Jan 2011

Neil H. Donahue

The Unbearable Ich: The Hunt for the Self on the Verge of Extinction in Gerhard Falkner’s Bruno (2008)

Gerhard Falkner’s career as a poet in the 1980s and 1990s boldly embraced Modernist traditions in poetry –very much out of fashion in the 1970s– and reasserted the notion of a Modernist, even Romantic self, a poetic self, tilting against the “contexts of its threatened erasure in the deconstructed subjectivity of poststructuralism, the mass mediations of cybernetic culture, and the global reach of postindustrial capitalism.” Such works as his stunning first volume so beginnen am körper die tage (1981), his second volume der atem unter der erde (1984), the virtuoso compendium wemut (1989) and then later, X-te Person Einzahl (1996) and Endogene Gedichte (2002) continuously invoke traditions of Romantic consciousness in order to bring self-reflexive poetic beauty back to bear upon the philosophical and theoretical endgame of the subject in contemporary society: his widely influential poetological treatise Über den Unwert des Gedichts (1993) made explicit, in the tradition of Gottfried Benn’s “Probleme der Lyrik” (1951), Theodor Adorno’s “Rede über Lyrik und Gesellschaft” (also 1951) and Hilde Domin’s “Wozu Lyrik heute” (1968), the opposition of self and society in survival mode: he says,

In dem Maße wie wir auf das Innen Verzicht leisten, um dem Außen uneingeschränkt verfügbar zu sein, verliert die dichterische Sprache ihre Lebensgrundlage und Gültigkeit. Die Versuche der Dichter, sich aufs Äußerliche zu verlegen, untergraben das einzigartige Motiv poetischer Sprache, Spannungsumwandler zwischen Innen und Außen zu sein […] und den inneren Resonanzraum um seine nicht-diskursive Dimension wachsen zu lassen. Das Hochziel abendländischer Kultur wird zunehmend die Behinderung einer semiophagen, pleonexalen Gesellschaft, doch die aberwitzige Unwichtigkeit, in die das Gedicht abgedrängt wurde, schützt es wenigstens vor der letzten Integration in die kulterelle Tragödie. (Unwert, 83)

