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Das diachrone Verlangen: A Reevaluation of Botho Strauß’s Concept of History in Die Widmung in the Context of "Anschwellender Bocksgesang"
Gregory H. Wolf

"Rassismus und Fremdenfeindlichkeit sind ‘gefallene’ Kultleidenschaften, die ursprünglich einen sakralen, ordnungstiftenden Sinn hatten" (Strauß, Anschwellender Bocksgesang, 205).

As you shudder upon reading this statement, you may be asking yourself which leader of a "right-wing" hate group or Neo-Nazi had the audacity to voice such views. However, you may be surprised to learn that it was not a paranoid xenophobe, but in fact Germany’s leading playwright and arguably its most well-known author, Botho Strauß. This comment and others like it gathered attention when Botho Strauß published in Der Spiegel (Feb. 1993) magazine his now (in)famous essay "Anschwellender Bocksgesang" which caused instant controversy in Germany and throughout Europe. Within one year of publication, the journal Weimarer Beiträge released a special-issue containing twelve articles on Strauß and the reception of his most recent essay. Intellectuals began to speak about a "new right" defending a burgeoning Neo-Nazi movement in Germany, and unfairly compared Strauß to Peter Handke, who published throughout the 1990s essays condoning Serbian violence and genocide during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Early in his literary career (Die Widmung, Der Rumor, Paare Passanten) Strauß made it clear that he blamed the failure of the student movement and the 1968 generation that was to effect long-lasting social and economic change as the reason for contemporary evils in Germany. However, it was after his essay "Anschwellender Bocksgesang" that many intellectuals, such as Henriette Herwig and Sigrid Berke, began to suggest that Strauß’s ideas were subversive and dangerous. Critics argued that Strauß’s move to the right of the political spectrum was the result of his pessimistic view of society and his belief in the failure of enlightened politics to determine society; furthermore, it was argued that Strauß’s apocalyptic views blinded him to the increased right-wing violence against foreigners in Germany and led him to justify violence as a natural historical and economic development.

In my paper I reevaluate Strauß’s early prose piece Die Widmung (1977) in light of his essay "Anschwellender Bocksgesang."[1] I submit that Strauß’s apocalyptic view of history is already evident in this work and that, more importantly, this work, in both content and form, demonstrates Strauß’s belief that a massive historical fissure, whereby individuals have lost their historical and traditional grounding, will lead to increased violence, economic uncertainty, and intellectual stagnation.

In "Anschwellender Bocksgesang", Strauß argues that the weight of Germany’s history has stymied the country’s political and intellectual maturation process and has brought about an era of ahistoricism, self-absorption, and materialism. Strauß begins the essay with irony, describing the typical cultural-pessimistic view of the progression of history and society: we live in a society that is impervious to outside attempts at control or improvement; society moves and adjusts itself on its own volition. Strauß does not condone the atrocities the Nazis committed; rather. he suggests one will never understand completely why such horrors occurred (AB, 204). To compensate for Nazi crimes, Germans are willing to magnify the extent of neo-Nazi activity in Germany and in so doing, reveal to the world that Germany will no longer tolerate such aggression. However, Strauß sees one socially peripheral group attempting to reestablish a vibrant relationship with German history: "Die Rechtsradikale." Though Strauß neither condones right-wing violence nor champions extremist causes, his writings suggest that he perceives the attempt of many German right-wing groups to reestablish a relationship to German history as positive, indeed necessary for all Germans to do.

In the beginning of Die Widmung, the protagonist Richard, while pondering his personal finances after his girlfriend, Hannah, has left him, writes in his journal, "Ich dachte, davon kannst du, arbeitslos, eine Weile leben. (‘Du sollst dir deinen Schmerz leisten dürfen’)" (21). This remark and others similar in nature have prompted some literary critics to interpret Richard as reveling in his own misery caused by Hannah’s departure.[2] Others have referred to Richard as a nihilist and pessimist (vom Hofe and Pfaff 124), a "Verliebte[r] und Verlassene[r]" (Reich-Ranicki 235) and "einen geschrumpften ‘Werther’ ohne Charlotte" (Schneider 238). Hannah’s departure, ostensibly the cause for Richard's suffering, is the point of orientation for the text and the prime reason for Richard's decision to write his memoirs, but Die Widmung is hardly just a story of a broken relationship. The reader learns nothing about Richards and Hannah’s relationship, nor a reason for their separation.

Richard suffers not only from Hannah’s sudden departure, but also from living in a world that has lost the relationship between historical past and present, and where objective reality no longer supplies meaning and order. He is forced to turn inward to confront his problems and uses the medium of writing (and self-reflection) to redefine himself, to reestablish his relationship between his past and present, and to explore the past-present relationship in broader terms of social structures and literary traditions.

