Theater der Zeit


Dealing with the unknown

Thoughts on the circus

Fantasies of omnipotence are part of the circus. But they can also be found in every revolution and in every REBELLION OF EMOTIONS. We saw that in the student protests. It led to the question: how does a political intelligentsia, trained in academic artistry, react to the robustness of society, which is based on labour, technical skill and the will to survive? In short: how do the arts relate to the heights of the big top and the earth of the arena? How do they stay down-to-earth at all?”1

von Jenny Patschovsky und Alexander Kluge

Erschienen in: Arbeitsbuch 2022: Circus in flux – Zeitgenössischer Zirkus (07/2022)

Assoziationen: Zirkus



Jenny Patschovsky: Mr Kluge, in your book “Circus Commentary” you juxtapose academic detachment and down-to-earth practicality using the circus as a metaphor. Could the circus also act as a bridge between these two sides?

Alexander Kluge: The circus has two levels that go beyond what theatre can represent. One is the performers in the big top, the human feeling of omnipotence, which has been a driving force since the founding of the circus in the French Revolution. This is not just a drive, not just a desire for sensation, it is also a self-affirmation of what humans can do. And this principle exists when you tame animals in the ring. And in the big top when you can make people fly, as it were, even though they aren’t aeroplanes, that’s artistry. That’s one side. And the other side, the down-to-earth side, is that due to their origin, that is, because of evolution, animals really don’t obey. That they basically cannot be tyran­nised by people, that they have a will of their own. ­Naturally that’s something I find fascinating about the circus: that we are constantly confronted with this ­parallel world of animals, with that which cannot be tamed, which cannot be trained. And so the circus is in fact a wonderful bridge. Or an audience, a plebeian audience, that is, made up of the people, which shows us what humans cannot do and what they can do, and the respect that is actually demanded of them for that which they do not even comprehend. The circus also has something of the miraculous and magical. And that indicates that there are some things that humans just can’t do.

Jenny Patschovsky: These days animals aren’t quite so present in the circus. Can what you say also apply to the apparatures and objects with which the performers work? The indomitable nature of objects and conditions?

Alexander Kluge: I would say: dealing with the unknown is what the circus does. And in that sense, the circus has not yet exhausted its possibilities. Why shouldn’t the circus be a place where you not only deal with the objectivity of the stars to a particular extent as you do in the observatory, but also with the cosmos as our counterpart?
An interface to that which is unknown to humans, that which is alien to us. In normal everyday life, we take what is familiar. In the opera and in the circus, that is, with the music and with this tent, this provisional arrangement, we can commune with the unknown. And the forces of our soul require that because they are wanderers of the horizon as much as they are ­centralists.
“Perplexed is not a negative attribute. Perplexity is a state that triggers search terms. It’s better to be perplexed than inert. The word perplexed indicates that there is a serious question that remains unresolved.
To this day, one issue which creates an emotional dichotomy for me is the ‘feeling of omnipotence within us’. Sigmund Freud described it as the peak of psychological development and at the same time as ­collapse. Without this vigour, we humans would be helplessly exposed to the power of the actual. We not only need the courage to recognise, but also to act – and we cannot pursue this without going astray.”2

Telephone discussion with Alexander Kluge, 26 April 2022

1 Alexander Kluge: Circus Commentary. Suhrkamp, Berlin 2021, p. 25.

2 Ibid., p. 26.



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