Category Archives: Literature

Unpacking My Storage Unit: A Literary Encounter with My Things

German realist literature has a well-earned reputation for its fascination with stuff – actual, material things. Anyone looking to say something smart about Adalbert Stifter, Gustav Freytag, Gottfried Keller, and even (or arguably especially) Theodor Fontane could make a lot of hay looking at furniture, garden ornaments, or the pictures on the wall. Adalbert Stifter is the best example. His descriptions of things buttress his stories‘ claims to represent both material reality itself and reality’s moral structure.

Trailer for Heiner Goebbels “Stifters Dinge”

The thing about things is that they point in two directions: insofar as they have accumulated over time they point backwards to the past. It is no accident that we encounter more than a handful of private museums in the texts from this period. But things also point towards an assumed future, because their preservation assumes a future where they will be necessary and relevant. Both past accumulation and an assumed future are at stake in Stifter’s novel Der Nachsommer (Indian Summer) where so much of the activity at Freiherr von Risach’s estate is devoted to the restoration and preservation of statuary.

Things as guarantor of a stable reality, signs of a good past, and the promise of a morally fulfilled future: this is a vision to which Wilhelm Raabe repeatedly gives lie. In Zum wilden Mann (At the Sign of the Wild Man) the pharmacist sits bankrupt in an empty house. Pfisters Mühle (Pfister’s Mill) gives us the one good poem Raabe ever wrote, the apocalyptic vision of „Einst kommt die Stunde,“ in which „Der liebe, der alte vertraute Plunder / viel tausend Geschlechter Zeichen und Wunder“ (“the dear old familiar junk / Signs and marvels of many thousands of generations” ) is swept away in a massive cloud of dust. Then there is the climax of Akten des Vogelsangs, when Velten Andres sets fire to all of his mother’s things, her „museum of the heart” as a final act of secession from the society around him. It’s tempting to see Velten’s bonfire as one supreme act of badassery, but it’s not entirely clear how to evaluate it. The others in the community fly into a panic, and while the narrator Karl is fascinated, his wife flees the scene and implies that Karl’s fascination with his friend might also cost him their relationship. While Velten claims it’s an “external clearing-away to the interior,” the fire is followed by a regression to his old room reading greasy copies of books he loved in his younger days.

Raabe is an acquired taste, and I don’t mind admitting that I acquired my own taste partly on account of a fascination with characters like Velten – problematic as I understand that fascination to be. I was moved to think again, however, about all the things and the destruction of things in German realism recently when I returned to the town I spent my last few years as a graduate student in to empty out the storage unit containing all of the things I had acquired in my graduate years. Furniture, papers, household items, and books – boxes and boxes and boxes of books – had been sitting in a storage unit for nearly two years now.

Far from an act of badassery, parting with my own things was the result of a cost-benefit analysis: keeping the unit another year was not practical relative to the actual value of what I was storing. But it still meant parting with the signs and wonders of my years as a graduate student. Apart from the exhausting work of sorting everything were the emotions connected to revisiting the remnants of those years. Opening the unit was like opening a time capsule, with the items and documents seeming to narrate back to me my memories of those years. There were my move-out documents from the apartment I had prior to moving to Ithaca to begin my program in 2008, while from 2014 there was a copy of my first job contract after graduating. There was the small end-table, the first piece of furniture my wife-to-be and I bought after we moved to Ithaca, and off of which we ate our first dinner in our first apartment. I also parted with the desk on which I wrote everything from my first seminar papers to my dissertation, a real wood desk I had picked up for free and fantasized about refinishing one day. And I had to part, too, with the coffee table, bookshelf, and standing lamp I had purchased from a colleague who, a few years later, passed away far too young.

It was not all sentimentalism: the things did have to go, and in the end I was more happy than regretful at having to part from them. Nor did everything go: most of the 1,000 or so books I shipped to Germany. They tell their own story about those years. Some were there because I thought at some point that a self-respecting scholar had to have them in arm’s reach, some I honestly believed I’d make time for, some were freebies the hidden cost of which was in the having. Some were leftovers of abandoned dissertation ideas, others were there for no better reason than Ithaca has a great library book sale and I had to learn how to manage my own „Kaufrausch.“

Even as I teach my students to approach artworks from a critical distance for the purposes of their academic writing, we all write our own biographies in one way or another, and I wrote about ecopolitics and ecoaesthetics in German realism because that was one of the ways in which those stories got under my skin. The mixed feelings that come with parting from objects that are themselves dumb but for the meaning I ascribe to them brought to mind again the extent to which our own experiences and concerns belie the stance we assume as scholars and teachers of literature.

Who’s Afraid of the Anthropocene?

