He was one of the brightest minds in the semi-darkness of post-war Germany, in the twilight of many cultural-political debates, in the sharp brilliance of the international literary and media scene. The word twilight was liked by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who used the English variant twilight even more elegant, because he knew that light and shadow are siblings.
At the age of 33 he received the Georg Büchner Prize in 1963, when Magnus, as his friends probably called him not without a double meaning, was already a star: like at that time almost only Ingeborg Bachmann, with whom not only combined the early poetic talent and the ability to perform in a strangely fascinating way. Both were discreetly lovers for a short while – as revealed by some jealous remarks by Max Frisch in his recently published correspondence with Bachmann.
The young Enzensberger was as sharp-witted as he was sharp-tongued
Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who died this Thursday in Munich shortly after his 93rd birthday, formed the Dioscurian trio of German poets and thinkers together with the philosopher Jürgen Habermas of the same age and Alexander Kluge, who was only three years his junior. And Habermas and Enzensberger both had their first big journalistic impact exactly sixty years ago. Habermas with his sociological “Structural Change in the Public Sphere” and Enzensberger with his collection of essays “Details” illuminated the “consciousness industry” almost simultaneously in 1962: a term from the Frankfurt School of the remigrants Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. Here their best students suddenly wrote and set spiritual milestones.
While Habermas analyzed the transition of a part of the press to commercialized mass entertainment in a comparatively dry, academic manner, the young Enzensberger etched as sharply as he did pointedly against the language of the “Spiegel” or the “journalism as a dance on the ball” of the then old-conservative “FAZ”. The fact that Enzensberger later liked to appear in both media, even regularly in “Spiegel”, played no role. Or rather: HME just played it his Role. It also included the intellectual somersault forward (never backward). He was a quicksilver head, a thinker, formulation dancer.
Should the vulture eat forget-me-nots?
Hans Magnus Enzensberger
But first a poet. In 1957 Enzensberger’s lyrical debut “defence of the wolves” was published. In the small volume published by Suhrkamp Verlag, he asks the readers and lambs, the lamb pious, in the then fashionable small letters: “Shall the vulture eat forget-me-not? / What do you ask of the jackal / that he skin himself, of the wolf?”
In the still cheeky Jungbrechtian tone, there is already an element of irony, which, with age, is joined by a fine melancholy that never drifts into self-pity. Right from the start he was a poetic thinker. With a phenomenal sense for themes and forms of the zeitgeist and the myths of everyday life. One of his essayistic “details” was a review of the Neckermann catalogue, in which he saw the wishes and dreams of the miraculous economy reflected and understood the volume as the new chapbook of the Germans at the time.
A quarter of a century after the “Details”, Enzensberger’s mixture of essays and stories in the volume “Ach Europa!” also became famous. During this mental journey through the old continent, he already foresees the fall of the Berlin Wall and coquettishly adds an “epilogue from 2006”. Another somersault forward.
Born in the Allgäu, grew up in Nuremberg, which was always heard from him, who read and spoke more than half a dozen languages, he worked as a bartender for the Royal Air Force as a teenager. At the same time, on the black market he not only learned lucky strikes, but also how to trade in essentials for survival. As one of the first German scholarship holders, Enzensberger thenstudied at the Sorbonne in Paris and received his doctorate in Erlangen on Brentano’s romantic poetics – because he was still forbidden from writing a dissertation on Hitler’s rhetoric in the 1950s.
This alternative between the beautiful and the terrible alone indicates Enzensberger’s enormous range. In addition to poetry, he has worked in all genres, was radio editor for Alfred Andersch in the legendary, demanding night program of the Süddeutscher Rundfunk in Stuttgart and lecturer for Suhrkamp in Frankfurt, belonged to Gruppe 47, had a Norwegian, a Russian and finally his German wife; he nomadized through the USA, Cuba, Mexico, the Soviet Union, lived in Scandinavia and Italy. Always been a citizen of the world.
He was a book and topic fisherman
From 1965, in its more radical and later more camouflaged phase, HME published the magazine Kursbuch, which had become a compass for the student-revolutionary New Left, and later the great magazine Transatlantik with his friend Gaston Salvatore. He also founded the fabulous “Other Library” with the printer and publisher Franz Greno, which still thrives in Berlin today as a piece of special book culture.
As a fabulously well-read book and topic fisherman, as a translator and editor, Enzensberger was the incarnation of the sentence that the head is round so that it can think in all directions. Even before the Büchner Prize, he had actually earned a Nobel Prize for literary discoveries and editions when in 1960 he presented the “Museum of Modern Poetry” with many of his own translations as a paperback on dtv. An anthology of 351 poems from every continent, the pioneering work of a universal spirit. The book should not only be reissued in his honor.
Of course he was a great poet himself. He would have liked to have been an equally great playwright and novelist, but he didn’t succeed. But the thoroughly dramatic poetic versepos about the “Sinking of the Titannic”, his wonderfully poetic “History of the Clouds” or the volume of poems “Music of the Future” remain. Forever. Even if it says in the “Music of the Future” at the end of the last century: “The 21st century no longer counts / It’s already going black before your eyes…”
This slender, first blond, then silver-haired man was an intellectual flâneur, a realistic fanatic and a fantastic realist. Dreamer and reality detective, literally a scout. It is no coincidence that Voltaire, Diderot and the cosmologist Alexander von Humboldt were role models for him. To almost the end he was something of a youth who had just aged. His world bestseller, his vademecum for children and all adults who otherwise have nightmares all their lives about having to relive the math Abitur, also fits in with this: “The number devil”, subtitle “A pillow book for everyone who is afraid of mathematics”.
Enzensberger could count. Could higher equations. In the long run, that counts for more than a few (admitted) misconceptions about the world revolution, about the supposed “death of literature” or the legendary miscomparison between Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler that was once published in “Spiegel”. Instead of wrong answers, it is the right questions that count. Hans Magnus Enzensberger provided them.
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I have been working in the news industry for over 10 years now and I have worked for some of the biggest news websites in the world. My focus has always been on entertainment news, but I also cover a range of other topics. I am currently an author at Global happenings and I love writing about all things pop-culture related.