Saturday, January 3, 2009

Kracauer on Weimar Literature

Siegfried Kracauer used analysis of widely read literature to investigate the structure and dynamics of social strata. He argued that this form of analysis avoided the inevitable pretense aroused by a more direct approach. In his essay On Best Sellers and Their Audience, he reviews the structural transformation of the Weimar economy after World War I that reordered the German middle class, and how that reordering was reflected in the period literature.

The weakening of Weimar Germany effectively turned many in the middle class into the working poor who still carried the middle class label. That middle class lacked the crucial features of the middle class before the war. They no longer had the limited independence enjoyed by the former middle class, through its modest financial security. Because of its size and interests, this middle class had been the financial mainstay for the publishing industry.

Kracauer noted the economic trends leading up to the social quagmire in Weimar: the concentration of capital, impoverishment of small stockholders, and the inflationary crisis that “led to the destruction of essential resources.” The new middle class was dependent. The deterioration of their fortunes slowly dismantled the foundation of their old middle class consciousness. The old tenets could no longer survive, stripped of their economic and social foundations in the new social reality.

Along with the declining fortunes and independence of the middle class, actual individualism declined. Administrative law increasingly invaded individual affairs and governmental planning began to transcend individual interest. Collectivization increased. Kracauer observed that people became less conscious of old social status. These trends in Weimar appeared incognito. The prevailing consciousness was still adjusting to the new realities, still reaching for the old concepts.

In addition to declining individualism in Weimar society, economic authorities lost their ability to cast the previous illusions and spells. In Weimar, strong disenchantment had taken hold. Ideas that used to drive the economy became mere rhetorical bric-a-brac. Kracauer’s brilliant quip was “You can’t live on bread alone, particularly when you don’t have any.” A manifestation of this heightened cynicism was the cinematic unmasking of the rigged game, in Weimar films such as The Joyless Streets with Greta Garbo.

In popular literary works, tragedy walked hand in hand with individualism. The fictional individuals triumph, however, even in the potential catastrophe constructed for them by their author. Kracauer quotes a best selling author in Weimar, “The worried, fearful person of today and particularly the person from the upper classes, almost always has to keep his feelings under wraps in the often futile struggle to maintain his standard of living. Such a person grasps … eagerly for such stories.”

Kracauer believed the middle class in Germany understood that a tragic intermediate fate awaited them. Yet they still attempted to maintain the old and comfortable arrangement. As a result of this tension, they raised “all calamities into tragic events. “

Idealists who tragically sacrifice themselves for an ideal was another popular theme in Weimar. The upper class doggedly struggled to maintain a faded idealism, which gave them style and distance from the mass. Faded idealism, according to Kracauer “resonated among the more cultivated circles, which [were] haunted by taste, culture, and education. “

In contrast, the middle and working class taste in literature had an emphasis on spirit or perseverance, and feeling became a pervasive motif. Feeling provided an optimistic hope to steady oneself during tragedy. It buttressed the outmoded concepts that were a comfortable part of better days. This “touching quality” signified an intermediate position between acceptance and rebellion. This was the middle class stance in the Weimar crisis.

Many story lines preserved the middle class concepts through escape into other worlds. These excursions avoided the challenging issues people would encounter with a reasoned analysis of their situation. A popular such distant world was the sensual, and erotic enchantment increased during the Weimar years. Another world was distant geographies. Nature yet another. Nature proved to be a popular backdrop in bestsellers because of its cathartic expanse. In the silence of nature, complex troubles sink into a mute void.

Kracauer’s conclusion, drawn from his study of popular literature, is that the middle class in Weimar would not acknowledge their change in fortune. They invested their beliefs in the false hopes of maintaining a life style ideal that had already perished. Their literature allowed them to renounce language and reason, and through its feeling to retain hope in the old concepts.

Thomas Y. Levin has translated a series of Kracuaer's essays into English. They originally appeared in the Frankfurter Zeitung and are now available in the book The Mass Ornament.

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