Last week I presented a paper at the German Studies Association conference called “Generalweltanbrennung: Poetics and Politics of the Anthropocene in Theodor Fontane’s Der Stechlin.” The paper was the chance to revisit my work on the novel, which I had let lie fallow since finishing my PhD. The paper was part of a panel series on Anthropocene violence, the Anthropocene being a topic I’ve had the opportunity to think on and to write about over the past year. Ultimately I was very grateful to be able to participate in the discussion, because writing about the Anthropocene has meant considering some of the criticisms of the term and proposed alternatives currently circulating. I recently purchased and read the volume Anthropocene or Capitalocene: Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, and the essays contained there had me seriously examining my own use of the term.

The Anthropocene is the as yet informal term for our current moment in geological history, where humans are transforming the environment at such a scale that the traces of our activity will be legible in the layer of rock formed by the sediment currently settling everywhere on the earth’s crust. Even though humanities scholars won’t get the final say on whether the term is actually recognized as a distinct period in the earth’s history, it serves as a convenient shorthand for talking about the human production of nature, either through deliberate interventions or unintended consequences such as global warming.

The term has several problems with it, such that even people friendly to it have to admit to its imperfections. The term implicates all homo sapiens, even though the realities of uneven development mean that responsibility for and the consequences of environmental degradation are not shared equally. The term also runs the risk of becoming grist for the mill (or Wasser auf die Mühle, since this is Fontane) for geoengineers who think that we can engineer our way out of environmental stress with those tools that got us here in the first place. Essentially the term becomes a kind of Trojan Horse for the environmentalist movement.

A variation of the Trojan Horse argument has been with me since I first put pen to a dead tree on ecology and literature. My central concept of “social nature” was one that I had picked up from critical geography, ecomarxist discourses, and earlier critiques of Wilderness-with-a-capital-W and Nature-with-a-capital-N. “Social nature” posits some sort of constructivism, and constructivism that was assailed in the 1990s and 2000s as so much post-modern denial of material reality. Glen Love’s 2003 book Pracitcal Ecocriticism encapsulates the pro-science, anti-constructivist argument quite nicely. For environmentally minded thinkers in and out of the academy in those years, the Sokel hoax was a particularly vivid memory, and the conflict seems to be between a humanities scholarship that under the influence of French theory has become unmoored from the world and scientific disciplines which are somehow better poised to appreciate the world around us. The “Two Cultures” argument gets dusted off here, and C.P. Snow is cited accordingly. I’m not a fan of Snow’s text. The problem with his argument is that it sets up a false dichotomy, science vs. those awful “literary intellectuals,” and in the end science wins.

In the Anthropocene this climate, too, has changed. The relevant scientific bodies are seriously considering formalizing the term while criticism is emerging that does not appeal to science or the wholeness and integrity of Nature as a given. My own reconsideration of the term Anthropocene has, of course, everything to do with my own political and intellectual commitments. The critiques mounted against the Anthropocene argument in Anthropocene or Capitalocene speak in an idiom that I am already more receptive to. Eileen Crist’s essay “On the Poverty of our Nomenclature” even advances arguments against the Anthropocene that would be familiar from Glen Love’s book.

From my work on the paper and the conversations we had at the German Studies Association, I felt more comfortable with some of the problematic aspects of the term “Anthropocene.” It remains a convenient shorthand, a useful, if problematic placeholder. Charges against the Anthropocene, such as the charge that it plays into Promethean ideologies that justify potentially disastrous schemes of geoengineering, assume that there is only one possible way of thinking about the Anthropocene. But I don’t believe that acknowledging the extent to which human activity has altered the planet has to play into narratives that agitate against ecojustice. The question now is whether or not we can organize a society as to promote the well-being of other humans and the more-than-human world. Whether the Anthropocene is politically palatable or not depends on how a good life can be imagined or re-imagined in light of our the ecosocial reality among which we, all living things, must now live.

 

 

Nis-Momme Stockmann: Der Fuchs

Nis-Momme Stockmann’s debut novel Der Fuchs is an entry in a 41NqF-ey1iLvenerable tradition of encountering the ocean as a liminal and often uncanny space. Moby-Dick opens with a wonderful description of the mysterious pall that the presence of the sea casts on Manhattan, drawing the people constantly towards the ocean. Closer to the world of the novel, there is Theodor Storm’s Rider on the White Horse (Der Schimmelreiter), where the project of dike building becomes an encounter with the barely sublimated supernatural qualities of the ocean.

Stockmann’s novel is set on the fictional island of Thule, a reference to the island in classical cartography at the very edge of the known world. Thule is located somewhere in the North Sea, a setting not far from that of Storm’s novella, with which there are many obvious affinities. At the beginning of the novel, the village milieu of the petit bourgeois has been swept away by a flood that has drowned the village, and Finn Schliemann is stranded on a rooftop. Surrounded by the flood memories and images of the past (and future) drift across his consciousness. Thule, it turns out, is like a cosmic naval where the world of humans and gods intersect.

