The Aesthetics of Resistance: Thoughts on Peter Weiss

In his three-part novel, Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (The Aesthetics of Resistance), published successively in 1975, 1978, and 1981,1 Peter Weiss accomplished for the working class what Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar did for feminist theory in 1979 and what Edward Saïd did for postcolonial studies in 1994.2 That is, he provided a sweeping reinterpretation of major elements of the Western cultural canon from the point of view of a hitherto marginalized perspective. To read this novel is to experience a re-education; to be receptive to it is to undergo an intellectual transformation.

The novel has long enjoyed a prominent place in the German intellectual left. Now that the first volume is finally available from Duke University Press in a superb English translation by Joachim Neugroschel (with a readable and engaging foreword by Fredric Jameson),3 Weiss’s work can finally emerge into the wider public sphere where it deserves to occupy a prominent space.

Weiss’s monumental novel is, first of all, a Bildungsroman, a novel in which the inner development of the hero is portrayed. Secondly, this is a historical novel that depicts and discusses the history of the European left from 1918 to 1945. Weiss based his novel on extensive research, and his portrayals of leftist activists is a work of memorialization, an enterprise carried out against the forgetfulness of history, and in particular against the way that written history tends to discount the vanquished. Third, the novel is a meditation on the way that visual art and literature can represent dissident worldviews against hegemonic political and cultural configurations, thereby ultimately empowering resistance. All three levels are united by a common working-class milieu that expresses itself in the narrative voice (the working-class hero of the Bildungsroman), the perspective of German communist movements or of popular liberators (in the historical narrative), and the interrogation of art and literature for the purpose of seeing how it depicts popular struggle or, at the very least, represents class oppression.

First, the Bildungsroman. Here, the problems Weiss poses are the following: By what stages can a working-class person who chooses to define himself as an intellectual appropriate the European cultural legacy that heretofore has been understood as belonging to the elite? How does such a person find a voice? For whom or against whom does he speak? “Coming to writing,” as Weiss portrays his narrator’s trajectory, requires a reworking of Western culture from the point of view of class analysis, whether it be the Pergamum friezes, surrealism, Franz Kafka’s Castle, or Géricault’s painting “The Raft of the Meduse.” The intellectual trajectory of the narrator (who remains nameless and is one of the only fictional characters of the work) is also the forging of a new pathway through familiar cultural monuments that the reader learns to see with new eyes. What is more, these discoveries are doubly exciting because the narrator is personally invested in them, in seeing how our cultural past matters for present struggles. The story of the writer’s awakening is also the story of how this work could be written. Unlike the heroes of his literary models (like the protagonist of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks), he has no stable home, no originating place. Rather, he finds his home in the international class struggle (136).  Another intertextual dimension is offered by the historical context. For example, in Vol. II, there are fascinating glimpses into the work habits of Bertolt Brecht, whose Swedish exile the narrator witnesses.

The second narrative line, the history of the European left, is threaded throughout the novel in the form of conversations with family, friends, co-workers and comrades-in-arms, in such a way that they become part of the work of memory necessary for the construction of a post-fascist world that could finally bring an end to working-class oppression. In Vol. I, we are offered a history of the Bremen uprising of 1918 from the point of view of the narrator’s father, who was a dockworker at the time. Vol. II gives us the Spanish civil war from behind the lines, at a military hospital (created in two successively requisitioned estate manors), and describes the anti-fascist activities of exiles who had taken a precarious refuge, first in Paris before the German occupation, then in neutral (but compromised) Sweden from 1939-44. Vol. III returns to Germany in 1942-45, and to the fate of (among others) the narrator’s two friends, Coppi and Heilmann, who were presented to us in the first pages of Vol. I. It is now five years later, and both are conspiring against the Nazi regime. Here the question of what can constitute German culture, of who will be able to speak for it after the war, begins to be discussed. Earlier, the narrator had remarked with some bitterness that the left could only unite when faced with the murderous opposition of Nazism; once the threat was removed, that unity fell apart once more. Those who stayed in Germany and actively fought the regime were decimated, robbing Germany of those who could have given it a new face after the war (239). On the other hand, the literature and art produced in exile was often formalistic, an escape rather than a confrontation with historical and political realities. Weiss’s presentation of the historical past within the format of conversations and even arguments makes history a part of “active memory” that can serve the future. In the final pages of the novel, the value of learning from the past (versus just going forward into a new future) is thrashed out in a debate between some of the surviving protagonists. German culture is shown to be in disarray, and soon to be further split by the geographical split of the country. Understanding The Aesthetics of Resistance would mean grasping how Weiss intends his work to make possible a new departure for German culture (as well as the culture of a reborn international left) on the basis of working through history, culture, and politics from a working-class perspective.

