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Critical Essay by Stacey Olster
SOURCE: "Inconstant Harmony in The Tin Drum," Studies in the Novel, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 66-81.
In the following excerpt, Olster examines the character Oskar, focusing specifically on the significance of his drumming.
At an early point in Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf, a strange man gives Harry Haller a pamphlet to read in which the latter finds his tormented condition both described and generalized.
There are a good many people of the same kind as Harry. Many artists are of his kind. These persons all have two souls, two beings within them. There is God and the devil in them; the mother's blood and the father's; the capacity for happiness and the capacity for suffering; and in just such a state of enmity and entanglement towards and within each other as were the wolf and man in Harry…. To such men the desperate and horrible thought has come that perhaps the whole of human life is but a bad joke, a violent and ill-fated abortion of the primal mother, a savage and dismal catastrophe of nature.
Yet in Hesse's terms, what the "bad joke" implies will serve ultimately as the only possible means of reconciling man's divided self in some fashion; and thus "humor alone (perhaps the most inborn and brilliant achievement of the spirit) attains to the impossible and brings every aspect of human existence within the rays of its prism." Over thirty years and one World War later, similar concerns permeate Günter Grass's Tin Drum, in which the divisions within man's soul are extended both metaphorically and literally into much broader contexts. From Hesse's initial separation between wolf and man, one moves to divisions between Germany and Poland, Rasputin and Goethe, Satan and God, Beethoven and Chopin, and even the "I" and "Oskar" personae of the narrative voice. And although the humor of Grass's novel cannot be overlooked as a force of reconciliation, there exists another Germanic tradition in which the attempt to synthesize extremes "aborted of the primal mother" can be viewed.
[In Steppenwolf] Hesse alludes to that tradition when he writes how "I had reflected upon the significance of my relation to music, and not for the first time recognized this appealing and fatal relation as the destiny of the entire German spirit. In the German spirit the matriarchal link with nature rules in the form of hegemony of music to an extent unknown in any other people." If modern man has been separated from the maternal umbilical cord, he has been separated no less metaphorically from the musical chord as well, forced to live in what Grass considers a state of "conflicting harmony." Under these conditions, he who writes a memoir becomes faced with a double burden, very similar to that besetting the musical composer. At the same time that Oskar Matzerath, Grass's tin drummer, will "disentangle my knotted history with the help of many words" to present the melody of his life, he must also attempt to "harmonize chaos" to provide a musical framework for, and make musical sense of, the particular notes played. [In an endnote, Olster continues: "See Patrick O'Neill, 'Musical Form and the Pauline Message in a Key Chapter of Grass's Blechtrommel,' Seminar, 10 (1974), 298-307. This is the most detailed study that exists of Grass's novel in relation to music. But O'Neill focuses on one small part of the work—the last chapter in Book One—and uses music to provide a structural definition for that portion of the novel: 'Beginning with an introductory passage centered on Meyn, the musician, there follows what one might call two main movements, the first concerning the murder of the four tomcats by Meyn and his consequent expulsion from the mounted SA, the second containing the account of the Reichskristallnacht and Oskar's consequent rejection of St. Paul's message of faith, hope, and charity. The chapter closes with a short coda or finale reprising and juxtaposing the motifs of Meyn's murder of his cats and the death of the Jewish toystore-owner Markus.'"]
If musical harmony results from the arrangement of triadic tones into chords, the reconciliation for which Oskar strives can be transposed into various musical alternatives. Ideally, he attempts to recapture the stable sound of the tonic, freely admitting that "Oskar's aim is to get back to the umbilical cord; that is the sole purpose behind this whole vast verbal effort." It thus becomes no coincidence that his narrative begins by discussing "The Wide Skirt" of his grandmother, under which Joseph Koljaiczek finds both shelter from external dangers and an opportunity to implant the seed of Oskar's mother. If Oskar does not always succeed in returning to the tonic in quite this same manner, he still displays numerous actions in which he performs metaphorically similar functions. Throughout the book, Oskar finds himself hiding under tables, beneath rostrums, within cupboards, inside cellars, and even in bathrooms to avoid detection from the outside world, or "life beneath the light bulbs" as he calls it. He finally comes closest to the safety of those "four great, asylum-giving skirts" in the very madhouse from which he writes his story.
