The theoretical problems that underpin both the critical discourse and the literary production in the era of German realism can be very surprising for an audience schooled on the Victorian novel. When I first encountered German realism myself, it seemed to me to be not realism at all. How can literature be “realistic” while at the same time be committed to a process of transfiguration (Verklärung)? Doesn’t the German verb itself, verklären, imply a moving away from realistic representation? These questions might be naive, but they were my basic point of departure. Since I had mostly dealt with the Anglophone canon in school, when I thought of “realism” I thought of Dickens’ London. I associated the term with the kind of misere that Theodor Fontane specifically rejects in his essay “Unsere lyrische und epische Poesie seit 1848” (147-148).1 This is not to say that the authors of this period simply ignored the changing reality of German in this period. Early in Adalbert Stifter’s Der Nachsommer (Indian Summer, 1857), for instance, Heinrich Drendorf visits a valley filled with factories and carefully studies the production processes there. But this scene occupies all of a paragraph, and in the next he’s off studying plants. My initial question might have been summed up as: “where have all the street urchins gone?”
This and other questions evolved into the basic problem that my dissertation seeks to address. The problem boils down to a basic aporia that has puzzled me about German realism since the start, namely the contradiction between the programmatic realist imperative to portray the world in a way that is objective and poetically transfigured (verklärt) and the increasingly prosaic character of that world. After several years of formulating and re-formulating a question that might be sufficient to drive a dissertation, what I really want to know is this: what happens to a realist program of aesthetic transfiguration when an industrial mode of production has transformed the environment to such an extent that it no longer lends itself to poetic representation?
In the spirit of Frederic Jameson’s injunction to “always historicize!,” we might actually look at what was going on in the physical world at the time that the literature was written. Here are three maps of Cologne that make visible the material basis of the theoretical questions my project raises.
This first map is a representation of Cologne in the year 1807. The city has been under French control since 1794, the year prior Napoleon had dissolved the Holy Roman Empire and issued Prussia a stinging defeat at Jena-Auerstadt. There is no bridge over the Rhine. The surrounding areas show little development, and the city walls clearly delineate the boundary between city and country.
Here is another map of Cologne, this time from 1845. Cologne has since fallen under Prussian control, and the Catholic/Protestant divide within the expanded Prussia has caused no small amount of tension. There are a few distinct changes in the landscape. We now have a bridge over the Rhine, and railroads extend at least up to the city walls. Nevertheless, the city’s physical makeup hasn’t change all that much. The wetlands on each bank of the Rhine to the south of the city still appear to be in place.
Compare this to the following map of Cologne from 1893. Within one human lifetime, the city has radically changed. The railroad network is much more extensive, and settlements like Nippes have been transformed into dense areas of industrial development. The wetlands on the left bank of the Rhine have also vanished, and “nature” can now be found in the lovely “Stadtwald,” adjacent to Braunsfeld and Lindenthal.
These maps speak volumes about the historical processes underway in Germany after 1848 and especially after 1871. These processes are there even in the texts that are truest to the tenets of programmatic realism. Taken together, there is an interesting story to be told here, one that, I believe, may not be so alien to an English language readership after all.
1. Reprinted in Plumpe, Gerhard (ed.). Theorie des bürgerlichen Realismus: Eine Textsammlung. Stuttgart: Reclam Verlag, 1997. 140-148