Platonism, Semiotics, and Nationalism in the Plays of Günter Grass

Günter Grass: Pipe smoking, beret-wearing, literary elitist.

Günter Grass: Pipe smoking, beret-wearing, literary elitist.

Nobel-Prize-winning playwright Günter Grass is noted by some as the most popular German literary figure alive today.  His career spans 60 years and includes: plays, poetry, novels, graphic art and sculpture.  He is perhaps most famous for his novels, notably the Danzig Trilogy, but I recently picked up a copy of four plays by Grass: Flood, Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo, The Wicked Cooks and Mister, Mister.  Each of the plays indulges in a combination of discussions regarding Platonism, semiotics, nationalism and a host of other post-modern themes, often times in a surrealist setting.  Some are more successful than others.



One of Wagner's operas is references in "Flood".

One of Wagner’s operas is references in “Flood”.

Flood is perhaps the best work in the collect.  It is about a family who is dealing with rising waters during a great rain that has gone on for days.  It involves a widower/patriarch, Noah, his sister-in-law, Betty, his daughter Yetta and his son Leo as well as Yetta’s fiancé, Henry, Leo’s friend, Congo, (who battles with Henry for the affections of Yetta), two rats named Pearl and Point (who have surreal conversations) and an inspector (who arrives as the rain stops to evaluate the damage).  There are surrealist elements in that the rats talk and are human size, and also in that the estranged Leo arrives with his friend Congo by coming out of a box in the basement.  The narrative seems to be a metaphor for WWII and an attack on nationalism and perhaps socialism.  There is a reference to Lohengrin, which is a famous opera from Richard Wagner, who was a notorious anti-Semitist.  There is also a reference to Dusseldorf, which may be an allusion to the Treaty of Westphalia, which for some marked the birth of nationalism.  There is also a reference to Paris in 1871, which was no doubt a reference to the Paris Commune, the socialist government that temporarily controlled France.  And there are attacks on philosophy as well with references to anthroposophy.



Philosophy is attacked in "Flood".

Philosophy is attacked in “Flood”.

The attack on philosophy is subtle and takes place mostly within the dialogue shared between the two rats: Pearl and Point. It is important to note that in Nazi rhetoric Jews were often referred to as rats and that it can be fair to assume that Grass meant Pearl and Point to be representative of the Jewish class as perceived by Germans.  It is noted that “some philosophers can be downright mean”, but only in writing.  The issue, of course, is that the marginalization of the Jews was rationalized by some via the work of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and his concept of Ubermensch, or the “Super Man” (not to be confused with Superman).  In this respect, we can see that the adoption of some philosophies, which were perhaps meant as polemic arguments, can be taken too far.  Noah, ironically a Jewish name, suggests destroying the rats, but Leo, who has returned home, they should be left alone, stating that “Rats are people too”, in contrast to his father’s assertion that rats are “not people”.


floodThere are also references to the Jewish experience during the Holocaust.  For example, whilst Pearl and Point are speaking about a medical corps major, it is noted that the major “got a syringe… and [said]: Well, my sweet little guinea pig, we’re going to do an interesting little experiment.”  This brings up memories of Dr. Josef Mengele who carried out horrid experiments on people in concentration camps and used them as guinea pigs.  Such violence coming from an educated mind is alluded to later in the play when Leo notes that as long as their father “collects inkwells, he won’t collect ears.”  This suggests the type of violent and inhumane behaviour that the academic mind can be drawn to when it is not preoccupied with other matters.


The city of Dresden faced a destruction far worse than that of Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

The city of Dresden faced a destruction far worse than that of Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

There is also a question of the German soldiers returning home.  Leo and Congo are attacked when one character states: “Some heroes you turned out to be.”  This is interesting coming from a German playwright as this is something Grass himself had to deal with, returning home from a war you lost.  Patriotism and nationalism has always romanticized military efforts as sacrifices made on the part of the soldiers, but when they return home defeated, their status as heroes is questioned.  This extends to the German leaders as well.  Pearl and Point vocalize this asking: “Do you think they’ll catch on?  About the ship and the sinking?”  They see the flaws in modernism (and in turn nationalism), but they wonder if people will catch on to the flaws of the modernism.  The answer seems to be a resounding ‘no’ when Noah boasts that they “should modernize” stating: “we had better keep the old regional arrangement.”


Russia and America were more than happy to split Germany in two.  Here is an image of the Berlin Wall.

Russia and America were more than happy to split Germany in two. Here is an image of the Berlin Wall.

When carrying a clock out (Germans were known as the greatest clockmakers, so it may be fair to assume that the clock is meant to represent Germany), the two men carrying it suggest that they “saw it in two”.  This is reminiscent of the “Judgement of Solomon” who, when two women claimed to be the mother of the same baby, suggested cutting the baby in half.  In the narrative the real mother refused this because she did not want to see her child killed.  When it came to Germany, however, America and Russia had no qualms about tearing the country in two.  The “flood” of the title then seems to be representative of the war and the quarrels that take place a metaphor for the national struggles faced by Germany in the years that followed WWII.



A painting that seems an inversion of the ones created by the painter in "Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo".

A painting that seems an inversion of the ones created by the painter in “Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo”.

Mister, Mister has some interesting elements.  It follows a systematizer named Bollin who is a statistician/scientist of sorts who is very much interest in maintaining certain averages and ideals and is very much interested in analysing information.  He, like some men in the Nazi party, seeks to take such information to its logical extreme without considering the flaws to such application of rigid fact.  The play Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo is a great work discussing semiotics where a painter challenges signs and signifiers and interacts with the engineer and fireman of a train whose steel horse transforms itself into a ship by the end of the play, at least in the minds of those running it.  It is an interesting work speaking to signifiers and the relations between various processes that share similarities, while also challenging our preconceptions of certain terms.  The ‘fireman’ of the play, for example, is not a fireman at all.  At least not in the traditional sense.  He does not stop fires, he feeds them.  He shovels coal into the train to maintain the fire that the train runs.  The engineer, likewise, carries a name that can be confused.  He is the driver of the train and not an engineer who designs things.  So we see, even in the names of the characters, the flaws of language.  The final play, The Wicked Cooks, was a little harder to follow as it is comprised almost entirely of cooks and the dialogue is confusing at times.  It is not without its merits, but it is not as easily digestible as the other plays.


So long as Noah “collects inkwells, he won’t collect ears.”

So long as Noah “collects inkwells, he won’t collect ears.”

All in all, the collection was an interesting read.  Grass seems to have a great understanding of semiotics and philosophy, and it comes through in his work.  The narratives, though, are not exciting or terribly interesting, but rather it is the dialogue that brings the work its merit.  For those who have not studied semiotics, Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo would be a dull work.  Likewise, for those who can’t see the allusions to German history and philosophy in Flood, will find the narrative unexciting and will likely find Mister, Mister to be tedious (as I found The Wicked Cooks to be).  But Grass’s brilliance is apparent to those who have a strong understanding of such things.


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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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