As the useful glossary by Robert Cohen at the back of the English translation makes clear, most of the characters and events in the novel are based on historical fact. One of Weiss’s projects is to rescue from oblivion people like Horst Heilmann (who was executed at the age of nineteen, after he had penetrated German military security and was passing information to the other side). The loss of those “who could have been the new face” of Germany after the war demands that the possibilities they offered be commemorated in a book, a book that can also make people want to act.4Aesthetics as resistance is the third, and central, topic of Weiss’s novel. The narrative begins with three friends (identified only by their last names) standing before the Pergamum friezes housed in Berlin’s Museum Island—Coppi and the narrator, both “already about twenty years old” and four years out of school, and Heilmann, the self-styled “Rimbaud” of the group, who is only 15. It’s September 22, 1937; Hitler is in power and Coppi has already spent a year in prison for distributing “writings inimical to the State.”5 The narrator is about to leave for Spain to fight with the partisans. They meet for one last time though they will remain united in spirit in the fight against fascism, which will take a fatal turn for two of them five years later, near the end of Vol. III. The friezes of the altar depict the mythical battle between the Olympian gods and the race of giants, sons of Gaia (Earth) who rebelled against Zeus. Brothers of the Titans, they attacked Olympus because Zeus had confined their brothers, the Titans, in Tartarus. The friezes show several contests from the battle, during which the giants fall in agony and defeat under the heel of the conquering Olympians.6 The three friends draw some surprising lessons from their museum visit, however. On the one hand they note the blank expression of the victorious gods in contrast to the pain and suffering expressed in the representation of the defeated rebels. Reflecting on the circumstance that the friezes were originally intended to celebrate the victory of the Greeks over their rebellious Gallic neighbors (the frieze was constructed under Eumenes II, who reigned from 195-159 BCE), the friends detect, in the very human representation of the vanquished, some sympathy for the common folk who, subjected and perhaps even enslaved, had to serve their Greek masters. Thus they “read” the frieze itself as an example of the aesthetics of resistance, imagining that the artists of the frieze were as eager to acknowledge the suffering of the oppressed population as to celebrate the elite who commissioned the work. Secondly, the friends focus on the figure of Herakles, who, according to myth, helped the gods to dispatch their enemies on this occasion, but later descended to earth and toiled among common mortals (the notorious twelve labors). In Herakles the three friends see the image of the liberator who becomes a role model for each of them as they engage the battle against fascism. The circumstance that almost no trace of their hero survives in the frieze (only the presence of his lion’s paw on the eastern frieze indicates his position next to Zeus) is interpreted by them as a sign that they must fill his place themselves.

It is characteristic of Weiss’s narrative style to mix different epochs and to explore parallelisms by using the device of dialogue. Once the Pergamum frieze has been discussed, it become a way of understanding the struggles of the present: just as the giants had nothing but stones and clumps of earth to fight with against gods who were heavily armed with spears and shields, the revolutionaries of 1918 also were unarmed against the forces that ultimately crushed them. Out of the friends’ discussion the insight emerges: “Heilmann said that works like those stemming from Pergamum had to be constantly reinterpreted until a reversal was gained and the earth-born awoke from darkness and slavery to show themselves in their true appearance” (44). This is to say that Weiss’s text manages to advance on all three levels at once, as cultural insights are applied to the ongoing political struggles and also feed the budding literary vocation of the narrator. For instance the long passages about Picasso’s “Guernica” are framed within a conversation among several members of the demobilized international brigade after the Republican defeat. As in the discussion around the Pergamum friezes, individual elements of the representation are translated into the iconography of ideological struggle: “we saw the Taurus as representing the endurance of the Spanish people, and the narrow-eyed, stiffly crosshatched horse as representing the hated war inflicted by fascism” (293). This technique of embedding close pictorial analysis within conversation allows Weiss to explore paintings in great detail, casting the reader into the role of a viewer. The effect of Weiss’s visually evocative prose is stunning, as picture after picture is conjured forth out of the text and endowed with a fresh meaning.

