by Susan Signe Morrison
Once upon a time, I applied for a DAAD (Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst) Fellowship. By spring 1988, I have been accepted to the FU (Freie Universität), knowing I will be in West Berlin for a year (October 1988-July 1989).
In April 1988, I am still at Brown University. One day, in the graduate student-professor café, the Ivy Room, I run into none other than Herr Professor Doktor Tristan Trotzer. He is the head of the English department at the university in Rostock, German Democratic Republic. There I had functioned as a tutor in September 1985, when, as a hapless and naïve neophyte, I was first introduced to the wonders of the East Bloc. I am uncertain as to what he thought of me after a certain unfortunate wall newspaper incident. At that time, an article, Girls in the Soviet Union, produced by a student under my purview, caused quite the ruckus. To his credit, Tristan clearly appreciated me being friendly and good-natured.
After leaving Rostock in fall 1985, several students wrote, regaling me about lectures Tristan gave after my departure. Once while lecturing he cited “The Bluest Eye by Susan, oops, Toni Morrison.” While discussing Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, he asserted the titular character was a modern American woman, “like Susan Morrison.”
On this particular day, we greet each other warmly.
“Susan, let me ask you something,” Tristan says. He proceeds to say he’ll be on sabbatical in the fall of 1988. “Would you like to teach for me in Rostock?”
“Well, I have a fellowship to work on my dissertation in West Berlin. So, I don’t know.”
“Ah.” He pauses, his parboiled eye— like that of some ancient mariner, from the shores of Mecklenburg at any rate— commanding my attention.
“I would love to go back.”
Brainstorming, we come up with a plan where I’ll come to Rostock in November for a week, returning a month later to teach an intensive course to master’s students on American literature and literary theory.
Department XX18 Rostock, 25.1.89
Source: IMS Informal Collaborator for Political-operative Penetration and for Protection of Responsibility areas] “Georg”
With regards to the USA citizen Susan Morisson [sic]
During a stay in 1988 at Brown University, I was informed by a Professor Keetsch that the Morisson works as a research student in his department, and that she felt very connected with Rostock. A meeting with her was arranged. Through conversations, it was revealed that she had a great interest in continuing her work in Rostock as an Americanist. The opportunity was perfectly timely for her, as she was to work on a Germanistic topic for one year at the FU Berlin (West) courtesy of a special stipend. She plans to write her dissertation about German literature in the Middle Ages. The Morisson was very interested in taking part in a teaching position in Rostock. This teaching opportunity she carried out at the end of 88, lasting a week each time, with Masters and Ph.D. students.
Had this meeting with me been “arranged”? It appeared to happen spontaneously.
The Stasi report informer “Georg” later turns out to be none other than Tristan himself.
Tristan advises me to write a letter to his department reminding them who I am and what class I can teach. I suggest teaching a seminar on American Literature and Theory, sort of a “if this is Monday it must be Freud, if this is Tuesday it must be Deconstruction” seminar—only compacted into a few days’ time. The first week has two assignments: one deals with the literary canon and the second a presentation and discussion of various literary theories as applied to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The second week of the seminar focuses on the application of a variety of theories to various poems. As a final project, each students takes either The Scarlet Letter or The Color Purple and applies one theoretical approach.
The letter does the trick. Clearly a bureaucratic hurdle to leap over, I am granted a visa allowing me into the country.
One Saturday in mid-November 1988, I am met at the station in Rostock by my Betreuer—my handler or aide-de-camp, Caspar. He carries my baggage as we make our way on the S-Bahn to Evershagen, a satellite high rise village so typical in the East where my compact flat is located. Everything is adequate for my needs. We visit the grocery store in the complex. Bread, cheese, jam, butter, eggs. I need nothing else because I mainly eat in town by the university.
Class meets at 7:30 in the morning, which is all well and good, except I live forty minutes by tram from downtown Rostock where the English department is located. I end up leaving before it is light out, desperate for the coffee which I drink all day to stay awake. That first morning, I arrive earlier than normal to photocopy. Caspar meets me at 7:00 and we head to the office, which I haven’t visited in three years. There’s something about any English department anywhere: bulletin boards with announcements and flyers, names on doors, the smell of paper.
