Category Archives: Literature

Gardens and Invisible Bird Cages: Stifter on Making Nature Natural

My last postAnthonis_Leemans_-_Hunting_gear,_Still_Life_-_Google_Art_Project looked at a moment in Stifter’s novel Indian Summer in which the protagonist Heinrich Drendorf is thinking about the relative insignificance of humans and human production relative to geological time. I raised the possibility that this might even be an especially ecocentric moment in the novel.

But let’s not be too hasty. One need not look far in his stories to find that he is hardly “ecocentric” by most understandings of the term. From the early Studies to later stories such as Nachkommenschaften (Descendants) nature is caught up again and again in a transition from natura naturans to natura naturata: nature doing its own thing, that is, “nature naturing” to ordering nature. The clearing of forests, draining of swamps, and the extermination of undesired fauna elicit are featured prominently without any particular concern on the narrator’s part.

One might chalk this up to Stifter’s own historical circumstances, that it is only with the benefit of experience that we in 2014 know how disastrous such “conquests of nature” can be. But that does not mean that Stifter lacks any concern for the integrity of the nature he so meticulously represents. We need only look back at Indian Summer, at the chapter “The Departure,” where Freiherr von Risach delivers a delightfully endless and sublimely boring monologue on his garden. He has a particular fondness for birdsong, and comes to the problem of getting a bird to sing naturally:

If [the bird] is caught young or even old, he forgets himself and his misery, becomes a creature that hops back and forth in a small space when he otherwise needed a large one, and sings his song; but this song is one of habit, not of joy. Our grounds are actually a colossal cage without wire, bars or doors where the birds sing from an extraordinary joy that comes to them so readily, where we hear a medley of many voices which would only be a discordant scream in a room together, and where we can observe the birds’ housekeeping and behavior which is so different and can often make us smile even when things are gloomiest. … People want to enjoy them; they want to enjoy them from up close, and since they are incapable of making a cage with invisible wire and bars where they could observe the true nature of the birds, they make a visible cage in which the bird is locked and sings until his premature death. (95-96)

Risach’s garden is the utopia of ordered nature: he has found a way to get the flora and the fauna to do as he would have them by manipulating their beings. His garden is an invisible birdcage because he creates conditions under which the birds would not wish to be anywhere else. That is one reason why nature is made more natural through Risach’s intervention, he is able to produce a space of harmony. Reading Stifter’s criticisms of the 1848 revolution makes it clear that this harmony is not incongruous with his notion of freedom. On the other hand, we are left with the question of the conditions of freedom in a cage in which a being is invisible, stays voluntarily, regards himself as free, and acts authentically as if he had authentic freedom?

Ultimately what’s at stake for Stifter is a kind of Platonic absolute, what Stifter will come to call the “sanftes Gesetz” or “soft law.” According to this, the absolute, which is both the guarantor of the sensible world and the source of moral reason, can only ever be known for its manifestations in the small and particular. “Nature” is not valuable as the given, but is a projection of the higher instance that anchors our immediate reality. To order nature is to make nature more natural by bringing out the general in the particular. But as any good Stifter reader knows, he just can’t help himself, there’s always some detail or circumstance that exposes the whole order as essentially a house of cards. And that’s what constitutes the singular pleasure of reading Stifter.

Deep Time and the Work of Art

800px-Elephant_Butte_exit_rapelThere’s a moment in Adalbert Stifter’s novel Indian Summer (Der Nachsommer, 1857) when the protagonist Heinrich Drendorf wanders through a valley and comes to a lake. Pausing at the lake, he spends several pages contemplating the geological forces that created the environment he is currently moving through (the length is typical for a novel that Hebbel famously mocked for the fact that everything is meticulously observed). Drendorf’s line of thought brings him to how his own things are themselves a product of deep time.

Then I thought of my marble – how remarkable marble is! Where did the animals go whose traces we think we see in these formations? When did the giant snails disappear whose memory has been handed down to us here? A memory such as this goes back into the mists of time, is measured by no one, is perhaps unseen by anyone, yet lasts longer than the fame of any  mortal. (191).

These reflections on the work of art eventually turn to reflections on narrative.

If any history [Geschichte] is worth pondering, worth investigating, it is the history of the Earth, the most promising, the most stimulating history there is, a history where man is only an interpolation, who knows how small a one, and can be superseded by other histories of perhaps higher beings. The Earth itself preserves the sources of this history in its innermost parts just as in a room for records, sources inscribed in perhaps millions of documents; it is only a matter of our learning to read and not falsify them by eagerness or obstinacy. Who will one day have this history clearly before his eyes? Will ever such a  time come, or will only He know it completely Who has known it for all Eternity?

