NEW YORK — WHEN Wolfgang Muller donned a smuggled army uniform in 1974 to defect from East Germany, he wanted to escape oppression, not research it.
But this Dickinson College scholar returns to his homeland this month with another defector - colleague Sylvia Kloetzer - to comb the files of the former East German secret police. Their topic: the relationship between totalitarian government and literature.
The collapse of communism in the East has brought new challenges for scholars in the West. Historians, political scientists, and literature professors have far more access to archives and colleagues in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. "I have seen a dramatic explosion" of interest, says Marianne Hirsch, a Dartmouth College professor born in Romania.
But the new era is double-edged. The winds of change that toppled communism also destroyed old assumptions. Eastern writers are taking up new subjects. Western scholars are having to scrap outdated notions. At last week's annual convention of the Modern Language Association here, for example, scholars were struggling to make sense of the new world order.
"It's making things a lot more chaotic," says Tony Vanchu, a Slavic language professor at the University of Texas at Austin. His panel, for example, looked at the role of the human body in Russian literature. Five years ago, Russian writers could not have published explicit and risque material. Today, the Russian literary market is awash with the stuff.
"There's a lot of trash," Professor Vanchu says. "They are going through an almost juvenile fascination" with sexual topics. Some scholars think the new fiction under democracy is worse than the old literature under communism.
"The funny thing is that after '89, Romanian literature and Romanian life have been less interesting," says Eliza Ghil, a Romanian-born professor at the University of New Orleans. In the old days, Romanian writers expressed their discontent through literature. Now, many novelists have diverted their energies to writing political tracts or running for office. One well-known Romanian writer, Nicolae Manolescu, is a senator in his country's newly elected parliament.
"Once everything is permitted, it is not a guarantor that interesting things will be written," adds Helena Goscilo, who chairs the Slavic department at the University of Pittsburgh.
But other scholars say it is too early to tell what direction the new fiction will take. Writers from the former East Germany have not yet written a novel about the fall of the Berlin Wall, they point out. "That is one of the most interesting questions," says Brent Peterson, a German-language professor at Duquesne University. "What will they write next?" Under communism, at least, writers didn't have to worry about money. They had salaries from their writers' union, Professor Peterson says. Now, they are
having to reorient themselves to write books that sell.
In the West, scholars are also having to adjust. "I think we will all have to reevaluate," says Professor Muller of Dickinson in Carlisle, Pa.
He already knows, for example, that some of his original assumptions about East German writers were wrong. For example, one writer Muller thought was a communist supporter turns out to be something of a white knight, he says. Two other writers, members of the dissident Prenzlauer Berg group, were actually informers.
THUS, scholars are having to delve more deeply into what once seemed black and white. "If someone is artist and informer at the same time, where is the boundary?," Professor Kloetzer asks. That's one question she and Muller hope to begin answering this month.
By looking at the impact of oppression on literature and new ethnic tensions in the East, scholars say they are addressing broad themes that should interest everybody.
"We are kind of worried about the explosion of racism in the United States. Look at Yugoslavia!," says Doina Harsanyi, a research associate at the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Michigan. The less-heated ethnic tensions in Romania "could serve as a testing ground."
Ironically, the ranks of Communist Party members have dwindled far more than the ranks of Marxist scholars in the US. This year's social gathering of the Marxist Literary Group, an allied organization of the Modern Language Association, was as packed as ever.
Some nonfundamental Marxists did get disillusioned, says George Yudice, a professor of romance languages at Hunter College in New York. But "the Soviet Union was always something that saddled the left. Now, that's over.... I would say it looks like an opportunity."
"I come to these conventions thinking: `So, Marxism is dead,' " says John Beverley, a professor of Hispanic language and literature at the University of Pittsburgh. "But look!"
He waves his arm to show a crowd far larger than the prim congregation of Byron, Keats, and Shelley scholars who are meeting downstairs.