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Walter Höllerer, Susan Sontag, and Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Princeton University, April 1966

“Waiting for Goethe” has been a habit of tired German intellectuals over the generations. Will this ascendant sage or that once-young hell-raiser grown venerable turn out to be the giant of Weimar come again? As a waste of time, the habit is nearly but not quite harmless. It’s an excuse for not taking the trouble to read contemporary writers and thinkers closely. Is one of them the new Goethe or not? At this question, any book review editor should reach for the rejection slips. But even now, not all do.

Both left and right can harbor this cargo cult in the back of their minds. I remember the late Günter Grass being heckled in Berlin as he tried to dampen the revolutionary ecstasy of students in 1968. They shouted him down:

Grass, du Kröte,
Halt dich nicht für Goethe!
[Grass, you toad, Don’t imagine you’re Goethe!]

He was furious, partly because being booed was a nasty new experience to him, but mostly because he, at least, never did think of himself in that way. Some readers—for a time—came to consider him “Germany’s conscience,” but nobody tried to canonize him as a supreme arbiter of European literature and ethics. Now, however, German literary journalists are trying to attach the G-word to the work, influence, and personality of somebody else: Hans Magnus Enzensberger.

Skeptical, with a quite English knack for self-deprecation, Enzensberger would politely hand that laurel wreath back while trying not to laugh. All the same, although the two writers don’t fit together into anything like a resemblance, there are a few similarities. Now in his mid-eighties, Enzensberger has survived to become the most revered living figure in German literature. His productivity in published work is stupendous: something like sixty books, mostly poetry but including essays, plays, and prose works. The Silences of Hammerstein (2009), a marvelous collage of history, recollection, and fiction, was his most recent success in English translation.*

In 1965 Enzensberger cofounded and edited Kursbuch, for some years the most influential journal of ideas in the former West Germany, and he helped launch the always-absorbing book series Die Andere Bibliothek. Like Goethe, he has acquired languages with greed, translating from English, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and Norwegian, to name a few, and his sovereign translations of his own work into English are sometimes better than their originals. His scholarly learning in literature, history, and politics is profound. And he is one of the vanishingly few imaginative writers—even in the twenty-first century—who has bothered to make himself scientifically and mathematically literate. There, too, he shares a virtue with that polymath of Weimar. (I remember going to an exhibition in Weimar, in the time of the Communist “Democratic Republic,” that presented Goethe as a pioneering theoretician of sanitary engineering.)

But there the comparisons should stop. Awe is absolutely the wrong mood for understanding this often playful, sometimes inconsistent, almost always ironic writer. Alan Clayton in Writing with the Words of Others (2010) quotes the Berlin critic Norbert Bolz:

Nobody writes better. So it’s a wise idea not to attempt a “critique” of Hans Magnus Enzensberger, because that implies that one is measuring oneself against an incomparably successful author of matchless intelligence—and thereby making oneself ridiculous.

It’s hard not to feel that one has already made oneself ridiculous with remarks like that. Enzensberger’s whole life has been an evasion of superlatives, a subversion of rules, an escape from dogmas (including the tyranny of hope), a journey of searches, disappointments, and painful displacements. He is emphatically not a guru who thinks he is Goethe. Reducing this endlessly lively and elusive man to a statue on a pedestal simply invites the pigeons to settle on his head and gag him with guano.

Tumult is much more interesting than an autobiography. Its four deliberately chaotic main sections revisit periods in his past; they are based on old notebooks, diaries, scribbles, and letters that have been critically edited and written up into memoir form. At the end of each section comes a retrospective “postscript,” dated in the twenty-first-century present, and a poem.

The first episode begins in 1963: “Notes on a First Encounter with Russia.” The reader meets Enzensberger as plainly a young, sharply observant man, but might not realize how well known he already was in West Germany. Tumult reveals almost nothing about his previous life, beyond stating that “for many years” he had been married to his Norwegian wife, Dagrun, and living on an island in the Oslo Fjord with their daughter, Tanaquil. Old enough to have witnessed World War II—he was fifteen when Hitler’s Reich collapsed—he had been recognized as one of the most talented of the young postwar poets. Defense of the Wolves (1957), his first collection, was an angrily left-wing and stylistically radical anthology whose first edition included a flyer defining his poems as “graffiti, posters, leaflets, scratched into a wall, pasted onto a wall….”


But in spite of his views—he was not a Communist, and in reality his politics at this point were no more extreme than those of left-wingers in the Social Democratic Party—Enzensberger had become one of the acceptable angry faces of “young Germany” to those who managed cultural patronage in the Bonn republic. And the Soviet cultural authorities, still competing for influence in Germany, also hoped that this well-known poet with a Marxist outlook might be feasted and flattered into becoming a “progressive bourgeois” sympathizer.