The novel contains some interesting moments: it traffics heavily in the grotesque, with a series of unexplained murders and a severed arm that washes up on the beach; it extends from Schliemann’s immediate past into an imagined (?) post-Earth science-fiction future, and it unbinds and ultimately rebinds its various narrative strands in a way that deserves further consideration. On balance, though, I found the novel underwhelming. Its reflections on, well, God and the world, seem bloated (the novel clocks in at 715 pages). To compare it to the examples I opened with, I was missing the philosophical depth of Melville’s novel, or the understatedness of Storm’s novella. Nor are some of the intriguing aspects of the narrative particularly compelling or original. Having different levels of narration on the same page is something that Terezia Mora did in her 2013 novel Das Ungeheur, reviving the gods in a world of disenchantment is something I encountered in the novel I am now reading, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Nor did it do much for my reading experience when around page 350 I turned to the acknowledgements and found that Stockmann thanked himself. Reading this novel was part of my effort to keep well abreast of the contemporary German literary scene, especially since I deal mostly with historical genres and authors. I picked up this novel because the fantastic element and the apocalyptic nature seemed promising, both to my taste but also to my interest in ecocriticism. In the end I mostly regretted not having gone instead with Julie Zeh’s new novel Unterleuten, the other alternative in the bookstore.

Book Covers and Genre Construction: Wolfgang Herrndorf in Translation

Genre and genre formation was on the table one day in one of the German literature seminars I attended as an undergraduate. We were discussing the novella, a form that has a special prominence in German compared to other national literary histories, even if it is notoriously difficult to define. In the course of the discussion I asked the professor what was then a burning question: why was Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis a story (Erzählung) and not a novella? The professor thought about it and answered that if Kafka had called it a novella, then it would be a novella. But he called it a story, so therefore it’s a story.

Questions of genre and paratext were on my mind again when I recently read Wolfgang Herrndorf’s novel Tschick. The novel is told by the first person narrator Maik, a fourteen-year-old left child of privilege left home alone when his mother checks into rehab and his father seizes the chance to travel with his mistress. Maik is concerned about his social standing in his school, especially when the most popular girl and the object of his adolescent crush does not extend to him an invitation to her birthday party. The “asocial” Andrej Tschichatschow, called Tschick, comes by his house instead in a hotwired Lada, the pair briefly crash the party, and then proceed on a strange journey down the Autobahn and into the German countryside.

Herrndorf was an illustrator at the satirical magazine Titanic and had published fiction before to little notice. Tschick, however, was a bestseller and received wide acclaim. The novel was recommended to me by a professor in my graduate department who had included it on her syllabus, and I finally got around to reading it this year. I was taken by the novel’s humor, Maik’s ironic take on bureaucratic language, the strangeness of the world the characters encountered along the way, and – here I was surprised – how much I appreciated the adolescent perspective. Unlike, say, Harry Potter, where I felt that there was too heavy a veil of teenage solipsism, Maik’s naivete struck me as an interesting lens that opened up a more critical view of the adult world. And in that sense I found Tschick to have affinities with the picaresque, or with Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus.

The adolescent perspective is where the genre question enters back in, as it would seem to be the criterion by which Tschick counts as a “young adult” novel. And the differences between the German edition and the English translation illlustrate how the packaging shapes our expectations and transforms our experience of the text.

First the cover of the current German paperback edition. Speaking as a non-native German speaking reader, when I first 41TVuUP2SKL._SX301_BO1,204,203,200_saw the novel, before I knew anything about it, I assumed from the title that “Tschick” may somehow be an idiosyncratic form of “chic,” (“chique” or “stylish”), and so I assumed both from the title and from the font in which it was written that the novel followed a character into fashion in some way, perhaps a character at home in the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. While this was not precisely the case, the title still plays on the curiosity gap: what is “Tschick?” The colors and lines reflect the perspective of the landscape from a fast moving vehicle, communicating the centrality of car travel as a narrative conceit, so I know I’m being set up for a road story. The novel was published by Rowohlt, a publishing house that had long brought plenty of other texts I was into onto the literary market. Besides, the novel was on a college syllabus, itself a critical tool in canon building, and on a more personal level, was recommended by a professor who had suggested other things to read from which I had derived both considerable pleasure and ideas for my scholarly and teaching work. When I bought my copy in the bookstore, I found it in the section “Belletristik,” that is, “high literature,” the section of the bookstore where one goes to find the “high” literature. In other words, before one has read the first page, everything about this book announces itself as emminently safe for a Bildungsbürger readership.

Then there is the complete edition of Herrndorf’s works, released last year by Rowohlt. This editio51DMZTdHv5L._SX356_BO1,204,203,200_n doesn’t speak to me as a bourgeois reader, but rather as someone with a PhD in literary studies. As a hardback, collected edition with only the box for a cover, this edition communicates that Herrndorf belongs to the canon. As such, this edition invites us critics (a tribe that Herrndorf took a famously dim view of) to write conference presentations and scholarly articles about. This edition says “cite me.” In its finality this edition also has something of the grave about it: a Gesamtausgabe seals an author’s oeuvre, it is only possible because Herrndorf took his own life in 2013 while suffering from terminal brain cancer.

