Category Archives: Dissertation

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.

 

 

On Writing a Dissertation: The Joys of Writing by Hand

I wrote the entire first draft of my dissertation by hand. Here is a picture of the entire thing, every piece that eventually went into the finished product.

Complete Rough Draft of the Dissertation, Norwich, NY, May 2015

There is an obvious dig to be made here: I wrote a dissertation on ecology and literature, and here I was actually increasing my paper consumption. But in the end, writing by hand was more conducive to completing the project.

I decided to do my first drafts by hand when I was working on the papers for my oral exam to advance to PhD candidacy. My academic papers I had always written on a screen, but the things I had written for the drawer I did first by hand. I decided to try writing by hand to see if I could get more joy from the creative process that goes into essay writing and I found it satisfying enough that I continued the practice of handwriting for the dissertation.

There is, admittedly, a certain amount of vulgar romanticism at play here: pushing my pen across the paper and producing something that I could then hold in my hand brought a certain satisfaction over having done something creative, whereas the screen felt more alienating. There was a certain Wollust to writing by hand.

But writing by hand also had many practical benefits for the writing process. Being only able to cross out things allowed me to focus like never before on simply getting the ideas on the page. That also meant that I felt more liberty to try out certain ideas and lines of argumentation, even if much of it ended up on the cutting room floor. By the second half of the drafting process, I began noting the date of each section that I had written, which helped me track my own progress. And typing the document later meant that an extra round of editing was already built in to the process. Then there are the apparent cognitive benefits of writing by hand.

In the summer of 2013 I visited Wilhelm Raabe and Theodor Fontane’s archives in Braunschweig and the Berlin/Potsdam area respectively (photos and musings here!). Part of the value of the archive work was being able to see their handwritten manuscripts. Raabe’s were fairly clean, even the extent manuscript of Die Akten des Vogelsangs, which he labored on and corrected extensively, does not look like it went through that much revision and change. Fontane’s manuscripts could not be more different: he wrote all over the page in different kinds of ink, he wrote bits of his stories on the backs of letters, envelopes, or other scrap paper, and if he liked something and felt it belonged in a certain place, he would rip it out and glue it into the new section. The manuscripts are a perfect window into the origins of the novel, or they would be, if Fontane’s family hadn’t scattered so much of the archive to the wind.

 

On Writing a Dissertation: All Beginnings are Hard

In The Man without Qualities Robert Musil compares solving an intellectual problem to a dog with stick in his mouth trying to get through a narrow door: he turns and turns, and eventually the dog finds the right angle and manages to get the stick through. Trying to start a dissertation can feel very much like this, especially since for most people it is their first major academic undertaking.

The comparison may be cynical, but I found it relaxing, especially when I began the dissertation. In the weeks after I advanced to candidacy, I faced a period of uncertainty over how to approach the texts I wanted to write about. I was unsure of whether the topic I ended up writing about, realism and ecology, would be sustainable (so to speak). I tried getting around my doubts by first making the topic impossibly abstract, then coming up with a different topic altogether. I lost interest in that alternate topic halfway through writing the prospectus, had I tried to turn it into a dissertation the project surely would have fallen apart.

Reading more widely in ecocriticism gave me the confidence that I could talk about what I was planning to talk about, but getting started was as simple as putting my conceptual doubt aside for the moment and pushing the pen across the page. I started with the novel I had thought the most about up until that point, and began writing about the environment in that text. I had written almost half the dissertation before I began to have a sense of both the arguments and the stakes of the project, and much of what I wrote up until then looked something like the dog with the stick, turning this way and that in search of an angle. And that is how it should be. While it can be hard trying to pin a project down as one is generating the material, it was also gratifying to see a form finally emerge, and one that was, in fact, distinct from the hundred years of criticism that had accrued around my authors.

Note: This is the second in a series of reflections on my recently completed dissertation. The first is here.

On Writing a Dissertation

Recently I defended my dissertation. The defense was a milestone in a long process that was ultimately very satisfying. Years of thinking and writing went into it, and I see in it the many happy moments of discovery and insight that happened along the way. There was also plenty of drudgery: the hours at the copier, the mental energy spent over single sentences or phrases, the never-ending quest for just the right iron clad word that would perfectly capture the Ding an sich. And on a personal note, like any book length project the dissertation accompanied me in one form or another through all of the life that happened from the first day of graduate school until now with my first academic position.

