To be an American in Europe is to live in the future of events, but in the past of news. On the morning of November 8, 2016, I woke up in Berlin with a sense of dread. Six to ten hours behind me, Americans were sleeping, trying to sleep, finding themselves unable to sleep. Over the course of the next 24 hours, just under half of them, if history was any guide, would each perform a simple task, pulling a lever, or checking a box, or touching a square on a screen, physical movements inconsequential in and of themselves but which, in aggregate, would impact nearly everyone on the planet for at least the next four years. The ritual of voting in a presidential election had seemed to me, in the previous chances I’d been given to participate in it, to be little more than a final pseudo-event crowning an ever-lengthening season of pseudo-events: nominating contests, rallies, nationally televised addresses, news conferences, party conventions, debates, get-out-the-vote efforts, ground games, advertising blitzes, polling prognostications, horse races, endorsements, editorials, scandals, October surprises. But this time around the character of some of these pseudo-events had been so bizarre and so ugly, so laced with tawdriness and violence, that I wondered whether the bromide “this is the most consequential election of our lifetimes” wasn’t actually going to prove true, whether these pseudo-events wouldn’t, with hindsight, need to be retroactively shorn of their prefixes. In any event, I thought, as I stood on the balcony of my apartment with a mug of espresso and my first cigarette of the day, looking in the direction of the Fernsehturm, which had yet to emerge from the morning haze, hindsight was coming, and there was nothing left for me to do but distract myself while I waited for it.
It seemed like a good idea to avoid the screen, but my resolve didn’t last long. The book I was reading at the time, On the Natural History of Destruction, a collection of W. G. Sebald’s lectures and essays about the literature of the Second World War, concludes with a piece on the German-Swedish writer Peter Weiss. Like most English-speakers who had heard of him, I knew of Weiss only as the author of the 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 for short), which had been made into a film starring Patrick Magee and Glenda Jackson during the brief vogue for interwar European aesthetic programs—in this case Brecht’s Epic Theater and Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty—among the countercultures of Britain and the United States in the 1960s. Sebald, however, mentions Marat/Sade only in passing. Instead, he discusses Weiss’s early career as a painter; his surreal autobiographical novella, Leavetaking; his controversial documentary play about the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, The Investigation; and, at greatest length, his late three-volume novel about the German anti-fascist underground, The Aesthetics of Resistance. This is not only because Marat/Sade, a play about the French Revolution, stood outside the historical frame of Sebald’s essay, but also, as I would soon learn, turning to my phone to look up Weiss’s Wikipedia page, because it is overshadowed in Germany by The Aesthetics of Resistance, which is considered to be one of the most important novels of the postwar period—Weiss’s “magnum opus,” in Sebald’s words. Moving my thumb upward, I learned that the first volume takes place, in part, in neighborhoods that were within walking distance of my house; moving my thumb back down again, I learned, as my eye registered a detail that struck me as not just a coincidence but as a coincidence of a particularly Sebaldian nature, that Weiss had been born to a Hungarian Jewish father and a Swiss mother in a suburb of Berlin on November 8, 1916, exactly one hundred years before.
On my rounds through the neighborhood that afternoon to pick up food and drinks for the election-viewing party my partner and I would be hosting in the evening, I stopped by the local English bookshop and purchased a copy of the first volume of The Aesthetics of Resistance, the only one that had been translated, in 2005, by Joachim Neugroschel, who died in 2011. While I waited for the guests to arrive, I lay on the couch in the living room, with CNN projected on the blank wall above my head, reading the foreword by Fredric Jameson. By the time the doorbell rang, at around nine, I was halfway through the novel’s majestic opening scene, set in the Pergamonmuseum, then as now one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. In the scene, the unnamed narrator, loosely based on Weiss, discusses the frieze of the eponymous Hellenistic altar with his comrades Hans Coppi and Horst Heilmann, who are members of the Rote Kapelle (the Red Orchestra), one of Berlin’s clandestine anti-Nazi resistance organizations, and who, like nearly all the other characters in the novel, were based on real historical personages. Weiss’s documentary treatment of his subject matter was not the only compelling aesthetic feature of the book, however. With its unbroken paragraphs, its inset dialogue, its surreal transitions, its long descriptions of dozens of artworks, and its essayistic digressions on art, literature, history and, of course, politics, The Aesthetics of Resistance, it seemed to me, was a missing link in the development of a certain strand of European modernism, connecting Kafka and Beckett, on the one hand, to writers like Sebald and Krasznahorkai (who wrote a novel called The Melancholy of Resistance), on the other. While a new generation of American writers, myself included, had been crediting Thomas Bernhard—whose major works had all been translated—as the originator of these stylistic techniques, Weiss had in point of fact arrived at them first, and in his own distinctive way. What distinguishes the two writers’ transpositions of the Beckettian dramatic monologue into historical space is, in the first place, a matter of narrative voice and tone: the cranky rants of Bernhard’s self-hating bourgeois loners versus the searching exhortations of Weiss’s earnest working-class militants. But Weiss’s novel distinguishes itself in another respect as well: it is explicitly political fiction. Indeed, with The Aesthetics of Resistance, Weiss was attempting something rare in the history of the form: a novel that marries vanguard politics and avant-garde aesthetics.
