Academic journal article German Quarterly

Engendering cultural memory in selected post-Wende literary texts of the 1990s

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Engendering cultural memory in selected post-Wende literary texts of the 1990s

Article excerpt

"Memory boom" and "memory crisis," two seemingly incompatible phenomena, aptly capture the state of cultural memory in contemporary Germany. The decade since German unification has seen a greatly increased public interest in issues of memory and commemoration, motivated by the reexamination of the history of the two Germanies and of the history of National Socialism from the perspective of post-unification Germany. Prominent examples are the ongoing debates about the urban reconstruction of the formerly divided city of Berlin, and specifically the decade-long controversy about design and construction of a Holocaust memorial in Berlin. This preoccupation with the past occurs within a political context in which a unified Germany, made up of a population more diverse than ever before, seeks to fashion a new national identity, a project which requires the negotiation of national symbols, traditions, and memories (Hobsbawm). The memory boom is thus both a symptom of and a response to a memory crisis, that is, a lack of societal consensus about what constitute shared traditions in unified Germany.1

Within this larger context of a memory boom in contemporary Germany, I look at the role of literary discourse and gendered notions of individual versus public forms of memory. Feminist insights in the genderedness of the public/private opposition are by now widely accepted; yet most of the oft-quoted theorists of memory (e.g., Benjamin, Halbwachs, Nora, Jan and Aleida Assmann, among others) have not given much consideration to the ways their concepts of personal and collective memory are inflected in different ways by gender. These seemingly gender-neutral theories of memory contrast with numerous case studies in the area of literary and cultural studies which look at the role of gender and memory in particular contexts (Alphen, Hirsch, Remmler, Weigel, among others). Drawing on these case studies in my analysis of contemporary literary texts, this article looks at intersections of gender and memory within the cultural context of the unified Germany in the 1990s. Within this particular context, I examine a common assertion among scholars from various disciplines, namely that it is the role of literature to work against "cultural amnesia"the flip-side of cultural memory-that is manifest especially at times of historical change.2

"Memory texts" published in the last decade in Germany include oral and cultural histories, autobiographical and literary texts, and a hybrid genre that undercuts clear distinctions between real and fictional realms. These texts often comment on the processes of memory and the ways memory is rooted in the power of imagination and interpretation. To the extent they reflect on the processes of reconstructing and making sense of the past, these texts can be also considered "metahistorical narratives," to use Linda Hutcheon's term (1990). This article looks at two recent examples of this hybrid genre both of which were widely discussed in the German media: Monika Maron's Pawels Briefe (PB, 1999) and Martin Walser's Ein springender Brunnen (SB, 1998). The considerable public attention these texts received results from the fact that two highly visible and at times controversial authors reflect on the German past at a time when the cultural memory of the new, unified German nation is being renegotiated. In markedly different ways, both authors revisit the period of National Socialism and, in Maron's case, East German Socialism as well, via family and childhood narratives. I therefore submit that these texts are symptomatic for two diverging literary representations of recent German history and for two diverging approaches to issues of gender, identity and memory.

The way this nexus of gender, identity and memory plays out in these two texts is informed (but not solely determined) by the authors' positionality Differences do not only include the authors' gender but also their generational affiliation (Maron was born in 1941, Walser in 1928), the geopolitical context (Maron grew up in East Germany, Walser in West Germany), and their families' situation in Nazi-Germany: Walser's parents were neither actively involved in the persecution of Jews and others nor in anti-Nazi resistance. …

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