Category Archives: Travels

Unpacking My Storage Unit: A Literary Encounter with My Things

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

Trailer for Heiner Goebbels “Stifters Dinge”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tourism, Labor, and a New Raabe Translation

I brought home a few interesting souvenirs from my trip to Chicago last week. Submitted for your contemplation is this billboard I spotted near my hotel:

Odd Billboard

“How Sublime it is to be Small”

One might say that the statement in the advertisement is self-explanatory, since one experiences the sublime because one is physically small relative to the object. Add to this that the advertisement is for skiing; it hawks an experience that commodifies the mountains. Not that there is anything particularly new or remarkable about this, the billboard is simply another document at the end of a two hundred year history of the erosion of the concept of the sublime. Context matters here, as the billboard stands in the middle of downtown Chicago. Finally, let’s not forget the legacy of Caspar David Friedrich in the advertisement, another testament to Romanticism’s long legacy.

Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich “Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer”

Another intriguing find comes from a strip mall in Avon, Ohio where I stopped in to get a burrito at Chipotle. Despite the fact that I had not request take-out, the burrito was tightly packed in layers of foil and paper. Chowing down, I noticed this on the back of the bag:

Odd statement on back of Chipotle bag from Ohio, January 2014

“Recycling turns things into other things which is like magic.”

There’s a kind of oddly self-aware commodity fetishism at work here (“like magic”), offered, I suppose, to enhance my experience of consumption by appealing to guilt over the needless use of a paper product. If recycling seems like magic, that is only because the labor processes involved are so opaque, and as it happens recycling is a particularly labor intensive industry, one which recruits both its official and unofficial workforce from the bottom rungs of the socio-economic scale. For the record, Chipotle provided no recycling or compost bins, and yes, my bag went straight to the landfill. Odd Billboard Advertising Colorado, Chicago, IL, January 2014Odd Billboard Advertising Colorado, Chicago, IL, January 2014

On another note, it has recently come to my attention that Die Akten des Vogelsangs has been released for the first time in English. Michael Ritterson has released a translation through the Modern Humanities Research Association. Buy it! I have not had the chance to peruse it myself, but I am excited to finally have this book available in English. German Moonlight, Höxter and Corvey, and At the Sign of the Wild Man are also available from the same series.

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

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

Disneyland Dream: Zeitraum – Zeittraum

Looking over the New York Times this weekend I was alterted to a very interesting video by Frank Rich in his editorial “Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?” One learns interesting things from Rich’s articles now and again, but unfortunately like most of the other New York Times columnists, his articles are lack are rarely insightful or profound.  So it was not surprising that he gave a rather impoverished reading of the film he used as his jumping-off point, the small amateur film Disneyland Dream.  It’s a somewhat longish film, but the first ten minutes or so give all the background to the trip, and then the actual visit to Disneyland begins around minute 20.

This film was made in 1995 with footage shot in 1956, a year after Disneyland opened.  The story is that in 1956, the Barstow family entered a competition offered by 3M on who could basically create the best advertisement for their brand of Scoth tape.  One of the children won with a poster that read “I like Scotch brand cellophane tape because when some things tear then I can just use it” ( a ringing endorsement!).  The family won a trip from their home in suburban Conneticut out to California, where they visited Los Angeles, Catalina, and, of course, Disneyland itself.  This film made it into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2008, and it is definitely worth a watch.

I like this film for a number of reasons.  While it is, on the one hand, just some film from a family most of us never met, it is a rather interesting one.  First off is the way that the nostalgia functions both in the film and in the film’s subject, Disneyland.  The narrator explains events, many of them clearly stages, almost forty years after the fact carefully explaining how it was back then.  On the surface there is what, to some audiences, may appear to be a sort of pleasant innocence, when neighbors were friends, when the willingness to work hard seemed to guarantee a person a certain standard of living, and when corporations such as 3M and Disneyland appeared benevolent.  Of course this picture leaves a lot of things out (immigrants, minorities, non-nuclear families, political undesirables, etc).  The scenes in the neighborhood make this painfully clear.

Secondly there is Disneyland itself.  One of the most interesting things for friends and family of mine who have seen this film is Disneyland as it was shortly after it opened.  Of course much has changed and been redeveloped in the following decades, so the film captures a park that has been lost to its devoted fanbase, and which most of us never knew anyway (the website Yesterland is dedicated to these fans, and this nostalgia for Disneyland as it used to be).  This then leads us to the rings of nostalgia that Disneyland builds around itself.  If we view them in chronological order, I suppose the first ring of nostalgia would be Main Street, USA, which offers a verklärte representation of an American small town at the end of the 19th century (I used to joke that it was the “saubere Königreich.”  Say it out loud and think about it, German speakers.  It really is punny).  Then there is the way that the Disney Corporation mythologizes its own origins, and the way that Walt Disney himself is elevated to the status of some sort of kid friendly Prometheus.  Just think of the statue of Disney and Mickey Mouse at the center of the Disneyland park in Anaheim.  Then there is the marketing, most evident, perhaps, in the periodic celebrations of the park’s founding.  I think Yesterland.com and Disneyland Dream also represent another ring of nostalgia.  It is interesting to hear the opposition that comes when Disneyland decides to make alterations, especially to its “classic” rides.  I remember this very clearly when Disneyland tried to remove the sexual innuendo from “Pirates of the Carribbean,” and I confess that on my last visit, in 2006, even I was unhappy when a Johnny Depp automaton was added to that same ride.  Really, isn’t that strange?  Why should anybody really care?

