Lecture at CCNY, November 1981, by Max Frisch

This will be tiring for you, I know, and sometimes perhaps a little funny, because of my English pronunciation. So we can recuperate now and then, I will use quite a lot of quotes and the quotes you will hear in perfect English.

Let me say it at once: I have no theory. We have a choice of fascinating aesthetic theories from Aristotle to Roland Barthes, not excluding the Marxist thinkers, Walter Benjamin, Lukacs, Adorno, etc. That a theory does or doesn't help us in our work isn't what decides its value. I know that. It wasn't Aristotle who taught Aeschylus and Sophocles how to write tragedies. But don't misunderstand me. I have nothing against theory. It's just that I myself don't have one.

Once in a while, as an exception to the rule, it happens that a theory is evolved by the people who make the art. Brecht, for example. His theory of "epic theater" led many of his disciples down a blind alley (älei), including me. This theory suited Brecht, but it was not for everybody. The misunderstanding was ours. He was sufficiently creative to oppose himself dialectically to his theory. He needed its resistance, it seemed to me, later, when he used the Marxist catechism, too, as the resistance against which to oppose his genius.

Robbe-Grillet is a different matter: Remember the theory of the nouveau roman? Such an enchanting theory! The few novels that were supposed to prove it are boring and trivial. Theory is no recipe. And here comes my second confession: I don't have a recipe either - not even for myself. I thank Mr. Brody, who had no way of knowing any of this, for his generous invitation; it has forced me to consider just why it was that I became a writer. I didn't need the job. I was an architect.


"Everything we write down in these times is basically nothing but a desperate act of self-defense, which leads inevitably to untruthfulness; for whoever tried to remain truthful to the bitter end would find no way back once he had entered chaos - unless he were able to change it."


That's a note from the year 1946, after a tour of the devastated cities of Europe: Berlin, for example; Frankfurt; Warsaw. Writing as self-defense against the experience of one's powerlessness.


"Only at times when we are unable to work does it become clear why we choose to work at all. Work is the only thing that preserves us from terror when - suddenly defenseless -we wake up in the morning. It alone gives us the strength to persevere in the labyrinth which surrounds us; it is Ariadne's thread.

"Unable to work: These are the times when one can hardly walk through the suburbs without being depressed by the sight of their formlessly spreading petrifaction. The way a person, someone who has nothing to do with us, eats or laughs; the way there is always in every streetcar someone who stands in the doorway when others want to get out; such things can make us despair of mankind, and a nearer fault, one of our own, deprives us entirely of the confidence that anything can ever succeed. We can no longer distinguish between large things and small things: both are simply beyond our power. The indiscriminateness of fear. We are crushed by all news of misery, of lawlessness, of falsehood, of injustice.

"On the other hand: When we manage to write even one sentence whose form satisfies us, seeming to have nothing in common with all the chaos around us, how safe we feel against the undefined and shapeless things within us and in the world outside!

"All of a sudden human existence seems possible; no difficulties at all. We can bear the world, even the real one, in all its absurdity. We can bear it because of our absurd confidence that chaos can be controlled, can be grasped, just as a sentence can be grasped. Form of any kind, once achieved, gives us a uniquely powerful sense of inner comfort."

Also a note from the year 1946: Writing as therapy for the writer as his own subject. An autistic position, that I must admit. And what does this subject understand by "writing"?


"What is important is what cannot be said, the white space between the words. The words themselves always express the incidentals, which is not what we really mean. What we are really concerned with can only, at best, be written about, and that means, quite literally, we write around it. We encompass it. We make statements which never contain the whole true experience: that cannot be described. All the statements can do is to encircle it, as tightly and closely as possible: the true, the inexpressible experience emerges at best as the tension between these statements.

"What we are presumably striving to do is to state everything that is capable of expression. Language is like a chisel, which pares away all that is not a mystery, and everything said implies a taking away. We should not be deterred by the fact that everything, once it is put into words, has an element of blankness in it. What one says is not life itself; yet we say it in the interests of life. Like the sculptor plying his chisel, language works by bringing the area of blankness in the things that can be said as close as possible to the central mystery, the living element. There is always the danger that in doing so one might destroy the mystery, just as there is the danger that one might leave off too soon, might leave it as an unshaped block, might not locate the mystery, grasp it, and free it from all the things that could still be said; in other words, that one might not get through to its final surface.

"This surface at which all that it is possible to express becomes one with the mystery itself has no substance; it exists only in the mind and not in nature, where there is also no dividing line between mountain and sky. Is it perhaps what one means by form, a kind of sounding barrier?"

