8-1 | Table of Con­tents | DOI 10.17742/IMAGE.GDR.8-1.9 | Robin­son­PDF

Abstract | Among the plot­lines in Anna Seghers’ 1959 nov­el of social­ist con­struc­tion, Die Entschei­dung, the love sto­ry remains the most real­is­tic alle­go­ry for under­stand­ing pas­sion­ate moti­va­tions for social­ism. This read­ing reveals how Seghers has moved the locus of insight from char­ac­ters in her ear­ly nov­els who gain ide­o­log­i­cal con­scious­ness in mor­tal strug­gle against repres­sion to char­ac­ters who dis­cov­er ide­o­log­i­cal lim­its in the face of crea­ture­ly involve­ments. The sac­ri­fice of the Catholic wife of a com­mu­nist engi­neer points to the per­sis­tence of the body, labour, and birth, with their con­comi­tant emo­tions of com­pas­sion and romance. By direct­ing atten­tion away from doc­tri­naire ele­ments, my read­ing explores how the par­tic­u­lars of care encounter the gen­er­al­i­ties of collectivism.
Résumé | Dans le roman d’Anna Seghers de 1959, Die Entschei­dung, roman de con­struc­tion social­iste, l’histoire d’amour reste l’allégorie la plus réal­iste pour com­pren­dre cer­taines moti­va­tions pas­sion­nées pour le social­isme. Cette inter­ven­tion mon­tre com­ment Seghers a déplacé le lieu de con­nais­sance de la lutte forcenée con­tre la répres­sion (dans ses pre­miers romans) aux per­son­nages qui se heur­tent aux lim­ites idéologiques devant leurs engage­ments cor­porels. Le sac­ri­fice de la femme catholique d’un ingénieur com­mu­niste pointe vers la per­sis­tance du corps, du tra­vail et de l’accouchement, avec leurs sen­ti­ments de com­pas­sion et de rêve. En écar­tant l’attention des élé­ments doc­tri­naires, cette inter­ven­tion inter­roge les façons dont les par­tic­u­lar­ités des soins ren­con­trent les général­ités du collectivisme.

Ben­jamin Robin­son | Indi­ana University

Troubled Faces:
The Melancholy Passion of Anna Seghers’s Die Entscheidung

I con­sid­er that our present suf­fer­ings are not worth com­par­ing with the glo­ry that will be revealed in us. For the cre­ation waits in eager expec­ta­tion for the chil­dren of God to be revealed. For the cre­ation was sub­ject­ed to frus­tra­tion, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who sub­ject­ed it, in hope that the cre­ation itself will be lib­er­at­ed from its bondage to decay and brought into the free­dom and glo­ry of the chil­dren of God.
Romans 8: 18-21

Introduction—Love as Socialist Allegory

Anna Seghers’s 1959 nov­el, Die Entschei­dung (The Deci­sion) is an epic chron­i­cle of the recon­struc­tion of heavy indus­try on social­ist terms in the rub­ble of the Sovi­et Occu­pa­tion Zone of Ger­many. In one of the most mem­o­rable plot­lines, the engi­neer Ernst Riedl finds him­self sep­a­rat­ed from his beloved wife, Katha­ri­na, by geog­ra­phy and con­vic­tion. Riedl received his engi­neer­ing train­ing before the war and had his first posi­tion in a giant Ben­theim Steel Works plant in the Elbe Riv­er town of Kossin, and then returns after the war to Kossin, now in the Sovi­et Occu­pa­tion Zone. He is attract­ed by the work­ers strug­gling on their own to get the plant back into oper­a­tion, decid­ing for rea­sons not alto­geth­er clear to him­self to throw in his lot with them and set­tle in Kossin. His wife mean­while is sur­viv­ing the post­war wreck­age in the vil­lage of Kro­n­bach near Riedl’s home­town in the Amer­i­can Occu­pa­tion Zone on the riv­er Main. He first met her on a trip home dur­ing a uni­ver­si­ty hol­i­day before the war and has been most­ly away from her since then at work or at war. She is a true­heart­ed Rhineland Catholic, “the sweet­est thing he knew” (Entschei­dung 156), young, inno­cent and com­mit­ted to the rem­nants of the peas­ant com­mu­ni­ty in the vil­lages along the Main.[1] She faces the post­war dev­as­ta­tion around her with­out dis­con­tent or pity. Nei­ther a social climber nor an activist, she is rec­on­ciled to her place in the world and above all eager to be help­ful to those in need. Katha­ri­na, we imme­di­ate­ly per­ceive, is a good woman—but since she is not com­mit­ted to chang­ing the world, we know just as imme­di­ate­ly that the plot will demand she under­go some trans­for­ma­tion or come to some deci­sion, as the title promis­es. We get to know her hus­band Riedl as a ded­i­cat­ed, rather awk­ward per­son, like­wise nei­ther a striv­er nor quite a mal­con­tent, but a melan­cholic, unwill­ing to let peo­ple into his con­fi­dence. [2] His sense that he belongs on the Elbe in the East is as vague and as deep-seat­ed as Katharina’s that she belongs on the Main in the West. Both are moti­vat­ed by faith and both com­mit­ted to the under­dog. Yet Riedl’s new­found sol­i­dar­i­ty with the East sep­a­rates him from his wife and birth­place; that is, his deci­sion would seem to demand some sort of artic­u­late, enlight­ened account from him—one that he, like many lacon­ic Seghers heroes from Andreas Bruyn to Ben­i­to Guer­rero, proves unable to for­mu­late. The direct com­mu­ni­ca­tion that might save their rela­tion­ship instead becomes a freight­ed alle­go­ry of social­ism and redemption.

Before Seghers returned from Mex­i­can exile to the Sovi­et Occu­pa­tion Zone in 1947, her writing—although set in real­is­tic sites of polit­i­cal resis­tance and exile—adopted the ele­vat­ed dic­tion and iconog­ra­phy of reli­gious tra­di­tion to reveal a humane pas­sion for social­ism. In con­trast to the insights of doc­trine, rev­e­la­tion here is a specif­i­cal­ly aes­thet­ic sort of knowl­edge. She uses alle­gor­i­cal means to bridge the gap between descrip­tive and affec­tive reg­is­ters, where the inten­si­ty of the feel­ing of insight stands in lit­tle pro­por­tion to the mod­esty of what is described. Seghers achieved her effects of knowl­edge espe­cial­ly through a nar­ra­tive struc­ture that jux­ta­posed rou­tine and dan­ger, monot­o­ny and exal­ta­tion. Indeed, in Seghers’s work the genre “social­ist real­ism” can be under­stood as just the alle­gor­i­cal attri­bu­tion of social­ist sig­nif­i­cance to major and minor plot events.[3] “Alle­go­ry,” wrote Wal­ter Ben­jamin in the Ori­gins of Ger­man Trag­ic Dra­ma, “estab­lished itself most per­ma­nent­ly where tran­si­tori­ness and eter­ni­ty con­front­ed each oth­er most close­ly” (224, qtd. in Sant­ner, 21).

After 1947, the social­ist state, once the exalt­ed goal of so much charis­mat­ic sac­ri­fice in Seghers’s ear­li­er writ­ing, became the mun­dane set­ting of her his­tor­i­cal chron­i­cles of social­ist con­struc­tion. Com­mit­ted to the lit­er­ary affir­ma­tion of a state that, when it appeared on the back of the occu­py­ing Sovi­et army rather than with the hoped-for work­ers’ upris­ing, did so in the severe form of a bureau­crat­ic par­ty appa­ra­tus, Seghers faced a new aes­thet­ic chal­lenge. Social­ism had to be depict­ed as the inher­ent ten­den­cy of the age, not as a deferred future expressed neg­a­tive­ly as oppo­si­tion to a dam­aged present. Her heroes had to rise to the occa­sion of sin­gle-par­ty rule and col­lec­tive labour dis­ci­pline, not resis­tance and strikes. In such weary­ing and often parochial cir­cum­stances, the oppor­tu­ni­ty to risk one’s life was not so read­i­ly avail­able for elic­it­ing rev­e­la­tion. While the pas­sion for social­ism remains cen­tral to her two post­war nov­els of con­tem­po­rary his­to­ry, its depic­tion becomes more indi­rect and the par­ties to the strug­gle have less chance to dis­close their deep­er motives—often not trans­par­ent even to them­selves. In Die Entschei­dung, Seghers’s alle­gor­i­cal struc­ture of mean­ing-mak­ing is as per­va­sive as ever, but shifts its man­i­fest set­ting into more mun­dane life sit­u­a­tions. Iron­i­cal­ly, her alle­gor­i­cal inten­si­fi­ca­tion of mean­ing becomes more inescapable as the sit­u­a­tions in which it is expressed become more com­mon­place. In Riedl and Katharina’s sto­ry, the mys­ter­ies of social­ist desire (the phys­i­cal as well as polit­i­cal dimen­sions of choos­ing social­ism) are con­veyed alle­gor­i­cal­ly through their tri­als of unful­filled roman­tic pas­sion and dis­placed faith. The almost absurd­ly deferred rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of the star-crossed lovers is charged with lift­ing the nar­ra­tive load that Seghers’s plots of polit­i­cal mar­tyr­dom once would have carried.

What  reads as most real­is­tic in Seghers’s nov­el after the 1989 col­lapse of real social­ism in the East­ern Bloc is not the genre-typ­i­cal grit of crag­gy work­ers test­ing their open-hearth fur­nace or vig­i­lant­ly match­ing wits with super­vi­sors, but rather the way Riedl and Katha­ri­na con­ceal from them­selves the objects of their attach­ment and loss (the unplumbed space between authen­tic faith and self-decep­tion). Their strug­gle to find the truth of their char­ac­ters expressed in an emblem­at­ic social choice proves self-decep­tive in a way that does not expose some nov­el­is­tic bad faith, but instead cap­tures the very beat of faith and irony and resis­tance and con­for­mi­ty that emerges in the inter­fer­ence pat­tern of engaged real­ism set against the dis­il­lu­sioned his­to­ry of our present today. The lovers’ tragedy antic­i­pates how social­ist real­ism relates to the sad fate of real social­ism in the hands of post­war his­to­ry. It casts into relief not just the dif­fer­ent time-spans of indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive desire, but also the dif­fer­ent tem­po­ral­i­ties a per­son inhab­its when she is lov­ing or exhaust­ed, ambi­tious or trou­bled. Most impor­tant per­haps, the pair’s tragedy shows how dif­fi­cult it is to coor­di­nate pas­sion­ate faith with prac­ti­cal judg­ment. “As a rule,” Alexan­der Kluge and Oskar Negt observe in their His­to­ry and Obsti­na­cy, “strong motives (for exam­ple, ‘I feel respon­si­ble for the future and the devel­op­ment of my chil­dren,’ ‘my faith is inalien­able’) are less like­ly to ally them­selves with the motives of oth­er humans than are weak motives,” such as the prag­mat­ic cal­cu­la­tions of dai­ly life (402).

