Renate Brandt

Durs Grünbein, Cologne, 2001

During the last few years, Durs Grünbein has emerged as the contemporary German poet whose name is most likely to be recognized by American readers. Born in Dresden, in the German Democratic Republic, in 1962, Grünbein won the Georg Büchner Prize—Germany’s most prestigious literary award—at the age of thirty-three. Since then he has continued to write prolifically, producing many collections of poems and essays. Ashes for Breakfast, a selection of his verse translated by Michael Hofmann, was published in the US in 2005. Now it is joined by The Bars of Atlantis, a selection of Grünbein’s essays, as well as a short volume, Descartes’ Devil, made up of three prose meditations. These books, which have appeared in English with lavish endorsements from poets like John Ashbery and Adam Zagajewski, are only a sample of Grünbein’s work—Descartes’ Devil, for instance, is a companion piece to a three-thousand-line verse novel, On Snow, or Descartes in Germany, which has not yet been translated. But they offer a valuable chance to become acquainted with a poet who is frequently described as the best to emerge in Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

One way to gauge Grünbein’s stature is by the responsibility he feels to be the public face of poetry, which often means defending it against condescension and indifference. “When the average intellectual today reflects on the artistic and cultural achievements of the last century,” Grünbein writes in “The Poem and Its Secret,”

he first thinks of such names as Freud and Picasso, Stravinsky and Heisenberg, Hitchcock and Wittgenstein. Impossible to imagine that a poet should be among them. Not a single poet from the ancestral gallery of the likes of Pessoa, Cavafy, Rilke, Yeats, Mandelstam, Valéry, Frost, and Machado will cross the mind of the historically minded thinker…. It is as if the art of poetry, of all things, were the blind spot in the cultural memory of modern man.

The point is debatable—T.S. Eliot, at least, might well appear on many people’s lists of modernist masters—but Grünbein’s basic intuition, that poetry has lost its former cultural prestige, is inarguable. To appreciate the full extent of this decline, Grünbein suggests, we actually have to go back much further than the twentieth century—all the way to ancient Athens, where the philosopher first usurped the poet’s rightful place as chief interpreter of the world. In the golden age, he writes, wisdom was found in the works of the poets, who gave the Greeks their “heroic epics and myths of origin,” while philosophy was merely “arabesque and commentary” on the poet’s visions. With the pre-Socratics, however, philosophy “rose up” menacingly against its parent, and with Plato it committed parricide. “The beautiful and the sublime had been subordinated to the rule of ideas once and for all,” Grünbein complains, and “for over two thousand years now, every poet’s biography has witnessed to the success of this coup.”

Grünbein is aware that his claims for the authority of the poet might strike the reader as grandiose. In fact, he is sometimes too aware of it. In his introduction to Ashes for Breakfast, the translator Michael Hofmann shows that Joseph Brodsky is an important influence on Grünbein’s poetry, and the influence clearly extends to his prose: the proud defense of the poet’s honor is a major theme for both. But what makes Brodsky’s defense so effective is his lordliness. When he writes (in “A Poet and Prose”) that “poetry occupies a higher position than prose, and the poet, in principle, is higher than the prose writer,” his tone convinces us not only that he believes it, but that we wouldn’t dare to deny it to his face.

Grünbein, too, is certain that poetry is the highest art form, not just the most philosophical but also the most durable. Since Homer, he writes in “Why Live Without Writing,” the poet has been “the observer, who would finally convert his collected silence into the one and only commentary that survived the wreckage, some unforgettable line of song, some key scene of an epic or heartbreaking elegy.” But Grünbein is also conscious of the skepticism of contemporary readers—poets today, he notes, write “in the face of slight and resistance, in an age of universal knowledgeability”—and it forces him into a retaliatory defensiveness, which sometimes takes the form of whimsy. “Incidentally, what does it mean to finagle one’s way through life as a poet?” he writes in “The Thinker’s Voice.”

More often, however, it takes the form of protesting too much. Grünbein is continually offering new metaphors to explain the way poetry works: “In poetry, the word is translated into a higher state of oscillation”; “within it, speech is taken to its limits”; “the poem penetrates the nethermost spaces of memory”; its “entire purpose is to set off fireworks in the reader’s psyche.” None of these images is especially concrete or explanatory, but they share an insistence on the superlative. Whether it is penetrating or oscillating or exploding, the poem is doing something extreme, something no other art form can do.


