Peter Weiss

Mehner/ullstein bild/Getty Images

Peter Weiss at the International Vietnam Congress, Berlin, 1968

To the extent that the German writer Peter Weiss is known in the US, it is for his verse play The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. Marat/Sade debuted in West Berlin in 1964 and quickly became a hit on the West End and Broadway, in a storied production by Peter Brook. With its fusion of radical politics and sexual provocation, it was a perfect theatrical starting gun for the Sixties.

Weiss took his cue from the historical fact that the Marquis de Sade spent the last years of his life in an insane asylum, where he sometimes put on plays with his fellow patients as the cast. Marat/Sade imagines one such performance in 1808, in which the patients act out the murder of the radical Jacobin Marat, which had taken place fifteen years earlier at the height of the French Revolution. But the real action is intellectual, as Marat and Sade debate the nature of revolution.

Weiss’s Marat calls for the righteous destruction of the existing social order: “The people used to suffer everything/now they take their revenge/You are watching that revenge/and you don’t remember that you drove the people to it,” he declares (in Geoffrey Skelton’s English translation). Sade was no supporter of the ancien régime—his notorious sexual crimes got him imprisoned for ten years in the Bastille, where he wrote The 120 Days of Sodom—but Weiss has him voice an artist’s skepticism about the revolutionary future:

Now I see where
this revolution is leading
To the withering of the individual
and a slow merging into
in a state
which has no contact with
but which is impregnable.

For Weiss’s 1960s audience, this prophecy had less to do with France than with the Soviet Union. Weiss was born in Germany in 1916, a year before the Russian Revolution, and over his lifetime he had seen its promise of liberation give way to terror and oppression, just like the French Revolution before it. For leftist intellectuals of his generation, the critical question was whether the Soviet experience had discredited the faith in revolution.

In Marat/Sade, Weiss is able to argue both sides of the question by splitting himself into two characters. In the end, however, Sade’s cynicism seems to triumph over Marat’s idealism. The fact that the entire play takes place in a madhouse underscores the sense that history itself is mad, that a rational and just society can never be made by creatures like us. “Everything I wrote or spoke/Was considered and true/Each argument was sound/And now/Doubt/Why does everything sound false,” laments Marat. The curtain falls on the inmates of Charenton rioting, as nurses try to beat them into submission and Sade watches it all with a smile.

Yet in 1965, the year after Marat/Sade premiered, Weiss published an essay in which he implicitly came down on the side of Marat—which meant, for him, on the side of communism. In “Ten Working Points of an Author in a Divided World,” Weiss announced, “For me, the guidelines of socialism contain the valid truth.” He would not refrain from criticizing Communist governments—and in later years he was sometimes persona non grata in the Eastern Bloc as a result—but those criticisms had to be made from within. “Whatever mistakes have been made and are still being made in the name of socialism, they should be there for learning and criticism based on the basic principles of the socialist conception,” he wrote.

Weiss was living in Sweden rather than East Germany, which made his position as a dissident Communist much easier. In fact, while he wrote his most important works in German, Weiss never lived in Germany after he left the country in 1935. From 1939 until his death in 1982 he lived in Stockholm, and his first books were written in Swedish; educated in art school, he also pursued painting and experimental filmmaking. His first German work, the novella The Shadow of the Body of the Coachman, didn’t appear until 1960, four years before Marat/Sade made him internationally famous.

The other work on which Weiss’s reputation principally rests couldn’t be more different from Marat/Sade, formally speaking. Yet The Aesthetics of Resistance, an enormous historical novel published in three volumes between 1975 and 1981, has at its core the same problem as the play: Is it possible to unite revolution and freedom, the common good and the individual imagination? The novel’s unnamed narrator, a young Communist with artistic ambitions, struggles mightily to serve both gods—to “match up,” in the words of one character, “the intensity of revolutionary artistic and political actions…the irony of the one with the seriousness, the sense of responsibility of the other.” The book is a search for the ideal named in its title: an art that equals the masterpieces of the past in complexity and power, while standing up against the unjust order that created those masterpieces.


