Friday, 25 November 2016

On how the poetry of Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973) aims for a new language to reflect a new world

Like any other author writing after World War II, Ingeborg Bachmann would have been no doubt confronted with Theodor W. Adorno’s famous dictum: “Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch”[1], that is to say that after Auschwitz no new world - in an intellectual or aesthetic sense - was possible at all, whatever the goals of the poem that tried to create it. As we can see from Bachmann’s pronouncement in Das dreißigste Jahr that there can be “keine neue Welt ohne neue Sprache”, she disagreed with Adorno - proposing instead that a new world was possible, even if only through a shift to a new poetics. Much of Bachmann’s oeuvre can be seen in the light of grappling with this problem, and of seeking its potential solution and expression (“wir brauchen Musik. Das Gespenst ist die lautlose Welt”[2]).

This search for a voice fitting for the new world seems in many respects coterminous with Bachmann’s search for her own voice. In her third Vorlesung she wrote „ich spreche, also bin ich“[3], a riposte to the familiar Descartesian assertion cogito ergo sum: i.e. that it is not thinking, but expression of thought - speech, and with it writing, - which binds our sense of Ich together, self-reflection and self-creation in one. In this sense Bachmann’s life became what Manfred Jurgensen calls “eine rollenhafte Verwirklichung des dichterischen Werkes”[4]. It is certainly true that it preoccupies her to the end right from her earliest poetry onwards - for instance, Entfremdung, written in 1948-9, which describes a trapped, oppressed, concrete-less existence, but crucially an existence in which language is trapped as much as anything else. ‘In den Bäumen kann ich keine Bäume mehr sehen’, she begins with a textbook instance of litotes. The trees are positively asserted as being present and concrete, in that we know the poet can see them in order to be able to refer to trees in which she can no longer see trees. Yet her very inability to see them as trees undermines their present state: as though the word no longer fits, as though something has been taken from the stability that definite nouns bring to an object. This recurs in the same line’s inversion at the poem’s end, ‘ich kann in keinem Weg mehr einen Weg sehen’, constructed slightly differently as though the poet is turning or looking in a new direction, but ultimately expressing the identical sentiment. The first and the last line point in the same direction, or rather the same lack of direction. The sense that things once might have made is undone, even the quintessential German Naturgedicht seems to have been unwritten (‘vor meinen Augen flieht der Wald,/vor meinem Ohr schließen die Vögel den Mund’), and even those delights which at first seem to have retained their taste no longer satisfy the mouth (‘Die Früchte sind süß, aber ohne Liebe’). Concrete signifiers (the word ‘Bäume’) no longer fit the things they describe; an act of violence has split the two from each other, language rendered a thing to feel guilt over. The post-war landscape saw many examples in prose of analysts examining the bankruptcy of the German language, from Sternberger, Storz and Süskind in Aus dem Wörterbuch des Unmenschen (Hamburg 1957) to Karl Korn in Sprache in der verwalteten Welt (Olten 1959); Bachmann investigated along the same lines, but in verse.
This un-doing of German poetry as it once was - a violation of speech - recurs in sobering form in Früher Mittag from the Die gestundete Zeit collection of 1953: in the middle of this death-soaked poem, host to startling imagery such as Germany’s ‘enthaupteter Engel’, a “surrealistischer und esoterischer Bildwelt”[5], we come across two distinct strophes with the strong ring of a Volkslied about them, from the scene-setting (‘sieben Jahre später’) to the rhyme scheme (ABCBD, where D half-rhymes with C) to the regularity of the iambic trimeter (in einem Totenhaus), and finally to the direct lift from Wilhelm Müller’s 1824 poem Der Lindenbaum, in the line ‘am Brunnen vor dem Tore’ and the allusions to Eichendorff and Goethe. Here as the sun shines over a ruined nation, the ties to what Germany once was remain visibly there, albeit distorted, in the lime-blossom trees (‘die Linde’, the archetypal lyrical motif), in the classical mythos (the ‘Adler’ from the punishment of Prometheus), in the fairy-tale imagery of the ‘Märchenvogel’, in the Romantic description of the sun as ‘der mattglänzende Tagmond’, here turned once again to a litotes by an inability to name the sun for what it is but only as defined by what it isn’t (the ‘day-moon’), despite the wrongness of the moon’s pre-eminence, given that the moon depends on the sun for its light. This recurs throughout the poem in various guises (even ‘Henker’, one of the more explicitly post-catastrophe word choices, echoes Karl Kraus’ bastardization of ‘Dichter- und Denker-Land’, namely ‘Richter und Henker’: from thinkers to hangmen).
From the very start - as we have already seen in Früher Mittag, but even in lines she wrote while still very young (‘Ich bin das Immerzu-ans-Sterben-Denken’) - Bachmann’s poetic art is soaked in death. This comes to the fore in countless places (she calls the world itself an illness[6]), but is perhaps best put in the poem Dunkles zu sagen, where she compares herself to Orpheus with his lyre descending into the Underworld: not necessarily an original image, but what is striking is the assertion that ‘Wie Orpheus spiel ich/auf den Saiten des Lebens den Tod…weiß ich nur Dunkles zu sagen’. Though she lives, she can only sing of death, of no longer being able to perceive the world as an alive person would (dying eyes are another recurring motif, from ‘dein immer geschlossenes Aug’ to ‘Wir haben die toten Augen gesehn’). Death, and the language of death, are all she knows (‘Unsere Gottheit,/die Geschichte, hat uns ein Grab bestellt/aus dem es keine Auferstehung gibt’ (Botschaft), or later, in Curriculum Vitae, ‘Immer die Nacht./Und kein Tag’). Sometimes this focuses on herself - as in the above Dunkles zu sagen, or lines like ‘wir müssen schlafen gehn, Liebster’ from Das Spiel ist aus - but on other occasions the ‘wir’ of the German-speaking world, even the West, as a holistic entity, means she speaks for a much broader canvas. An example would be Große Landschaft bei Wien, in which she states, simply, and without fanfare, ‘Asiens Atem ist jenseits’, not long after declaring that ‘ihren Atem spür ich nicht mehr auf den Wangen!’. The Muse would seem to have left the West as a whole, in shame perhaps, and has rather fled east; Bachmann foresees the end of her entire civilisation’s hegemony (‘zweitausend Jahre sind um, und uns wird nichts bleiben’) and howls into the void.