Falkner’s work thrives on the clash and contra-dictions of the Romantic textual sublime in its multiple contemporary refractions and desublimated contexts, as a constant rear-guard defense of poetic interiority against that final integration into the swirling semantic vacancy of mass-media culture, pushed to ever new extremes. Already in 1989, at the end of wemut, he had renounced, prematurely as it turns out, future volumes of poetry with the note “daß sie – [poetry]– die kühnste unter den Künsten ist, über deren extremste Bedingungen, die sie ab einer bestimmten Höhe diktiert, sich Unverfallene wohl schwerlich einen Begriff machen” (wemut, 169). Now, with his novella Bruno (2008 — without an Umlaut, not at all to be confused with Sascha Baron Cohen’s recent film Brüno [2009], please!), Falkner brings his largely autobiographical fictional subject into the very landscape of the Romantic sublime, “ab einer bestimmten Höhe” as it were, in the Wallis or Valais region of Switzerland, where his arrival in the hot summer of 2006 during the World Cup competition coincides with the arrival of Bruno, the rogue bear and media sensation, who continually eludes his many would-be captors, while the debate (kill or capture) rages and the hunt heats up with increasingly desperate measures. Alone in Alpine isolation, Falkner’s protagonist follows the search for Bruno in his daily reading of Blick, the Swiss equivalent of Bild-Zeitung (one might speak of a certain Blickbezogenheit in his behavior), and he takes long hikes alone, even at night, through the mountains, risking injury and death, in an attempt to encounter or force a confrontation with Bruno, and himself. Falkner’s novella casts his signature poetic combination of pointed philosophical meditations with abrupt immediacy of tactile sensory impressions into the narrative form of a rogue poet-intellectual searching for meaning between mountain ridges, between countries, between literary associations, between species, between sexes, between moods, and even between individual neurons. In this narrative, focusing upon the poet focusing upon the bear, the Alps become a large-scale synaptic space where impulses of signification fire up and leap across dangerous chasms of mineral meaninglessness that reflect what the poet finds in contemporary society; he tries to lose and find his way in a sort of circumambulatory alpine Alp-Traum along the edge, the cusp, the ridge, between Vernichtung and Verdichtung, poetry and nothingness, with the Ich, as in those words, buchstäblich at the center. The poet tracks the bear as an allegorical animal, as the roving signifier, the rambling Other, the elusive bear-er of multiple meanings, in the protagonist’s meditation on, among other things, the placelessness of the poet as just another species on the verge of extinction.
In a world shaped by mass media, the poet has suffered a dissociation of consciousness — a schism has opened between his interior and exterior self; the book opens with the utterance: “Daß ich hier bin, habe ich in der Zeitung gelesen” (7). He situates himself, in short declarative sentences, geographically in Leuk, in the canton of Wallis, in Switzerland, and then topographically, in relation to the peaks, ridges, valleys, forests and other features of the physical landscape. In isolation, an acutely physical and philosophical sense of self in the world begins to emerge outside of and apart from mass mediation; he becomes a figuration, a representation or allegory of himself, an isolated act of self-reflection, clarified by the landscape, which offers monumental negation and dialectical provocation to the philosophical poet: “Wir liegen uns gegenüber, wie vielleicht nur das Spekulative dem Spektakulären gegenüberzuliegen vermag. Zwei Größen, zwei Kategorien, die aneinander vorbeigehen” (22).
The second chapter begins just like the first, with the bear now as the object: “Daß der Bär da ist, habe ich in der Zeitung gelesen” (11). As an atavism, a throwback to an earlier time and primal state of existence, as a sort of living, roaming Wappentier, a sign come-to-life, the bear presents itself allegorically: “sein rastloses und weites Umherschweifen” draws out multiple meanings as it invites and evades both physical capture and figurative interpretation. The bear appears to the poet-subject as the “derzeit letztes lebendes Exemplar meiner eigenen Person . . . ein ebenfalls vom Aussterben bedrohtes Exemplar einer einst in gesunden Populationen vorkommenden, unbändigen Existenz” (14). In both cases, the coincidental and parallel presence of the unbearable Self and the roving bear generates meaning deep within but also apart from, or in flight from, the “nach Sensationen lechzende[m] Raum” of the media. The Blick-Zeitung reports on the bear’s roaming, as with any celebrity, and opines predictably that “Der Bär wolle sich paaren” (11). The frenzy of media spectatorship and speculation escalates as the poet pursues separately his own reflections on the bear in relation to his poetic self; what the narrator said about the granite landscape also applies, though differently, to the less sublime world of mass media: “Wir liegen uns gegenüber, wie vielleicht nur das Spekulative dem Spektakulären gegenüberzuliegen vermag. Zwei Größen, zwei Kategorien, die aneinander vorbeigehen” (22). The poet wanders in a vast space of metaphoric signification and identification, between mirroring mountain faces, as it were (speculation and spectacle, self and landscape, self and bear; self and media; physical and psychological self); he is lost in his mountain meanderings between literal and figurative meanings, and literary associations.