Dimension2: Contemporary German-Language Literature

Volume 5, Number 3

Forward! -- Editorial

Ingo R. Stoehr

After a long delay, the third issue of the 1998 volume is about to go to print. Three aspects make the present issue special.

1. This issue pays homage to the history that made it possible: thirty years ago, in 1968, the bilingual literary magazine Dimension premiered.  Being aware of one's own traditions is important for understanding oneself; therefore, the issue begins with a consideration of the traditions and achievements on which it has been building.

2. Looking at its own history, this issue celebrates the first five volumes of DIMENSION2, although the celebration is somewhat lowkey: it simply consists of the index of German-language authors and their texts published in volumes one through five.

But what a list it is! It reflects the goal of DIMENSION2 to help make the entire spectrum of contemporary German-language literature accessible to an English-speaking audience. Typically, the magazine selects from books printed by German, Austrian, and Swiss publishing houses, so readers literally have an impression of what's “out there” on the German book market.

The selection is restricted by a few factors, such as availability for reprint in this magazine. But, as a matter of principle, I consider all types of texts. Each selection should speak to at least some readers, and readers will find texts ranging from avant-garde to popular literature.

3. Finally, the choice of this issue's thematic focus—the image of violence—is a tough one. Violence is part of our human nature; or, if we want to be more cautious, we say that violence is part of our human experience. It always has been: the earliest texts of the Western world include violence as a central element.

Western religious thinking has linked the process of fully understanding the potentialities of being human with the violation of God's law; thus separating, for better or for worse, humankind from God and nature. Western literary tradition began with glorifying a war of piracy—that is at least the interpretation along the lines of Christa Wolf's criticism of Homer's Iliad. Even for readers who do not agree with the extent of this view, the rawness of the battle scenes in the Iliad may present a challenge, as does the question of Achilles about the meaning of it all. When a small group of Greek warriors try to persuade Achilles to rejoin them in the fight against Troy, the young warrior has had time to think, and he thought about the question of what sense it makes to be brave when in death the bravest man and greatest coward are made equal.

In light of this unanswered question, the representation of violence in literature and reading it seem guilt-laden pleasures. But literature that we value for one reason or another typically does not use any of its themes or images gratuitously. Ancient texts, such as the Iliad, may be particularly challenging to some readers. But not all literature of similar or greater age has this singular focus on violence. The Epic of Gilgamesh begins violently with a young king out of control, and it continues with various violent acts done by the pair of friends, which again might baffle some modern readers. For example, why do they kill the forest monster Hubaba? Perhaps the story is an image of man's fight against nature: to build the cities of Sumer, the people needed lumber. Perhaps it is a story of human hubris: they do it because they can, and when they have done too many of these deeds, the gods will punish them. But when the gods do, the tone of the story changes as the focus of the epic shifts from violence to friendship and immortality—or, rather loss of friendship and acceptance of mortality.

And here we are, thousands of years after the epic stories of Gilgamesh and Achilles were told, at the end of the twentieth century, and we look back in horror at a century of two World Wars and many other conflicts. The century's single most traumatic experience was the systematic mass murder of the Jews by Nazi Germany during the Second World War: the Holocaust. With such acts of violence in mind, we might consider the literary image of violence a more guilt-laden pleasure than ever.

A literary image is more than just what it denotes; it is also a challenge to the readers to go beyond the image to where solutions or at least understanding may be found. It is an invitation to a dialogue between a text and its reader, as well as between one culture and another. We are addressing the old question about violence and suffering. Literature of the twentieth century has added a few new aspects, such as the understanding that the expression of suffering is not only possible but also necessary.

The selection in this issue is divided into three parts that are less firm categories than preliminary suggestions for thinking about the texts, as well as about our own ways of approaching the image of violence in literature: crime fiction, latent violence of everyday life, and daily fascism.

A closer reading of the texts may reveal that an individual text may resist any easy classification; and specific caution is in order for excerpts be­cause the complete text may take on different qualities. The selections of the first category is a case in point. The label crime fiction could lead a reader to expect texts written in the vein of popular literature, but whether this is so is up to each reader. The first chapter of Woomy Schmidt's novel begins like a slasher story with blood spilled everywhere, but it's just a photo shoot and the story moves to a more immediate role of violence as part of a coming-of-age story. The excerpt from Otto A. Böhmer's novel represents the psychological character but not the multi-level complexity of the entire text. Ralf Rothmann tells a story that indeed ends in a shoot-out, but the excerpt suggests the many details of everyday life where violence is lurking, an aspect that leads to the second set of selections. Most remarkable in Rothmann's text is the repressive atmosphere of the first school day.

Life itself seems to possess a certain violence or, at least, the potential for violence in Brigitte Kronauer's story, where events can have either good or bad results; however, one never knows, and even if it ends well, a bad aftertaste seems to linger. In the very short story by Dieter Wellershoff, such an undercurrent of violence that is typical of life shows in the way a bedridden man still controls the life of his wife. Gerald Zschorsch's poem chronicles a confrontation with provocation and violent response, which is not just a literary expression of violence but also of a helpless feeling toward violence.

The way in which violence is accepted as part of everyday life and  in which violence is almost imperceptibly practiced by some human being to dominate others has often been questioned in the attempt to better understand what can go wrong between people. In retrospective, the emergence of fascism has also been considered in this way, often under the term daily fascism, which specifically refers to the suspicion that fascism was not dealt with adequately after the end of the Second World War and, therefore, still exists as a threat beneath the official society. Judith Kuckart's novel speculates about ramifications of historical fascism, the Nazi breeding program Lebensborn, as part of a young woman's life today. In his controversial novel, Thomas Hettche uses the image of the wound on the personal and political levels to evoke that political wound which National Socialism had inflicted on its own country: the German division. Many texts that deal with daily fascism presuppose knowledge of the Holocaust. The excerpt from Elfriede Jelinek's novel illustrates this. As the apparently idyllic mountain scenery reveals the violence of nature itself, there are discoveries that seem surreal, but if fascism and the Holocaust are considered in an understanding of the text, it seems very real—as an image of past and present fascist tendencies.

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