Category Archives: History

Teaching Storm’s “The Rider on the White Horse”

41siL+8ITpL In my German culture survey course I recently had the opportunity to teach a unit on Theodor Storm’s novella The Rider on the White Horse. My motivation for including this unit was to give the students the opportunity to explore the relation between the text as an artistic artifact and its historical context. This is important work for students in general, but especially for the students who are drawn into this particular survey course. The students at my current institution are all affiliated in one way or another with the American military community here in Germany. They are motivated by a desire to become better acquainted with their host country, and many arrive with intellectual commitments leaning more towards the political history component of the course. Since the course is more cultural history, what is at stake in looking at cultural documents (literature, films, works of art, all of which we cover) is to work through with the students the historical and political stakes of aesthetic objects.

Theodor Storm’s The Rider on the White Horse (Der Schimmelreiter in German) is a very handy text for discussing the relation between the seemingly abstract (say, realism as epistemology) and the text’s “concrete” material historical context. The story is a frame narrative about the construction of a dike in Friesland, the main character, Hauke Haien, is an autodidact in geometry who overcomes the barriers imposed by a quasi-feudalistic order to realize the Promethean project of wresting arable land out of the sea. The novella is also a ghost story, as the project claims Haien’s life and he haunts the dike as a kind of revenant.

I paired the novella with excerpts from David Blackbourn’s The Conquest of Nature, an environmental history of hydrological engineering in Germany. Blackbourn’s thesis is that projects like dam building, river straightening, etc. were a crucial condition for the process of state formation in Germany from the eighteenth century to the present. Putting the novel within the context of environmental history not only speaks to student interest, but opens up possibilities for making the theoretical issues that undergird the story clear to students encountering those concepts for the first time. The relegation of the fantastic to nature and the sea, which Hauke seeks to overcome through his engineering prowess, for instance, opens up the possibility for a Frankfurt school reading of the domination of nature. The building of the dike is also connected to social transformations: whereas before Hauke the position of Dikemaster seemed to be concerned primarily with the preservation of the available land, Hauke Haien’s dike turns out to be a good investment, producing surplus value to those members of the community who invest capital in his undertaking. The week prior to reading Storm, we had didacticized The Communist Manifesto in class. While the unit on Marx was connected to the political constellations of the pre-March period, it provided a useful framework for understanding how environmental transformation was connected to the shifting class dynamics of the novella.

The politics of the project within the novella are also useful fodder for discussion. In the story, opposition to the dike comes from community members who are reluctant to have to pay additional taxes in order to support the dike. Obviously the question of taxation in order to pay for infrastructure is a familiar problem to students; I like to refer it back to Blackbourn’s basic thesis of the connection between environmental transformation and the state.

The Rider on the White Horse is also valuable from a medial standpoint. The conceit of the frame narrative is that the story is contained within the pages of a nineteenth century family journal. The medial context is also a key element to the novella’s claim to reality, as the family journal culture of the late nineteenth century had its own strategies for creating a kind of reality effect, strategies based on the innovations of print technology that made a mass media possible in the first place. Of course these were also the journals in which texts like Storm’s first appeared. The Rider on the White Horse was printed in the journal Deutsche Rundschau in 1888. The fact that such journals have been digitized means that students can easily get a better picture of the context in which the novella’s first readers would have originally encountered the story. I could have brought in Deutsche Rundschau, but instead I showed the students an edition of the journal Über Land und Meer, which is more visually interesting and makes for a better case study in medial realism.

A final word on translation: the text has been translated variously as The Rider on the White Horse and The Dikemaster. I use James Wright’s translation, which has been reprinted in the New York Review of Books classics series. Unfortunately there’s no way to render the low German dialect that Storm transcribes in the novella into English. The language politics comes through in other ways, but less so, and for the purposes of my course that’s too bad, as that would be another avenue of exploration in connecting the work of art to the more generalized interests that bring the students into the class. But this version beautifully captures both the interesting pacing of the novella and Storm’s marvelous descriptions of the sea, which has a presence in the story familiar to any fan of Moby-Dick.

The Salton Sea: The Pleasures of Ecocatastrophe

I was recently alerted to the existence of the 2006 documentary Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, now available on YouTube. The film is a curious short history of the Salton Sea, essentially a century old environmental accident. The area was supposed to become a major resort in the middle of the twentieth century, but the film tells how flooding and the vicissitudes of speculative capital ended up killing those schemes, so that today the Salton Sea is a landscape of spectacular devastation.