This nostalgia in general is all very strange.  How is it that we came to think of a corporate run theme park as a historical artifact that we would think of in the same way as a medieval cathedral?  Maybe Disneyland Dream offers us a clue.  Isn’t it right there in the title?  It’s a dream of what the nation, of what our system in general should bring: order, cleanliness, pleasure.  As the narrator tells us, it offers us a vision of what was. Now the period in which it was built, the 1950’s, has been subjected to similar romantic idealization.  Just listen to politicians talk about the 1950’s.  This is not a new phenomenon, as others have noticed.  There is a long tradition of selecting some past period as the temporal locus of goodness, virtue, etc.  What we get from the different levels of temporality in Disneyland Dream (1956 and 1995) is Disneyland as a representation of a better time (late 19th century America) and as in its essence an artifact from a better time (the 1950’s).

It’s this dream of what capitalism could be that Frank Rich seizes upon in his article, but this alone is an impoverished understanding of the film, in my view, because it misses yet another level of meaning one can find in the film.  There is something unsettling in the way that the entire community so completely embraces the fantasy.  The family buys a bunch of tape and creates free ads for the corporation.  The arrival of a “representative” of the corporation is hailed as a major event, as if a visit from a 3M employee were akin to a visit from the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!  The entire neighborhood is somehow emotionally vested in this family’s fortune.  And, of course, for having created the free advertisement, they are able to go visit a corproate fantasy land all expenses paid!  This is a big thrill, and yet, the exaggerated way in which the narrator, the family, and the community reacts (see, for instance, the way that the whole family falls over in an artificial way) casts all of this in an extremely ironic light.  There is something overly performative in the behavior of everybody on screen.  Sure, Mr. Barstow was amusing himself by making a film of the event, and having his family act in this way, but within the logic of the film their extreme performativity alienates the viewer from the story unfolding and forces us to consider the film far more critically.

On a final note, it strikes me as interesting and, actually, wonderful that that they travelled all the way across the country to gaze mostly upon simulacra (movie sets, Disneyland itself, and Southern California’s phantasmagorical (ex/sub)urban developments). Of course, if that’s the kind of thing you’re in to, Southern California is the ideal place to be.

ON EDIT:  Speaking of the way the park in Anaheim is marketed, I wonder if the layer of history and nostalgia wrapped around Disneyland was a shift that could be linked to the park’s reproducing itself in Orlando, Paris, Tokyo, etc.?

SECOND EDIT:  It is also worth noting that, in addition to the simulacra of Southern California, the Barstow family saw a lot of fortifications of different kinds, or places that, by nature or by design, serve to keep people out.  There were the homes of the wealthy and movie stars, the castle set and the castle at Disneyland (both hollow representations of fortifications, a combination of both), Catalina Island, and, of course, the Los Angeles highway system.  Roads and highways are a classic technology of separation, and it is interesting that being on them inspires both wonder and fear in the narrator.  Here we might bear in mind the etymological connections of “boulevard” to French bouleverser, boulevard, German Bollwerk, English bulwark.

Marx und Engels ziehen um

Die Webseite des Spiegels hat diesen witzigen Film vor ein Paar Wochen veröffentlicht.  Die Statuen von Marx und Engels auf dem Marx-Engels-Forum in Berlin wurden vor kurzem umgestellt, damit die Bauarbeiten an einer neuen U-Bahnstation weitergehen können.

Leider darf das Video nicht eingebettet werden, aber man kann es hier anschauen.

Offbeat Berlin

So gut wie man glaubt, die Hauptstadt Deutschlands zu kennen, stellt man immer neu fest, wie viel noch sie zu entdecken und erkunden bietet.  Expatica, eine englischsprachige Webseite eben für Leute im Ausland, hat letzten Mai diesen interessanten und sehr nützlichen Führer zu Berliner Sehenswürdigkeiten veröffentlicht, die die Touristenhorden nicht unbedingt anziehen.  Einige dieser Dinge habe ich mir schon besichtigt, aber von vielen hatte ich nicht einmal gehört.

Die Führungen von der Berliner Unterwelten sind sehr, sehr zu empfehlen.  Ich habe die durch den Bunker in Gesundbrunnen gemacht, als sie für die lange Nacht der Museen auf hatten.  Die Führung war faszinierend, und darüber hinaus kann man eine Seite Berlins sehen, an die die meisten Leute einfach bewusstlos vorbeigehen.

Das sowjetische Ehrenmal im Treptower Park ist auch sehr empfehlenswert.  Dieses Ehrenmal ist nicht mit dem im Tiergarten in der Straße des 17. Juni zu verwechseln!  Obwohl das Treptower Ehrenmal auf dieser Liste erscheint, wird es  in den meisten Fremdenführern erwähnt, trotzdem gibt es da keinen Touristendrang, da es etwa außerhalb des Stadtzentrums steht (wenn auch gar nicht so weit).  Ich habe es selber öfters besucht; da sieht man einfach eine andere Narrative von dem Ablauf des zweiten Weltkrieges als die, die auf uns in der westlichen Welt zukommt.  Hier sind ein paar Bilder mehr davon, die ich im Jahr 2005 gemacht habe.