 

At the same time, reception had already done its classifying work. Tschick received the German Prize for YA literature (as well as the Clemens Brentano Prize and the Hans Fallada Prize). Herrndorf himself says in this interview with the FAZ that the novel came from re-reading the books he read when he was twelve. Interestingly, though, he also jokes that the first time a review of Tschick appeared that did NOT mention the obvious comparison, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, he owed his friends a round of beers. And while he does not contest that Tschick is YA literature, he does hint at the problem with the categorization, that it is just a thematic label. “Man wird ja nicht wirklich mit der Schreibkunst Salingers verglichen. Sondern mit dem Thema seines vermeintlichen Hauptwerks” (“one is not really compared with Salinger’s writing style. Rather with the topic of his supposed magnus opum”).

Had I encountered the English translation first, the cover of which is pictured right, I admit that I might well not have read it. The title Why We Took t5169Fr-PB1L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_he Car, a title I find quite unfortunate, tries to play on the curiosity gap as well, but I feel doesn’t quite manage it in the way that the original title does. The novel is not an answer to a question of why they took the car, and I don’t know that I should especially care that anybody took the car. The attitude of the sneakers out the window play up that this is a novel about teenagers and speaks to an implicit assumption that a novel about teenagers might also be for teenagers. My impression from the car and from the angle at which the legs are sticking out and the style of the clothes plays into the gender divide that is pronounced in the reception of YA literature: this cover tells me it is a “boy’s” novel. That’s interesting, precisely because there is a lot to say about this text in terms of how it imagines adolescent masculinity. The English translation was also released by Andersen Press, which, unlike Rowohlt, specializes in children and youth literature.
Another favorite example of the relation between the cover and the content of a book are the British editions of the Harry Potter novels.

The cover of the first novel is obviously marketed at a younger readership: Harry_Potter_and_the_Philosopher's_Stone_Book_CoverThe young protagonist is pictured in the bottom right, the fantastic train contrasts with the more prosaic equivalent in the far right, we see the fantastical 9 3/4 platform, and the steam from the locomotive glimmers with star. But when the stories became popular with an adult readership as well, Bloomsbury released an adult edition. The cover of the adult edition contains the familiar visual vocabulary of fantasy literature aimed at adults.

412W7VNY0FL._SX295_BO1,204,203,200_The colors are darker, we are presented with a single object rather than a busy collection of magical things, and the variations in font size play up the drama of the story in a way that sells the book as something assuredly not juvenile. It aims at an adult reader of fantasy by drawing instead on the familiar visual vocabulary of the fantasy genre.

061834399751jAmCjH5qL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_514h421SWdL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_

…And of course…

260px-A_Song_of_Ice_and_Fire_book_collection_box_set_coverGame_of_Thrones_title_card

 

The curious thing about the “adult edition” of Harry Potter is that while this is an edition with a cover that an adult could hold upright while reading in public without worry that one will be judged as a reader of “children’s” literature, its use of tropes of fantasy covers means that the publisher has simply moved the text from one ghettoized genre to another. Instead of being a reader of children’s literature, one is a reader of nerdy literature.

So, is Tschick YA literature? I don’t see how I could argue that it is not without also arguing that YA is a lesser genre, given that the stakes of such an argument could only be to “rescue” it from that category. So instead I’ll channel my undergraduate German professor and simply say that it is YA literature because it received a prize for YA literature, and because readers in German and English have branded it as such.

On a side note, the Frankfurter Allgemeine recently published an interesting article on the gun with which Wolfgang Herrndorf killed himself. Herrndorf committed suicide in 2013 while suffering from terminal brain cancer. The question the article raises is why a literary archive would contain an object the “literariness”

Nuclear Patoralism: Alina Bronskys “Baba Dunja’s Last Love”

One of the earliest television news pieces I can recall watching is Steve Kroft’s visit to the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant for a 60 Minutes segment in 1989. A few clips are available here. The piece was possibly the first entry in a larger corpus of media documenting the ruination of the region’s former human settlements. I remember being struck by the strange beauty of the images in the broadcast: the depopulated stretches of landscapes leading up to the site, the empty streets of the city, and strange forms in the building itself, particularly the so-called “Elephant’s Foot.”

This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the explosion. The expansion of the internet in the de9783462048025cades since has meant that one need not wait on Steve Kroft to do another Chernobyl follow-up in order to see how far Pripyat has succumbed to the forces of nature. Late 20th and early 21st media have allegedly already reduced the melancholy intellectual pastime of contemplating ruins to “ruin porn,” and ruins in the exclusion zone might well constitute their own sub-genre. The catastrophe would seem to have marked the area’s exit from history – the 60 Minutes piece is now behind a paywall, but I recall Steve Kroft observing that the area had survived crusaders, Ottomans, and Nazis, but not the radiation from reactor number four.