As a genre of writing a dissertation is a very unusual beast. It’s as long as a book, and like a book, it tells a story about its material, one that could also be told a different way. But a dissertation (at least in the American academy) is not a book, and it’s other things besides a study of a given object. It’s a document that proves that one can generate original research. It’s a way of carving out a scholarly space for oneself and building a professional identity: in creating it one stakes a claim in a discipline and in a conversation within that discipline. The odd thing about the dissertation, in other words, is that while it’s a piece of original scholarship, it very much serves a bureaucratic, gate-keeping purpose. And while it caps off anywhere from five to ten years in graduate school, it is also a point of departure for future work.

At least, that’s the theory. The contemporary politics of higher education mean that the career path for which the dissertation prepares one will be closed to most of those who manage to actually write a dissertation. But these realities are already well documented, and so I recuse myself for the purposes of this post. Except to say this: the ultimate value of the dissertation was that I answered a question for myself, and I was fortunate to be able to do it in a framework that allowed me to take maximum joy in the process.

Note: This will be the first in a series of posts on the writing of my dissertation.

 

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.

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.

Theodor Fontane and the Tachyonic Antitelephone

Early in Fontane’s novel Der Stechlin Dubslav and Gundermann are engaged in a discussion of the telegraph. I was revisiting this passage and thinking about it in connection with issues of relativity and causality in Robert Musil’s novel Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften.

The conversation begins with Dubslav commenting that the brevity mandated by the form of the telegram has eroded language.

Kürze soll eine Tugend sein, aber sich kurz fassen heißt meistens auch, sich grob fassen. (GBA-EW 17 : 28)

Brevity’s supposed to be a virtue, but saying things briefly usually means saying them coarsely. (CHE 17)

Gundermann, a reactionary bourgeois who makes a living turning Brandenburg’s trees into planks for Berlin’s hard wood floors, seizes on these remarks to take a pot shot at the Social Democrats. The erosion of language is a “Zeichen der Zeit” (“sign of the times”) and “Wasser auf die Mühlen der Sozialdemokratie” (GBA-EW 17 : 28-29) “water on the mills of the social democrats”; CHE 17). Dubslav reverses himself in the face of Gundermann, and balances his criticism of the telegraph with something that he finds more praiseworthy about the technology.

Schließlich ist es doch was Großes, diese Naturwissenschaften, dieser elektrische Strom, tipp, tipp, tipp, und wenn uns daran läge (aber uns liegt nichts daran), so könnten wir den Kaiser von China wissen lassen, daß wir hier versammelt sind und seiner gedacht haben. Und dabei diese merkwürdigen Verschiebungen in Zeit und Stunde. Beinahe komisch. Als Anno siebzig die Pariser Septemberrevolution ausbrach, wußte man’s in Amerika drüben um ein paar Stunden früher, als die Revolution überhaupt da war. (GBA-EW 17 : 29)

When you get right down to it though, it really is a marvelous thing, this science business, this electric current. Tap, tap, tap and if we had a mind to (even though we don’t), why we could let the Emperor of China know we’ve gotten together here and were thinking about him. And then all these odd mix-ups in time and hours. Almost comical. When the September Revolution broke out back in seventy in Paris, they knew about it over there in America a couple of hours before there even was a revolution. (CHE 18)

Dubslav’s complaint about the telegraph was concerned with its effects on language. He speaks in favor of a notion of industrial progress, but his admiration for the sciences and technological innovation is less about technology as such and more about the telegraph’s effect on spacetime. He imagines the telegraph as a tachyonic antitelephone, a hypothetical device capable of sending information faster than light thereby causing a paradox of causality. The compression of space and time with modern technology is something that crops up again and again in the literature of the late nineteenth century, one sees it especially in the way that train travel is described. The experience of the accelerating train in many of Raabe’s texts, for instance, is often a metaphor for the experience of time in modernity. But the paradox of causality Dubslav describes is different. It is not merely that “the time is out of joint,” as Hamlet famously put it, but that it is out of joint to the extent that temporal relations are suddenly reversed.

The connections between global and local that the telegraph makes possible do more than simply establish a parallel between the lake and communication technology, rather the telegraph reproduces technologically the mythic properties ascribed to the lake (i.e. the fact that it responds physically to seismic activity anywhere on the planet). Dubslav’s example of the news of revolution echoes the revolutionary symbolism of the lake. The possibility of sending a telegram to the emperor of China more explicitly articulates the imperial side of the openness to the world that Melusine espouses. The lake, after all, connects to Java, “mit Java telephoniert” (GBA-EW 17 : 64; “has a telephone line direct to Java,” CHE 43). Both raise the specters of German colonial presence in Qingdao and New Guinea. The empire functions here as Edward Said argues it does elsewhere in nineteenth century literature, “as a codified, if only marginally visible, presence in fiction” (63), and I would add, is another important component of the novel’s geographic imagination.1 The telegraph, in short, is a physical manifestation of global networks of domination and a reproduction of the lake’s chthonic global connections.

