Can the Workers Understand My Poetry, or Am I a Worker?

by Ellen Wesemüller

translation by Rachel Sur

I. In the Rabbit Breeders Club

For as long as I’ve been writing—literature, that is—and handing in my work to writing workshops, my pieces have been called “pedantic.” I have to be careful that my novel doesn’t “devolve into a Bildungsroman,” say my peers, and sometimes they’ll invoke the academic word “pedagogical.” Occasionally a less scholarly word is dragged down from the attic, and “educational” trots out, with its East German smell or linoleum-crusted institutional hallway stink. My stories, apparently, are “too intellectual,” “too reflective,” “too claim-heavy.” I am “agenda-laden” and “ideological.” I am guilty, it seems, of being “suggestive,” of trying to “persuade” the reader, of “denouncing” my characters.

If someone ever means to say something kind, then he’ll call my work “engaged,” as in Sartre’s essay “Qu’est-ce que la littérature?” This word brings no relief, and always makes me feel that I must be writing for the same reason that someone presides over a rabbit breeders club, or promotes green energy, or tutors the disadvantaged children of Neukölln in fifth grade Ethics. No pride sets in, only shame, and I realize that what dwells inside the word “engaged”—unlike in Sartre’s time—is not the liberator’s fight, but some do-gooder’s plight of desperately trying to extract something positive from my text. I can’t help but think that this wrestling to find a few words of encouragement is a repressive sort of tolerance, the kind that feigns recognition with a benign smile, only to quietly turn away and gently slam the drawer shut, with me and my text inside.

These adjectives, which I jot down in the upper right corner of my notebook pages under the imaginary heading “Criticism That I Don’t Understand,” preoccupy me; they don’t leave me in peace. I can’t seem to process or make sense of the rejection they cast off. I can’t transform my work—not because I don’t know what ideological literature is, but because I don’t know what non-ideological literature is.

When I write, it’s because I want to reveal something about people and the social relationships that save or destroy them, something about the everyday lives in which they are entangled. I observe, write down, not to kill time, but so that others—indeed, as many as possible—will read what I have to say, sniff at it, feel something, think it over after, think about the world in which they live. I shape, in this way, how things make sense to me, and formulate assertions that, for the time being, I assume are right. I hope, by sinking my characters in circumstance, to be able to contribute something to insight-harvesting methods, truth-sniffing strategies, to how to fetch happiness and fend off unhappiness; to expose something about societal probabilities and improbabilities, about resistance and the gaps in the system; and, not least, to further my own insight by re-imagining my ideas by way of the reader, by exchanging ideas with others, by lived experience and the new insight it brings—all of which will lead me, then, to my next text.

If this were not literature, I would see no point in writing.

II. A Teaching Vacancy

Some say that even essays should not be “instructive.” I can report, based on my experiences above, that instructing, even for the sake of disabusing, is—to borrow the rating system of fashion magazines—out. The prefix “in-“ sounds spoon-fed, patronizing, passive; the root “struct” sounds insular, conformist, dogmatic. The other side of the rating chart, in turn, documents what is in: processing the world through literature for the purpose of active, emotional participation in the internal life of others, which can carry you, move you—and yes, even disturb you—but it shouldn’t bring you down, because you wouldn’t want that. Pleasure instead of premise. Identification instead of insight. Empathy instead of enlightenment. And though “learning” and “education” come with an implied teaching position, it turns out to be an empty space. It usually goes unsaid that the downgrading of instruction comes from the very institutions of the educated classes—the literary institutes, writing workshops, journals, feuilletons—actors in social fields dedicated to teaching in name, in which the doctrine of education is inherent. “So who’s the one being instructive here?” one could shout back at them. “Isn’t the constant instruction that one should not instruct the most instructive thing of all?”

But because no one shouts this, a paradox develops. On the one hand, “education” is stored in the collective memory as “a good thing,” though the underlying questions of who is teaching whom, teaching what and for what purpose, get ignored. On the other hand, an artificial wall is erected—perhaps precisely to distract us from the classist nature of education, the pseudo-freedom of the mind—that devalues instruction and separates it from education: Education, yes. Instruction, no.

III. Riding Shotgun in the Front-End Loader

No one has ever raised an eyebrow, inhaled deeply, and then, shaking his head, said to me: your writing is too political. Maybe my writing is not political at all. But maybe, I argue, this adjective doesn’t pass anyone’s lips because no one claims to know what political literature is truly supposed to be. This is all the more surprising considering that the crisis of our age—of financial market-dominated capitalism—has been accompanied by an expressed longing for political texts, a craving that clings, especially, to writers.