[4] Within this narrative structure, part philosophical-psychological quest, part animal-detective crime story, the novella takes on depth of reflection through literary reference, in contradistinction to the newspaper. Büchner’s Lenz (1843) gets invoked right away by the situation of peripatetic, grievously dissociated consciousness with sharp but alienated images of nature. The isolation of an individual in existential struggle with another species recalls Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952), which then gets explicitly referred to by the narrator, who launches into reflections on the Blue Marlin (ch. 8). Behind that text looms, of course, Melville’s Moby Dick and Ahab’s mad quest for the White Whale, which Bruno resembles structurally also in the alternation between plot or narrative and scientific, indeed encyclopedic disquisitions, such as here on the different kinds of glacial ice. In that vein, Chapter XII also compares at length the folds of the human brain to the topography of Switzlerland. In this realm, this mountainous brainspace of dense but unbounded metaphoricity (or Dichtung — the text is thick with similes, metaphoric and subjunctive comparisons), the mountain paths can even seem, conversely, an “Ozean der Abwegigkeit” (51). The narrator in fact meets an Old Man, a native Wallisian, who has recognized him from the newspaper and who quickly becomes his guide and mentor with vast local knowledge of the mountain landscape: their dialogues recall, in turn, the long tutorial in Landeskunde that is the centerpiece of Stifter’s Granit (1852).
The struggle over meaning and its manifold constructions, whether poetic and subjective, objective and encyclopedic, imagistic or discursive, also calls to mind the geriatric anguish of Max Frisch’s elderly protagonist in Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän (1979), living alone in the Alps while fighting the loss of memory and knowledge by annotating his own existence and increasingly dissociated observations. Falkner’s narrator, his poet-agonist, struggles likewise against what he cites in his “Huchel-Preis-Rede” (2009) as the general condition of consciousness in a mass media society: “das Versiegen des Inneren Monologs”. . . . as “die Folge der Hyperkommunikation, die mit ihren amnesischen Strategien die letzten Ruhezonen des Ichs beseitigt.” In addition, the text recalls ironically the whole subgenre of Bergfilme (from Leni Riefenstahl’s work Das Blaue Licht [1932] to Luis Trenker’s Der Berg ruft [1938], or more recently, Philipp Stölzl’s Nordwand [2008], which is set in the 1930s), which typically did not display self-reflective or self-critical depth, but did have great footage of the mountains. More to the point, Falkner’s Bruno sets a contemporary German counterpoint to Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man (2005), a case study of a disturbed young man, using his own narration and footage to track his overly empathetic, indeed irrational and increasingly psychotic fixation on grizzly bears, with which he lives in the summer months for over 13 years in close, almost familial proximity, until he and his girlfriend get killed and eaten by rogue bears when seasonal feeding patterns shift, possibly as a result of global warming. These numerous contexts provide a literary-historical topography of allusion: a three-dimensional historical depth of resonance that interacts with the alternating allegories of representation, creating that “inneren Resonanzraum” in the exterior images of awe-inspiring mountain landscape.
Falkner’s narrator in Bruno identifies with an endangered species of poet, and poetry, and self-reflective consciousness, whose existence he considers threatened by the relentless pursuit with fatal purpose of public communication and media technology, which to his mind destroys on a mass scale the interiority of cultural consciousness and association from which poetry thrives: media and communications technology work like loggers clear-cutting a rain-forest and bringing down the biodiversity of its teeming canopy, its organic density (Dichtung). By tracking the bear himself on different terms, at a distance, on foot, unarmed and unaided, at his own risk, he seeks to witness, so to speak, his own demise, either allegorically (death of the bear) or in reality (suicide by bear). At the center of the novella, an episode brings him close to death: he hikes alone in the mountains and is overtaken by nightfall, on his way back from Rilke’s gravesite in Raron (Rarogne). Instead of hurrying or worrying, he relishes the sharpening of his senses to new impressions and gradations of light and darkness, and of volume in sound and mass among the looming rocks and cliffs.