The tachyonic antitelephone was the most intriguing discovery of this passage. Einstein’s theory of relativity was still eight years away or so when Stechlin appeared in book form. A common (mis)perception of German realism holds that the literature of this time did not rise up to the status of “world literature” that one finds in the “great” novels of England, France, or Russia in the latter half of the nineteenth century, although Fontane is in this regards supposedly the great exception. But Fontane is not the only German author of this period with the sensitivity and perceptiveness to anticipate, say, a tachyonic antitelephone.

 

1Said also draws the comparison of the presence of empire to the presence of laborers. “To cite another intriguing analogue, imperial possessions are as usefully there, anonymous and collective, as the outcast populations . . . of transient workers, part-time employees, season artisans; their existence always counts, though their names and identities do not, they are profitable without being fully there” (63-64). The analogy might also be applied to the notably marginal – albeit no less significant – absence of the glass workers at Globsow.

A Literary Scavenger Hunt in the Ruins of Fontane’s World: Das Eierhäuschen and Spindlersfelde

A few more photos of my literary scavenger hunt in and around Berlin this summer.

Ruins of the Eierhäuschen, Berlin, Germany, August 2013

On our last day in Germany we visited the ruins of the Eierhäuschen. The history of this tavern and Biergarten goes back to the 1840s. The current structure was put up in the 1890s. It was a popular destination for daytrippers on the Spree in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At some point the property became connected to the Spreepark, an amusement park in GDR times. After the fall of the wall the park and the Eierhäuschen, at that time a “Volkseigener Betrieb” fell into private hands with the general liquidation of the former East Germany. The new owner went bankrupt, and fled to Peru when he got caught up in a drug smuggling affair. It has since been caught in legal limbo, and so the building falls apart while preservationists try to find a way to save the building. Fontane’s novel Der Stechlin portrays just such an excursion. In typical fashion for the nTower of Eierhäuschen, Berlin, Germany, August 2013ovel and for Fontane generally, it’s talk talk talk, but the conversation yields some interesting glimpses into the characters’ environmental unconscious (as I argue in my dissertation chapter on the subject).

Facade of Eierhäuschen, Berlin, Germany, August 2013

“Ach, Frau Gräfin, ich sehe, Sie rechnen auf etwas etrem Idyllisches und erwarten, wenn wir angelangt sein werden, einen Mischling von Kiosk und Hütte. Da harrt Ihrer aber eine grausame Enttäuschung. Das Eierhäuschen ist ein sogenanntes “Lokal”, und wenn uns di Lust anwandelt, so können wir da tanzen oder ein Volksversammlung abhalten. Raum genug ist da.” -From Theodor Fontane “Der Stechlin” (GBA 166Front Door of Eierhäuschen, Berlin, Germany, August 2013)

“Dear me, Countess, I see you’re counting on something idyllic in the extreme and expecting something between a kiosk and a cottage when we get there. You’re in for an awful disappointment. The Egg Cottage is one of those things they call a ‘pub.’ And if we have a mind to, we can even dance there or hold a public gathering. There’s plenty of room there.” Fontane “The Stechlin” CHE 116.

Berlin Bear, Eierhäuschen, Berlin, Germany, August 2013

Not far from the Eierhäuschen are the ruins of the Spindlersfelde factory. In the nineteenth century this was a major industrial laundry facility on the banks of the Spree. It has since fallen into ruin. Because I lack the machismo and the courage for proper urban exploration, this was as close as I got.

Spindlersfeld Ruins, Berlin, Germany, August 2013

Many of the outlying Spindlersfeld buildings have been re-purposed as apartments. It seems that the main building itself will soon share in that fate, if this banner is to be believed. The factory shows up in the Egg Cottage section of Stechlin. SpindSign for Spindlersfeld Rejuvenation, Berlin, Germany, August 2013ler and his factory were also the inspiration for Adam Asche in Pfisters Mühle. In Stechlin, the daytrippers take a stroll over to the factory before settling in for drinks at the Eierhäuschen.