I have no theory, it's true - no theory of the novel or the drama, which is not to say that one doesn't have all sorts of thoughts about one's own work; but they remain fragmentary thoughts. They don't even aspire to a system. A system always implies the demand that I submit myself to it, and this, evidently, is precisely what I as a writer have from the outset wanted not to do.

"The point of keeping a diary: We live on a conveyer belt and have no hope of ever catching up with ourselves and improving a moment in our life. We are Then, even when we spurn it, just as much as Now.

"Time does not change us. It just unfolds us.

"By not suppressing them, but by writing them down, one acknowledges one's thoughts, which belong at best only to the moment and the place that produce them. One has no hope that two days hence, when one thinks the opposite, one will be wiser. One is what one is. One uses one's pen like the needle of a seismograph: we do not so much write as get written. To write is to read one's own Self, and it is seldom an undiluted pleasure. There are shocks all along the way. You think you are a cheerful person but, catching sight of yourself in a chance windowpane, realize you are a grouch. And, when you read yourself, a moralist too. There is nothing that can be done about it. All we can do, by bringing to light and recording the zig-zag course of our successive thoughts, is to recognize our own nature, its confusion or its hidden unity, its inescapability, its truth, which we cannot directly attest, not on the strength of a single moment."

I promised to have a lot of quotes read, so that my pronunciation won't tire you. There is another reason, of course: what I'm having read to you are not my thoughts of today; and I need not agree with them.

You want to know what I think today?

So do I.

It is a curious phenomenon: in the act of writing, thoughts detach themselves from us; pictures, too. They lie around. Like objects; they may displease me, if I happen to see them, or they might convince me - as if it weren't I, myself, who had thought them.

The writer, in contrast to most other people, cannot escape himself; it's he who has composed the warrant for his own arrest.

But that's another matter.

What was it we wanted to say?

For instance, about invention (fiction). That it is indispensable.

"Years ago as an architect I visited one of those factories in which our celebrated clocks and watches are made; no impression gained in a factory was ever more devastating, yet in no conversation have I ever succeeded in reconstructing that experience, one of the most vivid of my life, in such a way that it came through to the listener as well. Put into words, it always remains insignificant or unreal, real only to the person concerned, indescribable as all personal experiences are - or, to put it better, every experience basically defies description as long as we try to express it through the actual example that has impressed us. I can express what I want to say only by means of an example that is as remote from me as it is from the listener; that is to say, an invented one. Essentially only fiction - things altered, transformed, shaped - can convey impressions, and that is the reason why every artistic failure is always linked with a stifling feeling of loneliness."

If these few sentences were not written down so one can read them back to me, in court, I'd swear I have just this moment had the thought; and yet the words are exactly thirty-two years old.

That's terrible, no?

But to the matter: that description will not suffice. Auschwitz has been described and described, and if someone, who has read some things about it, were to come and were honest enough to say that he cannot make himself a picture of Auschwitz, then I would give him one of Kafka's shorter stories - "The Penal Colony."

The truth cannot be described, only invented.

That description will not suffice applies in harmless cases too.


"You can put anything into words, except your own life. It is this impossibility that condemns us to remain as our companions see and mirror us, those who claim to know me, those who call themselves my friends and never allow me to change, and discredit every miracle (which I cannot put into words, the inexpressible, which I cannot prove) simply so that they can say: 'I know you.'"


You can tell everything, but not your real life. This became a long novel, "I Am Not Stiller." Its English edition was unfortunately cut - and very stupidly. What is more stupid is that I, at that time, authorized the cutting, because I evidently did not understand the book. ("The author is not bound to understand his own work," says Adorno.) At any rate, the key sentence was not cut: "Ich habe keine Sprache für die Wirklichkeit."

I have no language for reality.

No one has it, of course, but the writer is aware that he does not have it, and it is precisely this awareness that makes him a writer. It sounds paradoxical. In my case, I believe it to be so.

In a later novel the key sentence says: "Ich probiere Geschichten an wie Kleider."

I try on stories like clothes.


"I sit in a bar, in the afternoon, therefore alone with the barman, who tells me his life. What for? He tells it and I listen while I drink or smoke. 'That's the way it was!' he says, while he rinses the glasses. So, a true story. 'I believe it!' I say. He dries the rinsed glasses. 'Yes,' he says again, 'that's the way it was!' I drink; I think, a man has had an experience; now he looks for a story for it.

