Vol. XXV, #3 Flann O’Brien / Guy Davenport / Aldous Huxley
Review of Contemporary Fiction
The Aesthetics of Resistance, Volume 1, by Peter Weiss
reviewed by Robert Buckeye
Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. Foreword Fredric Jameson. Duke Univ. Press, 2005. 376 pp. Paper: $22.95.
Peter Weiss’s monumental The Aesthetics of Resistance is a Marxist Remembrance of Things Past: a history of leftist politics from the end of the First World War to the Spanish civil war (where the first volume breaks off), as well as a bildungsroman concerning the education of its working-class narrator—particularly in what practical uses might be made of works of art. Written over the last ten years of Weiss’s life, nearly a half-century after the events he records, it is both nostalgia and plea. The failed leftist (and modernist) revolution against capitalism and bourgeois society remains an uncompleted project, a reminder that something is missing, that the conditions of modern living do not satisfy the needs of life. Like Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, its dream today “retains its authenticity solely as a ruin.” The Aesthetics of Resistance writes those who have been culturally and historically excluded back into the story of their time and demands—as modernism does—that we learn to read in a new way. It includes historical figures, like Bukharin, Nordahl Grieg, and Andres Nin; discussions of Picasso’s Guernica, the Pergamum altar, and Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa; and employs characteristic modernist techniques of montage, the document, the list, and the catalog. At the conclusion of a discussion of Munch’s painting Workers Returning Home, the narrator leaves in a truck and looks back at a friend as he pulls away: “He stayed behind amid the gigantic domes and towers of Valencia, his laughter in his bright face, his waving, street ravines, boulevard along the shore, exit roads, low plateau, harvesters in the rice paddies.” This, the last sentence of the first volume, is a description of a friend and a landscape, not of Munch or the Spanish civil war. We begin and end in that space. According to Weiss, art must always be seen in relation to life, writing in relation to action. This is a book not to read through from beginning to end, but one in which we should pause, as its narrator does, to consider an idea, event, or work of art in relation to our lives—“the trench warfare of thoughts,” as Weiss puts it. Although Weiss was not himself working class, this novel could stand as its testimony: “What would I have become, how would I have developed if I had come from a proletarian home,” he asks. The monuments of modernism today rise like Ozymandias’ statue in the sand: Ulysses, Proust, Beckett, Pound’s Cantos, The Making of Americans, The Waste Land. At last, we have an English translation of a work that stands alongside them.