The result of this philosophical assistance: A clear conscience is no conscience at all. Everyone is alone with his or her conscience. For this reason, public acts of conscience are in danger of becoming symbolic. And nothing is more alien to conscience than symbolism, however well-intentioned. This “thoroughgoing withdrawal into one’s self” cannot be represented. It must remain “inward solitude.” You can’t demand from others what you would like to receive but are not willing to give – or cannot give. And this is not just German idealist philosophy. It is, for example, put into practice in literature – in Kleist’s play The Prince of Hamburg. And now I can share something beautiful after all. Wonderful scenes in Kleist’s play in which the conscience is respected, perhaps even celebrated, as the epitome of the personal. The cavalry general Prince of Homburg has acted contrary to orders in battle; the Elector condemns him to death and then suddenly announces: “He is pardoned!” Natalie can scarcely believe it: “He is pardoned? He’s not going to die now?” she asks. The Elector replies: “I bear deep within me, as is well known to you, the highest respect for his moral feeling: he goes free!” Thus it is made entirely dependent on the moral feeling of the condemned man whether the sentence of death is carried out. If the condemned man can regard the sentence as unjust, he is free.
This is the freedom of conscience I’m talking about. Conscience, left to itself, creates enough illusion. But when it is commanded publicly, only illusion rules. Does not each person nurture and conceal deep within himself a cabinet of mirrors designed for the production of self-esteem? Is not each person an institution for the licensing of the most irreconcilable contradictions? Is not each person a conveyor belt for an endless dialectic of truth and lies? Each person a warrior of conscience led by vanity? Or am I generalizing too much here, just to find company for my own weakness? I cannot omit the question: would the general public really be poorer or coarser in conscience if poets and thinkers had not come forward as guardians of the national conscience? [ . . . ]
One would like to confront the soldiers of public opinion with this example when they, with moral pistol extended, force the writer into the service of opinion. In any event, they have brought matters to the point where writers no longer need to be read, only interviewed. The fact that the pronouncements that arise in this way are either not verifiable or flatly contradicted in the works of those authors is a matter of no concern to the guardians of opinion and conscience, since the literary text has no utility for them.
[ . . . ]
Source of English translation: Martin Walser, “Experiences while Composing a Sunday Speech (1998),” in The Burden of the Past: Martin Walser on Modern German Identity: Texts, Contexts, Commentary, by Thomas A. Kovach and Martin Walser. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2008, pp. 88-94. Reproduced here with the permission of Camden House.
Source of original German text: Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels, ed., Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels 1998, Martin Walser. Ansprachen aus Anlaß der Verleihung [Peace Prize oft he German Book Trade, 1998. Martin Walser. Speech Delivered at the Awards Ceremony], Frankfurt am Main: Verlag der Buchhändler-Vereinigung, 1998.