What we have here is something like the concept of the Book of Nature, in which all of history is inscribed onto the planet, and can be read like an archive by one who has the right perspective. Reading that archive means achieving a sense of what is really “great” and what is really “small,” which is different from what presents itself to us as “great” and “small” (a distinction that determines Stifter’s realist agenda, as he explains in the preface to the novella cycle Multi-Colored Stones (Bunte Steine)). Stifter seems to suggest that reaching this state is a matter of evolution – biological or otherwise – although it’s tempting to imagine that the vagueness of “higher beings” holds open the possibility of the Earth having an extraterrestrial readership. For the moment, only God is the observer for whom the planet is in any way legible.

It would seem that Drendorf is arriving at a very ecocentric way of looking at the work of art. Geschichte means both “history” and “stories,” as narratives they culminate in a story of the Earth covering both deep past and deep future. In the case of the sculpture, the form given to the marble in the workshop would appear to be of diminished significance relative to the history of its material. Whatever it depicts, the marble is the product of eons of geological processes and was imprinted by species that came and went long before the one that turned the block of stone into an artwork.

The critic Georg Lukács memorably dubbed Stifter the “classical author of German reactionary politics” for his detailed descriptions and the anti-revolutionary agenda that spawned them. But his descriptiveness can and has been read as demonstrating a singular concern for the environment of the sort that one finds in American nature writing. Does this make Stifter an “ecocentric” author? By now it should be clear that I don’t think so, and I’ll explain why in my next post.


Stifter, Adalbert. Indian Summer. Trans. Wendell Frye. Bern: Peter Lang, 1999. Print.

Photo Credit: Elephant Butte, Arches National Park. Courtesy of Michael Grindstaff. Creative Commons license.

Kim Stanley Robinson: 2312

2312 Cover Kim Stanley RobinsonI gave up on literary science fiction when I was in eighth grade. That year I read Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two and Childhood’s End, and found that both left me cold. I was underwhelmed by what struck me as a blithe Prometheanism on Clarke’s part. At the end of 2010, for instance, Jupiter becomes our system’s second sun. The narrator tell us this was welcomed by “farmers, mayors, police, seamen, and all those engaged in outdoor activities” while it was hated by “lovers, criminals, naturalists, and astronomers” (1984 : 326f). The ecological catastrophe that unfolds is briefly glossed over until the narrator arrives at a paean to mankind’s Faustian drive.

As problematic as Clarke’s triumphalism may be, it is indicative of one of the deeply political nature of the science fiction genre. This is hardly an epiphany – even as I was sick of Clarke, I remain a fan of the never politically dubious Star Trek.  I picked up Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2012 novel 2312 because I was curious to see how the novel deals with the ethics of terraforming other planets in the solar system, life in artificially produced space environments, and Earth after the consequences of our species’ mistreatment of the planet have been visited upon us.

The plot of the novel follows Swan Er Hong as she begins pursuing an investigation left open by her recently deceased grandmother, which turns out to be into a “terrorist” scheme involving artificial intelligence. The situates the readership as occupying a time in a much more distant future, looking back on a crucial historical moment in the solar system. The chapters are punctuated by bits of material that do most of the labor of world building – instructions for terraforming celestial bodies, summaries of future historical debates on periodizing the era of the novel’s story, a series of lists that might be poetry. We see Earth dealing with the consequences of global warming: politically fractured, impoverished, materially dependent on the off worlds. New York City has been flooded, so the residents have fled to up into the skyscrapers and Manhattan has come to resemble Venice.

The core question that runs through the novel regards repetition: is the universe one of eternal return? To what extent is the repetition of days subverted by even small deviations? And so Earth biomes are reproduced in celestial bodies, even as those biomes have long since been destroyed on Earth. To escape the repetition, the people in space have their bodies modified: Swan has a cluster of avian brain cells that allow her to sing bird songs, other characters have had reproductive organs of both sexes involved so that copulation is an act of reciprocal penetration. Some people on impoverished Earth, unable to have their own bodies modified, see the class difference manifesting itself in speciation, and have suggested classifying their non-terrestrial counterparts as  Homo sapiens celestis.

