The Semantics of the Absurd: On German ‘Hermetic’ Poetry and Political Commitment after 1945


  • Marko Pajević



post-war German ‘hermetic’ poetry, Paul Celan, Ilse Aichinger, the absurd, silence, literature and politics


German culture experienced an enormous rupture after 1945. Not only was the country in ruins and an outcast of the international community because of the recent regime and its devastating effects, its entire cultural tradition was under suspicion: had German culture always been steering towards this catastrophe? Was everything within it corrupt? While the frenetic economic activity of the ‘Wirtschaftswunder’ side-stepped a mainstream confrontation with the horrors of the recent past, intellectuals and artists radically interrogated the reasons for the disaster. As always, language and the meaning-making procedures in language prepare the mind to open up and to prepare for action. Language is at the root of action and this insight fuelled reflections on language, for instance by philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Heidegger. But it was particularly in lyric poetry that a lucid and politically aware examination of the recent past took place and an expression of such considerations could be found.

This paper demonstrates how poets made a unique and highly significant contribution to the development of a new political awareness in Germanlanguage culture. By integrating silence and the absurd (that is, the unheardof and the unspeakable) into literary language, this so-called hermetic poetry did not entail a withdrawal from society but, on the contrary, devoted itself to a particular form of political commitment. This procedure represents a rupture with what Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno called the ‘culture industry’ (1947), opposing conventional and habituated approaches to art in terms of its production and reception and advocating instead a stringent and critical concept of arresting aesthetic form that was to distinguish the work of art from products of that culture industry. Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann, Ilse Aichinger, Günter Eich and Nelly Sachs are the household names associated with this poetics. While it was never necessarily mainstream, it was arguably the most innovative poetic strand of its time and in the long run a key factor in shaping a modern German culture that could come to terms with its past and overcome authoritarian structures.


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