Over the course of two weeks—in November and later in December—I am able to ladder ideas I want to bring out. One focus is African American literature, extremely popular in East Germany, since it resonates with the socialist critique of a system like capitalism that oppresses various people. Much as Ginger Rogers does just what Fred Astaire does only backwards and in high heels, the GDR manages to convey works by people of color in a sophisticated way for 1988.
Caspar joins me and the eight advanced master’s students when his schedule allows. The odd other faculty member pops in periodically.
I teach advanced graduate students in Amerikanistik, Anglistik, Germanistik, and/or Slavistik for two weeks. The class takes place Monday through Friday of each given week from 7:30 a.m. until 9:00 a.m., as it is the only time everyone is available. I greet my students: Anneliese, Regina, Heidi, Benno, Petra, Wilhelm, Elsa, and Jana. As the official 1984 publication, The German Democratic Republic, points out, “At present about 60 per cent of all full-time students come from a working-class or farming background….Basic theory, including philosophical education through the study of Marxism-Leninism, is combined with specialization in the scientific area concerned.” These students are the cream of the crop.
I hand out a paper overviewing the two-week course, explaining that every scholar has a viewpoint or comes from a school of theory. I pass out another sheet of paper with two lists from Volume IV—General Literature and Related Topics—of the 1986 MLA International Bibliography of Books and Articles on the Modern Languages and Literatures. The list on the left is of ‘Criticism’ and on the right of ‘Literary Theory.’
The students diligently read, expressing confusion at terms like “semiotics.” I explain that different theories can help the students to learn to “judge, even resist, a text,” such as a feminist “resisting” a patriarchal text.
I ask what the “literary canon” is.
Caspar chastises them when no one speaks up. “Come on, you all know.”
Anneliese finally does. “Is it what we are assigned in classes?”
I reassure them. “It is what a culture decides are important works and so they do get taught in classes. Don’t be afraid to speak up or ask questions.”
“Are all seminars like this in the United States?” asks Elsa.
“Oh, yes,” I enthuse.
“We do that too,” grumbles Benno. “Only not everyone speaks. That’s a shame.”
“I agree. It is too bad if someone doesn’t speak up, because their insight might be just what the discussion needs.” I beam at everyone beatifically. “In addition to the lecture and discussion format, you’ll also be reading and writing a lot. I know you were told to have read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for this week.”
“Will we discuss The Scarlet Letter and The Color Purple this week too?” asks Jana.
“No, they’ll be for when I return in December. You still have some time for them.” Everyone looks relieved. “You’ll be writing a lot in class and sometimes outside of class time. I know this is extra work, so I don’t want to burden you too much. But I also want you to learn.”
“This is a great opportunity,” says Heidi, “we should do it as well as possible.”
“Thank you, Heidi, I appreciate it,” I say. “Theory is like a pair of glasses. You put on your feminist glasses, and suddenly see things differently than if you have your Freudian glasses on. Sometimes things look the same. It could be, though, that different details may emerge with a new view.”
“What if you wear contacts?’ asks Benno. Everyone laughs. This Benno is frequently wry in his responses.
Seven texts every person in the GDR should have read and why
I hand out yet another paper. “There are three areas to write in. In the first section, A, I ask you to list which seven texts you feel every person in the GDR should have read and why. These texts can include novels, plays, poems, political documents, religious works, songs, or even an author’s entire corpus. Then in section B, please list which seven texts you feel every student of literature should read and why. Then in section C, on the back of this sheet, list which seven texts you feel student of English and American literature should read and why. You can conclude with a brief explanation as to the differences and similarities among your three lists, if there are any.”
The students take forty-five minutes to write, along with a break for coffee, cigarettes, and the toilet. Students use ink in filtered pens, the purplish-blue bleeding across their pages.
I waste no time once we all return into the classroom, asking students to share “which seven texts you feel every person in the GDR should have read and why.”
Dead silence. Students squirm. I break them down by waiting. Like a successful Stasi interrogator.
Anneliese, the student of English and Russian, crumbles and speaks up. Her works include everything from Leo Tolstoi (her spelling) to The Book of Fairy Tales of the brothers Grimm. “Important for the development in childhood, for forming characters and attitudes.”