Lovers, Tormentors, and Bodies at Risk

Giv­en the harsh sit­u­a­tion of destroyed, occu­pied, and moral­ly fraught post­war Ger­many, two lovers find­ing them­selves drawn apart by cir­cum­stances is not an espe­cial­ly sur­pris­ing plot con­struc­tion; one could read it as demon­strat­ing how the greedy, recidi­vist inter­ests of the West run roughshod over hum­ble lives. Yet Seghers makes it clear that Katha­ri­na and Riedl remain not only gen­uine­ly in love, but also prac­ti­cal­ly capa­ble of rec­on­cil­ing their future plans. They are thwart­ed by some­thing deep­er than the var­i­ous Cold War machi­na­tions and ide­o­log­i­cal mis­pri­sions that con­sti­tute the nar­ra­tive stum­bling blocks in the novel’s more ten­den­tious episodes. With its utopi­an theme of absolute love com­ing togeth­er in a com­mu­ni­ty of car­ing, this plot thread might also be read as a foil for the more overt­ly top­i­cal threads, implic­it­ly under­scor­ing the unsuit­abil­i­ty of any option avail­able in Cold War Ger­many for del­i­cate souls in hard­scrab­ble times.[4] The Sovi­et Zone and ear­ly GDR, Seghers shows us, are no place for gen­tle peo­ple. Even if the late 1940s are no longer Bertolt Brecht’s “dark times” of fascism—the peri­od of Seghers’s most cel­e­brat­ed nov­els, The Sev­enth Cross (1942) and Tran­sit (1944)—they sure­ly remain a time for sober self-dis­ci­pline. Though char­ac­ters are not called upon to make mor­tal sac­ri­fices, they must still for­feit the radi­ant life of achieved community.

Yet Riedl is not an oth­er­world­ly roman­tic. He is not orga­nized in the Com­mu­nist par­ty, but nev­er­the­less hews imper­turbably to the par­ty line, less hes­i­tant than even his par­ty-mem­ber acquain­tances. His inner doubts per­tain to his per­son, not to the Sovi­et course. His com­mit­ment to mak­ing machines work, to the man­age­able goals of uncom­pli­cat­ed work­ers, illus­trates the sort of stead­fast atti­tude for which shift­ing par­ty lines and pow­er strug­gles are tur­bu­lences to which his deep­er faith in good work pay lit­tle heed. He is, in oth­er words, less a stranger to the prac­ti­cal world of post­war recon­struc­tion than he is guid­ed by a non-intel­lec­tu­al intu­ition of a big­ger pic­ture, root­ed in things oth­er than the dai­ly strug­gle in which hard­ened work­ers and par­ty agi­ta­tors are absorbed. He is, arguably, the book’s prime exam­ple of some­one who has cho­sen his choice, moti­vat­ed as he is by an exis­ten­tial deci­sion for the bet­ter Ger­many. How­ev­er, in a cru­cial twist, the intu­itions guid­ing him belong to the effer­ves­cent Katha­ri­na rather than to the melan­cholic Riedl. Riedl grasps nei­ther his own opti­mistic com­mit­ment nor his stub­born melan­choly. His char­ac­ter weak­ness, his lack of self-con­fi­dence, derives, at least in com­par­i­son to the activists around him, from his miss­ing the stark author­i­ty of death in his biog­ra­phy. The strong-willed cadre super­vis­ing the Kossin mill or prowl­ing the Occu­pa­tion Zone to recruit a new polit­i­cal infra­struc­ture share a back­ground of mor­tal sac­ri­fice in clan­des­tine par­ty work dur­ing fas­cism or in the Span­ish Civ­il War. To use Sig­mund Freud’s famous dis­tinc­tion between mourn­ing and melan­cho­lia, the activists frankly mourn the com­rades they have lost, and turn loss into a deter­mined affir­ma­tion of the future. Riedl, as a melan­cholic, does not even rec­og­nize what it is that he has lost, and is thus inca­pable of avow­ing it—the author­i­ty of his char­ac­ter, such as it is, depends on an intu­ition, both ide­al­ized and enig­mat­ic, rather than his hav­ing known death and sur­mount­ed it in action.

What Riedl does have, and the oth­er seri­ous peo­ple at the plant do not, is Katha­ri­na. Katha­ri­na embod­ies, in the gra­cious form of the human fig­ure, Riedl’s intu­ition of repaired human­i­ty.[5] Her own gen­er­ous faith, how­ev­er, will not let itself be orga­nized into the par­tic­u­lar ide­o­log­i­cal present, as Riedl attempts to do with his faith in order to wrest it from its melan­choly indef­i­nite­ness. He insists on the pathos of the present in a way that Katha­ri­na can­not. To put it in terms of genre con­ven­tions: while Katharina’s time­less faith will not let itself be writ­ten accord­ing to the par­ti­san con­ven­tions of offi­cial social­ist real­ism, Seghers can­not do with­out express­ing it—it is still the lit­er­ary mod­el of what faith must be. This ten­sion between the orga­nized par­tic­u­lar (the his­tor­i­cal­ly sec­tar­i­an) and the untram­meled universal—refracted through reg­is­ters of social and exis­ten­tial worlds, man­i­fest and latent expe­ri­ences, polit­i­cal and nat­ur­al his­to­ry, the­o­ret­i­cal and revealed truth—gives force to the trag­ic impulse that Seghers weaves into the novel’s sweep­ing chron­i­cle as a whole. Yet as it turns out, this thread, instead of tying togeth­er the shat­tered his­tor­i­cal world in which it unfolds, is like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs: it draws us deep into the real social­ist woods, but leaves us lost as to what would be estab­lished for us there—if not an untram­meled world, then the ide­o­log­i­cal coher­ence Die Entschei­dung aims to secure. It would there­fore be wrong to read the trag­ic love sto­ry as a foil for the polit­i­cal strands and their doc­tri­nal moral coor­di­nates. On the con­trary, Riedl and Katharina’s love points to a per­sis­tent char­ac­ter­is­tic of Seghers’ pol­i­tics of the aes­thet­ic, which a dis­ap­point­ed Mar­cel Reich-Ran­ic­ki claimed the nov­el had for­feit­ed, name­ly her focus on “sim­ple peo­ple” who can bare­ly express their “strong feel­ings and few thoughts” (Reich-Ran­ic­ki). Since her 1926 sto­ry, “Gru­betsch,” Seghers’s plots invari­ably har­bour a moment of rev­e­la­tion that hints at a pas­sion­ate alter­na­tive to the monot­o­ny of the life to which her sim­ple pro­tag­o­nists are con­demned. Lit­er­a­ture in her aes­thet­ics is a way to envi­sion an ecsta­t­ic com­mu­ni­ty against a hori­zon of his­tor­i­cal mortification.

In the con­flict-laden years of the Weimar Repub­lic, Seghers’ hum­ble char­ac­ters were work­ers, house­wives, and drifters. Many of her key scenes jux­ta­posed expe­ri­ences of bod­i­ly exhaus­tion with those of the body extend­ing itself into the world and bend­ing toward the bod­ies of its fatigued fel­lows. The exhaus­tion of a labourer’s body oblit­er­ates all expe­ri­ence besides phys­i­cal pain—there is noth­ing left to say, the moral self no longer appears in words or deeds, and the char­ac­ter with­draws into the silent van­ish­ing point of his or her crea­ture­ly nature.[6] The body extend­ing out­ward, by con­trast, opens itself to risk, pal­pates the pres­ence of oth­ers in wary antic­i­pa­tion of a touch—a com­mu­nion (when the body meets a lover or com­rade) or a blow (when it meets a cop or informer). Through its exten­sion, the beset human fig­ure expos­es its embod­ied moral qual­i­ties to the judg­ment of fel­low human beings, risk­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of com­pan­ion­ship or afflic­tion. In her 1928 sto­ry Auf­s­tand der Fis­ch­er von St. Bar­bara (Revolt of the Fish­er­men of San­ta Bar­bara) we learn in the first sen­tences what will hap­pen to the agi­ta­tor, Hull, and the strik­er, Andreas. Their author­i­ty in the unfold­ing sto­ry derives from our antic­i­pat­ing Andreas’ death on the cliffs when flee­ing the police, and Hull expos­ing him­self to a phys­i­cal jeop­ardy he needn’t assume. Indeed, Hull’s body-at-risk is what draws Andreas from the enclosed drudgery of his pover­ty into a world that opens onto love and death. In stark relief against their phys­i­cal duress, both char­ac­ters assume a myth­i­cal grav­i­tas that Seghers writ­ing lacon­i­cal­ly con­veys. In her sub­se­quent work under the new cir­cum­stances of fas­cist vic­to­ry and her exile from Ger­many, the his­tor­i­cal scale of the vio­lence she depicts expands, yet her exhaust­ed charismatics—such as Georg Heisler, the escaped con­cen­tra­tion camp pris­on­er from The Sev­enth Cross—con­tin­ue to give focus to Seghers’s incom­pa­ra­ble bal­anc­ing act: on the one hand, the hor­ri­ble moral bur­den her heroes bear for draw­ing ordi­nary peo­ple into often fatal dan­ger; and on the oth­er, the uplift they pro­vide us by giv­ing history’s oth­er­wise pri­vate and com­plic­it bystanders the oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­close their righteousness.

Although fas­cism dri­ves her to France and Mex­i­co, dan­ger is not an exot­ic milieu for Seghers but rather the nega­tion that lies latent in all rou­tine, whether that of dai­ly labor or the dis­ci­pline of liv­ing on the lam, under­ground, or in exile. In a dam­aged world, dan­ger aris­es from keep­ing faith with one­self despite the com­pro­mise and cor­rup­tion all around. Dan­ger cul­mi­nates in an ecsta­sy, often only per­ceived through the frag­ment­ed sens­es of a tor­tured body, point­ing beyond the rou­tines of work and obe­di­ence. The death that ensures the con­sis­ten­cy of a protagonist’s faith also ensures its rel­e­vance, indeed, its peren­ni­al youth—as the title of Seghers’s first post­war nov­el, the 1949 epic Die Toten bleiben jung (The Dead Stay Young), pro­gram­mat­i­cal­ly announces. What changes in her work, from the Weimar Repub­lic, exile from fas­cism in Ger­many, and final­ly to the Sovi­et occu­pa­tion and the con­struc­tion of the GDR, is an increas­ing ten­den­cy to frame these moments of ecstasy—often immersed in pri­mor­dial set­tings and con­cen­trat­ed by the lim­its of the strug­gling body—in larg­er and more his­tor­i­cal­ly explic­it chrono­log­i­cal spans with scarce­ly veiled the­ses about the prop­er course of events. At the same time, the nat­ur­al body at the cusp of death remains the key source of nar­ra­tive force. The rel­e­vant body at the cen­ter of the volu­mi­nous Die Entschei­dung, where a vari­a­tion on Seghers’ char­ac­ter­is­tic dra­ma of cat­a­lyst and bystander plays out, is, sur­pris­ing­ly, Katharina’s.