On the other hand, Oskar can also structure the melody of his piece around the dominant chordal tone, thus imparting to his composition a musical quality far different from the completed sound of the tonic, attributing to the work a decidedly inconclusive tone. If the security of the tonic can best be found in the picture of Oskar's grandmother and her Kashubian potato fields, nowhere in the novel is the inconclusive dominant better depicted than in the portrait of Oskar's grandfather, the incendiary Joseph Koljaiczek. While running from yet another set of pursuers, leaping from raft to raft in an attempt to cross a river, Koljaiczek is forced to dive under water and is heard from no more. Although the whereabouts of his body remain unknown, the legend surrounding his fate does not—and Oskar hears of him having drifted to Buffalo, New York, changed his name to Joe Colchic, and become a thriving lumber importer in the best Horatio Alger style. However much Oskar may enjoy the isolation of his mental hospital at certain times, at others he cannot help wondering about the possibilities inherent in "'America, the land where people find whatever they have lost, even missing grandfathers.'"
This apparent separation between the tonic and the dominant tones suggests why neither can effectively provide Oskar with a means of coping with his experience. They each contain within themselves obvious individual shortcomings, but they fail more dramatically in that they both limit the complexity of the experience Oskar wishes to present—in much the same way that a single note can never recapture the richness of a chord. And to limit experience in this way is to ignore it. Thus, even though Oskar always has favored the romantic Jan Bronski over the utilitarian Alfred Matzerath, considering the former his real father and the latter his presumptive father, he finally recognizes Bronski's true shallowness. During the attack on the Polish Post Office, Bronski's character shows itself in all its limitations and forces Oskar to conclude:
the truth is that he had never fully understood, he had never been anything but a blue-eyed boy, smelling of cologne and incapable of understanding certain things, and so he simply could not understand why Kobyella suddenly dropped all his cards, tugged at the laundry basket with the letters in it and the dead man on top of the letters, until first the dead man, then a layer of letters, and finally the whole excellently plaited basket toppled over, sending us a wave of letters as though we were the addressees …
At its best, any attempt to establish harmony between opposing forces by simply ignoring one half of those forces must fight a self-generating dialectical process in which "in this world of ours every Rasputin has his Goethe, that every Rasputin draws a Goethe or if you prefer every Goethe a Rasputin in his wake, or even makes one if need be, in order to be able to condemn him later on." Any attempt Oskar makes to return to the womb therefore can only be doomed from the start, as he realizes in hindsight. "Who will take me under her skirts today? Who will shelter me from the daylight and the lamplight? Who will give me the smell of melted yellow, slightly rancid butter that my grandmother used to stock for me beneath her skirts and feed me to make me put on weight?" At its worst, however, this attempt to establish a harmony by neglect comes all too close to imposing a harmony by subjugation—portrayed in its more glaring form by the Nazi takeover of Poland during the Second World War. And what results is silence, for after the Kristallnacht ends, all the musical instruments in Markus's store lie shattered.
The only effort to recapture the triadic fullness of harmony through inclusion rather than exclusion comes from the Catholic Church. Aside from the recurrence of the number "Three" in the book, whose significance Oskar makes explicit on his thirtieth birthday, the transubstantiation of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost seems not unlike what is achieved by the convergence of three separate notes into one chord. Yet as portrayed in the novel, the qualities comprising this theoretical fusion keep tending more toward separation than synthesis. At the Church of the Sacred Heart, then, Oskar sees a sculpture of Jesus whose muscular figure suggests a decathlon-winner—and although he feels faith enveloping him, and although he can kneel and make the sign of the Cross, Oskar cannot successfully associate words like "blessed" or "afflicted" with Jesse Owens and Rudolf Harbig.
Most often, this musical seam-stretching emblematic of the Catholic Church shows itself as an inability to unify the satanic with the celestial. At Oskar's baptism, Father Wiehnke asks him if he renounces Satan, and Jan Bronski answers in the affirmative before Oskar can react in any way. Still, this in no way inhibits Oskar from asking the Satan within himself, "'Did you get through it all right?'" as soon as the baptismal party leaves the church. Because Catholicism cannot completely exclude the idea of Evil from its tenets, precisely because its theological basis lies so largely in the concept of Original Sin, the separation Catholicism fosters does not suggest the isolation of playing one note of a chord, whether it be tonic or dominant. Instead, the Church fosters the separation which arises from playing all the necessary notes of a chord, but not hitting all the appropriate piano keys at the same moment. What one hears is first one note, then a second note, and finally a third.