Then, inevitably, Goethe’s Faust. Student Regina concurs: “For its vision of the creative human being on his infinite search for knowledge.”
“Schiller and Goethe have to be there because they are the most famous poets and writers in our history.”
“You mean the history of the GDR?” asks Petra.
“Yes,” hesitates Anneliese. “I mean—yes.”
It’s an awkward moment. No one mentions the “other” Germany.
Petra sighs. “It’s very hard to list only seven books. You can’t get to know a country’s literature—or culture— with only seven writers.”
Anneliese continues with her list. Shakespeare: “He’s practically a German writer we love him so much. I included Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. He’s the most representative of older English literature.” Then Brecht: Mother Courage and his other plays. “They are necessary to understand our history.”
Wilhelm adds, “I included Brecht as well. Because he points out the importance of individual choice.”
Anna Seghers. “The Seventh Cross because it shows the problems of the people in World War II.”
I don’t yet know Seghers. The students are surprised.
Wilhelm: “Seghers is important for demonstrating the problems of fascism.”
I also haven’t read Der Tod ist mein Beruf by Robert Merle. Death is My Trade. I really need to read more.
“It’s about Rudolph Höß. From Auschwitz. He was the commandant who just followed orders. It shows you should think if the order is immoral.”
“The banality of evil,” says Benno. “Like Hannah Arendt writes about.”
Benno has clearly read beyond the confines of the average intellect.
Wilhelm tells which narratives he chose differing from those of Anneliese, from the Bible to Hemingway’s short stories. Also: Die Richtstatt [Place of Execution or The Place of the Skull]. “I chose Aitmatov to represent new literary developments in the Soviet Union.”
“He’s actually from Kyrgyzstan,” confides Benno.
“Does it make a difference?” I naïvely ask. Silence. I don’t yet know that one should not ask too much about individual regions in the S.U.
The troublesome Benno speaks. “I chose many more GDR writers,” he offers. “After all, the assignment says texts everyone in the GDR should have read.” He looked dismissively at the other students. His GDR writers include Christa Wolf’s novels, Heiner Müller’s plays, and works by Christoph Hein and Maxie Wander. He includes Franz Kafka’s stories. “They are perfection in the German language. Although he wasn’t German.”
“He was Jewish too,” adds Regina.
More from Benno, ranging from the Romantic Jean Paul to Hesse. Finally, writers from West Germany: Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll. No one says anything.
The students propose any number of works, even light ones like The Three Musketeers or the medieval Nibelungenlied. Elsa opts for Jack London’s Lockruf des Goldes—Burning Daylight since “[i]t makes capitalism look bad.” Then she makes an awkward error in mentioning “Perestroika für uns und die ganze Welt [Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World]. Gorbatschow.”
“What do you think of having a book so new on the list?” asks Regina. “He only wrote it last year.”
“Sometimes a book is so important it must be included even if it is new. If it affects people.”
“We will have to see how it affects us in the GDR,” says Benno.
“What,” interrupts Caspar suddenly, “other works have people written?”
Is he warning me here? That the subject of perestroika is too ‘hot’ to continue with?
Student Regina contributes Marx and Engels’ Manifest. “It’s the basis for the philosophy and Weltanschauung of the working class. I’m surprised no one else included it.”
An uncomfortable silence ensues.
“I also included it,” says Jana. “It is one of the main works and basis of Marxist ideology.”
Years later, an East German friend is scathing. “Their answers are conventional. Maybe fifteen books a year were published in the GDR that were worth reading and everyone read them. Like Maxie Wander.” As for Herman Kant’s Die Aula, my friend dismisses it. “Kant was loved by the government.”
By this time is has come out that Kant had been a Stasi informer.
Saturday November 26, 1988: Letter to my grandfather
Then there were activities at night too. For example, one night the girls who studied in Rostov in the Soviet Union showed slides and sang songs and danced dances from the area… The East German government is actually resisting Gorbatschow’s policy of glasnost! It is exciting to teach there because the students and professors are eager to have the latest news from the West.
Seven texts every student of literature should read and why
The next day, the choices span countries and time periods, from One Hundred Years of Solitude to Antigone.
I admit I haven’t yet read GDR literature. That’s not what anyone here expected me to say. I’m a medievalist, after all.
