Saturday, 28 August 2010

Peter Weiss - 3

While reading Jan Christer Bengtsson's study of the films of Peter Weiss I was struck by the amount of  hostility and opprobrium Weiss appears to have attracted during his varied career as a creative artist. While the main text of Bengtsson's dissertation is largely neutral on issues relating to Weiss's intentions and orientation as a creator, the footnotes to the text often contain comments that from time to time call into question Weiss's good faith and integrity. In particular, the lengthy and minutely documented examination of the history of  the 1960 Swedish feature film Svenska flickor i Paris (known under several English titles, but mainly as The Flamboyant Sex), which Weiss co-directed together with Barbro Boman, seems to be aimed at demonstrating that, far from being upset and angry about the way in which the film developed (though it contained little material that could be considered overtly pornographic, it was ultimately marketed as a porno flick), Weiss acquiesced in the film's more doubtful episodes, and only later, during the long period of his career as a left-wing radical, attempted to dissociate himself from his part in its production.

There are also digs at Weiss's profile in general, both as an artist and as a human being. Bengtsson quotes the left-wing Swedish author and poet, who in 1966 (in a book called En orättvis betraktelse) wrote of Peter Weiss and others of his ilk that they were
känsloparasiter, äventyrare, hysteriker, små sökare efter stora ämnen, folkhemsflyktingar, kvantitetsromantiker, sökare efter tillräckligt starka skäl till oproportionerligt starka aggressioner, tomgångsexperimentatorer som griper efter ett engagerat halmstrå, förnyelseegoister, kontaktvägrare som ser en chans att älska på avstånd, Belsenpornografer, godhetsexhibitionister och vanliga kvalterrorister. Därför tycks rätt sakliga litteraturkonventioner av nöden, och sådana bryter också allt starkare fram i Europa. Expressionistiska indignationspjäser ger plats för featurepjäser av typ Rannsakningen.

[emotional parasites, adventurers, hysterics, small seekers of big topics, welfare state refugees, quantity-romantics, seekers of sufficiently strong reasons for disproportionately harsh aggression, experimenters with idleness grasping for a straw of commitment, renewal-egoists, contact-deniers who who see a chance to love from afar, Belsen-pornographers, goodness-exhibitionists and ordinary pain-terrorists. So really factual literary conventions seem to be required, and they are breaking through in Europe with increasing intensity.  Expressionistic indignation-drama is giving way to feature plays like The Investigation.]
Although it's quite possible to see what Palm is talking about, and to sympathize with some of the characterizations in this portrayal (which Palm himself apparently considered somewhat exaggerated), one also wonders if there was not an element of literary (and ordinary) politics involved in such polemics - a cloud of Vietnam-dust that makes it hard for us now to see what was really going on in the Europe of Weiss's time, with its extreme tension  between a posturing, theatrical international political radicalism on the one hand, and a self-satisfied, philistine social and political conservatism on the other.

From a reading of the available biographical sources it seems hard to deny that Peter Weiss did engage in a  fairly advanced degree of creative and political opportunism, often tailoring his writing, painting and films to the intellectual fashions and preoccupations of his era - and with a degree of single-minded, humorless obduracy that led at least one contemporary observer to describe him as a "steamroller". Yet, if one can make the right allowances, realizing now that the literary and spiritual gargantuanism that characterizes a work like The Aesthetics of Resistance proceeds not only from the author's personal need (admitted in the course of his own psychoanalysis) to affirm himself as the producer of something "great" and "classical", but also from the intolerable pressures exerted by the political establishments of both West Germany and the DDR, I believe that in some ways it's possible to see Peter Weiss as a victim of his time who nevertheless succeeded in creating work of a high aesthetic quality, work that deserves to be studied and re-examined in the light of more recent history. That there is currently no shortage of such studies is evident from the increasing though little-publicized flow of writing about him. It's to be hoped that the second and third volumes of the Aesthetics will be translated into English and published before long, to complement Joachim Neugroschel's fine translation of volume 1 - this will, I daresay, achieve a great deal more than the website of the International Peter Weiss Society is currently doing.


brown thistle said...

it's interesting, this, your peter weiss studies. i wonder why they give him so much flak for opportunism, for compared to g grass and the whole gang weiss seems to be rather - maybe not entirely innocent, but rather pale re any sorts of opportunism. plus, he was friends with uwe johnson which to me seems to vouch at least somewhat for weiss' integrity.
aesthetik i did not manage to read yet completely, but i read "Abschied von den Eltern" which i recall being rather free from cringy political stuff and very well written.
if you have access to karagarga, there is a torrent with weiss movies.

David McDuff said...

I think one explanation for why Weiss gets such a hard time nowadays is because so many former Western radicals who admired and even revered him now feel let down because they think he failed in his mission. Also, he doesn't fit the political hierarchies and preconceptions of either the left or the right - in his lifetime he was declared persona non grata in the GDR yet he sang the GDR's praises. To the unprepared reader he can come across as an elitist Communist aesthete, which seems like a startling contradiction in terms, and may indeed be one. In spite of his use of avant garde techniques in his films and paintings, in many of his writings he is really a cultural conservative, building on the traditions of the European past. In short, he is something of a puzzle.

A proper assessment is made even more difficult by the fact that Weiss was neither a German author nor a Swedish one, but something in between.

I'm currently some way into Vol. 2 of the Aesthetics, which is for the most part beautifully written, but utterly lacking in compassion for the reader, who has to follow along obediently or perish.

Thank you for the torrent suggestion - I'll take a look.

Le Baron de Charlus said...

yes beautifully written. i caved in at page 150 or so but have been inspired to try again one day.
re your shipwrecked post, maybe one just has to mentally ditch the political stuff to enjoy him thoroughly (or subtract it in oder to get through to the real weiss). of course ditching the political stuff doesn't help with serious analysis etc & also would not do justice to him as these things were important to him, but would help with the reading pleasure.... I thought Abschied von den Eltern was beautiful because there is not so much agitprop (to remain true to the vocabulary...) going on. On the other hand... it's a puzzle, yes.

this biography by Jens-Fietje Dwars: Und dennoch Hoffnung was a bit milder in judging him. it's not superdeep, but balanced enough as introductory information on weiss.

David McDuff said...

it's a puzzle, yes.

Or perhaps one can simply say that the Aesthetics is a much more gripping mystery novel than anything Larsson or Mankell ever wrote.

I intend to persist with my reading of the book, and will post some further impressions from time to time.