Peter Weiss, Holding Hands

Between the ages of fourteen and twenty-eight, I knew nothing of Peter Weiss, save that he had written a play called Marat/Sade that had been directed by Peter Brook, toward whom my attitude was antipathetic, in spite of my knowing next to nothing of his work, because a friend of mine whose yen for the putatively radical excluded aesthetic or logical rigor had once droned on about him for what felt like an eternity while we were having dinner. I had seen Marat/Sade on the bookshelf of the same English teacher who lent me The Cenci by Antonin Artaud. Though my intellectual pretensions at the time were such that I forced myself to read some thousand or so pages of the horribly half-baked D.A.F. De Sade, I did not ask to borrow this play by Peter Weiss.

In 2005 I moved to Barcelona, because I had never been to Europe and I wished to improve my hardly passable Spanish. For ten weeks I read only in that language, laboriously, with a dictionary: Milan Kundera’s The Curtain in the grey paperback published by Tusquets, the works of Gombrowicz in white gloss covers by Seix Barral, Imre Kertész’s I, Another by the magnificent publisher Acantilado, perhaps a few other things. Then I went one day to the Laie in Carrer de Pau Claris. The English writer John Lanchester was there, he had won a prize for his book Fragrant Harbor, translated into Catalan as Port de les aromes, I still do not know why they didn’t translate it as Port fragant, which sounds prettier to me. I told him how highly I thought of his books The Debt to Pleasure and Mr. Phillips. He didn’t seem to care.

I was sitting with an issue of the Guardian and reading an interview with John Banville, whom my then-partner wanted me to read. Banville was asked his opinion of contemporary writers. To avoid accusations of cattiness or favoritism, I avoid commenting on my compeers, he said, but I will say the death of W.G. Sebald strikes me as an enormous loss for literature

A week later, I bought The Rings of Saturn, which I read three times in three consecutive days. Then I bought and read the other books of his that were available, even though the novels were expensive imports and were moreover published by Vintage, whose English paperbacks I try never to buy because they yellow quickly and smell of newsprint and I do not like the rough feel of the cheap paper on my fingers. Two books were only available in hardcover: On the Natural History of Destruction and Campo Santo, which had just come out.

This is only relevant to what I am thinking about today insofar as I must have read Sebald’s essay on Peter Weiss, entitled The Remorse of the Heart. How strange, I thought this morning, that the adulation of Sebald, a writer I idealized for years and because of whom I would read Jean Améry, Thomas Bernhard, Michael Hamburger, Cheateaubriand, Robert Walser, and Marianne Fritz, did not compel me to seek out Peter Weiss, whose writing is so important for me now. I may have had the sense, because Marat/Sade was so well known, that Weiss was one of those writers it was permissible to pretend to have read without doing so. But this morning I am looking back at the essay and there is something unpleasant and tendentious in it. The marked general inclination in Sebald to paint his favored artists in martyrial tones occludes the textured visual sensitivity and generosity of spirit that marks Weiss’s writing as something much more ample than the moral obduracy that Sebald stresses.

In 2010 I wrote the following in my still-unpublished first novel The Philosophy of a Visit:

That frisson was the thrill, I tell myself, the blend of fear and elation, that accompanies a child’s explorations in the stage of disattachment, so-called, those first forays into pleasures in which one’s mother plays no part; though this too is something I cannot confirm from memory, but have only read about it a book, something that resonates and hence requires that I should look further into the meaning of the phenomena of resonance, a thing I have not done even now.

The pleasure on that day was of crossing a road that lay between the daycare center and my neighborhood. It was always busy with cars, and my mother had warned me to stay away from it. A great deal is made by developmental psychologists of childhood success in instrumental undertakings: the criminologist Lonnie Athens, for example, posits early success in the use of violence to achieve a predetermined end as a crucial stage in the growth of the violent criminal; conversely, repeated failures may lead to perversions of longing, as when fetishes come to supplant normative urges in circumstantially impotent subjects. At any rate, no person can be happy without at some time doing what he fears, and thereby allowing the sense of freedom in himself to be born: and running across the road at dusk, my hand in my sister’s, is the first memory I have of liberty and its most basic form in my mind. It was cool that night, and though one can never be sure about such things, it is for that reason, I believe, that I have always felt freest in a frigid climate like that of Central Europe, and find the heat of the Mediterranean or of the American South so oppressive.

