Remarks on Christa Wolf’s “New Life and Opinions of a Tomcat”

Wolf, Christa, “Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers”,
in; Wolf, Christa, Erzählungen 1960-1980, Luchterhand
ISBN 3-630-62034-5

This is not a proper review, more like brief remarks which own their brevity to the shortness of the text in question. It’s a story by major GDR writer Christa Wolf, written in the early 1970s, published together with two other stories in 1974 in a collection that was subtitled “Drei unwahrscheinliche Geschichten” (that is ‘three improbable stories’). All three of those stories are masterful, the best of the three probably the scintillating titular story “Unter den Linden”. “Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers” (New Life and Opinions of a Tomcat) is, technically, probably the weakest story of the bunch, but it’s still fascinating reading. It pretends to be a ‘continuation’ of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (my review here), but in many ways it just employs its satirical spirit, while actually departing quite a bit from Hoffmann’s text. Wolf is passionate and direct, bleeding commitment into her text, she has no patience for Hoffmann’s genteel games; in this and other stories and books she portrays the outcry of the soul against stifling, destructive structures.

“Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers” is a much more earnest and serious text, really, much more direct in its criticism of society and the direction its heading towards than Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr. What Hoffmann did was provide an oblique critique channeled through a literary maze. Instead of commenting upon an issue directly, he comments upon other texts, presenting a multi-pronged kind of criticism that is as readable and topical, really, as it was when it was first published. Christa Wolf’s story is much more directly relevant to the social, political and cultural context of her time, down to phrases that echo the peculiar kind of neologisms common in the GDR (and the Third Reich, curiously). Its connection to Hoffmann’s text is a small one, constituted by the title and the conceit of the text being written by a tomcat on pages from a manuscript. However, while Hoffmann invented this in order to construct an elaborate book of fragments and two separate stories running in parallel, it serves no other purpose in Wolf’s story but to create the link to Hoffmann’s novel.

Wolf does not have two story-lines but she doesn’t just throw half of Hoffmann away, either. Instead, she brilliantly injects the basic thrust of the Kreisler story, if we subtract the Gothic plot, into the cat’s narrative. See, in Kreisler, Hoffmann depicts a romantic subjectivity which is at odds with the society around him and instead of succumbing to ‘reason’ persists as artistic spirit and is almost broken due to that decision. Wolf’s story is about a similar problem. It is about a group of scientists and thinkers who want to create a system that will make mankind happy, a system that ensures a maximum of spiritual and bodily health. And wouldn’t we all love that. Their proposals are then fed into a computer who, however, tells them that their ideas won’t work out. The model human being that the system is based on and the actual submitted system do not fit, they have to change one or the other. During the following weeks they work on the model human being, slowly stripping it of all things that are incompatible with a smoothly running system like they envisioned it.

Things to go first are elements like artistic creativity but reason and sexuality are thrown off board as well, in due course, as the computer continues to hand back to them their proposal as flawed and wrong, but it keeps assuring them they are on the right path. The computer is basically a mechanism forcing the scientists to ‘think things through’. It’s a wonder this story got published at all, since it clearly constitutes a criticism of the socialist (not Communist, mind you) enterprise, the attempt to think up, construct and maintain a system that nominally has man’s best interests at heart but, in actuality, does not have much room for human beings in it, unless they conform strictly to the ruling ideology. Individuals, here as in other places in Wolf’s work, such as the Quest for Christa T. (my review here) are at odds with that restrictive society. Wolf does not damn the idea of Communism, per se, in fact, as her work repeatedly clarifies, she considers it necessary, it is also liberating, but it must revolve around the individual and not an idea. If you have to adapt something, adapt the system and not the individuals living in it.