As for how to create a political text, a question that recurs with crisis-like regularity, one might respond: “Go to an unemployment office in this country, get in line, talk to the people in front of you and behind you, and write about it!” That sounds about right. But apparently it’s not so simple. Why not? Is it hard to make contact with people who live a different reality? Does it seem too “journalistic” to do research? Or has this approach already been proven futile?

One of the principal assertions of 20th-century Marxist literary theory was to understand literature as political whenever it captured and dealt with the so-called “worker’s reality.” It is here, in this reality, that the subject of exploitation is found—so the argument goes—and here that the resistance against it is deployed. Writing about these things meant writing politically.

As reasonable and straightforward as this sounds, it was not at all clear what practical steps should come from this. In the Weimar Republic, the left-leaning bourgeoisie intellectuals and working class writers in the Association of Proletarian-Revolutionary Authors were already arguing about whether the former could write authentically about the latter and, in turn, whether the latter—the workers, who were writing about themselves—could write aesthetically at all.

In the GDR, workers were no longer viewed as subjects of exploitation, in keeping with the doctrine, but conventional wisdom still held that writers should observe workers. And so, for example, every student at the Johannes R. Becher Institute in Leipzig had to intern at a workplace. Institute alumnus Ronald M. Schernikau recounts what is at once the most touching and most tragic example of the failure of reflection theory in his book, Die Tage in L., in which he ponders the impact of his extravagant shoes on his comrades, while feeling infinitely useless in the passenger seat of a front-end loader in an open-pit coal mine. There is no better example of anthropological zoology, of literary class-struggle tourism, or of the lack of oneness among the diverse milieus of the “workers’ and peasants’ state.”

No one, as of yet, has managed to make sense of this essential historical experience. Today it would appear that the only consequence is the inverse: no more taking to the streets, factories, or government bureaus whatsoever. Instead the question of political literature is elevated at podiums and dealt with in journals, exclusively.

This is all the more absurd given what appears to be the dramatic turnover of recent political incidents, all of which can be described, captured, pushed farther: the Arab Spring, the anti-nuclear movement in Japan, the Occupy movement, the general strikes in Spain and Greece, the riots and looting in England.

Elsewhere, however, is not here. While the Occupiers in New York and Tel Aviv are enthusiastically received in this country, including their essayistic treatment, somehow the Occupy movement in Germany ends up as cute.

This certainly has something to do with those who come together under the Occupy label in this country. It has something to do with the lethargy and lack of ideas of all those who don’t come together. But most of all, it has to do with the fact that no one can imagine that for once something downright new could happen here. And so, the amount of thinking about political literature becomes inversely proportional to the amount of actually doing something. As if the motto were: Say everything and do nothing.

The claim that political literature can nonetheless exist is both true and false simultaneously. Every text describes society and, in doing so, suggests something more or less obvious about the nature of social conflict, and about whether and how it can be solved. In this sense, there is no difference between Judith Herman’s a-couple-eating-Chinese-takeout-on-the-floor and Dietmar Dath’s cybervisions of three lovers who live in each other’s bodies. Both social portraits are political—one romantic-conservative, the other futuristic-communist.

It’s true that research does not automatically make a text political. Writing about “others” who are, at best, socially discriminated against, does not automatically make for political literature. Getting the critics to cheer that novelist so-and-so has now finally written her “social novel” could simply be a sign of successful marketing. Writing that is voyeuristic is not political. The author should instead ask herself how to draw connections between what she has seen and heard and her own life: do I feel that my writing also speaks for me?

IV. Can the Workers Understand My Poetry, or Am I a Worker?

Underlying the discourse about political literature are two false dichotomies, false because they are conceived as non-dialectic: between living and writing, between production process and product. The product (the writing) may be thought of as political without any examination of the writer’s involvement in the production and reproduction processes, the conditions under which the product comes into being, the social and economic relationships that situate and entangle the writer, and the writer’s own reflections about all this.

So went the headline in the literary supplement of Die Zeit: “How do writers live? Do they live at all, or do they only write?” Writers were asked: “Does your life get in the way of writing?”

As a writer who came to literature from politics, reading such headlines makes me want to ask these journalists whether they don’t know, or whether they deliberately withhold the knowledge, that the most important (and not just German) writers of the past century not only raised children and had to work for wages, but were also politically active—for example, in the Communist Party; they fought against National Socialism in Germany, against Fascism in Spain, against colonialism, and every now and then sat in prison, some even in concentration camps.

But some writers, too, nurture clichés about the writer as a writing, and not a living, creature. In her essay “Writing,” Marguerite Duras reports that she can only write when isolated, that she can’t carry out any long-term romantic relationships while composing her literary texts—only flings, at the most—and that she never divulges her unpublished manuscripts for the sake of discussion with anyone.

