Tag Archives: Adalbert Stifter

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.

Gardens and Invisible Bird Cages: Stifter on Making Nature Natural

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep Time and the Work of Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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.

Memory and Urban Development in Stifter’s Tourmaline

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

Adalbert Stifter Gesammelte Werke Insel Stefl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maps: Illustrating the Economic and Material Background of German Realism

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.

Cologne 1807 2This 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 Cologne 1845are 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 Cologne 1893following 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