Surviving for Art

When Theodor Adorno said that it was barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz, he unwittingly launched ten thousand essay questions. The remark still resounds, not only in Germany and not always in ways that Adorno would have wished it to be understood. But one of its legitimate implications, it seems to me, is that the expression “European Civilization” should have become unusable after 1945.

The phrase has been taken to mean that high art has a connection to morality—that Beethoven instills be-nevolence, and Mozart and Mantegna spread mercy. Something, it was believed, rubbed off. Exposure to art could melt hard hearts, or turn away the sword. And even though the history of Europe between 1939 and 1945 should have exploded this assumption forever, it persists. Those who still accept it should listen to Marcel Reich-Ranicki, and read his unforgettable book.

Reich-Ranicki’s position in German culture is unimaginable in any other country except, perhaps, Russia. For more than twenty years, German writers have trembled, fumed, wept, and on occasion preened themselves over his verdicts on their work. As the main critic of the weekly Die Zeit, and then for many years the literary editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he established an almost imperial ascendancy over German literary criticism.

He has been misleadingly called the pope of German literature. But Ranicki is a lonely figure with no Vatican and—dogmatic as he can be in judgment—no particular theology. He is an old-fashioned, pragmatic critic, phenomenally well-read, whose standards are his own subjective opinions about what is “good” or “bad.” He represents no particular branch of literary theory; he is “post”-nothing, but impenitently “pre-” all contemporary canons of French or Anglo-Saxon literary theory. But he is also the opposite of those traditional German mandarins who used to be revered by everybody and understood by nobody. Ranicki is a vigorous popularizer, whose television program on new writing—Literary Quartet—has reached millions and no doubt persuaded them into adventurous reading. He can praise, sometimes lavishly. But his fame rests on his fearsome acts of demolition, often salted with searing irony, which can be annihilating to a luckless author. This reputation pains Ranicki, a witty and charming old man who refuses to consider himself a destroying angel. Nonetheless, Ranicki in hanging-judge mood is the most merciless arbiter of writing in Europe.

He was a friend of Yehudi Menuhin, and they shared a background as assimilated Jews of essentially German culture. Once they ran into each other in a foreign-currency shop in Beijing; Menuhin was on a concert tour, while Ranicki was lecturing on Goethe and Thomas Mann. “Ah, well,” said Menuhin, “we’re Jews of course. That we travel from country to country, spreading German music and German literature, and interpreting it—that’s good and how it should be.” But Ranicki had his own reasons not to share his friend’s wonderful optimism about the impact of art on behavior. He writes in his book that Menuhin “had endeavoured …

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