By “committed” literature is meant that form of writing which is done not for its own sake but so as to pursue a political, social, religious or ideological goal. Committed literature does not generally formulate concrete demands. Using the resources of language, it wants to draw attention to problems and social injustices and seek solutions.
Heinrich Böll once insisted that the artistic status of a text, the freedom and autonomy of art, should be preserved in committed writing. This stance may already be found in the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who in his essay What Is Literature, written after the Second World War, expressly called for a committed literature.
New forms of literary commitment
Today, in view of urgent global problems, the call for a committed literature is again being raised. The Austrian writer Robert Menasse voiced it in an interview with the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, which was published in 2004 under the title Wir brauchen Ketzer. Über Literatur und politische Leidenschaft
(i.e. We Need Heretics. On Literature and Political Passion). A globalized world needs not only an adequate political way of handling the consequences of the digital revolution, the strategies of global corporations and terror networks, wars and the scarcity of resources, climate change, population explosion, the aging of Western societies, biopolitics, religious fundamentalism and great waves of migration; it also needs aesthetic forms appropriate to the complexity of these problems. Here writers are called for whose writing can throw light on the linguistic and political conditions underlying our thought and action. Kathrin Röggla, for instance, does this in her book Die Alarmbereiten
(i.e. On the Alert). Through the use of idle phrases, her associative-essayistic prose illustrates that individuals are today exposed to a constant flood of media information. Robert Mattheis’s novel Hohlkörper
(i.e. Hollow Body) demonstrates the absurdity of communicative patterns in a media society.
Turn of the century – turn in thought
A brief review of the history of modern German literature shows how political, committed writing developed at the turn of the nineteenth century. The literature of the pre-March era already saw itself as a counter movement to the universal poetry of romanticism. Leading the way, Georg Büchner (1813–1837) set against the latter a literature that treated social conditions and named injustices. Committed literature found a new height in the first half of the twentieth century in the dramas and poems of Bertolt Brecht. In the second half of the century, after the end of Nazism, new voices were heard, particularly those of Group 47, which included Alfred Andersch, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Peter Rühmkorf and Peter Weiss. In the course of the student movement and from the desire to come to terms with the Nazi past, German literature was further politicized.
Longing for clarity
With the death of Heinrich Böll in 1985, committed literature seemed again to have reached an endpoint. Unlike almost any other post-war author, Böll had become the conscience of the nation, taking positions on the questions of the day: nuclear arms, the role of the mass media in society and the Red Army Faction. There was no successor to Böll in sight. Shortly thereafter, in 1989/90, a turnabout took place at the political level. With the demise of socialism, the ideological lines today are more blurred; a utopian alternative to capitalism is lacking. The excessive demands that this change can make on the individual have been treated by Jochen Schimmang in his novel Das Beste, was wir hatten
(i.e. The Best We Had). In post-modern times, gaining insight into complex social and political processes and taking a position on them has become more difficult than ever, not only for writers. But there remains a longing for clarity.
The world is out of joint
Contemporary German novels such as Teil der Lösung
(i.e. Part of the Solution) by Ulrich Peltzer tell of the impotence of the individual against invisible, superior powers and new forms of media control and surveillance. This is connected to descriptions of new forms of state control, questions about the cause of terrorism and atmospheric depictions of gentrification and precariously employed academics in Berlin. Dietmar Dath’s Waffenwetter
(i.e. Weapon Weather) and Terézia Mora’s Der einzige Mann auf dem Kontinent
(i.e. The Only Man on the Continent) also take critical looks at the forms of media communication. In Waffenwetter
nineteen year-old Claudia Starik travels with her Communist grandfather to the world’s largest high-frequency plant, HAARP, where the weather and global communication may be being manipulated. In Der einzige Mann auf dem Kontinent
, a computer scientist ends up in complete disorientation as the last remaining European employee of an American company. And in Jan Peter Bremer’s Der amerikanische Investor
(i.e. The American Investor), the world is also out of joint. After an American investor buys a house and starts restoring it, its statics change and the life and writing of the narrator begin to totter.