The problem with this sort of hyperbole, as a rule, is that poets don’t trust it (no one is less likely to rhapsodize about poetry than a group of poets in private conversation), readers of poetry don’t need it, and nonreaders of poetry won’t listen to it. If there is too much of it in The Bars of Atlantis, this is surely owed in part to the exigencies of translation—editors and translators, dealing with a famous poet, will naturally favor work that deals explicitly with the subject of poetry. This is no less true of the verse in Ashes for Breakfast, where a number of poems are about the writing of poems, like “Monological Poem #2”:

From time to time
I have these days when

I feel like embarking
on a poem again

of a kind that still isn’t
all that popular….

The most interesting thing about Grünbein’s praise of poetry is his choice of metaphors, which are usually drawn from the realm of science. In The Bars of Atlantis, there are sympathetic essays on Rilke and Hölderlin, but the writer whom Grünbein writes about most intimately is Büchner, the early-nineteenth-century prodigy who produced the dramas Danton’s Death and Woyzeck before his death at the age of twenty-three. He was also a student of biology, the author of a scientific paper, “On Cranial Nerves,” and Grünbein sees his dissection of the nervous system of fish as directly related to his literary work. In both realms, Grünbein feels, Büchner “turned this lining of nerves inside out and made it flash forth in the spoken word, in the frozen moment of shock.” The two cultures of science and literature are united by what Grünbein, following Karl Gutzkow, calls Büchner’s “autopsy compulsion.” In this phrase, we are meant to hear not just the modern meaning of the word, the cutting up of a corpse, but the sense of the original Greek, “seeing for oneself.”

Autopsy, in this double sense, is a key term and value in Grünbein’s work. It appears as early as his second book, Skull Base Lesson (1991), where he concludes one poem:

With walled up frontal bone
Every refuge is left behind you.
Will it be too late
By the time the autopsy sheds its
bit of light?

The attraction of poetry, for Grünbein, is that it enables the poet to perform a nonviolent autopsy on himself, to illuminate the secret workings of the “walled up” cerebral cortex. In his essay “My Babylonish Brain,” he evokes and explains the mysterious title of that early collection when he writes that “it’s as though [the poet] were watching his own brain at work. His secret is the lesson that arrives in a split second at the base of his skull.” Where Sir Philip Sidney’s muse adjured him to “look in your heart and write,” Grünbein rephrases the same idea in quasi-neurological terms: “a poem trots out thought in a sequence of physiological short circuits.” And what neurology is to the brain, phenomenology is to the mind: Grünbein describes artists as “an army of phenomenologists working on expanding the confines of our shared imaginaries.”

Reading formulations like these, one might expect Grünbein’s own poetry to be preoccupied with the grammar of thought and perception, rather like Jorie Graham’s. In fact, his work is much more talkative and urbane than that. Hofmann draws a comparison with W.H. Auden, and there is something quite Audenesque about the tone and rhetoric of a poem like “Greetings from Oblivion City”:

Yes, the film’s the thing. Out of shy introverts
The auditorium makes
immortals who star in
every dream.
Gifted grandsons, distracted uncles,
Daughters slim as models,
blowsy aunts.

This sounds more like Auden’s later poetry—which Randall Jarrell complained was written with “the top of the head” only—than like the kind of poem that “arrives in a split second at the base of [your] skull.” Like Auden, too, Grünbein frequently works in long sequences—“Portrait of the Artist as a Young Border Dog (not Collie)” has twelve parts, “Variations on No Theme” has thirty-nine sections of thirteen lines each—and such forms encourage discursiveness rather than concision.


If there is something like a “physiological short circuit” taking place in Grünbein’s poetry, it is at the level not of perception but of meter and diction, the elements that can give a poem the feeling of mysterious rightness and inevitability. But this is the hardest element of poetry to translate, and Hofmann’s English versions can give no more than a hint of whatever perfections a German reader hears. If that much: in his unusually frank introduction to Ashes for Breakfast, Hofmann professes himself unable to “cope with the finickiness and the perfection” of Grünbein’s German, and offers instead his own “idiosyncrasy and distinctiveness.”