I bookmarked the page and went to go answer the door. When I pulled it out again, it was November 9th, Schicksalstag, or the Day of Fate as it is known in Germany, because of all the dramatic events that have taken place on it: the execution of Robert Blum, the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Beer Hall Putsch, Kristallnacht, the fall of the Berlin Wall. The last guests had gone home hours ago, some mumbling hopeful phrases as they put on their coats, others taking their leave without saying goodbye, in states of silent shock. I had not in fact slept, and so I received the news, like an American, with the rest of America. “So did she win?” my partner asked, when I woke her up for work. Whenever she recounts this story, she makes sure to describe the look on my face when I answered.
The 2016 election turned out to be an event after all. And Trump himself, I’d go so far as to say, turned out to be an Event, in a grander, more metaphysical sense: he was a black hole whose gravitational pull swallowed up all other aspects of life. From the moment he became president-elect to the moment he boarded Air Force One for Mar-a-Lago some fifty months later, hardly a day passed when I did not think of him. In the real economy from which he came he may have been a failure and a fraud, but in the attention economy he owned—to use a representative phrase from the times—real estate in my brain, and in the brains of everyone I knew. To call this “Trump derangement syndrome,” as the right did, was not incorrect, it was just blaming the victim: except for the people who work for or with them, no one in a healthy liberal democracy should have to spend so much time thinking about politicians, and especially not the executive. The truly substantial issues of the day—the climate crisis, extreme wealth inequality, a broken health-care system, a cruel immigration system, the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, the mass shootings, the forever wars, the racism at the heart of America’s political system, legal system, economic system and culture—preexisted Trump, and are still here, but he acted as a coefficient for all of these conflicts as a shocked and splintered majority, walled off from legislative power, tried to solve what problems it could on its own, operating in the theaters that remained available to it: civil society, the media and the street. And it was there that Trump and his supporters—inside and outside the recognized institutions of American governance—met them.
During the Trump administration, I published ten essays, and in half of them, I mentioned or alluded to him. In part I was responding to the incentives of literary journalism, which often requires you to make a case to your editor that the obscure writer whose reprint you are reviewing is somehow relevant to the present moment. But in part, I’m not proud to admit, it was because I saw Trump refracted through everything, including everything I read. In one of these essays, I even mocked the genre of think piece generated by the formula “How X predicts Y” or “What X can teach us about Y” or “Y is a modern-day X,” where Y is “Donald Trump” and X is defined as “any historical, literary or philosophical personage, text or theory,” no matter how apparently tangential. But then I wrote precisely that piece. Over and over again. Even though he is no longer in office, I am writing it still. I may have been the only American who found himself in the middle of The Aesthetics of Resistance at the moment Trump was elected president, but the moment colored my reading of the book just as surely as the book colored my reading of the moment.
Paradoxically, the deluge of historical and literary references suggested nothing so much as an admission that the situation was radically novel. We were trying to tie Gulliver down to familiar reality with the chains of precedent, a not atypical impulse during moments of political uncertainty. It seemed as though we threw every possible analogy at the Trump Event, but there is no question that one stuck more tenaciously than any other: the analogy to fascism. Almost as soon as Trump took power, liberals styled themselves the #Resistance, Never-Trump Republicans began to refer to their former colleagues as Vichy Republicans, and for the first time Antifa, a normal part of life in Europe, became a major factor in American politics, if largely as a bogeyman for right-wing media. The “fascism debate,” as it became known, continued throughout the Trump presidency, making careers and unmaking friendships. It generated sub-debates such as “Legitimate or Illegitimate?,” “Weimar or Just America?,” “Second Civil War or Low-Intensity Civil Conflict?” and “Coup, Putsch or Autogolpe?,” which often felt like debates about the proper term for the iceberg toward which the U.S.S. Constitutional Republic seemed to be headed with frightening speed, because no one was quite sure how to peaceably constrain the mad captain in the cockpit. To understand a phenomenon, to give it its proper taxonomy, to explain where it came from, may be a prerequisite for changing it (though just as often it isn’t), but in this case, whichever side you took on these questions—whether you thought the jackboot fit or whether you thought it was being hysterically shoehorned onto the wrong foot—it was clear that the struggle for control over concepts, slogans and narratives was motivated on all sides by a lack of control over the people to whom they referred, but also by the tacit acknowledgment that, in the Trump era, the virtual itself had become a theater of political struggle. For better or worse, the fascism debate shaped the way we understood our moment, and we will never know how things might have looked if we had settled on some different point of comparison. Fascism was what Carlo Ginzburg called the “interpretive framework” through which we viewed the politics and culture of the era, and this in itself is a fact historians will have to explain.
