Hans Magnus Enzensberger
Alfonso Berardinelli

The encounter and the long-standing dialogue between the Italian critic and essayist Alfonso Berardinelli and the German poet, essayist and novelist Hans Magnus Enzensberger is an example of an elective affinity rich with ensuing consequences, such as a book by them both: Che noia la poetry. Pronto Soccorso per lettori stressati [What boring poetry. First Aid for stressed readers] (2006). This text by Berardinelli on the essayist Enzensberger prolongs this fruitful encounter.

gerhard richter

Gerhard Richter, Leitura, 1994 © Gerhard Richter (0243)

Poet-philosopher, sceptical enlightener, intellectual reporter, cultural and social critic, inveterate experimenter with literary forms and genres, Hans Magnus Enzensberger is undeniably a polymath, but, for many of his readers, above all he is an essayist. The focus of his work shifts from one moment to the next, from a poem to a narrative montage of documents in a collection of essays. Autobiographical details, however, are kept to a minimum. Questions of public discourse clearly predominate, oscillating between detailed and documented analysis and a form of ironic oratory, often in the form of praise and defence or, on the contrary, of denunciation and satire.

Born in 1929 in Kanfbeuren in the Swabian- ‑Bavarian Alps, Enzensberger is without doubt the most eclectic and cosmopolitan German writer of his generation. His entire oeuvre reveals a particular kind of cultural and literary encyclopaedism. Among his best-known works are the poems Mausoleum: Thirty-seven Ballads from the History of Progress (1976) and The Sinking of the Titanic: A Poem (1978), the montage of documents on the Spanish Civil War Anarchy’s Brief Summer: The Life and Death of Buenaventura Durruti (1972), the reportage Europe, Europe: Forays into a Continent (1987), and the essays ‘The Great Migration’ (1992) and Civil Wars: From L.A. to Bosnia (1993).

A poet-essayist; a poet and an essayist. Enzensberger has always required concrete knowledge, expertise, reflection, intellectual emotion and critical ferocity in order to exercise his literary talent. His essays have increasingly featured a sense of metre and a rhythmic texture alongside their somewhat theatrical and ironically oratorical tone. His poems, in turn, often have an aphoristic and dialectical construction.

The variety, plurality and mobility of viewpoints, forms of knowledge, languages, methods, styles and genres make Enzensberger’s literary production difficult to define or label. Yet like that of any author, Enzensberger’s work can be divided into several stages. While it is not easy to define all of them, a first phase certainly runs from 1957, with his poetic debut Verteidigung der Woelfe [The Wolves defended against the lambs], until the early 1970s. At the centre of this period are two now classic collections of essays, Einzelheiten [Details] (1962) and Politik und Verbrechen [Politics and Crime] (1964), as well as his founding of the journal Kursbuch, the editorship of which Enzensberger abandoned in 1975.

The essays in Einzelheiten revolve around two topics: the consciousness industry and the relationship between poetry and politics. These are problems and interests that link Enzensberger’s early work to both Adorno and Brecht; inherited themes which Enzensberger tried to take further by going beyond previous definitions and formulations. In the essay on Bewusstseins-Industrie (Consciousness Industry), for example, we encounter from the very first page a young Enzensberger who is openly Marxist. Yet ‘the social induction of consciousness and its mediation only become problems when they take on an industrial dimension. The consciousness industry is a product of the last hundred years.’

While the immediate precedent of Enzensberger’s discourse is the long chapter devoted to the culture industry in Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, in replacing the term ‘culture industry’ with the term ‘consciousness industry,’ something different and broader is being proposed. The argument would seem to be that if we are misled by a predominantly technological and commercial understanding of the mass media, then we are blind to a set of institutions, professions and activities that contribute to socially constructing what we call consciousness:

‘Fashion, the whole range of educational activities, religious education and tourism are still not recognised as sectors of the consciousness industry and investigated as such. As in the case of new physics, psychoanalysis, sociology, demoscopy [statistical survey of public opinion] and other disciplines, it would also be appropriate to study how a ‘scientific’ consciousness is industrially induced. But the most serious point is that we have not yet realised clearly enough that the full development of the consciousness industry is imminent; that, indeed, it is about to take possession of its core activity: education. The industrialisation of education is only just now beginning: however, while we bicker about curricula and school systems, teacher shortages and teaching shifts, technical means have already been developed that make any fine talk of school reform anachronistic.’

The (irreversible) fact that the consciousness industry ‘is the key industry of the 20th century’ is illustrated by its prioritisation in the exercise of power: ‘Whenever there is a coup d’état, revolution or insurrection, the new regime no longer takes over transportation routes or heavy industry, but the radio stations, printing works and telecommunication offices.’

Yet Enzensberger’s analysis creates no alibi for countries such as East Germany or those of sovietised Eastern Europe where the seizure of consciences is not the work of private industry but of public industry and the state. The division of Germany into two blocs, capitalist and socialist, allowed Enzensberger to comprehend the full extent of this phenomenon. He takes into account not only the diagnosis of Horkheimer and Adorno, based on the American experience, but also what Orwell wrote about communist methods of destroying factual truths.

"The essays in Einzelheiten revolve around two topics: the consciousness industry and the relationship between poetry and politics. These are problems and interests that link Enzensberger's early work to both Adorno and Brecht."

Enzensberger’s pessimistic analysis, however, ends with a programme and a challenge. Thus, from the very outset, Enzensberger is also concerned with the various ramifications of the consciousness industry, devoting essays to journalism, tourism (including ‘revolution tourism’), the Cuban Communist Party, the ever-changing media-technological landscape, the education system and school bureaucracies, the prevailing ideology of progress, the manipulations of the idea of science and the interests behind this, and the more recent biotechnological utopias which took the place of the old political utopias.

In Politik und Verbrechen, Enzensberger’s second book of essays from the 1960s, scarcely less important than the first but literarily more eventful, the author recounts and studies the dictatorial regime of Rafael Trujillo in Santo Domingo; gangsterism in 1920s Chicago; the Camorra in 1950s Naples; the obscure murder of Wilma Montesi in Rome in 1953; the execution in 1945 of the American soldier and ‘innocent deserter’ Edward D. Slovik; before, finally,dedicating two essays to the ‘dreamers of the absolute,’ to the ‘beautiful souls of terror’ in late 19th and early 20th century Russia. Key points of reference for Enzensberger here include books that were important in his own education: Albert Camus’s The Rebel (1951), Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1958), Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power (1960), and Günther Anders’s The Obsolescence of Man (1960). The centrepiece of the collection, however, is the essay ‘Reflections before a Glass Cage,’ a title referring to the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem.