Category Archives: Scholarship

Official Versions: Reflections on Teaching “Blade Runner”

Students in my first year writing seminars are often surprised to discover that the supposed intention of the author is not the ultimate measure of literary criticism. The confusion is understandable for a readership with the luxury of being unconcerned with intentional fallacies and the death of the author. Because the writing seminars are about making the transition to college-level writing and argumentation, rather than casting discussions of authorial intent as a literary studies no-no, I bring in texts where “intent” is a serious critical problem that in turn helps the students practice looking at an object of study and asking first, “what kind of argument can I build with the materials at hand?” In the “Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture” seminar I taught in the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012, I did this with Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner.

Blade Runner is part of a unit I have on Los Angeles, in which I pair the film against the first chapter of Mike Davis’ 1990 book City of Quartz. This chapter covers various “myths” of Los Angeles, and Davis reads this film and the noir genre in general as a “great anti-myth” (37) to Southern Calfiornia boosterism (Davis’ section on the German exiles is also a handy way for getting the Frankfurt School on the students’ radar when we don’t have room to read the culture industry essay). Where Los Angeles and Southern California in general is famous as a happy land of sunshine, it constantly rains in Blade Runner, and moreover a pall of sadness and decay hangs over the world of the film, one that for Los Angeles’ detractors has more truth to it than the booster image.

Seven different versions of Blade Runner appeared between 1982 and 2007. The 2007 remastered version was released also included some “tweaks and enhancements,” as Scott put it in his introduction to the 2007 version, and he has given this last version an official sanction. I show students the 1992 version, but in order to investigate the question of intentionality, I like to compare one still from the 1992 version and a still from the same scene in the 2007 version. This scene is from the movie’s climax, the replicant Roy gives a very moving speech about the marvelous things he has seen, then dies. He realizes that it is death the gives those experiences meaning, and then we see a dove he has been holding fly off, rather obvious symbolism for the soul’s departure. The camera places us, the viewer, within the world of the film, and we look up as the soul leaves (as opposed to the possibility, one used very commonly, where the camera retreats into the sky and we look down on the scene of death from the perspective of the soul). Here are the stills I show my students, both showing the dove’s flight. The first is from the 1992 version, the second from the 2007 version.

dove 1

Dove’s flight, “Blade Runner,” 1992.

Dove2

Dove’s Flight, “Blade Runner,” 2007.

Clearly we have here one of Scott’s tweaks/enhancements. When I show these I ask the students to break into partners and do two things. 1.) Describe exactly what you see on both images, and how one differs from the other then 2.) what is the effect of each version of the shot for the scene and the film as a whole (now you can bring in a little interpretation)? The objective is to help the students practice thinking of the text on its own terms, as opposed to Ridley Scott’s terms, and to take seriously this scene as a moment that does its own work in constituting the meaning of the film as a whole. Change the scene, change the meaning.

How would I answer the question of the effect of the shot for the scene? First a bit of context: Roy dies in a rainy landscape bathed in the blinding light of advertisements (the “D” in the background is from a TDK product placement).TearsinRain

After he sinks into death, we cut away to the dove. But in the versions up until 2007, his soul flies off into a seemingly sunny sky. The 2007 version creates more consistency between shots, as the weather is the same and the architecture is more consistent.

Prior to 2007 the realism of the world breaks down at the moment of Roy’s death, and we see the soul retreat into a blue sky. But the smog and cold buildings remain in the shot; the world that we have seen throughout is not suddenly gone or forgotten. Were that world to be completely wiped away, we would have something more like the happy ending of 1982, where the city is gone completely and our main characters fade into a mountainous “natural” landscape.

From the final scene of "Blade Runner," 1982 theatrical release.

From the final scene of “Blade Runner,” 1982 theatrical release.