Variety of themes and creative means
Biopolitics and the question about the influence of forms of domination and society on the body of the individual, on (gender) identity and sexual orientation, are at the centre of the novel Corpus delicti
by Juli Zeh and the essay Wie wir begehren
(i.e. How We Desire) by Carolin Emcke. Zeh’s science fiction novel, which developed from, a play, describes a state whose citizens live under a health dictatorship. Wie wir begehren is not only the erotic autobiography of the Lesbian journalist and philosopher Emcke, but above all a book about the formation of identity and social practices of inclusion and exclusion. Thomas Melle’s novel Sickster, on the other hand, depicts in bitterly cold manner the consequences of unfettered capitalism and how its works massive changes in people: two former school friends meet in the roles of winner and loser. Bodo Kirchhoff’s Erinnerungen an meinen Porsche
(i.e. Memories of My Porsche) uses elements of trash to dismantle a one-sided life project directed to money and success, while Lars Brandt’s Alles Zirkus
(i.e. All A Circus) applies surreal elements to capture the loss of reality of an advertising man battered by the crisis.
The variety of themes shows that the representatives of contemporary German literature do not shrink from the problems of the times. The variety in the choice of creative means impressively testifies to literature’s range of aesthetic possibilities.
|Committed literature – a selection
Bossong, Nora: “Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung; Carl Hanser Verlag 2012
Brandt, Lars: “Alles Zirkus”; Carl Hanser Verlag 2012.
Bremer, Jan Peter: “Der amerikanische Investor”; Berlin-Verlag 2011.
Dath, Dietmar: “Waffenwetter”; Suhrkamp Verlag 2007.
Görg, Patricia: “Handbuch der Erfolglosen Jahrgang zweitausendundelf”; Berlin-Verlag 2012.
Goetz, Rainald: “Johann Holtrup”; Suhrkamp Verlag 2012.
Hanika, Iris: “Das Eigentliche”; Droschl Verlag 2010.
Khider, Abbas: “Der falsche Inder”; Nautilus Verlag 2008.
Kirchhoff, Bodo: “Erinnerungen an meinen Porsche”; Hoffmann und Campe Verlag 2009.
Lehr, Thomas: “September. Fata Morgana”; Carl Hanser Verlag 2010.
Magnusson, Kristof: “Das war ich nicht”; Antje Kunstmann Verlag 2012.
Mattheis, Robert: “Hohlkörper. Roman aus der Medienwelt”; Acabus Verlag 2009.
Melle, Thomas: “Sickster”; Berlin, Rowohlt Verlag 2011.
Mora, Terézia: “Der einzige Mann auf dem Kontinent”; Luchterhand Verlag 2009.
Peltzer, Ulrich: “Teil der Lösung”; Amann Verlag 2007.
Schimmang, Jochen: “Das Beste, was wir hatten”; Nautilus 2009.
Schlüter, Wolfgang: “Anmut und Gnade”; Eichborn 2006.
Schüle, Christian: “Das Ende unserer Tage”; Klett-Cotta Verlag 2012.
von Steinäcker, Thomas: “Das Jahr, in dem ich aufhörte, mir Sorgen zu machen, und anfing zu träumen”; S. Fischer Verlag 2012.
Will, Markus A.: “Bad Banker”; Reinhardt Verlag 2010.
Zeh, Juli: “Corpus delicti. Ein Prozess”; Schöffling Verlag 2009.
Glavinic, Thomas: “Das Leben der Wünsche”; Carl Hanser Verlag 2008.
Kögl, Gabriele: “Vorstadthimmel”; Wallstein Verlag 2011.
Nadj Abonji, Melinda: “Tauben fliegen auf”; Jung und Jung Verlag 2010.
Röggla, Kathrin: “Die Alarmbereiten”; S. Fischer Verlag 2009.
Suter, Martin: “Abschalten”; Diogenes Verlag 2012.
Berg, Sibylle: “Hauptsache Arbeit!”; Rowohlt Theaterverlag U: 20.03.2010, Staatstheater Stuttgart.
Kluck, Oliver: “Warteraum Zukunft”; Rowohlt Theaterverlag U: 18.05.2010, Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg in Koproduktion mit den Ruhrfestspielen Recklinghausen.
Löhle, Philipp: “Das Ding”; Rowohlt Theaterverlag U: 14.05.2011, Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg.
Adorno, Theodor W.: “Engagement. In: Noten zur Literatur”; Suhrkamp Verlag 1974.
Emcke, Carolin: “Wie wir begehren”; S. Fischer Verlag 2012.
Peltzer, Ulrich: “Angefangen wird mittendrin. Frankfurter Poetikvorlesungen”; S. Fischer Verlag 2011.
Sartre, Jean-Paul: “Was ist Literatur”; Rowohlt Verlag 1981.