It’s quite clear how this connects to the ideas that drive the Kreisler sections of Hoffmann’s novel. But what about Murr and his equivalent in Wolf’s story, Max? Both are first person narrators of their story, both are philistines of a kind, but while Murr’s story is basically Murr’s Bildungsroman (a parody, actually, of the genre), Max is just an observer of the events. While Murr is talking about his life and reflecting mainly on himself, and his pet friends, Max is almost exclusively focused on humans. Murr’s reflections were part of a complex metafictional web Hoffmann was weaving in his book, which largely references and targets other books, while Wolf is having none of that. She is focused on the message and delivers it with few distractions, and she largely references and targets real world life and politics. Her dismay with the inflexible society that she was living in, is plain, and she’s clear about the fact that she doesn’t pit creativity against reason, since ‘reason”s another property that is left out of the model character. Like Hoffmann, she’s very clear about her commitments and unlike him, she delivers a scathing critique of the socialist state.

It is not her best story but indicative of qualities all her stories have, qualities that make her best stories shine like they do. Hers is a literary sensibility that is upfront about her criticisms and concerns yet is able to weave a complex literary text, with a use of intertextuality that frequently reminds me of Genette’s idea of a “continuation infidéle”. In this case, Wolf took on more than she could handle, her grip on the source text is weak, and the simple structure is too simple to do any kind of justice to Hoffmann’s novel, which really hurts the impact of the story. In other texts, she is far more proficient in this. It is nevertheless recommended, like everything of hers. If you cannot read German, do not despair: the story can be found in a collection of her short prose, What Remains and other stories, translated by Heike Schwarzbauer and Rick Takvorian, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1995. Pick it up, why don’t you.

Fair and Balanced?

Some of these days it hurts to look at the paper or at message boards I usually frequent, especially when the name ‘Israel’ crops up. I’m glad there’s some sanity in the world still, though. There’s Max Boot, bitter and flippant but sadly correct in saying this in the Commentary

After reading the Goldstone Report on human-rights abuses committed during the Gaza War (December 27, 2008–January 19, 2009), all I can say is, it’s a good thing that the United Nations wasn’t around during World War II. I can just imagine its producing a supposedly evenhanded report that condemned the Nazis for “grave” abuses such as incinerating Jews, while also condemning the Allies for their equally “grave” abuses such as fire-bombing German and Japanese cities. The recommendation, no doubt, would have been that both sides be tried for war crimes, with Adolf Hitler in the dock alongside Franklin Roosevelt. Actually, that may be giving the UN more credit than it deserves. To judge by the evidence before us, the likelihood is that the UN in those days would have devoted far more space to Allied “abuses” than to those of the Axis and would have recommended that FDR stand alone before the world court.

and on the more careful side, Dan Kosky, in a very considered, well argued article in the Guardian states, among other things

Grave doubts over the investigative process have been realised by the mission’s conclusions. … The report is replete with dubious statistics and sources. Casualty figures are quoted from the Gaza based Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), a politically motivated organisation, which consistently refers to terrorism as “resistance”. PCHR’s faulty statistics include senior Hamas military figures such as Nizar Rayan and Said Siam, as civilians.

Reading the report, one would be unaware of Hamas’s human-shield strategy, a significant contributory factor to the civilian deaths in Gaza. … Although he states: “Palestinian armed groups were present in urban areas during the military operations and launched rockets from urban areas”, he avoids the logical conclusion of the massive use of human shields. … Yet, rather than state the inconvenient truth, the report reinforces preconceived Israeli culpability.

Goldstone is similarly evasive over the unreliability of key “eyewitnesses”. … The report applies entirely illogical reasoning, failing to elaborate on “a certain reluctance by the persons … interviewed in Gaza to discuss the activities of armed groups”. This observation provides a glimpse of the dangers faced by those speaking out against the regime in Gaza, yet Goldstone omits to mention how Hamas intimidation undermines witnesses and with it the very foundation for his conclusions.