Yet after all that, at the end of Früher Mittag, Bachmann tells us ‘das Unsägliche geht, leise gesagt, übers Land’. The paradox of an unsayable thing having been said is entirely of a piece with Bachmann’s earlier de-signifying of ‘Bäume’ in the same sentence that she confirms them to be ‘Bäume’. It has been said, however softly; words to confront this catastrophe which words cannot possibly confront would seem to exist, in that they comprise Bachmann’s poem. The unsayable having been said, the day marches on as it has to; this finds an effective pairing with ‘Das Unerhörte/ist alltäglich geworden’ in Alle Tage, as though that which can never be said and that which can never be heard are coterminous. An expression has been given to the bleakness of this catastrophe, for even an attempt that ultimately asserts language’s inadequacy is better than no attempt at all; in fact, it disproves its own thesis purely by its existence. Where Stefanie Golisch writes of Bachmann that “[sie] erscheint in einer Zeit profunder literarischer Desorientierung als rettender Engel der Poesie in deutscher Sprache”[7], we may well see her as a replacement for the ‘enthaupteter Engel’ of Früher Mittag: poetry that laments where sense and language has gone may bring its own sense and language to the table.
This notion of ‘das Unsägliche’ - which it is a poet’s solemn duty to say, however difficult - haunts most of Bachmann’s poetry, whether she’s asking what will happen ‘wenn die Stimme bricht’ in Menschenlos or, indeed, interrogating herself in Wie soll ich mich nennen?. This latter instance sees her once more vocalising the inadequacies of language, how it can draw near to the desired expression only to miss its mark (‘Ein Wort nur fehlt! Wie soll ich mich nennen,/ohne in anderer Sprache zu sein’). The same poem sees her return to the steadfast imagery of a tree (‘einmal war ich ein Baum und gebunden’), a past that is behind her and is no more. Yet, again, even in this inadequacy she finds the comfort that there is still a song there: ‘aber in mir singt noch ein Beginnen/ - oder ein Enden’. This song cannot find its expression in the everyday, in regular language; only poetry (the ‘anderer Sprache’) can achieve that. In Jurgensen’s words: “Bachmanns Identität ist die andauernde Suche nach einer anderen Sprache. Dichten wird ihr zum Prozeß: Entwicklung und Rechtsprechung in einem. In der Dichtung kann sie „in anderer Sprache...sein“; in literarischer Verwirklichung gibt sie sich selbst zu erkennen[8].
Possibly her most powerful exclamation in this vein comes at the end of her poem Rede und Nachrede from the Anrufung des Großen Bären collection of 1956, in which Bachmann simply says ‘Mein Wort, errette mich!’ The entire poem has been concerned with words’ effects for good or ill, and sees Bachmann spurning what she sees as more bestial utterances, words of a lesser sort, and exhorting the words within her to come forth. Only then - as she sees it - can she be saved. This exhortation lives out in various of her works; come what may, hell or high water, there is a kind of salvation in slipping into this ‘anderer Sprache’, in writing about the world around her and recording it (‘wir werden Zeugen sein’).
In her very latest poems - from the mid-1960s - Bachmann returned, it would seem, to the inexpressibility which preoccupied her youth. Most of her poems of this era end on some kind of declaration of something not having been spoken or written (‘Es schreibt diesen Satz keiner,/der nicht unterschreibt’), or to denouncing words themselves (‘leeres Geroll/von Silben, Sterbenswörter’),  or to the merest glimmer of hope in a dreaded silence (‘Du sollst ja nicht weinen,/sagt eine Musik./Sonst/sagt/niemand/etwas’). Her last poem, Keine Delikatessen, expresses the same restless dissatisfaction as an early utterance like Entfremdung’s ‘ich bin satt vor der Zeit/und hungre nach ihr’ does - and here it is very specifically language with which she continues to grapple. A suffocating contempt for the words she could rely on seems to diffuse this late work (‘Soll ich einen Gedanken gefangennehmen,/abführen in eine erleuchtete Satzzelle?/Aug und Ohr verköstigen/mit Worthappen erster Güte?/erforschen die Libido eines Vokals,/ermitteln die Liebhaberwerte unserer Konsonanten?’) - where words are mere morsels, nibbles with which to entertain the eye and ear, bound in the prison cell of a sentence. Jurgensen calls it the least characteristic of all her poems[9], and identifies this phase of her life as that point at which she turned away from poetry - indeed, embraced silence (her novel Malina does not come along until 1971, several years later). Christa Bürger, in turn, writes that auch der Weg der Lyrikerin Bachmann endet im Schweigen; sie hört in dem Moment auf, Gedichte zu schreiben, in dem sie entdeckt, daß in ihnen nicht das Unaussprechliche, das Mystische sich zeigt, sondern vielmehr ihre eigene souveräne Verfügung über die Kunstmittel[10]. In a similar - though not identical - vein, Achberger suggests that Bachmann turned away from poetry because her poems were not received in Germany for their “moral and philosophical imperatives”, but rather their “aesthetic qualities” and that as a result “the more [she] was feted and celebrated, the fewer poems she wrote”[11].
We might observe then, over the course of Ingeborg Bachmann’s life and work, at first a struggle to give voice to a very different kind of world following the Second World War and its various disasters, followed by a perhaps more conciliatory period - not without its conflict, but a period in which the conflict itself was recognisably fruitful in terms of the “neue Sprache” it yielded - and eventually yielding to poems of the Keine Delikatessen variety, its very title almost an outright ban on mere tidbits (or “Worthappen” as she calls them). Seeing that her time to be spent on poetry was up - just like the Western world’s time in Große Landschaft bei Wien - she lets the ‘neue Sprache’ go, and eventually takes a new direction into prose. But in doing so she leaves behind a body of work that ultimately vindicates the paradoxical act of giving voice to the impossibility of expression.