This characteristic of the Church can be seen most clearly in the way the novel portrays sexuality in regard to religion. In almost every sexual encounter Oskar discusses, the female figure involved is viewed as either a Madonna or a nun. Therefore, when the appropriately-named Maria takes Oskar to go bathing at Brösen and proceeds to undress in front of her diminutive charge, Oskar sees her abdominal nakedness with horror. "Of course he knew from his poor mama that women were not bald down there, but for him Maria was not a woman in the sense in which his mama has shown herself to be a woman in her dealings with Matzerath or Jan Bronski." And this in turn causes "Rage, shame, indignation, disappointment, and a nascent half-comical, half-painful stiffening of my watering can under my bathing suit…."
Similar events occur in Oskar's dealings with nurses, all of whom wear red and white crosses during the day and are denoted as "Sister." In the third section of the novel, Oskar takes Sister Gertrude to one of the postwar nightclubs in Düsseldorf, but becomes very conscious of the fact that "Sister Gertrude did not come as Sister Gertrude in white with a Red Cross pin, she came in miserably cut civilian dress as Miss Gertrude Wilms from Hamm or Dortmund or one of those towns between Dortmund and Hamm." Her successor, Sister Dorothea of Zeidler's boardinghouse, embodies this alternation between the sexual and the religious even more vividly for Oskar. Once again, Oskar initially sees this dichotomy in terms of her wardrobe; he finds a black patent leather belt—reminiscent of the novel's earlier eel imagery—which he assumes to be her after-dark attire. Later, however, Oskar discovers the good Sister's sexual underside in perhaps the most humorous episode of his narrative. He inadvertently surprises her while she sits in the bathroom and then frightens her even more by calling himself Satan. But Oskar soon discovers how quickly Sister Dorothea's cries of alarmed resistance turn into anticipatory moans of "'Come, Satan, come!'" while lying on the coconut fiber rug—moans which only metamorphose back into normal speaking tones because, to Oskar's dismay, Satan's not in the mood, and "When Satan's not in the mood, virtue triumphs."
In the end, the only reconciliation afforded by the Catholic Church is that which allows Oskar's mother to attend Thursday afternoon assignations with Jan Bronski and then go to attend Saturday afternoon confessions with Father Wiehnke. As such, the ultimate effects of this harmonic consolidation appear not so very different from those of harmonic isolation. Just how dangerous its consequences can be is seen in the way Oskar depicts the coming of the Nazis at the end of the novel's first section. "He's coming, He's coming. Who is coming? The Christ child, the Saviour? Or is it the heavenly gasman with the gas meter under his arm, that always goes ticktock?"
What becomes apparent through this dramatic seizure of power, imagistically combining tonics, dominants, and chords into a cacophony of sound, is the fact that the world of The Tin Drum affords no place for harmony of any sort. No man in it, as Peter J. Graves remarks [in "Günter Grass's Die Blechtrommel and Örtlich betäubt: The Pain of Polarities," in Forum for Modern Language Studies, No. 9 (1973)], has the ability "to reconcile the two conflicting natures within himself, to harmonize that part of him which cries out for action and creativity, but which can so easily lead to unrestrained excess, and that part which prefers reason and order, but which can unwittingly degenerate into stifling systematization with a concomitant suppression of instinct and feelings." And if, in recognizing this, one leaves behind familiar major and minor scales, one must then reassess the type of world in which Günter Grass works. Or more specifically, one must determine the particular key in which he plays.
It becomes a topsy-turvy world containing preternaturally aged children and immature adults. Oskar emerges from the womb as "one of those clairaudient infants whose mental development is completed at birth and after that merely needs a certain amount of filling in." If a toy drum is promised to him at that point, it only verbally attests to a contract which has been signed long before; "when I was still an embryo, before Oskar was even called Oskar, my umbilical cord, as I sat playing it, promised me successively drumsticks, Herbert's scars, the occasionally erupting craters of young and not so young women, and finally the ring finger…." If Oskar then protects that drum more carefully than his own body—gently carrying one down the stairs while flinging the other upon cement—he does so because childlike drumming is more preferable to him than adult maturation. As Henry Hatfield summarizes [in "The Artist as Satirist: Günter Grass," in Crisis and Continuity in Modern German Fiction: Ten Essays, 1969] "he does not seem to want to attain normality in an abnormal world."