Die Widmung begins with suffering on a large social scale. One is unable to control nature or society, a notion Strauß repeats in "Anschwellender Bocksgesang." The roles of humankind and nature are reversed and the individual is at nature’s mercy. There are unexplained acts of violence, plane hijackings, and murders. There is a rupture of meaning, from which Richard personally suffers. Speech no longer carries meaning; individuals speak unaware of their repetitions, contradictions, and of their listener. Richard experiences the emptiness of language on a daily basis:

Nun beginnt wieder, am frühen Morgen, um
ihn herum das allgemeine Sprechen, das in
Wahrheit ein vielfaches Durcheinandersprechen
ist, worin sich das meiste wechselseitig
bedeutungslos macht, . . . denn es wird ohne
Einhalt weitergesprochen (6).

Despite this "Durcheinandersprechen" and lack of content, people continue to speak unaware of language’s inability to express the particular.[3] Richard, who perceives language's shortcomings, suffers from a crisis of articulation which he wishes to overcome by reestablishing language as a mode of communication.

The novel reflects Richard’s longing and fragmentation which results from his lost relationship between his past and present. The narrator remarks while Richard is in the zoological gardens in Berlin, "Niemand in der Nähe. Das Ausruhen macht ihn weichherziger, als er verkraften kann. Ohne eine Harmonie mit irgend etwas, irgend wem geht es jetzt nicht weiter" (9). He feels alienated from himself and from the world, has difficulty recalling events from his life, and questions his historical existence. The narrator writes:

Vielleicht lebt er ohne Vergangenheitssinn wie
Schlemiehl ohne seinen Schatten. Nach
einunddreißig Jahren, denkt er, äußerlich
gesehen, ein halbes Leben ohne Biographie.
Stille Epoche, die keine Schicksale macht (11).

Richard wishes to write about his present and past experiences so they can once again live through the act of being read. Richard compares literature to other forms of artistic media, such as theater and film, and writes that these forms of art "löschen die Schrift, das diachrone Verlangen" (64). Modern society and media intensify diachronic longing, because they do not offer a place for the subject. Television, film, and live theater can exist without a presupposed viewer. Literature, however, becomes a form of expressive art only when there is an interaction between the text and the reader.

Strauß organizes the novel into three fragmented segments. The first segment is untitled, narrated by an authorial narrator, who informs the reader about the condition of society and Richard. The second segment begins with the novel’s second dedication, "Für H" (15), Richard’s dedication of his memoirs to Hannah. Adelson notes the dual function of this dedication: not only is it a dedication to Hannah, but "Strauß dedicates his account of Richard’s dedication to us, the reader, thus articulating the diachronic longing of the text" (Adelson 139). McGowan argues that Richard’s dedication to Hannah and Strauß’s title of the book are ironic, because Richard does not wish to return to his shallowness after an encounter with Hannah (I, 247). Why does Richard not wish to return to his former existence? He writes his memoirs in order for them to be read by Hannah (also the reader) and in this manner he can reestablish the link between his past and present. Through writing, he can create subjective experience that cannot be reduced or categorized universally.

The novel bespeaks a need to establish connections between Richard’s past and his present, between Richard and Hannah, and between the reader and the text. All these connections entail diachronic longing. Richard does not wish to repeat his past which would be fruitless; however, through the medium of writing, the past can live in the present. Strauß posits a new mythology in the text to show that the past is not repeatable, and this mythology reveals Strauß’s rejection of the Enlightenment. The figures of Richard and Hannah allude to the Orpheus and Euridice myth. Hannah, like Euridice, is gone and will not return, "keine Nachricht mehr von Hannah. Sie ist zurück zu den Fremden. Von dort holt er sie nicht ein zweites mal" (11). This comment from the narrator foreshadows the end of the novel, insofar as it ends without Hannah’s return. However, during her absence, she plays an important role, namely that of muse. Her absence causes Richard to realize his own personal emptiness and lack of historical existence. He begins to write, ostensibly for her, but his writing helps him to overcome his problems.