Wilhelm cites Franz Fühmann’s Kameraden or Comrads. “It discusses fascism.”
“He also protested Wolf Biermann’s exile. He publicly did so. A brave man—also to confess that as a youth he was a Brown Shirt and changed while a prisoner of war in the S.U.” Benno is very astute. It is clear he might get in trouble.
“You know about Biermann?” Heidi asks.
“Yes, I heard about him when I was here in 1985.”
It is remarkable for these students to bring up Biermann, stripped of GDR citizenship while on tour in West Germany in 1976. His expulsion was the outrage of GDR intellectuals.
“What other works do people have?” interrupts Caspar, as he does every time something tricky comes up in conversation. He is eager to avoid controversy. For himself? To protect me?
The rest of the texts are innocuous. Jane Eyre. Pride and Prejudice. Soviet writings, like Master and Margarita and Dr. Zhivago. Quiet Flows the Don by Sholokhov.
“He won the Nobel Prize. Did you know,” continues Elsa, “that the song ‘Where Have all the Flowers Gone?’ is based on a song from Quiet Flows the Don?”
“There is much you do not know.” Elsa says it in a kind, comforting sort of way.
“That’s a great lesson to us all, I suppose.”
“It’s good you came here so we can teach you.”
We all laugh.
Student Anneliese makes sure to include Lenin’s Party Organization and Party Literature. “I chose that since it concerns theoretical aspects of socialist realism.”
Regina includes Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe [Intrigue and Love]. “It reflects the historical conflict between feudal decay and bourgeoisie. A mirror of Germany at the time. Also, for his mastery of language. He’s the German national poet!”
But which German nation?
Seven texts every student of English/American literature should have read and why
Students mention The Color Purple, “Because of the problems for women and blacks,” says Wilhelm. Faye Weldon’s The President’s Child: “Because it treats the conflict between powerful men and intelligent women.”
A Farewell to Arms by Hemingway. “I cried at the end,” Elsa’s voice trembles. “You can’t forget emotion.”
Regina adds, “It’s explicitly about the abhorrence of any war. It’s important for our present political situation.”
“Nuclear arms are very scary.”
“True. Politicians should just read Hemingway,” I weakly joke.
Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.
“So why that one?” I wonder.
“I think it’s interesting how the bad Angelo is spying on everyone.”
“Why is that so interesting, do you think?”
“I was wondering: why would people spy on each other?”
The ensuing silence rushes in my ears.
Petra adds Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. “I feel Cuba is important to the GDR and it’s fascinating to see this man in that country. We have Cuban workers here in Rostock.”
Student Benno adds many authors no one has yet considered or proposed, including Saul Bellow, the Beats, John Dos Passos, and James Baldwin. This student is on another level altogether.
I assess their choices. “This exercise is all part of canon work. What do we read in universities and why? Is it a natural selection or is it conditioned by cultural, societal, political, and gender concerns? Secondly, for section A about works for GDR citizens, you all showed an interest in national tradition, history, and heritage.”
Jana speaks. “For the GDR citizen, I was thinking of the general overview of the most important works of different countries and cultures, of national tradition. Although here the selection is most difficult and most influenced by my personal attitude and liking.”
I agree. “Some people think the canon should form a kind of culturally shared knowledge to shape citizens for a particular nation or country. That could, however, silence dissent or alternative voices.” I pause. “The idea of the ‘canon’ is always changing. At one point, teaching Shakespeare instead of the Greek and Latin classics was seen as radical. Now adding many voices like those of women, immigrants, blacks, or Hispanics is seen as radical. For section B about works for students of literature, I noticed a lot of interest in the historical place of the novel, as well as the historical and contemporary developments of literature in different countries.
As for the last category—for students of English and American literature—the novel again was dominant in your choices as well as the development leading up to it. Twentieth-century works were first choices, followed by the nineteenth-century. Reasons included universal themes or historical importance either to literature or the people reading the literature.”
By nine, everyone is exhausted. Me included.
Wednesday the class discusses Terry Eagleton’s book on Literary Theory: An Introduction.
Student Benno likes him. “He makes it easy. He seems like a Marxist.”
“He talks about ideology,” says student Jana. “How what we believe and say is affected by power structures. We are taught that too here in the GDR.”