“An dem schon in Dämmerung liegenden östlichen Horizont stiegen die Fabrikschornsteine von Spindlersfelde vor ihnen auf, und die Rauchfahnen Spindlersfeld Ruins, Berlin, Germany, August 2013 (2)zogen in langsamem Zuge durch die Luft.” Fontane, “Der Stechlin,” GBA 168.

“On the eastern horizon, already filled with a twilight glow, the factory chimneys of Spindlersfelde rose up before them and long banners of smoke moved in slow puffs across the sky.”

 

“Was ist das?” fragte die Baronin, sich an Woldemar wendend.
“Das ist Spindlersfelde.”
“Kenn ich nicht.”
“Doch vielleicht, gnädigste Frau, wenn Sie hören, daß in eben diesem Spindlersfelde der für die weibliche Welt so wichtige Spindler seine geheimnisvollen Künste treibt. BesSpindlersfeld Ruins Berlin, Germany, August 2013ser noch seine verschwiegenen. Denn unsre Damen bekennen sich nicht gern dazu.” Fontane, “Der Stechlin” GBA 168.

“What’s that?” asked the baroness, turning to Woldemar.
“That’s Spindlersfelde.”
“Don’t know the place.”
“Perhaps you do after all, dear lady, especially when you hear that in this very Spindlersfelde, none other than that most important gentleman of the world of ladies’ fashions, Herr Spindler himself, conjures his mysterious arts. Or better yet, his secret arts. Because our lady friends don’t care to admit their dependence on them.” Fontane “The Stechlin” CHE 117

“Ja, dieser unser Wohlthäter, den wir . . . in unserm Undank so gern unterschlagen. Aber dies Unterschlagen hat doch auch wieder sein Verzeihliches. Wir thun jetzt (leider) so vieles, was wir, nach einer alten Anschauung, eigentlich nicht thun sollten. Es ist, mein’ ich, nicht passend, auf einem Pferdebahnperron zu stehen, zwischen einem Schaffner und einer Kiepenfrau, und es ist noch weniger passend, in einem Fünfzigpfennigbasar allerhand Einkäufe zu machen und an der sich dabei aufdrängenden Frage: ›Wodurch ermöglichen sich diese Preise‹ still vorbeizugehen. Unser Freund in Spindlersfelde da drüben degradiert uns vielleicht auch durch das, was er so hilfreich für uns tut.” Fontane “Der Stechlin” GBA 168.

“Why yes, of course, that benefactor of ours, whom we . . . in our ingratitude are pleased to keep quiet about. But this business of keeping quiet has something forgivable about it too, you know. These days, unfortunately, we do so many things which according to an older point of view we really ought not to do. It’s not proper, I think, to stand on the platform of a horse car between the conductor and some delivery woman with baskets on her back, and it’s even less fitting to make all sorts of purchases in a fifty-pfennig bazaar and silently pass over the question that keeps forcing itself upon one, ‘What is it that makes prices like this possible?” Theodor Fontane “The Stechlin” CHE 117.

Spindlersfeld Ruins, Berlin, Germany, August 2013 (3)

Literary Scavenger Hunt: Raabe and Fontane

Here are a few more photos from my summer research trip in Germany, where I hit up a few of the places that turn up in one form or another in my research. After Braunschweig I made my way up to Berlin. When I wasn’t seeing the insides of archives, I was hunting down a few places that left their thumbprints in literary history.

The former Spreegasse of what used to be Kölln, one of the twin citiesSperlingsgasse 2013, Berlin, Germany, July 2013 that made up historic Berlin. The street was renamed the Sperlingsgasse after its fictional counterpart in Raabe’s debut novel. Raabe lived here during his abortive university studies, and composed his first novel in this street.

Kölln was obliterated in the war, and now it’s a largely faceless collection of buildings near the old museums. The Sperlingsgasse now predictably has little in common with the street that is at the center of Raabe’s first novel. In the novel the narrator sings the praises of his old district:”Ich liebe diesen Mittelpunkt einer vergangenen Zeit, um welchen sich ein neues Leben in liniengraden, parademäßig aufmarschierten Straßen und Plätzen angesetzt hat, und nie kann ich um die Ecke meiner Sperlingsgasse biegen, ohne den alten Geschützlauf mit der Jahreszahl 1589, der dort lehnt, liebkosend mit der Hand zu berühren.” (BA 1 :11).

