Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 7. Nr. September 1999

Out from the Shadows:
On Contempory Austrian Literature and Film created by Women(1)

Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger (Easton)

Literature and films created by women since 1945 have truly enriched the Austrian art scene. Their contributions, however, were only marginally recognized and remained largely hidden within the shadows of the body of art created by their male counter parts in the process of searching and reestablishing Austria's post-World-War-II cultural identity.

After 1945, the aesthetic and philosophical trends of the "modern period" and the "avant-garde" of the early twentieth century lay buried under the rubble which the years of fascism and national socialism left behind. To define a cultural identity distinctly different from Germany, Austria proclaimed the "Anschluß"(2) to its own great era, - the cultural heritage of the nineteenth century, and the fin-de-siècle literature and art.(3) The recreation of art institutions with this nostalgic look back discouraged any artistic expression that voiced criticism against established art forms and current politics.(4)

In this restrictive and discriminating climate - off the beaten path in search for a distinct Austrian identity and culture - progressive and aesthetically innovative artists and writers created provocative statements of rebellion directed against Austria's political and cultural canon. The theoretical foundation for the artistic expression was sought within the avant-garde period of the early twentieth century and the language-philosophical traditions of Walter Benjamin and Ludwig Wittgenstein.(5)

The Generation After the War - Die Nachkriegsgeneration

Outside the literary canon as well as the male-dominated avant-garde art scene, the young Nachkriegsgeneration (post WW II generation) of Austrian women writers made their debut on the literary stage, for instance Marlen Haushofer, Ilse Aichinger, Ingeborg Bachmann, Jeannie Ebner, Friederike Mayröcker, Christine Busta, and Christine Lavant. Born in the late 1910s and early 1920s and having come of age during the bitter Nazi years, these women searched for their own voice in order to effectively articulate the realities of their lives. Writing for these women became a journey towards their inner self and a search for self-realization, and as such a confrontation with the pain inflicted by the deceit of their fathers and their fathers' generation.(6)

This post-World-War-II generation refused to write explicitly about historical events, and yet their texts imply history. Often, the word-pair "remembering and forgetting" are written into familiar structures of the private sphere.(7) Thus, their literature brings to light the microcosm of arrogance, ignorance, and chauvinistic attitudes which dominated during Austro-Fascism and continued after 1945. Still, an "escape from societal bonds in an ultimately freeing way" was unknown to the women writers of the post WW II generation - explains Nancy Erickson (Out From the Shadows, 200).

Ilse Aichinger and Ingeborg Bachmann soon became established as prominent young Austrian poets within the realm of the West German literary canon. This was the result of the Gruppe 47 awards in 1952 and 1953 respectively for their critical writing and innovative aesthetics, as well as the 1954 Spiegel cover story about Bachmann and her extraordinary poetic talent. The image of the great Austrian lyric dominated the Bachmann-reception until long after her death in 1973. Bachmann's poetry quickly entered standard schoolbooks and reading lists in Austria and West Germany and thus became a part of the Austrian literary canon.(8)

In 1961, Bachmann published the first of several prose texts, namely Das dreißigste Jahr (The Thirtieth Year, 1963). Unlike her poetry, it was not received favorably. The negative criticism concentrated on the text's seemingly missing reference to a so-called "concrete reality." Bachmann's prose texts were largely frowned upon for their "radical subjectivity," and her 1971 novel Malina was "originally rejected as a confused and bitter autobiography" - as Margaret McCarthy points Out (Out From the Shadows, 40).

While Bachmann and Aichinger became well known, texts by Haushofer, Mayröcker and others were appreciated only within the literary circle. Their literature remained on the margins of acceptance. Bjorklund claims that Mayröcker's texts - strongly influenced by the Wiener Gruppe's avant-garde relationship to form - reject narration and rupture realistic conventions (Out From the Shadows, 57).

What unites the work of the Nachkriegsgeneration is the radically new use of language - a language with which to express the writers' own realities, a language with which to gropingly approach the realities of their experience, a language that opened up new perspectives for the writer and the reader. At stake was then and still is -as Beth Bjorklund reminds us - "the issue of whether language is an adequate medium for rendering experience; or whether reality instead is not being insidiously distorted by the linguistic means used to evoke it" (Out From the Shadows, 56).

The many signs of alienation inherent in the works of the Nachkriegsgeneration demonstrate the search for traces and imprints of forceful intrusion onto the female body, and onto the wishes and the dreams of women. Their texts are therefore rich in codes, without suggesting an alternative or even a utopian female image. Thus, readers and critics alike often condemned content and form as unintelligible and stilted. In 1962, Die Verbannten (The Banished) was published by Milo Dor(9) - a collection of texts written by the Nachkriegsgeneration, whom Dor called "the banished" because at that time there existed no relationship between their literary work and the reading public in Austria.

