"At work in the ruins of morality..." Heiner Müller about Tacitus' "Annals"

Heiner Müller: It's just flatter and it goes faster with …

Alexander Kluge: But the content isn't there, I would take the content from here.

Müller: Aha. That was the fourth book?

Kluge: Yes.

Voice Over: The playwright Heiner Müller in Munich. He wants to talk to Alexander Kluge about the Roman historian Tacitus, whose laconicism and conciseness, whose mix of report and literature has struck him as remarkably modern. Tacitus wrote his annals, his account of the Roman empire around 112 AD. Since then 1900 years have passed and it's not easy on a summer day in August to visualize ancient Rome. To talk about the past seems possible only if you can compare it to the present.

Text: The death of Tiberius 37 AD

Kluge: …is the death of Tiber?

Müller: Yes, Tiber is Tiberius. Just to make that clear: "Tiberius's bodily powers were now leaving him, but not his skill in dissembling. There was the same stern spirit; he had his words and looks under strict control, and occasionally would try to hide his weakness, evident as it was, by a forced politeness. After frequent changes of place, he at last settled down on the promontory of Misenum

in a country-house once owned by Lucius Lucullus. There it was noted, in this way, that he was drawing near his end. There was a physician, distinguished in his profession, of the name of Charicles, usually employed, not indeed to have the direction of the emperor's varying health, but to put his advice at immediate disposal. This man, as if he were leaving on business his own, clasped his hand, with a show of homage, and touched his pulse. Tiberius noticed it. Whether he was displeased and strove the more to hide his anger, is a question; at any rate, he ordered the banquet to be renewed, and sat at the table longer than usual, by way, apparently, of showing honour to his departing friend. Charicles, however, assured Macro that his breath was failing and that he would not last more than two days...."

Kluge: Macro is the one freed?

Müller: Yes.

Kluge: In a practical sense the first private secretary.

Müller: Yes. Yes. "All was at once hurry; there were conferences among those on the spot and despatches to the generals and armies. On the 15th of March, his breath failing, he was believed to have expired, and Caius Caesar was going forth with a numerous throng of congratulating followers … "

Kluge: Caligula?

Müller: Caligula Cesar, yes. Although he tends to always write K where it usually is a C. "... to take the first possession of the empire, when suddenly news came that Tiberius was recovering his voice and sight, and calling for persons to bring him food to revive him from his faintness. Then ensued a universal panic, and while the rest fled hither and thither, every one feigning grief or ignorance, Caius Caesar, in silent stupor, passed from the highest hopes to the extremity of apprehension. Macro, nothing daunted, ordered the old emperor to be smothered under a huge heap of clothes, and all to quit the entrance-hall. And so died Tiberius, in the seventy eighth year of his age. ." -- Strange customs ...

Kluge: Yes. They say the same about Stalin, by the way, that …

Müller: … things were helped along, yes.

Kluge: Do you believe that this is all true anyway?

Müller: Yes, I think so.

Kluge: But it's written by a biased author, a contemporary of the next imperial generation, and it's an educational text. What does it say? "This I regard as history's highest function …" That's written by Tacitus. What does he write here?

Müller: "This I regard as history's highest function, to let no worthy action be uncommemorated,

and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds."

Kluge: And not the historian, but history itself!

Müller: Yes. Yes.

Kluge: History itself is the teacher! But history might not be aware of that. Maybe it doesn't even want that or doesn't do that. And therefore it's entirely possible that these emperors aren't really such monsters. How would you approach that?

Müller: Well, there's not really a counter-narrative.

Kluge: No, no. There's no counter-narrative ...

Müller: ...although that doesn't really prove anything either.

Text: The metaphor as coping mechanism to deal with the experience of cruelty

Müller: What is difficult to make out is the transition from chronicle to literature in Tacitus' texts. This is obviously literature. And that affects the style and even the syntax. In comparison to Livius, for example, who is still a pure chronicler, or at least has the air of a chronicler, Tacitus is already a mannerist. And this delight at the horrors that he describes or selects shows in his texts just like in Ovid's.

Kluge: Why did you tell me to focus on Tacitus? Two years ago you assigned me the task of reading his text. What was your reasoning? What did you have in mind?

Müller: Well, first of all, I read Tacitus pretty early; I think that really influenced me …

Kluge: But that doesn't explain why I should read him?!

