Posts Tagged ‘Peter Weiss’

I foresee that man will resign himself each day to new abominations, that soon only soldiers and bandits will be left.

To them I offer this advice: Whosoever would undertake some atrocious enterprise should act as if it were already accomplished, should impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past.

— Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths”

For it must be noted that men must either be caressed or else annihilated.

—Niccolò Machiavelli, 1532

meaning derives in the refusal to renounce resistance no matter how intense the suppression and it is in and through art that new models of political action and social understanding can be found.

— paraphrased from Peter Ulrich Weiss, vols I-III, ‘Aesthetics of Resistance / Die Asthetik des Widerstands’, (1975-1981)


I met Artes Mundi finalists Karen Mirza and Brad Butler at Cardiff School of Art & Design yesterday and in response to a question I asked to do with educating young people about our nation’s long history of Civil disobedience and the Art and aesthetics of Resistance as a means of communication and education, Karen asked if I knew about a certain book written in 1972 (which I didn’t) and she recommended I hunt down a copy of Peter Weiss’ book, set in Nazi Germany.

so here starts the journey…

Wiki for Peter Weiss

Wiki for Peter Weiss The Aesthetics of Resistance Vol 1 – 3

Google Book preview for Peter Weiss The Aesthetics of Resistance Vol 1 – 3 Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, 1975-1981

The Aesthetics of Resistance: Frederic Jameson: Introduction


APA citation:

Weiss, Peter & Neugroschel, Joachim (2005). The aesthetics of resistance. Duke University Press ; London : Combined Academic [distributor], Durham, N.C

MLA citation:

Weiss, Peter and Neugroschel, Joachim The aesthetics of resistance. Duke University Press ; London : Combined Academic [distributor], Durham, N.C, 2005.

Harvard/Australian citation:

Weiss, Peter & Neugroschel, Joachim 2005, The aesthetics of resistance, Duke University Press ; London : Combined Academic [distributor], Durham, N.C




A major literary event, the publication of this masterly translation makes one of the towering works of twentieth-century German literature available to English-speaking readers for the first time. The three-volume novel The Aesthetics of Resistance is the crowning achievement of Peter Weiss, the internationally renowned dramatist best known for his play Marat/Sade. The first volume, presented here, was initially published in Germany in 1975; the third and final volume appeared in 1981, just six months before Weiss’s death.

Spanning the period from the late 1930s to 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 embracing resistance, no matter how intense the oppression, and that we must look to art for new models of political action and social understanding.

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 Aesthetics of Resistance is one of the truly great works of postwar German literature and an essential resource for understanding twentieth-century German history.

About The Author(s)

Peter Weiss (1916–1982) was a German playwright, novelist, filmmaker, and painter. His works include the plays Marat/Sade and The New Trial (also published by Duke University Press) and the novels The Shadow of the Body of the Coachman and The Conversation of the Three Walkers. West Germany’s most important literary award, the Georg Büchner Prize, was awarded to Weiss posthumously in 1982.
Joachim Neugroschel has translated some two hundred books, including works by Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann. He has won three pen translation awards and a French-American Foundation Translation Prize. He lives in Queens, New York.



Peter Weiss, The Aesthetics of Resistance, Volume 1: A Novel. Translated by Joakim Neugroschel. Foreword by Fredric Jameson. Glossary by Robert Cohen. Duke University Press, 2005, 376 pp. US$23.95 (pb), US$84.95 (hb).

Peter Weiss (born 1916 in Germany, dead 1982 in Sweden) has a truly cosmopolitan biography. As the son of a Jewish manufacturer of Hungarian descent and a Swiss actress Weiss had German as maternal tongue, but was in fact a Czech citizen, and lived his childhood and youth in Poland as well as in Germany and Great Britain. In 1939 he migrated to Sweden – following his parents – and finally became a Swedish citizen in 1946. He wrote several books in Swedish, and was also, during the 1950s, active as an experimental filmmaker in Stockholm, acknowledged by for instance Jonas Mekas and Film Culture in New York. He had however his breakthrough as a writer in the beginning of the 1960s when he published his autobiographical novels in Germany.