The Younger Generation

Only during the 1970s, in the wake of the women's movement, the younger generation of women writers, filmmakers, artists, and critics recognized Bachmann's Malina as well as the work of Aichinger, Haushofer, and Mayröcker as major contributions and considered these texts important forerunners of an écriture féminine. This younger generation of women writers and filmmakers, generally born during the 1940s, emerged "out from the shadows" of Austria's male-dominated artist milieus. They were confronted with the underrepresentation of women in the arts and the indifference of their male colleagues as well as the art institutions as a whole towards their work. Strongly influenced by the political and social agenda of the women's movement as well as by innovative art forms such as actionism, expanded cinema, and the language experimentations of the Wiener Gruppe, these women felt the need to strive beyond the playing fields of artistic indulgence and go "against the horizon"(10) - as Jaqueline Vansant puts it - by asserting their feminist views and pleas.

The Feminist Avant-Garde

Austria's feminist writers and filmmakers reestablished a link with the prewar avant-garde in order to lay the theoretical foundation. They share the same concerns about the material basis of art and pursue the same fundamental goal, namely questioning the traditional concept of the art-object as an organic and autonomous form. Thus, they too attempt to close the gap between art and everyday life.(11)

Two of the most innovative and most prominent representatives of Austria's feminist avant-garde today are the internationally acclaimed author Elfriede Jelinek and the multimedia artist Valie Export. Both, writer and artist, deal with women's representation within the canons of society and the culture of art. Elfriede Jelinek's texts are strongly characterized by her critical relationship to language. For Jelinek language signifies the power structures and mirrors the dominance of logocentrism within a capitalist society.(12) Valie Export's critical analysis of women's position in western patriarchal societies reflects upon Freud; and Lacan's notion of "the woman as the other." In addition, she insists "on bringing together two seemingly disparate discourses: [namely] technology and the [female] body" - as Roswitha Mueller explains (Out From the Shadows, 244).

Jelinek's and Export's innovative aesthetics is aimed at a strong criticism of the social, economic, and political situation of women in today's Austria. Their literary texts as well as film texts are respective expressions of an écriture féminine directed against the traditional writing of "his-story" and the established social and cultural canons. Displaying distinctive features of feminist writing such as anti-linearity, antimimesis, and polylogic, these texts are created through the artistic methods of collage and montage. The criticism of the dominance of logocentrism and its phallocratie order constitutes the center of the art-production and is directed at undermining the fundamental concepts of our thinking.

The artistic attempt to jolt the conscience and bring to light the inefficiencies of social and political dicta and their tragic effects on women is not completely new to this generation of female writers and filmmakers. Elfriede Gerstl, born a decade before Export and Jelinek, and therefore considered as one of the Nachkriegsgeneration, has been writing her socio-critical and aesthetically innovative work since the early 1950s. Konstanze Fliedl explains that Gerstl's writing against the clichés of femininity and the cultural industry rejects "the solemn moral stance of enraged social criticism" (Out From the Shadows, 144). Rather, she applies satirical aesthetics as a means of trivializing reality. Her texts - as Konstanze Fliedl argues - "reverse the satirical process: reality is made to look so trivial that it becomes ridiculous" (Out From the Shadows, 144). Fliedl labels Gerstl's satirical aesthetics "understatement" - and rightly so - since Gerstl's art is "quieter, more subtle and more precise than an indignant lashing-out in all directions. That is why Elfriede Gerstl voice has often gone unheard" (Out From the Shadows, 144). It is therefore no coincidence that her novel Spielräume (Rooms to Move) written in 1968-69 was not published until 1977. Even though she received a number of awards in the 1970s and 1980s, today she is still considered the "great unknown" of the literary scene. Following in the footsteps of Elfriede Gerstl, Elfriede Jelinek, and Valie Export, Austrian female writers, such as Elisabeth Reichart, Anna Mitgutsch, Renate Welsh, Marianne Fritz, and filmmakers, like Friedericke Pezold, Käthe Kratz, and Kitty Kino, continue to display gender and sex issues combined with social and historical processes. In the wake of the women's movement with its political activism followed by an intensive theoretical discourse in France and the United States, the selfliberating and emancipatory tendencies of literature and film by and about women, which were largely ignored during the first two decades after the war, became widely accepted as a means of self-realization and emancipation. The act of creating literature and film as a journey into the "self" allowed writers and filmmakers to speak about themselves and to experience their "self" in the act of creation.

