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The Art of Antithesis

The Bars of Atlantis: Selected Essays
By Durs Grünbein
Translated by John Crutchfield, Michael Hofmann, and Andrew Shields
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 323 pp., $35)

Descartes’ Devil: Three Meditations
By Durs Grünbein
Translated by Anthea Bell
(Upper West Side Philosophers, 136 pp., $25.95)

Durs Grünbein’s scintillating essays flare up off the page in extravagant fashion, displaying here a philosopher (Seneca, Nietzsche), there the natural world (deep-sea fishes); here a poet (Hölderlin, Rilke), there an obsession (addictive diving). They give joy by their variety, but even more by their liveliness of expression (much of it necessarily lost in translation from the German, but much also remaining). Grünbein, a poet born in Dresden in 1962, has already created a torrent of verse and prose: a selection of his poems, translated into English by Michael Hofmann under the title Ashes for Breakfast, appeared in 2005, and now his American publishers have enabled us to see some of his extraordinary prose.

Grünbein’s style in poetry--daring, learned, sardonic, heartfelt--is continued in the prose, not only in The Bars of Atlantis, a generous selection from Grünbein’s remarkable essays, but also in three “meditations” appearing under the title Descartes’ Devil, imaginatively recreating the life and thought of a philosopher dear to Grünbein’s heart because he believed that thinking goes on in poetry. “I knew,” Descartes said in the Discourse on Method, “that the wealth of ideas in poetry awakens the mind”: Grünbein makes that sentence the epigraph to his little book. If the wealth of ideas in poetry awakens the mind, what cognitive claims can poetry make? And what relation do they bear to the intellectual claims of philosophy and its descendant, modern science? Grünbein’s rich debate often issues from these questions.

Of the titles of these essays, my favorite is “Why Live Without Writing.” (It is more compact in German, Warum schriftlos leben: the word schriftlos suggests a desolation that “without writing” does not). When this essay was recently published in the journal Poetry, it attracted the hostility of a reader who took umbrage at Grünbein’s responses to the three questions inevitably (says Grünbein) put to poets: “Can you really live off it?”; “How long have you been writing for?”; and (“the trickiest one”) “Why do you write?” The reader of Poetry thought that Grünbein was patronizing his audience; but in fact he was exploring why these questions--seemingly so simple--are impossible to answer as the listener might wish. Grünbein wittily turns the question around, offering as a response to “Why write?” the answer “Why not?”

“I don’t want to frighten you,” he sharply remarks, “but have you thought about what happens to people who aren’t artists?” He quotes E.E. Cummings, in The Enormous Room, who, when a reader asks, “What do you think people who aren’t artists become?” shoots back, “I feel they don’t become: I feel nothing happens to them; I feel negation becomes of them.” Grünbein points out that the non-artists among us are “always terribly busy but finally disappear ... without a trace.” The living voice of the artist, in the long run, trumps the transient voices of the non-artists of the world.

Grünbein offers three reasons of his own for writing: self-assertion, self-extension, and self-exploration:

In writing, it is one’s innermost being that tries to assert itself, paradoxically, by self-exposure.... You write ... [because without writing], trammeled up in your own limited lifespan, you would always remain incomplete, half a man, so to speak.... From which it follows, third and last: you write because the brain is an endless wilderness, whose roughest terrain can be traveled only with a pencil.

It is the brain as wilderness that most enlivens Grünbein’s pencil: each of his essays becomes an animated journey into that wilderness. The clear path of entry begins to branch out into other trails as the mind digresses, delights itself with analogies or anecdotes, finds another geographical terrain, and only with sudden compunction returns to the direct roadway.

The poet’s characteristic fusion of incisive satire and lyric passion results in a voice at once acidic and entertaining, unpredictably imaginative and psychologically penetrating. Whether or not one agrees with Grünbein about his tastes, his accounts of poets are intuitively convincing, as he defends Rilke against Brecht, or Hölderlin against Goethe. His introduction of Hölderlin is straightforward enough until--five words from the end--the phrasing suddenly makes us sit up and take notice:

[Hölderlin was] a man who had felt the stroke of Apollo, who one day, as he wrote in a letter to his mother, had been “hardened and consecrated” by the southern sun on the streets of France. There the waves of memory--antiquity, present, future--crashed together over his head.

Memory of the future? Yes. Having the past of the pagan gods in his own memory, Hölderlin already can “remember” their return:

Hölderlin was one who believed he had actually seen the gods, for him alone they were again expressive forms of all-encompassing nature; his poems, by virtue of conjuring them up, are epiphanous mirrors, they resemble the telescopes used by contemporary astronomers to eavesdrop on cosmic background radiation and the creation and destruction of stars.

And those eternal gods, standing for “the universality of natural forces,” would be the future as they had been the past. Grünbein’s eloquence does justice to the generative radiance of art as well as to its ultimate manifestation in language or paint.

Grünbein’s rapturous form of commentary springs from his own ecstatic relation to word and image, but it is not restricted to the literary: quite the opposite. For his analogies and metaphors, Grünbein is as likely to draw upon science--those astronomers’ telescopes--as upon art. He plunges into the implications of the natural world, describing deep-sea fishes, who (he says, in a cascade of ungovernable similes) swim like images in the unconscious mind:

These monstrous prototypes resemble the first pressing irons, the earliest sewing machines, phonographs, water picks, or safety razors.... Hingelike cartilage, fins notched as if by rasps and graters, rows of stiletto-sharp teeth in mouths with corsetlike braces ... they are early versions [of life].... Having first appeared in time immemorial, long before the beginnings of continental time, they have always already been contemporaries [of all historical epochs].

And why do we think of the unconscious when we think of that region--“the bottom of the monstrous world,” as Milton called it in Lycidas--in which these prototypes and archetypes dwell? Because in such grotesque forms “the archaic is combined with yesterday’s modernity, the gruesome wildness of fetish masks with the futuristic metal designs of industrial production.... These little cast-iron articles [pursue], without haste or waste, the original plan of survival: disguise, cunning, pillage.” The archaic deep-sea fishes stand as emblems of the biological world, in which instinct is the only drive. Virtuosic descriptions of this sort ornament page after page of Grünbein’s highly original work, bringing the reader’s responding senses directly into the realm of thought.

The three poles around which Grünbein’s essays revolve are the natural world, the mind, and the imagination; and his deepest concern is the dwindling and withering of both the senses and the imagination in modernity. He ascribes the denigration of the imaginative--in contrast to the logical and the factual--to the fateful split, long ago, between the philosopher’s search for “truth” and the senses’ reach to imagination: “If Hegel is right in claiming that the true philosopher has only one fundamental idea that he returns to over and over again, then the power of imagination, the twin gifts of vividness and plasticity, were the poet’s levers for perpetually unhinging this one idea.” And Grünbein adds, with ironic satisfaction, that “if it’s any consolation, poetry and philosophy have remained chained to each other to this day as a result of the primordial sin of their falling out.”

Science, Grünbein argues, used to depend intimately on observation. “Natural history,” in Linnaeus or in Darwin, not only put the intellect on its mettle; it also trained the eye and the ear, and touch and taste and smell. In the scientist’s graphic recording (before photography) of his observations, natural history also trained the eye and the ear to connect to the muscles of the hand. In our day, however, the most advanced science trains its gaze on phenomena--from quarks to genes--that cannot be seen with the naked eye. “The eye goes hungry,” says the poet, “at the feast of facts.” After Darwin, we see “the march into the innermost parts of the cell, the expedition into the ghost world of chromosomes and genes.” In such an environment, the formerly unbreakable link between the natural senses and the imagination becomes weakened. It is in sense-impressions that the imagination finds its metaphoric resources, but the unalerted and unstimulated senses deliver a diminished repertoire of images. If the senses become less acute, less exact, and less flexible, the imagination is hampered in its investigations; and the emotions find an impoverished representation in a mind no longer profoundly informed by sense-experience.