In 1964 his play Marat/Sade premiered at Schillertheater in West Berlin, and from that date he must be considered as one of the most important post-war European playwrights. In 1966 Weiss attended a meeting arranged by Gruppe 47 at Princeton where he made his position clear regarding the Vietnam War, giving his important speech: “I come out of my hiding place”. And when Weiss came out of his hiding place he wrote a series of political plays, turning into one of the most influential European intellectuals, a travelling spokesman for the Left.

He was soon an active member of the Swedish Communist party and participated in several political manifestations, for example, the second meeting of the International War Crimes Tribunal at Stockholm in 1973.

In 1975 he published the first instalment of the novel Die Ästhetik des Widerstands – The Aesthetics of Resistance, and two more volumes were to follow, published almost simultaneously in the two German republics and in Sweden. The novel has since been translated into other languages, but not into English, until 2005, when the first volume appeared in translation by Joachim Neugroschel and with a foreword by Fredric Jameson.

Most of the œuvre of Weiss has been translated into English, his plays from Marat/Sade to The New Trial, as well as several of his early novels, but it is no coincidence that the translation of The Aesthetics of Resistance arrives with such a delay; in the over 1000 pages long novel Weiss puts together his various experiences, and presents a “Gesamtkunstwerk” of sorts, mixing extremely diverse genres and modes of address: art history, war reports, autobiography, dreamlike hallucinations, reflections on German history, Swedish history, the history of the European Left.

Among the dramatis personæ are historical persons like Bertolt Brecht in his Swedish exile, the members of the secret resistance group “Die Rote Kapelle”, the physician Max Hodann, the Swedish writer Karin Boye and a row of figures from the cadres of the European Socialist and Communist parties. The narrative is performed through inner monologues, thorough descriptions of the geography of the settings, long historical summaries, and philosophical dialogues on the dialectics of political work and aesthetics.

The novel is furthermore composed of gigantic blocks of prose with no significant markers when one period ends and another starts. (Weiss himself said that the composition was inspired by the sculptures of Donald Judd, where cubiform blocks are piled upon each other.)

The novel thus offers resistance through content and form, but when you have worked your way into its topography, it offers several readings, several narratives in strata super strata.

One path to follow is the history of the young narrator with no name, but with a biography which parallels the life of the author. This reading connects to the discussion of the novel as a “Wunschbiographie”, i. e. the heroic, proletarian life Peter Weiss himself could have led, if he had not been born into the bourgeoisie.

Like the nameless narrator, Peter Weiss was a refugee in Sweden during the war, but whereas he was trying to start a career as a painter, the narrator is engaged in the secret antifascist resistance, working for a while as the helping hand for Bertolt Brecht.

Another way of reading the novel is to see it as a monstrous essay on the necessity of art.

The commentaries on art works like Picasso’s “Guernica” or Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa”, not to mention the opening of the novel with its breathtaking interpretation of the Pergamum frieze, afford a new and truly dialectic understanding of the Western art.

A third reading will present the novel as the collective history of the antifascist struggle, in Germany, Spain, and Scandinavia, with the martyrdom of “Die Rote Kapelle” in the Plötzensee prison in Berlin as the tragic climax.

The opening sentence of the novel, which describes the Pergamum Frieze in Berlin, is fascinating in its dense presence:

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.

The literary achievement of Peter Weiss has been compared to other great modern novels as Der Mann ohne Eigenshaften by Robert Musil or Die Blendung by Elias Canetti. It is obvious that his aim was to create an aesthetic practice based on a dialectic relationship with the avant-garde; the novel itself is an avant-garde performance, but contrary to many other art works it does also present and discuss the political implications of the avant-garde.

In the first volume of The Aesthetics of Resistance the character Coppi, one of the young Socialist friends of the nameless narrator – and in reality one of the key figures in the circle around Liberta Schulze-Boysen and “Die Rote Kapelle” – is formulating an idea of the relation between art and politics:

And just as our political decisions were based on fragments, dissonances, hypotheses, resolutions, and slogans, all borne by a conviction deriving from our own life experiences, so too we could not conceptualize art without including its ruptures, fluctuations, and oppositions. And if it were deprived of its contradictions, then only a lifeless stump would remain.(p. 63)

The volume which now has been issued in English presents only a third of the work, telling the story of the end of the 1930s, and the young narrator’s journey from Berlin to the Spain of the Civil War, but through the foreword of Fredric Jameson this edition turns into a challenging introduction not only to the rest of the novel but to the entire world of Weiss.