I always read the scene of Roy’s death pre-2007 as an image of hope and even redemption that does not collapse into some kind of simplistic escape. But in the 2007 version, the dove’s flight is more uncertain. The course out of the sad, rainy, overbuilt LA of November 2019 is less direct, the clouds form a kind of iron grey ceiling. Maybe the cloudbreak that seems to be forming gives us back some hope, but that seems to invest a lot in that one small spot on the screen. In making the environment of the scene more consistent from shot to shot, the 2007 version also makes the world of this LA much more tightly sealed.

Closeup 2007 Dove's flight

Closeup 2007 Dove’s flight

According to the commentary on the 2007 DVD, the sun was coming up as they were shooting the scene, and without 21st century digital technology it more or less had to look that way until it could be “corrected.” So in one sense the hope and redemption reading derives from an accident. But my aim in the class discussion is to guide the students to a point where they can view the pre-2007 version as a document that has its own legitimacy as a historical cultural artifact that is still out in the world. The fact that we living after 2007 have access to a more “realistic,” or more accurately a more consistent version does not invalidate readings of the prior version. It just makes the 2007 version different. Whether that difference amounts to more artistic merit is a matter that individual viewers can decide for themselves. The point is that a text will always be more than the vision of a single creator, and not just because of technical limitations, external pressures from editors, publishers, and audiences, or the creator’s own status as historically contingent subjects. Instead my objective is to bring the students to a place where they reflect on the text as a living thing out in the world, and in cases where we have multiple versions. Examples from literature include Goethe’s Werther, Shelley’s Frankenstein, most of Stifter’s stories, Raabe’s Ein Frühling, and Keller’s Der grüne Heinrich. In most of these instances preference for one version or another has shifted over the years for different reasons, even though we know there is one version the author endorsed over others. What texts with competing versions reveal is that even in instances where we can safely speak about the author’s intention, that does not mean that we the critics have to yoke ourselves to the figure of the author. This may be self-explanatory for people who already have degrees in literary studies, because it legitimates our own practice, but when we teach it is important to remember that for the students this is an unconventional way of thinking about an object of study.

For the record, my preference is for the 1992 version, and that is the version I show. It splits the difference between Scott’s vision and the technical contingencies that determined the making of the film in the early 1980s. I am not in principle opposed to “tweaks and enhancements,” even though these seem to me not substantively different from the practice of colorizing classic black and white films. But I do care about watching a film as a product of a particular historical moment, flaws and all.

 

Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Warner Brothers, 2007. DVD.

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. 2nd ed. London: Verso, 2006.

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.

Emerging from the Polar Vortex

That this has been a week of astonishing weather is pretty well documented on the news and in social media. I was away visiting family in a famously warmer part of the United States, where temperatures were about 80 degrees (and I brought along two sweaters for whatever reason). The trip back home was hard because winter weather forced me to fly into a different airport, then I faced a long drive back on messy roads going half the speed limit most of the way. Three days later the temperature had climbed to fifty degrees, and the masses of snow began to melt. Then on Monday I watched the temperature plummet in the afternoon to the coldest I have ever experienced (which is not saying much, having spent most of my life in warmer climes). Now my trip to the MLA convention has been delayed because the weather interrupted this week’s travel plans.

The cold weather predictably brought out the usual suspects of global warming denialists, trotting out arguments that are barely worth taking seriously save as case studies in irrational defense mechanisms. What’s interesting is that we living in the middle latitudes can expect more severe cold with global warming. If I may make an institutional plug, two Cornell professors, Charles Greene and Bruce Monger, published on this very phenomenon in 2012.

A warmer Earth increases the melting of sea ice during summer, exposing more dark ocean water to incoming sunlight. This causes increased absorption of solar radiation and excess summertime heating of the ocean — further accelerating the ice melt. The excess heat is released to the atmosphere, especially during the autumn, decreasing the temperature and atmospheric pressure gradients between the Arctic and middle latitudes.

A diminished latitudinal pressure gradient is linked to a weakening of the winds associated with the polar vortex and jet stream. Since the polar vortex normally retains the cold Arctic air masses up above the Arctic Circle, its weakening allows the cold air to invade lower latitudes.