Landscapes with Ruins and Faces, Sullen and Radiant

We first meet Riedl through the party’s eyes, when his opac­i­ty rather than his promise stands out. Robert Lohse, anoth­er one of the novel’s pro­tag­o­nists, describes Riedl to his child­hood friend and Span­ish Civ­il War com­rade, the func­tionary Richard Hagen: “He was employed here before the war. Then he came back and helped us. I still haven’t seen into his heart. […] I can scarce­ly imag­ine why such a per­son would want the plant to belong to us” (77). What is sig­nif­i­cant for our sense of Riedl’s authen­tic­i­ty is that, unlike Lohse, who has been starved for recog­ni­tion since child­hood, he is not par­tic­u­lar­ly eager for the collective’s acknowl­edg­ment. Most­ly, though, Riedl is an enig­ma to him­self. We repeat­ed­ly hear him described as “bor­ing […] gloomy, sullen” (89), “sullen and gray” (286), or “awk­ward, slug­gish” (356), and he only responds morose­ly to attempts to draw him out, even the attempts of his one-time close friend and engi­neer­ing school com­rade, Rentmair—who will even­tu­al­ly com­mit sui­cide due in no small part to the fail­ure of his friend’s inti­ma­cy and trust. The only insight we get into Riedl’s heart comes from his wor­ry­ing about Katha­ri­na. Indeed, he feels need­ed by the work­ers, and responds grate­ful­ly as we would expect of an engi­neer, absorb­ing him­self in their tech­ni­cal chal­lenges; yet that is as far as his class sol­i­dar­i­ty goes—there is no pro­nounced ide­o­log­i­cal awak­en­ing in Kossin that vis­i­bly swells his heart.

His wife writes him about the life she is try­ing to re-estab­lish for them back in the West, near his home­town in a Main vil­lage by the steel works still under Bentheim’s own­er­ship; she offers him hope that “the light is always there in all the dark­ness and con­fu­sion” (155). Riedl thinks about the work­ers he met on the grounds of the expro­pri­at­ed Kossin plant and writes back to his wife with the same phrase, “the light is always there” (155). “But when his wife wrote him back puz­zled and sad, he felt that she hadn’t under­stood him” (156). This exchange—ambiguous about what sort of light Riedl has seen and what sort of con­vic­tions he com­mu­ni­cates to his wife—sets up the con­flict between Riedl and Katha­ri­na that ends in her death in child­birth while cross­ing the bor­der into the GDR on foot to meet her hus­band in Kossin.

In his first vis­it to Katha­ri­na in the novel’s nar­rat­ed time, Riedl trav­els to Röder­sheim on the Main Riv­er in the West to nego­ti­ate with a sup­pli­er. Röder­sheim is his home­town, where his moth­er, sis­ter, and old­er broth­er still live. Katha­ri­na lives a step fur­ther along the Main in the small vil­lage of Kro­n­bach, a short train ride to Star­gen­heim and then a two-hour walk, with a fer­ry ride across the riv­er at Hei­desheim. Riedl wit­ness­es a bustling scene along his walk through Röder­sheim. The Ben­theim Works stretch along the riv­er between Röder­sheim and Hader­s­feld. The recon­struc­tion is impres­sive, not only of the fac­to­ry, but also of the hous­es and shops. The vis­i­ble suc­cess spurs Riedl to pose the key ques­tion that orga­nizes his con­scious per­cep­tion of the cul­tur­al and nat­ur­al land­scape along the Main: “What­ev­er Riedl saw, he com­pared with his own expe­ri­ences; the thought nev­er left him, he turned it over end­less­ly in his mind: Can Katha­ri­na under­stand what dis­tin­guish­es life here from life over there?” (311).

His per­cep­tions do him no favors. The pros­per­i­ty of the West out­shines any­thing in Kossin. In the 1968 sequel to Die Entschei­dung, the nov­el Das Ver­trauen (Trust), Riedl will encounter in the West the very work­er whose plea for help rebuild­ing the Kossin plant moved Riedl to stay in the East, set­ting in motion the sequence of trag­ic plot events. In the sequel, the uncom­pli­cat­ed but faith­less work­er explains to Riedl, “here [in the West] we’re well off. A blind man sees that. Even bet­ter than I imag­ined (27).[7] Already in the first nov­el, instead of find­ing visu­al con­fir­ma­tion of the right­ness of the social­ist course, Riedl notices only pros­per­i­ty in the West. See­ing how “one full shop came after anoth­er” (311), he reas­sures him­self with anoth­er way of look­ing at things. While he remains con­scious­ly focused on the dis­tinc­tion “here” and “there,” at a deep­er lev­el he orga­nizes his per­cep­tions accord­ing to a dif­fer­ent dis­tinc­tion, name­ly, that between inside and out­side. Antic­i­pat­ing his immi­nent reunion with Katha­ri­na, he imag­ines a con­ver­sa­tion that shifts atten­tion to the sec­ond axis: “It seems so mea­ger on our side. Here, one wants what­ev­er makes peo­ple greedy and wild to earn more. Back home peo­ple are trans­form­ing them­selves. That hap­pens on the inside. It isn’t dis­played in shop win­dows” (311). How­ev­er, because this inter­nal change is not vis­i­ble, Riedl imme­di­ate­ly con­cedes to him­self the uncer­tain­ty of his knowl­edge, inter­rupt­ing his imag­ined dia­logue: “He balked. Is it true? Are there real­ly many who’ve changed?” (311). Although he intro­duces the inter­nal-exter­nal dis­tinc­tion to shore up his faith, the new dis­tinc­tion only com­pounds his uncer­tain­ty, adding anoth­er, inten­sive dimen­sion. If the first uncer­tain­ty appears in the novel’s land­scapes, the sec­ond appears in the novel’s faces. The ten­sion between two dimen­sions, inten­sive and exten­sive, is espe­cial­ly appar­ent in Riedl and Katharina’s sto­ry, where the faces and land­scapes alter­nate with each oth­er in a rhythm of ten­sion and release. As his reunion with Katha­ri­na approach­es and his doubt becomes ever more intol­er­a­ble, the over­whelm­ing beau­ty and famil­iar­i­ty of his native land­scape reasserts itself (which is also Seghers’s native land­scape). No longer pri­mar­i­ly an indus­tri­al and com­mer­cial land­scape, which would invari­ably cast the eco­nom­i­cal­ly infe­ri­or East into the melan­choly obscu­ri­ty of its rainy grays, the West Ger­man land­scape that opens up before Riedl’s sens­es has been drawn back into nature. The nat­ur­al land­scape, nar­rat­ed with a rich sen­su­al vocab­u­lary as a retar­da­tion of action, is trans­formed into a scene that tran­scends the vari­able, excitable tem­po­ral­i­ty of eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal life.

In her 2001 study, Anna Seghers: The Myth­ic Dimen­sion, Helen Fehervary argues that Seghers, rather than being pri­mar­i­ly a psy­cho­log­i­cal or lyri­cal writer, was “the quin­tes­sen­tial pic­to­r­i­al writer. Every­thing she wrote revolves around pic­tures and derives its sig­nif­i­cance from them” (13). Fehervary empha­sizes how Seghers’ deep famil­iar­i­ty with the tra­di­tion of the Dutch mas­ters allowed her to describe set­tings sat­u­rat­ed with the iconog­ra­phy of north­ern Euro­pean paint­ing, a myth­ic dou­bling of the sto­ry locale that lends her prose an atmos­phere of mes­sian­ic weight. This rich topo­graph­ic descrip­tive­ness, with its implic­it tem­po­ral depth, emerges as Riedl walks along the Main from the sta­tion at Star­gen­heim to the fer­ry at Hei­desheim. Aban­don­ing his imag­ined dia­logue with Katha­ri­na, with its fruit­less dialec­tic of doubt, Riedl gives him­self over to his sens­es, which promise him a deep­er truth than his own hes­i­tant and uncer­tain voice:

Riedl was tired and relaxed […]. The ten­sion, the anx­i­ety around see­ing Katha­ri­na again, was gone […]. The thick­et smelled of blos­soms. And some­thing dwelled in this scent, these hills, this warm wind that he’d long done with­out. Some­thing at once wild and gen­tle, an inti­ma­tion of the south, an abid­ing faith in the beau­ty of the world. (314)

I want to linger over this image, since so much of what struc­tures the nov­el, is put into play here: the prob­lems of con­ver­sion and recog­ni­tion, of cor­re­lat­ing inside/outside with here/there, and inner states with their reflec­tion in land­scapes. Two plots are super­im­posed, one involv­ing polit­i­cal con­scious­ness, the oth­er roman­tic intu­ition. In one plot, Riedl’s bod­i­ly exhaus­tion draws him in from the West’s extro­vert­ed eco­nom­ic land­scape, which wea­ries him just because he per­ceives how it under­cuts his deci­sion for the people’s prop­er­ty of the East. Like Riedl’s own sullen and unre­veal­ing face, the east­ern land­scape seems opaque by con­trast to the exu­ber­ant com­mer­cial activ­i­ty of the West. His exhaus­tion, rather than absorb­ing him as pain would into the solip­sism of phys­i­cal embod­i­ment, releas­es him from the ten­sion of his inter­minable inner dia­logues. His sen­su­al aware­ness attunes itself to the scents, breezes, and hills to which his body reach­es out. The attune­ment restores his faith in an undi­vid­ed world expressed through its tran­scen­dent beau­ty. The oth­er plot entails how roman­tic love, con­front­ed with the lovers’ silence and mis­un­der­stand­ing, reas­sures itself with ref­er­ence to the land­scape that con­sti­tutes the com­mon world in which they relate to each oth­er. The sub­jec­tive land­scape that emerges through exhaus­tion is not a mod­ernist col­lage of frag­ment­ed per­cep­tions but rather the shared set­ting in which the lovers step back from their cease­less change­abil­i­ty and observe each oth­er observ­ing, aware of each oth­er from a reflex­ive, at times almost ele­giac, dis­tance, as the uni­ty of an expe­ri­enc­ing subject.

There is anoth­er aspect of the image worth lin­ger­ing over. As the sto­ry pro­gress­es, Riedl’s tense body grad­u­al­ly attunes itself to a peace­ful land­scape, relax­ing from the rig­ors of dis­tin­guish­ing and decid­ing. In terms of lit­er­ary genre, we see a pro­tag­o­nist being relieved of the stren­u­ous demands of social­ist real­ism, which insist that char­ac­ters align with a pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive ten­den­cy in the novel’s urgent social world. The scenic asserts pri­or­i­ty over the dia­log­ic or didac­tic. In the attune­ment of behold­er and beheld, inte­ri­or and exte­ri­or align with each oth­er. The scene is cast in the mild light of for­give­ness rather than praise or blame. Lulled by the sight of the fer­ry glid­ing across the riv­er, Riedl has relin­quished the ten­sion of judg­ment with a rhetor­i­cal ques­tion his body has already answered, “to what end […] this tor­ment­ing deci­sion?” (315).

When Katha­ri­na qui­et­ly catch­es up with Riedl at the boat, she does not sur­prise him or dis­turb the bal­ance: “He turned his head, he wasn’t tak­en aback, not even sur­prised” (315). Like the land­scape, her appear­ance has tak­en on a near­ly unchang­ing demeanor: “She even wore the same dress that she wore at their last part­ing. It was only a bit fad­ed, bluish instead of blue” (315)—only enough change to let in a breath of the melan­choly that mor­tal life rec­og­nizes in the face of the tran­scen­dent. Riedl’s mood­i­ness when he is sep­a­rat­ed from Katha­ri­na dis­si­pates as he sees him­self reflect­ed as a whole in her steady gaze: “She looked direct­ly at him with­out smil­ing, only her gold brown eyes. It was like old times” (315). While the con­text of East and West is change­able, here he sees her see­ing the same lov­ing sub­ject, the same uni­ty of past, present, and the antic­i­pa­tion of the future. The lovers, the mild evening, the scent of grass­es and flow­ers, even the ruins of wartime are rec­on­ciled in the land­scape: “The boat, the clouds and the hills, the river­bank with the bombed out city hung in the pink air” (316).