Während das Wasser wie Munition durch die Steinrinne der Wasserleitung zischte und die Bergseite sich in immer verworrenere Schwärze hüllte, halbblind, von den vagen und eingerollten Spitzen der Farne durchstochen, schwelte zum Abgrund hinein weißlich zerstäubtes Licht, das den Wald, der unten lag, wie einen Webmuster die bleichen Schneisen ehemaliger Lawinenabgänge sich abzeichneten. (55)

The path however gets increasingly precarious, punctuated by danger and the possibility of death: “Ich kam erneut an einer Stelle, an der es steil und sehr weit in die Tiefe ging” (54). He observes the landscape and himself like a third party, without emotional attachment, a detective or scientist tracking his own movements, highly conscious of his discrete actions, like watching a thought leaping like a mountain goat, through synaptic space from neuron to neuron, until reality undercuts consciousness: “Ich sah, wie mein Fuß auf dem Stein aufsetzte, sah, wie dieser Stein auf dem Wasser ausrutschte und davonschlitterte” (54). His lucid self-observation now registers, with geometric precision, like a poetic gyroscope or even a GPS, his fall and his instinctive movements to save himself that leave him dangling upside down in the dark, hanging on a guideline, groping for hand- and toeholds, ignoring his injuries, while trying to get his bearings in space, and assessing leverage, reach and risk. As now the Reinhold Messner of German poetry, Falkner places his narrator literally in a position whereby dissociated consciousness and physicality work in concert with no meditation, mediation or margin for error. Without thinking, he grapples his way slowly and laboriously back onto the path, but then as he sits and tries to pull himself together, he senses in himself a “Verdichtung der Lebensgewissheit” (58) and even in his pain a sort of “wollüstiger Verwirklichung” (60). But even the vivid physical images and narration serve also as allegories of the self: the poet as dangling man, whose existence, whose voice, hangs on the lines of his verse above a void, as he tries to avoid semantic slippage while advancing his poetic feet along the precipice of meaninglessness, death or insanity: “Nicht dieser wirkliche Abgrund war es, der mir diese Gänsehaut über den Rücken triebe, sondern das riesige Reich der Kaltblütigkeit und der Entseeltheit, das ich plötzlich so nahe an mich herangerückt fühlte” (60). Between the emptinesses of mass communication and the abyss of semantic deconstruction, however rhetorically sublime in its infinite regression, Falkner’s narrator tries to recover and restore “das Flämmchen meines Ichs” (66) beyond the “abgedroschensten Zuschreibungen” (79) as well as “Jenseits des Nihilismus” (61). The private search for Bruno was a means to do that, but each such arbitrary assertion as an act of willful self-identification runs the risk of pathological obsession. His physical efforts at figurative self-identification slip back: “Aber abgesehen von einem Anreißen dieser Gedanken gelang es mir nicht, mir auch nur im Geringsten näher zu kommen” (78). Despite the pre-text of finding the bear, his entry into this rarified realm of metaphoric figuration has not led to any sort of transcendence of his real life circumstances, but rather to a rather unpoetic ‘derangement of the senses’ (in Rimbaud’s phrase) or, to be precise, a confusion between levels of figuration and literal reality. The narrator’s various metaphors of fire in terms of summer heat, selfhood, World Cup excitement (“Die Temperaturen waren knisternd heiß, und manchmal […] züngelten die rotten Flaggen wie Flammen an den Hauswänden,” 89), as well as neurons firing in the brain, lead him beyond self-recognition to an act of pyromania. After word gets out that the bear has been shot, the poet-agonist arrives at the site of the dead bear, surrounded by local prominence “an der Schnittstelle der Natur zur Politik” (93) and “Mit einem Male begann das Flämmchen meines Ichs wie eine Stichflamme in mir hochzuschlagen” (93). In revolt against his allegorical understanding of the bear’s death as the destruction of the Alps, and of nature in general, and general extinction, and in imitation of the fresco image from the local church of St. Stephan of a wild man, half bear/half man, in hellfire, he goes about planning and preparing to set a wildfire outside by putting ignition coals in the underbrush. He lights them and leaves, but is met at the train station by Anatol, the local guide, who followed him and extinguished the fires. He returns to Berlin: alone in his apartment he holds out a cigarette lighter and stares at the flame before dousing it and himself with red wine, which seems oddly, quirkily anticlimactic, stripped of the sublime. In the end Falkner leaves the reader dangling in uncertainty in the crossed lines of metaphoric figuration, uncertain whether his overdetermined quest for the bear has culminated in an allegorical act of self-extinction, or a subtle subterfuge of self-assertion.


1. See my study of Falkner’s work Voice and Void: The Poetry of Gerhard Falkner. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 1998. I use the quoted wording on the back cover to briefly situate his work, as I do here, picking up the thread and extending my examination of his work.
2. Gerhard Falkner, Bruno. Eine Novelle. Berlin: Berlin Verlag, 2008
3. The reviews by Kristina Maidt-Zinke (“Das Totemtier der Abwegigkeit” Süddeutsche Zeitung No. 15 [June 24, 2008]: http://www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/neues-buch-bruno-unter- problemmenschen-1.203615 ) and Gregor Dotzauer (“Der Dichter und das Biest” Der Tagesspiegel [July 1, 20008]: http://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/literatur/der-dichter-und-das-biest/1825926.html ) provide some contemporary context surrounding what Edmund Stoiber memorably called the “Problembär” Bruno, which was highly unusual and anomalous, since 1) no bears had been sighted in Germany since 1835 and could be counted there as virtually extinct; 2) he rampaged and killed numerous farm animals without eating them and was therefore considered particularly dangerous in proximity to humans; and 3) he continued to escape capture despite various highly extraordinary and widely publicized measures, such as imported Finnish bear hunters with special tracking hounds. Ultimately, Bruno was killed in Bavaria, however, not actually in Switzerland, as in Falkner’s text.
4. Dotzauer comments aptly: “Falkners ‘Bruno’ ist ein dichtes, in seinen Bezügen wundersam verspiegeltes Kabinettstück, in dem alles mit allem korrespondiert.”
5. The text of Falkner’s Huchel-Preis Rede is entitled “Ist es einfach, ist es schwierig” and is available on-line at: http://www.poetenladen.de/gerhard-falkner-huchelpreis-rede.htm. The quotation appears on what would be the last page of the text, which is without pagination.
6. Bruno, also known as Bear JJ1 currently resides, in taxidermical immortality, in the Museum Mensch und Natur in Munich, next to the last wild bear killed in Bavaria from 1835. See also the notice in The Washington Post by Craig Whitlock (Tuesday, June 27, 2006): http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/26/AR2006062600130.html?nav=rss_world
Works cited
Adorno, Theodor W. “Rede über Lyrik und Gesellschaft.” Noten zur Literatur. Ed. Ralf Tiedemann. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974; 1981. 49-68.
Benn, Gottfried, Gesammelte Werke: Reden und Vorträge, Vol. Wiesbaden: Limes, 1968.
Cohen, Sascha Baron, Brüno. Directed by Larry Charles. Screenplay: Sascha Baron Cohen and Anthony Hines et al. Release date: July 10, 2009. Universal Pictures.
Domin, Hilde, Wozu Lyrik heute: Dichtung und Lyrik in der gesteuerten Gesellschaft. Munich: Piper, 1971; Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1993.
Donahue, Neil H., Voice and Void: The Poetry of Gerhard Falkner. Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1998.
Dotzauer, Gregor, “Der Dichter und das Biest.” Der Tagesspiegel (July 1, 20008).
Falkner, Gerhard, Bruno. Berlin: Berlin Verlag, 2008.
—-. der atem unter der erde. Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1984.
—-. Endogene Gedichte. Cologne: Dumont, 2000.
—-. “Huchel-Preis Rede.” http://www.poetenladen.de/gerhard-falkner-huchelpreis-rede.htm
—-. wemut. Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1989.
—-. X-te Person Einzahl. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1996.
Frisch, Max, Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1979.
Hemingway, Ernest, The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner’s, 1952.
Herzog, Werner, Grizzly Man. Film release date: December 7, 2005. Lions Gate Films.
Maidt-Zinke, Kristina, “Das Totemtier der Abwegigkeit.” Süddeutsche Zeitung No. 15 (June 24, 2008).
Riefenstahl, Leni, Das blaue Licht. Release date: March 24, 1932. Sokal-Film.
Stölzl, Philip, Nordwand. Release Date: October 23, 2008. Dor Film-West.
Whitlock, Craig, The Washington Post. (Tuesday, June 27, 2006):

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