NONFICTION: Why Everyone Talks About Ulrike Meinhof
Ulrike Meinhof, Karen Bauer, ed., Everybody Talks About the Weather…We Don’t: The Writings of Ulrike Meinhof
(Seven Stories Press, 2008)
"Complicated” is the word I kept coming back to as I was trying to write this review of Everybody Talks About the Weather…We Don’t: The Writings of Ulrike Meinhof. Of course, it may very well be the applicability of that adjective to both the writings and biography of Meinhof that explains not only the recent publication of a selection of her writings in English, but—more than thirty years after her death—the attention she continues to attract as an icon of, contingent on your point of view, political activism or terrorism.
Though Meinhof is hardly a household name in the United States, she is one in Germany—a result of her involvement with the Red Army Faction (RAF) in the 1970s and her 1976 death in prison, an alleged suicide that some continue to suspect was a political assassination. A subject of ongoing fascination for the German left and right, as well as the subject of numerous artistic and literary projects dating from the late 1970s to today, Meinhof’s recognition in America is largely due to the mainstream media’s tendency to refer to the RAF as “the Baader-Meinhof Gang.” She is also rendered in Gerhard Richter’s RAF-cycle October 18, 1977, a series of paintings that, adding yet another level of potential irony/complication to the whole story, are now owned by the Museum of Modern Art.
According to Karin Bauer, the translator and editor of Everybody Talks About The Weather…We Don’t, the intention behind its publication is not only to make Meinhof’s work available to an English-speaking audience, but to shift the focus from Meinhof’s death and her status as cultural icon—an image primarily authored by others—to the reality of her life and political opinions through her own writing. Or, as Bauer writes in her introduction, in turning from the
…vertiginously chaotic, inconsistent, and charismatic images of Meinhof to her columns, the aim is not to remember her as a figure of innocence or earnest conviction. We cannot and must not erase the violence associated with her name. But we should not let the later part of her life define her completely or let the voices that speak about her or purport to speak for her set the agenda. It is time to let Meinhof speak for herself and to listen to her voice.
The problem, of course, is whether such a recuperation is possible, and if the very limited selection of Meinhof’s writings in the current edition is adequate to the task. They may not be. However, the columns offer, in their candidness, thoughtfulness, and courage, an important addition to our understanding of Meinhof, as well as some insight into the changes that occured in Meinhof’s thinking and writing over a span of eight years. For, while the reality of global climate change may mean that talking about the weather can be, at least these days, a political act, the fact remains that most of our discussions of the daily or weekly forecast are had with those with whom we might not otherwise have something to say. Talking about the weather is tantamount to talking about nothing, which may or may not be a bad thing, unless it is for the purpose of evading the difficult truths that surround us. What Meinhof does so well in this particular selection of columns is remind us that it is possible to discuss the complex and profound injustices around us in ways that are both clear and direct.
Turning first to the practical complications related to the current edition: the title. However provocative the first half of the title, which is taken from one of Meinhof’s columns, the second half is a bit misleading. The book is not a complete collection of Meinhof’s writings, but a small selection of her columns published in the left-wing magazine konkret between 1960 and 1968—a selection that, in her lengthy and informative introduction to Meinhof’s life and legacy, Bauer does not sufficiently account for in terms of what is included in the present edition, what is left out, or the (mostly chronological) arrangement of the material. In fact, the question of what is left out of the present collection is the one that may most complicate Bauer’s intentions for the book. Without the inclusion of a wider selection of writings—particularly those from the RAF period, including what Bauer calls Meinhof’s “repulsive and ill conceived” defense of the attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games—the fear is that the current volume may be seen as yet another piece in the Meinhof-as-icon puzzle, as opposed to an unadulturated portrayal of Meinhof’s own voice.
Fortunately, the book is not only less, but more than the title promises. It includes, in addition to twenty-four columns by Meinhof, a very elegant, compact, and insightful preface by Elfriede Jelinek, the introduction by Bauer, and an afterword by Meinhof’s daughter, Bettina Röhl, who has famously renounced her mother as a communist and spokes-puppet of the former East Germany. Though the publisher includes a note alongside the Röhl essay to make readers aware that the afterword is being included as “a condition set by Bettina Röhl, the daughter of Ulrike Meinhof, in exchange for the publication rights to her mother’s work,” in my opinion, the book is not only more complete, but a more substantial document, as a result of its inclusion.
However narrow the selection of writings in this current collection may be, it is worthwhile for anyone interested in politics—both real and representational. The publication of Everybody Talks About the Weather…We Don’t is an excellent opportunity for each of us to reflect on what Meinhof represents, and the whys and wherefores of her status as cultural icon.