Academic journal article Style

Acting Figuratively, Telling Tropically. Figures of Insanity in Gunter Grass's Die Blechtrommel

Academic journal article Style

Acting Figuratively, Telling Tropically. Figures of Insanity in Gunter Grass's Die Blechtrommel

Article excerpt

Gunter Grass's bestselling novel Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) was originally published in 1959 and rapidly enjoyed a vivid and enthusiastic reception in the non-German world, where the comic vicissitudes of an adolescent midget were read as an accomplished allegory representing the unprecedented madness of the industrialized terror characteristic of German politics during the Third Reich. In the writer's homeland, however, the novel was rejected by public opinion as pornographic and trouble-making. (2) To explain the background of such a diverging reception surely requires a complex sociological investigation, but there is not much doubt that the picaresque and playful undertone of the novel was experienced by the German reading public as irreconcilable with the ongoing process of trauma handling. One of the most noticeable levels on which the incongruity between the novelistic universe and the cultural context of reception was felt, is the exuberant narrative style and the abundant use of figurative speech. Both aspects of the novel are functional under the narrative umbrella of the protagonist's mental capriciousness: as a child Oscar is unable to understand the dynamics of the adult world, as an adult he is deluded into absurd self-incriminations, agonized by the surfacing, but still largely implicit sense of being a non-resistant German during the Second World War. In this sense, the overt joy (or even lust) of telling and the concomitant figurativeness can be seen as the protagonist's disengagement from the excruciating gravity of the world in which he lives, as his escape into a parallel universe. As such, they present themselves as appropriate means of expression for the unreliable and self-admitted insane narrator.

But when analyzed more closely, the novel displays a complex series of processes in which figurative communication, and even figurative behavior, are subjected to practices of negotiation, in which the narrator is not the controlling instance, but turns out to be controlled himself. (3) The result is a form of paradoxical narration that confronts us with a series of fundamental questions about the relation between rhetoric and the representation of madness. In Die Blechtrommel the mental destabilization of the speaker in moments of affective, epistemological and experiential crisis, often (but not always) goes hand in hand with an increase of the density, in which figurative language occurs--an increase which may be read as a rhetorical and narrative disinhibition. In the following, I will investigate several textual instances of such a disinhibition, paying particular attention to the closing chapter of the book, entitled "Dreissig" ("Thirty"). This analysis is part of a larger project to explore the specific narrative potential of rhetorical figures and the networking they engage in. (4)

Figurative Performances

Before I go ahead with the analysis, I should determine more closely the circumstances under which figurative language operates. Many different recent publications on the subject indicate that a variety of tropes typical of literary discourse do not necessarily recur to underlying cognitive procedures ("understanding one thing in terms of another"), but unfold specifically on the level of language and wordplay. As figurative processes, they are triggered by the estranging co-occurrence of two non-reducible concepts and the interaction between these; by doing so, they instigate an interpretive exercise by means of which addressees try to come to terms with the initial estrangement. In this context, it is important to address briefly three theoretical issues.

First and foremost, tropes rely on the addressee's attribution of intentionality to the speaker. Even though tropes more than once have been described as instances of a (category) mistake, (5) the reader has to be convinced of the speaker's intention to transgress a contextually validated norm in order to undertake the interpretive effort (instead of rectifying the mistake). …

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