And why should Oskar desire "normality" if its exemplars are those adults surrounding him? All they reveal to him is a lack of discipline, a devotion to the excessive in one form or another—from his mother's gargantuan ingestion of fish, to Gretchen Scheffler's unceasing manufacture of baby clothes, to Albrecht Greff's monomaniacal cultivation of his body—behavior which only leads to their downfalls in appropriate ways—Oskar's mother dies of fish poisoning, Gretchen Scheffler remains childless, and Albrecht Greff receives a court summons on a morals charge. Or, to use Robert Maurer's words [in "The End of Innocence in The Tin Drum," Bucknell Review 16, No. 2 (1968)] "The adults in Oskar's world are simply unconscious." Furthermore, these immature adults face a threat from those very beings to whom they give life, not so much from the innocence of those children, but more from their manipulative forces. From the moment of his birth, Oskar "decided to do certain things and on no account to do certain others," and some of these decisions lead, at least indirectly, to the deaths of both his presumptive and real fathers (whichever one is which). When one behaves like a child in Grass's world—as does Oskar's teacher, Miss Spollenhauer, for a moment—one becomes "curious, complex, and"—most of all—"immoral."
Giving impetus to this immoral force is the sense that it functions in a world which promises a minimum amount of satisfaction arising from a maximum amount of frustration. No character seems well suited to his or her spouse, and everyone seems to be operating at cross-purposes. In its most glaring form, this tendency manifests itself in the novel's sexual crosscurrents. It causes Agnes Koljaiczek to marry Alfred Matzerath even though her affections lie with her cousin Jan Bronski. In a more bizarre manner, it underlies Herbert Truczinski's attempt to join flesh with wood by driving an axe between his own body and that of the statuesque Niobe—and then dying with his erection intact. And seen most consistently, it characterizes all of Oskar's sexual escapades. Notwithstanding the numerous experiences of Oskar in which Satan is either "not in the mood" or remains "all too long in the mood," those occasions of satanic satisfaction still appear tinted with the grotesque. When Oskar has sex with a woman of his own age, like Maria for instance, the differences in physical height render the encounter awkward. But when Oskar has sex with the one woman in the novel whose size matches his own, he can never be sure if Roswitha Raguna is a very young girl or a very old woman.
More importantly, however, the meaninglessness resulting from this world at cross-purposes only encourages the most destructive proclivities of the child's immoral force. Early in the novel, Oskar decides to climb the steps of the Stockturm, passing the building's torture chambers and dungeons on his way up the stairs. Yet, when he finally reaches the top of the spiral staircase, Oskar only "felt a heaviness in his legs, but it seemed to him that he could have kept on climbing for ages. The staircase had given up first. In a flash Oskar understood the absurdity, the futility of building towers." What Oskar then does in response to this recognition, and what he does throughout the rest of the book with "an energy born of desperation," displays the greatest horror lurking behind a universe in which the synthesis of opposing forces remains impossible:
up there on the tower, I who had hitherto screamed only for good and sufficient reason, became a gratuitous screamer. Until the day when I took it into my head to climb the Stockturm I had projected my cutting notes upon glasses, light bulbs, beer bottles, but only when someone wanted to take away my drum; now on the tower I screamed though my drum was not even remotely threatened.
If the needed synthesis of musical harmony can never be achieved, the anarchic danger erupting from that failure appropriately takes the a-musical shape of noise.
If Grass simply presents a world tending toward unrelieved anarchy, he appears to fit snugly into the postmodern niche inhabited by authors like Thomas Pynchon, who views this phenomenon as increased entropy, and Samuel Beckett, who dramatizes it as the very breakdown of language. Yet, The Tin Drum does not stop with this conclusion of a world gone haywire; if Grass admits that any attempt at harmony always will fail to shut out the encroaching noise of the universe, he also provides in the novel's title one potential defense against the formless scream. [In an endnote, Olster continues: "Keith Miles sees this defense suggested in the book's jacket-cover as well. In designing the cover, Grass deliberately exaggerates the drum's size so that its thematic centrality is emphasized. See Keith Miles, Günter Grass."] A. F. Bance [in "The Enigma of Oskar in Grass's Blechtrommel," Seminar 3, (Fall 1967)] would disagree: "This instrument, which Oskar continually proclaims as a medium of communication, is, in fact, complete non-communication. It is a means of non-meaningful utterance." But the drum cannot communicate to those who do not listen properly. Rather than dealing with musical harmony in any form, or with fusions in any way, the tin drum concerns itself with another attribute of music—rhythm. Instead of attempting to combine the various tones of music into any recognizable synthesis, the drum takes these inevitable differences in sound for granted, but imposes over them a regularity or flow of movement. An early photograph of Oskar on his birthday shows him wearing clothes suggestive of both Rasputin and Goethe, enabling him "with but a single drum, to be in St. Petersburg and in Weimar at once, descending to the realm of the Mothers and celebrating orgies with ladies." Similarly neither does the drum deny certain musical tones to facilitate a pleasant isolation, but deals with all the given factors; what makes Vittlar like Oskar so much is "that drumming of his, which resolved evil into its rhythmical components."