Jameson constructs a framework for the novel and its historical context but also turns his introduction into an essay on the Marxist heritage and the need for a political memory and a political archive in the shape of fiction. Jameson discusses historiography and historical fiction in general, and performs several remarkable interpretations of events and characters in the universe of Weiss.

An interesting aspect is that he tries to understand the Surrealist heritage as well as the Marxist, and develops an interesting discussion on the oeniric in the art of Weiss.

He also traces the sexual desire, which in a way was suppressed in Weiss’s work from Marat/Sade and on, but had been a dominant factor in his early years. In The Aesthetics of Resistance the author returns to the aesthetics of a youth passed and makes segments of his Bildungsroman into a political Traumdeutung. The desire and the dreamlike is not treated by Jameson in order to explain the biographical figure Peter Ulrich Weiss, but is used in order to transcend the tyranny of the manifest and present:

  • “what seemed over and done with is thus opened up for a new beginning, a new continuation”,
  • and the ultimate lesson of the novel is, according to Fredric Jameson,
  • “about the productive uses of a past and a history that is not simply represented or commemorated but also reappropriated by some new future of our own present”. (pxlvii)

Joakim Neugroschel has translated vital parts of the modern European literature into English; works by Franz Kafka, Joseph Roth and Marcel Proust.

It is important to remember that the writing of The Aesthetics of Resistance was hard for Weiss himself; friends and family can testify about the labour it cost him to form his ideas and his pre-war German language into  these compact cubes of prose. The task of Neugroschel has thus been monumental, and his handling of the sometimes heavy and didactic and always enigmatic prose of Peter Weiss is worth respect and praise. This brilliant translation, combined with its illuminating introduction, is a true pièce de résistance in the restless media flow of an age with such a desperate need for memory.

Lars Gustaf Andersson

In a museum in Berlin in 1937, three young communists — the unnamed narrator and his friends Coppi and Heilmann — contemplate the Pergamon Frieze. They walk back to Coppi’s apartment, where they continue their debates about art and politics along with his parents. The narrator then returns to his own apartment and talks to his father — or remembers conversations with him — about his experiences as an activist; they have taken different sides in the divide between Communists and Social Democrats. While waiting to go to Spain to fight, the narrator tries to help a retarded Jewish man being beaten by teenagers.

And that’s pretty much all the foreground story in Part I of The Aesthetics of Resistance; it could be fitted into half a dozen pages. This is just a framework, however, on which Weiss hangs a panoply of artistic and political and historical debates and monologues. A stunning description of the Pergamon Frieze. A reanalysis of Heracles as a revolutionary. A discussion of the narrator’s family’s books and the problems facing workers trying to study and appreciate art. A study of how painting broadened its subject material to include peasants and workers, and of the extent to which bourgeois art is relevant to socialists. An account of the brief-lived socialist republic of Bremen. Debates over cooperation between Communists and Social Democrats, readiness for revolution, and the Moscow Trials. A critical analysis contrasting Kafka’s The Castle and Neukrantz’ Barricades in Wedding.

Part II, with the narrator in Spain, proceeds similarly, though with more in the foreground. A brief account of crossing the border into Spain is followed by an excursus on Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia and travel from Barcelona to the headquarters of the International Brigades at Albacete. Because of some medical training the narrator ends up working in hospitals at Cueva and then Denia, under Max Hodann.

There are some details of hospital administration and the management of peasants and patients, and Hodann’s ideas about sexual hygiene and freedom get a mention, but the story is dominated by debates over how tightly Party discipline must be enforced. Looming over this is the recent suppression of anarchists and independent Marxists (and the killing of Andrés Nin) and the existence of a United Front with socialist and bourgeois parties. There’s one set piece debate at a meeting of leaders — Hodann, Ilya Ehrenburg, Willi Bredel, and Karl Mewis, among others — and a chilling, understated climax when one of the narrator’s too outspoken colleagues is taken away by the military police.

