ein Wort aus, das aus den tiefsten Sumpfen meiner Seele kam: 'Deutschland', halb gerochelt, halb geflustert.--Deutschland aus Angst. [...] Deutschland war mein Wort gegen die Angst vor dem, was ich angerichtet hatte, gegen die Angst vor den Folgen and davor, da[ss] es aus war mit den geregelten Rechten and Pflichten. Da[ss] nach der Befreiung die Freiheit kommt, war mir nicht in dieser Deutlichkeit bewu[ss]t. [...] [I]ch war der erste, der aus Angst nut noch Deutschland hervorbrachte. (pp. 322-23)

This surge of nationalism that moves from impulse to utterance, bypassing Klaus's ego, can be taken as an intimation of the resurgent National Socialism that followed reunification, or as an allusion to an anxiety about the impending power of German capitalism over its formerly Eastern subjects. Either way, Klaus suspects that the disintegration of one obnoxious system will bring on yet another. In both portraying and parodying the precarious vicissitudes of Klaus's emancipation, Brussig's novel knows it.

(1) See Margrit Frohlich, 'Thomas Brussig's Satire of Contemporary History', GDR Bulletin, 25 (1998), 21-30 (esp. p. 21); Reinhard K. Zachau, '"Das Volk jedenfalls war's nicht": Thomas Brussigs Abrechnungmit der DDR', Colloquia Germanica, 30 (1997), 387-95 (P 387)

(2) See Mirjam Gebauer, 'Milieuschilderungen zweier verruckter Monologisten: Philip Roths Portnoy's Complaint als ein Vorbild fur Thomas Brussigs Helden wie wir', Orbis Litterarum, 57 (2002), 222-40.

(3) Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint (New York: Random House, 1969), p. 20.

(4) Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, trans. by Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon, 1978), p. 26.

(5) Thomas Brussig, Helden wie wit (Frankfurt a. M.: Fischer, 1998; originally Berlin: Volk and Welt, 1995) P 34.

(6) Mark Cousins and Athar Hussain, Michel Foucault (London: Macmillan, 1984), p. 205.

(7) D. A. Miller, The Novel and the Police (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. viii-ix.

(8) See Louis Althusser, 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses', in 'Lenin and Philosophy' and Other Essays, trans. by Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), pp. 127-86 (esp. p. 174)

(9) Foucault, p. 41. For another analysis of the history of the prohibition on masturbation, see Thomas W. Laqueur, Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation (New York: Zone Books, 2003). Laqueur explores his differences with Foucault in the chapter 'Why Masturbation Became a Problem', esp. PP. 270-76.

(10) Wolf Biermann, 'Wenig Wahrheiten and viel Witz', Der Spiegel, 29 January 1996, pp. 186-87.

(11) Roberto Simanowski, 'Die DDR als Dauerwitz', NDL: Zeitschrift fur deutschsprachige Literatur und Kritik, 2 (1996), 156-63 (p. 160).

(12) The remark appears at the very end of Hegel's preface, where he writes: 'The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the onset of dusk.' The observation is generally taken to mean that the philosophy of a given culture reaches its high point when that culture is in decline. See G. W. F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, trans. by H. B. Nisbet(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 23.

(13) Stephen Brockmann, Literature and German Reunification (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 157

(14) Stephen Brockmann, 'The Politics of German Comedy', German Studies Review, 23 (2000), 33-52(P. 43)

(15) See Julia Hell, Post-Fascist Fantasies: Psychoanalysis, History, and the Literature of East Germany (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), p. 267.

(16) Hans-Joachim Maaz, Der Gefuhlsstau: Ein Psychogramm der DDR (Berlin: Knaur, 1990), p. 26.

(17) Judith P. Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), p. 113.


COPYRIGHT 2004 Modern Humanities Research Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Prager, Brad
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2004
Previous Article:The traveller as Landschaftsmaler: industrial labour and landscape aesthetics in Johanna Schopenhauer's travel writing.
Next Article:Pechorin's demons: representations of the demonic in Lermontov's a hero of our time.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |