The Inability to Love: Jews, Gender, and America in Recent German Literature

By Skolnik, Jonathan | German Quarterly, Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

The Inability to Love: Jews, Gender, and America in Recent German Literature


Skolnik, Jonathan, German Quarterly


Mueller, Agnes C. The Inability to Love: Jews, Gender, and America in Recent German Literature. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2015. VIII + 178 pp. $34.95 (paperback).

Agnes Mueller's book is an important contribution to discussions of "literary antisemitism." Although the book focuses on very recent German literature, its methodology should also be of interest for discussions of stereotypes and prejudices in other periods and in other media. The book is also a significant contri- bution to the study of Holocaust memory and the legacy of the Nazi past in contemporary German society, with sensitivity for the complexities of generational, political, and literary dynamics.

It is the attention to generational differences, overlap, and connections which makes The Inability to Love especially rewarding, if also sometimes difficult to follow. In their 1967 study Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern, Margarete and Alexander Mitscherlich advanced a psychoanalytic approach to German society's reckoning with the legacy of National Socialism. Their diagnosis was that German society wished to have done with the stigma and shame of Nazi crimes, but achieved at best a stunted engagement with history (and with the victims) because this is predicated upon mourning, and true mourning requires a painful acknowledgement and working through of one's own responsibility and psychological investment. Mueller's study finds ample evidence that the present moment in German culture is marked by something similar, an "inability to love," which she defines as a persistence of antisemitic expression and an inability to engage and accept ethnic others in their difference and in their specific histories. This inability to love is paradoxical because it persists in an era when official acts and institutions of remembrance and mourning abound (most notably, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin).

Mueller finds this emotional and historical blockage expressed most clearly in popular literary texts (defined as serious literary works that find attention in feuilletons and television and enjoy relatively strong sales), perhaps because of a taboo on explicit antisemitic political speech. The literary form this takes include fantasies of killing Jews, scenarios of fatally doomed romances and friendships, negative images of Jews, exoticized and eroticized gendered stereotypes, and displacements and inversions of German racism and antisemitism. Mueller brings in an impressive number of recent texts (mostly since 2005) from authors who belong to three or four different generations or cohorts: Günter Grass and Martin Walser, alongside Peter Schneider, Bernhard Schlink, Susanne Riedel, Tanja Dückers, Julia Franck, Katharina Hacker, Thomas Meinecke, and Thomas Hettsche, with comparative asides to W.G. Sebald, Gila Lustiger, and others. Mueller uses a broad range of texts to illustrate complex intergenerational, German/Jewish, and literary/political articulations, which makes this book often quite dense. …

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