Repetition and iterability are ultimately the core issues at stake in 2312, driving the novel’s political reflections. The production of artificial intelligence in the shape of humans raises a familiar question from other science fiction, that is, the question of extending moral consideration to a constructed thing that may or may not be sentient. But it extends to the environmental politics at work in the novel as well. In a key reversal, earth animals that had previously survived only in biomes reproduced in outer space are airlifted into their former habitats on Earth as a “rewilding.” Swan, and perhaps the novel itself, celebrates this as a kind of ecological redemption, brought about by the protagonist’s own sense of Prometheanism. But unlike Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010, we also learn that the people of Earth do not universally share in the enthusiasm, and the narrator gives us a strong hint that the reproduction of the Earth’s past condition on the present planet is not without friction, much of which stems from the class tensions between the on- and the off-worlders.

The Politics of Celebrating the City

In his autobiography Von Zwanzig bis Dreißig (From Twenty to Thirty) Theodor Fontane explains his inability to make friends with the author Theodor Storm by chalking the difference between them up to a clash between his own cosmopolitanism vs. Storm’s fealty to his North Friesland home:

He was for the Husum Dike, I was for the London Bridge; his ideal was the Schleswig Heath with its red erica bushes, my ideal was the Heath of Culloden with the graves of the Camerons and Mackintosh. (HFA III/4 : 372, translation mine)

Spitzweg "Newspaper Reader in the Garden"

Carl Spitzweg “Newspaper Reader in the Garden”

Storm had been some ten years in his grave by the time Fontane published this comparison. While it is unflattering and in no small measure self-serving, Fontane’s characterization of Storm as an author bound to his small corner of the planet is reflective of the judgment that German realism is a provincial realism. Perhaps the best example of this judgment is to be found in Erich Auerbach landmark study Mimesis of 1946. For Auerbach, German literature of the late nineteenth century, in this view, falls short of the French model in representing an emerging European cosmopolitan modernity. Despite the fact that Fontane claimed for himself a certain cosmopolitanism, he does not entirely escape Auerbach’s charge of provincialism, because his novels, while in some measure provincial, are a “transition to a freer, less secluded, more cosmopolitan realism” (Auerbach 516-519, quote 517).[1].

I don’t cite this in order to “disprove” Auerbach. First because the book was written in exile and Auerbach’s judgment is made against the backdrop of the catastrophe of National Socialism and thus deserves its historical due, second because we now have decades of scholarship to show that the literature of the area was sensitive to European and global realities.

The charge of “provincialism” is certainly an understandable one, especially if one thinks about literary history from a socio-historical perspective, and more especially if one considers the political climate in Germany after 1848. Auerbach bases this judgment on the political fragmentation after the revolution, an account that is pretty basic to most histories of German literature in the nineteenth century. But the allegation of “provincialism” has a curious flip-side, and carries with it some more dubious implications.

The first curious thing about the charge of “provincialism” is that it is grounded in aspects of the novel that one might just as easily celebrate in the context of a different national literature. Storm’s attachment to the Husum Dike might make him a “provincial,” but plenty of American ecocriticism might just as easily see in him a sensitivity to “place.” The reason is that having a “sense of place” implies a connection to one’s immediate environment, which supposedly leads one to ecological right thinking. Of course”place” can also take one down some politically problematic roads, and not just because its connotations resonate with certain aspects of National Socialist ideology. [2].

The second reason is that the charge of provincialism carries with it a normative concept of literature. It privileges a “modernity” as the end point of literature, a privileging that necessarily comes at the expense of prior modes of expression. Ironically, it is not unlike the normative view of realism that sees the 19th century realist novel as the ultimate flowering of the novel form. What’s odd about the charge that German realism is “provincial” is that it is in realism where the provinces come into view, as Lilian Furst argues in her study of European realism All is True (99). If this is the case, then the argument might go that Dickens’ London or Flaubert’s Paris makes room for the representation of the provinces, somehow, but it’s a strange argument to make (and radically reduces the canon of realism).

Finally, the charge also posits a normative view of the reality that realism denotes (to speak with Roland Barthes). The assumption is that reality in “modernity” exists in the city. It’s ironic that if someone from Upstate New York had never ventured east of the Catskills or below the Pennsylvania state line he would be hopelessly provincial, but New York City’s microgeographies are something of a cultural joke, and part of the city’s charm (e.g. Kramer’s “long-distance” relationship with a woman living downtown in an episode of Seinfeld, or Saul Steinberg’s take on Manhattan parochialism in his famous New Yorker cover). This itself is a kind of provincialism particular to the supposedly “cosmopolitan,” one that makes it harder to recognize how a place like upstate New York has historically been shaped by the vicissitudes of uneven development (which, as I have written, is why I include texts about “rural” spaces in a course called Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture). But where this metropolitan provincialism really loses its charm is when it translates into matters of policy. So the New York Times can editorialize in favor of fracking upstate, because we just don’t have the economic opportunities available in such wealthy urban centers as New York City. Just do it with caution, and for God’s sake, not in the city’s watershed!