Sperlingsgasse 2013, Berlin, Germany, July 2013 (2)“I love these old quarters in larger cities with their narrow, crooken, dark alleys, in which sunshine only dares to cast furigve glances; I love them with their gable houses and wondrous eaves, with their old canons and artillery, which people have placed on the corners as curbstones. I love this center of a past era, around which began another life of straight streets that march like parades. I can never turn around the corner of my Sparrow Alley without regarding and lovingly touching the old canon barrel leaning there with the year 1589 etched on it.”

I managed to goad a friend with a car into an expedition out to Lake Stechlin.  It was a very hot day, and the crowds had come out to the lake. We walked through Neuglobsow, adjacent Fontane Sculpture, Neu-Globsow, Stechlin, Germany, July 2013to Lake Stechlin. Historically glass production ended in the area well before the year the novel is set in, but the memory of the glass industry is kept alive.  Here a Fontane sculpture sits in front of a guest house “At the Sign of the Glass Maker.”Statue of Fontane in Globsow by Lake Stechlin. “At the Sign of the Glassmaker” behind him refers to the historic glass industry in Globsow. In one scene in Der Stechlin Dubslav fears the implications of the fact that the industry places the village in a larger global supply chain, preparing for the “Generalweltanbrennung”:

Die schicken sie zunächst in andre Fabriken, und da destillieren sie flott drauf los und zwar allerhand schreckliches Zeug in diese grünen Ballons hinein: Salzsäure, Schwefelsäure, rauchende Salpetersäure. Das ist das schlimmste, die hat immer einen rotgelben Rauch, der einem gleich die Lunge anfrißt. Aber wenn einen der Rauch auch zufrieden läßt, jeder Tropfen brennt ein Loch, in Leinwand oder in Tuch, oder in Leder, überhaupt in alles; alles wird angebrannt und angeätzt. Das ist das Zeichen unsrer Zeit jetzt, ›angebrannt und angeätzt‹. Und wenn ich dann bedenke, daß meine Globsower da mitthun und ganz gemütlich die Werkzeuge liefern für die große Generalweltanbrennung, ja, hören Sie, meine Herren, das giebt mir einen Stich. (GBA-EW 17 : 79-80).

“First off they send them to other factories and there they just go ahead as fast as they can distilling things right into these green balloons, all kinds of awful stuff as a matter of fact: hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, smoking nitrate acid. That’s the worst one of all. It always has a reddish yellow smoke that eats right into your lungs.
But even if that smoke leaves you in peace, every drop of it burns a hole, in linen, in cloth, in leather, anything at all. Everything gets scorched or corroded. That’s the sign of our times these days. Scorched or corroded. And so when I consider that my Globsowers are going along with it, and as cheerfully as can be, providing the tools for the great universal world scorching, well then, let me tell you, gentlemen, that gives me a stitch of pain right here in my heart.” (CHE 53)

The crowd at the lake. Evidence in the manuscripts suggests that Fontane imagined the Stechlin manor to be situated on the peninsula in the middle of this photo.

Lake Stechlin with Bathers, Stechlin, July 2013

In the beginning of Der Stechlin Fontane says of the lake:

Alles still hier. Und doch, von Zeit zu Zeit wird es an eben dieser Stelle lebendig. Das ist, wenn es weit draußen in der Welt, sei’s auf Island, sei’s auf Java, zu rollen und zu grollen beginnt oder gar der Aschenregen der hawaiischen Vulkane bis weit auf die Südsee hinausgetrieben wird. Dann regt sich’s auch hier, und ein Wasserstrahl springt auf und sinkt wieder in die Tiefe. Das wissen alle, die den Stechlin umwohnen, und wenn sie davon sprechen, so setzen sie wohl auch hinzu: “Das mit dem Wasserstrahl, das ist nur das Kleine, das beinah Alltägliche; wenn’s aber draußen was Großes giebt, wie vor hundert Jahren in Lissabon, dann brodelt’ hier nicht bloß und sprudelt und strudelt, dann steigt statt des Wasserstrahls ein roter Hahn auf und kräht laut in die Lande hinein. Das ist der See, der See Stechlin.” (GBA 17 : 5)

“Everything is silence here. Yet from time to time at this very spot things to get lively: That happens when far off in the outside world, perhaps on IcelLake Stechlin, Stechlin, July 2013and or in Java, a rumbling and thundering begins, or when the ash rain of the Hawaiian volcanoes is driven far out over the southern seas. Then things start to heaving at this spot too, and a waterspout erupts and then sinks down once more into the depths. All of those living around Lake Stechlin know of it and whenever they bring it up they’re almost always likely to add, “That business about the water jet’s harldy anything at all, practically an every day occurrence. But when something big’s going on outside, like a hundred years ago in Lisbon, then the water doesn’t just seethe and bubble and swirl around. Instead, when the likes of that happens, a red rooster comes up in place of the geyser and crows so loudly it can be heard over the whole countryside.” That is the Stechlin, Lake Stechlin.” (CHE 1)

The waters of Lake Stechlin are extraordinarily clear, even though the lake is confronted with its own ecological pressures. In 2003 the fish Fontane’s cisco (coregonus fontanae), endemic to Lake Stechlin, was first described and named after Theodor Fontane.

