The Aesthetics of Resistance
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|Original title||Die Ästhetik des Widerstands|
|Set in||Berlin from the 1930's through World War II|
Published in English
Spanning from the late 1930s into World War II, this historical novel dramatizes anti-fascist resistance and the rise and fall of proletarian political parties in Europe. Living in Berlin in 1937, the unnamed narrator and his peers, sixteen and seventeen-year-old working-class students, seek ways to express their hatred for the Nazi regime. They meet in museums and galleries, and in their discussions they explore the affinity between political resistance and art, the connection at the heart of Weiss's novel.
Weiss suggests that meaning lies in the refusal to renounce resistance, no matter how intense the oppression, and that it is in art that new models of political action and social understanding are to be found. The novel includes extended meditations on paintings, sculpture, and literature. Moving from the Berlin underground to the front lines of the Spanish Civil War and on to other parts of Europe, the story teems with characters, almost all of whom are based on historical figures.
The three volumes of the novel were originally published in 1975, 1978 and 1981.
Weiss's complex multi-layered 1000 page novel has been called a "book of the century [Jahrhundertbuch]." It can no more be usefully summarized than James Joyce's Ulysses. By way of introducing The Aesthetics of Resistance what follows are the opening paragraphs of an article by Robert Cohen:
"The Aesthetics of Resistance begins with an absence. Missing is Heracles, the great hero of Greek mythology. The space he once occupied in the enormous stone frieze depicting the battle of the Giants against the Gods is empty. Some two thousand years ago the frieze covered the outer walls of the temple of Pergamon in Asia Minor. In the last third of the nineteenth century the remnants of the ancient monument were discovered by the German engineer Carl Humann and sent to Germany. The fragments were reassembled in the specially built Pergamon Museum in Berlin, the capital of Wilhelminian Germany, and were to signal from this point forward the late claims to power of German imperialism. The Pergamon frieze can still be seen in Berlin today. In the fall of 1937 – and here we are at the beginning of Peter Weiss's novel – three young men find themselves before the frieze. Two of them, Coppi and the narrator, whose name is never mentioned, are workers. The third, a sixteen-year-old named Heilmann, is a high school student. Coppi is a member of the illegal Communist Party, Heilmann and the narrator are sympathizers. All three are active in the antifascist resistance. In a lengthy discussion the three friends attempt to interpret the stone figures and events depicted in the frieze in a way which would make them relevant for their own present day struggle. They cannot, however, find Heracles. Other than a fragment of his name and the paw of a lion's skin, nothing remains of the leader of the Gods in the battle against the Giants. The "leader" of 1937, on the other hand, is an omnipresent force, even in the still halls of the Pergamon Museum, where uniformed SS troopers, their Nazi insignia clearly visible, mingle among the museum's visitors. Under the pressure of the present and with their lives in constant danger, the three young antifascists read the empty space in the frieze as an omen, they feel encouraged to fill it with their own representation of the absent half-god. What they envision is an alternative myth in stark contrast to the traditional image of Heracles. From a friend of the Gods, the mighty and the powerful, Heracles is transformed into a champion of the lowest classes, of the exploited, imprisoned, and tortured – a messianic "leader" in the struggle against the terror of the "Führer".
The concept of a messianic bearer of hope is by no means unique in Weiss's work. Starting with the coachman in the experimental novel The Shadow of the Body of the Coachman (1952/1959), messianic figures appear repeatedly in Weiss's literary work. That Weiss would continue to be obsessed with such figures after he turned to Marxism in 1964/1965 may seem surprising. However, the concept now becomes increasingly secularized, as for example in the figure of Empedocles in the play Hölderlin (1971). In The Aesthetics of Resistance this process of secularization is brought to its logical conclusion.
Before they reach this conclusion, however, readers of Weiss's novel are confronted with nearly a thousand pages of text interrupted only occasionally by a paragraph break – a sea of words which resists any attempt at summarizing. Even to characterize The Aesthetics of Resistance as an antifascist novel seems to unduly narrow the scope of Weiss's broad project. There is no clearly defined geographical or historical space within which events unfold. There is no unifying plot, and neither is there a chronological structure to the narrative. The novel presents a history of the European Left, from Marx and Engels to the post-war era, in countries as diverse as Germany and Sweden, the Soviet Union, France and Spain. Woven into the historical narratives and political discourses are extensive passages on works of art and literature from many centuries and from many European, and even non-European cultures – from the Pergamon frieze to the temple city of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, from Dürer and Brueghel to Géricault and Picasso, from Dante to Kafka, and from Surrealism and Dadaism to Socialist realism. The novel takes upon itself the enormous task of reinterpreting the great works of western culture from the perspective of the perennial victims of history and to fuse art and politics into one inseparable revolutionary unity.