I point out, “If one kind of group decides what a ‘good’ poem is, then all the poems will be made to agree with each other. It’s a matter of who decides what is important.”
“Like men,” says Anneliese. “Eagleton points out that if all or most of the books we read are by men, we think that men are normal.”
“Men aren’t normal,” laughs Regina.
Wilhelm and even the somber Benno smile. “We try,” sighs Wilhelm, comically.
“Well, some of us do.” The normally serious Benno has a twinkle in his eye.
“Women have been silenced,” says Inge. “We are forced to see things from men’s point of view.”
“I have a question,” says Regina, hesitantly. “What does it mean,” she giggles, “the ‘pen is a—’”—long pause—”‘penis’?”
“I can say for sure,” says Benno, “the penis isn’t a pen!”
Everyone bursts out laughing.
I discuss the French feminists. “They are very influenced by philosophy and deconstruction. Post-structuralism. Thinkers like Derrida. Structuralism looks at sign systems—like semiotics—and sees binaries and structure. That’s why it has the name of Structuralism. Binaries like,” I hesitate, “good/bad. Man/woman. God/devil.”
“East/West,” says Benno.
“Yes. East/West. And….”
December 7, 1988: Letter from me to my mother
I’ll try to behave next time in Rostock. I made a little boo-boo in my lecture on Deconstruction. I was talking about how Deconstructionists demonstrate that ideologies are based on binary opposites which can be “deconstructed” (and therefore are false)—I gave some examples—good and bad, man and woman, God and the devil, and then…democracy and communism! OOPS! No one said anything however (thank God!).
I go on about Saussure, building up to post-structuralism and deconstruction. “Language is artificial. You can see why deconstructionists were skeptical of language after the Third Reich.”
Student Benno insists on hearing about psychoanalysis. Inevitably, penis envy is brought up.
“I don’t want a penis,” says Elsa. “Seems too much work.”
“It is,” says Wilhelm. The students all smile.
After lecturing a while, I talk about Lacan and then the French Marxist philosopher, Althusser. “He asks why do humans submit themselves to ideologies? Think of the Nazis. Why did so many people allow it to happen? Althusser says that ideology allows us to see ourselves as unified subjects. We like it, even if it is a bad ideology.” I wonder if the students reflect on the ideology of the GDR.
I finally bring up Roland Barthes. “The best writing calls attention to how it is a text. It does this through—” I grope for a word—”Verfremdungseffekt. The alienation or distancing effect.”
“Brecht wanted Verfremdungseffekt in his plays,” says Inge, “because of the fascists. They made the world seem natural. Their sick horrible world. Brecht was calling attention to how all language is artificial. Or his plays were. Not to believe they were reality.”
“Precisely,” I agree. “And why is that important?”
“If,” starts Benno slowly, “you think what you see is reality, then you don’t think about it. You accept it. So in Brecht’s The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, there’s a mafia with hoodlums. Like the Nazis. Only the currency they deal with is cauliflower. It’s absurd and stupid. Of course, there’s no vegetable fascism. By make it so ludicrous and bizarre, Brecht forces us to think about real fascists.”
“It’s more effective to be less realistic in a way. Roland Barthes says when the author does all the work, the reader just passively accepts it. The best works are writerly texts. The reader works so hard she become, in a way, the writer herself. Then the Russian formalists argue that the language of literature is ‘organized violence committed on ordinary speech.’ Language ‘made strange.’ To see how no language is totally natural. All language tries to manipulate you.”
“Literary theory is like violence to my brain,” quips Wilhelm. We all laugh.
I can’t help bursting with mirth. “I know. We can suffer together.”
“It’s fun though,” says Regina. “I’m glad you make it fun.”
“Just wait until we apply theory to the books we read!”
On Friday, I introduce the history of reception of Huck Finn and ask them to apply literary theory to the novel.
“I find it difficult,” admits Anneliese, “but a deconstructionist might break down the opposition of black versus white, when Huck discovers Jim is actually ‘white inside.’ These oppositions are morally indistinguishable.”
“What do you think of the line when Huck says, ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell!’”
“That is his triumph.”