It’s time to put the provincialism charge to rest, because it has been thoroughly debunked, and because making it puts us in a bad corner politically. But when it comes to the study of literary texts, the biggest reason may be simply that sheer reading pleasure starts at the same place as any critique in a robust sense: from a sensitivity to the qualities and characteristics of a literary work in all its particularity.

1.Erich Auerbach. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.Trans. William Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

2. For a useful critique of place, see Ursula Heise.Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. A useful recent study on place in German realism is John B. Lyon. Out of Place: German Realism, Displacement, and Modernity.New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

Teaching Metropolis in the Country

A lingering question I have is about effectively integrating places into the teaching of literary criticism. I refer not only to real existing places that are represented in literature either directly or in more or less veiled forms, but also to the places where we encounter literature. It’s a big question in ecocriticism, and one that I intend to take up in my own work later on down the road. For now, rather than delving into the theoretical issues of this question, I want to share some thoughts on a writing course I taught at Cornell in 2011 and 2012 called “Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture.” Because this course was meant to fulfill a first year writing requirement, all content was selected first and foremost in the service of the objective of guiding students from high school to college level writing. I designed the course to include a range of texts ranging historically from Tieck’s Life’s Luxuries and Stifter’s Tourmaline to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. The idea was to give the students ample opportunity to explore different problems in their writing by setting a wide variety of texts in dialogue with one another.

One thing that was important to me in creating the syllabus was that  “Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture” not become reified terms, that is, that we don’t talk about them as if they were things “over there” that we needed to drive five hours to New York City to experience. And here’s where place comes in. We were a group of American and international students who grew up in all types of human settlements doing this class at a campus in a small town surrounded by farmland. Unfortunately, it is not unheard of for visitors to our neck of the woods to have difficulty seeing only farmland. For instance Jon Stewart, whose comedy sometimes suffers from a certain metropolitan provincialism, came to Cornell and quipped that “Ithaca is in the middle of nowhere . . . On the way up I didn’t pass anything I couldn’t milk.” But if he had looked past the cows, he would have seen a part of the world that is living with the very real and difficult legacies of its commercial and industrial past, as opposed to  New York City’s overgrown ahistorical backyard.

Ruins of the Ithaca Gun Factory near Cornell, since demolished.

Ruins of the Ithaca Gun Factory near Cornell, since demolished.

Without making the course about Ithaca itself, I selected readings that complicated the city/country dichotomy. With Tourmaline we looked at Vienna and the liminal space of its suburbs. We looked at maps to explore the city/country dichotomy as a social condition that shaped some of the aesthetic problems we were writing about. The first chapter of Mike Davis’ City of Quartz was an easy way to introduce the critique of mass culture, but he also begins the book by talking about a socialist settlement in the desert as representing a kind of alternative future for the city itself. And W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn together with Wilhelm Raabe’s Stopfkuchen (Stuffcake or Tubby Schaumann in English translation) allowed for conversations and assignments on the surprising connections between supposedly remote places and global networks of power and injustice that we might otherwise think of as a relation of metropolitan core to colonized margin.

Chapter six of Rings of Saturn was especially useful for getting around the danger of reifying “Metropolis,” “Modernity,” and “Mass Culture.” The chapter begins with a small iron bridge over the river Blyth, a river that used to be a major shipping lane but has been silted up. The narrator sees only rotting barges, and “nothing but grey water, mudflats, and emptiness” (138). It turns out that the bridge was for a narrow gauge railway (the railway being, of course, the symbol of industrial modernity par excellence). The bridge leads the narrator to a history of China from the Opium Wars to the death of the Dowager Empress, a calamitous history in which Europe was deeply implicated. The bridge doesn’t just “bridge” England’s eastern coast with China, but as an object from this history infects the surrounding landscape. The narrator moves on to Dunwich, once an important port city claimed by the ocean where “you can sense the immense power of emptiness” (159, “den gewaltigen Sog der Leere” in the German), and goes then to the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. The novel weaves together seemingly infinite constellations of history and culture, at times I suspect even making fun of itself for doing so. This poses a challenge for teaching, because with such a text it can be easy to miss the forest for the trees. But it’s a rewarding text to include in a course that thinks about both historical and aesthetic problems that spring from the urban experience, because it hangs on to more global contexts while also pushing assumptions that readers bring to a text. In class we spend time talking about the extensive work the novel does in teaching us how to read it (the first chapter is a kind of field guide to the rest of the novel), and then mid-way through I ask the students to turn to the back cover of the English edition, look at the label “fiction,” and tell me what they think.


On the Poetic Status of Conservatism

There’s a point in Theodor Adorno’s essay “In Memory of Eichendorff” when he arrives at the issue of Eichendorff’s own conservatism. The essay, let us first recall, was originally a radio speech broadcast in 1957 to mark the 100th anniversary of the poet’s death (official German culture loves these sorts of anniversaries). What is at stake for Adorno is actually the appropriation of the German cultural past as part of the restoration of the Adenauer years. “But if anywhere, it is in poetry that the status of conservatism has changed in the extreme” (57). Unlike post-war conservatism’s investment in a bad status quo and a thoroughly discredited notion of tradition, historical conservatism of Eichendorff’s kind comes from a value of something abiding against “emerging barbarism” (57).

I cite this because the authors I work with also cling to a politics that seem to invite much less sympathetic readings. Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács memorably described Adalbert Stifter as the “classical author of the German political reaction,” argued that for all of his insight, Wilhelm Raabe was too bound by his social and political limitations to understand his time, and Theodor Fontane’s aestheticization of the nobility was a symptom of political “halfwayness.” (Granted, these judgments are all from Lukács’ most Stalinist period, in which, in spite of Adorno’s polemic, he still produced fantastic and provocative essays.)

The image of Fontane improved after Lukács’ essay with the publication of the letters to Georg Friedlaender, where Fontane has much sharper criticism of the nobility. And Raabe? A first encounter with Raabe through Die Akten des Vogelsangs (recently translated as The Birdsong Papers) might not give the impression of someone who had a portrait of Bismarck in his study, one that hangs there still today.

One position might be to separate the author from the politics, a move that I endorse as part of any critical practice. But that doesn’t obviate the conservative politics or conservative aesthetics in the works themselves. Like Schiller, Stifter sees art and aesthetics as means by which humanity moves from a condition of “is” to “ought.” But unlike Schiller, that is not a move that everyone can make. So in his novel Der Nachsommer (Indian Summer), which is a story about an aesthetic upbringing, only a select few enter the Rose House. In Stifter’s essays and in his stories there is little of the enlightenment universalism of, say, Goethe’s Iphigenie in Taurus (another favorite text of the post-war West German restoration). And while the “fiction of the alternative community” that Jeffrey Sammons sees at work in Raabe has a certain sexiness, then as now it remains a politically ambivalent fiction at best.

Adorno’s reading of Eichendorff’s conservatism could be applied to many of the conservative authors of the 19th century. One of the most striking aspects of Stechlin, for instance, is the extent to which the conservative and even reactionary characters seem to have insights into contemporary reality than the more liberal, “world-open” characters who subscribe to a benign cosmopolitanism. But there’s more to be gained from such a reading than that. Where Lukács tends to look for the social and political value of Raabe and Fontane in spite of their politics, Adorno is sensible to the more useful dialectic at work in the historical conservatism of one like Eichendorff. We see it also in the environmental thematic in Raabe. His novels don’t critique environmental depredation from a position that values nature as something best respected as sovereign and inviolable, but from a skepticism of and perhaps even resistance to destructive bourgeois ideologies of progress. And that is what we mean when we talk about the text’s conservatism. Jeffrey Sammons makes this point when he notes that ecology is one the “conservative values [that] have been revived in the most progressive minds” (272). And that leads us to how these texts might help us to think outside of the restrictive categories that contemporary American political discourse operates in: reading – and teaching – these texts allow us to explore alternative political constellations that existed in historical reality, to empathize with and even value the potential for alternatives in a politics that seems to antithetical to the very term, and to open ourselves up to the realities revealed by political frameworks outside of our own political commitments.

Thoughts on Re-Reading “One Hundred Years of Solitude”

Even before the news of Gabriel García Márquez’ passing on April 17th arrived, I had been thinking that it was about time I take One Hundred Years of Solitude back off the shelf. Admittedly I did so with something of a guilty conscience, as his obituary in the New York Times mentioned that Márquez had feared that that book would overshadow his other literary accomplishments.

I first encountered One Hundred Years of Solitude in twelfth grade English. Suffice it to say, I was dazzled from the very first line. I was partial to the fantastic element, but also to the detailed plasticity of the narrative world – i.e. Pilar Tenera’s “explosive laugh [that] frightened off the doves” or José Arcadio’s “flatulence [that] withered the flowers.” I read the novel first out of the 1998 Harper Perennial Classic’s paperback, which had on the back a quote from William Kennedy’s review of the novel saying that “it takes up not long after Genesis left off and carries through to the air age.” It was a claim that stuck with me, and one of the questions that I had of the novel when I first read it was about the relation of the narrative to actual historical time. In other words, when and where is Macondo?