Viewing the situation from Berlin, the analogy was, in any case, impossible to avoid. From the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe across from the American Embassy in the heart of town to the playgrounds built in the empty spaces created by RAF bombing raids to the brass-plated Stolpersteine, or Stumbling Stones, in front of my mother-in-law’s apartment, listing the names of the people who had been removed and sent to their deaths in concentration camps, to the memorial for the resistance fighters who were tortured and executed by the Gestapo in Plötzensee Prison, Coppi and Heilmann and the other members of the Rote Kapelle among them, there is not a single block in Berlin that does not bear some reminder of the horrors of Hitler’s twelve-year Reich. As one of the principles on which the current German state bases its legitimacy is the remembrance of these horrors and their victims, the taboo against fascist symbolism and speech is backed by the force of law, while the bar for what counts as unacceptably-close-to-fascism is much lower than in the United States. And in an irony lost on no one here—even on the party members of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland—the so-called Leader of the Free World had obviously cleared it.
Living in the capital of Germany, where head-of-state functions and head-of-government functions are split between two people, one other thing jumped out at me. Trump leaned into his head-of-state functions to a degree and for purposes that none of his recent predecessors had. During his tenure, the “bully pulpit” became quite literal: he used it not in order to pass this or that piece of legislation, but as a means of retaining his hold on the office that he had been handed, despite his refusal to admit it, by a minority of the electorate. He may have legislated and governed like a movement conservative—that is, very little; and on those few occasions, unpopularly, incompetently and corruptly—but history will remember him for successfully reducing the executive to the Twitter account with which he spontaneously announced policies, fired cabinet officials, tampered with witnesses, influenced the stock market, promoted consumer products, amplified conspiracy theories, harassed his critics and lukewarm supporters in the other branches of government and in the state houses, and commented on sporting events, award shows, celebrity gossip or whatever else he was watching on television, usually coverage of himself. It was precisely here that his presidency bore the closest relationship to what we call fascism, not only rhetorically—which likewise trafficked in bigotry, chauvinism, violence and falsehood—but also with respect to the relation this mode of governance proposed—minoritarian, nonparliamentary, symbolic. And it was largely on these grounds that his presidency attracted the loudest resistance from a motley, Popular Front-like coalition that included everyone from democratic socialists to former Republican operatives and CIA agents. Trump sought to revive a concept of political representation based not on the idea that people in government are temporary functionaries who carry out the policy preferences of numerical majorities, subject to the procedures of legal and bureaucratic review, but based on the idea that sovereignty lay with whoever symbolically identified with the person and statements of the executive. In the eyes of most Republicans—who, it should be admitted, had been tending in this direction for decades—there was or ought to be no light between nation, party and leader. To them, his word, however often it might have changed, however rarely it was actualized in concrete policies, commanded belief and had the force of law. Trump, for his part, returned the compliment, often quoting his high approval ratings among registered Republicans as evidence of his popularity, as though a political faction were the entire citizenry, simply because it supported him. In German, there are words for this circular relation. They are Führerkult and Führerprinzip.
Critics of analogies to fascism were quick to warn that nothing Trump or his supporters had done had yet to approach the scale of what Hitler had done, and argued that it was important to make a hard distinction between virtual signs (rhetoric, relations, symbolism) and material structures (institutional changes, legislation, paramilitary organizations). Whereas the warning seemed to be prudent and necessary for keeping matters in proportion, the distinction struck me as less tenable. To make an analogy is not to claim that a phenomenon has repeated itself in all respects, it is to draw one’s attention to the continuities that nonetheless persist through historical change, and one of these—our hypermediated relationship with state power—had, at the very least, called the distinction between the virtual and the material into question. The fascist relation between leader and “people” can only be established when traditional communications bureaucracies—whether these are privately owned media such as newspapers and cable-news networks or the state’s recognized press shop—are first bypassed, then co-opted. In this respect Trump’s use of digital media and cable news had the same aims and function as Hitler and Goebbels’s use of radio and the film reel (the sole means by which these two historical personages appear in The Aesthetics of Resistance), and this cannot be dismissed as evidence in favor of the analogy simply on the grounds that getting quacked at by a duck is less painful than getting pecked at by one.