John Waters narrates the film, and given the landscape of the sea and the people whom we meet, it’s not hard to imagine what drew him to the film. The documentary is done in a screwball style, but its humor does not trivialize the environmental dilemma that the sea poses nor the economic bind that the characters living there find themselves in. What it points to instead is a way to love a blighted place. The lake is fascinating, both in the film and in real life, as the site of the detritus of the sort of grandiose visions of American capital that at least appear to be more intact on the coast.

On a personal note, I’ve always had something of a fascination for the Salton Sea. I grew up in San Diego, and I had found out that the lake existed in a unit on the geography of the region when I was in third grade. As it happened, the family of a friend of mine had a cabin in Salton Sea Beach, one of the resort towns built on the shore during the boom years. Having read about the lake in school, I was excited to pay it a visit. I had not expected the sight that actually greeted me. To get to the shore, we walked first through a line of trees, whereupon we crossed a field filled with trash, including a half buried, rusting automobile. The ground was white, and with each step my foot sank in inch or so directly into the earth. We had to climb across some dunes to the beach itself. I heard a crunching beneath my feet, and was startled to see a band of dead fish stretching as far up and down the shoreline as the eye could see. The actual condition of the lake was startling, but I had a fantastic weekend, and I hope to have the chance to go back some day.

Anyway, the film is worth watching. It will be an hour well spent.


Mike Davis: “Late Victorian Holocausts”

619K4ZX2Z2L._SL1062_Having grown up in Southern California, Mike Davis’ histories of the area City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, and especially the co-written Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See are near and dear to my heart. But it was my dissertation work that motivated me to buy his 2001 book Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the The Third World. Theodor Fontane and especially Wilhelm Raabe both incorporate global themes into their fiction, even if these themes operate mostly through silence and suggestion, and so I was starting to feel hungry (so to speak) for an environmental history that takes a correspondingly global perspective. Besides, 2014 might still see a strong El Niño event.

Davis tells the story of how nineteenth century global capitalist development, through the vehicle of European imperialist politics produced scarcity in the so-called “third world,” leaving colonized peoples especially vulnerable to the climate disruptions associated with particularly strong ENSO events, of which there were several in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Davis focuses on the cases of India, China, Northeastern Brazil, and the Horn of Africa, sites of devastating famines that largely depopulated whole regions, and yet have vanished from the collective memories of former colonizers. The first part of the book is thus concerned with recovering these histories, and they are nightmarish: there are plenty of accounts of cannibalism, mothers selling off their children, and wild animals dragging off people too weak to fight back. The second part looks at imperialist politics and political destabilization brought about by famine in places like China and Brazil. Lest the history come off as mere correlation, the third part explains ENSO, the history of research into the phenomenon, and its effects on global climate. The fourth part recounts how specific policies and practices of global capitalism disrupted local communities and their systems for coping with natural disasters. In other words, scarcity is not just about nature, nor even the callousness that comes from “free market” ideologies, but the result of specific, conscious policy decisions aimed at enriching the powerful on the backs of the masses. This last point is important, because although the demonization of the suffering of famine victims by laissez-faire Social Darwinists will sound familiar in our contemporary historical moment, disasters are not just about ideological Hirngespinste any more than they are just about annual rainfall.

Late Victorian Holocausts makes for compelling history precisely because of the way it weaves together environmental and political history. It puts to rest popular assumptions that the deprivation “first-worlders” popularly associate with the global south comes from anything other than the gross mismanagement of the world reaching back through the history of globalization. That this is a critical history should come as no surprise, but even where his writing appears under a partisan banner, as is the case with Under the Perfect Sun, his histories are always well-argued. The empirical research and theoretical grounding are what make room for the moral force of the argument. In his explanation of the use of the word “holocaust” in his title, Davis writes, “it is the burden of this book to show that imperial policies towards starving ‘subjects’ were often the exact moral equivalents of bombs dropped from 18,000 feet. The contemporary photographs used in this book are thus intended as accusations not illustrations.”

Love Canal Retrospective this week published a retrospective on Love Canal. I’m reminded a bit of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s thoughts on such “concerned citizens” movements in his essay “A Critique of Political Ecology:” That their targets are limited in scope and susceptible to social illusion, but they are germs of greater mass movements.

The Retroreport series, I might add, is an incredibly thoughtful and enlightening antidote to the pace of the news cycle, what with its painfully short historical memory.