The ruined city in the land­scape is, to bor­row Wal­ter Benjamin’s famous image for the storyteller’s placid art, as nat­ur­al and inevitable as the “reaper […] in the pro­ces­sions around the cathe­dral clock at noon” (95). Not the lovers’ biogra­phies with their tor­ment­ed record of deci­sions counts in the riverbank’s pink air, but rather their organ­ic bod­ies and ani­mal sen­si­tiv­i­ty. Per­son­al his­to­ry turns into nat­ur­al his­to­ry, with its crea­ture­li­ness and its inti­ma­cy with death and the pas­sage of time. As Eric Sant­ner writes in On Crea­ture­ly Life, “the ambi­gu­i­ty at the heart” of this vision of nat­ur­al his­to­ry is that “the extreme response of our bod­ies to an absence of bal­ance in nature pre­sup­pos­es a nature already thrown off its tracks […] by human his­to­ry” (99). In her char­ac­ter­is­tic visu­al idiom, Seghers asserts the style of the farmer’s almanac tale—the chron­i­cle form Ben­jamin took as the mod­el of the storyteller’s art—against the busy and some­times bul­ly­ing style of engaged polit­i­cal lit­er­a­ture. As Ben­jamin elab­o­rates, the chron­i­cle dif­fers from his­to­ri­o­graph­ic writ­ing pre­cise­ly in refus­ing to explain the con­cate­na­tion of events. Rather than expla­na­tion, the chron­i­cler offers inter­pre­ta­tion, “which is not con­cerned with an accu­rate con­cate­na­tion of def­i­nite events, but with the way these are embed­ded in the great inscrutable course of the world” (Ben­jamin 96).

The intu­ition of the longue durée remains, how­ev­er, of only short dura­tion. Riedl can­not main­tain the scene’s sub­lim­i­ty. The trace of social­ist real­ism, in the emphat­ic sense of a more or less intact social­ist val­ue sys­tem, lies too heav­i­ly over his char­ac­ter for him to break out of the Cold War’s sub­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion. The pink air is too per­fect, the char­ac­ters bathed by its light too imper­fect. Riedl falls back into the banal­i­ty of polit­i­cal dia­logue, com­ment­ing on the stray bomb that destroyed the build­ings, explain­ing that hol­low cylin­ders such as smoke­stacks and church spires do not explode in the air pres­sure. Katha­ri­na rec­og­nizes the breach of style: “Katha­ri­na said quick­ly, in the way one speaks to a child […]‘do you think so? I don’t under­stand a thing about it’” (316). With a roman­tic ges­ture, toss­ing her bou­quet of wild­flow­ers into the cur­rent, she tries to steer the nov­el away from social­ist real­ism and Riedl’s atten­tion back to the unfin­ished tasks of love. How­ev­er, the scenic spell of the uni­fy­ing land­scape has been bro­ken, and unlike the smoke­stacks and spires, Riedl gives way to the pres­sure of hav­ing to ana­lyze the scene, draw­ing the sto­ry back into the change­able tem­po­ral­i­ty of def­i­nite events.

Hav­ing dis­rupt­ed the idyll, Riedl goes on to con­fuse ide­o­log­i­cal and roman­tic idioms in ana­lyz­ing the qual­i­ty of Katharina’s love: “He thought: in a moment we’ll be on the spot that is hold­ing her. Then I’ll know why she doesn’t want to come to me” (316). The increas­ing­ly few read­ers versed in the con­ven­tions of social­ist real­ism imme­di­ate­ly under­stand the need to break the roman­tic spell, but those expect­ing (per­haps only with self-con­scious estrange­ment from the genre) that love will con­quer all may be dis­turbed by Riedl’s stub­born clum­si­ness. The shifts speak to an intran­si­gence of the Cold War’s social­ist real­ism, which demands that mul­ti­ple motives be sort­ed into ide­o­log­i­cal cat­e­gories that psy­cho­log­i­cal real­ism resists.[8] The con­fu­sion clears, how­ev­er, if one refus­es to be either a social­ist-real­ist read­er or a psy­cho­log­i­cal-real­is­tic read­er and under­stands the con­ven­tions of the gen­res as stand­ing in an alle­gor­i­cal rela­tion­ship to each oth­er. Just as a love sto­ry can­not be reduced to mat­ri­mo­ni­al clo­sure, the polit­i­cal tale can­not be reduced to the choice to live in the East or West. The roman­tic issue for the already mar­ried Riedl and Katha­ri­na is not mat­ri­mo­ny, but rather the authen­tic­i­ty of their love. Niklas Luh­mann, has argued that love is cod­ed by the dis­tinc­tion between amour/plaisir as well as that between passion/reason (85; 95). Like­wise, the true social­ist is cod­ed by two cen­tral dis­tinc­tions: work­ing to real­ize one­self through col­lec­tive prop­er­ty as opposed to work­ing for the plea­sure of buy­ing con­sumer goods; and the revolutionary’s sac­ri­fi­cial readi­ness as opposed to the dogmatist’s self-right­eous­ness. Nei­ther set of dis­tinc­tions can be set­tled by a declar­a­tive sen­tence. The expe­ri­ence of truth fol­lows a struc­ture of with­hold­ing and defer­ral, punc­tured by intu­itions of a latent pres­ence with­in. To be sure, love, unlike social­ism, is addressed inti­mate­ly. The bour­geois nov­el, with its rich tech­niques for focal­iz­ing the nar­ra­tive on indi­vid­ual char­ac­ters, evolved in tan­dem with the con­ven­tions of roman­tic expe­ri­ence. Yet social­ism, a real­i­ty that appears for the first time in the 20th cen­tu­ry, is miss­ing a com­pa­ra­ble code for grasp­ing its inte­ri­or­i­ty. Seek­ing to por­tray sub­jec­tiv­i­ties with which read­ers could plau­si­bly iden­ti­fy (as opposed to the unat­tain­able ego-ide­al rep­re­sent­ed by the Span­ish Civ­il War fight­ers), Seghers posi­tions the indi­vid­ual love sto­ry alle­gor­i­cal­ly with ref­er­ence to the col­lec­tive­ly addressed pas­sions of socialism.

In this sense, Riedl’s appar­ent psy­cho­log­i­cal con­fu­sion between Katharina’s affec­tions and her polit­i­cal con­vic­tions can­not be read as a char­ac­ter fail­ing (or the fail­ure to sketch a plau­si­ble char­ac­ter). Rather, this dilem­ma points to the love sto­ry as being the real­is­tic vehi­cle to make the sto­ry of social­ist pas­sion alle­gor­i­cal­ly acces­si­ble to the read­er. In his 1933 book, The Social­ist Deci­sion, the the­olo­gian Paul Tillich held: “No one can under­stand social­ism who has not expe­ri­enced its demand for jus­tice as a demand made on one­self. Who­ev­er has not strug­gled with the spir­it of social­ism can speak about it only from the out­side, which is to say, in fact not at all” (7, empha­sis in the orig­i­nal). The char­ac­ter­i­za­tion is not unlike that of love, whose nature can only be expe­ri­enced from the inside—a beloved is just anoth­er per­son to some­one not in love, and the strug­gle of lovers to know each other’s minds and bod­ies is otiose to the outsider.

The Creaturely and the Promethean

Unable to adopt the new con­vic­tions of her hus­band, Katha­ri­na receives coun­sel from her priest Father Traub, who helped her sur­vive the post­war cri­sis. He directs her to the small­hold­ing of the wid­owed and dis­fig­ured peas­ant Alois Seil­er. Here she rebuilds a house­hold destroyed by fas­cism and war through her care, a pow­er as gen­tle as it is rare. In a vivid image, when Riedl final­ly arrives at the spot on which his jeal­ousy has been fixated—Seiler’s farmhouse—he dis­cov­ers not a roman­tic rival but a scene of tra­di­tion­al domes­tic­i­ty, a warm glow in dark times:

The kitchen at first appeared very deep and very dark to Riedl. He grad­u­al­ly fig­ured out that the oven, which was as big as the table, was pushed up against the back wall; he dis­cov­ered the mas­sive, weak­ly glim­mer­ing cop­per spoons, attached to a brack­et. The cru­ci­fix hung alone on the side wall. The dark wood­en cross was large, while the cru­ci­fied one was small, almost del­i­cate, turned from ivory. (317-18)

The pic­ture is rem­i­nis­cent of one of Jan Steen’s rich­ly toned por­traits of a peas­ant fam­i­ly at meal­time, pious­ly say­ing grace in the dark recess­es of the kitchen, cop­per tools lam­bent in the fire of the hearth—except for the one dis­rup­tive ele­ment that intrudes on Riedl’s inven­to­ry: “the year 1950 leapt to his eye from the cal­en­dar” (318). With this detail in Riedl’s eye, Seghers sets up the oppo­si­tion between the present-day his­tor­i­cal tem­po­ral­i­ty and the Catholic tem­po­ral­i­ty of sal­va­tion. After their night togeth­er, Riedl wakes with the roost­ers and instructs Katha­ri­na to get ready to come with him. She has arranged to take the day off to spend with him, but it quick­ly becomes appar­ent that he means she should come with him imme­di­ate­ly back to Kossin. She qui­et­ly goes down to the kitchen to warm the cof­fee; the hired hands are still in the field, the room is still: “There was an inkling of home in it. And the four walls and table and oven around her seemed to say: stay. You’re man and wife.” (319) The domes­tic image, how­ev­er, can­not hold; the tear of cal­en­dar time already cuts through it. The myth­ic hearth, the forge of domes­tic and com­mu­ni­ty con­scious­ness, draws the read­ers into a world of qui­et con­tem­pla­tion, while the cal­en­dar spits us out along with the two lovers and their quick­ly dashed hope for a com­mu­nion that will last longer than a sin­gle night of con­ju­gal bliss.

As Katha­ri­na and Riedl retrace their walk back to the fer­ry, her face is trans­formed from radi­ant uni­ty with the land­scape into pure division:

Katha­ri­na sat upright in front of him in the boat. She avoid­ed his gaze, and chat­ted away with the fer­ry­man. He saw now, though, how pale her mouth was; he saw her des­per­a­tion, and the pur­ple world was still more beau­ti­ful than it was in the evening, even the reflec­tion of the bombed out city in the riv­er was beau­ti­ful. (319-20)

Katharina’s face is still beau­ti­ful in the morn­ing light, but it has with­drawn its gaze from Riedl’s in pun­ish­ment for his repeat­ed aban­don­ment. Her mouth seeks to make itself unavail­able, dis­pers­ing itself into idle chat­ter, out of tune with the land­scape. Nonethe­less, the despair she seeks to dis­pel refo­cus­es not on the words but the pal­lor of her mouth, which leaps out of the pur­ple air to Riedl’s eye. The salience of her mouth, how­ev­er, is dif­fer­ent than the salience of the Cold War cal­en­dar date. It re-cen­ters the image’s beau­ty despite her eva­sive blath­er­ing with the fer­ry­man. The morn­ing of the destroyed rela­tion­ship is even more beau­ti­ful than the evening of the hope­ful rela­tion­ship. On the first cross­ing, Riedl evad­ed amorous com­mu­ni­ca­tion with his own blath­er about bombs and air pres­sure; on this cross­ing, Katharina’s eva­sion evokes no effort by Riedl to rein­te­grate the voice and image of Katharina’s mouth. He reads her despair aes­thet­i­cal­ly like he reads the reflec­tion of the destroyed city; nei­ther inter­pre­ta­tion involves his sub­jec­tiv­i­ty in action. He returns to his melan­choly, unable to act on the inside/outside dis­tinc­tion, dis­plac­ing his will grim­ly back into the topog­ra­phy of this side/that side.