The phrase “not Collie,” for instance, is Hofmann’s own joking addition to Grünbein’s title, meant to underline the fact that the border the poet is writing about is not Scottish, but the one between East and West Berlin. That sequence is sardonically dedicated “To the memory of I.P. Pavlov/And all the laboratory dogs/Of the medical academy of the/Russian armed forces,” and it draws a harsh comparison between Pavlov’s obedient dog and the docile citizen of the GDR:

…umpteen years of service
with a view of barbed wire fence,
Trotting back and forth upcountry and down,
only a dog could endure,
Captivated by his lead, trained to
behave from infancy.

Later in the sequence, Grünbein remembers “the lingo/Printed on flattened wood pulp, the mush/It takes plenty of cunning not to gag on,” and demands of himself:

Have you forgotten where you’re from?
Is it starting to dawn on you how much damage was done
By so many years of humiliation and slapstick?

It is easy to understand how autopsy, seeing for oneself, could become the supreme moral value for a poet growing up in the GDR, with its culture of repression, indoctrination, and surveillance. Yet by the time Skull Base Lesson was published, the Berlin Wall was already down, and the East Germany of Grünbein’s childhood was no more. The “Border Dog” sequence testifies to the disorientation that ensued: “Now nothing is left to recall the trick/By which a strip of land became a hole in time.” Inevitably, then, one of the major themes of Grünbein’s work, in both verse and prose, is his attempt to understand and pass judgment on the new world of unified Germany, and of the capitalist, pacific, cosmopolitan new Europe that it leads.

Georg Büchner; drawing by J.B.A. Muston

In one sense, Grünbein is a perfect representative of that Europe. Michael Eskin, the editor of The Bars of Atlantis, writes in his introduction that Grünbein “tends to view himself as a poet writing in German rather than as a German poet.” So determined is Eskin to claim Grünbein for “an inclusive notion of culture beyond nationality, monolingualism, and ethnocentrism” that he even sounds rather apologetic about the fact that Grünbein “cannot help writing from a specific place and in a specific language, which happens to be German.” Grünbein seems to endorse this view when he writes, in the book’s title essay, about a dream in which he mingles with “the undead poets” in an underwater tavern—“as decent a cross section of the literary celebrities of all the ages as any reasonably well-read person could come up with”—and finds that the citizens of this posthumous republic of letters speak “a language that might have been Hebrew.” In this Parnassus, it is not German but the language of the Germans’ victims that is the lingua franca.

In his verse, however, Grünbein often sounds much more skeptical of the cosmopolitan ideal than he does in his essays. In fact, “The Bars of Atlantis” is a meditation spurred by one of his own poems, “Cosmopolite,” in which placelessness seems less like an ideal than an affliction:

Giddily you juggle the here and the hereinafter,
Keeping several languages and religions up in the air.
But runways are the same gray everywhere, and hospital rooms
The same bright. There in the transit lounge,
Where downtime remains conscious to no end,
The proverb from the bars of Atlantis swims into ken:

Travel is a foretaste of Hell.

This can be read as a familiar kind of satire on the anesthetized experience of modern travel. But it also seems like part of a wider critique, in Grünbein’s poetry, of the rootlessness of modern urban life, of which reunified Berlin is an especially dramatic example. In the sequence “Berlin Rounds,” the poet notes the way the old city of “four sectors, two versions” has given way to the single-minded pursuit of business and busyness: “Half the population/Is stuck in traffic, their watchword: ‘Faster living!'” The irony here comes across more fully in the German, “Schneller Wohnen,” especially if one thinks of Wohnen in the sense of dwelling. Here, as often in Grünbein’s work, Heidegger provides an essential reference point—perhaps inevitably so, for a poet of Grünbein’s time and place, who conceives of poetry as a deeply philosophical art. In his essay “Building Dwelling Thinking,” Heidegger writes, “To dwell, to be set at peace, means to remain at peace within the free, the preserve, the free sphere that safeguards each thing in its essence.”

