Franz Fühmann - a gripping and profoundly personal encounter with the great expressionist poet Georg Trakl. It is a taking stock of two troubled lives, a turbulent century, and the liberating power of poetry
Franz Fühmann, At the Burning Abyss: Experiencing the Georg Trakl Poem, Trans. by Isabel Fargo Cole, Seagull Books, 2017.
At the Burning Abyss is Franz Fühmann’s magnum opus—a gripping and profoundly personal encounter with the great expressionist poet Georg Trakl. It is a taking stock of two troubled lives, a turbulent century, and the liberating power of poetry.
Picking up where his last book, The Jew Car, left off, Fühmann probes his own susceptibility to ideology’s seductions—Nazism, then socialism—and examines their antidote, the goad of Trakl’s enigmatic verses. He confronts Trakl’s “unlivable life,” as his poetry transcends the panaceas of black-and-white ideology, ultimately bringing a painful, necessary understanding of “the whole human being: in victories and triumphs as in distress and defeat, in temptation and obsession, in splendor and in ordure.”
In 1982, the German edition of At the Burning Abyss won the West German Scholl Siblings Prize, celebrating its “courage to resist inhumanity.” At a time of political extremism and polarization, has lost none of its urgency.
[He] gave us, the lost and confused, exactly what we needed: the stability of a direction leading out of the past…. The world fell into black and white; it was ‘all perfectly simple’ … This completely dualistic picture of the world … was precisely herein a counterpart to the worldview which had formerly dominated our thinking, but it passed itself off as a complete break with the Old, and the only possible break at that.… [H]e stood behind the lectern, both hands raised adjuringly, exclaiming to the auditorium with the solemnity of one announcing a truth of faith: “Tertium non datur! There is and can be no third way!”(Franz Fühmann, At the Burning Abyss: Experiencing the Georg Trakl Poem, 1982)
The year was 1946, the scene was an “antifascist school” in the USSR where denazified German POWs were schooled in socialist ideology to prepare for leadership roles in the fledgling East German state. Franz Fühmann (1922-1983) arrived in East Germany in 1949 with the fervor of the born-again and established himself as a cultural apparatchik. His short story cycle The Jew Car (1962) examines his youthful embrace of Nazi ideology and the gradual moral awakening that culminated in his socialist conversion–a “happy ending” which he revisited, sadder and wiser, in his last book, At the Burning Abyss. A firm believer in the socialist idea, Fühmann was bitterly disillusioned by its dictatorial practice: vaunted as the sole humane alternative to fascism, socialism had proved to be cut from the same cloth, “a soiled coat turned inside out.” Fühmann’s painful journey between ideological extremes resonated with unexpected force as I translated At the Burning Abyss amidst escalating political polarization in Europe and the US.
Tertium non datur–Fühmann was haunted by dualism, the iterations of true and false, and and or, found in philosophical logic. His papers are filled with enigmatic attempts to encode existential problems as Boolean operations. His vast card files, covering an eccentric range of subjects, embellished with doodles and rebus-like headings, both embody and ironize the obsessive need for systemization. Headings like BÖSE/GUT (EVIL/GOOD) or even Bösegut (Evilgood) illustrate how extremes, by nature, end up filed away together as a single thematic unit. Fühmann asked what goes on within these binaries; what he sought was the “excluded middle,” the “third way.”
He found it neither in pure logic nor in a new dogma, but in the apocalyptic poetry of Georg Trakl (1887-1914), which during the war had first shaken his faith in the Nazi cause. In the new socialist society, just as in Nazi Germany, this sort of literary “decadence” was taboo, viewed as promoting nihilism, passivity, and depravity. Trakl’s dark themes (addiction, incest, death) had no place in socialism’s official optimism, and his enigmatic images subverted its simple, socially utilitarian truths.
After struggling for years with his “addiction to the numbing verses of the decadents,” Fühmann embraced them as a crucial expansion–not a contradiction–of socialism’s humanist vision, and fought to introduce them to East German audiences. In 1975 he was finally allowed to edit the first GDR edition of Trakl’s poems. They had become so bound up with his own life that the search for Trakl’s truths became a search for his own: what he intended as a brief introduction ended as the book-length essay At the Burning Abyss. He delved into fundamental questions: What is the “good” of literature that offers no uplifting visions or moral edification, only darkness, confusion, and pain? How (and why) do we grapple with poetry’s ciphers? What are the tensions—constructive, destructive—between political ideals and literary language?
To read Fühmann now is to confront the persistence of these questions. In our historical moment, language itself has, once again, become a central political battlefield, scrutinized for its potential to perpetuate trauma and injustice. On the right and the left, outrage can be triggered by single words or turns of phrase, hairs are split to the point of political rift—not because these issues are specious, but because they touch on profound paradoxes.
Fühmann begins with a paradox that at first seems purely aesthetic:
Trakl’s colors express and evoke opposing sensations: white is the color of snow but also that of mold; yellow is gold-like but also fecal; green is May foliage but also the corruption of the flesh, so “green” implies both hope and fear.—We shall take this opportunity to generalize these observations of Trakl’s poetry, grasping the essence of the poetic word as a unity of opposites…
Now he seizes on something still more esoteric, a fine point of German grammar. Wort (word) has two plurals: Wörter (on the superficial level of grammatical units, words in a dictionary or a word count), and Worte (on the deeper level of entire thoughts, e.g. “Goethe’s words”). In this pedantic distinction, Fühmann discovers a dizzying force–as if, splitting hairs, we were splitting the atom.
