CHRISTA WOLF: THE MAKING OF AN INTELLECTUAL WOMAN

Open Access
Author:
Tang, Ying
Graduate Program:
German
Degree:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Dissertation
Date of Defense:
June 05, 2006
Committee Members:
  • Cecilia Novero, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • Daniel Leonhard Purdy, Committee Member
  • Joan Landes, Committee Member
  • Hartmut Heep, Committee Member
Keywords:
  • Christa Wolf
  • women intellectuals
  • feminism and socialism
Abstract:
Christa Wolf, a GDR intellectual, was discredited as a writer after German Unification. In 1990, she was at the center of a controversy that started around her publication of a novel titled "Was bleibt" ("What remains"). The controversy expanded to consider more generally the role of the Stasi (secret police) in GDR culture and affected in particular the generation of GDR writers born around 1930, who were not dissidents, and had not left the country in the 40 years of its existence. Prior to the demise of the GDR, Wolf¡¯s stories, novels and essays, as well as her political interventions during 1989, were highly considered for their moral and political standing and she was regarded, especially by feminist and progressive intellectuals, as one of the few women intellectuals of the 20th century, among the likes of Simone de Beauvoir and Hannah Arendt. As a response to the controversy around Christa Wolf, my dissertation attempts to understand Wolf less as an isolated ¡°writer¡± than as an ¡°effect¡± of political and cultural discourse about the GDR in the Federal Republic of Germany prior to unification and in united Germany after 1989. However, my investigations also take into consideration Wolf¡¯s own opinions about her role as intellectual active in the GDR, as well as her explicit pacifist and feminist positions, which she enunciated in both essays and her literature. Thus, I play the writer¡¯s own ¡®self-reflective¡¯ texts over and against the texts that made Wolf first into the banner of an alternative socialism and second, after the Wende, into the target of conservative accusations. Her literature was suddenly regarded as bad, moralistic, writing. In short, I try to answer the question: how is it possible that one writer¡¯s literature is praised universally as ¡°critical¡± one moment, and denigrated as banal and simply moralistic the next? David Bathrick¡¯s "The Powers of Speech" deals with similar issues from a Foucaultian perspective. In particular, Bathrick engages language and discourse in the GDR. He focuses on the notion of a literary public sphere in the GDR, the meaning of socialist public intellectuals, and the distinctions between dissidence and the GDR intellectuals¡¯ opposition to a stultified party system. Bathrick¡¯s study helped me elaborate the main framework of my dissertation. Two questions specifically guide my approach to Wolf: i.) How could Wolf¡¯s texts operate within and without the GDR as critical while at the same time be socialist - and thus have the approval of the state? ii.) How and to what extent could Wolf¡¯s dissidence be constructed in non-socialist countries and, also, to a limited extent, within the GDR State? Accordingly, my dissertation has two parts. Part One deals with Wolf¡¯s own understanding of the function of literature and its relation to socialism. As a case in point I analyze her 1968 novel Nachdenken ¨¹ber Christa T. Part Two studies literary critical responses to Wolf¡¯s work more extensively, including more recent texts, in different time periods and different places. In particular I look at the GDR, the FRG, the USA and post 1989 Germany. Here, I look specifically at the role and function of feminism in both Wolf¡¯s texts and the reception of Wolf. My dissertation, unlike Bathrick¡¯s work, focuses on the specificity of the case of a woman intellectual, both a socialist and a feminist. Ultimately, the dissertation makes a point that this is the difference that constitutes the case ¡°Wolf.¡± The dissertation argues that Wolf understood literature as a means to uncover ¡°the blind spot¡± of the subject first and of culture second. This act of ¡°uncovering¡± is the first step on the way to find healing for past traumas (fascism, for example) and, hence, to make changes (improve real existing socialism). In Wolf¡¯s notion of ¡°the blind spot¡±, priority is given to the repression and exclusion of values associated with the feminine ¡°space,¡± a space left out of dominant culture or the history of the victors. This could be seen as Wolf¡¯s feminist critique of universal (bourgeois) values, including the notions of the theoretical intellectual proposed by Julien Benda and Pierre Bourdieu. Moreover, Wolf¡¯s focus on a feminine space of culture from which to critique instrumental reason, the blind spot of Western civilization, and from which to imagine an alternative mythology, also helps expose the insufficiency of Bathrick¡¯s mode of analysis. For example, I argue that no matter how exhaustive his analysis of the socialist public intellectual in the GDR is, his work (like Foucault¡¯s) does not do justice to Wolf¡¯s case due to its lack of a gender perspective. In Wolf¡¯s case, a feminist/gendered approach does enrich our understanding of the concept of the intellectual. In effect, her critical involvement with society was always the product of socialism with a feminist accent. However, it seems that in the reception of her texts, feminism and socialism have been dissociated. Wolf¡¯s commitment to socialism - an important aspect in Wolf¡¯s political engagement as an intellectual - was largely ignored by feminist critics in the FRG and the US. Wolf is very often put into a Western theoretical discourse about feminism and her works are read only as embodiment of the wide-ranging power of certain Western feminist theories. The tension existing between Wolf¡¯s own understanding of feminism and the feminist literary responses to her texts seems to suggest that in defining Wolf¡¯s oeuvre from a feminist perspective, not only is gendered difference given priority over other modes of difference, but socialism has been totally ignored. Wolf¡¯s reluctance to call herself a feminist might be understood as her resistance to distinguish between feminism and socialism, or rather, her critique of Western liberal feminism. My dissertation, by considering Wolf¡¯s own intellectual positions, alongside the discourse that constructed her as either a feminist writer/intellectual or a dissident writer, corrects this blind spot in the reception of Wolf.