   Crystal Clear Waters of Lake Stechlin, Stechlin, July 2013

A Literary Scavenger Hunt in and around Braunschweig

I was in Germany this past summer doing some archival research.  When I wasn’t poring over ancient drafts and letters, I was out and about visiting some of the places that turn up in one form or another in the fiction.  Obviously none of these places match the imagined places in the literature one to one, but then principles of literary criticism shouldn’t always spoil our fun.  Here are a few pictures of places in and around Braunschweig that turn up in Wilhelm Raabe’s works.The Braunschweig Palace, Braunschweig, Germany, June 2014

First on the tour is the Braunschweig “Palace.”  The Raabe collection is here, part of the Braunschweig city archive.  The current building is modeled on the residence of the Dukes of Braunschweig, which was completed in 1841. The original building was badly damaged in the firestorm of October, 1944 and the ruins were demolished in 1960. From the 1960s until the last decade the site was a large public park. In the 2000s the city decided to build a copy of the palace. To raise the funds, the city sold the park in spite of public protests. Today the north side houses the city museum and archive, the south the city library, and the main entrance leads into the “Palace Shopping Arcade.” From my seat in the archive I was able to watch shoppers pull into the parking garage.

This is the Oker River.  In the Middle Ages it ran straight through the center of town, but now at least the above ground portion runs in a moat around the old town.  I’ve already written about Braunschweig’s water problems at the end of the 19th century here and here.The Oker River, Braunschweig, Germany, July 2014

Braunschweig’s former train station now houses a bank.. The building served the city into the 1960s, and has since been converted into a bank. If we accept that Die Akten des Vogelsangs is set in Braunschweing in this period (which we can’t really, but as I said about the principles of literary criticism):

“Es war eben ein anderer Zug, ein Vergnügungszug, angelangt, und ein Gewühl aufgeregten und dem Anschein nach sehr vergnügten Volkes, das unserer Stadt und ihrer hübschen landschaftlichen Umgebung seinen Besuch zugedacht hatte, quoll uns daraus entgegen. Der Morgen war schön, die Sonne schien, ein fröhlicher Schenktisch war von einem sorglichen Komitee errichtet worden: die fremden Liedergenossen oder Sangesbrüder kamen nicht nur mit ihrem musikalischen Hoch, sondern auch mit viel Durst bei uns an, und eine einheimische Blechmusikbande brach mit schmetterndem Hall zum Willkommen los: die Stadt und Residenz hatte sich sehr vergrößert und verschönert seit dem Tage, an welchem Mr. Charles Trotzendorff sein Weib und sein Kind aus ihr weg und zu sich holte, und der jetzige Bahnhof, von welchem ich nun die Frau Nachbarin, die Mutter des Freundes, nach Hause führte, stand damals auch erst auf dem Papier und lag noch auf den Tischen der Fürstlichen Landesbaudirektion.” (BA 19: 312-313)Former Train Station, Braunschweig, Germany, June 2014

“Another train pulled in, a tourist train, and a mass of excited and apparently happy people, who had come with a mind to pay our city and its lovely surroundings a visit, flowed out and towards us. The morning was lovely, the sun was shining, a cheerful drink table had been set up by an interested committee: the singing crowd did only only arrive with their musical cheer, but also with considerable thirst, and a local brass band brook into a piercing tune of welcome: the city and residence had been greatly expanded and beautified since the day Mr. Charles Trotzendorff summoned his wife and child away, and the current train station, from which I led my dear neighbor, the mother of my friend, home, had only just appeared on paper and was still lying on the tables of the court building offices.”