But this kind of dwelling is ruled out by the technological, consumerist lifestyle that is led in what Grünbein calls “Oblivion City.” This is, in the first place, Los Angeles (“Here, not oil and silicon but movies are the local monoculture”), but it comes to look like Grünbein’s portrait of the West itself, where youth and leisure are the highest goods: “To be truly happy here, you need a dentist. ‘Such a dazzling smile…’/Because happiness is the first duty of every citizen.” Against this lotusland, Grünbein poses the most venerable totems of peasant authenticity: “The only thing that makes me melancholy is the recollection/Of black bread. Its bitter crust used to taste of earth.” “Trembling,/You miss the one pebble, the single/Blade of grass, earth’s embrace, deadly as ever,” he writes in another poem. When he writes in this vein, it is possible to see Grünbein’s sympathy with the kind of conservative, rural nostalgia that animates Heidegger. The speaker we hear in “Cosmopolite,” Grünbein says, is “one of the army of the globalized, part of the fifth column of the unwillingly cosmopolitan.”

Yet the poet’s mixed feelings about the city and the cosmopolitan are finally less hostile than this suggests. For he is also, in his best poems, a flaneur, part of a poetic breed that can’t exist outside of cities. In an early poem like “Almost a Song,” he strikes a note of disdainful Laforguean ennui: among the suburban “garages yards/placards swelling on/public/noticeboards/and pedantically fenced-in/allotments,” he writes, “almost any poem/is going to make you puke/with boredom….” This kind of voluptuous, perverse superiority is not to be had in the Black Forest. Grünbein acknowledges as much in the very last poem in Ashes for Breakfast, “Arcadia for All”:

You can feel the buzz in your
bones, your spine in the judder
of the arcades,
Lose your face, dazzled from
the metallic upgleam of the puddles,
But where else is home? It was only
ever here, in this familiar exile
When you crept into your rathole
at night, that you tasted a few crumbs of joy.

If Grünbein has deeply mixed feelings about the city, so too is he ambivalent about that other palladium of modern life, science. In the essay “Darwin’s Eyes,” he contrasts the nineteenth-century biologist, dependent on what he could see with the (microscope- assisted) eye, with his twenty-first- century successor, whose “electronic probes, incubators, and cobalt guns have turned the microcosm into a combat zone.” Grünbein goes so far as to write that “molecular biology and genetics now make clear what is meant by modern warfare,” and laments “today’s scientific world war.” Here again there are echoes of Heidegger, for whom the integrity of being was violated by the scientific mind: “modern technology is something incomparably different from all earlier technologies,” he writes in “The Question Concerning Technology,” “because it is based on modern physics as an exact science.”

This kind of rhetoric has a long history—it is Wordsworth’s “we murder to dissect” brought up to date—but in the wake of an actual world war, it ought to be weighed more carefully than Grünbein weighs it. The biologist, after all, performs her experiments in order to discover and to heal, not to destroy; the violence of the gaze is metaphorical, but the violence of the bullet is real. Indeed, while Grünbein uses Darwin as his symbol of a more reticent and humane science, blessed with “perfect plasticity and a mimetic gaze at nature,” Wordsworth’s complaint was made years before Darwin was even born (and Darwin was himself a champion dissector). “Intervention has replaced the study of matter,” Grünbein complains, as though even Aristotle’s experiments did not qualify as interventions.

It is in the split between his modernism and his antimodernism that Grünbein’s admiration for Descartes takes root. For Descartes, Grünbein writes in Descartes’ Devil, “was modern man par excellence.” More than any other philosopher, he has come to symbolize the modern scientific worldview—above all, in the eyes of its enemies. Thus, in Being and Time, Heidegger singles out Descartes as the supreme misinterpreter of Being, the obstacle who must be removed in order for Heidegger’s own more primordial ontology to flourish. Descartes, Heidegger charges, defined being as substance, and substance as extension. As a result, our modern understanding of the nature of being is governed by “modern mathematical physics”; in a Cartesian world, Heidegger complains, “that which is accessible in an entity through mathematics, makes up its Being.”

But since we never perceive things primarily in mathematical terms, this principle leads us to become alienated from our own experience of the world. We may perceive an object as “this waxen Thing which is colored, flavored, hard and cold in definite ways, and which gives off its own special sound when struck,” but we are not permitted to deduce anything about the essential being of that object from the way it happens to impinge on our sensorium. No wonder that the mind is trapped in the Cartesian universe as a ghost in a machine, or that, as Heidegger says, his own attempt at a more profound and original description of being “will not have been grounded in full detail until the ‘cogito sum’ has been phenomenologically destroyed.” Heidegger failed to consummate that destruction, reserving it for a future installment of Being and Time that never actually appeared. But his hostility toward Descartes has left its mark. As Grünbein writes, “no other thinker in the last few centuries has been so fiercely attacked,” and Heidegger is his “chief ontological prosecutor.”