The Aesthetics of Resistance has been hailed by German critics as a modernist epic comparable in stature to Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time. For all their difficulty, however, those books are much more inviting than Weiss’s. Joyce and Proust offer the reader sharply individualized characters, complex human relationships, dramatic set-pieces, and beautiful prose; Weiss eschews all these things on principle. True to its title, which sounds more like an academic treatise than a work of fiction, The Aesthetics of Resistance proceeds by means of long passages of argument and analysis, mainly devoted to Marxist interpretations of works of art and literature and to detailed recapitulations of internal debates on the European left in the early twentieth century.

Without a fairly advanced interest in these subjects, the most intrepid reader will make little headway with The Aesthetics of Resistance. Even the way it’s laid out on the page is uncompromising: there are no paragraphs or quotation marks, just one solid block of text for hundreds of pages. As Weiss once acknowledged to an interviewer, “I make it difficult for my readers.” So it’s not surprising that the novel has been slow to appear in English. A translation of the first volume, by Joachim Neugroschel, was published by Duke University Press in 2005; fifteen years later, it is now joined by a translation of the second volume, by Joel Scott. (The third volume will presumably follow at some point, hopefully before 2035.)

Yet for the right reader, The Aesthetics of Resistance offers unique rewards. The West’s literary memory of twentieth-century communism was largely shaped by ex- and anti-Communist writers like Arthur Koestler, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Czesław Miłosz, and George Orwell, who saw it as inimical to spiritual and intellectual life. Weiss makes a passionate case to the contrary, arguing that for the poor and oppressed, communism offered a key to spiritual and intellectual realms from which they had been historically excluded. But he is also acutely aware that the humanistic, emancipatory communism of his dreams had a foe in the actual Soviet Communist Party, with its demand for total submission to an ever-changing ideological line. Balancing hope against reality, Weiss’s novel tries to carry out the critique-from-within he outlined in his “Ten Working Points” essay.

How should the reader approach a book whose very title declares its resistance? One way to think about The Aesthetics of Resistance is as a bildungsroman, a story about the formation of a young person’s character. But the classic bildungsroman was an arch-bourgeois genre whose protagonist enjoys the education, resources, and freedom necessary to experiment with styles of life. From Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister to Mann’s Hans Castorp, Bildung, or spiritual development, involves breaking away from the middle-class family and its conventional definition of success, but only temporarily. In the end, after some adventurous years in an acting troupe or a mountaintop sanatorium, the hero is destined to rejoin the “real” world.

What would a proletarian bildungsroman look like? Is such a thing even possible? That is the challenge Weiss sets himself in his novel, which also follows a young man through a crucial period of experience and growth. In this case, however, the narrator is an outcast—a worker and a political subversive; and rather than fostering his education, the world does everything possible to hinder it. In addition to the “normal” obstacles of poverty and lack of education, he is living at a time of historical crisis that makes the idea of leisurely self-cultivation absurd.

When the first volume opens in September 1937, the narrator is living in Berlin, one of a small group of young Communists who are trying to keep their faith and themselves alive in a completely Nazified country. He then makes his way to Spain, to take part in the civil war as a member of the International Brigades. As this volume ends, it’s clear that the republic is going down to defeat, and the narrator prepares to flee the country with his comrades.

The second volume picks up the story a few weeks later, with the narrator in Paris, where he has escaped at the last moment. It then follows him to Sweden, where he manages to find temporary asylum and a menial job. Like the first volume, however, the second ends on a note of defeat: in the closing pages, in April 1940, the narrator learns that German troops are occupying Norway and Denmark, leaving Sweden’s survival in doubt.


The three years covered by Weiss’s first two volumes are packed with world-historical events. (The third volume extends the story to 1945.) The great novels written at the time thrust the reader into the heart of those events: the Spanish Civil War in André Malraux’s L’Espoir (1937), the Moscow Trials in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940). Weiss, looking back from a distance of four decades, has much to say about both, as well as about the Munich Conference, the Nazi-Soviet pact, and the outbreak of World War II. But it is essential to the conception of The Aesthetics of Resistance that its narrator plays no significant part in any of them. He only learns about them in the newspapers and on the radio, like everyone else. Even in Spain he works as a hospital orderly, far from the front lines, and struggles to form an accurate picture of the conflict.