The Kohlmarkt in Braunschweig. In order to facilitate traffic to the train station, the city cleared knocked down some of the historic structures on the west side of the square. The historical marker from Der Kohlenmarkt, Braunschweig, Braunschweig, Germany, June 2014which I learned all of this didn’t have much to say about the people who lived there, but in Raabe’s novel “Meister Autor” the narrator meets a city planner who tells him:

»Es hat uns noch keine Nivellierung so viele Mühe verursacht als diese hier,« sagte er, »aber dafür wird auch keine der neuprojektierten Straßenanlagen die Stadtbevölkerung in ihrer Vollendung so sehr überraschen und erfreuen wie diese. Den Kanal hinter den wackligen Mauern füllen wir natürlich aus, da haben wir dann noch die Rudera einer alten Stiftung, die müssen selbstverständlich weg. Die alten Damen verlegen wir vor das Tor in eine gesunde, wahrhaft idyllische Gegend, und so kommen wir hier aus dem Mittelpunkte der Stadt in gradester Linie zum Bahnhofe, — ohne daß zu dieser Stunde ein Mensch in diesem hier umliegenden Gerümpel irgendeine Ahnung davon hat. Es ist wundervoll!«

“‘There has never been a levelling that has caused us as much trouble as this one,’ he said, ‘but for that none of the newly planned streets will surprise and cheer the denizens of this town quite as much as this one. We’ll fill in the canal behind the tumble-down wall, and that leaves the spinsters’ home, obviously that will have to go. We’ll move the old ladies beyond the gate in a healthy, truly idyllic area. Thus we’ll be have the straightest line possible from the center of town to the train station, and no person in this heap around us will even have a clue about what’s going on. It’s wonderfull!” (BA 11 : 76).

     This is the SchunteThe Schunter, Braunschweig, Germany, June 2014r north of Braunschweig.  Pfisters Mühle was based off of a lawsuit that began when pollution from the beat sugar factory at Rautheim made its way into the Wabe, then the Schunter, effectively shutting down the mills at Bienrode and Wenden.

Former Bienrode Mill, Braunschweig, Germany, July 2014

This is the mill at Bienrode that was involved in the suit, at least what’s left of it.  The mill was finally shut down in the 1960s, and in the 1980s it was converted into an apartment building.  ObWabe Stream, Polluted by Rautheim, Kleidersellerweg, Riddagshausen, Braunschweig, Germany, July 2013 (3)viously there is not much to look at these days.

This is the Wabe stream along the so-called Kleidersellerweg.  The Kleiderseller is a group of prominent Braunschweig citizens who meet for a Stammtisch.  In Raabe’s day they followed this route to the Grüne Jäger, a restaurant and tavern in Riddagshausen, now officially part of the city of Braunschweig.  Pfisters Mühle began when Raabe noticed the degradation of the Wabe on his way to the Kleiderseller’s Thursday night meet-ups. 

This is the Grüne Jäger.  It is actually a very pleasant place, and a welcome stop in the middle of a bike ride through the countryside around Braunschweig.

Grüner Jäger, Raabe's old hangout,  Riddagshausen, Braunschweig, Germany, July 2013 (2)

The former sugar factory at Rautheim. The Duchy of Braunschweig was the center of beet sugar production going back as far as the 1830s. Krickerode Wilhelm Raabe’s “Pfisters Mühle” is modelled on Rautheim.  The factory was in operation from the mid 19th century until after the Second World War.  From Pfisters Mühle:Former Beat Sugary Factory, Rautheim, Rautheim, Braunschweig, Germany, July 2013

“Jenseits der Wiese erhob sich hoch aufgetürmt, zinnengekrönt, gigantisch beschornsteint – Krickerode! Da erhob sie sich, Krickerode, die große, industrielle Errungeschaft der Neuzeit, im wehenden Nebel, grau in grau, schwarze Rauchwolken, weiß Dämpfe auskeuchend, in voller “Kampagne” auch an einem zweiten Weihnachtstage, Krickerode!” (BA 16 : 99)

“Beyond the field rose high Krickerode, with its high towers, battlements, and gigantic smokestacks. There it rose, Krickerode, the great accomplishment of the modern industrial age in the shifting fog, gray in gray, black clouds of smoke, white steam billowing out, even on the second day of Christmas in full “campaign,” Krickerode!”

A few photos of the remains of the factory.  Some of the buildings currently house a few small businesses, although as far as I could tell, other structures stand empty.  I was hoping to get a shot of the drainage pipe that leads into Wabe for the sake of showing people the most famous drainage pipe in German literature, but the vegetation was too thick to find it.