This morning, I was reading Weiss’s Abschied von Eltern, translated into English as Leavetaking. He writes about his family’s maid:

I went out into the street holding Augusta’s hand. My exploration of the city is connected for me with the pressure of Augusta’s hand. The streets rise in front of me with their creaking, iron-rimmed wheels, with their haze of tar and malt and wet dust, with their warehouses whose facades the chains of the hoists rattled, and in whose warehouses the shapes moved about in the uncertain light between packing cases and sacks. We penetrated ever deeper into the alleyways, arcades, and tucked-away squares, past the soot-blackened, scaly, bescribbled masonry walls, until through the gateway arches and down worn-out flights of steps we came to the dikes and onto the docks where the masts of ships stood out against the smoky sky, where watery reflections flickered on the ships’ sides, where black and yellow faces peeked out of the round portholes and shouted out strange words, where the pennants buffeted on the taut rigging and screaking cargo cranes swung long necks around. Sometimes scenes from these wanderings suddenly surface in my dreams, first impressions which have preserved their glassy transparence and sharpness of focus, they show places, often without any recognizable happening, motionless and still, where I had suddenly become aware of my own existence.

In 2012, I began work on a second book, likewise unpublished, called the Aesthetics of Degradation. I was not aware at the time of Peter Weiss’s magnum opus The Aesthetics of Resistance, though I had certainly read the title in Sebald’s essay seven years before. In my book, a nameless narrator considers abusive pornography in light of what one might call an expanded idea of historical determinism, drawing heavily on traumatology, on what I believe to be Bergsonian ideas about identity and duration, though I only really know Bergson at second-hand, and on Jankélévitch’s reconciliation of freedom and determinism through the idea of responsibility. There is no plot as such: the narrator stares at images, reads a book of memoirs, visits an exhibition; the tension that is said to underpin prose narratives derives from the intimate alienation, if I may permit myself such a paradox, between the narrator, his own thoughts, and his eternally deferred moral longings.

In the summer of 2013 I bought a copy of the first volume of Peter Weiss’s Aesthetics of Resistance in German, and this past fall, visiting a syndicalist bookstore in Barcelona I felt compelled from solidarity to support, I took home a one-volume translation of the entire book. The Aesthetics of Resistance marks for me the moment when modernist innovations come into their own, jettisoning the trappings of storyline and character development for something more fluid, free, and ambitious. The unapologetically political bent of the ekphrastic episodes making up the book in no way detract from its artistic power. Reading it, you think of Ralph Ellison’s interview in the Paris Review, when Alfred Chester, the aesthete, tries to railroad Ellison by stating: “Then you consider your novel a purely literary work as opposed to one in the tradition of social protest.” Ellison responds:

Now, mind, I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground is, among other things, a protest against the limitations of nineteenth-century rationalism; Don Quixote, Man’s Fate, Oedipus Rex, The Trial—all these embody protest, even against the limitation of human life itself. If social protest is antithetical to art, what then shall we make of Goya, Dickens, and Twain? One hears a lot of complaints about the so-called protest novel, especially when written by Negroes, but it seems to me that the critics could more accurately complain about the lack of craftsmanship and the provincialism which is typical of such works.

It is possible that the proscription of didactic or ideological content in art is nothing more than a cavalier platitude of the sort propagated by secondary school English teachers who rail against split infinitives and the comparative stupider, and literary critics who confuse acumen with list-making and the issuance of high-flown ukases (and their patron saint, the intolerable Harold Bloom). But that is not what interests me this morning. What I am thinking about is the degree to which all this ideology and aesthetics might be a mere accretion, like a carapace, atop these irreducible moments that are our true spiritual fundament and define our capacity to understand one another, experiences like holding a hand and walking out into the street.