Christian Enzensberger

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Christian Enzensberger (born December 24, 1931 in Nuremberg ; † January 27, 2009 in Munich ) was a German Anglicist , translator and writer .

life and work

Christian Enzensberger, since 1957 assistant to the Munich Anglist Wolfgang Clemen , received his doctorate in 1962 and qualified as a professor in 1969 with his thesis on Victorian poetry . Afterwards, until his retirement in 1994, he was professor of English literary history at the Institute for English Philology at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich .

In addition to his teaching and research activities, Enzensberger translated numerous works, mainly from the Anglo-Saxon language area. His translations of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Alice Behind the Mirrors in 1963 made both books popular in German-speaking countries. Carroll's poem Jabberwocky from Alice Behind the Mirrors should be mentioned here as an example of the independence and outstanding quality of his adaptations . In his book Literature and Interest (1977/81) Enzensberger developed a materialistic literary theory and theory of the beautiful in art.

Christian Enzensberger is a younger brother of Hans Magnus Enzensberger . He lived in Munich.

Enzensberger's essay Major Essay on Dirt , published in 1968, attracted public attention. It was reviewed in national newspapers and had three editions within a year. In 1975 and 1980 two bibliophile portfolio works with etchings by Thomas Müllenbach and Klaus Fußmann were published . In 1970 Enzensberger refused to accept the Bremen Literature Prize awarded to him for this work .

Literature and Interest (a materialistic literary theory)

Christian Enzensberger developed in his book “Literature and Interest” (1977/81) a Marxist literary theory on the question of how literature and society are causally related and what function literature has in society. His core thesis, which is just as provocative as it is obvious, states: literature has a compensatory function with regard to the shortcomings of a society with a lack of meaning. The relationship between literature and social reality is not that of illustration, but, on the contrary, that of calming down the meaning, satisfying needs, and compensating. Figuratively speaking: literature relates to reality like water to thirst, its effect is that of satiety.

The most important Marxist literary theories include those of Georg Lukács and Terry Eagleton . At Lukacs, literature is viewed as a kind of mirror that reflects society (reflection theory). According to the Englishman Terry Eagleton, literature tries to influence reality through ideological influence. According to Eagleton's theory of effects, literature is not a mirror but a control element of society. Literature can steer societies in certain directions. Enzensberger's theory is contrary to Lukasc and Eagleton in these two key points (reflection, effect). The connection between literature and society is based on a simple fact that can be summarized in a few sentences: Social deficiencies lead to an experience of a lack of meaning (lack of meaning). This lack of meaning is offset by an existential, ineradicable human need for meaning. Literature satisfies this need for meaning in a compensatory manner by entering and filling the meaning gap. From this conception of “literature as compensation” there are two consequences. Literature is always a "fictional construction of reality" and in this sense not a pure representation of reality. Literature has no power to change society, but has the exact opposite effect: it absorbs activity and thus contributes to the stabilization of what already exists. In this sense there is no revolutionary literature, and the embellishment of the existing remains its law.

From lack of meaning to fulfillment of meaning

Every society has deficiencies that the individual experiences in many forms of fear, isolation, and inoperability. Enzensberger describes this state of a lack of existential meaning, of meaning uncertainty and absence of meaning with the term “meaning deficit”. In contrast, there is an ineradicable, existential human need for meaning. No decision, no activity that does not involve the question of whether a project makes sense or makes sense, or vice versa, that a plan is pointless or doesn't make sense. This is where the simple and obvious idea comes into play, of which Enzensberger himself says that “we somehow always knew it”: literature compensates people's need for meaning by entering into and filling the gap. The reality of experience and literature are structurally opposed to one another. The relationship between reality and literature is one of need and the satisfaction of needs, of desire and wish fulfillment. Literature is to reality like water is to thirst.

How does literature provide meaningfulness? The answer to this question can best be derived from the structural contrast between the reality of social experience and literature. The reality of experience has no immediately insightful structure of meaning (if I break my leg in reality, I need a doctor); Literature, on the other hand, has a structure of meaning (if someone breaks their leg in a novel, it usually means something). Literature fulfills the meaning on the basis of the following criteria: The meaningful relationship of all motifs to one another (if a thunderstorm is approaching in an older novel, this means the hero's imminent crisis; if the sun is shining in a more recent novel, that generally means nothing Good for him; and if it means nothing, the question arises: what does the author mean by saying that it means nothing?). An all-encompassing necessity: the victim in a detective novel has to come in the door at that very moment so that he can be murdered. The orientation towards an overriding objective in terms of content: feudal loyalty, patriotism, freedom, economic constraints, etc. The orientation towards a necessity, towards a law generally takes place externally in the form of literature. This is most evident in the poem, which is constructed using a traditionally established rhyme scheme. However, literature generally does this (novel, theater play) simply through the “meaningful relationship” of all motifs to one another. All of this gives rise to the powers of illusion in literature. Literature overwrites the bad that already exists with meaning, it ascribes meaning to what is described. It must depict reality incorrectly, namely beautify it, i.e. H. literature lies as soon as it says something, and it has to lie out of compulsion.