Müller: … and that's why you have to read him too. That is, of course, if we want to do something together. But no, no. The main reason is that … I'm trying to figure out whether reading Tacitus wasn't always more of an aesthetic pleasure than an historical interest. These emperors are of no concern to me, I don't care about them either. I'm just interested in how they turned into Tacitus, how they turned into this text. And this text, this mix of …

Kluge: Colportage?

Müller: ...mannerism and yes, colportage, but also laconicism, is incredibly modern or at least seems very modern to me, and I feel very connected to it. And this laconicism and this mannerism is maybe also just a form that allows for the verbalization of experiences that would otherwise render you speechless. That's an important point, I think. That this pressure to experience that Tacitus suffers from, even if he didn't personally experience these situations like Seneca, was so strong that this crystalline form was necessary to even verbalize the experience. And that is something that is also relevant for my texts. That there's simply a pressure of experience that asks for condensation … I recently read this sentence that I found quite interesting in this context: where some philosopher wonders why Shakespeare didn't go insane. It went like this. He didn't go mad because he had at his disposal the instrument of the metaphor.

Kluge: "The metaphor in the Elizabethan Age" you called it once. What does it do?

Müller: It makes it possible to express experiences that are impossible to understand, that are hard to phrase because of the rapid succession of very different or conflicting experiences. And the metaphor ties them together and preserves them, and whoever formulates the metaphor is protected from collapsing under the weight of these experiences, for example.

Kluge: What's a metaphor?

Müller: I find that very hard to define …

Kluge: So just give an example.

Müller: Well, I'll give an example. It's one of mine, about my attempt to define the Berlin Wall as Stalin's memorial for Rosa Luxemburg. That's a metaphor.

Kluge: Because the river that Rosa Luxemburg was thrown in, the Landwehrkanal, flows right next to the wall.

Müller: In parts, yes, yes.

Kluge: Uhuh.

Müller: But that's an example for an Elizabethan metaphor. Stalin's memorial for Rosa Luxemburg.

Kluge: In that text you write that when the speed of experience becomes too fast for people, they can't process it directly anymore but create a second image. Create a cousin, so to speak, a nephew of the real event. And by bending – by putting different ciphers of reality next to each other, so to speak, by spreading it out, in a way, they ...

Müller: Well, part of the metaphor is that structurally, things that really don't belong together are pulled together in a phrase or an image. For example Stalin and Rosa Luxemburg are not exactly a couple of lovebirds.

Kluge: No, no.

Müller: "It was next decided to punish the remaining children of Sejanus, though the fury of the populace was subsiding, and people generally had been appeased by the previous executions. Accordingly they were carried off to prison, the boy, aware of his impending doom, and the little

girl, who was so unconscious that she continually asked what was her offence, and whither she was being dragged, saying that she would do so no more, and a childish chastisement was enough for her correction. Historians of the time tell us that, as there was no precedent for the capital punishment of a virgin, she was violated by the executioner, with the rope on her neck. Then they were strangled and their bodies, mere children as they were, were flung down the Gemoniae."

Kluge: Capital punishment? That's ... strangulation?

Müller: That was strangulation, yes.

Kluge: For lower people, for servants.

Müller: Yes, yes. Sorry, I just noticed something strange about Tacitus. But it's not just him: the short paragraphs. I think that's very important for the style of the narration, for the cadence of the narration …

Kluge: As if they are already fragments even in his lifetime …

Müller: Yes, yes. And most importantly: they are paragraphs. And he divides the reality that he describes into paragraphs.

Kluge: But at the same time these paragraphs are not complete, unlike Livius who's got paragraphs too. He leaves things out. And the omission is his medium: everything he doesn't tell.

Müller: Yes, the way he tells his story is very elliptical. Whereas Livius narrates serially.

Kluge: Serially. He takes a redundant sentence: Some writers say that it's his way of relativizing things by saying that it also could have been different. And then there's a long debate among jurists about a question that even a prince, the emperor, can't simply ignore: Is it okay to kill these children – apparently there were interventions to at least save the daughter. The daughter wouldn't be a threat to the emperor after all, she can't succeed her father as a consul or something according to Roman law. No, they have to take cruelty to its extreme and kill the sister too, because there's a possibility that she might have a son. It's the fear of future avengers, so to speak. What is politics?

