“The Aesthetics of Resistance”, Peter Weiss

Brían Hanrahan
29 May 2006

The Aesthetics of Resistance

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“The Aesthetics of Resistance”
by Peter Weiss, trans. Joachim Neugrosche
Duke University Press | August 2005 | ISBN 0822335468

Recommended by Brían Hanrahan: there are plenty of reasons not to read Peter Weiss’s monumental novel The Aesthetics of Resistance. It is long and difficult, filled with obscure references and intractable ideas. Few of its characters can easily be imagined or identified with. Its byzantine paragraphs stretch on for pages a time, sometimes containing only a single unrelenting sentence. The tradition from which the novel comes – the art and politics of the mid-century European left, with its utopias, its committees, its experiments – is moribund and almost forgotten. On top of all this, even twenty-five years after the book came out in German, the excellent recent English translation only gives us the first of three volumes; the translator was apparently so exhausted by this one that he declined the remaining two.

In spite and because of all this, the book gives a rich reward. There are many novels which convey the bitter experience of Europe’s twentieth century, but few which range so widely or reflect so deeply on that history.

The Aesthetics of Resistance is a historical novel of a sort: most of its hundreds of characters are based on actual figures, and historical events are what drive its narrator from 1930s Germany to civil war in Spain, exile in Sweden and on towards the Cold War. But this is neither a costume-drama, in which the past is served up for the consumption of the present, nor a dry rehearsal of ideas. Intellectual questions matter to Weiss only in relation to the pathos and dilemmas of everyday life. Old issues, of art vs. politics, theory vs. practice, words vs. images, reemerge with renewed urgency and freshness.

Despite his theatrical background, Weiss leavens the abstraction less with drama – there is not a line of direct dialogue – than with a painter’s eye for concrete visual detail. But there is a hint of showmanship in his virtuoso opening scene (excerpted below). The book opens in Berlin in 1936, where three members of the tiny, demoralized German opposition contemplate the Pergamon altar frieze, surely the greatest single piece of colonial booty ever crated back to Europe. For Weiss, the warring Gods and Titans rising from the blank stone do more than just represent the violence of the past: they contain it, while their beauty and strangeness simultaneously hide its reality from the present. In the living figures deciphering the work and learning how it was made, the book sees the glimmer of present and future hope. Of those figures, all but the narrator will die violently in the years to come.

* * *

Peter Weiss

About the author: the writer and painter Peter Weiss was born in Germany in 1916, but he and his Jewish family went into exile in Sweden in 1934. After his first writings had appeared in Swedish, he turned to German for the plays which brought him to prominence in the 1960s. After the breakthrough of The Investigation, a documentary-theatre version of the 1963 Auschwitz trial, came Marat/Sade, made famous in the English-speaking world in Peter Brook’s production. His final years were largely devoted to the writing of The Aesthetics of Resistance, finished shortly before his death in 1981.

* * *

Extract from the opening pages of "The Aesthetics of Resistance"

All around us the bodies rose out of the stone, crowded into groups, intertwined, or shattered into fragments, hinting at their shapes with a torso, a propped-up arm, a burst hip, a scabbed shard, always in warlike gestures, dodging, rebounding, attacking, shielding themselves, stretched high or crooked, some of them snuffed out, but with a freestanding, forward-pressing foot, a twisted back, the contour of a calf harnessed into a single common motion. A gigantic wrestling, emerging from the gray wall, recalling a perfection, sinking back into formlessness. A hand, stretching from the rough ground, ready to clutch, attached to the shoulder across empty surface, a barked face, with yawning cracks, a wide-open mouth, blankly gaping eyes, the face surrounded by the flowing locks of the beard, the tempestuous folds of a garment, everything close to its weathered end and close to its origin. Every detail preserving its expression, brittle fragments from which the whole could be gleaned, rough stumps next to polished smoothness, enlivened by the play of muscles and sinews, tautly harnessed chargers, rounded shields, erect spears, a head split into a raw oval, outspread wings, a triumphantly raised arm, a leaping heel circled by a fluttering tunic, a clenched fist on a now absent sword, shaggy hounds, their jaws clamped into loins and necks, a falling man, his finger stub aiming at the eye of the beast hanging over him, a charging lion protecting a female warrior, its paw swinging back to strike, hands endowed with bird claws, horns looming from weighty brows, scaly legs coiling, a brood of serpents everywhere, with strangleholds around bellies and throats, darting their tongues, baring sharp teeth, bashing into naked chests. These only just created, already dying faces, these tremendous and dismembered hands, these wide-sweeping pinions drowning in the blunt rock, this stony gaze, these lips torn open for a shriek, this striding, stamping, these blows of heavy weapons, this rolling of armoured wheels, these clusters of hurled lightning bolts, this grinding underfoot, this rearing and collapsing, this endless straining to twist upward out of grainy boulders. And how gracefully curly the hair, how elaborately gathered and girded the lightweight mantle, how delicate the ornamentation on the straps of the shield, on the bulge of the helmet, how gentle the shimmer of the skin, ready for caresses yet exposed to the relentless rivalry, to slaughter and annihilation. With mask-like countenances, clutching one another and shoving one another away, strangling one another, clambering over one another, sliding from horses, entangled in the reins, utterly vulnerable in nakedness, and yet enrapt in Olympic aloofness, appearing indomitable as an ocean monster, a griffin, a centaur, yet grimacing in pain and despair, thus they clashed with one another, acting at higher behest, dreaming, motionless in insane vehemence, mute in inaudible roaring, all of them woven into a metamorphosis of torture, shuddering, persisting, waiting for an awakening, in perpetual endurance and perpetual rebellion, in outrageous impact, and in an extreme exertion to subdue the threat, to provoke the decision. A soft ringing and murmuring resounded now and again, the echoes of footfalls and voices surrounded us for moments at a time; and then once more, only this battle was near, our gazes glided over the toes in the sandals, bouncing off the skull of a fallen man, over the dying man whose stiffening hand lay tenderly on the arm of the goddess who held him by the hair. The cornice was the ground for the warriors: from its narrow, even strip they threw themselves up into the turmoil, the hooves of the horses banged upon the cornice, the hems of the garments grazed it, and the serpentine legs twisted across it; the ground was perforated at only one place: here, the demoness of the earth rose up, her face hacked away under her eye sockets, her breasts massive in a thin covering, the torn-off clump of one hand lifted in a search, the other hand, asking for a standstill, loomed from the stone edge, and knotty, long-jointed fingers stretched up to the profiled corbel as if they were still underground and were trying to reach the wrist of the open thumbless female hand, they moved along the cornice, seeking the blurred traces of incised script, and Coppi’s face, his myopic eyes behind glasses with a thin steel frame, approached the letters, which Heilmann deciphered with the help of a book he had brought along. Coppi turned towards him, attentive, with a broad, sharply-drawn mouth, a large, protruding nose, and we gave the opponents in this melee their names and, in the torrent of noises, discussed the causes of the fight.

“the ground was perforated at only one place: here, the demoness of the earth rose up, her face hacked away under her eye sockets” Pergamon altar frieze

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