While at the time that question might have come from a privileging of the “realism” in “magical realism,” the novel itself raises this question. The major turning point in the plot is loosely based on the 1928 Banana massacre, in which the Colombian army slaughtered an unknown number of workers on the behalf of United Fruit Company, today’s Chiquita Brands, lest anyone forget. And the novel also depicts the process of Macondo’s integration into a thoroughly disenchanted world history: at the beginning Macondo is an island whose contact with the outside world comes through fantastic products brought in by Arab and Gypsy traders, but as our solitary one hundred years proceed, we see the introduction of centralized bureaucracy, film, and most disastrously, the train.

In the April 18th episode of Democracy Now! in honor of Márquez, Isabel Allende remarked that Márquez “gave us back our history.” And it is the creation of an officially sanctioned historical narrative and the concomitant act of amnesia that shook me most re-reading the novel now. After the massacre José Arcadio Segundo wakes up on the train with the bodies of the striking workers on the way to being dumped in the ocean. He jumps off and walks back to Macondo, only to find that in the minds of the people, the massacre never happens. Solitude catches up to him as the only human in the town who remembers the event. The climate itself instead becomes a site of collective grief, as the town’s atmosphere of decadence is washed away in a four year rainstorm that gathers as the bodies of the workers are transported to the ocean and into oblivion.

Memory and Urban Development in Stifter’s Tourmaline

I’m gearing up for writing on Stifter, and have been reviewing some of the stories from the collection Bunte Steine (Colorful Stones). Unfortunately I woke up one recent morning to find my well-loved Reclam edition graced with a pile of feline vomit, so I decided to spring for an edition of the collected works. The historical critical edition being out of my price range, I went with the Insel edition edited by Max Stefl.

Adalbert Stifter Gesammelte Werke Insel Stefl

Such abject matters aside, I wanted to look at the third novella in the cycle, Turmalin (a translation under the title Tourmaline is available in Eight German Novellas from Oxford UP ISBN 0192832182, sadly out of print). A historically underrated entry in Bunte Steine, Turmalin may be the strangest story in a strange collection. At the beginning the narrator tells us

Der Turmalin ist dunkel, und was da erzählt wird, ist sehr dunkel. (1959 : 133).

The tourmaline is dark in colour, and the events which I am going to relate here are very dark, too. . . (1997 : 128).

This is basically a promise of catnip to anyone inclined to the particular pleasures of nineteenth century German literature. The story is about a Viennese gentleman living probably sometime in the late 18th century in one of Stifter’s most marvelously phantasmagoric bourgeois interiors. After his wife has an affair with a visiting actor, she vanishes, so the gentleman packs up his daughter, locks the door, and vanishes. The second half of the narrative is taken up by a woman living in one of Vienna’s suburbs. She tells of how she saw the man on her street. After the father dies, she takes in the daughter, who by now has a monstrously sized head and speaks a thoughtless archaic German.

The suburbs are a curious marginal space beyond the greVienna 1780 Mapen belt that used to be the glacis to the old town city walls. It’s the “empty” space on this map of Vienna from 1780. Note also that this map shows the course of the Danube prior to its “correction.” From the 1860s to the turn of the century, this space would be a construction site as the old walls came down and it became the modern Viennese Ringstraße.

The novella ends with the girl being absorbed into a new family idyll, but lest things get too sentimental, Stifter gives us this:

Der große Künstler ist längst tot, der Professor Andorf ist tot, die Frau wohnt schon lange nicht mehr in der Vorstadt, das Perronsche Haus besteht nicht mehr, eine glänzende Häuserreihe steht jetzt an dessen und der nachbarlichen Häuser Stelle, und das junge Geschlecht weiß nicht, was dort gestanden war, und was sich dort zugetragen hatte. (1959 : 180).

The great actor is long dead, Professor Andorf is dead, the woman no longer lives in the suburbs, the Perron house no longer exists, and on its site and that of the neighbouring houses now stands a row of splendid residences; and the young people do not know what once stood there, or what happened there. (1997 : 163).

It’s an unnerving ending, as in a single sentence we find out that two people have died, the old street has all but vanished, and the space is now populated by people who have no memory. It’s an image from the production of space where the memory of a place is dependent on a kind of spatial continuity. With the old structures replaced, the new generation that has since moved in lead ahistorical lives, opening a gap into which the text of the novella presumably steps. Placing the text in this role is a move that happens elsewhere in the literature of this period, and the texts’ ability to function as a site of memory is always a precarious one. Ultimately what I find unnerving about this story is not the ephemerality of life or urban space, but the picture of collective amnesia. It’s a debilitating condition, suffice it to say. On a personal note, Stifter is describing a historical process that shaped my own life world as a teenager in an area of San Diego that is a picture of everything wrong with post-war urban planning in the United States.

