Rainald Goetz doing his thing
It was announced yesterday that Rainald Goetz had won the 2015 Georg Büchner Prize, joining the storied ranks of Paul Celan, Friederike Mayröcker, and Elias Canetti, among others. The choice is a somewhat controversial one: Shigekuni, who knows more about German literature than I do, declared Lutz Seiler and Marcel Beyer of more merit, while the equally knowledgeable Katy Derbyshire, whose post about her ill-fated choice to go to a Rainald Goetz reading would make a lovely short film, hints that he may be a men’s writer (this is particularly worth noting since women seem in general to get short shrift at the Büchner, winning around 12% of the time).
Though the word “deserve” is almost meaningless and the idea of awarding literary performance a highly suspect one, particularly given the well-documented behind-the-scenes chicanery among literary prize juries and the dismaying degree to which prize money goes to further refining the snobbish indulgences of writers who are already well-off instead of helping those who need to buy food and pay rent, I admire Goetz’s work and feel it is particularly relevant for our time.
If we consider the novel as an instrument of social analysis, lumping in, albeit clumsily, Balzac, James, Dickens, and contrast this to the novel of introspective reflection, it can be averred, to my mind, that the former has suffered greatly since the beginning of the twentieth century. Particularly in America, when I see these gargantuan kitchen-sink monstrosities that appear every few years with promises of greatness, inevitably accompanied by fanfare declaring that the author has learned Armenian, read ten thousand pages of classified documents, or penetrated the world of underground knife-fighting in the course of his research, I cannot help but think of the necessary compenetration of ego and ambition. Tom Wolfe is not a fashionable writer anymore, but his reviled essay Stalking the Billion Footed Beast remains important reading to the extent that it dissects not only Wolfe’s own artistic failures, but those of countless writers who have come after him, up to and including Franzen, who yammer about “stories” and “real life” and “moral complexity,” contemning both the recondite artifices of “experimental fiction” and the aw-shucks simplicity of the popular novel.
In a beautiful passage of Bowstring, Viktor Shklovsky recollects a scene in Antonioni’s Blow-Up where a group of students is playing tennis. The sounds, the sights are real, but there is no ball between them. For Shklovksy, this is a metaphor of the anti-novel or meta-novel, a form that, for him, has already exhausted itself in less than a century. “Return the ball to the game,” Shklovsky says. There is something true in Shklovsky’s adjuration: after so much reading, and without disparaging their brilliance, there is just not enough meat in Perec, in Bernhard, or in Christine Brooke-Rose to sustain one over the course of a life. And yet I am sure Shklovsky would not agree with the philistinism of Wolfe and Franzen. The vices of so-called experimentalism do not sanction the endless mechanical excretion of novel after novel about generational misunderstanding, clashing cultures, domestic discord, shameful family secrets, integrity in the face of corruption, or the triumph over adversity, irrespective of how much research goes into them.
It is here where I think Rainald Goetz is important. Over the course of thirty years, in formats ranging from theater to collage to techno music to blogs, Goetz has trained his eye on many of the signal phenomena of the present day; but the concept of research, as handed down from Balzac and Flaubert, has been foresworn as an arrogant pretense in favor of a self-abandonment within the confines of the subculture the author is attempting to approximate. This is a difference not so much of method as of posture: certainly, when Goetz writes about the art world, about music or finance, he is well-versed in the subject matter, but the idea that any aspect of culture can be understood from without is abandoned as mere arrogance. As Goetz states in Celebration:
Intellectuality remains a class destiny against which revolt is possible.
Goetz received doctoral degrees in psychiatry and history before embarking on his first novel Irre, an exploration of madness that could be described as a punk-rock reimagining of Goffman’s famed work on asylums. His guiding light is the famed social theorist Niklas Luhmann, who analyzed cultural phenomena as complexity reducers whereby the chaos of unprocessed life is reduced to comprehensible and manageable symbolic values within closed systems. Goetz’s recognizes that the symbolic values encompassed by the numerous worlds into which contemporary society is divided (art, music, finance, and so forth) are not inhabited by, but are rather generative of, distinct types of subjects, and that any understanding of these worlds is incomplete without some sense of the feeling of being inside them.
A criticism that has been leveled against Goetz, particularly during the publication of the various volumes of the project Heute Morgen, is a lack of analytical distance: what if this guy’s just doing coke, hanging out with DJs, and having a laugh at our expense? My sense is, on the one hand, that Goetz’s project of undermining the author’s role as analyst, of calling into question the potential of analysis as typically conceived, precludes the distance some readers might find comforting; and on the other, that distance is already presumed in the act of reading, and that Goetz trusts the reader to take his writing at something more than face value.
In any case, while I personally am indifferent or even hostile to many of the phenomena he describes (I would happily throw Jeff Koons in a gulag, for example), Goetz’s engagement with popular culture is far more interesting than the embittered boilerplate about the world going to hell in a handbasket that is the specialty of so many men of letters.
Goetz is little translated: his books are hard, and a lot of them deal very specifically with German public figures that other countries don’t care about. His play Jeff Koons is out in English, Irre was published in French but is out of print, the really cool-looking Dutch press Leesemagazijn has picked up a few of them, and Sexto Piso is bringing out Irre in Spanish.
[Update: I will be translating Goetz’s Irre for Fitzcarraldo Editions. The book is due out in Fall 2017.]