Perhaps things in the United States seemed different when viewed from close up. Indeed, on the handful of occasions I returned home—for three weddings, a funeral and the launch of my novel—the familiar hum of daily life diluted what the screen distilled. That is, until March 2020, when daily life broke down and the screen became the common denominator of global experience, making the proper domains of the virtual and the material, the aesthetic and the political, harder and harder to keep separate. In a further coincidence, the last piece of mail I received from the United States before the pandemic disrupted the international postal service was a copy of Joel Scott’s translation of the second volume of The Aesthetics of Resistance, which was published into the void of that month, and more or less disappeared from notice.
In 1970, after five years in which he received increasing recognition as a playwright and became increasingly active in the international movement against the Vietnam War and in Sweden’s communist party, Weiss suffered a severe heart attack. The thousand pages of The Aesthetics of Resistance were written over the course of the next ten years. They were to be Weiss’s last: he died in May 1982, shortly after publishing the third and final volume. He was awarded the Büchner Prize, West Germany’s highest literary honor, posthumously.1 In the diary where he kept meticulous notes on his research, he confided that he believed his work on the project was sapping him of his strength and hastening his death. In every respect, The Aesthetics of Resistance reads like a dying man’s attempt at a final summation of his life and artistic career, as well as of his era, the era that began on his first birthday with the establishment of the Soviet Union, and which, by the early Eighties, was slowly being swept into the dustbin of history by the brooms of stagnation and liberalization. Weiss’s personal experiences as a refugee, exile and activist are all reflected in the novel, as is his artistic training as a painter and a playwright. In many ways, The Aesthetics of Resistance is a reprise of the central conflict of Marat/Sade, in which the revolutionary Marat takes the position that art should be subordinated to the end of realizing, via political action, justice and human happiness, and the novelist Sade takes the position that this is not only impossible, it blunts and corrupts the only weapon, namely art, that conscious beings have to defend themselves against the ineradicable cruelties of physical and metaphysical suffering. But in the novel this clash of ideas is transferred to the period of the Third Reich, and blown up to an epic scale, as though the madhouse in Charenton had become all of Europe.
Instead of a plot, the Künstlerroman follows the narrator’s development from working-class autodidact to member of the International Brigades to the exiled novelist who writes the book we are reading. The first two volumes are set in Berlin, the Czechoslovakian countryside, the Spanish front, Paris and Stockholm. “During this period every day could be called historic,” he remarks, without exaggeration, of the years leading up to the Second World War, which saw the fall of the Spanish Republic, the Munich Conference, the Anschluss of Austria, Kristallnacht, the Soviet invasion of Finland, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the collapse of the Popular Front. The characters engage in espionage, make illegal border crossings, witness mob violence, attend demonstrations, participate in armed struggle, are interrogated by the police and flee into exile, but these dramatic events occupy little of the first two volumes of the book. Most of the action takes place in small rooms, as Jameson notes in his foreword, and mostly what the characters do in them is debate. And debate. And debate.