In other words, his experience as a historical subject reflects his experience as a proletarian: both involve being powerless in the face of malignant forces that shape his destiny. Only communism, Weiss argues, offers a remedy for this political and cultural powerlessness. It’s not just that underground work gives the narrator a chance to strike a blow, however feeble, against his oppressors. More important, the Marxist worldview allows him to feel that he is a participant in history. In his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx famously complained that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”; but for Weiss’s narrator, interpreting the world is the first step toward changing it. “The upper classes essentially opposed our thirst for knowledge,” he reflects in the first volume. “Our most important goal was to conquer an education…. From the very outset, our studying was rebellion. We gathered material to defend ourselves and prepare a conquest.”

Weiss emphasizes the difficulty of this self-education for a worker who comes to a classroom or opens a book at the end of his factory shift: “Our numb minds often had to squeeze out of a void and relearn nimbleness after monotony.” Yet a central, structural improbability of the novel is that the narrator, who dropped out of high school to take a job as a shipping clerk in a factory, somehow has access to the enormous erudition of Peter Weiss. This discrepancy is front and center from the start. The novel opens with a bravura description of the Pergamon Altar, which has been on view in Berlin since it was excavated by German archaeologists in Asia Minor in the 1880s. For eight pages, the narrator offers a lavishly detailed account of its famous frieze, which depicts the battle of the Olympian gods against the Giants. In doing so, he displays a comprehensive knowledge of classical history and mythology, just as later in the novel he will prove to be an expert on ancient Carthage and modern France.

But this failure of plausibility can also be an assertion of the novel’s great hope: that high culture can be wrested away from the ruling class and claimed as the inheritance of the workers. Much of the book is devoted to demonstrating this kind of recuperation, reading canonical images and texts against the grain in a Marxist spirit. Thus the Pergamon Altar becomes for Weiss an allegory of class warfare, with the ostensibly heroic gods recast as prideful oppressors and the villainous Giants turned into symbols of resistance. This reinterpretation involves confronting the material conditions of the work’s production, examining the relationship between the kings who paid for the altar, the artists who designed it, and the slaves who actually built it. Only in this way can the narrator meet the objection of a friend’s mother, who demands, “How can we…ever get away from the fact that for our kind all that construction involved nothing but drudgery and deprivation, plus a pent-up rage toward the people who took the credit.”

It’s not until the nineteenth century that the narrator begins to find artworks that consciously embody social protest. The second volume of The Aesthetics of Resistance opens with a long discussion of Théodore Géricault’s 1819 painting The Raft of the Medusa, which the narrator sees in the Louvre. Like the Pergamon Altar, it is a depiction of gruesome suffering and struggle, but as Weiss delves into the circumstances of its composition, he shows that Géricault’s work doesn’t need to be read against the grain. It was a direct indictment of French colonialism and the class system, inspired by an 1816 episode in which the officers of a ship bound for Africa first incompetently steered it onto the rocks, then heartlessly abandoned 151 passengers on a makeshift raft, where all but fifteen died of starvation, exposure, and violence. For Weiss, the dying castaways of the Medusa deliver the same message as the defeated Giants of Pergamon: “Even in the most extreme despair, as long as a breath could still be drawn, a will to live persisted.”

This tragic definition of resistance is the only one that makes sense to the narrator, living at a time when Communist hopes were continually defeated. Weiss’s Marxism has more in common with the paradoxical messianism of Walter Benjamin than with the scientific determinism of Marx himself. Indeed, Benjamin’s famous saying “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” could serve as an epigraph for The Aesthetics of Resistance.

The promise of communism is that after the revolution, barbarism will be abolished and a true civilization will finally emerge. That’s what is supposed to have happened in Soviet Russia, which for the narrator is an ideological lodestar and a redoubt that must be defended at all costs. Yet he is frequently reminded that the Soviet reality doesn’t live up to this promise. Late in the first volume, for instance, Weiss describes a debate between two senior German Communists in Spain about purges in the party. According to Hodann, a doctor, the party has the right to eliminate dissenters: “A dissident opinion is a criminal opinion.”

But Marcauer, a Jewish woman who declares, “I have been a member of the Communist Party since my teens,” denies that the party had the right to kill Andres Nin, the leader of Spain’s independent leftist party POUM. “The acceptance of such an occurrence revealed an attitude that made a mockery of our goals, swindling all those who had come to defend this country,” she protests. The justice of her stand is proved when she is immediately disappeared herself. But the narrator needs the party too much to protest its decisions: “We already knew that we would repress any thought of this woman,” he says affectlessly.

