Among Murderers and Madmen—Ingeborg Bachmann, Fascism, and the Experience of Writing

by Michael Eng


And not only historical fascism, the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini—which was able to mobilize and use the desire of the masses so effectively—but also the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.

—Michel Foucault, “Preface” to Anti-Oedipus

[Fascism] doesn’t begin with the first bombs that are dropped, nor with the Terror that can be written about in every newspaper.  It begins in the relationships between human beings.

—Ingeborg Bachmann, Wir müssen wahre Sätze finden [1]

Un(sayable)—Zu Heidegger

Fascism as an experience of language, as Bachmann says, and language as an experience of fascism.  Everything begins with this relation in her work.  A new form of interruption emerges around the status of such an experience to call all language into question—not only communicative and scientific language, but also that of the literary and the poetic.  Not only the voices of history, but also the history of the voice itself.  But does she really say it?  To call this interruption by the name of writing is to reveal only part of the complexity of the question as Bachmann understands it.  For prior to writing, and prior to the speech of which it is an image, there is first of all that relation to language to which the writer is prisoner—that “altogether other relation [das ganz andere Verhältnis]”(Wir müssen, 84) “of the beggar,” as Levinas describes it speaking of Celan, in “the house of being”(“Paul Celan,” 40).

            But Bachmann does not beg, and the juxtaposition (not to mention the metaphor), though crucial, risks conflating the differences between her and Celan in their respective reactions to Heidegger.  We note first of all that the poverty to which Celan exposes himself in the confrontation with Heidegger’s thought—leaving aside for a larger investigation his poem, “Todtnauberg,” which chronicles his meeting with Heidegger in 1966 [2] —is constituted most clearly in his Bremen and Darmstadt addresses of 1958 and 1960, in which the poet, arriving via certain “detours” [Umwege] from a time and place “now fallen outside history,” [3] begins his address by invoking the philosopher’s treatment of poetry, thought, and remembrance in Hölderlin’s “Mnemosyme.”  It is a treatment that Celan will directly link to the persistence of language and the “realities” left present to poetry in the moments following the losses of the Second World War.  In a passage that requires continuous citation (and translation), he writes:

Only one thing remained close and reachable amid all losses: language.
            Yes, language.  In spite of everything it remained unlost [unverloren].  But it had to go through its own lack of answers [Antwortlosigkeit], through terrifying silence [furchtbares Verstummen], through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech.  It went through and gave no words for what happened; but it went through this event [Geschehen].  It went through and could resurface, “enriched” by it all.
            In this language, I tried, during those years and the years after, to write poems: in order to speak, to orient myself, to find out where I was, where I was being taken [wohin es mit mir wollte], to sketch for myself a reality [Wirklichkeit].
            It meant, as you see, event, movement, being on the way, it was an attempt to find direction. (“Ansprache,” 128)

       Yet inflected through the “terrifying silence” of this persistence—and this is what makes Celan’s remarks so noteworthy—is Heidegger’s own speech, not only the language of Being and his emphasis on the relation of Denken to Dichten in the ’50s, but the silence for which he has since become infamous regarding his political engagements of the ’30s.  Here Celan both anticipates and exceeds much of even the most recent responses to the questions left open by the “Heidegger Affair” in Europe and the United States by insistently placing the losses belonging to the Nachkriegszeit side by side with the language of “event” (Ereignis) and way (Bewegung [movement], Umwege [detours], and Unterwegssein [being on the way]) occupying Heidegger’s later work.  In response to both Heidegger’s failure to address his actions during the Nazi period and the failure of his meditations on philosophy, language, and poetry to speak to the silences in the period that followed, Celan assumes Heidegger’s speech, not (or not simply) to hold it accountable for its failures, but to accomplish it—to bring it to confront the very historicity of its existence and finitude at the heart of Heidegger’s concern and text, to continue, then, to provoke what the events of the war had shown Heidegger himself was unable to fully realize, namely: “what must be said” (Fynsk, 135); the “Saying” of language; “die Sprache spricht.”