This lament recurs in Grünbein, as does the lament for the reduction of language to its instrumental uses. Grünbein affirms that language creates the soul. “The word is Psyche,” wrote Mandelstam. Grünbein adds that “the great divide is between those who love language for its own sake and those who use it only as a tool. The source of the poet’s shame is that he, too, is often compelled to use it.” Ideally, a poem would embody a pure imaginative dynamic, in which no word would be called upon to perform a merely functional role, and all would interlock imaginatively. It is the near approach to that crystal perfection that enthralls readers of lyric poetry. For this reason, prose, which must have a larger instrumental component, brings out shame in the poet.

And yet it is a poet who has written these essays, and his imagination presides over them. Our American essays often adopt a chatty neighborly airiness; or a dull and cliché-ridden punditry; or a sanctimonious communion with nature (whether in sentimental “poetic” fashion or in the full jeremiad of alarm). There is a sameness of tone about such ruminations, even when they are worthy, that prevents their becoming part of literature. As a poet, but here too as an essayist, Grünbein has a resourceful volatility of tone, nowhere better seen than in the essay from which he draws the title of this collection: “The Bars of Atlantis: On the abyss of the imagination: A descant in fourteen descents.” It is a whirlpool of fantasy, anecdote, speculation, mythology, and autobiography--a tour de force impossible to summarize but exciting to read. As Grünbein reminds us, “It is by the specific tonality--the relation of tones, sounds, and harmonies--that one recognizes the poet; it is the only thing for which he himself is responsible and that identifies him, like his own fingerprint, unrepeatable in all evolution.”

What makes a poet write an essay? Or, more precisely, where did these essays originate? Several were called forth by various occasions: three arise from the awarding to Grünbein of the Friedrich Nietzsche Prize, the Friedrich Hölderlin Prize, and the Georg Büchner Prize. Another marked Grünbein’s election to the German Academy for Language and Poetry. The essays are drawn from Grunbach’s several prose collections in German: those are (with titles translated by the editor Michael Eskin) Galilei Measures Dante’s Hell and Gets Stuck on the Measurements (1996); The First Year: A Berlin Diary (2001); Why Live Without Writing (2003); Antique Dispositions (2005); and The Poem and Its Secret (2007). Although the editor has grouped the essays collected here into five categories, beginning with the more autobiographical pieces and ending with three essays on classical authors (Seneca, Petronius, and Juvenal), they can be read in any order, from the slightest to the weightiest. Their essential qualities are constant: vivacity of style, intelligence of mind, and vividly imaginative expression--and often, in the pages that began as lectures, a fierce colloquiality of diction.

Grünbein’s values are pre-Christian ones: “The Christian siren song [has] for centuries distracted from the classical texts.” To discover the human before it was entranced by Christianity is one purpose of Grünbein’s essays on Latin writers, and his investigation of the life and beliefs of the Stoic philosopher Seneca in an essay called “In the Name of Extremes: On the Brevity of Life.” His eulogy of Latin poetry (“all critique of the verbal craft came to me from there”) is also an elegy for what has disappeared:

It was the taut and relentless quality of Latin verse that captivated me, its aesthetic style, manifested from the tightly fitted grammar, from the interplay of these syntactic units, locked as it were into one another like toothy gears.... The poetic word in Latin approached me like something quasi-objective, as a sculpture made of syllables.... Ancient poetry can be thought only in multiple voices, as a physical polytheism. Nothing was excluded, not one of the drives was left without speech.