He was invited to a congress on the “problems of the contemporary novel” in Leningrad. Most of the period’s conference celebrities were there: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Nathalie Sarraute, and Angus Wilson among them; and on the Soviet side Alexander Tvardovsky, Mikhail Sholokhov, Konstantin Fedin, Ilya Ehrenburg, and the mutinous poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko. Enzensberger found the two escorts assigned to him much more entertaining than the delegates, apart from Ehrenburg, whom he remembered as the only one to say anything interesting. But the delegates got their money’s worth when a select group—including Enzensberger—was flown down to Gagra on the Abkhazian coast to meet Nikita Khrushchev in his villa. Enzensberger rather liked Khrushchev, finding him (from his notes made at the time) “plain and simple,” “totally lacking in ‘charisma.’”

In the next section, dated 1966, something happens that was to derail his life and obsess him through all the years remembered in this book. Back in the Soviet Union, as an invited guest at a “Peace Congress” in Baku, he met the poet Margarita Aliger and her young daughter Maria Alexandrovna Makarova—“Masha.” He was in his late thirties, charming and brilliant, above all a Western foreigner of independent mind. Masha was twenty-three, an impulsive, fiery spirit with the strikingly blue-gray eyes of a Siberian wolf. (The shamanic eyes were inherited from her father, Alexander Fadeyev, Stalin’s handsome but infamous henchman in the Soviet Writers’ Union, to whom Aliger was briefly attached during the war.)

Enzensberger calls what followed “a tempestuous Russian novel” or “an amour fou.” Crazy passion flung him and Masha together, and kept reuniting them after fulminating quarrels and separations. I knew them both in later years, Masha better than Hans Magnus, but had not understood until I read this frank and melancholy account quite how improbable a couple they were—he cool, tidy-minded, wary of reckless surrender to an ideology or another person; she demanding the loyalty of every particle of his heart and mind by day and night. Anything less was treachery. As he puts it, her jealousy was not erotic:

We were often separated for months, but she never asked whether I’d been to bed with another woman…. But when I was with her, it was enough for me to go out to buy the paper, talk in German with a visitor from Germany, to need some peace and quiet in order to write—then she would behave as if I were stabbing her in the back.

In some ways, he was closer to, more at ease with, her wise and patient mother, Margarita Aliger. He and Masha divorced their spouses and married in Moscow, but her arrival at his home in West Berlin was a disaster. Everything German offended her, and after only three days she threw a Strindbergian row and walked out.

She had reached Berlin in June 1967. A few days before that, on June 2, a West Berlin policeman had shot and killed the student Benno Ohnesorg, who had been demonstrating against the visit of the Shah of Iran. That night, rioting and car-burning spread across the city center, effectively touching off the huge revolt by the “extra-parliamentary opposition”—uniting students, left-leaning intellectuals, radical Christians, industrial apprentices, and Germany’s embryonic hippie communities—that would shake the Bonn republic to its foundations.

Enzensberger had sensed the storm coming. A few years before, he had noticed

signs that things were about to fall apart in the Federal Republic. The long-established authoritarian state with its leftovers from the days of the kaiser and its persistent heritage from the dictatorship was no longer viable.

The joyful, utopian ideas of these revolutionaries—the abolition of all hierarchy, the continuous self-management of all “workers by hand or brain,” the “demasking” of the authoritarianism concealed in liberal states—were to occupy Enzensberger’s life and work for a time. But on that fateful day—just fifty years ago as I write—he was not there.

Not being there on fateful days was a pattern. With typically disarming irony he suggests that it was more than accidental. He traveled constantly, compulsively: “I’d got into the habit of solving my problems with the help of geography.” He missed June 2; he was in Moscow. He missed the tremendous theatricals of the West Berlin “Vietnam Congress,” at which three thousand people gathered to oppose the war in February 1968; he was in Berkeley.


Was this habit of absence derived from his discovery that he, a mild poet, also possessed the gift for rousing a rabble? In October 1966, he spoke to 25,000 people at a demonstration in Frankfurt with the slogan “Emergency for Democracy,” and recalls that “it was terrible, for, in the middle of my tirade, I realized I was capable [of] whipping up the crowd, that was already aroused, even more.” The echo of Joseph Goebbels haranguing the Nazi ranks in Berlin’s Sportpalast rose to his memory:

I was well on the way to becoming a demagogue. It was a nauseating feeling…. I finished the speech as best I could and swore never to speak on a platform again.

The next main section of the book, “Memories of a Tumult (1967–1970),” covers the years of Enzensberger’s “revolutionary” commitment. His surviving notes for the period—the later 1960s—are fragmentary: he cannot now recognize the man who wrote them, so he constructs a dialogue between a younger self and an incredulous old Hans Magnus: “Can you explain to me what you were up to back then? No. I’ve forgotten most of it and didn’t understand the most important bits.”