Because Grass's use of the drum spans many different contexts of the novel, and because the device often works against certain stereotypes—like that of jazz having no rhythmical beat—it becomes as crucial to identify what the drum is not as it is to identify what the drum actually is. The pitfall of misconstruing the function of the drum occurs as early as the promise of Oskar's first musical gift. When the reasons behind Oskar's desire to drum first appear, they serve as a polar contrast to the life of the grocery store which Matzerath plans for Oskar—"To avoid playing the cash register I clung to my drum…." As such, this rejection of grocery store order seems to imply that the drum rejects all order. W. Gordon Cunliffe thus sees Oskar's drum as "an equivalent of infantile dynamism" [in Günter Grass, 1969]. This impression deepens still more after Oskar and his instrument make their first popular appearance. Having gone to a Nazi propaganda rally, Oskar becomes so disturbed by the symmetry of the rostrum that he finally begins to play his drum, disrupting the entire meeting and causing all its members to start dancing. To Oskar, it seems as if he has released "pure chaos." He peppers his description with references to Sodom and Gomorrah and Nineveh. And Edward Diller believes him. "Oskar, therefore, creates a chaotic satyr play out of one of man's most organized events—a political rally" [A Mythic Journey: Günter Grass's "Tin Drum," 1974]. When Oskar then goes on to renounce any political or social affiliations he may have—"For it was not only demonstrations of a brown hue that I attacked with my drumming. Oskar huddled under the rostrum for Reds and Blacks, for Boy Scouts and Spinach Shirts, for Jehovah's Witnesses, the Kyffhäuser Bund, the Vegetarians, and the Young Polish Fresh Air Movement. Whatever they might have to sing, trumpet, or proclaim, my drum knew better"—one can only suspect that the drum serves as an instrument of anarchy, breaking up any sources of codification and regimentation.
If this is the case, the drum used by Oskar serves no different purpose than his scream, an interpretation most commentators seem to favor. Alexander Gelley [in "Art and Reality in Die Blechtrommel," Forum for Modern Language Studies 3 (April 1967)], for instance, writes how "Oskar's own supposed artistic powers, his drumming and his glass-shattering singing, are the central symbols of the impotence and destructiveness of the creative impulse." Bance agrees, and goes on to consider Oskar's drum and voice as fitting weapons—"They are a reflection of the strident, destructive character of his age…." But to equate Oskar's drum with his voice is to contradict the facts as presented in the novel. It must be remembered that Oskar originally begins screaming when someone, usually an adult, threatens to take away his drum. The tin drum thus serves as the only barrier preventing the noise of Oskar's voice from reaching the outside world. In fact, as Oskar later uses his voice more freely, when "in the heyday and decadence of his art, he exercised it even when not impelled by outward circumstances. Succumbing to the mannerism of a late period, he began to sing out of pure playfulness, becoming as it were a devotee of art for art's sake," the prohibitory task of the drum even grows in difficulty.
Furthermore, Oskar's drum and Oskar's scream produce decidedly different effects upon their listeners. Oskar himself describes what he does with each in different ways: "In the daytime I assaulted the symmetry of rostrums; at night—this was the winter of '36 to '37—I played the tempter." While his drumming does indeed break up the Nazi propaganda rally during the day, the people who attend the meeting do not run amuck through the streets of Danzig—instead, their dancing displays a strict adherence to rhythm, both in the three-four waltz time with which Oskar begins drumming and the quicker Charleston tempo into which he later moves. Although Oskar may view these results as chaotic, the people do preserve some form of social order between themselves. In contrast, the screams which Oskar produces during the night negate any semblance of social community and cause his unsuspecting victims to steal. Oskar may try to rationalize these consequences of his screams, saying that his victims now know themselves better, but these people only discover the anarchic power of the id seething beneath their own consciousness. The distinction between drum and voice takes on moral overtones, as Irène Leonard makes clear. "The drumming is creative, either as art or as protest, while his glass-shattering, playful and arbitrary, is destructive" [Günter Grass, 1974].