In its final section the novel contains one of the great passages of world literature – a moment by moment description of the execution, by hanging or beheading, of almost all members of the resistance group "Red Orchestra" ("Rote Kapelle") in 1942 in Berlin's Plötzensee prison. All of the characters whose end Weiss describes here, indeed all of the characters who appear in The Aesthetics of Resistance, and there are hundreds, are actual historical figures. They bear their real names in the text, and everything that happens to them is based on verifiable facts which Weiss researched in many countries and numerous archives. In its obsession with historical facts, as in other respects, The Aesthetics of Resistance is a work which transcends all boundaries.
The narrator – the only fictional character in the novel (he bears much resemblance to Peter Weiss) – is one of many nameless contributors to the activities of the Communist resistance. From 1937 to 1945 he wanders through much of Europe. His two friends, Heilmann and Coppi, remain in Berlin and eventually become members of the "Red Orchestra." From time to time a letter from Heilmann reaches the narrator. In his letters Heilmann continues his struggle for a reinterpretation of the Heracles myth. Amidst the reality of fascism and in a German capital laid waste by allied bombs, however, the notion of a messianic savior becomes less and less plausible. Coppi abandons it altogether. – Years after the war, long after Heilmann and Coppi had been hanged in Plötzensee – this, too, is historically authentic – the narrator once again finds himself before the Pergamon frieze in rebuilt Berlin. Heracles's place is still empty. There is no leader, no conceivable presence which can replace this absence. There is no hope for a messiah. No one other than the narrator himself and those like him can bring about their liberation. It is with this thought that the novel ends."
"[The Aesthetics of Resistance] . . . which [Peter Weiss] began when he was well over fifty, making a pilgrimage over the arid slopes of cultural and contemporary history in the company of pavor nocturnus, the terror of the night, and laden with a monstrous weight of ideological ballast, is a magnum opus which sees itself . . . not only as the expression of an ephemeral wish for redemption, but as an expression of the will to be on the side of the victims at the end of time." W. G. Sebald, On The Natural History of Destruction
Visual artists such as Hubertus Giebe and composers such as Kalevi Aho or Helmut Oehring have taken up motives from The Aesthetics of Resistance in their paintings and compositions. The novel has been adapted for the stage by Thomas Krupa and Tilman Neuffer at Grillo-Theater Essen in May 2012. The band Rome was inspired by the novels when making their album trilogy Die Æsthetik Der Herrschaftsfreiheit.
Editions in print
- Peter Weiss: The Aesthetics of Resistance, Volume 1: A Novel. Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. With a foreword by Fredric Jameson and a glossary by Robert Cohen. Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2005.
- Wolfgang Fritz Haug and Kaspar Maase, "Vorwort." Materialistische Kulturtheorie und Alltagskultur. Haug/Maase (eds.). Argument Verlag, 1980, p. 4.
- For biographical information on the figures in The Aesthetics of Resistance, an index of names, a chronology and other information on the novel see Robert Cohen: Bio-bibliographisches Handbuch zu Weiss' Ästhetik des Widerstands. Argument Verlag, 1989.
- Robert Cohen: "Nonrational Discourse in a Work of Reason: Peter Weiss's Antifascist Novel Die Ästhetik des Widerstands." European Memories of the Second World War. Helmut Peitsch, Charles Burdett, and Claire Gorrara (eds.). Berghahn Books, 1999. 272-75
- "Interview: Rome - September 2011". Reclections of Darkness. Retrieved 16 October 2012.
- Robert Cohen: "Nonrational Discourse in a Work of Reason: Peter Weiss's Antifascist Novel Die Ästhetik des Widerstands." European Memories of the Second World War. Helmut Peitsch, Charles Burdett, and Claire Gorrara (eds.). Berghahn Books, 1999. 272-280.
- Julia Hell: "From Laokoon to Ge: Resistance to Jewish Authorship in Peter Weiss's Ästhetik des Widerstands." Rethinking Peter Weiss. Jost Hermand and Marc Silberman (eds.). Peter Lang, 2000. 21-44.
- Fredric Jameson: "A Monument to Radical Instants." Peter Weiss: The Aesthetics of Resistance, Volume 1: A Novel. Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2005. VII-XLIX.
- Burkhardt Lindner: "Hallucinatory Realism: Peter Weiss' Aesthetics of Resistance, Notebooks, and the Death Zones of Art." New German Critique nr. 30, fall 1983, 127-156.
- Thomas Metscher: "History in the Novel: The Paradigm of Peter Weiss's Aesthetics of Resistance." Red Letters, no. 16 (1984). 12-25.
- Klaus R. Scherpe: "Reading the Aesthetics of Resistance: Ten Working Theses." New German Critique, No. 30, 1983. 97-105.