Literature as an aesthetic-ideological solution of meaning

Enzensberger starts from the ideal-typical model of a two-class society (“ruling consciousness” vs. “controlled consciousness”), which historically can appear in different forms, e.g. B. in the Middle Ages as a contrast between nobility and "people", or in England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Century as a constellation of old landed nobility, rising bourgeoisie and working class. There are class-specific deficits of meaning: a member of the old nobility has a different deficit of meaning than a representative of the bourgeoisie, and this in turn a different one from a member of the working class.

In the interplay between the lack of meaning and literary compensation, psychology now comes into play. The rise of the bourgeoisie in England in the first half of the 19th century e.g. B. faces the impoverishment of the working class. The bourgeoisie knows that by participating in the oppression, the impoverishment of the workers is the downside of one's own social advancement. Measured against the ideal of a just society, the assertion of the self-interest of the bourgeoisie in the form of social advancement also implies a debt relationship. This class guilt, perceived underground, is psychologically “processed” by the bourgeoisie in various ways. On the one hand by suppressing one's own guilt (not wanting to believe it), on the other hand by creating scapegoat images of the enemy, i.e. H. by projecting the guilt onto others (“THAT are to blame”). This has an impact on literature, be it in the way an author writes a book or in the way a reader “receives” a book.

Enzensberger describes literature as an “aesthetic-ideological solution of meaning”: Literature thus has two components, an aesthetic and an ideological one. Take, as an example, a novel written by a representative of the bourgeoisie to focus on a “hero”. The aesthetic side: The respective deficit of meaning (in this case the bourgeois one) is processed in such a way that the reader is presented with an example of meaning-consistent life practice in the story about the central figure: the novel as a "work of art". The ideological side: The novel constructs an “orientation towards a meaning goal”, through which the aspect of the author's or reader's own guilt is either hidden or subordinated to the novel's meaning goal in such a way that one's own entanglement in the destruction of meaning is concealed. Ideology is expressed in Marxist technical jargon: "The plausibility-checking processing of social defects by the prevailing consciousness". The term “plausibility check” can also be paraphrased with the term “fine-tuning”: one speaks the conditions “fine” so that one's own entanglement in the destruction of meaning is finally made to disappear.

Literature in a social context

Every society has shortcomings and people living in society need to explain these shortcomings to themselves or to think about how to remedy the shortcomings. Enzensberger uses the term “defect plausibility check” for this process. According to Enzensberger, there are different types of plausibility checks for deficiencies. First, the plausibility check through violence: a peasant revolt is simply put down. Then plausibility check through social theories, e.g. B. formulates Rousseau (1755) as a positive goal: "Civilization is bad, we have to go back to nature". Finally, there is the possibility of a fictitious plausibility check for deficiencies through literature. While the first two types of plausibility check for deficiencies affect reality or want to affect reality, the function of literature according to Enzensberger is exactly the opposite, namely absorbing. It follows the scheme: Deficit of meaning -> need for meaning -> compensation.

The cause and function of literature in a social context can therefore be described as follows: Literature is compensation: The creation and function of literature consists of nothing other than compensating for changing meaning deficits with fictitious life examples made probable and interpretable. Literature serves to remedy socially created deficits of meaning in a compensatory manner; it is the fictitious satisfaction of a need for meaning. Literature is the attempt to calm down the deficit of meaning that is constantly present in the ruling consciousness. Or the same more abstractly expressed in Marxist technical jargon: "Literature is ideological pseudo legitimation of enforced self-interest"

Literary history

Human societies develop over the course of history. This also changes the lack of meaning in the experience of the people affected. Since literature compensates for the respective gaps in meaning, it follows that literature must also change continuously over the course of history. In a Marxist way, Enzensberger wants to derive the entire history of literature from the two basic social disorders of class contradiction and false production (exchange of goods). Compensation for the class contradiction underlies the sequence from classical antiquity through European classics (French, German, etc.) to realism and naturalism. The compensation of the second basic disturbance through the exchange of goods is the basis of the subjectivist, aesthetic attitude and leads from mannerism through romanticism to aestheticism.