“Not one of the drives was left without speech”: the sentence could serve as a brief guide to Grünbein’s own poetics. If poetry is “a probe into the as-yet-unfamiliar zones of consciousness,” giving visibility to the hitherto invisible, then one understands Grünbein’s homage to Nietzsche, who wrote in a letter that “thinking in visible and tactile processes, not in thoughts; therein consists what is truly poetic.” Grünbein continues, “Philosophizing means following the god of brainpower, Apollo, the Bringer of Light. Whoever composes poems, by contrast, places himself at the mercy of Dionysus, who leads us into the dense thicket of our drives.”

This is an old contrast; but Grünbein must know that he himself writes a densely intellectual poetry which is generated by the lyre of Apollo as well as by the thyrsus of Dionysus. If poetry, as he says, is “an art whose entire purpose it is to set off fireworks in the reader’s psyche,” still he does not forget the obsessive arrangements of language and image that ignite the fireworks. Nor does he forget that it is not poets alone who make forays into the “still unsecured galleries” of our “intractable psychic cave system”: “Poetic thinking ... is not the exclusive domain of poets and literati; rather, it is a method used by many small search parties ... an army of phenomenologists working on expanding the confines of our shared imaginaries.”

Grünbein is aware of, and dejected by, the unimportance of poetry to the contemporary intellectual world:

When the average intellectual today reflects on the artistic and intellectual achievements of the last century, he first thinks of such names as Freud and Picasso, Stravinsky and Heisenberg, Hitchcock and Wittgenstein. Impossible to imagine that a poet should be among them. Not a single poet from the ancestral gallery of the likes of Pessoa, Cavafy, Rilke, Yeats, Mandelstam, Valéry, Frost, and Machado will cross the mind of the historically minded thinker, who claims to understand what modernity is all about. It is as if the art of poetry, of all things, were the blind spot in the cultural memory of modern man.

The “Great Books” courses, ideologically inserted into university curricula during World War II to preach citizenship and morality, never included non-narrative poetry: Homer, yes; Yeats, no. Lyric poetry as a pursuit and investigation of human consciousness has been presented as an emotional rather than an intellectual medium. Grünbein blames “the fickleness of memory itself, which obliterates everything that hasn’t been put to use in the service of power, technology, capital, ideology, or physical force,” but he remains undaunted in his confidence in the ultimate staying power of the word. As he courses rapidly through many subjects, always pointing, defining, and exhibiting, he displays some of the evangelism we associate with Whitman, who could not believe that the glories and miseries of the world, natural and human, could so often escape human notice. Like Whitman, Grünbein is sure that he has only to pluck his reader by the sleeve and the reader will listen, eager to be awakened to the perceptions of a noticing mind and heart.

Grünbein’s most winning recollection of his own career in noticing the phenomena of the world comes in a charming essay called “Childhood in the Diorama.” He is six years old here, spending the summer with his grandparents. His grandfather takes him to the natural history museum, where the child is enraptured by the dioramas of scenes in various climates:

What to my grandfather was at best a copy, a piece of jungle nicely imitated and about as interesting as the window display in a fur shop, was to me identical with the nature outside. This was exactly how I’d always imagined the Arctic wastes, where polar bears live. Wasn’t this the view you had standing on the deck of an icebreaker bound for the North Pole? And this vegetation, typical of Amazonian regions, was this not the actual rain forest in whose tangles you lost your way choked by lianas, punctured by poisonous vipers? ... The animals, secretly observed from behind bent twigs, frozen in a clearing--long before I knew what an epiphany was, they gave me a feeling of ecstasy and followed me into my dreams.

Picture books, dioramas, and the exotic real kindle into a single perception in the six-year-old poet to be. And the present Grünbein--conveying the sensations of diving, describing the suicide of Seneca, inhabiting a painting by Jan Steen--retains the astonishment of childhood in his language. But Grünbein is not always in his storytelling mode. In his very satisfying essays on poetry, he does not abandon his love of hyperbole and his rhetorical momentum, but he does tame them into a more melodic prose. In poetry, he says,

the retina touches the speech centers, the acoustic nerve grazes the centers for movement and rhythm, and everything together roots as over a limbic weave in precognitive animal zones, closer to fear, pleasure, and aggression. And every so often it looks out mit grossem Tierblick--with a grand animal gaze.... The poetic text is the protocol of an inner gazing.... Behind the semantic organization there is always an anatomical one.