It would not be wise to treat this central part of Tumult as a history of “the Sixties.” It’s more a reflection on what the Spanish melodiously call sesentayochoismo: fixation on the experiences of the year 1968—his own and that of others. The account darts about in time and place, confusingly but in tune with the deafening cataract of happenings that swamped linear memory. At one moment Enzensberger compares it all to “Brownian molecular motion”:

Just as every particle suspended in a heated gas is subject to random, uncontrollable fluctuations, exactly the same is true of the political, erotic, climatic and, damn it all, moral turbulence we are dealing with here.

His version of his own part in those events is modest to the point of distortion: “During the years of tumult, I was occasionally seen as playing an active role in which I was genuinely never interested.” But speaking as a witness and sometime participant, I remember Enzensberger as a central figure in the German upheavals of 1967–1968, not a revolutionary ideologist guiding day-to-day struggles like Rudi Dutschke (whom he calls “the only political leader the opposition to the system produced”) but a sort of supreme counselor, an intellectual respected by everybody whose heart was assumed to be firmly on the side of the marchers, demonstrators, and pamphleteers. Everyone read his Kursbuch and discussed its articles in university canteens, in bars with dirty floors, or in dim, crowded apartments. He writes:

I was 38 when all that stuff started, much too old for the so-called student movement…. What I did like, however, was the disruption of the traditional social order in Germany. That was long overdue and difficult to stop. Antiauthoritarian—that was the catchword. It didn’t bother me that I myself was in danger of becoming a kind of authority, even if against my wishes and only a mini-authority.

But he was trusted to a staggering degree. Leading figures of the “movement,” from Dutschke to Christian Semler, Bernd Rabehl, and Horst Mahler, used his study as a meeting place. The anarchist Communards squatted in his house while he was away. In May 1970, after a gunfight to liberate Andreas Baader from jail, he, Ulrike Meinhof, and Gudrun Ensslin fled straight to Enzensberger’s house to take refuge and draw breath. Later, when the Baader-Meinhof Group, by then renamed the Red Army Faction, was fighting its murderous underground war against the state, Enzensberger was taken to their secret hiding place in Hamburg and invited to help “[bring] down the ‘system’ by violence.” He did not accept, but he did not betray them either.

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Hans Magnus Enzensberger, 1994

To say, as he does here, fifty years on, that “I was the poor comrade who never became a full member” is misleading. Enzensberger shared—indeed, helped to develop—the neo-Marxist analysis of “late capitalism” and state power that inspired rebellions all over Europe. But fanatical Maoism, much in fashion then, disgusted him. And political violence was never his way, neither Meinhof’s invitation to take up the gun nor Dutschke’s complicated license for “symbolic counter-violence against objects.” Most Germans would agree with him that the unintended outcome of the 1968 “revolution” in West Germany was to reform, liberalize, and thus perpetuate the “system” instead of destroying it: “To my surprise—very gradually, almost behind our backs—our desolate country was becoming more and more a land that was fit to live in.”

Enzensberger had almost stopped writing poetry in those years. In a 1968 Kursbuch, he attacked the very idea of literary art, “for which no essential social function can be indicated in our context.” Literature had failed to wrest the means of production from the bourgeoisie: instead, he proposed to quit the “ghetto of cultural life” and undertake the “political alphabetization” of Germany.

But this ultra-left severity was not to last. In the same year, he and Masha moved to Cuba, where they spent the next two years. That sojourn changed him in many ways, one of which was to return him to poetry. It was in Havana that he wrote the first version of his masterpiece, the long, wayward, and often overwhelmingly powerful The Sinking of the Titanic, parts of which are included in the New Selected Poems. (The first draft—the only copy, as there was no carbon paper in Havana—was lost in the mail somewhere between the Caribbean and Berlin; he wrote it all over again when he returned to Europe, and it was finally published in Germany in 1978.)

Enzensberger never discovered why he had been invited to Cuba. No job ever materialized; he led a vivid life with other expats and rebellious Cuban intellectuals, joined a brigade digging a new coffee plantation, and cut sugar cane, besides beginning once more to write verse. He became increasingly disillusioned, not only with the Castro regime but with all utopian promises: “In Havana I’d eventually started to feel like a left-over from a distant future.”

There are brilliant, mordant sketches here of Cuban people and scenes. Most memorable, perhaps, is his visit to the surreal “human-being factory” in Havana, where teams of men and women were building educational body models out of papier-mâché and gaudy paints:

To me it seemed like a malicious parody of the socialist concept of the New Man. Moreover, it shows that it’s easier to transform underdevelopment into art than to abolish it.