In the modern age, literature increasingly has problems making itself likely. The art / literature finds a way out in the "representation of the destruction of art": on the one hand Brecht's concept of "alienation", on the other hand the denial of content in general (Beckett, Dada, surrealism, absurd literature, ecriture automatique) . But all these attempts to destroy the aesthetic structure of meaning are doomed to failure due to the compulsion of meaning in literature. Attempts to portray senselessness directly are doomed to failure, because the portrayal of senselessness suddenly turns into "art enjoyment" on the part of the recipient reader or theater audience (example: Beckett, "Waiting for Godot"). Likewise, extreme forms of "realism" (attempt to transform art into reality) are doomed to failure. B. when the artists of Dada want to declare the telephone directory to be the perfect novel. Because the moment you declare the phone book to be a work of art, the meaning component comes into effect: the phone book then receives e.g. B. Suddenly a perfectly symmetrical structure, the names beginning with "A" at the beginning of the book are reflected in the names beginning with "Z" at the end of the book. Even attempts on the part of the author to insult the theater audience directly (Peter Handke, “Audience abuse”) are doomed to failure: here too, being insulted suddenly turns into “art enjoyment” due to the compulsion of literature in the audience. Today's social situation (written in 1980) is shaped by the phenomena of “class leveling” and “mass consumption”. On the side of literature there are two opposing tendencies. Literature returns to where it actually belongs: in its realm of needs / wishes and the satisfaction of needs / wish fulfillment (literature as pure compensation: bestsellers, television series). On the other hand, the importance of fine literature is dwindling (classics are no longer read in school lessons; second-hand bookshops no longer buy classics because they can no longer be sold). In the dwindling market importance of high literature, a cultural obsolescence of literature as a whole is evident (shifting the meaning deficit compensation to other cultural areas, e.g. television, computer?).

Literary studies

For literary studies, working with Enzensberger's method results in the following procedure: Firstly, one has to examine the society in question historically to determine which social defects exist in it. Second, the class-specific deficit of meaning of the respective author or audience must be reconstructed from this. Thirdly, this is where the literary work comes in (Enzensberger calls it "reduction work"): How does literature fill the gap (meaning deficit)? Fourth: what is the ideological achievement of the work?

Charles Dickens “Oliver Twist” (1837) will serve as an example. First, the social shortcomings: The decade 1830/40 was a phase of high capitalism. The social shortcomings primarily affect the working class: inhumane working conditions; 12-14 hour working day; in 1842 4-year-old children were still employed in mines; etc. Second, the bourgeois deficit of meaning (Charles Dickens and his readers were citizens): it consists in the fact that the bourgeoisie vaguely recognizes that their own social advancement is in large part at the expense of the impoverishment of the working class. Third, the structure of the novel: The novel is the melodramatic story of the “social rise” of the orphan Oliver from the poor house to the respectable middle class. The novel constructs a contrast between a bourgeois world portrayed as ideal and a hopelessly criminal underworld (world of criminals). The real grievances (workers problem, the world of factories, strikes, working hours, wages) are not even discussed in the novel. The novel works with the simple means of “poetic justice”: the good are rewarded, the bad are punished (they must die). Both means of representation (social advancement scheme, poetic justice) are not a representation of reality (in reality it is not the good who are rewarded and the bad are punished, but rather the other way around; the social advancement “from dishwasher to millionaire” is in reality the exception as the rule), but rather "fictitious construction of reality". Fourth, the ideological achievement of the novel: It consists in the fact that the world of the citizens is represented as a bourgeois heaven (one's own position is embellished) and the criminal underworld is lost as hopeless. The ideological statement of the novel is therefore the following from a bourgeois point of view: "Yes, that's bad, as it happens in the lower classes of society, but there is nothing you can do, that's life, these are all hopeless cases!"