Since the train to Röder­sheim does not depart for anoth­er three hours, Katha­ri­na, in a final ges­ture, pleads with Riedl to vis­it her priest. As a com­pact set piece, Riedl’s con­ver­sa­tion with Father Traub stages the alle­gor­i­cal dynam­ics of his vis­its to the West and antic­i­pates the dynam­ics of Katharina’s mir­rored cross­ing over the East-West bor­der at the novel’s end. The con­ver­sa­tion has two main threads: draw­ing Riedl out to speak about the social­ist dif­fer­ence at the lev­el of appear­ances, and then chal­leng­ing him to dis­close whether there is a cor­re­spond­ing dif­fer­ence along the axis of (non-appear­ing) depths—to dis­close, that is, his own moral self. Father Traub allays Riedl’s dis­trust with his peace­ful vis­age and search­ing eyes, court­ing Riedl’s reluc­tant voice with a sim­ple ques­tion about why he enjoys liv­ing in the Russ­ian zone. His answer is sur­pris­ing since it express­es enthu­si­asm for the labour morale of the East, some­thing that the nov­el has not described him expe­ri­enc­ing. On the con­trary, Riedl’s inte­ri­or mono­logues have only expressed doubt about the morale in the East and whether the work­ers have real­ly trans­formed them­selves. The irony is that Father Traub’s uncom­pli­cat­ed face pen­e­trates Riedl’s glum phys­iog­no­my only to dis­cov­er behind it an ortho­dox nar­ra­tive of the labour sit­u­a­tion. Indeed, the melan­cholic Riedl is pos­sessed by a loqua­cious enthu­si­asm: “Traub’s eyes no longer cap­ti­vat­ed him. He was cap­ti­vat­ed by what he was relat­ing […]. The more Riedl said, the more occurred to him to say. Much more than ever occurred to him when Katha­ri­na was lis­ten­ing” (324-325). Father Traub remains placid but responds to Riedl’s enthu­si­asm skep­ti­cal­ly, sug­gest­ing that such peren­ni­al bursts of human effort are a flight from “two lit­tle words: Crea­tus sum” (325).

While the prove­nance of the words is not elab­o­rat­ed, giv­en Father Traub’s Catholi­cism, a sug­ges­tive ref­er­ence point is the open­ing line of St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spir­i­tu­al Exer­cis­es, “Crea­tus est homo” (man is cre­at­ed). In a 1940 lec­ture, Carl Jung called the words “a psy­cho­log­i­cal dec­la­ra­tion of the first impor­tance” (Jung, online). For Jung, they point to the moment an ego real­izes that “I hap­pen to myself.” The rel­e­vant ques­tion of faith posed by the recog­ni­tion that I am not the cause of myself is whether I am to choose sub­mis­sion to the plan of prov­i­dence or whether I am left with only the absurd fac­tic­i­ty of exis­tence, of being “thrown into the world”: tran­scen­dence or noth­ing­ness? In some sense, the lat­ter option, the anti-reli­gious insight of exis­ten­tial­ism per­va­sive among intel­lec­tu­als of the era, would be as unsym­pa­thet­ic to Seghers as it would be to Father Traub. To be sure, as Chris­tiane Zehl Romero has point­ed out, Seghers’s engage­ments with the exis­ten­tial­ism of Kierkegaard and Dos­toyevsky shaped her intel­lec­tu­al­ly from an ear­ly age (104-5). At the same time, how­ev­er, exis­ten­tial­ism in the 1940s and 50s was a rival to Marx­ism and sharply reject­ed by Györ­gy Lukács and oth­er promi­nent intel­lec­tu­als of the East­ern Bloc (Lukács). Exis­ten­tial­ism, osten­si­bly the more pious option, cap­tures a com­mon ges­ture of Chris­t­ian and com­mu­nist. True faith, accord­ing to St. Ignatius’s Exer­cise 234, involves a sac­ri­fi­ci­um intel­lec­tus dei, a leap by which the faith­ful exchange their earth­ly will for the gift of God’s grace. While the com­mu­nist posi­tion espous­es a sec­u­lar human­ism, in Seghers’s chil­ias­tic alle­gories it also dis­plays an aes­thet­ic rather than dis­cur­sive faith in a supra-indi­vid­ual prov­i­dence. This is the faith that Father Traub rec­og­nizes in Riedl—and in the orders of the Sovi­et Gen­er­al head­ing the Mil­i­tary Admin­is­tra­tion in Germany—but whose pathos of nov­el­ty he finds inauthentic:

What do you see so new in all that? […] You know all the attempts that have been made over the last two thou­sand years to estab­lish the king­dom of God on earth […]. Didn’t Calvin already claim that the grace of God revealed itself in suc­cess? […] When I lis­ten to what you’re say­ing, and let the orders of the Russ­ian gen­er­al run thought my head […] I’m struck by some­thing sim­i­lar. (325)

For Father Traub the issue comes down to the over­reach of Riedl’s enthu­si­asm for human Promethean autonomy—one belied by the bombed cities Riedl gazes upon, whose over­grown ruins, as W. G. Sebald argued in his study, On the Nat­ur­al His­to­ry of Destruc­tion, have “drop[ped] out of what we have thought for so long to be our autonomous his­to­ry and back into the his­to­ry of nature” (66).[9] It is, after all, resplen­dent nature, not human dar­ing, that has seized Riedl on his visit—a resplen­dence that points to a cog­nate sense of crea­tus sum found already in the medieval con­cept of the Book of Nature: nat­ur­al cre­ation is an objec­tive rev­e­la­tion as sacred as that of scrip­ture. Against the riv­er land­scape of hills, laven­der, and bombed-out fac­to­ries, humans appear frail and finite. With their pale lips and eva­sive chat­ter, they are crea­tures of orig­i­nal sin, inca­pable of per­fec­tion in his­tor­i­cal time and saved for divine time only by the hid­den grace of prov­i­dence. Traub is per­cep­tive enough to rec­og­nize the doubt behind Riedl’s pro­duc­tivist brava­do. He alludes to the mass rapes com­mit­ted by the occu­py­ing Red Army, which Riedl, eager to mit­i­gate the bru­tal­i­ty of social­ist forces, has to rec­og­nize as a sign of the Sovi­ets’ human frailty. Traub’s spe­cial rea­son to fear a Promethean arro­gance is that, by cast­ing its sub­jects as infi­nite cre­ators, it shows lit­tle mer­cy for the finite cre­ation. Katharina’s mes­sage to Riedl, to which Traub hopes to make him sen­si­tive, is of her care. More­over, ear­li­er in the vis­it when Riedl first learns of Katharina’s posi­tion on the farm car­ing for the wid­owed and dis­fig­ured Seil­er, he becomes jeal­ous of her dis­tri­b­u­tion of care: “Do you think you’re want­ed only here?” (317). His melan­cholic disposition—the per­va­sive sense of loss whose source he can­not identify—is what draws him to Katharina’s min­is­ter­ing gaze.

Traub has found Riedl’s sen­si­tive point. The inter­view ends per­func­to­ri­ly when Traub asks him to con­sid­er whether Katha­ri­na could real­ly sur­vive, let alone thrive, in the life he envi­sions for her in Kossin. Riedl bursts out, “Doesn’t a wife belong to her hus­band?” (325). The priest does not respond ide­o­log­i­cal­ly, but instead admon­ish­es him to con­sid­er­ate­ness. If he does not want sim­ply to order her, but to have her share his faith in the Sovi­et occu­pa­tion, then he has to leave the deci­sion to her. Faith is the last dimen­sion of free­dom for the crea­ture of the finite world.[10]

Katharina’s Final Crossing

In the final seg­ment of the sto­ry, Katha­ri­na, who has con­ceived in the train sta­tion hotel dur­ing one of Riedl’s sub­se­quent vis­its and is now late in her preg­nan­cy, final­ly decides to cross over to the East on her own and, out of fear of the offi­cial bor­der, to do so ille­gal­ly on foot.[11] Both of Riedl’s inter­ven­ing vis­its have been cut short by unex­pect­ed bad news out of Kossin: the sui­cide of the couple’s friend Rent­mair and then the defec­tion of his firm’s top lead­er­ship (due to Cold War intrigue). The news does not exact­ly evoke con­fi­dence in the bonds of care hold­ing life togeth­er in Kossin. How­ev­er, Katharina’s place in the Main riv­er land­scape has mean­while been shak­en. Seiler’s sis­ter has moved to the farm and the fam­i­ly has tak­en over run­ning the house­hold. Seiler’s dis­fig­ured face—whose mix­ture of ugli­ness and com­po­sure reflect­ed back at Riedl the van­i­ty of his jeal­ousy while lay­ing the basis for Katharina’s com­fort­ing pres­ence at the hearth—has made way for a new econ­o­my of glances around the kitchen table: a faster pace of exchanged looks, thrifty and avari­cious, sig­nal­ing the domes­tic tem­po­ral­i­ty of the West’s eco­nom­ic mir­a­cle. Katha­ri­na is already prepar­ing her inevitable move to an office job in the city. Her vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty could not be more com­plete. Sep­a­rat­ed from the car­ing house­hold she has fos­tered, loosed from the agrar­i­an Catholic tra­di­tion and estranged from her hus­band, Katha­ri­na is deceived by one final hope for reunion in the West. Although she has con­cealed news of her preg­nan­cy from Riedl, he is informed by Father Traub and has­tens across the bor­der to see her. The very evening he arrives below her win­dow at the farm­house, the news­pa­pers are car­ry­ing news of the defec­tion of the Kossin firm’s direc­torate, list­ing Riedl as one of the defec­tors. Katha­ri­na believes he has come to stay. As soon as she con­fides her expec­ta­tions, there­by alert­ing him to the tur­moil back at the fac­to­ry, his con­ster­na­tion and solic­i­tous­ness about the preg­nan­cy turn into dis­may about the defection—on a moment’s notice he drops his vis­it, preg­nan­cy and all: “After­wards man and wife said lit­tle. Katha­ri­na didn’t go down­stairs with him. Her arms hung so loose­ly it was as if he had shak­en them off” (515). In this con­flu­ence of crises, inti­mate loy­al­ty and ide­o­log­i­cal avow­al appear irrec­on­cil­able in the simul­tane­ity of their urgency. The fate­ful deci­sion in this moment is all Riedl’s—or providence’s—and it falls on the side of the factory.