There’s no direct account of battle. This is approached indirectly, through conversations with the journalist Nordahl Grieg and the historian Lindhoek, working on a history of the Thälmann brigade; they face the challenge of reporting and writing during an undecided struggle. Listening to the radio, in the same weeks they and the narrator follow the perilous military situation of the Republic, the trial of Bukharin in Moscow, and the German incorporation of Austria. A letter from Heilmann returns the narrator to the myth of Heracles; while the International Brigades are being disbanded he looks back to Phocaea, the ancient Greek colonies and mines in Spain, and the history of Spain down to the present. And, as the narrator prepares to leave Spain, he and a friend Ayschmann explore Picasso’s Guernica and paintings by Delacroix and Géricault and Goya; he also looks back at some of the paintings his father educated him with, contrasting the work of Menzel and Koehler.

It needs some examples to give a feel for Weiss’ style. Here is the famous opening sequence describing the Pergamon Altar:

“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. …”

… and so on, for eight pages, in which there are just a few scattered sentences to set the scene in the museum and provide background on the three friends. (Weiss uses paragraph breaks only to divide sections, which are the only divisions within each part.)

And here’s a brief interlude in the discussion of painting towards the end:

“But, asked Ayschmann, did you not always feel your disadvantage vis-à-vis the people who could pursue their studies unhindered. His words knocked me out of an equilibrium that I had claimed I possessed. My education had no solid underpinnings, it was acquired through sporadic readings. I could not produce a so-called Gymnasium degree. On the other hand, I had legitimized myself by laboring in workshops, warehouses, factories. For an instant I was hostile toward Ayschmann, who had laid claim to an academic formation entirely as a matter of course. I felt rebellious against his world, but then I was ashamed of my reaction, for his question was premised on the idea of solidarity.”

Abstractions in The Aesthetics of Resistance are grounded in the specifics of the narrator’s experiences or in analysis of individual artworks and books; and the narrator’s limited knowledge and personal perspective are consistently maintained. Fascism is an everpresent menace, but remains in the background: uniformed figures in a museum, triumphant Nazi propaganda on the radio, Franco’s armies pressing in on the Spanish Republic. Similarly with the communist hierarchy: there’s only a glimpse of the International Brigades’ leader André Marty, the prosecutors in the Moscow Trials, or the military police.

A fifty page introduction by Fredric Jameson sets Weiss in the context of post-war German literature, provides details of his life and background, and offers a sometimes abstruse theoretical analysis. For most novels such an introduction would be overkill, but here it seems appropriate.

Elements of The Aesthetics of Resistance are autobiographical: Weiss was of the same generation as his narrator, his parents also left Czechoslovakia for Sweden (though they were bourgeois rather than working class), and he too was mentored by Hodann. Weiss was not a communist as a youth, however — his late conversion to Marxism came in the 1960s — and he didn’t fight in Spain, so his narrator is perhaps a vision of himself as he might have been. The artistic explorations also reflect a mature sophistication; they are not plausibly those of a twenty-year old, working class autodidact or not. The other characters are mostly historical figures, but fictionalised: a glossary provides some brief biographical information on the more prominent of the many that appear.

It’s an extraordinary achievement, with its sustained stylistic virtuosity and integration into narrative of art criticism, politics, and history. But The Aesthetics of Resistance is not a novel which will command a wide audience. This is not because of Weiss’ style, which is much easier to read than initial impressions might suggest. The problem is that the work demands an interest, preexisting or nascent, both in the politics of left wing parties and movements in pre-WWII Germany and Europe and in the relationship of socialism and art, especially pictorial art.

Those who are prepared for that, or willing to be challenged, will find plenty in The Aesthetics of Resistance. It might perhaps inspire an interest in the Spanish Civil War, or open up new perspectives on painting.

Note: This work was originally published in 1975 as volume one of Die Ästhetik des Widerstands. The other two volumes have not yet been translated into English.