Enzensberger's historical place

From the Marxism of the 19th century developed in the following time in many scientific disciplines with social reference own Marxist currents ( Marxist philosophy , Marxist sociology , Marxist economic theory , Marxist literary theory , in psychology so-called Freudo Marxism ). Enzensberger drafts a materialistic literary theory in his book “Literature and Interest” (1977/81). Its terminology is based on two sources: the social deficiencies are based on a wrong mode of production and class contradiction ( K. Marx / F. Engels ), literature functions psychologically according to categories such as deficiency, need, satisfaction of needs, compensation, self-interest, guilt, repression, projection ( S. Freud ). With this connection between Marx (Marxism) and Freud (psychoanalysis) Enzensberger is part of the Freudo Marxism movement. This movement arose in the 1920s (formerly representative: Wilhelm Reich ) and found a further development in the representatives of critical theory (also known as the Frankfurt School since the Second World War ): Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969), Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979.) It is precisely these authors that Enzensberger lists in the literature list for his book. The Freudo Marxism movement became significant for the generation of 68 . Christian Enzensberger (as an old 68er) can be attributed to this in the broadest sense. The '68 atmosphere can be clearly seen in Enzensberger's book.


  • Bigger attempt over the dirt . Hanser, Munich 1968 (3rd edition 1969); Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag, Munich, 1970; Ullstein, 1980. New edition: Carl Hanser Verlag, Edition Akzente, Munich 2011, ISBN 978-3-446-23763-6 . - English edition: Smut. An Anatomy of Dirt , Calder and Boyars, London 1972.
  • Victorian poetry. Tennyson and Swinburne in the History of Alienation . Hanser, Munich 1969.
  • Literature and Interest - A Political Aesthetic with two examples from English literature. Volume 1: Theory. Volume 2: Examples, Shakespeare 'The Merchant of Venice', Dickens 'Oliver Twist' . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1977. (Second, updated version 1981, ISBN 3-518-27902-5 )
  • What is what . Roman, Franz Greno, Nördlingen 1987, series Die Other Bibliothek , new edition: Eichborn, Frankfurt am Main 1998, ISBN 3-8218-4033-1 .
  • One at a time . Poems in prose. Hanser, Munich, 2010, ISBN 978-3-446-23570-0 .
  • Not one and but one. History of nature. With an introduction by Stefan Ripplinger and an afterword by Dirck Linck and Joseph Vogl . The Other Library, Berlin, 2013, ISBN 978-3-8477-0342-6 .
  • Into the open. A memory book . Edited by Wolfgang Gretscher and Christiane Wyrwa. Scaneg Verlag, Munich 2016, ISBN 978-3-89235-711-7 .



  • Wolfgang Gretscher, Christiane Wyrwa (ed.): Christian Enzensberger - Into the free. A memory book. Scaneg Verlag, Munich 2016.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Hans Magnus Enzensberger and his family's obituary in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, January 31, 2009.
  2. ^ Obituary in the Tagesspiegel , January 31, 2009.
  3. Review in Der Spiegel 1/1969 , accessed on April 12, 2014.
  4. Christian Enzensberger, Literature and Interest , Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft 302 1981, p. 73.
  5. Enzensberger refutes the politically changing effect of Schöner Literatur with an absolutely striking argument: if reading Schöne Literatur had a politically changing effect, then those who read the most, namely the literature professors, would have to be the greatest political activists; In reality, however, exactly the opposite is the case: the literature professors are i. d. Usually those who spend most of their lives reading, not political.
  6. ^ Christian Enzensberger, Literature and Interest , Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft 302 1981, p. 26.
  7. p. 63.
  8. all p. 66.
  9. p. 40.
  10. p. 42.
  11. p. 49.
  12. z. B, p. 363.
  13. p. 37.
  14. p. 51 f.
  15. p. 98.
  16. p. 15.
  17. p. 247 ff.
  18. p. 252 f.
  19. p. 96.
  20. p. 68.
  21. p. 278, footnote 51.
  22. p. 261.
  23. p. 139.
  24. p. 156.
  25. pp. 379-437.
  26. p. 58.
  27. Enzensberger received his doctorate in 1962.
  28. v. a. in the amusing contemporary examples (of course not related to Chr. Enzensberger!): whoever has a Greek cleaning lady is entangled in a relationship of exploitation (p. 45); whoever drinks cheap coffee is complicit in the exploitation of the South American farmers; anyone who cancels the newspaper for cost reasons is complicit when the printers in the newspaper publishers are dismissed; Admiration for supermarket theft at that time; (all p. 48) High esteem by Carlos Castaneda, Enzensberger: "It is the merit of Castaneda to have introduced us non-ethnologists to the Indian doctrine of nagual, which seems to me to be superior to Freud's concept of the unconscious" (p. 279, footnote 55 ); Praise for China and Albania as model communist states (pp. 184f.); Appreciation of Mao (p. 185)