Katharina’s deci­sion to cross the bor­der ille­gal­ly at the very end of her preg­nan­cy is psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly real­is­tic only if we under­stand it as a ges­ture of sui­cide brought to Riedl’s doorstep. Yet as Fehervary has empha­sized, Seghers’s imag­i­na­tion is not drawn to fine-grained psy­cho­log­i­cal por­traits. The rage that Katha­ri­na in her nat­ur­al piety would nev­er admit to her­self goes like­wise unrec­og­nized in the sto­ry of her bor­der cross­ing. The vil­lages at the bor­der of Fran­co­nia and Thuringia and the bands of birch and fir forests she tra­vers­es become myth­i­cal land­scapes rather than geopo­lit­i­cal regions; his­tor­i­cal and inti­mate temporalities—so inca­pable of res­o­lu­tion in bio­graph­i­cal time—become meta­phys­i­cal ones. The topog­ra­phy of her bor­der cross­ing resem­bles noth­ing so much as the explic­it­ly mytho­log­i­cal set­ting of Seghers’s 1948 sto­ry “Das Arg­onaut­en­schiff” (“The Ship of the Arg­onauts”), inter­pret­ed by Fehervary as an alle­gor­i­cal treat­ment of Seghers’s own deci­sion to return from exile to the Sovi­et Zone in Ger­many (38-41).

Katha­ri­na, throw­ing her­self into phys­i­cal activ­i­ty to the point of exhaus­tion, assumes—at the very moment of her great­est social, emo­tion­al, and bod­i­ly need as wife and expec­tant mother—the full bur­den of guilt for Riedl hav­ing aban­doned her dur­ing her preg­nan­cy: “Am I lying here all alone? Is he gone? Gone for good? And she asked her­self whether she could real­ly have said: I can’t go to you any­more. It’s impos­si­ble with the child. Who’s going to help him there? she thought lying in her bed at night, doesn’t he need the two of us more than ever?” (595). Riedl’s moral exemp­tion is not just from Katharina’s lim­it­ed sub­jec­tive point of view; the nar­ra­tion like­wise elides any hint of his respon­si­bil­i­ty, as though his social­ist pas­sion has pos­sessed his will so ful­ly that he is as much an object of his beliefs as their sub­ject.[12] Our sym­pa­thy with Riedl, such as it is at this point, depends on whether we rec­og­nize him, despite the brava­do he dis­sem­bled for Traub, as a crea­ture of both pow­er strug­gles and the polit­i­cal pas­sions they have fos­tered. His sal­va­tion as a char­ac­ter in the nov­el depends on our accep­tance of Traub’s crea­tus sum.

Yet, if Riedl lies some­where on the spec­trum of crea­ture­ly life, Katha­ri­na lies at its most extreme posi­tion. As much as she seems to approach sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion through her mor­ti­fi­ca­tion, she can­not be a sac­ri­fi­cial hero like the dead of the com­mu­nist resis­tance or the Span­ish Civ­il War. Rather, because of her very real faith in Catholicism—what a com­mu­nist would con­sid­er a false belief—she becomes the scape­goat for Riedl’s guilt and the guilt of all the hes­i­tant and melan­choly peo­ple liv­ing in bad faith in the shad­ow of the Cold War. We wit­ness her aban­doned, if not by God then by a Catholic com­mu­ni­ty that has aban­doned piety for venal­i­ty, as well as by a com­mu­nism whose bold and time­ly sto­ries of people’s prop­er­ty and the work­ers’ par­ty can­not accom­mo­date her untime­ly sto­ry of abid­ing faith, hope, and car­ing love, where, as St. Paul advis­es us, “the great­est of these is love” (1 Corinthi­ans 13:13).

Katharina’s deci­sion to cross over comes to her not through ratio­nal delib­er­a­tion on social sys­tems but rather as a pre­mo­ni­tion: “In her head the idea came to her—like a response one has been ner­vous­ly await­ing and when it final­ly comes doesn’t at first under­stand—, that she soon had to go over to him” (596). The thought aris­es on its own and comes to her vivid­ly but indis­tinct­ly. It appears in the form of an aes­thet­ic intu­ition that is oth­er­wise hard to achieve in the novel’s sober world. Even as Riedl is the man­i­fest object of the pro­noun in the phrase, “soon had to go over to him,” we rec­og­nize in the dic­tion the fig­ure of death (with or with­out sal­va­tion). The only time she finds peace is when she thinks of her deci­sion to cross to the oth­er side, not what she will find there: “Then all the doubt, all the fear of the last years, her dif­fi­cult lone­li­ness and her brief, no less dif­fi­cult meet­ings with her hus­band, and even the deci­sion which stood before her, seemed only a mat­ter of the path, of cross­ing the bor­der” (597).

Her jour­ney is marked by the oscil­la­tion of her con­scious­ness from her body’s pain and exhaus­tion in labour to the calm obser­va­tion of the land­scape. A mar­ket woman whom she befriend­ed dur­ing her preg­nan­cy described for her the path over the Thuringian High­lands to the GDR. Ini­tial­ly, the plan Katha­ri­na worked out with the mar­ket woman was that the woman’s cousin would guide her, but Katha­ri­na has put off the jour­ney for so long that the cousin is no longer there. When she final­ly sets out from the coun­try road where the bus has dropped her, her com­pan­ion is a crone with a black straw hat who had been trav­el­ing in the same bus, the spit­ting image of Alois Seiler’s sis­ter. She seeks to ingra­ti­ate her­self with Katha­ri­na by warn­ing her of dan­ger from the police, who will be on height­ened look­out for sus­pi­cious peo­ple due to the World Fes­ti­val of Youth in East Berlin. Katha­ri­na final­ly shakes off her unwel­come guide with a coin that the old woman snaps from her hand “with fin­gers like a beak” (600). The crone’s pres­ence, rem­i­nis­cent of the dev­il­ish gon­do­lier in Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” lends a hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry aspect to the jour­ney that is only inten­si­fied as she climbs the hills toward the woods. The high­er she goes, the more the edge of the for­est recedes from her, until at some point it final­ly stops climb­ing and wel­comes her into its peace­ful foliage: “The for­est no longer climbed away. It wait­ed peace­ful­ly. She shuf­fled through the leaves. Now the air above her was moist and fresh. There were red and bright yel­low patch­es as though autumn had already snuck up. Katha­ri­na would have had noth­ing against remain­ing here, if she could, instead of hik­ing far­ther and far­ther” (601). At this point of momen­tary solace, sev­er­al chil­dren and an old­er girl appear out of nowhere, bab­bling about the Fes­ti­val in East Berlin and the West­ern police efforts to pre­vent them from attend­ing. Katha­ri­na under­stands lit­tle in the tor­rent of words and names, rec­og­niz­ing only an uncan­ny appear­ance of appetite, youth, and life in her rapid­ly dim­ming world: “She under­stood only the note of insis­tence, of over­com­ing bound­aries. She would have liked to ask: What’s the point of all that? Why? For the sake of what? […] But there was no time for that, she was already alone again.—She lis­tened, aston­ished by how long the rustling and crack­ing went on” (602).

In brief moments of lucid­i­ty, she per­ceives the firs ris­ing like Goth­ic arch­es, but the shel­ter­ing branch­es open them­selves ever more reluc­tant­ly to the light of her gaze, whip­ping back instead across her face, mar­ring its placid beau­ty and leav­ing her look­ing like both the image of Jesus with the crown of thorns and mater dolorosa:

Her face was soon all scratched up from the branch­es snap­ping back. She got some rest on a tree trunk. Between the stiff branch­es there were still a few clouds and moun­tain peaks and vil­lages and even a sun, ripe and near enough to pick. How­ev­er much she [sie] strug­gled, she [sie] was pressed into the great cold shroud, the bright­ly pat­terned world. (603)

In Ger­man, the third per­son fem­i­nine pro­noun “sie” iden­ti­fies Katha­ri­na with the entan­gled sun (also fem­i­nine), resist­ing, but inevitably fold­ed into the wind­ing sheet of the colour­ful world. A dis­tant sound of chop­ping draws Katha­ri­na out of her envelop­ing exhaus­tion to a pair of woods­man, the first of whom responds to her atten­tive­ly while the oth­er accus­es her of being a nui­sance to oth­ers by climb­ing through the woods in such a con­di­tion. Her strength suf­fices only for her to utter, “I can’t go any fur­ther” (603) and passed out. The first wood­cut­ter brings her to his aunt, where she regains con­scious­ness. She does not have the strength to stop cry­ing. The peas­ant woman tries to reas­sure her that they can get her to a hos­pi­tal in time, but Katha­ri­na says she is cry­ing because she hoped to make it across the bor­der. The woman reas­sures her that she has indeed made it—and she spells it out—to the Ger­man Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic. All Katha­ri­na can say to the news is “I? Here?” (604) before she clos­es her eyes. “In the midst of her joy the labor pains began anew. Her thoughts stopped. Aston­ish­ment and fear were stronger than any­thing” (605).

Katha­ri­na dies nat­u­ral­is­ti­cal­ly, in pain, with­out any cer­tain rev­e­la­tion, only the ambigu­ous recog­ni­tion, “I? Here?” that she has made it to the oth­er side. Her final fear and aston­ish­ment defer any answer to the ques­tion of her sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion, recall­ing for us so many nar­ra­tives that end with the hero sus­pend­ed between holy sac­ri­fice and sim­ple death—from Jesus’ cry, “my God, my God, why have you for­sak­en me?” (Matthew 27:46) to the dou­ble judg­ment pro­nounced on Mar­garete in the last scene of Johann Wolf­gang von Goethe’s Faust, “She’s con­demned! She’s saved!” to the wast­ing death of Robert Musil’s sim­ple Ton­ka in his epony­mous sto­ry, tak­ing with her a child that may have been immac­u­late­ly con­ceived. Per­haps the most telling par­al­lel, how­ev­er, is with the death of the young moth­er, Elis­a­beth, in Seghers’s pre­ced­ing nov­el, The Dead Stay Young (1947).[13] A Baltic Ger­man aris­to­crat and the wife and cousin of the sadis­tic SS offi­cer Lieven, Elis­a­beth is an impos­si­ble vehi­cle for rev­e­la­tion. Nonethe­less, her death in the snow with her child bears the novel’s most pow­er­ful moment of aes­thet­ic intu­ition. The scene’s iconog­ra­phy is qui­et­ly evoca­tive of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s win­ter land­scapes and the Russ­ian win­ters that have repulsed invaders. As Elis­a­beth wan­ders the coun­try roads behind her fam­i­ly estate in a snow­storm, try­ing to escape the par­ti­sans retak­ing Nazi-occu­pied Lithua­nia, she grad­u­al­ly los­es her ori­en­ta­tion in the cold. Seghers slows the nar­ra­tive tem­po to almost a nunc stans in which we fol­low Elisabeth’s con­strict­ing con­scious­ness as she tends to her beloved boy, who at first walks hap­pi­ly beside her, then warms him­self in her arms until she begins to fal­ter and becomes indif­fer­ent to the time of day, then to time itself as her mem­o­ries swirl and depart, and final­ly her spir­it with­draws even from her tight­ly cra­dled child.