When Richard decides to write his memoirs, he attempts to create his own identity and reinforce personal experience. Writing has a therapeutic effect, but he has an ambivalent attitude toward it. He needs subjective experience, but during the writing process, he feels naked and exposed. Modern society, with its mass production, commercialism and reduced experience, has dulled his sense of experiencing the particular. Society has a constricting effect and renders subjective experience difficult. Real subjective experience is obtained only when the oppressive abstraction of society is deconstructed (McGowan I, 248). He writes: "Ich schäme mich, es zu erzählen. Ich schäme mich meiner Handschrift. Sie zeigt mich in voller Geistesblöße. In der Schrift bin ich nackter als ausgezogen" (17). He is ashamed to write because he is forced to turn inward to find meaning. When writing, he is stripped of all societal constructs and his writing becomes his own personal feelings. Adelson points out that Richard’s "journal entries become the meeting ground between past and present, between interior and exterior. It is the locus of the self trying to articulate and thus appropriate experience (156). Memory plays an important role in this process. As Richard is forced to remember and reflect on his past, his memory renders the relationship between his past and present possible, a notion that permeates "Anschwellender Bocksgesang." After Hannah initially calls him, he comments, "die Verbindung ist wiederhergestellt, die Sperre gebrochen!" (48). Although this pertains to the connection between him and Hannah, on a meta-level it refers to the connection between his past and present. When writing, he no longer feels emptiness as if half his life were missing. Memory is necessary for his writing and thus is an essential element in overcoming his diachronic longing.

Richard argues for the supremacy of literature over other forms of modern media (television, film) and over verbal communication, because they intensify diachronic longing, prohibit personal freedom and stymie emotional responses. Writing is the result of an internal dialogue with oneself, which produces freedom:

Niemals habe ich eine größere Freiheit und
Sicherheit in der Sprache gefunden als im
Dialog, der unter Einfluß eines körperlichen
Verlangens geführt wurde . . . (23).

Writing is a dialectic process between memory and desire, which forces the subjective to the forefront. Richard views this as necessary for his development and to establish connections with his past and with Hannah. He writes, "es gibt Emotionen, die existieren nurmehr durch das Buch. Was zum Beispiel ‘Ehre’ bedeutet, in einem glaubwürdigen Sinn und Pathos des Wortes, können wir in unseren Verhältnissen nicht mehr erfahren" (63). Literature has a timeless quality (not ahistorical) which permits one to experience the past. Richard mentions many German authors in his diary (Goethe, Kleist, Novalis) and shows how they are linked to the present because their writing offers the modern reader the chance to experience the past subjectively. Writing is an art-form which forces the recipient to use memory actively. The reader must confront the text as a living component of the past and is forced to create subjective meaning in literature by establishing the connection between himself and the text and between past and present.

Richard’s return to writing could be seen as a sign of hope in the text. After experiencing a week and a half of normalcy, he has faith in writing and its ability to help him overcome his crises of articulation and experience; however, the mere act of writing cannot quench his diachronic longing. His journal needs a reader, who through the process of reading, can affirm Richard's subjectivity. Richard writes that he has not yet reached his goal, but what is his goal? He entertains no desire to resume a relationship with Hannah. His goal is to write because of what it can do for him. Just as he strives to establish a living diachronic relationship with his past, his journal strives for a living diachronic relationship with the present, which is achieved when it is read, thus enabling Richard to achieve wholeness. Normalcy in his life depends on writing, which, in turn, depends on a reader. Some critics view his failure to resume his relationship with Hannah and his writing as a sign of disintegration (McGowan III, 63). Before beginning his journal and at moments during it, Richard is on the brink of self-destruction. His writing and his faith in it helps keep him in a state of progression. Richard does not experience disintegration; rather, he continues into the future. He does not begin his journal again (which would be repeating the past), he continues it, which shows progress and a will to overcome.

Vom Hofe and Pfaff argue "er (Richard) verzehrt sich vielmehr in einer ‘Krankheit zum Tode’ und lebt statt im tätigem Werden in ‘tätigem Nichtwerden’" (125). A comparison with Goethe’s Werther is unfounded. Richard does not contemplate suicide, neither after Hannah leaves him, nor after he discovers that she did not read his journal which he gave her. Even after Hannah forgets the journal in a taxi, Richard neither gives up, nor feels the same "Unruhe" (114). Though he suffers after the discovery, he returns to normalcy, ready to begin a new life. He cleans his apartment, looks for a job, and remains active by continuing to write. Even if one assumes that his external life (maintenance of his apartment and search for a job) will be neglected, although there is no specific text reference to suggest this, he does not live in "tätigem Nichtwerden," rather in a state of activity. He works (writes) to overcome his problems.

The novel ends with the rebus of the "Wunschkonzert," where a former music star returns to television to repeat one of his early songs. No longer possessing the ability or the memory to perform, he attempts to lip-synchronize the words, but fails. In this image, characterized by the disjuncture between past and present (Adelson 154), the singer tries to repeat the past, thereby destroying subjective experience. The past cannot be repeated because it does not allow a diachronic relationship to exist between the past and present. Strauß posits literature (and writing), with its locus as the individual subject, as a means to establish a living diachronic relationship between past and present. Memory, articulation, and subjective experience play integral roles in the relationship. The "Wunschkonzert" image stands in direct opposition to Richard and his writing. The singer has no memory and wishes to repeat the past, whereas Richard uses memory and reflection to write and incorporate the past into the present. Strauß shows why the past is not repeatable: if it were, it would destroy the subjective experience and hinder historical progression.