Bachmann, Ingeborg, WERKE, I: Gedichte/Hörspiele/Libretti/Übersetzungen; II: Erzählungen; III: Romane; IV: Essays/Reden/Vermischte Schriften/Anhang, Piper, 2. Auflage, 2010.

Secondary literature:
  1. Achberger, Karen R., Understanding Ingeborg Bachmann, University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
  2. Arnold, Heinz Ludwig (ed.), Ingeborg Bachmann, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft Darmstadt, 1984.
  3. Bartsch, Kurt, Ingeborg Bachmann, J.B. Metzlersche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1988.
  4. Beicken, Peter, Beck’sche Reihe Autorenbücher: Ingeborg Bachmann, C.H. Beck, 1988.
  5. Beicken, Peter, Ingeborg Bachmann: Literaturwissen, Reclam, 2001.
  6. Golisch, Stefanie, Ingeborg Bachmann zur Einführung, Junius, 1997.
  7. Jurgensen, Manfred, Ingeborg Bachmann: die Neue Sprache, Verlag Peter Lang, 1981.
  8. Mayer, Mathias (ed.), Interpretationen: Werke von Ingeborg Bachmann, Reclam, 2002.
  9. Oberle, Mechthild, Liebe als Sprache und Sprache als Liebe: Die sprachutopische Poetologie der Liebeslyrik Ingeborg Bachmanns, Verlag Peter Lang, 1990.
  10. Pichl, Robert, and Stillmark, Alexander (eds.), Kritische Wege der Landnahme: Ingeborg Bachmann im Blickfeld der Neunziger Jahre, Hora, 1994.

[1]Adorno, Theodor W., Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft, in Gesammelte Schriften Band 10.1: Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft I, „Prismen. Ohne Leitbild“, Suhrkamp, 1977.
[2]Bachmann, Ingeborg, Die wunderliche Musik, IV, 54.
[3]Bachmann, Ingeborg, Das schreibende Ich, IV, 225.
[4]Jurgensen, Manfred, Ingeborg Bachmann: die Neue Sprache, Verlag Peter Lang, 1981.
[5]Beicken, Peter, Beck’sche Reihe Autorenbücher: Ingeborg Bachmann, C.H. Beck, 1988.
[6]Die Welt ist zu einer Krankheit geworden, IV, 334.
[7]Golisch, Stefanie, Ingeborg Bachmann zur Einführung, Junius, 1997.
[8]Jurgensen, Manfred, Ingeborg Bachmann: die Neue Sprache, Verlag Peter Lang, 1981.
[10]Bürger, Christa, “Ich und wir. Ingeborg Bachmanns Austritt aus der ästhetischen Moderne,” in Text und Kritik: Sonderband: Ingeborg Bachmann (ed. Heinz Ludwig Arnold), Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft Darmstadt, 1984.
[11]Achberger, Karen R., Understanding Ingeborg Bachmann, University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

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