Marcauer seems to be Weiss’s invention, but most of the characters in The Aesthetics of Resistance are based on actual people whom Weiss either knew personally or discovered in the course of his research. The book includes a glossary identifying many of them, including Max Hodann, who mentored the young Weiss in Sweden. The narrator visits the Pergamon Altar with his friends Heilmann and Coppi, young Communists who were executed by the Gestapo in 1942 as part of the Red Orchestra resistance group. (Their death is recounted in the third volume of the novel.)

An important figure in the second volume is Rosalinde von Ossietzky, the daughter of the Nobel Peace Prize–winning German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky whom the narrator meets in Sweden. Like Marcauer, she is a monitory figure who reminds him of the moral shortcomings of the left. Her father’s comrades promised to take care of her when he was imprisoned by the Nazis, she says, but they soon lost patience: “Get a job as a maid, say my benefactors, learn stenography, then you can find employment in an office.”

Rosalinde is one of many characters who function just like the spirits Dante meets in the Divine Comedy, emerging momentarily to offer their testimony or reprimand, then slipping back into the shadows. Though The Aesthetics of Resistance is a bildungsroman from one point of view, from another it is Weiss’s homage to the Divine Comedy, with its tripartite division and parade of historical ghosts. Weiss was obsessed with Dante; in 1964 he wrote a drama based on the Inferno, which wasn’t published until long after his death.

If the narrator is the Dante figure in the novel, then in the second volume Bertolt Brecht auditions for the role of Virgil. The second half of the book is dominated by Brecht, who lived in Stockholm for a year starting in April 1939, when the young Weiss met him. That brief encounter is transformed in the novel into an extended collaboration, as the narrator helps Brecht research an episode from Swedish history for use in a play. Observing the great writer at work, the narrator once again recognizes the contradiction between Communist ideals of equality and the reality of artistic genius, which is always individual, and in Brecht’s case notably selfish and domineering. Yet the experience confirms the narrator’s growing sense that his political and artistic vocations can be reconciled: “I began to make my language into a tool that I could wield. With Brecht I experienced the first impulse to attempt to give the current moment a historical charge.”

As in Proust, the unnamed narrator of The Aesthetics of Resistance bears a strong resemblance to the author, and it would be easy to take this as a description of Weiss’s own experience. Also as in Proust, however, the differences between writer and character are profound. Far from being a high school dropout, factory worker, and underground activist, Weiss was the son of a wealthy textile manufacturer; he grew up in a household with servants and attended a Gymnasium. In an interview about the novel, Weiss referred to it as a Wunschautobiographie, the story of the life he wished he had, and there is indeed a kind of Communist fantasy at work in his self-reinvention as proletarian autodidact. This is a profound irony in a novel whose premise is that great and challenging art can be produced by and for the working class.

The Aesthetics of Resistance departs from Weiss’s experience in another significant way. In the novel, the narrator explains that his father fled Germany when the Nazis came to power because he was a well-known union leader and Social Democratic Party activist. The narrator’s own opposition to Nazism is based strictly on class and ideological grounds. He shares the orthodox Communist understanding of Nazism as an advanced stage of capitalism rather than a novel movement rooted in biological racism.

In reality, Weiss’s family fled Germany in 1935 because his father was Jewish, a fact he had concealed from Peter. The Weisses went first to London, where they lived for almost two years, and then to Czechoslovakia. After Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland in late 1938, they drew on family connections to escape to Stockholm, where Weiss would spend the rest of his life. The story resembles that of many other Jewish-German refugees of the period; Anne Frank’s family made a similar flight, finding refuge in Amsterdam. The fact that the Germans invaded the Netherlands and not Sweden explains the difference between Anne Frank’s fate and Peter Weiss’s.

There is no obligation for Weiss’s narrator to be Jewish just because he was—after all, Proust made the same kind of change in his novel—but the erasure of this dimension of the story tends to falsify the novel’s understanding of Nazism and anti-Nazism. It is akin to the way postwar communism thought about Nazi war crimes, preferring to speak of fascists and antifascists rather than Germans and Jews. And it’s a reminder, among many others in The Aesthetics of Resistance, that communism’s promise of historical X-ray vision, the ability to see through to the inner logic of events, depends on a willingness to leave much of the truth in darkness.