But one of the paradoxes of the exclusion zone is that even while it appears as a fading after-image of mid 1980s Soviet life, it occupies an outsized place as an object of cultural fascination. This is one of the surprising contradictions at play in Alina Bronsky’s latest novel Baba Dunjas letzte Liebe. Baba Dunja, the text’s first-person narrator, belongs to the community of people who evacuated the area around the Chernobyl plant after the explosion, only to return to their former homeland. With mortality looming anyway, Baba Dunja figures it would be better to accept the radiation that is everywhere in her homeland than to die in a shared apartment in an anonymous high rise in an alien city.

The community seems to be living out a kind of pastoral idyll. The text’s treatment of the pastoral motif is signaled by the image of a rooster, which marks the chapter breaks after the opening scene involving the death of the neighbor’s annoying rooster. The returnees maintain gardens and have developed networks of mutual support. To access the world beyond, Baba Dunja walks out of the exclusion zone to a lonely bus stop and rides into town to check her postbox. But radiation is an interesting phenomenon. In the moment of exposure it is not something that is immediately sensible; we cannot see or taste it in the moment of exposure, and we only know it through the effects it sooner or later will have on our bodies. It has an invisible presence, but that invisible presence structures life in the exclusion zone. For instance, whenever Baba Dunja’s hears of the birth of a new child, her question is whether the child is healthy. Behind the grandmotherly tone is an obvious fear of the effects of the ecological reality on the body. Because the exclusion zone is relatively depopulated, it is tempting to see it through the lens of a kind of environmental fantasy, a place where nature is “coming back” in spite of ecological catastrophe. But beneath the seemingly idyllic life in the zone lurk the signs of environmental dysfunction. Baba Dunja was visited by a biologist studying spiders, we learn. It seems that the spider population in the zone has exploded because there are now too few birds to keep them in check.

The biologist, it turns out, is also a sign that the exclusion zone is not as removed from world affairs as one might assume. Baba Dunja, for instance, has been featured in news coverage of the returnees living in the exclusion zone. The novel’s major conflict develops when a man brings his daughter into the community after his wife leaves him. Baba Dunja confronts him over the endangerment of the child, the confrontation escalates, the man attempts to strangle her, and Baba Dunja is rescued by a neighbor who slays the man. The murder is taken up by the authorities, and Baba Dunja goes to trial.

The novel is a compelling read because of the kinds of contradictions that structure life in the zone, as the story portrays it, such as the fact of making a life in and on a poisonous landscape, or the condition of being both removed and the center of media attention. As I read it I thought about the ambiguity of the language we use to talk about radiation in general. “Strahlen,” from which we get the language of “Strahlung” (radiation) and “verstrahlt” (irradiated) has both positive and negative connotations. While the English “radiation” is connected to “radiance,” there seems to me to be more distance between the two forms in English than there is in German. The ambiguity to the term “strahlen” is nicely captured in Horkheimer and Adorno’s famous line from Dialektik der Aufklarung that “die vollends aufgeklarte Erde strahlt im Zeichen triumphalen Unheils.” The “verstrahlte” landscape in Baba Dunjas letzte Liebe literalizes the radiant disaster of progress.

Author Construction and Literary Misfires: Theodor Fontane’s “Ellernklipp”

Over the past year the publisher DTV has been issuing new paperback editions of Theodor Fontane’s novels and stories. Not every canonical author brought forth one masterpiece after another (e.g. Goethe’s Herrmann und Dorothea), but these works are oellernklipp-9783423144193ften relegated to the pages of expensive historical-critical editions and seldom, if ever, appear in bookstores with attractive re-designed covers. DTV’s reissue of Ellernklipp (itself based on the still indispensable Hanser critical edition) is one such “lesser” work that has recently hit bookstore shelves. Ellernklipp was one of the last of the narrative works that I had to cross off my list, and so I recently got myself a copy and read it over the “free” time of break.

Ellernklipp (1881) is supposed to be one of Fontane’s “failed” works. The synopsis of the current edition tries to sell the text as a criminal story, underscoring the themes of love, jealousy, and the novel’s dramatic setting, even as the afterword points to these as artistic demerits from the realm of trivial literature. Set in Germany’s Harz mountains, the story is about the forester Baltzer Bocholt. Bocholt is a widower who lives with his son. At the beginning of the novel he adopts the recently orphaned girl Hilde; as she grows both Baltzer and his son Martin develop romantic feelings for her. Father and son come to blows on the rock face Ellernklipp, Bocholt knocks Martin off the cliff to his death, and with his son out of the way Bocholt marries Hilde. Three years after the murder she has borne him a sickly child. In his guilt, Bocholt imagines that everybody suspects him of the disappearance of his son. At the novel’s climax, he returns to Ellernklipp with a shooting party. The setting reminds him of the night of the murder, he thinks he hears his son’s ghost, and he commits suicide on Ellernklipp.