In any sphere--description, anecdote, memoir, analysis--Grünbein’s native ground is antithesis, a figure of speech or of thought that carries, along with its high drama, a risk of oversimplification. It is dialectically useful to pose philosophy against poetry (while insisting on their mutual entanglement), but the dice of the poet’s antitheses are sometimes loaded, as in his comparison of two paintings he sees as an adolescent in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden: Raphael’s Sistine Madonna and Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus. The Dresden that he recalls was still part of the German Democratic Republic, the communist East Germany, and in the museum a docent explains the Raphael to the children:

Because the subject was art education and the country where the scene was taking place saw itself as a worker-and-peasant state, her enthusiasm soon turns into grim pedagogy. Now the talk is of feudal rule, of paintings commissioned by that terrible kraken the Church, and of religion as opium for the people.
But the adolescent Grünbein prefers, not surprisingly, the Giorgione sleeping nude to the apotheosized Madonna:
Against Venus’s reticence, against this inscrutable dreaming face and the flawless, apricot-colored body ... the barefoot country girl [the Sistine Madonna] on her high pedestal of clouds had no chance at all. Madonna and Venus, what an odd pair.... Even today, we still feel the force of liberation emanating from this Venus, the ultramodern thrust of its recourse to pagan mythology.

Granted, there is some irony in this recollection of adolescence, but it is odd of Grünbein to base his judgment so absolutely on content. And it is odd to use the Madonna to generate a jeering fantasy about masturbating clerics: “It is not hard to imagine what use [the monks] made of this painted paean to Mary.” On a return visit, the poet sees the whole painting as discolored by its varnish, and the jeer returns: “Beneath her heavy layers of varnish, the poor Madonna looked as if she had spent a long time hanging in a chimney beside other hams.” When Grünbein’s exuberance turns to cartoon, his appetite for antithesis can perhaps take the blame.

Or perhaps the blame should be ascribed to the long exacerbation of youth under the control of a repressive and dangerous regime, to the immersion in a hateful history that one was powerless to change. In the most striking of the anecdotes of his youth, Grünbein, waking up on the day after Gorbachev’s visit and the mass demonstrations that presaged the fall of the GDR, finds himself astonished by the sight of a tank left sitting on the median of one of East Berlin’s broad avenues. “Its turret, painted with the emblems of the GDR’s National People’s Army, was screwed down, the cannon pointed across the roadway toward Alexanderplatz,” he recalls:

I was suddenly overcome by a desire to lie down, right there, in the shadow of the tank.... The body had come this far, now it sought rest, a break from history. It had had enough of ... the long socialist twilight, the lethargy of an entire landscape which that body had blundered into by accident as if into a giant trap.... I wanted ... to forget the powerlessness, the physiological dictatorship, and all the years of collective humiliation.... I wanted to oversleep history, just this once ... to forget the body in a dreamless sleep. 

But Grünbein did not sleep: far from sinking into lethargy, he rose up at the young age of twenty-five in a marvelous fury of composition, pouring forth poems and essays, and, most recently, both Descartes’ Devil and a long epic about Descartes in Sweden. He refuses to give up the attempt to confront the lifelong standoff between perception and thought, imagination and truth. If Yeats’s aim was to hold in a single thought reality and justice, then Grünbein’s is to hold in a single thought poetry and philosophy.

Helen Vendler is the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University. She is the author of Last Looks, Last Books:  Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill (Princeton University Press, 2010) and Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form (Harvard University Press, 2007), among others. This review ran in the June 24, 2010, issue of the magazine.

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