Brian Wood: DMZ

Wood, Brian; Riccardo Burchielli (2006), DMZ: On the Ground, Vertigo
ISBN 978-4012-1062-5

Wood, Brian; Riccardo Burchielli (2007), DMZ: Body of a Journalist, Vertigo
ISBN 978-4012-1247-6

Wood, Brian; Riccardo Burchielli (2007), DMZ: Public Works, Vertigo
ISBN 978-4012-1476-0

Sometimes I’m confused. Sometimes, a book will come along that confuses me for one reason or other. I recently finished Erwin Mortier’s novel Marcel which I really wanted to like but which is actually bad, I think, for various reasons, but my heart is still with it. Another kind of confusion is caused by books like Brian Wood’s DMZ series of graphic novels/comics. Really, they are excellently written, well conceived and all three artists that I’ve so far encountered within the pages of DMZ did an excellent job, nuanced, expressive, precise. What’s more, they are eminently readable, it takes restraint not to go out and read every volume that has so far been published. But when I stacked the books on my desk a moment ago and decided to write a review, I was confused, confused mostly by the fact that I find myself dissatisfied with the whole enterprise, and it’s not something that is likely to improve in later volumes. For me there is something deeply unsatisfactory in what Wood attempts here. Bear with me and I’ll try to explain.

DMZ: On the Ground, the first volume, introduces the characters and the basic problem they face. Matt Roth, a young man, filled with the ambition to make it as a journalist, has a father with enough influence to get him onto a helicopter that flies Ferguson, a famous TV journalist into a New York, which has become a front in a new civil war between the United States of America and the Free States, who rose against the US, leading a guerrilla warfare all across the country. Since the Free States appear to operate in cells, there is no steady front line, except for New York, i.e. the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, adjacent both to the Free States and the United States. The DMZ, as its name suggests, contains no soldiers, just civilians, except for the occasional hostile action by one or the other party. As we learn in a story in the second volume, “Zee York”, events that led to the establishment of the DMZ happened so quick that those who stayed did not necessarily do so intentionally. So what happened was that a microcosm was created containing civilians committed to New York, crooks, and terrorists. Due to the constant shooting and the dangers of living there, no journalists are living there as DMZ: On the Ground sets in, which is the main reason for Ferguson to want to go there.

Once they arrive there, however, the helicopter is shot down; Matt Roth barely escapes with his life and some of the equipment that Ferguson and the crew were carrying. Henceforth Roth is the only photojournalist in the DMZ, with exclusive access to the people and events in one of the hottest zones of conflict in the world (at one point, we are told about the international reactions to events taking place there, which reveals just how important and central the DMZ is to the historical narrative outside). In the three books I read, he learns to survive, he learns about both parties involved, is confronted with corruption and the limits of freedom of the press in times of war. We get to know some of the people living in the DMZ and the motivations that make them get up in the morning and go about their business. At its heart, it is an ode to New York, because much that is said to distinguish the DMZ has already been said in praise of New York, of the particular kind of people who live there, the atmosphere. When I read an article about gardens created along a on old, unused railway in New York, images of that intriguing place meshed in my head with similar gardens on roofs among the rubble, overseeing the ruined remains of the once-proud city. The pride is still there, but it feels as if New York is just one big neighborhood, where people care for one another and try to make life worth living.

Zee, Roth’s first friend and constant ally, who was a med student when the war broke out and is now a slightly rougher, tougher version of Florence Nightingale, says at one point that the people in the DMZ are no longer Americans, but something new, which is a nice thought, but wrong in an interesting way. While the two parties fighting each other each claim true “American-ness” for their side, their definition of what it means to be American is the partisan, McCarthyite definition many right (and left-) wingers hold today. It’s the definition on the basis of which the likes of Glenn Beck start enterprises like his “9/12 Project”, seething with self-righteousness, despising each and everyone who is even slightly different. But there is a different kind of positive self-image that pervades American culture, it’s the one that has engendered the term “Melting Pot”. The United States, a country where different kinds of people from different kinds of nations and backgrounds come and are welcomed, where they forge, together, a new identity. That kind of place is the DMZ, which appears to be, in fact, the most American of the three parties we’ve met so far. And Wood develops this idea not without issuing it with its own batch of righteousness, noticeably in the way that he paints the United States, especially, as cold, corrupt and callous, which is confronted with the warm, helpful and positive depiction of the DMZ citizens.

Clearly, when Wood wants something to count, when he wants to make a point, he isn’t above resorting to cliché and eschewing subtlety, something that is common to the genre he works in but that’s not necessarily in good taste or appropriate with regard to the topics he tackles. It’s weird, but although the DMZ is not-America, the closeness of descriptions of the spirit of the DMZ to praise of America, well-known and culturally ingrained, produces a kind of underhanded patriotism, which, in nuce, isn’t really that different from the one that bogged down Cory Doctorow’s otherwise fine YA novel Little Brother (my review). That is a problem for a book that is basically a sustained critique of nocive contemporary developments, because it stifles the possibilities of the criticism, instead of making people understand the subject of the criticism, this form of critique throws them back into oppositions, I think, which is also lazy thinking. Woods does a far better job of portraying smaller details of photojournalism. Yes, there are good and bad journalists, so far so boring, but then, especially in the first volume, but intermittently in the others as well, Woods raises concerns about the limits of a lens, the way things are selected, presented.

I said this is done best in the first volume and not just because it throws lots of different aspects of this idea of identity and visibility at the reader. There are, unforgettably, two marksmen, looking at each other through super-powerful spy-glasses, from one end of NY to the other, who fall in love. There is the danger Roth suddenly finds himself in when he loses his press jacket, with the letters PRESS printed visibly on the back, so that he is suddenly, without a role, easy bait for sharpshooters and scavengers. And there are all the things Roth sees and photographs for the first time, things we, too, see for the first time. And Roth frames the images in order to send them to his bosses, just as the artist frames the same images, but one level removed, for us. And we see both more and less than Roth. In the first volume, we are frequently made aware of what detail Roth focuses on, with a panel of the comic following his gaze, highlighting the image for us, as well. This was one of the reasons I was so drawn to this series, but little of this survives in the next volumes, reflexiveness is pretty much out the window, supplanted by old oppositions and a rebellious sentimentality, for lack of better words, which has its advantages but it is a step down.

The weird patriotism has to do with the writing but generally, writing is this series’ strong suit. DMZ‘s major weakness, however, is the artwork. Not that it’s not, generally speaking, good. Burchielli is wonderful as main artist, Brian Woods’ own covers are great and the one guest artist so far, un nommé Kristian Donaldson, adds a fascinating and well-executed angle to the story he drew and inked. But compared to the writing the art just doesn’t keep up, it fails to add anything, that’s just it, all it does is hasten to present, it illustrates, never illuminates. It’s best in the first volume, which contains inserts penciled and inked by Wood himself, panels that are drawn in the style of the cover art and enhance the stories. No, really, it’s not fair to Burchielli who really does a great job, who is as comfortable and accomplished with sweeping, epic scenes as with dynamic action sequences, but as a whole it left me shrugging. It is well done, and the gritty look certainly fits the story, but the visual aspects of the comic are here always and clearly secondary to the writing.

Anyone who has ever publicly talked in a positive manner about comics or graphic novels will have met their share of people convinced that graphic novels are a parasitic form of literature, basically unnecessary, adding little that could not be included in a novel. Generally, this approach is easily fought off. Millar’s work with the Marvel canon (Millar’s work wouldn’t, largely, even work as novels. As I said elsewhere, Millar’s work is highly dependent upon the artists he works with) or Moore’s exploration of the Swamp Thing, or Moore’s meditation on space and time in From Hell, all these things make ample use of their medium, in a way that would not work as a novel.

Now, DMZ, that’s a different case altogether. Take the marvelous third volume, DMZ: Public Works. It has a spellbinding story, contains interesting ideas about class and identity, and is wonderfully drawn, yet as a novel it would lose nothing. It doesn’t need to be a comic, it just happens to be one. In a way Woods/Burchielli are like novelists whose writing displays little sensitivity to or interest in language. So, to return to the review’s first paragraph, there you have it. This is good on multiple levels, but the apparent arbitrariness of its choice of medium is disappointing although its hard to say why. You wouldn’t reproach a novel for not being a movie, after all. Maybe it’s the fact that I expected more, that I expected author and artist to care more about their creation, that there would be a different rationale for the artwork than just competence. That said, it is a great series, so far, and I love so many things about it. But, well, it could be so much better. Wood and Burchielli settle for too little here. Far too little, and it leaves a bland aftertaste.

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