If we look outside the text, it is ironic that the neo-classical and neo-gothic ensemble that would go up in what is now the Ringestraße would be a perfect case study of nineteenth century historism.

Wiener Rathaus, Vienna's neo-gothic city hall on the Ringstraße.

Wiener Rathaus, Vienna’s neo-gothic city hall on the Ringstraße.

Stifter, Adalbert. “Tourmaline.” Eight German Novellas. Trans. Michael Fleming. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. Print. 128-163.

Stifter, Adalbert. Gesammelte Werke. Vol. III. Ed. Max Stefl. Frankfurt a.M.: Insel-Verlag, 1997. Print.

Fantasies of Self-Cannibalism: The Story of the Criminal in Ludwig Tieck’s “Life’s Luxuries”

Ludwig Tieck’s late novella Life’s Luxuries (Des Lebens Überfluß, 1837/39), about one couple’s utopian project to withdraw from society and consume only what they have ready at hand in their small apartment, contains a curious parable very early in the narrative. In the scene Heinrich is reading to his wife Clara from his diary:

Man hat ein Märchen, daß ein wütender Verbrecher, zum Hungertode verdammt, sich selber nach und nach aufspeiset; im Grunde ist das nur die Fabel des Lebens und eines jeden Menschen. Dort blieb am Ende nur der Magen und das Gebiß übrig, bei uns bleibt die Seele, wie sie das Unbegreifliche nennen. Ich aber habe auch, was das Äußerliche betrifft, in ähnlicher Weise mich abgestreift und abgelebt. (7)

There is a fable that a mad criminal, condemned to death by starvation, ate himself bit by bit; after all, that is only a fable for the life of every man. In the first case only the stomach and the teeth remained, in our case the Soul, as the incomprehensible is called. In the same way, as far as outward things go, I also have stripped myself and died. (51)

The novella proceeds to test out this fantasy of autosarcophagy, as the two characters set about surviving the winter by using furniture and eventually the staircase leading up to the apartment as wood for burning. The conflict is about the integration of a fantast trying to preserve his own tired romanticism in a post-romantic world already on the brink of revolution. The last moment of resistance to integration in bourgeois society comes when Heinrich gathers a boot and a pair of staves and insists that they are a canon and guns. The project of self-consumption breaks down along material/ideal lines, and Heinrich presents it in two ways. The first is that where the criminal’s material deprivation is an equivalent for a common human life project of achieving transcendence beyond the material. Cannibalizing oneself leaves only the organs of consumption and digestion behind, the exterior body is reduced to the mechanism that maintains the body, and this image is the equivalent of a more ineffable spiritual process. But then Heinrich presents it as more of a simple mirroring. His process is not strictly some internal affair, but rather an actualization of the internal through an unsustainable consumption of the external, which in the story is not the body, but the things in one’s surroundings.

What interests me about the story is the way that it imagines the relation to the external world, the utopic fantasy of the good life being one of extreme self-sustainability, so that even those parts of the body that depend on the work of the teeth become valuable in being metabolized. The cracks in the fantasy are obvious, as one escapes consumption by consuming everything around oneself, and in the story we learn that the couple still keeps a servant to fetch them food (because of these cracks, students sometimes react to this story with hostility towards the characters). In the end, the couple rejoins society and fits the house with an even nicer staircase than before.

Interesting sidenote: The only English translation I know of to date is from a 1934 collection of German novellas published by Oxford University Press. The translation treats one of Heinrich’s programmatic and most politically dubious speeches in a manner that seems to shy away from the politics. Heinrich begins by claiming that friends and lovers should treat the relationship “schonend,” which they translate as “with consideration,” although the verb is more about preservation. Love for each other should not destroy “die Täuschung der Erscheinung” (41), which is rendered as “the spiritual illusion” (1934 : 89). A more literal translation would be “the illusion of appearance.” We might chalk that up to the vagaries of translation, except that the translation ends there whereas in the German the speech goes on for another page. Heinrich extends his claim about friendship to the relation to church and state, which, while they could stand some improvements, should not be torn of their mythical appearance. “…will man jene heilige Scheu vor Gesetz und Obrigkeit, vor König und Majestät, zu nahe an das Licht einer vorschnellen, oft nur anmaßlichen Vernunft ziehen, so zerstäubt die geheimnisvolle Offenbarung des Staates in ein Nichts, in Willkür.” “…if one draws the holy dread of law and hierarchy, of king and royalty, to the light of a hasty, often pretentious reason, then the entire mysterious revelation of the state falls into dust, into despotism” (42). It seems doubtful that a lengthy, politically loaded speech might have been cut by mistake, especially after the language in the first part has been apparently strategically altered. But for the moment I can only speculate about the reasons that might have motivated the translator or the publisher to make these changes.