Lively and heated argument, Weiss shows, was an essential component of working-class political culture. It was valued, on a personal level, as a tool of information sharing and refinement of ideas for those who were excluded from formal educational institutions and had to spend their days engaged in exhausting factory labor; and it was valued, on a supra-personal level, as a means for each militant to participate, under the metaphor of the dialectic, in what they all believed was the immanent unfolding of history via contradiction into the paradise of the workers’ state. (Which was to be followed, let’s not forget, by the “withering away” of the state form altogether.) It is in this spirit that the narrator discusses the events and issues of the day with his friends, family and comrades. “It was by fighting out conflicts, contradictions that we found what we had in common,” the narrator writes. “There had been rejections, difficulties, and always the striving to pass through thesis and antithesis in order to achieve a condition that was valid for … us. Just as divergences, disagreements gave rise to new ideas, so too did every action emerge from the clash of antagonisms.” The particular terminology in which these disagreements were conducted was fading in relevance even as Weiss recorded them, some thirty to forty years after the fact; to most contemporary readers, reading them at another forty years’ remove, they are likely to seem downright arcane. But so too will the terms of our debates appear to readers forty years from now, if not much sooner than that, as the technologically accelerated wave of tomorrow’s discourse-fashions washes the sand of today’s smooth, and the emotional contexts that lend them their urgency are lost to memory. Yet if they are intelligible to us at all, it is because, while specific contexts change rapidly, structures of thought, feeling and being change at a much slower rate. (Some, in fact, never change.) This is one of the things that makes it possible to translate experiences across the contingencies of time, place and circumstance—in other words, to make historical analogies.2
For example, in the narrator’s debates with his father about why so many of their fellow workers turned to fascism, I recognized the flood of commentary that feebly attempted to make sense of why the so-called white working class had come out in such large numbers for Trump, and remained fanatically loyal to him, in apparent violation of their economic interests and their previously stated principles. In the narrator’s debates (again with his father) about the advisability of making tactical alliances with reform-minded Social Democrats in the face of a common threat, despite “their lack of instinct for … mortal danger,” and the fact that they “were more concerned about their prestige than opposing the advance of fascism,” I saw those about whether the American left should “hold its nose” and vote for the politically suspect and personally senescent Joe Biden in the 2020 election, as it had been less willing to do for Clinton in 2016. In the narrator’s discussions with Max Hodann, the physician who had brought him from Berlin to work as a medical orderly behind the lines in Spain, and Marcauer, a female soldier in the Luxemburg Battalion, about the persistence of patriarchy and sexual assault within the supposedly egalitarian ranks in Spain, I recognized contemporary outrage about their persistence in every sector of American public life. In both periods, reporters succumbed to the temptation to turn the events of the day into a “cheap thriller,” “served up” to audiences as a “sensational game.”
In the middle of the fascist period proper, the narrator even conducts a version of our own fascism debate—wondering whether it was a political form specific to contemporary Germany, Italy and Spain or whether the term ought not to be extended to the British and French empires, whether it was fair to apply the term “social fascism” to the Social Democrats in Western European parliaments and, indeed, whether some of the things that were happening in the Soviet Union weren’t disturbingly similar to those that were happening in Nazi Germany. Just as we looked to their period to understand our own, the narrator and his mentor Bertolt Brecht, then at work on a play drawn from the history of Sweden, the country where both characters find themselves in exile in the second volume, were looking over their shoulders at historical precedents. They turn to medieval Swedish history “to analyze the interplay between past and present experience,” in hopes of discovering “something about the roots of the developments that continued to repeat themselves.”
No one in our time suffered remotely the consequences of Lenin’s erstwhile collaborator Willi Münzenberg, who was expelled from the Party and ostracized during the Stalinist Terror, let alone Marcauer, who is arrested and disappeared for refusing to keep silent about Moscow’s mismanagement of the war effort in Spain. Still, it was difficult not to notice the parallels between Weiss’s description of the wholesale destruction of working-class debating culture from within and the implosion of the left-liberal public sphere during the Trump years. There was the same relativization of truth to short-term political tactics, personal loyalties and ideological shibboleths. Good-faith disagreement evaporated into the same cloud of mutual suspicion about conscious and unconscious biases and motives. The external pressures on both discourse cultures may have varied widely in intensity, but in each case the spirit of openness and fearless speech withered into self-protective silence. “How could we even think of a discussion,” Hodann is asked at a meeting shortly before Marcauer’s arrest, “if every utterance was to be recorded and, should occasion arise, be laid at the speaker’s door,” when “free speech” could be equated with “factionalism” and “eliminated” on those grounds. As these external pressures grew, disagreements between people who all identified as leftists, and who were committed, in principle, to the same ends, served more often to demonstrate loyalty to positions rather than to refine or change them, let alone to find common ground between them.
Ultimately what the two times and places had in common were high degrees of politicization, by which I mean that “the political,” usually defined in some question-begging way, came in each to be the lens through which all aspects of life, no matter how apparently insignificant, had to be viewed, the standard against which their value would be measured and judged. The prevailing mood was increasingly one of existential crisis, which produced cycles of hysteria and cynicism, along with the “flair for conspiracy everywhere.” If it seems trivializing to remark on the similarity between the reactions to the events of both periods, it is not because there is no parallel between them, it is because more often than not the parallel was: first as tragedy, then as farce. There is no doubt that in seeing these analogies I, too, was participating in the paranoia of the time, but by now paranoia has become a generational rite of passage for Americans. Whether because it was never going to happen anyway, or whether our vigilance had prevented it from happening—or whether the vaunted democratic institutions that had taken such a thrashing over the previous four years finally held—Trump did leave the White House, and Americans, who frequently spoke about him in apocalyptic (or if they supported him, messianic) terms, spared themselves the risk of the apocalyptic violence Weiss describes in the third, as-yet-untranslated volume of The Aesthetics of Resistance, which spans the Second World War and the Holocaust, and depicts, in graphic detail, the gruesome martyrdom of the Rote Kapelle in Plötzensee Prison in 1942. Yet, watching from Berlin, I saw things no living American had ever seen before: I saw a pandemic kill more Americans than died in the Civil War; I saw the largest anti-police uprising in American history inspire solidarity protests across the world, including a fifteen-thousand-person demonstration on Alexanderplatz; I saw armored vehicles roll down the streets of Washington, D.C. to suppress it and armed vigilantes gun down peaceful protesters; I saw a white mob invade the Capitol building to overturn the results of a national election.
