Words Against the Ruin of the World: Reflections on the Language of Christa Wolf

Anita Raja on Christa Wolf

In the work of Christa Wolf—from the very beginning—there is a passionate drive to tell stories, and, at the same time, a declared distrust of language, a radical critique of aesthetic forms. There is no ruin in the world that is not in some way also nestled in the words we use to speak the world. There is no aesthetic form that, in giving form to what was, does not also in some way suffocate experience in its grip. “As it happened cannot be told,” writes Wolf in Reflections on Christa T. (1968). That is to say: the aesthetic forms we have at our disposal never tell us how it really was. Because in the world there is a spirit of death—a mortal tendency—that works through simplification, impoverishment, the stiffness of structures. While a story reveals, it also inevitably conceals. Its internal laws require it to silence what would ruin the very workings of word, sentence, story.

This position already appears in the stories of the 1960s and is set out with clarity in Reflections on Christa T. Who was Christa T.? Who had she been? How is it possible to enclose a life in a story? The more writing chases after a life, the more it loses the warmth of living things, it grows distant. Every effort to draw closer is thwarted by the aesthetic necessity of distance, by the fact that there is no word of narration that is not presented after life is complete, like a tombstone. Writing carries within itself the same alienating will as the institutional forms within which individual lives, instead of unfolding in all their fullness, complexity, plurality, end up crippling themselves, giving up, blocking themselves, choking.

With this key, the work of Christa Wolf can be read from two perspectives. On the one hand, she strains literary forms to avoid the traps of poetics and fit the fullness of life onto the page. On the other, she approaches, to the extent that it is possible, what appears to be the natural limit of the capacity to speak; she stretches that limit, at the risk of taking fright and drawing back, whether vanquished or complicit.

Having decisively chosen the path of anti-naturalism and separated herself from the conventions of realism and socialist realism, Christa Wolf reworks the best of the critical interventions on the novel-form that distinguish the twentieth century; bending them to suit her own purposes, giving form to anomalous texts that retain the pleasure of storytelling without drawing back toward the conventions of the nineteenth-century novel. This project, though highly experimental, is always performed with virtuosity, without diminishing readability. The reason, naturally, rests in the fact that experimentalism is not an end in itself, but the result of logics internal to the narration.

Having completed these introductory words, some of the principal features of Wolf’s writing can now be identified.

First of all, the codified pronominal system—narration in the first or third person—is strained from within and, in some works, completely overcome. The realm in which Christa Wolf works is that which she calls “the difficulty of saying ‘I.’” I is a pronoun that refers to an unrepeatable unicum, but also to a plurality. Within the limits of the “grammar of the speakable,” to say I is impossible, since I is a layered structure made up of coexisting voices, often expressing themselves simultaneously; voices that came into being at different times and in different periods of life, or that bear down unexpressed, silenced by force, symptoms of illness, or discontent. The consequence is the anomalous function of personal pronouns in the texts of Christa Wolf. The narrating I can become a you, a she. The we with which the I identifies can slip into a you when that identification ceases. Patterns of Childhood (1976) is important in this respect. The story is the result of the division of one person into three: the I of the narrating voice; the you; the third person, Nelly. To give form to the writing with which to relate her past, the narrator faces the necessity of dividing herself into three. The only traditional I to appear in the text is formulated by a third person, the child Nelly. The adult who writes and remembers and tells her story as two people can no longer consider herself an I, a unified personality, a homogenous mental construction.

The same narrated material bears the effects of the plurality of the narrating character and of the different layers through which it is composed. Here it progresses through complicated, enfolding, compact periods that hold everything together; here through fragmentary time, and fragmented sentences. Often the most common words seem to graze, layer by layer, from one period to another, slipping through the meaning that has accumulated over time. The syntax is either complex, with lengthy clauses that grow vertiginously distant from the primary proposition, or it is broken into subordinate clauses that interrupt the discourse. The materializing narrative shifts seamlessly into indirect discourse, shifting audaciously even, with abrupt passages from one character to another. Direct discourse and indirect discourse are frequently inextricable, each originating in the other in swift prose. The story itself is generally made up of pieces splintered off from different periods of the character’s life. It is only through the contingent connections between fragments that a unity is secured, bringing together “this,” “here and now,” to “that,” to “the other.” What she attempts is to experiment with “the grammar of manifold simultaneous relations.” The writing separates, differentiates, and is nevertheless a writing in which “this” coexists with “the other”; a writing that imitates the indissolubility of reality, the confusion of what has happened, the chance of confusing this/other.