Müller: Well, very simply put, the well-known definition: "Politics is the art of the possible", but for example – maybe it's easier with examples – Shakespeare's "The Tempest": the problem of forgiveness. Prospero forgives his enemies.

Kluge: At some point the tragic conflict has to end.

Müller: Has to end, he breaks his magic wand, basically abstains from using his power, forgoes the chance of revenge and recompense. But something remains unsettled: Antonio, the villain, or the figure representing evil, survives …

Kluge: ... is active and has children …

Müller: ...and that's why it's an open ending.

Text: Punishment of a non-crime: episode from a novel by Aleksandr Bek, with reference to Tacitus.

Kluge: Earlier, you related this very unfair story in the context of Aleksandr Bek's novel …

Müller: Yes, that's the first episode. I don't have it here right now, but it's not that important. It's in the very first chapter: a battalion commander leading a new battalion of recruits who all know war only from the movies, and the front-line advances and the soldiers have an absolutely mythical idea of the technical and military superiority of the Germans. Constantly completely demoralized soldiers or deserters return from the front and tell these terrible stories around the nightly campfire about the superiority of the Germans, and the commander realizes that his soldiers are afraid and he is worried that the battle will begin soon or the frontline will reach them and he doesn't know how to keep the battalion together. And then at some point, because he's so desperate, he fakes a German attack, which means he empties a machine gun across the river and immediately someone shouts "The Germans" and everyone runs into the forest and hides, and one guy that he thought was a particularly good soldier but who also is a greenhorn who's already leading a machine gun division, shoots himself in the hand, and the next day he has him executed in front of the battalion. That's the story. The interesting thing about it is the reversed hurnburg and that the execution follows a fictitious, a fake attack, which is very complicated, juristically speaking. At least according to European law that's an impossibility. And two concepts of law meet here … or diverge.

Kluge: So cowardness in the face of the enemy or self-mutilation under the influence of the enemy always assumes something objective … an objective action.

Müller: And this is the punishment of a non-action.

Kluge: Why did he punish him and not the others? To demonstrate something?.

Müller: Yes, because he's the only one who hurts himself.

Kluge: You are basically at work in the ruins of morality, that is, in the basement thereof.

Müller: What is shocking to me – maybe it's because of my text – but I know only two readers of this novel who noticed this aspect. The others miss it in the face of all that heroism, this little legal barb, and I get the impression that even the author barely realized it. He describes things that he experienced or heard as authentic, and this aspect hasn't been noticed by any viewer at any performance of this thing either.

Kluge: Could you tell the story of Sejan's children again from memory?

Müller: Yes. Maybe that's something very similar. So Sejan was the chief advisor of Tiberius, I think the head of the Praetorians – kind of like Beria for Stalin maybe …

Kluge: ...who is dispossessed from one day to the next …

Müller: ...who was dispossessed from one day to the next. But after Tiberius' death, I think?

Kluge: No, no. He is dispossessed by Tiberius.

Müller: Oh, by Tiberius himself, right. And then his children are sentenced to death …

Kluge: They are minors ...

Müller: ...minors. His daughter is still a virgin and there's this legal ban … a woman can't be executed before she's nubile. So the executioner has to rape her before strangulating her. That's the story.

Kluge: That actually happens?

Müller: Yes, yes.

Kluge: And this way, the law is kept and at the same time violated. But the emperor doesn't have the power to fundamentally break the law?

Müller: No, at least on paper everything has to be in order. I think that's important: The role of paper in these contexts. And for the Russians paper doesn't exist in this sense, or in this tradition. Or it only came up back then.

Kluge: So it makes a difference on paper, whether or not the Germans attacked, and one guy commits self-mutilation …

Müller: Yes, yes. On a practical level it doesn't make a difference after all. He really thought that it was the Germans. So materially speaking it doesn't make a difference.

Kluge: As an individual he deserves to be punished, right?

Müller: Yes, yes. But on paper it's a perversion of justice. And what it is really about is to tell everything in any situation, if at all possible, no matter how hard it is. That's the only solution. But politics is – in a negative sense – to omit some things and exaggerate others, depending on the situation.

Kluge: A negative project of the political, you said. Could you say that the necessary anti-political, which would actually be the real political, would be to tell everything?

Müller: Yes, I would think so ...

Kluge: No matter who hears it?

Müller: Yes.

Text: Heiner Müller about Tacitus' "Annals"