Just as the rhythm of the tin drum must be distinguished from the a-harmonic and a-rhythmical scream, the ameliorative qualities which that rhythm provides must be distinguished from those same qualities which the Church's harmony only attempts to provide. As with the scream and the drum, it initially appears easy to confuse Oskar's drumming with religion, an identification seemingly encouraged by certain elements in the novel. For example, when Oskar stands by the left side-altar in the Church of the Sacred Heart, he sees an unmistakable resemblance between himself and the sculpted figure of Jesus—"I take a good look at Jesus and recognize my spit and image. He might have been my twin brother. He had my stature and exactly my watering can, in those days employed exclusively as a watering can. He looked out into the world with my cobalt blue Bronski eyes and—this was what I resented most—he had my very own gestures." In addition, Oskar's drum is significantly pictured as being red and white. Yet, one must again recall the origin of Oskar's instrument. Although he begins drumming to renounce grocery store life, the language used to depict that literal rejection exhibits a metaphoric rejection of the Church as well. Thus, Oskar begins drumming "in order to be exempted from the big and little catechism and in order not, once grown to five-foot-eight adulthood, to be driven by this man who face to face with his shaving mirror called himself my father, into a business, the grocery business…." He rebels against "life beneath the light bulbs" and "the kind of absolution that light bulbs confer, [after which] there would be no further occasion for sin and folly."
Because this kind of absolution strives for harmony rather than rhythm, for erasing contrarieties instead of accepting them, the difference between Oskar and Jesus becomes the difference between the drummer and the nondrummer. Early in the novel, Oskar hangs his drum on the sculpted Jesus, puts the drumsticks into the figure's hands, and waits for what he calls a miracle. As Leonard explains, "he feels that the Church above all places ought to be the rightful home for his drum, for both drum and Church have pledged themselves to fight for the highest ideals of mankind, for Faith, Hope and Love." Yet Jesus does not drum for him, producing "a clear indication for Oskar that he is to replace this god of plaster who cannot grasp the rhythms of life, who cannot deliver his message and therefore cannot redeem mankind" [Edward Diller, A Mythic Journey]. Oskar begins identifying with Jesus in a new way—not in terms of equality, but rather in terms of superiority. "With a snap of my fingers I can equal if not surpass God the Father, the only begotten Son, and most important of all, the Holy Ghost." However, if this makes Oskar a "realer Jesus" than Jesus, this supremacy lasts only as long as the Church continues to seek for harmonic union. When Oskar hangs his drum on the figure of Jesus for a second time and does not expect a miracle, the results of this second experiment differ drastically from those of the first.
While round us nothing stirred, he started in with his right stick, then a tap or two with the left, then both together. Blessed if he isn't crossing his sticks, say, that roll wasn't bad. He was very much in earnest and there was plenty of variety in his playing. He did some very complicated things but his simple rhythms were just as successful. There was nothing phony about his playing, he steered clear of gimmicks and just played the drum. His style wasn't even religious, and there was no military vulgarity about it. He was a musician through and through, but no snob. He knew all the hits.
In this way—and only in this way—can religion become capable of effectively dealing with an absurd world. Only by extending his range, "playing all the hits" instead of only one or two, can the figure of Jesus become an active rather than a passive entity.
This necessity for varied rhythm leads to the final distinction which must be made, that between using the drum and abusing the drum. Albrecht Greff plays only one rhythm, and transforms the flexibility of the drum into the rigidity of the drumming machine. Even though the machine first appeals to Oskar as a kindred spirit for his own instrument, he soon recognizes the difference between his own use of the drum and that of the merchant. "Greff may have taken an idea or two from me, but the machine was intended for himself; for its finale was his finale"—and what the greengrocer gets out of his stringent sense of rhythm is only a "well-balanced death" in which mankind becomes equivalent to 165 pounds of potatoes. Oskar's son Kurt exhibits the opposite behavior toward the drum; instead of playing the skins, he flays them. "But the sounds he produced were not drumbeats. Not even the most rudimentary rhythm was discernible. With a look of frantic concentration he hammered ruthlessly at an instrument that had never expected such a drummer, that was made for a light roll, a playful flourish, and not for the blows of a nautical battering ram."