The translation by Joachim Neugroschel performs the difficult feat of preserving the integrity of Weiss’s style, characterized in this book by long sentences that often mix different historical periods and several different speakers. Like the Portuguese Nobel-prizewinning author José Saramago, Weiss prefers not to set off dialogue with diacritical marks, a technique that results in a flowing intermingling of present and past, of speech and narrative observation. Thus even stylistically, the novel accomplishes its work of memorialization by bringing memory forward into the present of the characters, an invitation to the reader to do the same for his/her own present when reading this account of 1918-45. This first volume also contains insights on modernist painting (dada, surrealism, and expressionism), Millet, and socialist realism, as well as the architect Gaudí; the authors discussed include Cervantes, Dante, Kafka (The Castle), Mayakovski, Heine, Hölderlin, Thomas Mann, and Brecht. But, until the next two volumes are translated, the reader will miss the equally fascinating discussions of Van Gogh, Eugène Sue, Restif de la Bretonne, Bruegel, Meisonnier, and Rimbaud, as well as the lengthy sections of Vol. II that give an insight into the Swedish exile of Brecht. Finally, the descriptions of the sculpture and architecture of Angkor Wat in Vol. III provide a kind of bookend to the conversations about the Pergamum sculptures that begin the novel.

As W.G. Sebald has noted in his essay on Weiss (published in English in the collection On the Natural History of Destruction), the art works that figure most prominently in The Aesthetics of Resistance are works that show humans in the extreme situation of war and/or impending death. Sebald argues that the novel, which Weiss intends as a work of memorialization, is actually a work of self-destruction.  In support of this argument Sebald notes the narrator’s account of a painting of shipwreck by Géricault, “Raft of the Meduse,” in which a fragile raft of working-class survivors is about to be cut loose from the lifeboat peopled by the bourgeois class of passengers. Sebald quotes the narrator’s thought, as he stands before the painting at the Louvre in Paris, that Géricault was motivated to paint by a sense of the “unendurability of life.” Yet at the end of Vol. I, within the context of the partisans’ conversations, the raft is first explored as an allegory of their collective struggle: “the shipwrecked had formed a unity supported by each person’s hand, collectively they would now perish or collectively survive, and the fact that the waving man, the strongest among them, was an African, perhaps loaded on the Méduse to be sold as a slave, hinted at the thought of the liberation of all underdogs” (303). Sebald claims that the narrator “transfers himself” into Géricault’s pessimism, yet later in the same passage from Vol. II we can read: “and yet it had never been so clear to me, how in art values can be created which can overcome entrapment and the sense of being lost, how with the fashioning of visions, art tried to overcome melancholia.”7 Instead, Sebald wants to see the novel as a kind of intellectual suicide, in which “Peter Weiss wrecked what he knew was the little life remaining to him” (Weiss died in 1982 shortly after completing the third part of his novel).8 This is, in my view, to ignore the legacy of Weiss’s novel, which is an attempt to provide the foundation for a new cultural departure not only for Germany but for the aspirations of the international working-class.

With the departure of Brecht from Sweden at the end of Vol. II, Weiss’s narrator has completed his artistic apprenticeship. Major parts of Vol. III are no longer told in the first person, as we follow the fates of anti-fascist fighters who either have remained in Germany (like Coppi and Heilmann) or return there in order to join the underground (Lotte Bischoff). The lesson of Swedish exile is that mere survival in the face of the fascist threat is, literally, a dead end: the narrator’s mother, having made it to Sweden after witnessing many Nazi atrocities, withdraws into a silence that amounts to a self-imposed death sentence, while others commit suicide. Only a commitment to the struggle can assure psychic survival. This is, finally, the contemporary lesson Volker Braun draws from The Aesthetics of Resistance; in consequence he must be seen as the true heir to Weiss’s project of providing a new foundation for a culture of the left. Writing in the East German newspaper Neues Deutschland on the night of November 11, 1989, Braun speaks of the popular revolt in the German Democratic Republic as the greatest democratic movement in Germany since 1918.9 Despite the all-too-rapid assimilation of East Germany into the West, the possible future opened up in that moment remains a source of inspiration: “It was a moment of the becoming possible, the experience of active history-making…defeated as we are, we have tasted our own power, the power of the masses, we made a State disappear, we opened up the institutions. For one moment we remembered ‘the future,’ it existed.”10 For the German people to once more emerge from the defeat represented by the false hope of so-called “capitalist democracy” Braun proposes an “aesthetics of contradiction” (Widerspruch), a reformulation of Weiss’s “Widerstand” (resistance). Weiss’s novel, he says, constitutes a “quarry, an immense amount of material liberated for other generations.”11 Braun also remarks that a few days before his death Weiss wrote a letter in which he envisioned a “fourth world” of nonconformity, of existence outside of anything fixed, of institutions. For Braun, the Zapatista struggle embodies the ideal of such a world, the struggle “not for power but for the space within which every person can develop freely.”12Like Weiss, Braun talks of art as a “strategy for survival” and like him also, he embraces the idea that art must be constructed out of contradictions and oppositions: “instead of ‘integration,’ the dichotomy of text and body, emotion and action.”13 It’s no accident that Weiss’s narrator praises the montage aesthetics of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, whose concept of editing stressed the conflict between successive images. This is the lesson that the narrator-as-writer learns from Brecht, monteur par excellence who is represented sitting passively in his studio, taking in the world around him, collating the information, drafts, and ideas contributed by visitors, lovers, and researchers into works which he then signs with his own name. More than 15 years before the revelations of Brecht’s collaborative writing style by John Fuegi,14 Weiss gives us a picture of “Brecht” as a composite author, a writers’ laboratory rather than a single individual. Weiss’s narrator also embraces this montage aesthetic, breaking apart the narrative with the essayistic disquisitions of his protagonists, and breaking into the protagonists’ speeches with remarks about the landscape through which they are walking, or about what’s happening outside the frame of the conversation.