Former Beat Sugary Factory, Rautheim, Rautheim, Braunschweig, Germany, July 2013 (4)

Former Beat Sugary Factory, Rautheim, Rautheim, Braunschweig, Germany, July 2013 (8)

Former Beat Sugary Factory, Rautheim, Rautheim, Braunschweig, Germany, July 2013 (13)

Former Beat Sugary Factory, Rautheim, Rautheim, Braunschweig, Germany, July 2013 (16)

Wolfenbüttel is not far from Braunschweig.  I took a pleasant bike ride out there one day.  Lessing’s house is there, and the library is world famous.  But of course I made my way out to the suburbs to visit the Weiße Road to Weiße Schanze, Rote Schanze in Stopfkuchen, Wolfenbüttel, Geramny,  July 2013Schanze, on which Raabe modeled the Rote Schanze in Stopfkuchen.

The Weiße Schanze now stands surrounded by single family homes, a process that is already visible in Raabe’s novel.

The people who named the streets here are well aware of the area’s claim to literary fame.  There is also a street named for Wilhelm Brandes, who wrote the first noteworthy study of Raabe’s life and works.

IMG_9276

And here is the Weiße Schanze.  Evidently it is a Biergarten now, although it wasn’t open when I showed up.  In the novel, the Saxon Prince Xaver bombarded the city from this point during the Seven Year’s War. I did not get close enough to look for the guard cat the narrator encountered. His description of the rote Schanze:

Weiße Schanze, Rote Schanze in Stopfkuchen, Wolfenbüttel, Geramny,  July 2013“Noch immer derselbe alte Wal und Graben, wie er sich aus dem achtzehnten Jahrhundert in die zweite Hälfte des neuzehnten wohl erhalten hatte. Die alten Hecken im Viereck um das jetzige bäuerliche Anwesen, die alten Baumwipfel darüber. Nur das Ziegeldach des Haupthauses, das man sonst über das Gezweig weg und durch es hindurch noch von der Feldmark von Maiholzen aus gesehen hatte, erblickte man heute nicht mehr. … Eine Römerstraße, auf der vor, während und nach der Völkerwanderung Tausende totgeschlagen worden waren, konnte im laufenden Saeculo nicht mehr überwachsen und von Grasnarbe überzogen sein wie die alten Radgleise und Fußspuren, die über den Graben des Prinzen Xaverius von Sachsen auf dem Dammwege des Bauern zu der Roten Schanze führten.” (BA 18 : 49-50)

“The same old trench and rampart, as good today in the second half of the nineteenth century as they were in the eighteenth. There it was, the same rectangular hedge enclosing the farm, the same old treetops. But you used to be able to see the tiled roof of the main house from the Maiholzen fields over and through the branches, and now you couldn’t. … Not even a Roman road, where countless thousands had been slaughtered before, during, and after the migrations, could have looked more grassy and overgrown today than those old ruts and footprints on the embanked way leading over Prince Xaverius of Saxony’s trench to the farm at Red Bank.” (“Tubby Schaumann, 189-190).

Further afield, I stopped in at Raabe’s birthplace Eschershausen on the way to Amelungsborn, site of Das Odfeld.  Raabe loved to pun on his own name (“Rabe” with one “A” means “raven”).  His study is decked out in a raven motif, his novels and stories are conspicuous for their avifauna, and his fans have a history of getting in on the fun.  To wit, this whimsical mobile in Eschershausen, which is turned by a small stream beneath.

Finally, Kloster Amelungsborn.  It has a beautiful garden that I could not recommend highly enough.

Kloster Amelungsborn, Site of Odfeld, Amelungsborn, Germany, July 2013

One of my favorite scenes in any Raabe novel happens early in Das Odfeld.  It is the strange battle of the crows that presages the destruction during the battle the following day:

“Vom Südwesten her über den Solling stieg es schwarz herauf in den düstern Abendhimmel. Nicht ein finsteres Sturmgewölk, sondern eine Krähenschwarm, kreischend, flügelschlagend, ein unzählbares Heer des Gevögels, ein Zug, der nimmer ein Ende zu nehmen schien. Und vom NordIMG_9742en, über den Vogler und den Ith, zog es in gleicher Weise heran in den Lüften, wie in Geschwader geordnet, ein Zug hinter dem andern, denen vom Süden entgegen.” (BA 17 : 26).

“From the southwest above the Solling black rose into the bleak evening sky. Not dark storm clouds, but a swarm of crows, screeching, beating their wings, an uncountable army of birds, a column that never seemed to come to an end. And from the north, above the Vogler and the Ith, the same in the skies, ordered like a squadron, one column after another towards the one from the south.”