Her work always displays its fabrication, often in doing so achieving an equilibrium between the suspension of disbelief, identification, and alienation. The I of the author declares her act of writing, she does not hide herself. In all of her books Christa Wolf introduces writing directly into the narrative sequence: Patterns of Childhood, No Place on Earth, Cassandra, and so forth.

But this operation reaches its peak with Conditions of a Narrative: Cassandra (1983) in the choice to deliver to her readers, as an integral piece of the story, the process that led her to craft it. It is the entire literary workshop that forms the work; it is the whole loom on which the word is worked through weft and warp to gain its full weight, rather than a single long thread that passes through the warp; and it is the making of the work that is offered as a story that is essential to the story itself.

In this sense, the fourth lesson of Conditions is exemplary. On the one hand, it is a writing that speaks of itself; on the other hand, in doing so, it makes a new writing. We are accustomed to theoretical discourse as the linear advance from a thesis and selected evidence—what is useful is offered in support, what is disruptive is eliminated—in rigorous progression, according to a precise framework. Here, instead, we are disoriented by a sort of spiraling course that encompasses the most disparate materials, without any regard for chronological order. Wolf’s work on texts does not preserve any of the elements that might characterize a “scientific” method. An important example is her analysis of Ingeborg Bachmann’s poem “Explain to Me, Love.” She offers us a different philology—one carried out not at a desk, but “right now, while I am raking the lawn, clearing flower beds, trimming the hedge in the front yard.” What is conveyed to us is a thinking that is conjoined with doing and that relates the unexpected contact between the time and place of Cassandra and the time and place of Bachmann within an anomalous reflection, consumed between external actions, cooking, baking, alarming news from the papers and television, varied and frenzied readings, visits, conversations. It’s a different form of reflection that offers results differently. It tends to convey truth not as a frozen, unequivocal outcome, but rather as the vital warmth of a process that is bursting forth, tangled up, and always in progress, and as such, that bears some trace of the life that set it on its way. In this writing what counts most is not the validity of the critical analysis of Bachmann’s poem, but the story of a sudden understanding. A sudden understanding precipitated by a great mass of coexisting material that arranges itself in a new way, in a renewed language, with a new sense of existence and its possible forms.

The practical fracture point of given forms is, save for rare exceptions, the female character. The pursuit of a vital language to counter the structural necrophilia leads women down a dangerous route through the male citadel: which is to say, the set of standards and prohibitions with which patriarchy historically constructed its mortuary rule. It is a cognitive path that goes from pure subalternity to power, to the desire to be in the limelight at the heart of that power, to the discovery of an autonomous voice that manifests itself first as a symptom of illness, and then as the discovery of one’s own independent capacity to see and to speak (Cassandra is the best-known example of this narrative course, which is already in evidence in Divided Sky). At the outset the problem seems to be, for the female character, to seize upon her own capacity for choice, and to commit to the task of refusing all that smothers her delight in the world, all that strips her of life. But then everything becomes more complex. The places that appear to be liberated, that seem like vital spaces, evince increasingly apparent contradictions. Falsehoods, distortions, unfounded beliefs, verisimilitudes that replace the truth seem to spread everywhere, dominating sentiments, memory, emotions, reason, making them seem mere appearances. As such, in Cassandra and in Conditions, attaining autonomy in writing, especially for women, ends up coinciding with the struggle to direct increasingly radical questions at the language of the male citadel to combat the blindness and the sense of death produced by military power. The conclusion of Conditions is that writing cannot but mean negating, refusing the militaristic language of the citadel by posing increasingly radical questions. And the effort does not in itself guarantee success. In her vicissitudes of rebellion and rebirth, the female character risks sickness and death because of increasing uncertainty as to whether there is some elsewhere capable of receiving her at the end of her journey. Still, the strength of the prophetic voice remains, the voice that welds together moments of history, reorganizing them according to a view that is “other” to that of power.