       What is the nature of such an accomplishment?  And what was at stake for Bachmann when, in May 1973 just four months before her death, she chose to (continue to) ignore it?  In a highly significant moment in which she responds to a question about her dissertation on Heidegger (1949) and what the interviewer, Karol Sauerland, describes as her “Anti-Heideggerianism,” Bachmann states:

Of course, I did not overthrow Heidegger.  But at the time I was absolutely convinced that he would not survive this dissertation.  He knows of it, incidentally, he is one of the few people who does.  And without knowing about it before hand, he had an odd request for his publisher for a poem from Paul Celan and one from me for the volume commemorating his seventieth birthday.  And we both said no.  Because I knew Heidegger’s Rectoral Address [The Self-Assertion of the German University (1933)], and even if there weren’t this address, there would always be something else, there would always be a temptation [or “seduction” (Verführung)] to return to German irrationalist thought [Irrationaldenken]. (Wir müssen, 137) 

       That these statements should still remain consistent in their findings—even given their determinedly political character—with the conclusions Bachmann draws in her dissertation about Heidegger’s early work is less surprising than the reversals that they enact.  For even if we were to agree with her characterization of Heidegger’s early work—as an “attempt” of a “‘second science’ [‘zweiten Wissenschaft’]” to determine the “inexpressible” and the “immediacy of the emotional realm of human beings” that instead signifies the “dangerous half-rationalization of a sphere that can be touched upon with one word from Wittgenstein: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent’” (Die kritische Aufnahme, 114-15)—there is still nothing in her remarks to connect this “dangerous half-rationalization” with the “political” directions of the Rektorat.  Conversely, neither is there anything in Bachmann’s statements to connect the ambitions Heidegger outlined for the German university in the resistance to Technik to either the drive to express the inexpressible or to the German “irrationalist thought” that she maintains is the project of Heidegger’s early work.  Given this strange passage between the “wissenschafliche writing of Bachmann’s dissertation and the personal remarks of the interview, we are thus left with at least two alternatives:

            1.  Either the political “error” is a philosophical one, which in keeping with both the Neo-Kantian and Wittgensteinian impulses of the dissertation would not only involve the faculty of judgment and its application in the practical sphere, but also and prior to this the faculty of reason and its failure to “stop” at the limits of what can be known or said.  This would certainly go some way to account for the “dangerous half-rationalization” onto which Bachmann alleges Heidegger’s attention to “the nothing” (das Nichts) of existence opens.  But, without turning our concerns to the precisely ethical nature of the “tendency . . . to go beyond the world,” as Wittgenstein claims in his “Lecture on Ethics” (1929)—as it seems Bachmann herself was unable or unwilling to do—even the Neo-Kantian contention would only take us so far because the offense simply remains an epistemological one, no different from the offenses Kant outlined in the first critique and which he named the antinomies of pure reason.  Such an affront to reason, instead of fortifying Bachmann’s effort to establish a strong link between Heidegger’s philosophical praxis and his political engagements with National Socialism—without, it should be noted, documenting in any detail anywhere where or how this precise slippage occurs in Heidegger’s actual text—simply underscores a strange prejudice (shared in various ways by various members of the Vienna Circle of Logical Positivists) towards that Platonic correspondence between knowledge and action.  What is the risk of such a prejudice?  Exactly that of relativizing the question of the political within Heidegger’s thought as just another metaphysical error—or an error of metaphysics.  As a result, Bachmann will miss several moments between Heidegger’s text [particularly, “What is Metaphysics” (1929) and Introduction to Metaphysics (1935)] and Wittgenstein’s early preoccupation with what he called in the Tractatus the ethical and the mystical.  In a footnote to her essay, “Ludwig Wittgenstein—Zu einem Kapitel der jüngsten Philosophiegeschichte” (“Ludwig Wittgenstein—Toward a Chapter in the Most Recent History of Philosophy”), Bachmann dismisses a connection that Ewald Wasmuth makes between the mystical in the Tractatus (“6.44  It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.”) and “Heidegger’s question: ‘Why are there beings and not nothing?’” stating: “But it would be impossible for Wittgenstein to pose such a question since he denied everything Heidegger presumed: that within thinking, Being arrives in language [daß im Denken das Sein zur Sprache komme]” (Werke, IV, 373).

            2.  Or the philosophical error is political, in which case Bachmann never quite states it.  Nor does she furnish any evidence for such a reversal.  This possibility, of course, is not incompatible with the first alternative just outlined, but it does draw our attention to the question of Bachmann’s silence in relation to both Heidegger’s refusal to speak to the events of the Second World War and the “terrifying silence” to which Celan attempts to expose Heidegger’s speech.  Thus the “dangerous half-rationalization” that Bachmann diagnoses as everywhere present in Heidegger’s work becomes the half-rationalization of a danger that language itself makes possible and is everywhere present in everything expressible (including the “inexpressible”).  This is why we must speak of a “Verführung”—a temptation, a seduction—at the heart of Heidegger’s thought, if not at the heart of all speech and all thought as such.  If this were not the case, then Bachmann’s perhaps most famous phrase concerning the fascism that begins in the relationships between human beings would have no sense.  Isn’t this the danger of Heidegger’s speech for Bachmann, that it reveals an exposure of the “entirety of thought” to a temptation or seduction by an “originary fascism” that threatens all speech and all relation, including her own?  And isn’t this what is at stake in the “terrifying silence” to which Celan responds, the possibility precisely of no longer being able to respond to language’s experience of its own lack of answers in a time “after Heidegger?” [4]