New Subjectivity

Some texts by and about women during the late 1960s until the mid1970s have been viewed in the context of the so-called "New Subjectivity." These writings describe new modes of experience of and for women and - may we say - a new emotional reality. Thus, they entail the possibility of reducing the weight of a restrictive and suppressive upbringing by writing about it. As Klaus Zeyringer points out, "authors created memories for themselves and their readers, in order to find the 'self' by writing against the self-denial thrust upon them by their upbringing. And to that end they had to do what was denied to them during their childhood, namely to speak about the self."(13)

In 1968, Barbara Frischmuth published Klosterschule (The Convent School, 1993), which became immensely popular. Even though Frischmuth "has shown resistance to the label feminist', many of her books have focused on women's experiences, choices, and constraints, and some contain specific and pointed protests against oppression of women" - as Pamela S. Saur reminds us (Out From the Shadows, 100). During the 1970s, Barbara Frischmuth published the Sophie Silber-trilogy; a decade later she created her Demeter-trilogy. Both are intriguing sets of novels in which she thematizes the fundamental question of: What does the female world encompass? Where does it begin and where does it end? Ulrike Kindl calls it Frischmuth's attempt to go back to the roots of humanity by creating a feminine cosmology.(14) Weaving the worlds of reality and fantasy together and moving in and out of levels dealing with human experience and notions of mythology, Frischmuth designs positive models of femininity.

Self-Realization and Emancipation

Since the women's movement in Austria had markedly gained in recognition in the late 1970s, the label "New Subjectivity" should not keep us from recognizing the strong sociopolitical character of the texts. Time and again, women writers and filmmakers display the individual's imprisonment in fixed and inflexible roles, in the rules and norms of conservative, rural, and urban social structures. The private sphere is recognized as a reflection of public attitudes. "Outward conditions are assessed from the perspective of a subjective look inward,"(15) as demonstrated by Brigitte Schwaiger's phenomenally successful autobiographical text Wie kommt das Salz ins Meer (Why Is There Salt in the Sea?, 1988). In Elfriede Jelinek's Liebhaberinnen (1975; Women as Lovers, 1994), Paula and Brigitte try to escape their monotonous life and the vicious cycle that has placed them at the bottom of society in a remote country village, but do not (or perhaps marginally) succeed in striving beyond the horizons of their destiny.

By the 1980s, the search for a woman's Position in today's society, the search for identity and self-realization, leads often to the mother-figure. She becomes a symbol for the traditional role of women: the mother who is submissive to the authority of man; but also the mother who constitutes the authority figure for the daughter. Jelinek's Die Klavierspielerin (1983; The Piano Teacher, 1989), Mitgutsch's Die Züchtigung (1985; Three Daughters, 1987) and Fritz’s Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst (1985; Whose Language You Do Not Understand) - to name a few – deal with the question of "inheritance" of female roles. The issue of the so-called "inherited" notion and attitude, towards female sexuality is demonstrated in Jelinek's Lust (1990; Lust, 1992) and Schwaiger's Liebesversuche (1989; Love Experiments). It is the restrictive "fig leaf and the leaf over the mouth" - as Zeyringer puts it - which is the negative legacy that the mothers often leave their daughters.(16)

Women who are psychologically wounded and "deformed" by dominant phallocratic forces in today’s society and therefore destined to failure are depicted in Marianne Fritz's Die Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse (1978; The Gravitational Force of Relationships). The private fate of Berta Schrei becomes the model of women's failure. Marianne Fritz's powerful language weaves stories and dreams, tales and history into a narrative web of tragic fate. Her female protagonists wounded by oppression and forced into suppression end up silenced in the psychiatric ward. Just like Berta, women have - for Centuries - neutralized the propitious as well as ominous Potential of their talents into speechlessness, silence and madness. Just like Berta, they were wrong to consider it evident that this Potential - when once set free - could or would change the world.(17)

Still, literature and film created by women are conceived as responsibility "to tell the truth" and "to call things by their name"(18) in a society caught up in repressing and forgetting. In the late 1980s, women's writing and filmmaking reflect current social and political developments. Troubling political issues, in particular the Waldheim affair, with the multitude of unanswered questions about Austria's Nazi past infiltrated many texts and films.

Reactivating Memory

Reactivating memory becomes central to a number of authors like Ruth Klüger, Marie-Thérèse Kerschbaumer, and Elisabeth Reichart. Reichart explains in an interview her motive for writing Februarschatten (1984; February Shadows, 1989) and Komm über den See (1988; Come Across the Lake): I "felt compelled by a sense of Personal responsibility and duty to give voice to the real victims of Fascism, in particular to the women whose stories have been largely excluded from public dialogue to date" (Out From the Shadows, 129). Marie- Thérèse Kerschbaumer's books Der weibliche Name des Widerstands (1980;, Woman's Face of Resistance, 1996) and Schwestern (1982; Sisters) deal with the repression and exploitation of minorities and the underprivileged.

Ruth Beckermann's films must also be "situated within the context of contemporary feminist and minority discourse and present a noteworthy contribution to an interdisciplinary exploration of those questions that are related to the ethnic and cultural identity of today's Jewish Austrians from a woman's point of view" - as Renate S. Posthofen points out (Out From the Shadows, 266). Beckermann's critical writings and films force the viewers to rethink and reassess their memory in terms of traditional judgment.