Knowing that this novel is often regarded as a weaker Fontane novel, I read it trying to pin down what makes this novel a misfire relative to his more celebrated works, especially his debut novel Vor dem Sturm of three years prior (1878). My hypothesis is that the “weaker” stories suffer from the manner in which Fontane has been constructed as an author. In general it seems to me that the texts that seem to have the need to justify their existence in print – Ellernklipp, Grete Minde, Unterm Birnbaum – are also the stories where Fontane is less the social realist, the author of the “tyrannical social something” that we hear about in Effi Briest. Not coincidentally, I would suspect, those texts, as well as Quitt, are also the texts where Fontane devotes more direct attention to the representation of nature, and Fontane’s nature representation  has been poorly received during much of the history of Fontane criticism. In a canonical study of Fontane, for instance, Peter Demetz argues that Fontane is interested in social norms, not organic nature, and where he focuses on organic nature, he does so against his own talent (1964 : 121). A frequent complaint in first wave ecocriticism is goes that professional literary criticism reduces the presence of nature to so much semiosis, or dismisses the artistic value of nature in literature altogether. It could be that this line of Fontane criticism is where this complaint sticks.

On the other hand, reading the novel I had to admit to myself that the way nature enters into this novel strikes me as a valid grounds for the negative assessment of the texts. In his 1872 essay on historical novelist Willibald Alexis, Fontane famously argued that landscape description only has value in a text when it enhances the mood of the story (HFA III/1 : 456), and Ellernklipp struck me as a rather blunt application of that principle. The mountain and cliff setting seems like a shortcut to inflating the drama of the story, and the physical world gets mined for some painfully obvious symbolism. The murder occurs, for instance, under a blood moon. The lack of subtlety in the nature motif here also weighs down on other “weaker” Fontane texts, such as Quitt and arguably Unterm Birnbaum (although I would not readily admit it). The haunting of Ellernklipp after Martin’s murder is a bit more interesting. The ghost story adds an element of the uncanny, and it is interesting to consider how trauma attaches itself to a place. But then, there is nothing unfamiliar in any of this, either. Politically the novel seems closer to the conservative Fontane then, say, the socially critical Fontane. The novel is strongly inflected by a Prussian Protestantism to the extent that the logic of retribution is sealed with the title of the final chapter, “Ewig und unwandelbar ist das Gesetz” (“Eternal and Immutable is the Law”)

And no discussion of the novel could, or should, evade the incest motif. Both father and son are both interested in the adopted child, leaving Hilde sexually exposed in a family that she joined not of her own volition. Last month Rebecca Solnit published an essay “Men Explain Lolita to Me,” in which she discusses what it means to identify with characters in literature. On the one hand when I teach literature, especially to beginning students, we work on separating our reactions to the characters from our assessment of the text. This distancing act is necessary for literary criticism, but there’s also a certain absurdity to it. It means mounting a rear-guard against ones own biases, even though it may be those biases that move us to write about a text in the first place. But when does such a distanced stance flatten out the more disturbing elements of the story? As I read Hilde’s story I was strongly reminded of Ottilie from Goethe’s Wahlverwandtschaften. The title itself comes from a notion in chemistry, “elective affinities,” and asks us to read the text not as a story with people in a fictional reality, but as a kind of literary Gedankenexperiment in which a principle of chemistry is applied to human figures. It is that, but, as Solnit would point out, it’s also a novel in which a man dumps his wife for his niece. Lolita, Wahlverwandtschaften, and Ellernklipp are all fictional works about pretend people, as I remind my students, but it is the fact that they are more than “just” stories that make them worth studying.

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.

Chemical Decadence: Pfisters Mühle on Stage in Stuttgart

In a 2012 interview on NPR religion scholar Elaine Pagels suggested that the enduring appeal of the Book of Revelation is that it provides a language that has been useful to movements of all sorts of political stripes since the early Christian era. “[P]eople who longed for justice have always felt that the book speaks to us now and we are now on the cusp of that great change,” she observes to Terry Gross. In appropriating the rhetoric of apocalypse, more recent environmentalist camps are in that sense only the most recent iteration of a longer tradition. In tactical terms, apocalyptic rhetoric can be a double-edged sword, as when those parties with a vested interest in the ecosocial status quo attempt to portray their adversaries as so many Chicken Littles. But as I sat in the Stuttgart State Theater recently watching their stage adaptation of Pfisters Mühle, I was reminded of the particular pleasure that can be taken when the material of Revelation is effectively deployed.

The stage version follows the plot and conventions of Raabe’s novel: Ebert Pfister and his bride Emmy are on a honeymoon at the Pfister family mill in the weeks before its destruction to make way for a new factory. Ebert sets about writing his “Sommerferienheft,” recounting how the factory Krickerode opened up upstream, how the hydrogen sulfide killed off the fish in the stream and released a stench that drove everyone away and ruined the mill. The play develops the humor of its source material: in a novel concerned also with the status of the image in the era of its mechanical reproducibility, the characters gather before a nineteenth century camera mounted upon a selfie stick. On the other hand, the humor is layered on top of the play also explores the commonplace that the memory as narrated in the text itself is somehow dangerous. When we arrive at the description of the degraded stream for instance, the dead fish rise up from the stage to haunt the characters in the present.

