- Die neuen Zeiten im Westen und das ästhetische Niemandsland. Phänomenologie der Beschleunigung und Metaphysik der Geschichte in den Westfront-Romanen des Ersten Weltkriegs by Johannes Waßmer
As one might expect from the title, this book will hardly be criticized for being undertheorized. For the greater part of the analysis, the polarity indicated in the subtitle is of the most relevance. Expressed simply, the book explores the antithesis between, on the one hand, the barely describable experience of the World War I battlefield and, on the other, the efforts by authors and characters to give sense to that experience by placing it in a historical framework. But both terms of the antithesis are highly theorized. The experiential side is approached via the idea of acceleration as the peculiar hallmark of modernity with its dislocation of our experience of time; the guiding spirits here are Hartmut Rosa and Paul Virilio. Somewhat confusingly, this idea turns out to harbour a second antithesis, since acceleration is deemed to include its opposite, the paradoxical idea of “rasender Stillstand” (63, passim). The combination of these two terms might be suitable for capturing the paradoxical nature of life on the Western front—long periods of boredom (in which sudden death nonetheless remains a constant possibility) punctuated by bursts of frantic and terrifying activity—but at the level of conceptual understanding it remains somewhat challenging. The second part of the original antithesis, the metaphysic of history, seems to me to be something of a theoretical excess. At the level of the novels themselves, what is actually meant is the soldiers’ need to explain to themselves that the horrors they are undergoing have some purpose. In spite of a learned disquisition in the introductory chapter about the metaphysics of time, the more relevant frameworks here are surely the political, namely the famous “ideas of 1914,” and the psychological, namely, the sense of comradeship that was of such vital importance to combatants on all sides. Both of [End Page 738] these latter frameworks are indeed discussed by the author, but this is one of a number of respects in which the book seems to obscure its subject matter by an excess of theory.
The central chapters of the book deal with a succession of authors and texts. The selection is far from obvious. No Walter Flex, no Arnold Zweig, but (departing from Germany) Henri Barbusse’s Le feu, and (departing from World War I itself) Christian Kracht’s recent novel Ich werde hier sein im Sonnenschein und im Schatten (2008), which deals with a fantastical war that has never ended. In between we have chapters on the more familiar ground of Ernst Jünger (In Stahlgewittern, Sturm), Erich Maria Remarque (Im Westen nichts Neues, Der Weg zurück), and Werner Beumelburg (Die Gruppe Bösemüller). The chapters are all densely argued and thoroughly researched, so that, despite the very particular theoretical perspective the author has created, his interpretations will be required reading for all students of the material.
Rather than go into the discussions of specific works, I want to skip to the concluding chapter, which finally speaks to the first part of the book’s title, for it becomes clear here that, despite all the references to Rosa and Virilio, the project’s true spiritus rector has all along been Karl Heinz Bohrer. In a long footnote to his essay on the “absolute present,” Bohrer blithely dismisses all 20th-century literature with socio-historical emphasis as lacking a “contemplative structure” and hence as belonging merely to the “higher journalism.” (His acclaimed models of a truly aesthetic literature are Woolf, Beckett, and Kafka. “Zeit und Imagination. Das absolute Präsens der Literatur,” in Bohrer, Das absolute Präsens. Die Semantik ästhetischer Zeit, Frankfurt 1994: 158.) Significantly, among the novels that are found wanting is Im Westen nichts Neues. Waßmer’s final chapter reverts to Bohrer’s basic distinction, and in his concluding...