In the Penal Colony

Thus if silence pervades Bachmann’s work, it is certainly not limited to the (in)expressible or the knowable but belongs rather to the spaces between writing and speech, to the writing of knowledge (as scientia) and the speech of the (in)expressible.  In resisting the suggestion of a determining influence of Wittgenstein in her work, Bachmann holds that “the difference between philosophy and writing is too great” (Wir müssen, 136) to constitute a direct “linguistic” correspondence.  Instead, Bachmann repeats the final proposition of the Tractatus—“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent”—in order to open a site at the near side of the limit of the expressible.  There is no reason to avoid a reading of this sort of resistance in Bachmann’s thought (which, incidentally, appears continuously in her interviews); for between the writing of philosophy and the writing of writing, there is the taking-place for Bachmann of language itself, the Wittgensteinian difference between showing and saying as a saying—a voice—of what language cannot (not) say—namely, its fact: “only one endeavor,” she says, “is meaningful in writing: that which attends to language” (Wir müssen, 11). [5]   “Silence then,” writes Giorgio Agamben, “is not simply a suspension of discourse, but silence of the word itself, the becoming visible of the word: the idea of language” (Idea of Prose, 113).

            Yet the relation of silence to the facts of language in itself would not lead us back to the question of fascism as we understand it here.  Instead, the silence that opens onto the fact of language makes felt the question of (the violence of) relation as such. This is why when we recall the “first little saying-nothing sentences [die ersten kleinen nichtssagenden Saetze]” in Malina we are drawn also, as Agamben is, to the “terrible secret” of the punishment of language and the guilt that precedes any appearance of the word to which these saying-nothing sentences are intimately connected.  In the section immediately following the one cited above, Agamben writes (“in memoriam Ingeborg Bachmann”):

A singular light is thrown on Kafka’s tale of the Penal Colony when one realizes that the machine of torture invented by the previous commandant of the colony is in fact language.  But by the same stroke it becomes even more complex.  In the tale the machine is primarily an instrument of justice and punishment.  This means that, on earth and for men, language is also such an instrument.  The secret of the penal colony is the same as that which a character in a contemporary novel reveals in these words: “I’ll let you in on a terrible secret: language is the punishment.  All things must enter it and perish there according to their guilt and the scale of their guilt.” (Idea of Prose, 115, translation modified / Bachmann, Werke III, 97)

       To be sure, Bachmann never explicates the nature of this guilt, or the nature of the crime, for the language in which she would do so would have been already conditioned by it, just as the child who learns to say “I” does so by first admitting having “done something”: “I did it, I, I, I!” (Werke, 218-219).  If the intimacy of the relation between the I, Ivan, and Malina is itself conditioned by this “terrible secret” of language, as perhaps all relations are, then instead of being able to decide finally on the primacy of the various versions and slopes of the relation of fascism to language, there arises a desire in Bachmann’s work to acknowledge fascism’s sheer excess.  Not only the manner in which it exceeds the decidability between the violences and genocides within history [“Unter Mödern und Irren” (“Among Murderers and Madmen”), “Jugend in einer österreischisen Stadt” (“Youth in an Austrian Town”)] and the “gynocides” within the relationships between men and women (Malina, Der Fall Franza), [6] but also its ability to transgress the events themselves and infiltrate—or as Bachmann says, infect—the very voice narrating their histories.  Das dreissigste Jahr (The Thirtieth Year): “I, this package composed of reflections and a well brought-up will, I nourished by refuse from history, scraps of drive and instinct, I with one foot in wilderness and the other on the main street to eternal civilization.  I impenetrable, compounded from all substances, clogged, insoluble, and yet able to be annihilated with a blow on the back of the head. I born of silence and brought to silence” (Werke, II, 102).

