- Vergangenheit. Perspektiven in der deutschsprachigen Gegenwartsliteratur by Horst S. Daemmrich, and: The Long Shadow of the Past: Contemporary Austrian Literature, Film, and Culture by Katya Krylova
What is the past? Can we have access to it? Can literary structures inform us about the past? What happens if we forget to remember the past? These are just some of the [End Page 679] questions that the authors, Horst Daemmrich and Katya Krylova, explicate in their diverse books within the context of recent thinking about the past. Readers familiar with Professor Daemmrich's longstanding and pioneering interest in thematics (for example, Themes & Motifs in Western Literature: A Handbook, 1987; and Spirals and Circles: A Key to Thematic Patterns in Classicism and Realism, 1994) will welcome his new book as a further elaboration and illustration of his approach; those unfamiliar with his work may appreciate the systematic macroapproach to the study of literature: "Die Themenforschung versucht, aus der Fülle dieser Erscheinungen die systematische Gliederung einer Typologie herauszuarbeiten. Sie will in den vielfältigen Verknüpfungen die gedankliche Gesetzlichkeit, das Ideogramm aufweisen" (64). The book seeks to illuminate textual commonalities within the framework of compositional differences. One reads, then, of "Motivkomplexe" and "Kontrastpaare" (e.g., "Einkreisen/Gefangen sein"), as they provide structural support for the theme: "Das Ziel der Untersuchung ist die Identifikation zentraler Themenkomplexe und Motive, die den Textaufbau stützen" (68). The proffered analyses, ranging from half a page to some ten pages, provide conclusive evidence for the efficacy of this interpretorial approach. But the discussions do not merely aim to cite structural aspects of texts. Central to the method is a profound embrace of ethical thinking, i.e., individual responsibility, and of a steadfast belief in personal development. The approach calls to mind a combination of Ernst Cassirer's philosophy, the psychology of Carl Rogers, and Northrop Frye's literary analysis. It is not that the analyses discount historical reality (how could a book about Vergangenheit avoid history?) but rather that the referenced historical events provide an existential arena in which "eine ethisch verankerte, zeitlose Deutung des verantwortlichen Handelns" (10) is fundamental. Does the hero move toward self-realization (Selbstverwirklichung), settle for an accommodation with society (Anpassung), or pursue "die Suche nach einer sinnstiftenden Ordnung?" (151). Is the depicted Orientierungsverlust or resignation the result of the absence of a genuine encounter with the past?
The past that is interrogated includes the major events of the last seventy years: World War II and its aftermath, the unrest of the sixties, the division of East and West Germany, and German unification. Divided into nine chapters, the book presents the variously depicted challenge that writers issue their readers: to view the past as a heuristic for the present. Among the primary issues addressed in the analyses are the much-discussed effectiveness of memory, the essence of Vergangenheit, the relationship between individual fate and collective action, the spirit of a true encounter with the past, the question of guilt and atonement vis-à-vis past actions, the intergenerational conflict provoked by past behaviors, the question of the authenticity in recreating the past, the implication of the chosen figures of antiquity to illuminate the past (or present), the potential incompleteness of the past, and the existence of the past in the present and for the future. [End Page 680]
The theoretical approach to literature, as well as the analyses themselves, represent a valuable contribution to the field of literary studies. References to secondary literature are done in a judicious, unobtrusive manner. Through analyses of some 100 writers (and of countless texts), the encyclopedic book offers the added benefit of bringing to the fore works that may have escaped the attention of Germanists. Some readers unfamiliar with the terminology of thematic studies, however, may wish for greater elucidation of the relevant terms. Moreover, an index listing the discussed...