Now, less than a year after these events, it sometimes seems as though they are ancient history, or that they never happened at all; since the worst-case scenario did not come to pass, it almost feels in poor taste to “bring up again” the one that did. Weiss captures this sense of unreality well: “There was no longer a view into the frothing, the sludge of time, we were orbited by nothing but the present; everything that was perceptible shifted so quickly and slightly that even now we scarcely seemed to exist and threatened to disappear in an instant, to drift into oblivion.” If it is the special purview of art to resist oblivion, it is clear that, whatever Trump’s political and legal future holds, we are not yet done with him, or with the political style that he, more successfully than any other politician in the modern era, found a way to inject into the highest levels of American governance and political culture.
“Must we now read a decade’s worth of Trump novels?” the critic Christian Lorentzen asks in the “Life After Trump” wrap-up that appeared in Harper’s magazine in February 2021. “Literature,” he continues, “metabolizes history constantly but slowly,” and the “ripple” of novels that attempted to grapple with the Trump era in real time may very well turn into a “wave” as writers turn their attentions to the other two related phenomena that will be linked with his administration in “common memory”: the coronavirus pandemic and the move to life online. Despite the fact that the literary landscape of the United States is “a vast realist kingdom” characterized by “moral didacticism, formal conventionality, [and] political consensus,” and despite the consolidations of a corporate publishing industry that sees itself as “the first stop in the supply chain for streaming entertainment,” Lorentzen notes that conditions are “ripe for another aesthetic revolution,” like the one last seen a century ago, when the world had just emerged from the Spanish flu, inequality was rampant, little magazines flourished on the margins of corporate publishing, modernism was at its height, and ambiguity, irony and difficulty were not just tolerated but venerated aesthetic features of works of literature.
Writing for the New York Times, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen voiced a different set of concerns about the near-term future of American literature. “Mr. Trump,” he wrote, “destroyed the ability of white writers to dwell in the apolitical. Everyone had to make a choice, especially in the face of a pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, both of which brought the life-or-death costs of systemic racism and economic inequality into painful focus.” This, he concludes, was an admirable but overdue reaction by “mainstream” authors to political conditions that had existed before Trump, and would not end with him. “In 2021,” he wondered, “will writers, especially white writers, take a deep breath of relief and retreat back to the politics of the apolitical, which is to say a retreat back to white privilege?” Or would they join “the marginalized: writers of color, queer and trans writers, feminist writers, anticolonial writers” in producing fiction with “explicit politics”?
Competition between the claims and domains of the aesthetic and the political is not, of course, specific to American literature, nor is it limited to any particular era, let alone the four (admittedly interminable) years Trump spent in the White House. The debate has been with us in one form or another since the dawn of recorded history (if not before), and while it takes on a special acuteness in certain times and not others, it will continue to be with us until the last traces of human consciousness and social organization are extinguished from the planet. Nor is it surprising, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, that in an age when the American right aestheticizes politics, the American left has responded by politicizing art. Yet it is not entirely clear from Nguyen’s op-ed what the explicitly political novel is supposed to do: producing empathy and performing symbolic reparations by paying lip service to “diversity” are suggested and rightly, in my view, discarded as insufficient, but aside from securing an explicitly political writer a book contract, nothing concrete is proposed in their place. If the answer is that novelists should contribute to the production of a desired political outcome through their fiction, it is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on why, in the current media environment, the novel is particularly ill-suited to achieving this.