Masha, on the other hand, was revived by Cuba. A decaying tyranny full of censor-dodging intellectuals with ample time for talking and partying: this was her natural Russian milieu in which she felt at ease. Enzensberger writes, “We’d never got on so well together.”

But the regime’s support for the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Castro’s disastrous “revolutionary offensive” against all small private enterprises, and finally the brutal persecution of their close friend the poet Heberto Padilla finally convinced them that it was time to leave. Hans Magnus returned to Berlin, Masha to a new life in London and then Cambridge.

Now he settled back to writing, interrupted only by his constant travel around the world to lecture, debate, and receive awards for literature. The extraordinary Mausoleum came out in 1975: a collection of “biographical ballads” about historical figures—often obscure to an average reader—who had appealed to his imagination. “B. de S.,” for example, turns out to be Bernardino de Sahagún, the monk who tried to rescue Aztec culture from destruction; “E.J.M.” is the nineteenth-century French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey, pioneer of the photography of motion.

Titanic was reconstructed in these years, and a flow of verse collections resumed, running from The Fury of Disappearance (1980) to Lighter Than Air (2000) and A History of Clouds (2003). His latest prose includes Mr Zed’s Reflections—a little album of almost three hundred sardonic debunkings of received ideas, pronounced by a fat man who sits in a public park and addresses a small crowd of fascinated but often resentful listeners.

Alan Clayton’s book proposes to show how Enzensberger writes “extraordinarily original poems by systematically incorporating the words of others into his texts.” Attributing to him the use of literary devices that include chiasmus, parataxis, Entstellung, and hypallage (terms assumed to be familiar to the cowering reader), Clayton goes on to assert that with Mausoleum Enzensberger “establishes himself as a highly accomplished literary thief.”

No offense intended. Clayton is a passionate if not uncritical admirer. And it’s entirely true that some of Enzensberger’s verse is inspired collage, beautiful jackdaw nests built out of sparkling or resonant or darkly absurd fragments that have caught his fancy. Clayton refers to “the poet’s massive documentary research” and his “uninhibited use of a vast amount of borrowed material that he either cites verbatim, disguises, or alters to suit his purposes.”

Titanic often relies, with piercing effect, on contemporary texts, films, news bulletins, and popular songs. Its main source for details of the disaster and for anecdotes is Walter Lord’s famous old best-seller A Night to Remember (1955). In the Nineteenth Canto of the poem, a recitation of “news wires of April 15, 1912,” slides into pastiche-poetry of official jargon:

The transition from peacetime to a state of war must be facilitated.

Comparative statistical tables have been published in order to clarify how the increased effective force of the army will affect conscripts of different age groups.

Just after that comes Enzensberger’s free version of a ribald black street song, recorded in Philadelphia: “The eighth of May was one hell of a day/when the Titanic was sinking away….” And everywhere, his delight in allusion recurs:

Man’s struggle against man,
according to reliable sources
close to the Home Office,
will be nationalised in due course,
down to the last bloodstain.
Kind regards from Thomas Hobbes.

Enzensberger himself once said in an interview:

It’s just a superstition that writers have to compose their texts themselves. I really do think that’s a bourgeois superstition. It’s based on a notion of originality which I find especially questionable.

That was in 1971, but I hope he would still stand by those words today. It’s a method that, in his case, has allowed him to unload the phenomenal wealth of his reading and scholarship directly and successfully into his verse. Enzensberger is not the first to do this, of course: Hugh MacDiarmid was one of several great figures of Modernist poetry who kidnapped sonorous scientific texts for their echo as well as for their meaning (geology and petrology, in his case).

Writing with the Words of Others is, for the most part, a helpful and intelligent book, exploring Enzensberger’s sometimes recondite allusions and subtle techniques. But Clayton has his limits, political rather than aesthetic. He is puzzled and pained by his subject’s engagement with Marxist theory and practice, although it’s impossible fully to appreciate the spellbinding Blindenschrift poems (1964) without a sense of the illuminating power of the ideology in that time and place. A patronizing comment rejoices that “the Marxist terminology thankfully disappeared and even the word socialism eventually gave way to democracy…a blessing for the reader.”

Enzensberger, for all his smiling imperturbability, might well be irritated by that. His life has shown that to change one intellectual position for another can be a change of chapters in a story, not a blunder requiring apologies and remorse. It’s with dignity, and with some respect for those he leaves behind, that Hans Magnus Enzensberger has turned away from Utopia. In the future, he may well be best remembered for what he wrote in Tumult about the Garden of Eden:

The apple was the greatest pleasure the Garden had to offer…. Without the forbidden fruit, the place would have been a prison. One requirement of a paradise is that you can leave it when you’ve had enough.