But are there no circumstances that require writers to do something other than write a novel, like, say, maintaining a relationship? Maybe. Having children? Sure. Living with others? It happens. But to organize politically in order to advance the revolution? This, to most of us, seems really a bit too much.

The truth is, sadly, that we can understand Marguerite Duras. It is a lot to take on. And it may not be possible in each and every phase of life. Perhaps then the question is not: writing OR living? Not even: writing OR revolution? But rather: How can I contribute to political upheaval using my capabilities—that is, by writing?

Though the separation of life from writing is false, it does fill a true need, which arises from the crisis-laden reality that everyone escapes and wants no part of. I, too, began to write because I falsely assumed that writing is not work. But writing a novel is Work, and not, as I hoped, Not Work. Not only is it not Not Work, but sometimes I even think that artists train themselves in how to self-govern, a practice that can later be implemented in other arenas. We practice how to describe our work as pleasure and not as work, and if we don’t have fun, it’s our own fault. We practice how to not get paid for what we do—for publications, readings and lectures—and we barely get paid for our published books. We practice how to constantly mobilize ourselves, how to be our own harshest critics, how to set the alarm willingly even on Saturdays and Sundays, how to establish timelines and develop objectives, how to network and apply for stipends, competitions, prizes and residencies, and, if that weren’t enough, how to create a financial basis for ourselves. We practice this not by choice—we are left with little choice. And when this doesn’t work out for everyone, which anyway it doesn’t for most—because it always seems that there are too many of us here, because it’s not in the plan that all who want to express themselves artistically and make a living from it will be able to do so, because the market shapes demand, because there is no basic income guarantee—then this we, which was never really one, splits apart. Some get a contract with a big publishing house, some go back to regular paid work or, as they say, get a “real” job, while others get money from their parents or grandparents.

All this is an instruction manual for the start-ups of tomorrow. Or, better yet, we are the start-ups of tomorrow. And tomorrow is today.

And though I’m doing what I want to be doing and it actually shouldn’t feel like a job, I feel empty and angry and confused with this constant self-evaluation, with grading myself up and down along with the others, most of whom mean well, who lead and take part in this critique, all so that I, in the meanwhile, can practice and prime myself for the criticism that will one day show up in the book reviews.

Sometimes I’d like a punch card and cafeteria, like my father once had. Then I would greet the cafeteria lady every day by name, and she would greet me back, and my train would always head there and back, and, really sorry, but I’d never be able to pick up the kids.

But I have no punch card and no cafeteria. I never even had an office. I have no children and no one else lives at home, and when I’m not there, it bothers no one. And the truth is, sadly, that in circumstances like these, negation doesn’t help much.

So what to do? In the discourse about political literature, there is the notion that one can write “politically” without having to work and live politically. This is of course absurd, since one would never insinuate that a cashier practices “political cash collection”; a mason, “political wall building”; a bank employee, “political account opening”; unless they operated politically in their respective places of work—in other words, unless they understood their fate as something other than fate, and recognized and fought for their interests in the workplace, and joined forces with others to promote these interests.

Yet this is precisely what “political writing” never means. It refers to the content, to the language, maybe even to how writers talk about their language, but not to collective cooperation in the work process. But so far my attempts to compose a piece of writing with others have come to nothing. If I ask around, people just smile back politely, then gracefully change the subject, and by the time I notice it’s always too late.

This is not the artists’ fault. It’s a reaction to the reward system of the literary industry, which only rewards individuals. Authorship must remain discernable, dividable, discretely appraisable. By no means does “political literature” in this discourse mean collective action against one’s working conditions. With regard to this, the musician and transgender activist Terre Thaemlitz said: "The iconic struggling artist who volunteers her work is a scab, but does not know it. If demanding payment for our labor means culture industries would collapse, then so be it."

This would all be very devastating if it weren’t, by deduction, telling us exactly what to do: to collaborate, to question our production conditions, to stop being complacent. Walter Benjamin said that “true literary activity cannot aspire to take place in a literary framework.” For that it might be necessary to write things other than the requisite and championed novel. Pamphlets, for example. Posters or postcards. For that it might be necessary to explore other means of production—self-publication, E-books, blogs—beyond the publishing world and its hierarchical paths that not everyone can climb. For that, ultimately, it might be necessary to interact and ally with others.

In order to establish what is political literature today, in order to say whether someone writes politically, the question can’t be: Can I understand the workers? Or: Can the workers understand my poetry? But rather: Am I a worker?