Anneliese excitedly says, “That’s perfect for deconstruction! It’s hell because he is helping a black man which is bad in his society. But we know it really is good. In that case, hell is heaven. They ultimately have no meaning.”
I sigh with satisfaction. “I have nothing more to teach you.”
“Yes, you do!” they cry out.
“Then you have much still to teach me.”
November 26, 1988: Letter to my parents
Rostock was terribly exhausting although fun—I’d try to nap in the afternoon but I was still too wired from teaching, so I’d get up a second time in the dark for my nights on the town.
Tristan Trotzer, my nemesis professor-in-chief, actually asked me out to an expensive breakfast after a lecture he attended towards the end of the week—he’d heard they were a success! Tristan is a specialist in Schiller. While there he saw someone he knew who turned out to be the head actor at the theater there. He’s going to try to get me tickets for various shows. In return, I vowed to at least try to smuggle in books by Sam Shepherd and Mamet in German. I have them and I haven’t been checked at the border yet so let’s hope…That’s the thing—books are impossible or difficult to get—I’m convinced now the duty of Westerners is to smuggle books in.
“And you will come back in a month?” asks Tristan after the actor leaves us to our meal.
“You know I wouldn’t miss it. After all, I am addicted to the GDR.”
A month later in December, the students greet me warmly back to Rostock. I have them write about several poems, arguing for whether they belong in the canon or not.
After they have completed their work, Anneliese asks to speak about the haiku by Nicholas Virgilio. “I chose it because it was so simple. Yet not simple.”
“Would you mind reading it aloud for us?”
“deep in rank grass
through a bullet-riddled helmet:
an unknown flower.”
People sit quietly for a moment. “I noticed there was a correlation between the object and time.”
“What do you mean by that?” asks Regina.
“The object is the grass in the first line. It’s in the present. Then there is the helmet. It is from the past. As though he is dead. Whoever wore it. And the flower is a sign of the future. Perhaps hope.”
Everyone looks at her. She is a subtle reader.
I point out her Structuralist analysis. “Anneliese made a structure of time, observing how the images fit into a certain time pattern. How could you deconstruct that, though?”
Jana speaks up. “Well, Anneliese is correct. The time idea is so good. Yet all the objects are there together in one poem. At the same time. So past, present, and future lose their difference.”
I pull out the departmental required reading list. “I was very impressed by this list of mandatory and suggested books for English and American Literary Studies. It’s so varied. It leaves off some things, like Beowulf or Old English literature. English literature starts way before the fourteenth century. At least you have Chaucer. Women wrote too, like Margery Kempe and Marie de France. No list can be complete.”Caspar intervenes, “What else do you notice about the department book list?”“You have Irish, Welsh, and Scots authors. That’s really good.”“To show how the English colonized and oppressed them.”
On the big day for presentations. Anneliese undertakes a structuralist interpretation, while Nele and Wilhelm present feminist analyses of The Scarlet Letter. Heidi deconstructs The Color Purple, while Benno uses Freudian theory.
I say, “The point of theory is, in part, to make us think a different way. To see there is variety in how we can understand literature.”
“As great a variety as there are people?”
“Yes, Anneliese, I think so. That’s why I’m so grateful to meet all of you.”
“And we you, dear Susan.”
December 20, 1988: Letter to my parents
…Rostock was great—The students did a fabulous job the last day with their reports—it was one of those teaching experiences (which happen 1 or 2 times a year) when you remember why you became a teacher in the first place! It was GREAT!
Letter from my boyfriend Tim
Have all the students survived their encounter with the typical American?
It is rumored that the intelligent Benno wants to give up his study place in Rostock and transfer to the Humboldt University in East Berlin. While still in Rostock, Herr Professor Dr. Trotzer asks me to convince Benno to stay. Study places in East Germany are a rare commodity. I attempt to convince Benno to at least finish the semester which only has a month to go before he quits Rostock.
The following April 1989 I receive a letter from Benno—from West Germany. He and his friend visit me in West Berlin. They had managed to cross the border in Yugoslavia and make it to the West.
April 2, 1989: Letter to my boyfriend, Tim
Their escape is just like spy novel—except it’s real.
Sometimes your teaching has unexpected consequences.
 Panorama DDR, Verlag Zeit im Bild, Berlin, GDR, 1984, 185