16 August 2013

Stephan Heym readings & the Weakness of Worthiness

(In the 1920s the banqueting hall of Hamburg's Literaturhaus -- location for the Heym reading last Saturday -- was used for Ausdruckstanz - expressionistic dance. No Ausdruckstanz in evidence at the Heym reading, sadly.  This is Hans-Ludwig Boehme's awesome photo of Arila Siegert dancing in Dore Hoyer's audruckstanz cycle 'Afectos humanos', and I recognise Mr Boehme and/or his descendants as the copyright holder of this image.)

What do you get when you put three Left party members of the Bundestag in front of microphones for 80 mins. to read excerpts out the life work of one of the GDR's most famous literary dissidents, Stephan Heym, who'd be 100 this year, if he were still alive? You get a lot of earnestness, you're a bit better educated at the end of it, but you certainly don't get many funnies: ''There was no wrecks and nobody drownded, / Fact, nothing to laugh at at all.'' (Marriot Edgar)

Would it have been inappropriate for the four parlimentarians plus Franz Sodann (actor, supposedly) & singer-songwriter Kai Degenhardt to have put in more humorous passages from Heym's work? To be fair to the audience they did laugh quite a bit, but there the words 'clutching' & 'straws' spring to mind. And that audience looked every bit typical for a Left party event: average-age: 58; average-occupation: down-trodden state-school teacher; average dress-code: dowdy.

Stephan Heym's life-work, of which the texts only form one part, is fascinating: how come only the since-long-converted, in this case more than 100 of them, end  up coming to these dos? The blame should partly lie with the Literaturhaus's fishy decision not to publicise the event. Eight days before the reading --i.e. the scale of time in which those of us with small kids need to start planning babysitting to make sure we even get out -- the Literaturhaus weren't listing the event on their website. In their 1000 word programme-blurb for August, they choose not to mention the reading once.

And the Lit.-Haus distancing themselves in this strange way, despite the fact that Heym's texts have got the establishment's seal of approval, with Wulf Segebrecht, for example, writing approvingly about the early poems, published now in a collected poems for the first time, in the FAZ  in April. Covering their backs they were, I presume, but against which possible form of attack?

You could interpret the members of the Bundestag's decisions to present in this way as a statement against aestheticism. It speaks of an attitude towards the relationship between literature & politics, which can be seen as identical to the one Heym himself expressed in 1994:
"I'm a writer. You can't seperate literature from life, nor life from politics; that's why there's political content in everything I've written, among other contents. My big themes are freedom and equality."
There are enough people in Germany who find little to find fault with in The Left's policy objectives for achieving more freedom and equality in the country -- the problem being that many of these seem people feel antipathy towards the individuals inside The Left. This is partly due to the image The Left projects of itself, of a politically radical yet culturally conservative party.  Jan van Aken, Cornelia Möhring, Thomas Nord & Kirsten Tackmann, the four Bundestag members reading, appear to have wanted to provide an overview & introduction to Heym's work, & in this they succeeded. But servicing an audience with an overview is artistically unambitious, in this wikipediaed age. 

Yes, misinformation about Heym does continue to triumph over information. Irene, my colleague at the writer's room here in Hamburg, remembered the accusations against Heym, spread one day before he was due to give the traditional speech, as oldest member, opening the 1994 Bundestag. The CDU Minister of the Interior spread the slander that Heym had been a snitch for the Stasi in GDR times. 175% untrue, as Heym could quickly proove, with help from the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi archives. But the damage was done; and Irene & many others may never pick up on the fact that the smears were completely refuted.

But is information the best way to counter misinformation? Isn't the bigger problem, that in our information society, information or misinformation per se takes up too much space in our consciousness, and expressions, impressions, feelings or even laughter too little? Did The Left members of the Bundestag really think they'd reach new people with the format of this reading, or may my suspicion be partly true, that they're somehow content with their status of being a worthy & rather isolated minority?

The reading included an open letter written by Heiner Müller to Heym in 1994, written after Heym had decided to stand as an 'open-list' candidate for the PDS party. Konrad Weiß, a Green Party member of the Bundestag had just laid into Heym in another open letter, calling his decision to stand for the PDS 'perverse'. Heiner Müller wrote to Heym saying he didn't really understand his decision but respected it anyway -- & he found it disgusting how people like Weiß were treating him. 

I'd love to see leading Left Party politicians putting on a series of Heiner Müller readings up and down the country. Yes, he was an ironic critic of capitalism, but he was much more than just that -- and the type of writer who can open up thoroughfares between people who have nothing left to say to each other, the situation you can percieve between supporters and decriers of The Left. He's not worthy in the least, & all the more appealing for that. Better still would be to see a salaried Left Party politician stand up, enthused & ready to read in public from the work of a poet or writer distrusted & disavowed by the left, a poet like Rilke, for example. A move to pull the rug from beneath the disliking opposition's feet, a dodge & shimmy away from being pigeon-holed for ever. If you had something like that on the programme, with a little bit of ausdruckstanz thrown in later in the programme, then I'd be the first to come again to hear Jan van Aken & his colleagues bringing literature to us again.

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