Peter Weiss's Aesthetics of Resistance at Twenty Five

Reprinted by permission of the authors. Copyright © 2006 by Noah Isenberg, Julia Charlotte Hell, Robert Buch, and Kai Evers

Part 2. Detailed description of session

The year 2006 marks the 25th anniversary of the original publication of Peter Weiss's monumental three-volume novel The Aesthetics of Resistance. While it is widely considered one of the greatest works of modern German literature, it has only very recently appeared in English translation (last year, the first of the three volumes was published by Duke University Press); this has elicited critical attention (in Bookforum, the Nation, and elsewhere) and has prompted readers to rethink the significance of this otherwise nearly forgotten work. The proposed special session, "Peter Weiss's Aesthetics of Resistance at Twenty-Five," seeks to reassess the literary, cultural, and sociopolitical import of Weiss's novel and to indicate different ways in which it still remains timely today, a quarter of a century after its initial publication. The three papers address issues of central concern to the novel——violence and visuality, war, Marxist aesthetics, experimental fiction, and so on——and also those that figure prominently in contemporary critical debate. They speak to scholars and students in a variety of disciplines, promising to spark a lively discussion.

The first paper, "The Aesthetics of Love: Peter Weiss's Dante Project," delivered by Julia Hell, is part of a larger project dealing with authorship after National Socialism, both in literature and art in particular, where Hell explores the nexus between authorship and the aesthetics of description. Here she focuses on the gothic borders of the aesthetic and catastrophic imaginary, the border regions concerned with illicit acts of looking, with illicit objects of these acts and their illicit pleasures. She does so by zeroing in on the work of Peter Weiss. Weiss started as a painter and then turned to literature. In the early sixties, he took to Dante as a model of authorship that involves the nexus of writing and looking: in his Inferno, Dante invokes his memory that wrote down "what I saw," and his Comedia carries the trace of (Virgil's/Ovid's) Orpheus and his murderous backward glance. Hell explores authorship in Weiss's writing from the early sixties (his autobiographical Dante play; his essays on Dante; his essay on Laocoön; and his Auschwitz play, The Investigation) and then pursues the themes in his famed trilogy, The Aesthetics of Resistance. There she focuses on the so-called Ploetzensee segment (the detailed description of the executions of the members of the Red Orchestra in 1942) and its Dantean frame, the letters by one of Weiss's main narrators, Heilmann. In the end, it is her contention that the description of women's dead, decomposing bodies is at the very center of Weiss's aesthetics of description and that this act of description represents an act of love both tender and passionate.

In the second paper, "Images of Agony in Peter Weiss's Investigation and Aesthetics of Resistance," Robert Buch examines and compares the prohibition, that is, the biblical injunction against graven images, in Weiss's acclaimed Auschwitz drama, The Investigation, with the emphatic engagement with images in The Aesthetics of Resistance. While the former is characterized by a deliberate abstinence from staging and representing the camps, by contrast, the monumental trilogy is marked by the dramatic evocation of lurid representations of pain and suffering. This paper thus attempts to account for the contradictory tendency in Weiss's aesthetics: getting away from, escaping from, the images and letting oneself be overwhelmed by their almost visceral power.

The final paper, "Fantasies, Echoes, and Eruptions: The Experience of World War I in Peter Weiss's Leavetaking and Aesthetics of Resistance," turns the discussion to the Great War. The story of soldiers returning silently from the trenches, unable to communicate the new horror of modern mass warfare, has by now become a myth of origin of the 20th century. From Benjamin, Arendt, and Adorno to Hayden White, this story has been told to signal the end of storytelling, making the irrevocable break with tradition, the example par excellence of the modern inability to communicate the experience of the modernist event. Twice, in Leavetaking (1961) and in The Aesthetics of Resistance (1975-81), Peter Weiss addresses the post––World War I crisis of experience from the position of the sons of such soldiers. While the Great War is generally not considered a paramount topic in the oeuvre of Peter Weiss, this paper will examine these two works as distinct and paradigmatic responses from open fantasies to silence and ideological displacement to this crisis.

There will not be a formal commentary following the papers but, instead, in a deliberate choice, an open discussion of Weiss's work and the three different approaches to it. Some of the session attendees may indeed be familiar with the original German publication, while others may have just recently had the opportunity to discover the work in English translation. This format will allow for members of the audience to test their ideas and engage the speakers in a larger discussion.