(We all do that.)

One cannot live with an experience that doesn't have a story, and sometimes I wonder - what if someone else has the story of my experience. I try to imagine."


All we have left is fiction.

Or one can say it another way: Fiction unmasks our experience of reality.

I maintain if you tell me nothing about your life, about the trouble with your father or whatever it may be, nothing about any of it, no memoirs - and if, instead, you do nothing but fantasize, and when I've heard seventy-seven of your stories, sad ones, funny ones, inventions, the whole lot, you have revealed more of your real person than if you bad told me your biography, be it ever so honest. I mean: There is no fiction that is not based upon experience.


The Writer's Journey.

The title wasn't my idea.

I take it literally: One day in 1974, exactly twenty years after his assertion that he is not Stiller, the writer rents a car in Manhattan and makes a journey to Long Island -

Montauk, to be exact - and there he suddenly stands still in the wind, his hands in his trouser pockets, his sparse hair in the wind, pensive.


"More and more often some memory comes along and shocks me. Usually these memories are not shocking in themselves, little things not worth telling in the kitchen or as a passenger in a car. What shocks me is rather the discovery that I have been concealing my life from myself. I have been serving up stories to some sort of public, and in these stories I have, I know, laid myself bare - to the point of non-recognition. I live, not with my own story, but just with those parts of it that I have been able to put to literary use. It is not even true that I have always described just myself. I have never described myself. I have only betrayed myself."


It's time to ask you the question: When you go to a creative writing class, in the hope that an established writer can tell you the trick of fabricating fiction - why, for heaven's sake, do you want to fabricate fiction? It's an allowable question. To earn a lot of money? Then let me recommend to you the arms trade. Why tell stories? You'll say, it's fun. That too is something I've tried to think about.

"Our craving for stories - where does it come from? One can't relate truth. That's it! The truth is not a story; it has no beginning and no end; it simply is or not. It is a tear through the world of our madness, an experience, not a story. Every story is invented. Everybody, not only the writer, invents his stories - except that, unlike the writer, he thinks they are his life.

What we have is a model of our experience. Experience occurs. It is not the result of a story. It's the other way around. I think the stories are the result of our experience. Experience yearns to make itself readable. The story which is able to express our experience need never to have happened, but in order to make our experience understood and believed - so that we believe ourselves - we say, that's the way it was! An experience that does not draw its own picture is hardly bearable. That is why everybody invents himself a story which, often at a tremendous sacrifice, he thereafter takes for his life. Only the writer doesn't believe it. It is inasmuch as I know that every story - however thoroughly I document it with facts and dates and names of places -

is my fiction, that I am a writer."


Not the most comfortable kind of existence.

In Europe the writer is often asked, so what did you mean to say with this novel, or with this play?

We have the schools to thank: I remember, as a student, being called upon to say what Johann Wolfgang Goethe, or whoever, meant with his poem. And I guessed what the teacher meant. Those who lack any naive relationship to art, I mean those whom education alone has persuaded that art is a serious matter, will never accept that the work of art is more than an occasion for interpretation. It is an existence per se. Incidentally, it took me a long time to know that it's not the task of art to buttress the world with a meaning it hasn't, all in all, had since the sixth day of creation.

But what I meant to say: What interests me in writing is not my opinions, but the writing - the confrontation with language. Even the story doesn't interest me much. Whether or not the hero dies - I'll let him do either.

Confrontation with the language: Inasmuch as we write sentences - sentences the way the grammar supplies them, and are unhappy with these sentences, because they cover nothing, or too little of the experience which is driving us to write, the language forces us to discover, or at least to search for our experience. That is our work and it is often a "work of mourning" as Sigmund Freud calls it. (Trauer-arbeit.) In the act of writing - in the search for the sentence which, in its choice of words and in its rhythm, finally corresponds with our experience - we discover how we really feel our life, our world, and ourselves. It can be bewildering. Often it is all a matter of a nuance. The sentences on the paper which earn my approval might, for example, show that I'm a nuance more naive than I had thought, or a good deal more cynical than my friends think, or that I am a believer, etc. Where our writing does not lead us to experience ourselves, I believe it will not produce literature, only books.

The Writer's Journey.

You'll have begun to suspect, by now, that what you won't get from me is a lecture on literary history. Other people do it so much better! I was invited as a writer, and the writer's egocentricity on the subject of writing is something we'll not try to sweep under the carpet.

From Impulse to Imagination.