The success of a novel that has been instrumentalized for political purposes—that is, written according to the conventions of the literary genre known as propaganda—requires that it reach the greatest number of readers, in order to influence their attitudes, and hopefully their views and behaviors. For this, formal familiarity and simplicity of message tend to produce the best results; innovativeness and difficulty impede reception, which in turn drives down the size of the audience, while ambiguity and complexity impede the transmission of the desired attitude and prevent decisive action. This is why literary propagandists have typically chosen to carry over the representational techniques of the standard realist novel, by replacing the socially normative characters and milieus with marginalized versions of the same, and by placing them in plots where the moral valences of the characters’ actions are easy to distinguish. (That this strategy is in every respect similar to the market logic of entertainment is not a good reason to reject its classification as propaganda, it is rather a good reason to include entertainment in the classification; and this is why America’s corporate publishing industry, the only institution currently capable of reaching readers on the required scale, has been more than happy to produce this kind of book.) Unfortunately, because of the slow speed of its production cycle, even in this stripped-down form, the novel is still an inefficient vehicle for the transmission of writing that hopes to make a political impact, especially when its production speed is compared to that of social-media memes, investigative reporting, op-ed commentaries and even book-length nonfiction titles, perhaps the defining literary form, measured in terms of sales, of the Trump era. What the novel has that these other literate media (and also audiovisual media) lack is prestige: it remains the form from which the culture expects the kind of serious reflection we designate with the name “art.” By instrumentalizing the form, however, the explicitly political novelist depletes the novel’s symbolic power, and gets little in return.
The contemporary American novelist who is nevertheless looking to write a book that transcends “formal conventionality” without retreating into “the politics of the apolitical” could do worse than to turn to The Aesthetics of Resistance for inspiration, as this is its central project. By now it will not come as a surprise to hear that Weiss does so by staging the debate between the aesthetic and the political itself, in its many permutations, through long discussions of the political implications of artworks as various as the Pergamon Altar, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Kafka’s The Castle, Neukrantz’s proletarian novel Barricades in Wedding, Gaudí’s Sagrada Família, Lindbæk’s participatory journalism, Picasso’s Guernica, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, Dadaism, Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris, Brecht’s Epic Theater, Boye’s dystopian science-fiction novel Kallocain and the Angkor Wat temple complex. Consider the opening scene at the Pergamonmuseum, which is concerned with how we should approach the problematic political inheritance of cherished artworks from the past. The famous frieze of the Pergamon Altar depicts a gigantomachy: the defeat of the race of the Giants by the Olympian gods. It was commissioned by the rulers of the Attalid dynasty to be an allegory for their recent victory over the Galatians, and was first prepared for excavation by German archaeologists during the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars and installed in Berlin as a monument to the establishment of Wilhelm’s Kaiserreich. In the depictions of the defeated Giants and their Galatian models, Coppi, Heilmann and the narrator see the laborers who built the altar and identify with them. Coppi argues, quite reasonably, that he should not be asked to venerate a monument to his own subjection, especially not in the name of a culture that excludes him from education and cultural representation. In the luxurious, ornamental forms of the altar’s sculptures he doesn’t see an aesthetic triumph, he sees class privilege. He calls instead for a simple, unadorned art and literature created by, for and about his fellow workers. Heilmann agrees, but argues that the way to approach the altar is first by historicizing it, and then by taking what is valuable from it for their own purposes: “In order to come to ourselves … we have to re-create not only culture but also all science and scholarship by relating them to our concerns.” Social-realist art rejects privilege tout court, but by throwing out the formal baby with the bathwater of content, it also participates in its own exclusion. Later, leaving Coppi’s house, the narrator asks himself, “Why … must we always let ourselves be driven to deny ourselves even something that costs us nothing but our mulling, merely to confirm that we have been dispossessed once and for all?”3
While it is clear that in this debate Weiss’s sympathies are, in the final analysis, with Heilmann, Coppi’s concerns are forcefully presented, and not merely out of the kind of liberal broad-mindedness that extends interpretive charity to opposing views made in good faith, or to the view, held by an ideological novelist such as, say, Dostoevsky, that it is necessary to demolish the strongest possible counterargument to make one’s case. Weiss makes it clear that Coppi’s views are not only legitimate in themselves, they are dialectically necessary for the emergence of Heilmann’s views (and, by extension, the narrator’s). In this and the subsequent debates that occupy the novel, he also makes it clear that what all the characters are fighting for is a world that, by being more just, will also be more beautiful, even if their views of how that will look ultimately differ. As the Soviet journalist and novelist Ilya Ehrenburg tells the narrator in Spain, we are fighting “because we want the world, in which our literature too belongs, to be freed of disfigurement.” The theft of time and labor, the withholding of shared material and cultural resources, the unequal application of common rules, the demand for deference and subordination to arbitrary authority, the interference with people’s relationships to others and with themselves, all of which are coerced by violence or the threat of violence, disfigures the lives of those who suffer from each of these (and also, in different ways, those who perpetrate and benefit from it) by preventing them, in some greater or lesser but always inexcusable degree, from determining to the greatest extent possible the course their own lives will take. Political activity—including passionate debate about strategies, tactics and ideals—will always be necessary to combat, mitigate and reverse these disfigurements, but as soon as people who participate in it forget that it is a means to this end—as soon as they treat political activity as the end to which all other human activities, including art, must be subordinated—they risk producing these very disfigurements themselves, as The Aesthetics of Resistance records. “How is politics supposed to help us … when it is politics that has got us into this hopeless situation in the first place?” asks Rosalinde von Ossietzky-Palm, the daughter of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist and journalist Carl von Ossietzky, who has recently died in Gestapo custody from the tuberculosis he caught during his imprisonment in the Esterwegen concentration camp. The question is well taken. Human beings will probably always be forced to live in this contradiction, but Ossietzky-Palm’s rhetorical question helps the narrator see that the first step to resolving it is to resist the temptation to treat politics as something abstract, or as an end in itself.