Giv­en their social posi­tions and non-com­mu­nist faiths, what aspects of Elis­a­beth and Katha­ri­na as char­ac­ters brings the texts to the verge of rev­e­la­tion? Two things. First, both char­ac­ters are wit­ness­es of some­thing our pri­ma­ry char­ac­ters are unable to behold. Sec­ond, they belong to a cir­cle of action that com­pels them to dis­close them­selves in prox­im­i­ty to (or embrace of) death. Impor­tant­ly, the truth of the world that both wit­ness, and the world­ly selves that both dis­close at death, remain inchoate—they do not coa­lesce into tran­scen­den­tal sig­nif­i­cance. Instead, the char­ac­ters pre­serve in their faces a dis­fig­ur­ing ten­sion caught between hope and care. Elis­a­beth, alone among the legion of char­ac­ters in The Dead Stay Young, indi­rect­ly wit­ness­es the Holo­caust through over­hear­ing the SS offi­cers gath­ered at her estate laugh­ing at the naked bod­ies of the Jew­ish women they see on the trans­port train. Katha­ri­na wit­ness­es noth­ing so dev­as­tat­ing.[14] Like Elis­a­beth, she is head­strong and prac­ti­cal, both depict­ed and see­ing in con­crete sen­su­al terms. Yet where Elis­a­beth wit­ness­es peo­ple reduced to the ani­mal fini­tude of their bod­ies, Katha­ri­na wit­ness­es peo­ple denied the same fini­tude, her unde­terred eye grasp­ing the neglect of the crea­ture that leads to fear, sui­cide, defec­tion, and bad faith. Of course, what they each behold, geno­cide and fail­ure of com­pas­sion, is not equivalent—yet there is a cer­tain for­tu­ity of char­ac­ter to be found among those at the edge of the man­i­fest social strug­gle, where the pace is slow enough to grasp biog­ra­phy and the body, his­to­ry, and nature. From such eccen­tric prox­im­i­ty, anyone’s eyes might open, how­ev­er briefly, to the light of revelation.

Katha­ri­na and Elis­a­beth approach rev­e­la­tion ever so close­ly, but if Seghers con­firmed their vision by shar­ing it with her read­ers, it would sure­ly prove to be kitsch. By dying on the cusp of their cen­tral insight, they ulti­mate­ly with­hold it. By con­trast, the one unam­bigu­ous­ly haloed face of Die Entschei­dung, that of the beau­ti­ful Span­ish Civ­il War nurse, Celia, does reflect back at us the light of truth. In a makeshift field hos­pi­tal, Celia tends to three wound­ed par­ti­sans, Robert Lohse, Richard Hagen, and Her­bert Melz­er, who become three pos­i­tive heroes of the nov­el. Indeed, Celia’s light is the gift that keeps them focused on the ulti­mate prize. The pure spec­trum radi­at­ed by her face is the metaphor that secures the par­ti­san mean­ing of the novel’s explic­it­ly ten­den­tious plots. With the light it gath­ers, Celia’s face reflects back to all who behold it sta­ble, endur­ing, indeed, tran­scen­dent sig­ni­fi­ca­tion:[15]

Celia, the nurse, used the nar­row light that for a brief time every day lay across the cleft in the rock, on flesh and blood, on ban­dage strips, on eyes in which the light of the world was gath­ered. Every­one tried in this moment to sate them­selves on the sight of her young and loy­al face. It was more beau­ti­ful than any they’d ever seen […]. It would nev­er fade from their mem­o­ry. It could nev­er again dis­ap­pear in the dark­ness. (35)

How one of those sur­viv­ing par­ti­sans, the author Her­bert Melz­er, depicts Celia in his nov­el with­in the nov­el becomes a turn­ing point of Seghers’s nov­el. Instead of giv­ing due respect to Celia’s loy­al­ty to the cause, Melz­er con­jures a hap­py mar­riage for her, a pri­vate rec­on­cil­i­a­tion that pleas­es Melzer’s Amer­i­can pub­lish­er. Yet in a key moment among stal­wart com­rades, Melz­er real­izes he has betrayed his epiphany of Celia: “She nev­er holed her­self up in a fam­i­ly. I don’t dare destroy her image” (338). Her­bert takes up the nov­el again and in the new draft has Celia die in a ravine on a mis­sion for her par­ty: “Though her limbs are shat­tered by the fall, she lies in incor­rupt­ible youth at the bot­tom of the crevice” (338).

After a sen­tence like that, one waits for the body to turn to dust, like that of the youth­ful­ly pre­served groom in Johann Peter Hebel’s “Mines of Falun,” Wal­ter Benjamin’s exam­ple the storyteller’s art. The prob­lem with the sym­bol­ism of Celia is that, while she escapes the pri­vate rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of mar­riage that had threat­ened her in Melzer’s nov­el, in Seghers’s nov­el she is all-too-con­ve­nient­ly rec­on­ciled with the pos­i­tive mes­sage. As beau­ti­ful as the epiphany is that the par­ti­sans behold in her eyes, her face has no inchoa­t­ive aspect, no ambi­gu­i­ty of becom­ing, just the look of a fin­ished fig­ure of mean­ing. Celia’s beau­ty is the same sort as that of the peas­ant girl who, in the last scene of Die Entschei­dung, brings Riedl his sur­viv­ing baby, “a beau­ti­ful girl […] like an appari­tion from anoth­er world” (605). It is the beau­ty of explic­it sig­ni­fi­ca­tion that needs its prop­er seal. Accord­ing­ly, we read that the girl “lat­er becomes a crane oper­a­tor” (606), just as a social­ist angel must. What keeps Katha­ri­na and Elis­a­beth from debas­ing their rev­e­la­tions by behold­ing them all too dog­mat­i­cal­ly is the ulti­mate­ly nat­u­ral­is­tic final­i­ty of their death. Celia’s tidy death, in con­trast to theirs, has no bio­graph­i­cal final­i­ty, no indi­vid­u­at­ing effect; instead, her dying only makes her lumi­nous vis­age brighter, until it is only a blank spot to be filled by anoth­er deter­mined young vision­ary, defer­ring the con­crete death that might dis­close a life.

At the end of Riedl and Katharina’s sto­ry, his per­va­sive melan­choly has left its gloomy trace across the nov­el, counter to the bright signs of the social­ist mar­tyrs and activists. Both traces are etched into the land­scapes and faces—the activist’s face sur­vey­ing the land­scape as a field of action while the melancholic’s wres­tles with becom­ing absorbed into it. The melan­choly dis­po­si­tion rec­og­nizes the loss of the crea­ture­ly in socialism’s Promethean ges­tures but can­not rec­on­cile the loss with the affir­ma­tive pathos that his or her faith requires. The dom­i­nant pat­tern of Seghers’ writ­ing set in ear­li­er peri­ods of resis­tance and strug­gle is the dan­ger­ous lying latent just beneath the mun­dane. Under those cir­cum­stances the risk of expos­ing one’s life was off­set by the oppor­tu­ni­ty for its authen­tic human­i­ty to dis­close its ori­en­ta­tion toward hope. In the era of real social­ism, Seghers retains the pat­tern of jux­ta­posed rou­tine and extreme but inverts their polar­i­ty. The excep­tion­al sit­u­a­tion of the long-await­ed event of socialism’s arrival has become the order of the day. It admits of no ordi­nary pri­vate sat­is­fac­tion. Its pos­i­tive pro­tag­o­nists, like the lead­ing func­tionary, Mar­tin, whom we first meet as a young man in The Dead Stay Young, have relin­quished the mun­dane life of per­son­al inte­ri­or­i­ty for the pure exter­nal­i­ty of the cause. Dis­tin­guished only by a tri­fec­ta of right­eous attributes—Civil War vet­er­an, con­cen­tra­tion camp sur­vivor, and par­ty sage—Martin bears no per­son­al attrib­ut­es: “Since he didn’t have any fam­i­ly of his own any­more […] he appar­ent­ly pos­sessed no ordi­nary life of his own, with numer­ous triv­ial details, with tiny secrets, ten­der, sad, frus­trat­ing, mean­ing­ful only for him, but with­out trace and con­se­quence for oth­ers” (167).

If the order of the day is extra­or­di­nary, then it will be illu­mi­nat­ed only by the mun­dane har­bored with­in it. The task of social­ism, the plot of Katha­ri­na and Riedl implies, is to find in the midst of the extra­or­di­nary the courage to bear its drea­ry rou­tines. As the cat­a­lyst for such rev­e­la­tion, Riedl draws Katha­ri­na into the space of dis­clo­sure by invit­ing her to sub­mit to socialism’s rou­tinized author­i­ty, while deny­ing that it is any­thing but extra­or­di­nary. This is to sub­mit to the judg­ment of the par­ty with­out admit­ting that the par­ty is sub­mit­ting the human crea­ture to demands it would be impos­si­ble ful­ly to meet in good faith. Katha­ri­na is not called upon to resist unjust pow­er in pub­lic, but to sub­mit to pre­sum­ably just but crea­ture­ly indif­fer­ent pow­er in pri­vate. Riedl needs her to con­firm his faith in the social­ist cause in the light of her faith in God. He needs the illu­mi­na­tion of her light since his own hes­i­tat­ing light does not par­tic­i­pate in the irre­proach­able lus­ter that shines forth from Celia, nei­ther metonymi­cal­ly by virtue of hav­ing been with the oth­er heroes in the medic tent in Spain, nor metaphor­i­cal­ly by virtue of the nar­ra­tor con­dens­ing the mean­ing of his light with theirs. Called by Riedl’s flight from her ordi­nary care to final­ly cross over to his side, Katha­ri­na is too much a crea­ture of her time, place, and body to become the mobile metaphor Riedl needs her to be. While she is Riedl’s light, embody­ing his intu­ition of a repaired world, her light proves to be of an entire­ly dif­fer­ent part of the spec­trum than Celia’s. Called to the oth­er side, the spec­trums do not com­bine into the pure white light of an untrou­bled social­ist vision but rather into the rainy indus­tri­al grays of East Ger­man social­ism, a palette of a his­tor­i­cal­ly spe­cif­ic, fluc­tu­at­ing, and ulti­mate­ly trag­ic faith.

The peas­ant mid­wife who reluc­tant­ly deliv­ered Katharina’s baby asks Riedl’s dri­ver if he will pay for replac­ing the blood-soaked mat­tress. The banal per­sis­tence of prac­ti­cal needs recalls Breughel’s plough­man indif­fer­ent­ly watch­ing Icarus fall to the sea in W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”:

About suf­fer­ing they were nev­er wrong,
The old Mas­ters: how well they understood
Its human posi­tion: how it takes place
While some­one else is eat­ing or open­ing a win­dow or just walk­ing dul­ly along;
How, when the aged are rev­er­ent­ly, pas­sion­ate­ly waiting
For the mirac­u­lous birth, there always must be
Chil­dren who did not spe­cial­ly want it to hap­pen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood

The hard-work­ing peo­ple here in the GDR do not care espe­cial­ly about the pure light of Katharina’s aston­ish­ment, “I? Here?” The brusque prag­ma­tism of replac­ing a soiled mat­tress dis­rupts any ide­o­log­i­cal com­po­sure the nov­el might have con­veyed and that we might have tak­en as a deci­sion. This zero point is one last trau­ma: Kathe­ri­na dies a stranger. The mess left behind by her blood index­es a moment alto­geth­er for­eign to the ide­o­log­i­cal and erot­ic long­ings on which the nar­ra­tive atten­tion has been focal­ized. Instead of rec­on­cil­ing the com­pet­ing desires it has brought into play, the nov­el, in an unguard­ed instant, pulls the floor out from under its gener­ic expec­ta­tions. We can­not save the crea­tus sum we wit­ness here at the inter­sec­tion of the tran­scen­den­tal and the sec­u­lar-momen­tary, wher­ev­er else the sto­ry might take us. We have encoun­tered some­thing upon whose mis­recog­ni­tion any even­tu­al deci­sion will have to rest.

