The Experimental German Writer For Whom “Dumb” is A Badge of Honor
On Translating Rainald Goetz, A Non-Conformist Par Excellence
Reading through the complete works of Rainald Goetz recently after finishing a translation of his book Insane, a cult classic in Germany and the first of his novels to be published in English, my mind kept returning to a passage from Susan Sontag’s diaries concerning her cherished virtue: seriousness.
But when I move into the world, it feels like a moral fall—like seeking love in a whorehouse. Even more, I somewhere (sic) take my unsociability as evidence of my “seriousness,” a quality which I take as necessary to my existence as a moral being.
It would be difficult to find a more concise expression of all that Goetz’s work opposes. He was a brilliant student through his twenties, taking doctoral degrees in medicine and history, studying abroad at the Sorbonne, and making a modest literary beginning with a series of book reviews and a three-part “Diary of a Medical Student” in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. But already in a C.V. accompanying his dissertation, The Reaction-Time Paradigm as Diagnostic Instrument in Child Psychiatry, Goetz had begun tweaking noses: in addition to prior publications, he listed the bars he frequented, his participation in the anarchist movement Freizeit ’81 (whose “subway action” is recounted in Insane), and “lots of beer and blood.”
In 1983, he created a name for himself by showing up to the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize ceremony with bristly, bleach-blond hair, a spiked leather cuff, and sneakers, then slicing open his forehead with a razor and dripping blood onto the pages of Subito, a satire centered on the Bachmann Prize itself, in which two critics fall asleep while a third scratches his balls beneath the table. He concluded by clamoring for “more excitement, way more commercials, Tempo cars, fashion-hedonism pop, and still more pop.”
His performance was instantly divisive. Fans proclaimed that German literature had found its next genius; others deplored what they saw as a tiresome publicity stunt. Goetz himself returned to his hotel to wash and change, and hurried off after the receptionist called to warn him that a psychiatrist and the police were on their way. Later that year, he published his first novel Insane, which describes the life of a young doctor named Raspe, the sufferings of his patients, his attempts at making peace with institutionalized psychiatry, and his depression and recovery after abandoning his profession for a life of writing, drinking, and clubbing.
Goetz knew his subject: apart from his studies, he had trained at the nerve clinic at the University of Munich and researched organic brain disturbances at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry. Moreover, the outsider Raspe’s struggle to integrate into the clinic system—and in a larger sense to conciliate with the German society of his time—was a longstanding concern of Goetz’s, foreshadowed in of one of his earliest published pieces, the 1978 essay “He is Making His Way.” There, he recounted the difficulties his non-conformism occasioned, his unhappiness with the dreariness of university life, his disillusionment with the range of readymade ideologies, and the solace offered by literature. When he applied for a post as a schoolteacher and was told there were no vacancies, only to discover his political beliefs were the true cause of his rejection, he asked: “Is there a point at which such experiences transcend the private and become exemplary for a climate, for a societal tendency?”
This search for systematic explanations of private experiences has formed the basis of Goetz’s artistic project, which spans fiction, visual art, music, reportage, and theater, not to mention his public appearances, which are themselves a kind of performance art. Examining subjects ranging from asylums to terrorism to the art world, he employs techniques derived in part from the flattening of high and low culture associated with pop art and in part from the sociology of Niklas Luhmann, who lamented, in Art as Social System, “it has proven difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate the systematics of the system from its given manifestations.”
Aware of this impasse, Goetz opts for a total immersion in his subjects and casts aspersion on any attempt to reduce the data of experience to a transcendent system of principles. As he wrote, “you can’t think pop, criticize it, write it analytically, no, pop means living pop, observing with fascination, studying with obsessiveness, telling with a maximum wealth of material, celebrating.” He lets the voices of others permeate his texts and embeds himself in them, not as an arbiter of truth, but as one more phenomenon under investigation.
His pursuit of the real object behind the constructs concealing it—which in Insane takes the form of raw depictions of the words and experiences of the mad—gave way, in later works, to a compulsive maximalism that strained readers’ patience and comprehension. His mania for inclusivity culminated in the three-volume poem 1989, which is composed of fragments of dialogue and text from radio, television, and newspapers. In it, the immanent qualities of the subject matter already constitute the work of art, which the reader must integrate into an adequate vision of life.
Goetz finds authority to be inherently contemptible, in his own work as well as that of others; when he does not, as in 1989, simply erase himself from the text, he undermines his own integrity, whether programmatically or through willful buffoonery. In Insane, he lampoons every sacred cow, from the Pope to the peace movement to the hypocrisy of white German newspaper readers weeping over starving black Americans in Detroit, before turning on himself, saying, “I need to bring this rotten joke to an end.” The offensiveness and puerility of the book’s closing section find their theoretical counterpart in a statement from 1999’s Celebration: “Intellectuality is inevitably a class destiny against which revolt is possible.” He subjects those who insist on intellectual responsibility to torrents of abuse, deriding Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll, Hans-Magnus Enzensberger as “senile,” “tossers,” and “CultureDefenderRabble.”
For Goetz, intellectual detachment is an obstacle to the comprehension of mass culture, which must be lived through to be understood (and it is questionable, in Western societies, whether any culture other than mass culture still exists). He advocates instead for an ethics of fatuity, a collapsing of the distinction between the object of study and the presumptive neutrality of the observer, that allows for retractions, false starts, failures, and inconclusiveness:
The reprimand “dumb” means, in essence, “I don’t understand.” To that degree, I take the reprimand “dumb” as a badge of honor. It means that something (rave, for example) is so tangled, so vital, disordered, vexing, and new, that it appears incomprehensible to the outside perspective.
Such an ethics asks: What is the use of coherence? Is authenticity truly a virtue? Where does the line lie between probity and sanctimoniousness? Is self-criticism simply a disguise for mendacity? With these questions, Goetz clears away timeworn remedies for modern ills to seek out instruments better suited for the analysis of a society that no longer knows an exterior.