The Storyteller

If the accounts that stage Bachmann’s work within the Austrian struggle with history (Vergangenheitsbewältigung) or within the traumatic experience of the history of the Second World War have any purchase, it is less for their skill at employing a certain form of banal historicism and at applying a certain faith in the unity of an experiencing, historical subject, than for the questions that they raise concerning the paradoxical status of the category of experience “today.”  We recall the I in Malina as s/he begins the narrative by admitting that it is no longer possible for her/him to say “today,” only to frame the event of the disruption of the voice whose breath becomes irregular—arrhythmic—whenever it attempts to break free from the banality of the tasks and happenings of the “day” (Werke, III, 12-13).  Yet we also know that the events themselves can only take place “today”; there is only “today” “after the War” [“nach dem Krieg” (Werke, II, 159)].  Thus fallen outside of history, “today is a word,” narrates the I, “that only those committing suicide are able to use” (Werke, III, 13). 

            Thus, in revisiting Bachmann’s Frankfurt lectures on poetics and her reflections therein on the “‘I’ without guarantees” within the history of literature (Werke, IV, 218), we cannot escape the impression that within those lectures she is laying the ground for the inclusion of her own work within this same history.  No longer able to say “today,” no longer able to say “we,”—“we, who are preoccupied with language, have learned what speechlessness and muteness are—our, if you will, purest conditions!—and have returned from that no-man’s land with language which we will perpetuate as long as life is our own continuation” (Werke, IV, 60)—Bachmann’s writing becomes increasingly populated with figures resembling Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos whose “capacity for the coherency of thinking and speaking has left him” and who as a result can only experience the “disintegration” of “abstract moldy mushrooms in the mouth” (Werke, IV, 189).  These figures, who act but no longer see, who live (erleben) but no longer experience (erfahren), reveal an “I” that is inseparable from a fundamental “experience of suffering” (Leiderfahrung), an “experience (before experience),” as Christopher Fynsk says, of the “subject.” 

       What is meant by this, and what is the relation of this “limit-experience” to literature and to writing?  Of course, we have already been exposed to an answer, when Benjamin, writing of the disruption posed to storytelling in the communication of experience, writes:

For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power.  A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body. (“The Storyteller,” 84).

       Again, everywhere in Bachmann, it is not so much that the events of the Second World War mark an historical break as they mark a break in “history” itself, a rupture in “time.”  Bachmann, quite aware of Benjamin’s distinction between Erlebnis as “discontinuous, lived experience” and Erfahrung as “integrated, meaningful experience,” pursues a memory similar to Benjamin’s “denunciation of the aestheticization of violence and glorification of the ‘fascist class warrior’” (Jay, “Walter Benjamin”) in her fragmentary essay, “Auf das Opfer darf keiner sich berufen” (“The Victims Shall Not Be Summoned”), where she contends: “It is not true that victims remind, witness, or are testimony for anything.  That is the most terrible, thoughtless, weakest poeticization...No land and no group, no idea should wake the dead” (Werke, IV, 335).  Like Benjamin, Bachmann is acutely aware of what Foucault called the “fascism in us all” and terribly conscious of the both the risk and temptation to reinscribe the violences that we seek to resist.  The writer’s task, as Bachmann sees it, is to confront this paradox of both memory and the “withering of experience [Erfahrungsschwund]” by bringing—or tearing—one into the experiences (“Erfahrungen”) that the writer creates and to withdraw one from the “dangerous progress [Entwicklung] of this modern world” (Wir müssen, 140).  It is for this reason that we can become aware of “only the most powerful phrases of today: If we had the word, if we had language, we would not need the weapons” (Werke, IV, 185, emphasis added).

a human voice

What is the nature of this experience “created” by the writer in a time without language?  Everyday is “today”, “‘Nach dem Krieg’—dies ist die Zeitrechnung [‘After the War’—this is the calculation of time]” (Werke, II, 159), a memory “touched” by the dead—these all point to the fact that, as Gilles Deleuze writes, “in Europe, the post-war period has greatly increased the situations which we no longer know how to describe.  These were ‘any spaces whatever,’ deserted but inhabited, disused warehouses, waste ground, cities in the course of demolition or reconstruction.  And in these any-spaces-whatever a new race of characters was stirring, kind of mutant: they saw rather than acted, they were seers” (Cinema 2, x).  But these in no way should be understood as conditions into which the historical subject is placed, as if dropped from on high and experienced in a simply affected functioning of sight and sound.  Instead, they are the affective conditions of the “subject,” what has come to be the “originary” interruptions preceding the ascension of human beings to language and to experience as such—that make the subject, as it were, possible.  If space allowed, it would be necessary to elucidate just what is at stake in this “possibility”—known, provisionally, as the human—for thought, for language, for the ethical and the political.  Such an elucidation would certainly call for both a critique of what Bachmann called “the absolute complicity of words and images” (Wir müssen, 25) as well as the provocation of what she named “a human voice.”