I ask myself whether they aren't both one and the same. I know this: it's always been pictures that unloosed the writing. Often some quite peripheral picture, which then disappears; it served as a come-on, as bait. When I start, I don't know what I'm going to write.

Sometimes I tell my friends what I am going to write and there is a danger, because if they like the idea, I stick with the idea for too long.

How do others work?

There are said to be writers who don't begin to write till they have a finished plan. Like an architect. Or, as the saying goes, they have the whole novel in their head.

It's a favorite notion, particularly among dilettantes.

What I have in my head is chaos.

How did Brecht work?

I have seen him, in Zurich, in 1948, before a graphic schema on the wall of his room; there, cigar in mouth, he was able, calmly and quietly, to see how long or short the scene was supposed to be which he had to write. Later, after a rehearsal in the theater I saw him not finish his beer because he had to get home, quick, to write a scene for which the schema had not provided. He remained spontaneous.

How Ingeborg Bachmann worked I do not know, although we lived together like man and wife for five years; the labor of writing is a very intimate affair.

Friederich Durrenmatt, another writer I knew personally, has said that you must expose yourself to your inventions. This means that the invention has a life of its own which won't make itself known until the act of writing: writing as conflict between plan and spontaneity. In fact a work - one that promises well - is not infrequently wrecked because we cannot relinquish a plan which the writing has long overtaken; we refuse to take the risk.

Many people can invent; talent means, among other things, a critical sensitivity in the handling of the available invention.

(Now I'm talking like a teacher!)

As for the imagination, I'm shy of the word. What exactly does it mean? Imagination is more than fantasy. A man like President Reagan, I suspect, has no imagination, which doesn't say that he doesn't have fantasy. I'm afraid he shares some of Hitler's fantasies.

Albert Einstein had imagination.

Imagination discovers reality.

Kafka had imagination. And imagination had Cassandra. And St. Francis of Assisi, maybe. And Picasso. Samuel Beckett. Strindberg suffered from imagination. Etc.

I am shy of that big word and prefer to speak of the impulse. I confess that the question, "Why do you write?" always startles me. If it were compelling, what I write, no one would ask me the question. And so the question means, why don't you go into the forest and chop trees? People who ask this question are mostly the ones who would like to write themselves but don't dare to produce their Moby Dick or some sborter masterpiece until they know why I write.

Obviously they are not writers.

They only want to be famous.

That impulse does not suffice.

"The Question why I write is not one I have never asked myself. I remember -there were poems by Morike, the plays of Shakespeare and Ibsen, which, as a fifteen-year-old, I did not in the least understand, but I had a yen: I wanted to do something like that too.

The imitative drive. I thought anybody could do it. The drive to play: you tinker; you take a piece of wire in your hands and bend it to your wish and whim; you draw in the snow with your finger for no purpose; the pleasure in form, pleasure in play, freedom through play.

And there is something else: The early experience that everything natural passes away. It withers, it decays. The need, therefore, to oppose transience by making a picture of what one loves - a girl, for instance. I remember the euphoric expectation: if I can paint a girl, she belongs to me!

That, as it turned out, was not the case.

My talent, evidently, did not suffice, but I went on doing what the cave dwellers did in Altamira; they make a picture of what they would like to have - the beautiful prey or what they fear - the evil beast, so as to ban it. We, in our language say, to paint the devil on the wall. So as to know him and to ban him. A magical impulse. Goethe is not the only writer who preserved himself from suicide by writing his Wilhelm Meister and letting him commit the youthful suicide.

Writing as self-defense. The impulses are various, which combine, and surely vanity is one of them - the temptation that one writes in order to be in the public eye. Later one is distressed to see one's public, and wants to sink into the earth with shame. How did the writer come to get over his shame and to expose publicly the heart's motions which he has never said out loud, in private, to any other person?

Evidently there is something else, yet: the need to communicate. One wants to be heard. One would like to know if one is different from all the others. One gives off signals to find out if we understand one another. One calls out in fright of being alone in the jungle of what cannot be said. We thirst not for honors, but for a partnership. We break the public silence about our desires and our terrors: In the act of writing, we confess ourselves even when we don't write about ourselves. We expose ourselves in order to make a beginning."

Enough about my impulses.

No writer, I believe, writes for the stars, or we wouldn't need to bother with all the nuisance of publishing, which expects the writer to write for the public. This too is not the case. I mean that in the first place the writer writes for himself alone - in relation to others whom be seeks as his partners. What we call a writer's style grows out of his relation with an invented partner. That is to say, the kind of partner be invents for himself is decisive for his style. Do I need to prove to my reader that I am clever too, or do I think him stupider than I am, so that I have to educate him? Neither produces a style of communication.