Everyone is a partisan in the world, as a line from the story reminds us, and Pfister’s Mill is in many ways an exploration of how nature ultimately loses out to the various ideological commitments of everyone in the years after German unification. Adam Asche, the natural scientist who helps the Betram Pfister in his court case against Krickerode in spite of his stated wish to pollute every river, stream, and bubbling spring in Germany, is in this sense different from the other characters only in his openness about his own partisan loyalties.

The play imagines modernity as an era of chemical decadence – decadence being, of course, a close relative of apocalypse. At one point Adam Asche falls into a vat of his own toxic brew. It overtakes his body and he breaks out dancing to Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” which is, I might add, a well chosen anthem for this particular story. Lippoldes, meanwhile, the novel’s living anachronism, dances down the throat of the enormous industrial drainage pipe that is the play’s main set piece.

Out of principle I find comparing adaptations to their source material to be like comparing apples and oranges, but all the same the stage adaptation gives the “where do all the pictures go?” speech to Ebert. The speech is core to the novel’s thinking about art and aesthetics in an era when nature is yoked into the process of industrial production. But the melancholy discomfort that comes with going to an art exhibition in modernity is not Ebert’s, it’s Emmy’s. Ebert dismisses it, and then later appropriates it, but what strikes me about Emmy is that she makes some very incisive observations about how urban and industrial modernity affects our perception of the world. Interestingly, it is a circumstance that has often been either missed in the reception history or has received very little comment.

Finally, the production makes a bizarre choice that I’ve never encountered before in theater. After over two hours we had something like a forty minute intermission to allow for a set change for a kind of tableau vivant. When the intermission began without a curtain, I was actually very confused. Was the play over? In the end it seemed a very ham-fisted solution to the medium’s technical limitation.

Picturing (Eco)misanthropy in Ilija Trojanow’s “Eistau” (“The Lamentations of Zeno”)

A comeistau-9783423142885mon charge used against ecological politics is that it hates humanity and reflexively rejects the benefits of progress. Consider, for instance, this New Yorker cartoon of 2006, where two cavemen muse on the fact that they have clean air and organic food, yet don’t survive past thirty (never mind that infant mortality accounts for the “low” life expectancy before 1900, and that in the Paleolithic if you could make it to 15 you had a decent chance of making it to 54). This kind of charge is little more than a cudgel that reduces all of environmental politics to a deep ecology caricature. At the same time the charge does not come from nowhere, and what’s more, it’s not at all clear that (eco)misanthropy is necessarily a bad thing, especially as a corrective to the kind of blunt anthropocentrism that gave us Interstellar.

Ilija Trojanow’s novel EisTau (The Lamentations of Zeno, the paperback edition of which appeared this year) is an exploration of a character given to a kind of ecomisanthropy. Zeno Hintermeier is a glaciologist through whose eyes we see that such a seemingly taboo attitude at least comes from an understandable place. Reflecting on how whale oil was a source for glycerine, Zeno thinks:

Was für eine bewundernswerte Innovation, aus Walen Sprengstoff herzustellen, was für ein leuchtendes Sinnbild des Fortschritts: Wesentliches zerstören, um Überflüssiges zu produzieren.

What a marvelous innovation to make explosives from whales, what an illuminating symbol of progress: destroying the essential for the production of excess. (131)

Zeno is based in Munich for most of his career, and his work is devoted to a distressed Alpine glacier. When he visits his beloved glacier to find nothing more than a few scattered, muddy blocks of ice, his personal and professional lives sink into crisis. He joins a company that takes ecotourists on Antarctic cruises, where he gives talks about the local ecology. The text of the novel shifts between his journal entries and montage of mass media language from after the novel’s end, in which we slowly discover that Zeno has hijacked the ship, marooned all the people on board, and eventually committed suicide. The protagonist has an interesting name: Zeno of Elea, after all, is known for his paradoxes of motion, such as that when traveling we never reach our destinations as we are only ever halfway. Global warming is a kind of catastrophic personal and environmental break-out from this non-movement in movement: Glaciers hit definite points of no return as they melt, a circumstance correspondingly mirrored in the activation of Zeno Hintermeier’s Todestrieb towards the end of the novel.

Zeno is something of a latter day Cassandra, who is now not simply ignored, but dismissed as an irrational wet blanket:

Er war eine Spaßbremse, er war ein Spinner, aber wenigstens ein Spinner mit Überzeugung, Sie werden ihn nicht verstehen.