Grünbein’s short book can be read, then, as an amicus curiae brief for the defense of Descartes. The dualism of mind and body may be an ontological error, he acknowledges, but it is an epistemological certainty. Modern neurology may tell us that the mind is simply an epiphenomenon of the brain, and we may even believe this to be true, but, as Grünbein writes, “this monism…will not silence the squabbles among irreconcilable phenomena, the domestic disputes constantly erupting inside every human skull.” As a practical matter, mind–body dualism is “so vitally necessary to us that we couldn’t even walk across the room without it, let alone construct a reasonable sentence.”

This insight explains the title of Grünbein’s book, which is actually more felicitous in English than it is in German. The original, Der cartesische Taucher, translates literally as “The Cartesian Diver,” and refers to a kind of toy that the philosopher is said to have invented (Grünbein says that “you can still sometimes find samples of it in souvenir shops and old-fashioned toy stores”). This is a “small, hollow, devil-like glass figure floating in a bottle covered by an elastic rubber top,” which “sinks to the bottom of the bottle if you exert pressure on the elastic top and bobs up again as soon as you release the pressure.” This unsinkable diver becomes, for Grünbein, a symbol of the Cartesian I, which “simply cannot be kept down…unbeatable, palpable, an indelible part of the world.” By using the alternative name of the toy, a “devil,” as the title of the book, Grünbein’s translator Anthea Bell also summons the Cartesian notion of the all-powerful deceiver, whose possible existence forces us to doubt the reality of the world around us.

By praising Descartes, the arch-villain of Being and Time, Grünbein declares his final repudiation of Heideggerian irrationalism, and casts his lot with the rational, democratic, urban, modern world that he himself sometimes deplores. To this child of East Germany, it is a point of honor to declare his allegiance to Descartes, the pride of France and the West: “one of the most beautiful moments of my regained freedom,” he movingly writes, “was a day in the spring of 1990, when I stood at an intersection in Paris and read the blue street sign: Rue Descartes…. To me the very name ‘Descartes’ was the quintessence of the free subject, the autonomously thinking and acting human being.”

Yet by turning back to the moment when our Cartesian world was born, in the seventeenth century, Grünbein also allows himself to turn away from the ugly and alienating aspects of that world as we find it today. Holland’s Golden Age, he notes, coincided with Europe’s “Little Ice Age,” and “one could say that it was the wintry cold that gave birth to Rationalism,” but this is a bracing, invigorating cold, a human-scale cold, not the galactic chill of Pascal’s deserted cosmos. Similarly, what Grünbein deplores in the frantic getting and spending of contemporary Berlin, he finds picturesque in Descartes’s Amsterdam, of which the philosopher wrote:

When I sometimes think about the activity of the tradesmen, I derive from it the same pleasure as you do from the sight of peasants tilling the fields, for I see that their work serves to beautify the place where I live and to ensure that I want for nothing.

Above all, Descartes stands for a moment when it was possible to see Reason as bold but not relentless. When Grünbein writes about Descartes’s thought, it is not the cogito that compels him, but the curiosities and flamboyant dead ends:

Once he dreams of building a pair of field glasses that would allow one to read a letter from a mile away. Another time, he wonders whether animals live on the moon. In all seriousness, he tells the tale of a girl with silk growing from her forehead, and another of a Spaniard with a thorn bush in flower growing from his body.

Descartes was devoted to autopsy, in both its senses: the doubter of everything but his own reason was also an eager dissector of animals. But when Descartes once dissected the eye of an ox, Grünbein delightedly reports, he declared that he “found in it, reduced in perspective but true to nature, reproductions of all the items that the poor beast had seen in its last moments of life.” At such a moment, Grünbein writes, “autopsy strays into the realm of fairy tale,” and the disenchantment of the world is suspended. The fairy tale cannot last long, of course, but for a moment it does what Grünbein says the poem is meant to do: “The notion of what really exists, can, with writing, be comfortably extended by a dimension or two.”

This Issue

October 14, 2010