History and the Urban Landscape

In case you hadn’t seen it, the Smithsonian Magazine has put up an interesting page with interactive images in which contemporary satellite photos of American cities are laid over historical maps.  A small window can be moved around the image to see how the layout of streets has changed over the last century and a half.  The transformation of the coastlines is particularly remarkable as cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago colonize the bodies of water on which they sit.  As New York experienced with Hurricane Sandy the maps also tell a rather catastrophic story.

The project has a way of firing up the imagination.  Looking over mid-19th century Manhattan makes it easier to imagine the city Melville wrote about in the opening of Moby-Dick, where the sea figures as a site of commerce but also as an ineffable presence that casts the city’s residents into reveries.

It also calls to mind the Welikia project on the environmental history of the New York City region.  They made headlines with this image splitting contemporary Manhattan with its imagined state prior to the construction of the city.

Environmental Degradation and the Geography of Beer

I’ve been doing some reading around on the collapse of Braunschweig’s water supply in 1891.  I was struck by this little quip, which appeared on January 5, 1892 in the Braunschweigische Anzeigen in an article looking back on the year 1891:

Die Schmerzen, die es Anfang des Jahres und zwischendurch noch einige Male das Okerwasser bereitete, mögen von abgesagten Wasserfeinden und ausgesprochenen Verehrern des Münchener Bräus vielleicht weniger empfunden sein, als von den Hausfrauen, deren feinste Tafelwäsche unter den Einwirkungen des verunreinigten Elements litt, das so klar aus den grünen Harzbergen kommt und erst in der Nähe unserer Stadt jenen Geschmack annahm, der, weniger süß als der Zucker der schuldigen Fabriken, diesen letzteren schon manche berechtigte Verwünschungen eingetragen hat.

Sworn enemies of water and worshippers of Munich brew may have felt the pain that the Oker river water brought at the b of beginning of the year and intermittently since then less than the housewives whose finest tablecloths suffered from the effects of the dirty element, that runs clear from the Harz mountains.  Only in the vicinity of our city does it take on that taste that, being less sweet than the sugar of the guilty factories, justified certain curses directed against the sugar.

Obviously there is a certain facetiousness here, and in my use of the quote.  But it strikes me not only because I recently pointed out that the origin of one’s beer matters in Der Stechlin, but because of the way that beer is implicated in what American environmental discourse imagines as “place connectedness.”  The author, whose name was not attached to the article, may have been speaking tongue-in-cheek, but nonetheless the drinker of the beer from elsewhere is contrasted to the housewife, who depends on the water supplied by runoff from the Harz mountains not far from Braunschweig.

Incidentally, I often wonder about the analytic of “place” which seems to have considerable currency in American ecocriticism especially.  I recently had the chance to read Ursula Heise’s book Sense of Place and Sense of Planet.  I’ll have more to say about it another time, but Heise, who notes explicitly that she is writing from a German perspective, sees this thinking about place as specific to environmentalism in the U.S., and shows that it is caught up in both American and international imaginaries of the socially and geographically mobile U.S. citizen.  But given the way that industrialization and urbanization seems to alienate one from the familiar – and here I’m mostly thinking about Raabe, if only because he writes about this problem so explicitly and so consistently – is place an analytic that is apparent in Germany prior to the twentieth century?  Is “place” to be distinguished from “Heimat,” or when American ecocritics talk about “place,” are they really talking about “Heimat?”  And finally, how much mileage does a project of literary criticism get from these kinds of concepts?

The Literary History of Braunschweig’s Water Supply

Wilhelm Raabe’s 1884 novel Pfisters Mühle was famously inspired by an actual court case in the city of Braunschweig in the 1880s.  Raabe’s novel is often hailed as German literature’s first “Öko-Roman,” although as I have indicated in a prior post, that is by no means Braunschweig_Brunswick_Marienbrunnen_von_Süden_(2007)uncontested.  Be that as it may, the novel is responding to a significant moment in German environmental history.  Up until the second half of the nineteenth century, the volume of trash and untreated human waste dumped into rivers and streams was the most pressing pollution problem, particularly in the cities.  With the rapid industrialization of Germany, the byproducts of industrial production predictably eclipsed urban sewage as a source of woe.  The degradation of the water, in turn, meant that mills, baths, and other commercial establishments that depended on the water downstream were effectively put out of business.  The result was a series of so called “Wasserprozesse,” or “water trials” at the end of the 19th century.  Most of these trials were suits brought by commercial enterprises seeking to recoup profits lost from industrial pollution.  Pfisters Mühle dramatizes (or more accurately, under-dramatizes) the trial of the real mills in the villages of Bienrode and Wenden against the beet sugar factory Rautheim, all of which are now located within the Braunschweig city limits.