Tieck, Ludwig. Des Lebens Überfluß. Stuttgart: Reclam Verlag, 1983. Print.

Tieck, Ludwig. “Life’s Luxuries.” German Short Stories. Trans. E.N. Bennett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934. Print. 47-111

Dystopic Consumption: Christian Kracht’s “Imperium”

Christian Kracht’s most re36798576zcent novel Imperium hit the shelves two years ago around this time, giving the German press its excuse-of-the-week to get its collective panties in a bunch. The controversy over whether Kracht is a “Türsteher der rechten Gedanken” (“doorman for right-wing thinking”), as Georg Diez memorably put it in a review for Der Spiegel, is an interesting moment in German press discourse, and anyone who is interested can find relevant reviews glossed at Perlentaucher, or get their hands on the volume Christian Kracht trifft Wilhelm RaabeThe book is a helpful document of the discussion about the novel in 2012, leading up to the moment when Kracht was awarded the Wilhelm Raabe Literature Prize for the novel.

It seems appropriate that this novel should be awarded this particular prize. Kracht sets his novel in the German colonies and thus confronts a subject that threads its way tantalizingly, if sometimes obliquely, through texts such as Abu Telfan, Zum wilden Mann, and Stopfkuchen. Kracht’s style in this novel, which vaguely parodies Wilhelmine era literature, may have been a disappointment for Andreas Fanizadeh in the TAZ, but not for me, as I am admittedly something of a sucker for that sort of writing (even as a parody).

Imperium presents a panorama of radicals of various stripes seeking routes out of bourgeois German society. At the center is the historical figure August Engelhardt, who was a member of what is loosely called the Lebensreformbewegung who co-authored the book Eine sorgenfreie Zukunft (A Future Free of Worries) with essays on freeing ourselves from worries about clothing, shelter, and food. The novel follows Engelhardt’s attempt to found a utopian colony of people who eat only coconuts in German New Guinea, an experiment that the narrator casts as explicitly prophetic for Germany’s future over the first half of the twentieth century. An explicit parallel is drawn to Hitler early in the novel, and our attention is drawn to both the seeds of actual history but also to the possibilities of an alternative future (something that got lost in the furor over the novel in 2012). One of the things that makes the novel both intriguing and irritating to read is the intrusiveness of the comparisons. The novel deliberately takes over the top the conceit of much historical fiction to be really about the present moment.

Ultimately what makes the novel particularly worth reading is precisely the interplay between subsequent history and alternative futures, with the act of consumption as a fulcrum. Engelhardt and the characters around him are invested in projects of transcendence through consumption. Engelhardt sees coconuts as a path for humans to achieve divinity, they are “die sprichwörtliche Krone der Schöpfung, sie war die Frucht des Weltenbaumes Yggdrasil” (“the literal crown of creation, it was the fruit of the world tree Yggrdrasil” 19) – Yggdrasil being a symbol familiar to readers of Raabe. It’s a transcendence the leads back to nature, as Engelhardt sees in the coconut the raw materials for everything one needs in life – building materials, tools, materials for burning, etc. But in a key scene he meets Edward Halsey, who is on the way to inventing Vegemite. The two end up in an argument because Halsey’s “Vegetarismus sei aus einer eher puritanischen Tradition erwachsen und würde in einem pragmatischen und vor allem dem Kapitalismus zugewandten Realismus münden” (“vegetariansim grew more from a puritanical tradition and was led especially to a realism oriented towards capitalism,” 108-109). Both represent compromised visions of vegetarian utopianism: on the one side Engelhardt as an ascetic whose project is undone by the subtle violence and moral absolutism of his project, and Halsey, who wants to realize a vegetarian utopia through capitalistic channels. And yes, Halsey is yet another instance in German literary history of America as the space onto which crass capitalism is projected.

If we take the novel to be an indictment of utopian thinking, even as such utopianism is brought together with what would turn out to be one the twentieth century’s most catastrophic set of politics, then we’ve missed what is interesting about Imperium. What is compelling about the novel instead is its exploration of the paradoxes intrinsic to the various drop-outs who appear on its narrative horizon.