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University of Basel

The Aesthetics of Resistance

Text: Prof. Alexander Honold

My book: Literary scholar Alexander Honold recommends Peter Weiss’s epic of resistance, flight, and bearing witness

Prof. Alexander Honold (Image: University of Basel, Andreas Zimmermann)
Prof. Alexander Honold (Image: University of Basel, Andreas Zimmermann)

Blocks of text that look to have been hewn from stone: Peter Weiss’s “The Aesthetics of Resistance”. Three volumes, published between 1972 and 1981, encompassing a decade’s worth of writing and the events of half a century.

I first discovered this trilogy of novels – in a one-volume Suhrkamp edition nearly 1,000 pages long – in 1983, before starting my degree, and ever since I have been struck by the power of its opening passages. “A gigantic wrestling, emerging from the gray wall, recalling a perfection, sinking back into formlessness.”

The reference is the “Gigantomachy” depicted on the Pergamon frieze in Berlin, in which the Olympian gods assert their authority by force against a race of earthly rebels. The tumult of battle chiseled into the marble is brought vividly to life by the author’s mastery of description. We look at this stone sea of grappling bodies through the eyes of three young resistance fighters, who are engaged in secret underground operations in Hitler’s Germany in 1937. As they painstakingly examine and decode the details of the frieze, they come to see the unwieldiness of art – something that also makes considerable demands on the novel’s readers, it must be said.

In fact, the work is an attempt to take seriously from a literary standpoint the Marxian dictum that history is the product of class struggles, and to translate it into a narrative project. When barely 20 years old, Weiss himself had escaped persecution by fleeing first to England and then to Sweden. From the detachment of exile, he was a skeptical observer of the culture of suppression of the past in West Germany. The centenary of his birth on November 8, 1916, in Babelsberg, near Berlin, is a distressing reminder that such eyewitness testimony will soon be a thing of the past.

The only survivors still around today to describe their personal experiences of flight from Nazi terror and German antisemitism are 80 years old or more; before long, their voices will fall silent. A reprint of “The Aesthetics of Resistance” is in press. Peter Weiss’s most important work is about to be rediscovered.

Alexander Honold is a literary scholar specializing in narrative research and modernist and contemporary literature. His book “Einsatz der Dichtung. Literatur im Zeichen des Ersten Weltkriegs (Writing in action. Literature against the backdrop of the First World War)”, Berlin 2015, was published recently.

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