On an only tangentially related note, I was sorting my digital photos from 2014 and came upon this one. Here I am during a camping trip on an island in the Adirondacks. I’ll offer it as a pleasant memory of the warmer months. What I have in my hand is the best cup of coffee I drank in all of 2013!

Morning Coffee

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.”

Massenkultur bei Theodor Fontane

Klaus-Peter Möller hat einen lesenswerten Beitrag zum historischen Vorbild der Werbung mit dem riesigen Kaffeemädchen im 13. Kapitel von Theodor Fontanes Roman Der Stechlin.  Fontane hatte einen sehr subtilen Sinn für die gesellschaftlichen Veränderungen seiner Zeit, der sich auch in den scheinbar flüchtigen Details seiner Erzählwelt spüren lässt.

Das Kaffeemädchen habe ich bereits in einem anderen Eintrag erwähnt.

“Uncommon Ground” Reconsidered

It has been almost two decades since the publication of the volume Uncommon Ground. While some of the essays now appear somewhat dated (the Nature Company, for instance, has long since vanished from America’s malls, although that by no means diminishes the essay’s relevance), the book articulates a line of thinking that has had an enduring presence in environmental history and philosophy, and the arguments it puts forward continue to raise hackles amongst the environmentally committed both inside and outside the academy. J. Baird Callicott and Michael P. Nelson have done all of us a tremendous favor by collecting a large sample of essays on the concept of wilderness by academic as well as activist supporters and detractors in The Great New Wilderness Debate (1998) and The Wilderness Debate Rages On (2008), and I can only recommend those two books to anyone who wishes to orient themselves in the wilderness discussion. If nothing else, they are a testament to how polarizing the arguments in Uncommon Ground continue to be.
I recently got myself a copy of Uncommon Ground, and felt moved to share a few reflections. First a bit of background: the book evolved out of a colloquium that took place at UC Irvine in 1994. Being a UCI alumnus, that alone makes me a rather sympathetic reader. William Cronon edited the book, and his seminal essay “The Trouble with Wilderness” is the leading text in the volume. The basic thesis of the essay:

Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, [wilderness] is quite profoundly a human creation – indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history.  It is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an untouched, endangered, but still transcendent nature can for at least a little while longer be encountered without the contaminating taint of civilization.  Instead, it is a product of that civilization, and could hardly be contaminated by the very stuff of which it is made.  Wilderness hides its unnaturalness behind a mask that is all the more beguiling because it seems so natural.  As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.  For this reason, we mistake ourselves when we suppose that wilderness can be the solution to our culture’s problematic relationships with the nonhuman world, for wilderness is itself no small part of the problem. (69-70).

As Cronon himself acknowledges, these claims will seem heretical to many of different ecological stripes. I don’t think anyone will say that he wasn’t at least right on that count. Particularly from an activist point of view, this claim would at best be a weak basis on which to build an environmental politics, at worst a philosophy that justifies the activities of Monsanto (although it’s also worth saying that Monsanto never needed permission from humanities scholars to do what it does). The paperback edition responds to the furor that the book’s initial appearance provoked. The subtitle was changed from Toward Reinventing Nature to Rethinking the Human Place in Nature,and included a preface that emphasizes the reality of what we commonly think of nature. Nevertheless, the paragraph above is an easy go-to text for anyone who wishes to take umbrage with the so-called constructionist camp. And that is unfortunate, because in the texts that I have read that cite Uncommon Ground, Cronon’s essay seems to eclipse the many other thought provoking essays.