Tolstoy, for example, treats me as a partner. Others treat me as a reader. They show off, to impress me. This does not produce communication - only reading matter. Where communication has occurred, inasmuch as the writer is evidently not alone with whatever the need or the hope was that drove him to make his image, there follows a consequence which he didn't expect in following his native impulse: he has an impact, whether he likes it or not, and consequently a social responsibility.

What is his stance toward this responsibility? That will be the theme of the second lecture.


I am well aware that I have said next to nothing about imagination. That imagination is more than fantasy, we all know - yet when it is you who are writing, it is not always easy to distinguish whether what is being created is imagination or simply fantasy.

Reading others, we see more clearly. There are texts that amaze us from the outset (let us say) by their surrealism. Brilliant texts, indeed! What sallies this writer has! At least once every third line we are amazed, and to be amazed is surely a pleasure. Half a year later, I merely know: it's a brilliant piece; you have got to read it; I remember something like champagne, sparkling with fantasy.

In contradistinction: Imagination sticks (like something that happened to us personally).

I was a student when I read Kafka's Metamorphosis for the first

time; someone had handed me a little book, a first edition. Franz Kafka's name was not known by millions, who never read a single line of his. I myself knew nothing about his great novels. I didn't even know they existed - there was just this booklet: Franz Kajka -Die Verwandlung, Eine Erzählung. Of the things I read at that time, some I have forgotten; others I only remember having read, honestly! As famous a story as Tonio Kroger, for instance. Yet this absurd story of one who, upon awakening one morning as usual, finds himself to be a beetle: it impressed itself as an experience which remains palpable even when I do not think of literature.

One aspect of imagination: that it never lets us loose again; what it has revealed to us determines our psychical development and our relationship toward our own existence. (I am speaking as a reader.)

In the example I just quoted, imagination manifests itself primarily in the story. The same would hold for Moby Dick - but it hardly applies to "Woyzzek," the drama fragment left behind by Georg Buchner. For me, "Woyzzek," too, belongs to those works that constitute more than a mere portion of my literary knowledge.

Woyzzek: a poor devil, a soldier, a menial in uniform, harassed and exploited; the first proletarian in German literature. When he sees that not even the woman he loves belongs to him but to his superiors instead, Woyzzek grabs a knife and stabs not the superior but the woman he loves - a sad story, a realistic story, one of thousands we have heard and forgotten. In the case of "Woyzzek," it is not the story that is haunting me; what is haunting me and what I keep hearing over and over since I first read this drama fragment and saw it staged is the speechlessness of human creatures. How can speechlessness be revealed through speech? Georg Buchner, for one, succeeded. His imagination manifests itself scenically.


We use the same expression in our language: "imagination." "Image" means bild. If we translate "imagination" literally, it means einbildung. This word does exist in the German language, but it is not used to imply that something inexpressible is transposed into an image. (Bild, which is something else than abbild.) And oftentimes it is not an image which communicates to us the inexpressible. Rather, it is a rhythm.

Imagination, as a Latin loan word, has a sound interference which is accidental; Magisch, magie. As a matter of fact, imagination is a magic act not producible by intelligence.

One's admiration for poets certainly does not rest upon the assumption that the poet is more intelligent than, say, Leonid BrezhDov or Mr. Haig Jr. It's not so. Admiration rests upon blissful bewilderment, pure and simple. The poet, too, may be a dangerous fellow or a lunatic. But be obviously has a pipeline to some sort of angel who confers upon him what no school ever can, for example a rhythm:

"Von diesen Städten wird bleiben,

der durch sie hindurchging,

der Wind."

That was young Brecht:

Of those cities will remain:

what passed through them,

the wind!

Living in Manhattan, I'm living with this rhythm: "Von diesen Städten . . ."

Ladies and gentlemen! Behind my shyness to talk about imagination, there lies a simple reason you must have guessed by now. I fear your question: Do you, Mr. Frisch or Max, believe yourself to have imagination? It is a question I am asking myself (not at a dinner-in-honor-of;but, for instance, when I find myself in my pajamas, eating an apple in the kitchen at four in the morning, not even certain whether it is today, or yesterday, or tomorrow).

Fiction is yet a long way from imagination. To write without imagination is a job. A good one or a bad one. But if writing is just a job, I'd really rather be an honest carpenter.