Perhaps the most famous of all the passages in Weiss’s novel is Heilmann’s letter to his friend (the narrator) in the last hours before his execution. Sebald sees this as Weiss’s movement toward self-destruction: “It records an accumulated sense of the fear and pain of death, and must almost have exhausted its author; that account is the place from which Weiss, as a writer, does not return.”15 I don’t disagree that Weiss may have put himself in Heilmann’s place—but once again it is possible to read the letter as a “legacy statement” that looks toward the future rather than as evidence of defeat and exhaustion. Heilmann writes that “in remaining open to those who have gone before us, we honor those who come after.”16In his insightful foreword to the English translation, Fredric Jameson notes that in the aftermath of German reunification and the end of the Cold War, the novel has an important role to play, not just for the constitution of a revised historical memory for Germany that would incorporate the experience of the German Democratic Republic, but also for “the reconstruction of a worldwide left vision of its vocation and its possibilities in a seemingly post-revolutionary world situation in which capitalism and the ever-expanding penetration of the free market are commonly felt to be henceforth unchallenged.”17 If Weiss’s testament work is to reach the broader audience of the international left, it is crucial that the project of translation be continued. The third and final volume may be even more important than the second, in that it records the relatively unknown story of the resistance fighters inside Germany during the war. Though the topic of The Aesthetics of Resistance is the defeat of popular movements, it nevertheless offers, as Volker Braun suggests, the broken pieces of a past that we can begin to put together in the fashioning of a future that will embody a popular, and therefore socialist, democracy.


1. Peter Weiss, Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, 3 vols. bound as 1 (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1988).

2. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), and Edward Saïd, Culture and Imperialsim (New York: Knopf, 1994).

3. Peter Weiss, The Aesthetics of Resistance, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2005). Page-numbers within the above text refer to this edition.

4. Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, Vol. III, 239 and 236 (my translation).

5. The glossary by Robert Cohen identifies Hans Coppi (1916-42) as a German worker who was imprisoned for a year for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets; in 1941, he became a radio operator for the resistance group led by Harro Schulze-Boysen.  He was arrested in Berlin and executed on December 22, 1942. Executed on the same day, Horst Heilmann (1923-42) had joined the resistance group in 1941. He was a volunteer for the German army, deciphering allied documents and secretly passing them on to Schulze-Boysen.

6. A useful diagram of the friezes as well as several good photographs are supplied in Max Kunze, Der grosse Marmoraltar von Pergamon: seine Wiederentdeckung, Geschichte und Rekonstruktion (Berlin: Staatliche Museum zu Berlin Antikensammlung, 1988). The book’s front matter includes a quotation from Weiss.

7. Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, Vol. II, 33 (my translation).

8. W.G. Sebald, “The Remorse of the Heart: On Memory and Cruelty in the Work of Peter Weiss,” in On the Natural History of Destruction (New York: Modern Library, 2004), 180 (my translation in this and subsequent citations of this work).

9. Volker Braun, “Die Erfahrung der Freiheit,” in Wir befinden uns soweit wohl, wir sind erst einmal am Ende: Äusserungen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998), 18 (my translation in this and subsequent citations of this work).

10. Braun, “Wir befinden uns soweit wohl, wir sind erst einmal am Ende,” in Wir befinden uns…, 100.

11. Braun, “Ein Ort für Peter Weiss,” in Wir befinden uns…, 168.

12. Ibid., 170-71.

13. Braun, “Leipziger Vorlesung,” in Wir befinden uns…, 36.

14. See John Fuegi, Brecht & Co.: Sex, Politics, and the Making of the Modern Drama (New York: Grove Press, 1994).

15. Sebald, 191.

16. Weiss, III, 206 (my translation).

17. Fredric Jameson, “Foreword: A Monument to Radical Instants,” in Weiss, Aesthetics of Resistance,vii-viii.

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