An often cited passage from the book that Cronon is not responsible for comes towards the end, when the colloquium participants shared a few concluding thoughts on their time together in Irvine and the arguments they presented. In her remarks Anne Spirn appears to have second thoughts about the kinds of positions that emerged at the colloquium and in the book itself:

But I also remember our discussions as so abstracted from the “nature” in which we were living, which I was feeling so intensely but perhaps not expressing verbally.  Sometimes the talk seemed so disembodied.  I regret that we didn’t fully engage the tangibility, the “reality,” of nonhuman nature.  I wonder how different our conversations might have been if they had not taken place under fluorescent lights, in a windowless room, against the whistling whoosh of the building’s ventilation system. (448)

The comments have the appearance of tacitly acknowledging that because of the conditions in which academic discourse all too often happens, the authors lack the authority to make the claims that they do. It would seem that Spirn is taking the side of those in the environmental humanities in particular who seea sustained unmediated encounter with nature as the prerequisite for ecocriticism, ecophilosophy, environmental history, and unfortunately I have seen some of the book’s critics use this particular quote to bolster their own criticisms. But I wonder if Spirn’s words haven’t been unfairly turned against the project. The quote above follows a reminiscence about the collegiality at the colloquium, and the quote itself reads like more of an afterthought than a weighty counterargument. In any case, Spirn’s point is not that “had we gone outside we would have discovered that nature is real after all.” She goes on to say:

Our discussions deepened my awareness of how nature is and has been culturally constructed, but now more than ever I feel it crucial to reassert the reality of nonhuman features and phenomena.  I hope our book doesn’t overemphasize the cultural construction of nature to the extent that readers come away with the impression that nature is only a construct. (448)

In other words, it’s less of a negation of the project itself and more of a qualification against possible abuse by an overly sympathetic readership. This is not the first time this point is made in the book, nor is the affirmation of the reality of the world just a flimsy rearguard defense against ostensibly common-sense objections. What the essays in the book really get at is the strange dialectic of first and second nature that Neil Smith talks about in Uneven Development. There is a world out there, but it’s a world that is constantly being cycled through the labor process, for one thing, but also perceived through its cultural mediation. Getting away from the crowds in Yosemite Valley and exploring the far reaches of the park may be an encounter with reality, but the the windowless room with the noisy ventilation system that Spirn mentions also has a real existence in that sense.

Cronon has a beautiful moment in the introduction to Uneven Development where he encounters this dual character of the planned space. He describes the non-native snails that would come out to enjoy the water from the automatic sprinklers that kept alive his garden of non-native plants. He writes:

The snails were the one element of this garden that had somehow escaped automation and control, the one example of nature doing its own thing instead of what the planners had prescribed.  Never mind that the snails could hardly have been native to the place and depended just as much as our succulent plants on the artificial rain that our computer delivered each night.  Because they didn’t fit the plan, they somehow seemed more natural.  (43).

What Uncommon Ground arrives at is not a naïve Weisheit letzter Schluß that “it was all a construct.” Instead the book offers a nuanced way of accounting for environments that we would (and should) otherwise shudder at simply because they represent our society’s worst excesses in the consumption of the planet.

It seems to me, then, that the salient point in Cronon’s essay is not merely that nature is not what we commonly take it to be. The passage that sticks with me is instead the conclusion, where Cronon writes:

But if we acknowledge the autonomy and otherness of the thing and creatures around us – an autonomy our culture has taught us to label with the word “wild” – then we will at least think carefully about the uses to which we put them, and even ask if we should use them at all.  Just so can we still join Thoreau in declaring that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World,” for wildness (as opposed to wilderness) can be found anywhere: in the seemingly tame fields and woodlots of Massachusetts, in the cracks of a Manhattan sidewalk, even in the cells of our own bodies.”  (89)

And this is what the so-called constructonists have over the camp that seems to think that you can only talk about nature after you’ve logged enough hours in “wilderness.” There is no easy ground here on which to base a political program, but at least we have a framework for thinking about more than what commonly gets offered to us as “nature” and “wilderness.”

Environmental Degradation and the Geography of Beer

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

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

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

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

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

The Literary History of Braunschweig’s Water Supply

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

Here’s a bit of interesting history.1

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

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

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

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