[T]his logic implies nothing less than the existence of two languages, homonymous in their basic elements and yet essentially different, a language of science and one of poetry, two languages in which identical-seeming building blocks are utterly different: … “Red” is the name for the retinal impression of the frequency 4 × 10; and “red’”says a unity of life and death.
In this vision of language, the most ordinary-seeming word is revealed as possessing an almost magical power, able to embrace and synthesize the starkest dualism. Evilgood.
Trakl, he argues, mastered
the Wort in the sense of the plural Worte whose essence is the contradictory unity of human experience. Thus each interpretation of poetry is on the right track so long as it is able to embrace at least one element of that unity of contradiction; at the same time, this means relinquishing the claim to be the only right interpretation.
Contradictory unity, the unity of contradiction: here Fühmann articulates a concept whose dialectic propels an increasingly nuanced argument, in opposition to the “perfectly simple” truths of political dogma:
“True” … became the most important word of its time, but was … applied not to statements but to concepts and their underlying socio-psychological realities: “true belief,” “true freedom,” “true interests,” “true fatherland,” and thus, too, “true art” and “true poetry.” —Not “This reasoning is true,” but “This is the true reasoning.” … [I]ts antonym was not “untrue” in the sense of incongruence with reality but, rather, “false” in the sense of “illegitimate.”
Political dogma is a rigid language of pseudo-objective Wörter, codified to the point where meaning dissolves. The alternative lies in uncontrollable Worte, congruent with an ambivalent reality containing the full range of human potential, bright and dark.
Ever since the Cold War, western societies have sought a “third way” to transcend the Right-Left dichotomy. From social democratic reformism in Western Europe to the neoliberalism of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, the term has become identified with wishy-washy “moderates” or cynical compromisers. Today, the “centrism” offered as a panacea for political polarization suffers from the same perceived lack of character. We have a vivid notion of political positions in their radical, extreme forms, but a “centrist position” is by definition indefinable, the nebulous splitting of a difference, an abstract point derived by mechanical calculation. It appears as a mental void in which nothing much is happening—at most some muddled quest for equilibrium, a craven retreat from the tension of holding unambiguous positions.
At the Burning Abyss does not describe a “third way” in the political sense of Fühmann’s era, not even the “third way” of the Prague Spring which Fühmann fervently supported. He is not interested in splitting the difference between socialism and capitalism, much less socialism and fascism. He does not seek to define a political position, “centrist” or otherwise. Indeed, he refuses to dictate any position to the reader: he embraces, and invites you to embrace, the stark contradictions and the tug-of-war between them, just as different interpretations of a poem tug the reader back and forth in an endlessly fruitful process of truth-seeking.
Fühmann’s invitation to seek political and poetic truths within contradictions, within the flux of unresolved tension, remains as radically challenging today as it was in Cold War East Germany. He does not “show a way out” of our dilemmas, but suggests that we can make them fruitful by accepting ambiguity as inevitable–and potentially liberating. When political polarization is experienced as existential and all-encompassing, individual words bear the burden of a Manichean struggle, forced to signify either harm or healing. But as he explores the force of each word’s internal tension, Fühmann shows how they resist rigid control–even for the most humane ends–and enlistment in political battles. Far from fostering pessimism, his vision might help free us from the entrenchment and attrition of battles over words, creating room for the full range of subjectivities whose fractious interplay makes up the collective human process of truth-seeking.
What is human is the whole human being: in victories and triumphs as in distress and defeat, in temptation and obsession, in splendor and in ordure, in compulsions and in freedom, that in which he is a symbol of dignity and that in which we shudder before him!
For Fühmann, a humane language is one that encompasses this whole human being: as a “unity of contradiction.” In its embrace of paradox, the poetic word unites what the political word divides.
I saw once more the image of my teacher, and I heard his “tertium non datur,” but it had turned against him.—I agreed with him: Wholly, or not at all.
Isabel Fargo Cole
Franz Fühmann, The Jew Car: Fourteen Days from Two Decades, Trans. by Isabel Fargo Cole, Seagull Books, 2013.
Originally published in 1962, Franz Fühmann’s autobiographical story cycle The Jew Car is a classic of German short fiction and an unparalleled examination of the psychology of National Socialism. Each story presents a snapshot of a personal and historical turning point in the life of the narrator, beginning with childhood anti-Semitism and moving to a youthful embrace—and then an ultimate rejection—of Nazi ideology. With scathing irony and hallucinatory intensity, reflections on the nature of memory, and the individual experience of history, the cycle acquires the weight of a novel.
"Fühmann’s work, beginning with The Jew Car, can be read as a great literary self-analysis in the spirit of Freud. Through his work, he not only became conscious of his own thinking as it was seduced by totalitarianism, he also became capable of describing the mechanisms of a fascist upbringing with striking poetic power, transcending all theory." —Die Welt, on the German edition