The key to the drum lies in the "hope of a sensitive drummer who would wield the sticks with authority but without brutality," and throughout the novel Oskar's drum reacts against brutality in any form, whether it be the brutality of order or the brutality of anarchy. As Keith Miles realizes, "Oskar's championing of individuality is not only a response to Nazism. His protest is against uniformity of any kind" [Günter Grass, 1975]. This does not imply that Oskar drums against order or anarchy per se, but rather that he drums against the tyrannic imposition of only one at the expense of the other—in short, against the excesses of each. If, at the present time of his narrative, Oskar conjures up Poland with his drumsticks, he does so to recapture "the land of the Poles that is lost to the Germans, for the moment at least." He does not conjure up Poland out of any qualitative superiority he feels the Pole to have over the German—after all, Jan Bronski is no more admirable a figure than Alfred Matzerath. Neither does Oskar attempt to recapture a perfect balance between the two—the very hump on his back attests to the fact that beauty lies not in balance. Instead, Oskar conjures up Poland because Poland has always been a part of the world in one shape or another, because the softness of Jan Bronski has always been a part of man's psyche in one form or another. To evict Poland from the universe is metaphorically equivalent to relinquishing a part of oneself—and leaving an open doorway for the reconstitution of excess. "Nowadays the Germans have started searching for Poland with credits, Leicas, and compasses, with radar, divining rods, delegations, and moth-eaten provincial students' associations in costume…. One of these days they will go searching for Poland with rockets."
If this quality of excess characterizes all the adults in Grass's world, Oskar has no choice but to remain a dwarf if his drum is to regulate such extremes. The irony of this condition, of course, lies in Oskar's not understanding his musical function for a good portion of his life and feeling intense guilt over what he feels to be the destructive consequences of his performances. What he wants after Bronski's death is a "new and guiltless drum." Similarly, while standing by the grave of Matzerath, Oskar decides he must accept responsibility for Matzerath's death and for the family the grocer has left behind—which he can accomplish only by throwing his drum into Matzerath's grave. Because Oskar accepts responsibility in this manner, critics like Cunliffe and Diller see him as undergoing a "rebirth." [In an endnote, Olster continues: "Cunliffe writes, 'After 1945 he (Oscar) undergoes a kind of rebirth, beginning with the burial of the Nazi Matzerath, when Oskar throws his infantile drum into the grave, telling himself that he should have done so sixteen years ago during his visit to Jan Bronski's grave in the same cemetery.' By seeing that relinquishment as 'a symbolic gesture of renunciation,' Diller concludes, 'This all signifies rebirth for Oskar, who is described as covered with blood, seized in trauma, growing rapidly, shocked with pain, and taken by fever.'"] Yet, the first consequences of this renunciation show the immediate resurgence of excess—the anarchic Kurt throws a stone at the back of Oskar's head and Oskar begins to grow like an adult. In much the same way, the postwar Germany into which Oskar's drumming does not intrude seems more garishly excessive than the Germany before and during the war, which has sampled of Oskar's art quite frequently. And while living in this postwar environment sans drum, Oskar too imbibes of this excess, dressing himself in dandified clothing, socializing in sleazy nightclubs, and, worst of all for Grass, becoming thoroughly Americanized.
Oskar must learn that the assumption of individual guilt for only particular actions displays a rather shortsighted view of the human condition. If being childlike is being immoral in Grass's world, then the conscious assumption of guilt with the concurrent implication that guilt can be assuaged becomes a superfluous and erroneous supposition. As the painter RaskoInikov—and the name is obviously not coincidental—tells Oskar, "'Nothing is ended, everything returns, guilt, atonement, more guilt'." Thus, when Oskar takes up his instrument again in order to play with Klepp, what he returns to is an account of his life, from infancy onwards. It is this return which constitutes a purification for Oskar. If Oskar has been "resurrected," he has been resurrected from the postwar hedonism into which he has plunged to exonerate himself from guilt. Similarly, when Oskar drums at the Onion Cellar, both he and his audience are forced to a return. "It was a three-year-old Oskar who picked up those drumsticks. I drummed my way back, I drummed up the world as a three-year-old sees it. And the first thing I did to these postwar humans incapable of a real orgy was to put a harness on them…." He removes the customers from cheap onions that promise quick purgation and artificially-induced tears that offer immediate freedom from inhibitions.
