Disorientation in the Face of Catastrophic Human Tragedy – A Reading of Günter Grass

Günther Grass’s novel, The Tin Drum, explores the schizophrenic nature of the human existence, particularly under conditions of war and horror. Grass’s takes his reader on a tour de force journey of wartime Germany, where a cast of characters are employed via multiplicity to demonstrate the range of human behaviors as well as to demonstrate its absurdity at the height of human deprivation. Stacey Olster also attempts to showcase this dissonance in her article, Inconstant Harmony in the Tin Drum. In it, Olster makes the case that Grass’s use of an unreliable narrator provides a successful vehicle to comment on the unity of the human condition: a chaotic one. While Olster’s article is filled with a number of insights, I would disagree that neither Grass achieves a sense of unity—by proxy of chaos or otherwise—nor harmony in the Tin Drum, but rather leaves the reader in a state of disorientation in the face of such catastrophic human tragedy.

Olster’s argument turns mainly on the axiom of music or sound. To be more precise, Olster draws parallels between Oskar’s life and that of musical scales. Oskar’s obsession with returning to the womb is made allegorical with that of a tonic note in a musical scale. Similarly, all action or friction in the novel is equated with the dominant note (the seventh note) of the chord, vis-a-vie Oskar’s great grandfather, Joseph Koljaiczek, the arsonist. Where Olster sees notes in a scale, I see multiplicity: the inability of Grass to foster a coherent vision of the world nor of his characters. Even the primary narrator is more akin to single notes than to that of a scale (which is comprised of multiple notes played at the same time): “I gathered that they were fighting in the corridor … Hesitantly at first, then with more confidence, Oskar entered the dead-letter room” (Grass 210). Here, Grass has Oskar shift from first to third person narrative within the very same passage. This not only demonstrates the schizophrenia that Grass ascribes to the separate voices of Oskar, but is untrue to the very definition of harmony: that it is the sounding of more than one note or tone, “in which the two [or more] tones are sounded together” (Piston 4). Grass’s technique then is much more akin to the dissonance of multiple keys struck individually at separate times, not arranged in to a cohesive vision; a scale.

Olster’s contention of harmony is also challengeable from another aspect of musical analogy: musical key. Olster claims that Oskar, “structure[s] the melody of his piece around the dominant chordal tone, thus imparting to his composition a musical quality far different from the completed sound of the tonic” (Olster 67). This concept would only stand ground if Grass’s novel had a cohesive vision, a single point from which the narrative departs from. Grass however falls in line with the majority of modern authors in which their writing depicts a world in which there is no central theme, no central vision. This trend has been in play in the European context for the last several centuries as William Chittick describes in his book, Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul:

“The history of European thought is characterized by the opposite trend. Although there was a great deal of Unitarian thinking in the medieval period, from that time onward dispersion and multiplicity have constantly increased. “Renaissance men” could know a great deal about all the sciences and at the same time have a unifying vision … The result is mutual incomprehension and universal disharmony (emphasis mine). It is impossible to establish any unity of understanding … Since people have no unifying principles, the result is an ever-increasing multiplicity of goals and gods, an ever-intensifying chaos.” (Chittick 13).

I am invoking Chittick’s passage here to demonstrate the lack of vision that Grass has. I mean this not as a condemnation but as an observable fact and indeed, a characteristic that Grass put into The Tin Drum deliberately. A short example of this is the siege on the Polish post office, during which several characters die, is described as a “colossal joke” (Grass 216). Grass treats this entire scene with a great deal of humor and absurdity. To say that amidst the chaos of the assault Olster claims some mode of harmony is had hard to justify; a musical piece that is set in a certain key must follow and obey that key as a general outline. I can find no such consistent examples in The Tin Drum that corroborate harmony, inconstant or otherwise.

Olster’s comments on Grass’s use of the Catholic Church and Catholic theology are also a point of contention. Where Olster see’s the Church as an attempt to “recapture the triadic fullness of harmony through inclusion rather than exclusion” (Olster 69), I see Grass’s use of Catholicism as a means of indicting the Church on their silent and tacit approval of the atrocities that were committed under their nose. Oskar implores Jesus to beat his drum—a sign of an active God—only to be disappointed: “Time passed, I say, but Jesus did not beat the drum” (Grass 130). Olster sees the Catholic Trinity as the three notes in a chord: “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” as “three separate notes into one chord” (Olster 69). I do not see any proof from the text that symbolizes these three tones being acted on at once (again, referring to Piston’s definition of harmony) and in fact, shore up support of Grass’s un-unified world; as Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote: “Gass ist kein Moralist/Grass is no moralist” (Enzensberger 224). To infer that Grass was making a gesture to the Holy Trinity would be to placate Grass as a romanticist, something he is known for being the opposite (Mews 84).

Olster is correct to point out that apparent unwillingness to grow is seated in a lack of “exemplars” (Olster 71). Grass depicts for us a world that is depraved, though he is cautious not to clumsily portray the Nazis as “evil” and the Jews as “good”, or how Alexander Gelley describes Grass’s technique, where he “scrupulously eschews both the demonic (in portraying the Nazis) and the pathetic (in portraying the victims), he can still arouse our horror and pity” (Gelley 117). Instead we see further examples of unharmonious behavior in a number of the adults—Oskar’s “exemplars” (Schmuh’s over indulgence of the sparrows) to Jan’s cowardice at the assault on the post office. Both of these examples further support the theory of Grass’s world being a dissonant landscape.

Another aspect of the lack of harmony in The Tin Drum is the method and manner in which the characters communicate with each other, namely Oskar. The protagonist’s two methods of communication result in either destruction, vis-a-vie his glass slaying voice, or from the “non-meaningful utterances” (Bance 148) of his drum. Indeed, Grass’s world lacks so such disharmony that the characters themselves become caricatures of the absurd, unable to communicate through normal means of speech. Further more, the drum, which is a monophonic instrument, capable of producing sounds that are scarcely tonal and almost always singular, significantly challenges Olster’s abstraction of harmonies of any stripe. Instead, the drum symbolizes Oskar’s inability to cope and communicate with the adult world around him. In fact, one may say that the drum is the method by which he does communicate with his world, which is why he is so misunderstood. An example of this is the contest between Matzerath and Oskar, in which the drum is threatened to be taken away when the drum itself presents a hazard to Oskar: “It was feared I would cut myself on the treacherously sharp edges of the tin” (Grass 54).    This obsession of Oskar over his drum reinforces the notion of it being a fetish of sorts, one by which he retains a magical and youthful attachment to the fantasy world he imagines he lives in.

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