Here’s a bit of interesting history.1

  •  Braunschweig was a major center of beet sugar production in 19th century Germany.  The first factories began operation in the 1830s, and by the 1860s the industry was a cornerstone of the city’s economy.  The production season began in September, after the harvest, and lasted until late January or February.
  • Beet sugar production produces an incredible amount of waste water.  The processing of a single beet for sugar produces 30 to 40 cubic meters of waste water.  In the 1880s Rautheim would have processed about 25,000 tons of beets during the campaign, pumping out around a million cubic meters of waste water.  And Rautheim was just one of many in the Braunschweig area.  Some factories tried to dilute the byproducts of sugar production, but this only increased the consumption of water and put further pressure on the overall supply.
  • German cities began building filtration facilities in the 1860s, but the technology was often regarded as too expensive to be worth the allocation of city resources, and so they remained uncommon for decades after the technology was developed.  Braunschweig maintained filtration facilities to protect the water quality in the Oker river, which runs directly through town and provided the city with most of its drinking water, but these were ill equipped to handle the growing volume of waste from the beet sugar factories.  Rautheim maintained a small sewage farm on its premises, but this was not nearly enough to absorb all of the waste, and so most of it went into the Wabe stream, which drains into the Schunter, all of which are part of the Oker river basin.
  • The denizens of Braunschweig began noticing the decline in drinking water quality around 1880.  During the campaign of 1884-1885, shortly after Pfisters Mühle hit bookshelves (where, unfortunately for Raabe, most of the copies stayed), pollution from the beet sugar factories overwhelmed the city’s filtration facilities, and the drinking water supply collapsed.  This became a regular occurence until 1895, when the city finally expanded its purification system.
  • In January of 1891 the factory at Broitzem attempted to clear its waste water by releasing iron salt into its waste water.  This apparently cleared the water of the byproducts of beet sugar production, but gave Braunschweig’s water a red-brown color, meaning that nobody could do their laundry without staining all of their clothes.
  • In Pfisters Mühle, it is the smell of the water that drives away most of the mill’s guests and employees.  The waste water from beet sugar production contains a considerable amount of hydrogen sulfide.  The bacteria beggiatoa feeds off of the hydrogen sulfide.  Hydrogen sulfide is also the gas often responsible for the offensive odor of human flatus.

In Raabe’s most famous novel Stuffcake (1889) we learn that Heinrich Schaumann is financing his amateur archaeology by renting out some of his arable land to the local beet sugar factory.  When I taught that novel, I made sure to draw the students’ attention to this.  Later that semester I was as surprised as they were when W.G. Sebald’s narrator in Rings of Saturn falls into a conversation with a beet sugar farmer who pointed out “the curiously close relationship that existed, until well into the twentieth century, between the history of sugar and th history of art” (194).2  Sebald’s novel links this to the global networks of exploitation that evolved out of European colonialism, a problem that also lurks in the background of Raabe’s 1889 novel.

1.  See Behrens, Christian. Die Wassergesetzgebung im Herzogtum Braunschweig nach Bauernbefreiung und industrieller Revolution: Zur Genese des Wasserrechts im bürgerlichen Rechtsstaat. Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, 2009 Hamburg.; Blasius, Rudolf, and Heinrich Beckurts. “Verunreinigung und Reinigung der Flüsse nach Untersuchungen des Wassers der Oker.” Deutsche Viertelsjahrschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 27.2 (1895): 337-60.;  Kluge, Thomas, and Engelbert Schramm. Wassernöte: Umwelt- und Sozialgeschichte des Trinkwassers. Aachen: Alano, 1986.; Uekötter, Frank. Umweltgeschichte im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. München: Oldenbourg, 2007.

2. Sebald, W.G. The Rings of Saturn. Michael Hulse, trans. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1998.

The Making of MacArthur Park

Nathan Masters, a colleague of mine from my undergraduate days, has been producing a series of fascinating articles under th auspices of “LA as Subject”, which is an association of libraries and archives.  The articles have bee appearing through KCET, the latest of which on the history of MacArthur Park can be read here.