Moreover, these same tears which presumably wash away inhibitions also blind in the process. By returning the customers to infancy, the rhythm of Oskar's drum awakens them from an immersion in the present and brings them to a view of their pasts. William L. Sharfman correctly suggests that the reader responds in a similar fashion. "The drum, then, is the means of conjuring up all wisps of memory, and the sounds of the drum evoke and associate the experiences that have at different times accompanied it…. For the drum makes the narrative formally coherent" ["The Organization of Experience in The Tin Drum," Minnesota Review 6 (1966)]. What the rhythm of the drum does is establish periodicity. When Oskar drums with Klepp, he begins "relating everything in order," from the moment of his birth, through his fall down the cellar stairs, through the saga of Herbert Truczinski and the defense of the Polish Post Office, right up to the present time. He includes both the events for which he has felt responsible as well as the events for which he has felt no responsibility—for he recognizes that ultimately the guilt he feels extends to them all. N. L. Thomas may see Oskar "opting out of any moral obligations towards others" ["Oskar, The Unreliable Narrator in Günter Grass's Die Blechtrommel," New German Studies 3 (1975)], and Alexander Gelley may see the novel as a "Bildungsroman in reverse," but at the end of the novel Oskar does assume the blame for Sister Dorothea's death, even though he remains literally innocent of the crime.
By its containment of all that occurs, by treating all the various musical notes as it were, the periodicity of the drum's rhythm reflects "the sense of a more than symbolic identity of the sickness of the human mind and of the world at large—which is developed as a vast panoramic view" [Ralph Freedman, "The Poet's Dilemma: The Narrative Worlds of Günter Grass," Dimension, Special Issue (1970)]. And out of that awareness comes a historical perspective. "Inevitably the thread of events wound itself into loops and knots which became known as the fabric of History. I also saw that activities such as thumb-twiddling, frowning, looking up and down, handshaking, making babies, counterfeiting, turning out the light, brushing teeth, shooting people, and changing diapers were being practiced all over the world, though not always with the same skill." It becomes a perspective which operates on the personal, the social, and even the cosmic level. It allows the World War II burning of Danzig to be seen as more than just an isolated event, for "this was not the first fire to descend on the city of Danzig. For centuries Pomerellians, Brandenburgers, Teutonic Knights, Poles, Swedes, and a second time Swedes, Frenchmen, Prussians, and Russians, even Saxons, had made history by deciding every few years that the city of Danzig was worth burning. And now it was the Russians, Poles, Germans, and Englishmen all at once who were burning the city's Gothic bricks for the hundredth time." But this rhythmical perspective is no less creative than panoramic. It allows Oskar to narrate his tale, since it is through his drum that he "remembers all the incidentals that I need to get the essential down on paper."
As the establisher of this rhythm, Oskar becomes thrust into the role of Redeemer, he who will "find a way out of this concrete landscape, this fortified world, this vegetable called Rommel asparagus" and a century called "BARBARIC, MYSTICAL, BORED." However, one should not forget that this world is still the same world of "inconstant harmony" characterized by an abundance of elements either irresolvable or resolvable only in unbalanced proportions. If the absolute sublimity of musical harmony can never be attained, neither can absolute happiness. Any redemption offered by Oskar's drum produces at best "ersatz happiness," and "perhaps happiness exists only as an ersatz, perhaps all happiness is an ersatz for happiness."
Yet there remains something uplifting in a lack of resolution. If Oskar's melody does not end on the tonic, neither does it end on the dominant, or the subdominant for that matter. If he can end his narrative by drumming out the terrifying tune of the Black Witch, he also retains the possibility of concluding his melody as he does his recital with Klepp—"with a hymn, a song of hope, suggesting that perhaps the vanished arsonist had been miraculously saved." There remains something appealing in a lack of balance. Oskar's back may be lopsided, but it is in the unbalanced hump that his attractiveness resides. And, finally, there remains something aesthetically pleasing in the unharmonic song of ersatz happiness, a beauty which lies beneath the notes. When Meyn the trumpeter plays his instrument in the SA band, he makes few mistakes, but his playing is only "loud and sober," no longer "too beautiful for words." Ersatz happiness may not be harmonic, but beneath its melody lies the formative tempo of rhythm—and if he who listens to the composition does not hear a perfectly orchestrated concert, he still hears a well-conducted piece nonetheless.
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