“Mein Leben ist zu Ende, denn er ist auf dem Transport im Fluß ertrunken, er war mein Leben. Ich habe ihn mehr geliebt als mein Leben.”

Malina (Ingeborg Bachmann, 1971)1

My career at Ca’ Foscari is coming to an end, at least in terms of my BA in Philosophy. I will write about this long and wild journey another time, but today I want to expand upon a brief talk I gave in class last Tuesday as part of an assignment for the Philosophy of Literature course.

The professor asked us to work in groups on one of the essays we have to study for the final exam, free to develop its contents in any feasible direction. For reasons I am not entirely able to explain I was drawn to Aldo Gargani’s Il pensiero raccontato, a marvellous study about Austrian poet and author Ingeborg Bachmann. Two other students soon joined me and we pleasantly lost ourselves in her words as well as among the ones by Paul Celan, Thomas Bernhard and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

I was particularly fascinated by Gargani’s focus on the tension in Bachmann and Bernhard writings. This tension is not just the reader’s feeling as they turn the pages, albeit there are passages in Bachmann’s Malina and Bernhard’s Gargoyles2 perfectly capable of shaking one’s own psychological grounds. The tension that Gargani highlights is within the actual language used by these authors. More specifically, the tension is between what is shown by the language and what cannot be said. Where does this tension lead?

According to Gargani the tension is always aimed at the reality we live in, its purpose nothing less than being the cause of a “moral leap”, as Bachmann puts it in her Frankfurt lessons.3 Bachmann wants us to understand that in order to confront the present we are thrown into and survive, we have to look at it through lenses that are not, and cannot, be set once and for all. The past is always transforming the present just as the present never sits still. There is nothing, then, that we can seriously take for granted. Bachmann creates a language that forces us to constantly look at where we are now and, at the same time, gaze into where we really should be. This is why in her view literature must be capable of influencing any present, the one we are currently in and every present that is yet to come.4

The quote from Malina I put at the beginning of this writing is the same one I used in class. To me it is the perfect example of what Gargani so acutely finds in Bachmann. In it she is conflating the tragic experience of Nazi Germany5 and the suicide of Romanian poet Paul Celan,6 thus keeping alive the horrible connection between the past, hers and ours, with the present, hers and ours. Furthermore, she is pushing us to look for implicit and explicit connections within the text and outside of it. Bachmann is fully aware that her book should not matter just for the people alive at the time of her writing. For it to be of any value to all the possible readers that will get to it eventually, its language has to keep renewing itself for every reader, creating tension between different times and different spaces.

As Jacques Derrida and Walter Benjamin wrote, this can only be done by using live, dynamic affinities instead of channeling static similarities.7 This means that language must not act as a homogenising common denominator. It should not be a universal item that subsumes concepts, historical processes, and cultural events under one, giant umbrella. If we lose heterogeneity, we lose the possibility of seeing beyond ourselves. If we cannot see beyond ourselves, we will never be able to change, and only the dead never changes.

  1. “My life is over, for during the deportation he has drowned in the river, he was my life. I loved him more than my life.” The English translation of Malina from New Directions uses “transport” instead of “deportation”, whereas the Italian translation published by Adelphi goes with “deportazione”. I prefer the Italian version because it makes the not so subtle reference to the concentration camps clearer. ↩︎

  2. The German title, Verstörung, translates as something like confusion or derangement, whereas the Italian title is Perturbamento, which is closer to the original meaning. ↩︎

  3. I am referring to Letteratura come utopia. Lezioni di Francoforte published by Adelphi, but there is an English translation as well titled The Critical Writings of Ingeborg Bachmann↩︎

  4. See: Letteratura come utopia. Lezioni di Francoforte↩︎

  5. Her father was a member of the Austrian National Socialist Party. ↩︎

  6. The relationship between Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan was so intense and incredible it deserves a much better writer than myself. To get an idea I highly recommend starting with Correspondence: Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan and then watching Ruth Beckermann’s The Dreamed Ones↩︎

  7. See Derrida’s Des tours de Babel and Qu’est-ce qu’une traduction “relevante”?, and Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator and On Language as Such and on the Language of Man↩︎