Richard is not yet at his telos, but he is in the process of overcoming many problems through the means of writing. He acknowledges writing as therapy, which augments his unconscious and reconfirms his self, reinforces subjective experience, and establishes a living diachronic relationship between his past and present. Strauß does not present his concept of history and his insistence on establishing a diachronic relationship with history for the first time in his enigmatic essay "Anschwellender Bocksgesang"; indeed, he expresses these ideas much earlier in Die Widmung. However, what changes over the course of almost twenty years is Strauß’s tone and mood. In Die Widmung, the reader is left with a sign of hope that a diachronic relationship can be established; in "Anschwellender Bocksgesang," Strauß has become more pessimistic and laments that only extremist groups are attempting to achieve this.


1 After more than a cursory glance at bibliographies, one learns that scholars have neglected Strauß’s works since the publication of "Anschwellender Bocksgesang," at least when one compares the amount of scholarship preceding and succeeding the controversial essay.

2 Strauß’s early works, and Die Widmung specifically, have been labeled as examples of "New Subjectivity" (a movement in literature that arose after the German student revolution in the late 1960s and Enzensberger’s often misinterpreted essay "Gemeinplätze, die neueste Literatur betreffend"), but the term, as McGowan points out, "is so wide and so inconsistently used as to tell us little (II, 54). "New Subjectivity" can refer to the text itself, the experiences of the protagonist, qualities of the text, or even the theories evident in the text. Bullivant differentiates between "Neue Subjektivität" and "Neue Innerlichkeit" (208). However, to label Strauß’s works or to assign them to a preconceived category or movement is to overlook their complexity and textual richness.

3 After speaking with his maid, Richard writes in his journal "Sie äußerte ausschließlich Meinungen. Meinungen über Meinungen. Niemals eine Beobachtung, keine Erwägung, keine Erklärung, keine Befürchtung" (51). For his maid, language has ceased to be a mode of communication.

Works Cited

Adelson, Leslie A. Crisis of Subjectivity: Botho Strauß’s Challenge to West German Prose of the1970's. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1984.

Berke, Sigrid. "Botho Strauß und die Debatte um den ‘Bocksgesang.’" Weimarer Beiträge 40.2 (1994): 165-178.

Bullivant, Keith. Realism Today: Aspects of the Contemporary West German Novel. NY: Berg, 1987.

DeMeritt, Linda. New Subjectivity and the Prose Forms of Alienation: Peter Handke and Botho Strauß. NY: Peter Lang,1987.

Enzensberger, Hans Magnus. "Gemeinplätze, die neueste Literatur betreffend." Kursbuch 15 (1968): 187-197.

Herwig Henriette. "Der Zusammenbruch der profanen Eschatologie. Zu Begriff der Gegenaufklärung bei Botho Strauß. Weimarer Beiträge 40.2 (1994): 282-285.

Hofe Gerhard vom and Peter Pfaff. Das Elend des Polyphem: Zum Thema der Subjektivität bei Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, Wolfgang Koeppen und Botho Strauß. Königstein/Ts: Athenäum, 1980.

McGowan, Moray. "Botho Strauß." The Modern German Novel. Keith Bullivant, ed. NY: Berg, 1987. 243-259.

McGowan, Moray. "Neue Subjektivität."After the ‘Death’ of Literature: West German Writing of the 1970's. Keith Bullivant, ed. NY: Berg, 1989. 53-68.

McGowan, Moray. "Schlachthof und Labyrinth. Subjektivität und Aufklärungszweifel in der Prosa von Botho Strauß." text+ kritik 81: Botho Strauß. Heinz Ludwig Arnold, ed. Munich: text + kritik, 1984. 55-71.

Reich-Ranicki, Marcel. "Gleicht die Liebe einem Monolog?" Strauß Lesen. Michael Radix, ed. Munich: Hanser, 1987. 232-236.

Schneider, Michael. "Botho Strauss, das bürgerliche Feuilleton und der Kultus des Verfalls: Zur Diagnose eines neuen Lebensgefühls." Den Kopf verkehrt aufgesetzt oder Die melancholische Linke: Aspekte des Kulturverfalls in den siebziger Jahren. Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1981.

Strauß, Botho. Die Widmung. Eine Erzählung. Munich: DTV, 1977.
_____. "Anschwellender Bocksgesang." Der Spiegel Feb. 6 (1993): 133-138.