Transforming existing images by creating texts of association that chain the conscious to the unconscious - both in the act of art creation and in the reception process - is essential to contemporary Austria's literature and film created by women. By undermining the fundamental concepts of our thinking, "traditional premises such as logic and causality are confronted critically" to make translucent the "established canons and the limits of their truths."(19)

In spite of their doubt that art today can be used as a means for social change, texts created by women are nevertheless directed towards social and ethnic consciousness-raising.

Zur Autorin

Der hier publizierte Beitrag  wurde 1995  im Rahmen des "9th. Annual Symposium on Austrian Literature" (April 1995) präsentiert. Die Erstpublikation erfolgte in: Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger: Out from the Shadows. Austrian Literature and Film created by Women. Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 1997). Nachdruck in TRANS 7 nach: Jura Soyfer. Internationale Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. 6.Jg., Nr.1/1997. S. 5-9.

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(1) This article was first presented at the Nineth Annual Symposium on Austrian Literature in April 1995 and then included as introductory chapter into my book Out from the Shadows. Austrian Literature and Film created by Women. (Riverside: Ariadne, 1997.) Any references to articles from "Out form the Shadows" are marked within the text.

(2) Walter Weiss and Sigrid Schmid, eds. Zwischenbilanz. Eine Anthologie österreichischer Gegenwartsliteratur (Salzburg: Residenz, 1976).

(3) Otto Basil, Herbert Eisenreich and Ivan Ivask eds. Das große Erbe. Aufsätze zur österreichischen Literatur (Graz. Stiasny, 1962).

(4) Kurt Bartsch and Gerhard Melzer, eds. Trans-Garde Die Literatur der "Grazer Gruppe", Forum Stadtpark und "manuskripte" (Graz: Droschl, 1990).

(5)  Hans Christian Kosler, "Neo-Avantgarde? Analysen zur experimentellen Literatur,' Theorie der Avantgarde. Antworten auf Peter Bürgers Bestimmung von Kunst und bürgerlicher Gesellschaft ed. W. Martin Lüdke (Frankfurt: Surkamp, 1976), 254 ff.

(6) Cf. Donald G. Daviau, ed. Austrian Writers and the Anschluss: Understanding the Past Overcoming the Past (Riverside: Ariadne Press, 1991).

(7) Gemeinsam ist dieser Nachkriegsgeneration ... daß sie sich schreibend in der Verweigerung von Geschichte immer wieder impliziten historischen Rückbezüglichkeiten zuwendet, daß sie dabei oftmals das Begriffspaar Erinnern' und Vergessen« in den privaten Raum und in familiäre Strukturen einschreibt.' Christine Schmidjell, ed. Marlen Haushofer. Die Überlebenden (Frankfurt/Berlin: Ullstein, 1993),7-8.

(8) Kurt Bartsch, Früh kanonisiert und heftig umstritten. Ingeborg Bachmanns Werk in Literaturkritik, Literaturwissenschaft und Schulbuch', Die einen raus, die anderen rein: Kanon und Literatur, ed. Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler, Johann Sonnleitner and Klaus Zeyringer (Berlin: Erich Schmidt, 1994),176.

(9) Milo Dor, Die Verbannten. Eine Anthologie (Graz: Stiasny, 1962).

(10) Jaqueline Vansant, Against the Horizon (Westport: Greenwood, 1988).

(11) Harold Rosenberg, The Anxious Object: Art Today and Its Audience (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966).

(12) Jorun Johns and Katherine Arens, eds. Elfriede Jelinek. Framed by Language (Riverside: Ariadne Press, 1994).

(13) Klaus Zeyringer, "Austrian Literature by and about Women in the 1980s: The Feminine Name of Resistance and the Way to the Mothers", unpublished manuscript. The German version of this study was published in David F. Good, Margarete Grandner and Mary Jo Maynes, eds. Frauen in Österreich. Beiträge zu ihrer Situation im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Vienna/Cologne/Weimar: Böhlau, 1993).

(14) Heinz Puknus, ed. Neue Literatur der Frauen. Deutschsprachige Autorinnen der Gegenwart (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1980), 146.

(15) Zeyringer, "Austrian Literature".

(16) Ibid.

(17) Bettina Rabelhofer, Von Steinen, Schmerz und Sprache. Das Textbegehren der Marianne Fritz, unpublished manuscript.

(18) Zeyringer, "Austrian Literature".

(19) Margret Brügmann, Weiblichkeit im Spiel der Sprache. Über das Verhältnis von Psychoanalyse und "écriture féminine". In: Frauen Literatur Geschichte, ed. Hiltrud Gnüg and Renate Möhrrnann (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1985), 395-415.

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