Lise Weil on Why Christa Wolf Matters: Diagnosing the Darkness and Telling the Truth

Lise Weil, IMA faculty, writes, “’Literature today must be peace research,’ Christa Wolf pronounced in her Buchner Prize speech. More than any other writer I know, she showed me what it is to be a writer of conscience.” Here is more of what Lise has to say about this remarkable writer.

For Christa Wolf, prose was an instrument of conscience and self-knowledge, a means of stirring up the hardened deposits of history, of laying bare lies and buried truths. She was a master diagnostician of the darkness of the 20th-century. ”The main aim of my work in recent years has been the question of what it is that has brought our civilization to the brink of self-destruction” she once said in an interview. She understood that that self-destructiveness had its roots in dissociation: “How one could be there and not be there at the same time, the ghastly secret of human beings in this century,” she wrote in Patterns of Childhood, a novel in which she tried to comes to terms with a Nazi childhood. And later: “Sin in our time consists of not wanting to know the truth about oneself.” Countering that dissociation, which Wolf saw at work everywhere, was one of her self-appointed tasks as a writer. The words spoken by Christa T. in her early and best-known novel The Quest for Christa T. could just as easily have come from her: “We must know what has happened to us . . .One must know what happens to oneself.” (“Hope begins,” Wolf once said in an interview, “when one faces reality, when one simply sees what is.”)

“In the age of universal memory loss,” Wolf wrote in Patterns of Childhood, “we must realize that complete presence of mind can be achieved only when based on a clear past.” Always as a writer her project was to remove blinders, her own and others’, to make herself and the reader aware of blind spots, to see clearly. The relentless questioning that characterized her narrative voice was often directed at herself (the authorial “I” and the narrative “I” often appeared to be identical); she seemed always ready to expose her own failings, to open up even her rawest wounds for closer inspection. In the aftermath of the response to What Remains (Was Bleibt), a novella about the day in the life of a GDR writer whose every move is monitored by state secret police agents, she would try to come to terms with the fact that for three years, as a young woman, she herself worked for the Stasi.

Lise Weil at Goddard

As an East German writer, Wolf took social engagement as matter of course. “I can’t abstract myself from [society],” she once said in an interview. “It is this sense of always being touched by what touches society, although it sometimes drives me to despair, that is the source, amongst other things, of my creative drive.” At a time when, Occupy Wall Street notwithstanding, unfettered capitalism seems to be the model towards which all societies are leaning, it is bracing to read a writer for whom an alternative existed. “We East Germans had a vision, a utopia,” she once wrote, and even after reckoning with the abuses of the regime she continued to cling to that vision. Beginning with the collection of essays The Reader and the Writer, published in 1968, Wolf would develop a body of writing about writing marked by a steadfast refusal of alienation and a fervent wish that literature be effective, be useful, that it might help to bring about a more livable world, “help ensure that the things of this earth endure.” She considered hers an “aesthetics of resistance.

In the 1980s, Wolf’s social critique, along with her poetics, took a feminist turn. In the process of researching the figure of Cassandra for her novel of that name that appeared in 1983, she began to study archaeology and ancient matriarchal cultures. Travelling to Crete, she was amazed and outraged to discover that women were the original seers, prophets and poets, that their powers had been usurped by Apollo who took over the temple at Delphi, that women were subsequently either excluded or turned into objects. She began to consider the implications of the fact that for two thousand years women were barred from any significant role in shaping culture. “Does it seem misguided. . .to believe,” she wrote, “that if women had helped to think `thought’ over the last two thousand years, the life of thought would be different today?”

Wolf’s Cassandra is a feminist parable. Even as her Cassandra comes to understand that the Trojan war, far from being an aberration, is deeply symptomatic of patriarchal consciousness, and that “we have no chance against a time that needs heroes,” she begins to feel a deep kinship with women from other layers of society. Wolf’s own feminist awakening is traced in her Frankfurt lectures, which later appeared as essays accompanying Cassandra. In terms of narrative, she writes in these essays, the necrophilia of patriarchal cultures is to be seen in the “strictly one-track-minded approach—the extraction of a single ‘skein’. . . a blood-red thread extracted from the fabric of human life, the narrative of the struggle and victory of the heroes, or their doom.” To these one-track stories Wolf suggests that we oppose something she calls “the living word”: “This word would not longer produce stories of heroes, or of antiheroes, either. Instead, it would be inconspicuous and would seek to name the inconspicuous, the precious everyday, the concrete. . .Perhaps it would greet with a smile the wrath of Achilles, the conflict of Hamlet, the false alternatives of Faust.”

In a speech she gave in 1980 on the occasion of receiving the Georg Buchner Prize (later published in a book of essays called The Author’s Dimension), Wolf indicted Western culture for its devaluing of women as sources of knowledge and insight, its idolatry of scientific thinking, its inner emptiness. And she raised the question of the fate of literature, and of language itself, in a highly technologized world which increasingly seems bent on its own destruction. “Shall it then, the language of literature, fail us?” she asked. Her answer to this question comes in the following passage, and hinges upon the taking up a “simple, quiet word” – verkehrt (upside-down, reversed). These words, I believe, ring truer than ever today.

“The condition of the world is reversed, we say tentatively, and notice: it is true. We can stand behind this sentence. The word is not beautiful, only right, and it is thus a rest for our ears, which have been torn by the clamor of great words, a little relief too for our conscience, disturbed by too many false, falsely-used words. Could it perhaps be the first word of another accurate language which we have in our ears but not yet on our tongues? Perhaps from it could develop. . .a chain of other equally accurate words which would express not only a negative of the old but an other, timely sense of values. . . So that we can again speak to one another, and tell each other stories, without having to be ashamed.”

(Translation above is by Myra Love. I prefer it to Jan van Heurck’s in part because of the resonance of “reversed” with Mary Daly’s notion of “reversal.” Other translations are by the translators cited below.)


Christa Wolf, The Reader and the Writer: Essays, Sketches, Memories. Tr. Joan Becker (New York: International Publishers, 1977)

Christa Wolf, A Model Childhood. Tr. Ursule Molinaro and Hedwig Rappolt (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980)

Christa Wolf, The Author’s Dimension: Selected Essays. Tr. Jan van Heurck. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983)

Christa Wolf, Cassandra: A Novel and four Essays. Tr. Jan van Heurck (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994)

This entry was posted in Activism, Creativity & Imagination, Cultural & Cross-Cultural Studies, Epistemology (how we know what we know), Feminism, Women's & Gender Studies, Identity and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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