[1]    “Er fängt nicht an mit den ersten Bomben, die geworfen werden, er fängt nicht an mit dem Terror, über den man schreiben kann, in jeder Zeitung.  Er fängt an in Beziehungen zwischen Menschen” (144).  Unless otherwise noted, all translations of Bachmann are my responsibility.

[2]    For just such an investigation, see Pierre Joris’s “Celan / Heidegger: Translation at the Mountain of Death.”

[3]    “ dieser nun der Geschichtslosigkeit anheimgefallenen ehemaligen Provinz...” (“Ansprache,” 127).  My translation of the phrase can only be imprecise.  What Celan indicates as a Geschichtslosigkeit—a “history-less-ness” / a “loss of history”—is modified by the term “anheimgefallen,” designating not only a falling-into, but a being-reduced-to, as well as an inheritance.  As if this were not complicated enough, anheimgefallen also contains the root, heim, the home or homely, which for Celan is precisely what is in question in the Nachkriegszeit (after the war) and “after Heidegger.”  For a much more sustained and rigorous reading of both addresses and their connection to Heidegger’s work on language (to which my remarks here are heavily indebted), see Christopher Fynsk’s “The Realities at Stake in a Poem.”

[4]    For another instance in which the question arises, see Olaf Grabienski’s thorough treatment of Bachmann and Celan’s translations and respective responses to Giuseppi Ungaretti’s “fascist period” in “Giuseppi Ungaretti und der Faschismus. Die deutschsprachige Rezeption nach 1945.

[5]    See Christopher Fynsk, Language and Relation.

[6]    See Lilian Friedberg, “Understanding Ingeborg Bachmann: A Step in the Right Direction. A Review of Karen Achberger’s Ingeborg Bachmann Monograph.”


Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Idea of Prose. Trans. Michael Sullivan and Sam Whitsitt. Albany: SUNY Press, 1995.

Bachmann, Ingeborg. Die kritische Aufnahme der Existentialphilosophie Martin Heideggers. (Dissertation Wien 1949). Ed. Robert Pichl. Afterword by Friedrich Wallner. München, Zürich: R. Piper & Co. Verlag, 1985.

——— . Werke. 4 Bände. Ed. Christine Koschel, Inge von Weidenbaum, Clemens

Muenster. München, Zürich: R. Piper & Co. Verlag, 1978.

——— . Wir müssen wahre Sätze finden. Gespräche und Interviews. Ed. Christine

Koschel and Inge von Weiderbaum. Munich: R. Piper, 1983.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. 83-110.

Celan, Paul. “Ansprache anläßlich der Entgegennahme des Literaturpreises der Freien

Hansestadt Bremen.” Ausgewählte Gedichte. Zwei Reden. Frankfurt am Main: Edition Suhrkamp, 1967. 127-129.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989.

Friedberg, Lilian. “Understanding Ingeborg Bachmann: A Step in the Right Direction. A Review of Karen Achberger’s Ingeborg Bachmann Monograph.”

Fynsk, Christopher. “The Realities at Stake in a Poem.” Language and Relation . . . that there is language. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1996. 135-160.

Grabienski, Olaf. “Giuseppi Ungaretti und der Faschismus. Die deutschsprachige Rezeption nach 1945”

Heidegger, Martin. Introduction to Metaphysics. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New Haven: Yale UP, 1959.

——— . “What is Metaphysics?” Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. Revised and expanded ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1993. 89-110.

Jay, Martin. “Walter Benjamin, Remembrance, and the First World War.” PAPERS/1996_87.pdf

Joris, Pierre. “Celan / Heidegger: Translation at the Mountain of Death.”

Levinas, Emmanuel. “Paul Celan: From Being to the Other.” Proper Names. Trans. Michael B. Smith. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1996. 40-46.

Lühe, Irmela von der. “‘I without guarantees’—Ingeborg Bachmann’s Frankfurt Lectures on Poetics.” New German Critique 27 (1982): 31-55.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture and Value. Ed. G.H. von Wright. Trans. Peter Winch. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.

——— . “Lecture on Ethics.” Philosophical Review, 64 (1975).

——— . Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961.

BIO: Michael Eng teaches philosophy at Pratt Institute and is currently completing a Ph.D. in philosophy at Binghamton University on the relationship between voice, language, and the image in contemporary continental thought.  He most recently received a Fulbright fellowship to Vienna, Austria, where he conducted research on the intersection of language and memory in the work of Ingeborg Bachmann.

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