Neal Ascherson

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Tu­mult by Hans Mag­nus Enzens­berger, trans­lated from the Ger­man by Mike Mitchell

New Se­lected Po­ems by Hans Mag­nus Enzens­berger, trans­lated from the Ger­man by David Con­stan­tine, Hans Mag­nus Enzens­berger, Michael Ham­burger, and Es­ther Kin­sky and two other books by or about Hans Mag­nus Enzens­berger

Tu­mult by Hans Mag­nus Enzens­berger, trans­lated from the Ger­man by Mike Mitchell.

Seag­ull, 320 pp., $27.50

New Se­lected Po­ems by Hans Mag­nus Enzens­berger, trans­lated from the Ger­man by David Con­stan­tine, Hans Mag­nus Enzens­berger, Michael Ham­burger, and Es­ther Kin­sky.

Blood­axe, 400 pp., $35.00 (pa­per) (dis­trib­uted in the US by Du­four)

Mr Zed’s Re­flec­tions: or Bread­crumbs He Dropped, Gath­ered Up by His Lis­ten­ers by Hans Mag­nus Enzens­berger, trans­lated from the Ger­man by Wieland Hoban.

Seag­ull, 172 pp., $21.00

Writ­ing with the Words of Oth­ers: Es­says on the Po­etry of

Hans Mag­nus Enzens­berger by Alan J. Clay­ton.

Würzburg: Königshausen and Neu­mann,

271 pp. (2010)

“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

*Re­viewed in these pages by Adam Kirsch, June 10, 2010. 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 twen­ty­first-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 “ex­tra­parlia­men­tary 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.

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.


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 pas­tichep­o­etry 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.

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

Hans Mag­nus Enzens­berger, 1994

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