It is this voice that fails in Medea. Cassandra, in the end, refuses to live on in a male elsewhere that once seemed full of promise, though she retains some hope that another elsewhere—home to a community that might even be a cause for which to speak and place from which to speak—would once more be sought, by trial and error. In Medea, instead, this theme is brought to a more extreme conclusion. Here there is no longer a quest, perhaps there is no longer any need to speak, or to plead. While Cassandra is an integrated person who must achieve autonomy, Medea is a constitutionally autonomous person. She has no doubt about the nature of power, of any power. She already knows that her capacity to get to the bottom of others’ thoughts makes her an unbearable mirror for the powerful and will make her a scapegoat. She is a woman who acts with the lucidity of someone who already knows that she is at the margins.

That knowledge has effects at the level of style and narrative structure. In Cassandra, the narrating I is drawn as a central participant in everything, as a crossroads between different, multiple lives, different times; an I that experiences different phases that communicate with difficulty (the time of Scamander, the time of her childhood home); a you that serves to say what is other to her, and at the same time a part of her (Myrina, Polyxena, Aeneas); the others who don’t exist as others, but as traces in the consciousness of Cassandra.  

In Medea there are instead six voices, six different I’s, each telling a different truth, giving their version of what happened. Vanished even are the “coexisting points of view” of Summer Play (1989), a book in which all conventions are shattered, and the omniscient narrating voice, the narrating I-we, and finally, the third person can exist simultaneously, in a final attempt to recognize each other within a community of resistance. In Medea, every possible community is broken apart, every possible communication is destined to fail. Medea does not reengage the others in herself; she is the discursive object of others, of those who impose upon her their version of history, their will to narrate, their condition of fragmentation without the possibility of amalgamation within one voice capable of seeing beyond. Medea is pushed back into the small corner of her I to defend her truth, her dignity, alone. In the final lines, speaking transforms into the broken formulations of cursing; the final limit of communicative possibility for the vanquished.

What is left for me. To curse them. My curse upon you all. My curse especially upon you: Akmas. Creon. Agameda. Presbon. May a hideous life be your lot, and a miserable death. May your howling mount up to heaven and leave it unmoved. I, Medea, put my curse on you. Where can I go. Is it possible to imagine a world, a time, where I would have a place. There’s no one I could ask. That’s the answer.

That is exactly what happens to Ingeborg Bachmann’s Franza. (“Let the whites be cursed,” according to the citation of The Book of Franza quoted in Conditions). The dramatic denouement of a life is clear from the statement that there is no place, no time in the world in which the I of Medea could live at ease. Proof? That every possible community from which she could draw a new map of possible places, possible times, is swept away. In Medea there is no longer a place, a “somewhere,” a community to feel connected to; at most there is a form of solidarity with other women. Thus, if Cassandra refused to go elsewhere so that she could stay and bear witness, Medea stays because there is no elsewhere. When no one listens to your questions, when there is no place in the name of which to pose questions, is there any sense in asking them?

The other aspect of Christa Wolf’s work remains constant and ready, emerging from the pages of greatest pessimism as the ultimate work of writing. To write is to reach the blind spot of every pursuit, of every interrogation, before the dark edges of the experience of life. To write is to descend into the roots of the destructive drive (think of Accident: A Day’s News, of 1987), to stare into the face of horror, and to try to return to the surface with a renewed taste for living, in spite of it all. In spite of the common grounding of speaking and cursing:

I, dear A., and no doubt you too, believe in the efficacy of such a curse, and we must do everything we can (to erase its effects). By writing, yes; but how can we write under the glowing sun of reason; in this rigorously cultivated, arrogant, and deciphered landscape, robbed of our possessions, including our word, which could have the power to cast spells? This, too, is a question which can only be approached by asking further questions.

Even only to ourselves. Every question, even the most extreme, has an affirmative value. And even extreme negation, at the very moment that it can be formulated and can therefore get away from the blindness that characterizes the world of the citadel, is, somehow, something that must not be lost.

translated from the Italian by Rebecca Falkoff