In a key passage in the third volume, Hodann sums up the parameters of the debate we are still having to this day. “It may be the case,” he remarks, “that some people are dominated by the idea of an unbridgeable gap between art and political life, while for others art is precisely inseparable from politics.” Perhaps these are even “different conceptions of the same basic matter” and the antinomy will cease to arise under the conditions of a just social, political and economic order. Yet, as Weiss surely knew, writing these words in the early Eighties, the political has a horizon: the universal fact of death. It seems unlikely that exploitation, want, cruelty, humiliation, hatred and other forms of human-made suffering will ever be eradicated, and to demand that art exist exclusively for the purpose of eradicating them is to condemn it to a kind of futility. But even were it possible to eradicate them, as many of the characters in The Aesthetics of Resistance clearly hope it is, we would still be left with our awareness of our mortality, and for that reason, art, which helps us to give meaning to our finitude, will always have a place outside political activity, which can only ever hasten or delay—or, should it be taken as an end in itself, distract from—this lonely confrontation with the inevitable.
“The approach to art was linked to the thought of death,” the narrator writes. “It then turned out in the measured, consciously implemented course of composition that touching on the thought of death, that life with death and with the dead in it, could trigger the drive to make art, but that the finished product was meant for the living, so that it had to be executed according to all the rules of living reception and reflection.” The narrator discovers his literary vocation in the failures of the revolutionary moment he participates in, its defeat at the hands of the fascists, the recognition of his exile and the martyrdom of his comrades: his book, he decides, will, like those artworks constructed by the painters he admires, be a “monument” to the “radical instants” his comrades once embodied. “The process of writing,” as Sebald observes in his essay on Weiss, “is the struggle against ‘the art of forgetting,’ a struggle that is as much part of life as melancholy is of death, a struggle consisting in the constant transfer of recollection into written signs.” And it is precisely in this struggle that aesthetic form takes on crucial importance: a work of art that subordinates its form to political purposes will disappear when time passes and these purposes succeed or fail, but a work of art of aesthetic force will survive—along with the radical instants depicted in it—into other times and places where it might function as a memory that helps the living live their mortal lives, with all the ironies, ambiguities and difficulties that inhere in them and which are passed on from one generation to the next, along with what Weiss calls “the realm of hopes.”
Political and economic regimes come and go, revolutions succeed and fail, power changes hands but remains power, and people continue to produce art in what we would call unspeakable conditions, were it not for the fact that in them, despite everything, they spoke of them, and of all the other things that mattered to them too, things that are not less significant simply because they have little or nothing to do with these conditions. This fortunate fact about human persistence in the face of horror does not mean that we are relieved from any duty to do what we can to prevent suffering, especially systematic human-caused suffering, but nor does it mean this is our sole duty, or that the way to do this is necessarily always a matter of politics. We are so used to asking what role art should play in changing these conditions that it sounds odd to point out that one of the reasons we do so is so that people can more easily create art, which has, among its many functions, the task of memorializing our experiences of the world, our beliefs about it and our hopes for its future. By creating physical objects that survive their creators and the world in which they were made, the artist helps to manufacture the continuity of our collective experience of historical time, and to the extent that it distinguishes itself, the work of art can become a symbol of that continuity. “Imagination lived so long as human beings who resisted lived,” the narrator writes, but in the end what Weiss demonstrates in The Aesthetic of Resistance is that the converse is also true, and just as important, then as now, for what the imagination always has and always will resist is death.
Art credit: Aris Kalaizis. Dream Protocol, oil on wood, 24 x 30 in., private collection (Germany), 2014; Homeland, oil on canvas, 55 x 71 in., Drents Museum, Netherlands, 2020; The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew or the Double Martyrdom, oil on canvas, 98 x 112 in., private collection (Germany), 2015. All images © Aris Kalaizis