He was a party pooper, he was a nut, but at least a nut with conviction, you will never understand him. (140)

As a teacher Zeno is in the bind of wanting others to appreciate the subject he specializes in, and frustrated that his students necessarily don’t share his appreciation or devotion. During an expedition to the glacier he has devoted his life to, he remarks of his students:

Sie waren nicht einmal peinlich berührt ob ihrer Ignoranz, als stünde ihnen das Grundrecht zu, Vernichtetes zu vergessen.

They did not even have a touch of embarrassment over their ignorance, as if they had a fundamental right to forget what had been destroyed. (56)

The situation is presumably worse on the ship. Zeno shares an enclosed space with a group of passengers present for the aesthetic consumption of nature. We learn, for instance, that the cruise ships space themselves out so that all on board have at least the illusion of being the only humans in a space radically other from civilization, even as human economic activity is transforming the terrain before their very eyes. In this context Zeno is little more than a form of infotainment, the knowledge he shares ultimately does not result in any change in his audience’s attitudes towards nature or everyday practice. At one point a passenger sees a skua steel an egg from a penguin’s nest. The passenger saves the egg, for which she is rewarded with a bite in the hand, causing her to fall down and crush another penguin and the eggs in her nest.

One of the questions I pursue in my research is how an environmental thematic squares with a certain historical notion of the autonomy of the work of art. The reception of the novel was initially cold partly because it was seen as didactically coerced. My own feelings about the novel were mixed. Zeno’s ecomisanthropy is actually quite interesting, but the character’s own voice makes for some exasperating moments. The descriptions of sex struck me as particularly hackneyed. That would just be a complaint about artistic merit, except that the female characters end up appearing as distant and flat. Zeno’s ex-wife is a shrew, and even the more sympathetic Paulina, with whom Zeno has an affair in the novel, appears as a more distanced sexual object viewed through the lens of national stereotypes. This doesn’t combine well with the portrait of the ecomisanthrope that the novel sketches. And that’s unfortunate, because instead of a nuanced portrait of an attitude that is often quickly dismissed, we encounter in this novel yet another example of an ugly and ultimately self-defeating masculine brand of conservationism.

 

On edit: 27. April 2016: Eistau is now available in English under the title The Lamentations of Zeno.

Philippe Squarzoni, Climate Changed

There is a common assumption underwriting much 51vMHuzcL2Lof so-called “first wave” ecocriticism that our contemporary ecological dilemmas are a matter of some sort of wrong thinking that grounds our destructive behavior. Certain modes of writing, the thinking goes, reorient us back towards nature, and so the major intervention of ecocriticism when it first hit the scene was precisely in giving serious critical consideration to the political aspect of literary encounters with nature such as Thoreau’s at Walden Pond or Abbey’s in what is now Arches National Park. When I first picked up my copy of Philippe Squarzoni’s graphic novel Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science, I assumed from the cover that I was in familiar territory. I expected to follow the narrator through the basics of global warming science, and to see a triumphant conversion at the end. The persistence of conversion narratives in environmentally themed writing is fascinating, but Squarzoni is after something different. His book seizes on the ambiguous moment prior to the sea-change of conversion.

As always, translation is interpretation, and the original French title Saison brune is much more ambiguous. The “brown season,” we find out, is a liminal moment in Glacier National Park where the ice is gone but the green of spring has yet to make an appearance. The novel is an exploration of that liminal moment as a general condition when the shape of the future is not yet determined: on the global scale, the fact that we could still take charge of our destinies and avoid the worst impacts of global warming, while on a personal scale, it reflects Squarzoni’s (by which we mean the narrator who wears Squarzoni’s face) feelings about being middle aged. He reflects on the political and economic problems that are warming the planet, and confronts their intractability. To board an international flight or not? To drive a Hummer or to drive a smaller vehicle? Squarzoni spends much of the book reflecting on these issues at a personal and at a global scale while wandering through the world, both the real world “out there” and the utopian images of advertising.

The visual economy of the book is remarkable. It draws widely from literature, art history, and film to consider what it means to unpack the “brown season” as a global and as a personal condition. At one point the narrator recounts the story of a skydiver who jumped without his parachute, a single mistake that could never be undone. We see the plane flying away, just after the moment that the individual’s future had been determined (as it happens the skydiver in question was one Ivan McGuire, who died in 1988). The departing plane also ends the memory of childhood summers in the south of France, and makes an appearance when Squarzoni decides not to fly to a conference because of the carbon planes put into the atmosphere. As he knew, the plane still takes off without him. The falling is also significant: in one panel Squarzoni and his partner fall from a bridge and land in the streets of Manhattan, doing battle with a personified consumer culture. The shooting of Santa Claus was an especially satisfying turn in this fantasy. Such drastic imagery is poised against pages of “talking heads,” that is, experts Squarzoni interviews. I personally liked these parts of the book, they seem at first repetitive, but I found the portraits to be very expressive, bringing a strong affective component to the science portions of this personal journey.

Because this is a graphic novel, to write about it without sharing actual images from the book seems somewhat unjust, but I don’t want to overstep the bounds of fair use. However, pieces can be viewed at this interview with Squarzoni.