Tuesday, January 22, 2013

die Aufgabe

“Was Wunder, da sie ihre Funktion darin haben, diesen Typ mit sich selbst zu versöhnen und jene Identität zwischen Berufs- und Privatleben herzustellen, die von diesen Leuten unter dem Namen »Menschlichkeit« verstanden wird, in Wahrheit aber das eigentlich Bestialische ist, weil alle echte Menschlichkeit – unter den heutigen Verhältnissen - nur aus der Spannung zwischen jenen beiden Polen hervorgehen kann. In ihr bilden sich Besinnung und Tat, sie zu schaffen ist die Aufgabe jeder politischen Lyrik, und erfüllt wird sie heute am strengsten in den Gedichten von Brecht.”
[It is surprising that their function is to reconcile this type of person to himself, and to establish that identity of professional and private life which these men understand by the name “humanity” but which is in truth the genuinely bestial, since authentic humanity—under present conditions—can arise only from a tension between these two poles? In this tension, consciousness and deed are formed. To create it is the task of the all political lyricism, and today this task is most strictly fulfilled by Bertolt Brecht’s poems.]
--Walter Benjamin, “Die Linke Melancholie [zu Erich Kästners neuem Gedichtbuch]” (1931; trans. Ben Brewer, italics mine)

In his essay criticizing the poetic work of Erich Kästner, Benjamin comments on the "task of all political lyricism [die Aufgabe jeder politischen Lyrik]," which follows up some recent conversations I had had regarding the conceptual terrain of the idea of the "task" at hand in thinking about the work of the poem, or of lyric poetry (more generally of art or writing). It emerges more clearly in relation to Benjamin's reference to the term that the term--the task, the idea of the vocation of the poetry--is itself to be regarded with skepticism. This task is not the type of vocation (Beruf) that Benjamin imagines to need suspending from private life (Privatleben) in the first part of the above statement, but is instead defines the function of maintaining "tension" (Spannung) against "establishing an identity" (Identität herstellen). I have found the work of the maintenance of tension to be something that requires the cover of other forms of affective work that do not usually receive credit for having a function in and of themselves (something like "beneath the cover of one," a poetic fragment I recovered recently in a pile of old books from earlier poetry-writing days). But I think what Benjamin imagines, and uses Brecht as an example of--which, in fact, Brecht is so often taken as an example of, by Eich, by Enzensbeger, by Muller--is the dissolution of the thing that functions as the "cover of one," a dissolution that allows for the real clarity of the political message to be illuminated even as it engages in this tension. That there is no tolerance for the "cover of one," for what we might consider that non-dialectical element, is not something that perhaps gets admitted, not something that well-meaning theorists intentionally thwart, but it does always happen on the way, in a way not at all dissimilar to how the task (Aufgabe) emerges here both in opposition to and as an extension of the Berufsleben
Although I would not offer the same utopian figure of the "search for a shared new language," as Zafer Senocak does in his essay "The Concept of Culture and its Discontents" (Atlas of a Tropical Germany: Essays on Politics and Culture, 1990-1998, trans. Leslie A. Adelson, U Nebraska Press, 2000), which functions similarly to above, to define and re-assign the task, I do appreciate the impulse that this is organized against, namely the "dialectically cast mode of thought" that describes civilization and the civilizing processes. Perhaps it is not so much the truth of the dialectic that remains such a powerful and compulsive idea, but in fact the way that its engagement with tension often (always?) involves the employment (or awareness) of a safety relief valve.

No comments: