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The western side of the Pergamon Altar; Pergamon Museum in Berlin
The western side of the Pergamon Altar; Pergamon Museum in Berlin | Wikipedia (no restrictions)

Peter Weiss and Political Reflections of a Novel Kind

Peter Weiss’ ‘The Aesthetics of Resistance, Vol I’ is a post-mortem on the failure to prevent Nazism and an exploration of how art can be a form of resistance.

The Aesthetics of Resistance, Volume I
Peter Weiss
Duke University Press
June 2005

For the reader, The Aesthetics of Resistance, Volume I is as much an act of political memory and learning as it is for the novel’s narrator. What is remembered – the unsuccessful attempt to repeat in Germany the Bolshevik’s October Revolution and the 1936-39 civil war in Spain – creates the space for political education in the art of resistance, beginning with a visit to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. The narrator goes there with two others and together they contemplate the friezes taken from an altar in the ancient Greek city of Pergamon (in what is now western Turkey) and reconstructed in the German capital.

The friezes, depicting the mythological defeat of the Giants by the Olympian gods, contain a space where the only mortal to ally himself with the Olympians, Heracles, once stood. Only the paw of the lion’s skin that once cloaked Heracles remains in situ and the vacant place becomes emblematic of the need for people to create their own senses of heroism and struggle. This has now become an urgent responsibility thrust upon the narrator and his friends Coppi and Heilmann, three young men who are facing the reality of Nazi power in Germany.

The unnamed narrator is one of the very few non-fictional characters in the book but the name of his friend, Hans Coppi, is that of a Communist who joined an anti-Nazi resistance group in 1941 only to be arrested and executed in December of the following year. He was 26 years old. The other friend, Horst Heilmann, was seven years older when he was arrested and executed for the same reason.

In Peter Weiss’ novel, the battles depicted on the friezes express the struggle between social classes, and the deaths of the defeated warriors record the risks entailed in resisting injustice. Political struggle in dangerous times becomes comparable to the achievement of Heracles in returning to Thebes with the captured Cerberus and a caged eagle, icons ‘in the system of coercion and menace’. Thebans can see the scabby legs of Cerberus and the feathers of the bird that persecuted Prometheus; the truth, in other words, can be made visible.

The Aesthetics of Resistance, Volume 1 is a novel, but most of its characters and the events they live through are real. The narrator and his parents, the three principal but depersonalized and fictional characters, function as portals for channels of political thinking; flows of discourse about history, art, philosophy, and sexuality. Their presence and purpose in the novel are to structure responses to the underlying question of why Hitler was not stopped before he unleashed a cascade of violence and genocide across Europe and beyond.

The novel is a post-mortem on the failure of communists and liberals to prevent the triumph of Nazism in 1933 and an exploration of how art can be experienced as a form of resistance. For instance, the narrator reads Kafka’s The Castle and the story leaves him feeling not hopeless but ashamed, knowing that ‘speaking our mind was as unthinkable for us as the road to the Castle was for the surveyor.’ Hannah Arendt‘s response is not dissimilar in the way that she too rejects the conventional reading of The Castle as a tale of despair and futility.

The narrator joins The International Brigade to support the struggle against Franco’s Nazi-backed forces and although allied to the Communists, he is aware of tensions with the anarchists in Catalonia and the Soviet Union’s agenda for persecuting them. The conflict between state communism and what was called – before the word ‘libertarian’ was hijacked by the Right in the US – libertarian socialism is sensitively handled. The reader is left wanting to know about Max Hodann, Willi Bredel, and Willi Munzenberg, who are both characters in the novel and individuals who really existed. Information about them is provided in the book’s glossary.

As Franco’s army gains ascendancy, news of the Moscow Show Trials reaches the narrator and he is understandably conflicted. He knows in his heart that a ‘confession’ from a stalwart Bolshevik like Bukharin, admitting to preparing a fascist coup d’état, is nonsense. He departs from Spain for France, the year is 1939, and the future looks bleak. The story, cerebral and absorbing, continues in Volume II of The Aesthetics of Resistance (review forthcoming).

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