Works Cited

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[1] Unless oth­er­wise not­ed, all trans­la­tions are by the author.

[2] I fol­low Seghers’ con­ven­tion in the nov­el and refer to Ernst Riedl by his sur­name and Katha­ri­na Riedl by her giv­en name.

[3] I refer to social­ist real­ism as a “genre” in the fol­low­ing rather than the alter­na­tives of “style” or “tra­di­tion.” Usage is not con­sis­tent in the sec­ondary lit­er­a­ture, but the advan­tage of using “genre” for my pur­pos­es is that it bet­ter cap­tures the ele­ment of a world­view expressed by social­ist real­ism that is broad­er than any spe­cif­ic styl­is­tic markers.

[4] In Legal Ten­der: Love and Legit­i­ma­cy in the East Ger­man Cul­tur­al Imag­i­na­tion, John Urang—though he only briefly deals with the ear­ly peri­od of GDR cul­ture, pri­mar­i­ly in ref­er­ence to DEFA films—is mor­dant about their fail­ure to rec­og­nize the “self-deter­mi­na­tion” of love sto­ries in the social­ist real­ism. He char­ac­ter­izes the gen­er­al prob­lem of the love sto­ry in East Ger­many “as that of an impo­si­tion of the social­ist sym­bol­ic economy—that is, of social­ist ideology’s self-under­stand­ing and order­ing of the world—onto the love story’s erot­ic econ­o­my” (31). How­ev­er, in Seghers’ work the prob­lem is dif­fer­ent, not so much the impo­si­tion of an alien econ­o­my as an inves­ti­ga­tion of the prob­lem of choos­ing (desir­ing) social­ism through the means of roman­tic allegory.

[5] As Devin Fore argues in Real­ism after Mod­ernism: The Rehu­man­iza­tion of Art and Lit­er­a­ture, the human fig­ure returns emphat­i­cal­ly after the WWI despite modernism’s bold efforts to dehu­man­ize art. Yet the return to the human fig­ure, as Fore demon­strates, “was a deeply con­flict­ed pro­pos­al” due to the very labil­i­ty of the def­i­n­i­tion of the human (3), espe­cial­ly in con­nec­tion with the Promethean project of mod­ernist social constructivism.

[6] See Han­nah Arendt’s descrip­tion in The Human Con­di­tion of phys­i­cal pain as an expe­ri­ence that impov­er­ish­es a person’s con­di­tion of being in the world, reduc­ing him or her to nature (50-51).

[7] In an undat­ed and unad­dressed 1947 let­ter Seghers com­ments on the ambi­gu­i­ty of the Ger­man labour morale she wit­ness­es when she first returns to destroyed Ger­many. She encoun­ters a Berlin work­er: “he made a virtue of neces­si­ty and took up the career of ‘com­mer­cial­iz­ing rub­ble.’ That could well show some­thing of ‘Ger­man labor morale,’ this virtue in ser­vice of angels and demons” (43).

[8] One is remind­ed here again of John Urang’s inquiry into audi­ence pres­sures on “hyper­politi­cized social­ist-real­ist love plots” (19) in the GDR. While Seghers, as an artis­ti­cal­ly and ide­o­log­i­cal­ly ambi­tious author, hews on the sto­ry-lev­el to what Urang calls “the rig­or­ous­ly ide­o­log­i­cal cou­plings of 1950s social­ist real­ism,” on the dis­course-lev­el her text strug­gles with love motifs as an alle­gor­i­cal dou­ble for social­ist pas­sion. In the 1968 sequel, Das Ver­trauen, how­ev­er, Riedl’s mem­o­ries are nar­rat­ed with­out this ten­sion and the prose assumes an almost bizarre (were it not so gener­ic) hier­ar­chiza­tion of social­ism and eros. Riedl recalls the moment he decides to stay in the Sovi­et Zone: “Some­thing seized him then as noth­ing has ever seized him again, not even love to an indi­vid­ual per­son, not even if that beloved per­son was Katha­ri­na […] The most impor­tant thing in his life. But the sec­ond most impor­tant thing won’t on that account become any less” (24-25). The char­ac­ter Ella Busch, sin­gled out in Die Entschei­dung for both her loy­al­ty to social­ism and her beau­ty and desire for erot­ic joy (she is repeat­ed­ly tagged with the epi­thet of being proud of her bust) is accord­ing­ly sac­ri­ficed in Das Ver­trauen. Tram­pled by strik­ing works try­ing to invade the Kossin plant dur­ing the June 17, 1953 upris­ing against the SED, Ella embod­ies the incom­pat­i­bil­i­ty of a cer­tain kind of joy with social­ism. On the sto­ry-lev­el, we can read that as an ortho­dox ide­o­log­i­cal pri­or­i­ti­za­tion, but when we con­sid­er the pathos of the dis­course, we are com­pelled to read it the oth­er way, as melan­cholic recog­ni­tion that the wished-for soci­ety indeed has failed to unite ide­o­log­i­cal demands with authen­tic erot­ic motives.

[9] Sebald dis­cuss­es a short sto­ry by Alexan­der Kluge about the WWII air bomb­ing of Kluge’s native town, Hal­ber­stadt. In a cap­tion under­neath a pic­ture of the ruined Hal­ber­stadt, Kluge quotes Marx from the 1844 Man­u­scripts, “We see how the his­to­ry of indus­try and the now objec­tive exis­tence of indus­try have become the open book of the human con­scious­ness, human psy­chol­o­gy per­ceived in sen­so­ry terms” (qtd. in Sebald 66). Sebald con­cludes we can no longer believe indus­try is the open book of human thought and feel­ing; its ruins instead take their place in nature, whether or not we want to read nature as the open book of God’s creation.

[10] In On Crea­ture­ly Life, Sant­ner empha­sizes a def­i­n­i­tion of “crea­ture­ly” dis­tinct from the sim­ple com­mon ground shared by humans and ani­mals. It is, rather, the trau­mat­ic moment where the ego’s sense of autonomous agency is deranged by its rela­tion­ship to the oth­er, whether that oth­er is ani­mal life, nature, or the neigh­bor, whose con­scious life is nev­er direct­ly acces­si­ble to us. The trau­ma comes not just from loss of con­scious con­trol by the ego, but from the pos­i­tive recog­ni­tion that the dis­tinc­tion between the self and the crea­ture­ly oth­er is insup­port­able (xvii). Thus, the crea­ture­ly points to a dis­tinc­tion between liv­ing and dying based on the politi­ciza­tion of the mate­r­i­al sub­strate of life itself: “The essen­tial dis­rup­tion that ren­ders man ‘crea­ture­ly’ […] names the thresh­old where life becomes a mat­ter of pol­i­tics and pol­i­tics comes to inform the very mat­ter and mate­ri­al­i­ty of life” (13). The pol­i­tics Sant­ner has in mind in his read­ings of Rilke, Ben­jamin, and Sebald is pre­cise­ly not the pol­i­tics of sov­er­eign or Promethean self-deter­mi­na­tion but rather the biopol­i­tics of the oth­er, the out­cast, the “undead,” “between real and sym­bol­ic death” (xx).

[11] Of the many dis­cus­sions of this episode, two have been espe­cial­ly sug­ges­tive. Lore­to Vilar has argued that Katha­ri­na sig­ni­fies a nat­ur­al spir­it that can­not sur­vive in the tech­ni­cal-indus­tri­al con­text of the GDR (84-86). Simone Bischoff inter­prets her as both a roman­tic and Chris­t­ian sym­bol (174-75). In both cas­es, she is seen as an alle­gor­i­cal fig­ure of utopia that goes beyond her rela­tion­ship to Riedl to express Seghers’s own utopi­an commitments.

[12] Hans Ulrich Gum­brecht, some­what over­stat­ing the obser­va­tion, remarks on the hier­ar­chy of moral strug­gles in par­ti­san left­ist nar­ra­tives of the post­war years, in which inter­per­son­al and espe­cial­ly erot­ic-roman­tic ethics plays a marked­ly sub­or­di­nate role: “Par­ties who embraced the ide­olo­gies of the Left were freed of all self-reflex­ive strug­gle by the moral cer­tain­ty of a clean con­science” (97-98).

[13] Ella Busch from Die Entschei­dung (Ella Schanz after mar­ry­ing in Das Ver­trauen) fits a sim­i­lar mod­el of the moth­er who dies. Although Ella is a loy­al social­ist who dies defend­ing her fac­to­ry from ram­pag­ing strik­ers on June 17, 1953, she is also a char­ac­ter dis­tin­guished by her desire for joy—a desire por­trayed as dis­tinct from though not in oppo­si­tion to her desire for social­ism. Her abrupt tram­pling with her unborn child on June 17 is not nar­rat­ed with the same focal­iza­tion as Katha­ri­na and Elizabeth’s death—in part because she, like the par­ti­san Her­bert Melz­er who is clubbed by police at a strike in the west, meets her death in a moment when her actions are har­mo­nized with her social­ist con­vic­tions not with her need for basic sen­su­al joy.

[14] In her brief dis­cus­sion of Elis­a­beth Lieven in Post-Fas­cist Fan­tasies, Julia Hell notes the unique­ness of this Holo­caust nar­ra­tion in Seghers’ oeu­vre and how the descrip­tion of Elisabeth’s wan­der­ing through the snow “resem­bles Seghers’s own expe­ri­ence in 1941 […] it estab­lish­es a par­al­lel between char­ac­ter and author, allow­ing us to read this vari­a­tion on Seghers’s dom­i­nant lit­er­ary fig­ure as the fan­ta­sy of iden­ti­fy­ing with the bystander” (86-87). Not only does Elisabeth’s sta­tus as bystander mat­ter, but also the prox­im­i­ty of her death and her son’s to those she witnesses—the com­mu­nion of death set­ting a final seal of authen­tic­i­ty on a nar­ra­tive sequence. Under­stand­ing the grav­i­ty of death as an orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple of life is a crit­i­cal fea­ture of Seghers’s strongest char­ac­ters. The priv­i­leged focal­iza­tion on such char­ac­ters is as much a cause as it is the nar­ra­tive effect of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. In order to con­vey the myth­ic insight into the crea­tus sum, Seghers’s needs tech­niques that high­light dis­course over plot action, bring­ing the nar­ra­tive into close align­ment with a con­scious­ness at its most con­tem­pla­tive and, in many ways, most impotent.

[15] See the always per­cep­tive com­men­tary of Lore­to Vilar on the role Celia (191-92). Friedrich Albrecht argues that the excep­tion­al sit­u­a­tions (“Aus­nah­mezustände”) in which Celia is exclu­sive­ly por­trayed lend her the aura of a saint. He con­trasts her with the Celia of Seghers’s 1977 sto­ry “Begeg­nun­gen” (“Encoun­ters”), who is por­trayed in the rou­tine of every­day life—there she appears more as a nun than a saint (463-64).

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