Together the articles constitute a fascinating history of the spatial transformations in a city that is polarizing often precisely because of its spatial dynamic.  Beyond the compelling stories, the articles are all supplemented with fascinating historical images that have a lot to say about the changing face of Los Angeles.

Now, the park’s notable place in the history of pop culture falls outside of the scope of the article, but that shouldn’t stop the rest of us from drawing attention to it.

Maps: Illustrating the Economic and Material Background of German Realism

The theoretical problems that underpin both the critical discourse and the literary production in the era of German realism can be very surprising for an audience schooled on the Victorian novel.  When I first encountered German realism myself, it seemed to me to be not realism at all.  How can literature be “realistic” while at the same time be committed to a process of transfiguration (Verklärung)?  Doesn’t the German verb itself, verklären, imply a moving away from realistic representation?  These questions might be naive, but they were my basic point of departure.  Since I had mostly dealt with the Anglophone canon in school, when I thought of “realism” I thought of Dickens’ London.  I associated the term with the kind of misere that Theodor Fontane specifically rejects in his essay “Unsere lyrische und epische Poesie seit 1848” (147-148).1 This is not to say that the authors of this period simply ignored the changing reality of German in this period.  Early in Adalbert Stifter’s Der Nachsommer (Indian Summer, 1857), for instance, Heinrich Drendorf visits a valley filled with factories and carefully studies the production processes there.  But this scene occupies all of a paragraph, and in the next he’s off studying plants.  My initial question might have been summed up as: “where have all the street urchins gone?”

This and other questions evolved into the basic problem that my dissertation seeks to address. The problem boils down to a basic aporia that has puzzled me about German realism since the start, namely the contradiction between the programmatic realist imperative to portray the world in a way that is objective and poetically transfigured (verklärt) and the increasingly prosaic character of that world.  After several years of formulating and re-formulating a question that might be sufficient to drive a dissertation, what I really want to know is this: what happens to a realist program of aesthetic transfiguration when an industrial mode of production has transformed the environment to such an extent that it no longer lends itself to poetic representation?

In the spirit of Frederic Jameson’s injunction to “always historicize!,” we might actually look at what was going on in the physical world at the time that the literature was written.  Here are three maps of Cologne that make visible the material basis of the theoretical questions my project raises.

Cologne 1807 2This first map is a representation of Cologne in the year 1807.  The city has been under French control since 1794, the year prior Napoleon had dissolved the Holy Roman Empire and issued Prussia a stinging defeat at Jena-Auerstadt.  There is no bridge over the Rhine.  The surrounding areas show little development, and the city walls clearly delineate the boundary between city and country.

Here is another map of Cologne, this time from 1845.  Cologne has since fallen under Prussian control, and the Catholic/Protestant divide within the expanded Prussia has caused no small amount of tension. There Cologne 1845are a few distinct changes in the landscape.  We now have a bridge over the Rhine, and railroads extend at least up to the city walls.  Nevertheless, the city’s physical makeup hasn’t change all that much.  The wetlands on each bank of the Rhine to the south of the city still appear to be in place.

Compare this to the Cologne 1893following map of Cologne from 1893.  Within one human lifetime, the city has radically changed.  The railroad network is much more extensive, and settlements like Nippes have been transformed into dense areas of industrial development.  The wetlands on the left bank of the Rhine have also vanished, and “nature” can now be found in the lovely “Stadtwald,” adjacent to Braunsfeld and Lindenthal.

These maps speak volumes about the historical processes underway in Germany after 1848 and especially after 1871.  These processes are there even in the texts that are truest to the tenets of programmatic realism.  Taken together, there is an interesting story to be told here, one that, I believe, may not be so alien to an English language readership after all.

1.  Reprinted in Plumpe, Gerhard (ed.). Theorie des bürgerlichen Realismus: Eine Textsammlung. Stuttgart: Reclam Verlag, 1997. 140-148

Bernhard Schlink on the World Book Club

For anyone who didn’t catch it, Bernhard Schlink, author of Der Vorleser / The Reader appeared on this month’s episode of the BBC’s World Book Club.  The program in general is excellent; Ghilbert interviews authors from many different countries about specific works.  I suggest to anyone who is interested in the novel, the recent film adaptation, or the isues discussed should check it out here, where one can partly watch the interview on streaming video, or download the podcast.