Tag Archives: Eating

Mike Davis: “Late Victorian Holocausts”

619K4ZX2Z2L._SL1062_Having grown up in Southern California, Mike Davis’ histories of the area City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, and especially the co-written Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See are near and dear to my heart. But it was my dissertation work that motivated me to buy his 2001 book Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the The Third World. Theodor Fontane and especially Wilhelm Raabe both incorporate global themes into their fiction, even if these themes operate mostly through silence and suggestion, and so I was starting to feel hungry (so to speak) for an environmental history that takes a correspondingly global perspective. Besides, 2014 might still see a strong El Niño event.

Davis tells the story of how nineteenth century global capitalist development, through the vehicle of European imperialist politics produced scarcity in the so-called “third world,” leaving colonized peoples especially vulnerable to the climate disruptions associated with particularly strong ENSO events, of which there were several in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Davis focuses on the cases of India, China, Northeastern Brazil, and the Horn of Africa, sites of devastating famines that largely depopulated whole regions, and yet have vanished from the collective memories of former colonizers. The first part of the book is thus concerned with recovering these histories, and they are nightmarish: there are plenty of accounts of cannibalism, mothers selling off their children, and wild animals dragging off people too weak to fight back. The second part looks at imperialist politics and political destabilization brought about by famine in places like China and Brazil. Lest the history come off as mere correlation, the third part explains ENSO, the history of research into the phenomenon, and its effects on global climate. The fourth part recounts how specific policies and practices of global capitalism disrupted local communities and their systems for coping with natural disasters. In other words, scarcity is not just about nature, nor even the callousness that comes from “free market” ideologies, but the result of specific, conscious policy decisions aimed at enriching the powerful on the backs of the masses. This last point is important, because although the demonization of the suffering of famine victims by laissez-faire Social Darwinists will sound familiar in our contemporary historical moment, disasters are not just about ideological Hirngespinste any more than they are just about annual rainfall.

Late Victorian Holocausts makes for compelling history precisely because of the way it weaves together environmental and political history. It puts to rest popular assumptions that the deprivation “first-worlders” popularly associate with the global south comes from anything other than the gross mismanagement of the world reaching back through the history of globalization. That this is a critical history should come as no surprise, but even where his writing appears under a partisan banner, as is the case with Under the Perfect Sun, his histories are always well-argued. The empirical research and theoretical grounding are what make room for the moral force of the argument. In his explanation of the use of the word “holocaust” in his title, Davis writes, “it is the burden of this book to show that imperial policies towards starving ‘subjects’ were often the exact moral equivalents of bombs dropped from 18,000 feet. The contemporary photographs used in this book are thus intended as accusations not illustrations.”

Fantasies of Self-Cannibalism: The Story of the Criminal in Ludwig Tieck’s “Life’s Luxuries”

Ludwig Tieck’s late novella Life’s Luxuries (Des Lebens Überfluß, 1837/39), about one couple’s utopian project to withdraw from society and consume only what they have ready at hand in their small apartment, contains a curious parable very early in the narrative. In the scene Heinrich is reading to his wife Clara from his diary:

Man hat ein Märchen, daß ein wütender Verbrecher, zum Hungertode verdammt, sich selber nach und nach aufspeiset; im Grunde ist das nur die Fabel des Lebens und eines jeden Menschen. Dort blieb am Ende nur der Magen und das Gebiß übrig, bei uns bleibt die Seele, wie sie das Unbegreifliche nennen. Ich aber habe auch, was das Äußerliche betrifft, in ähnlicher Weise mich abgestreift und abgelebt. (7)

There is a fable that a mad criminal, condemned to death by starvation, ate himself bit by bit; after all, that is only a fable for the life of every man. In the first case only the stomach and the teeth remained, in our case the Soul, as the incomprehensible is called. In the same way, as far as outward things go, I also have stripped myself and died. (51)

The novella proceeds to test out this fantasy of autosarcophagy, as the two characters set about surviving the winter by using furniture and eventually the staircase leading up to the apartment as wood for burning. The conflict is about the integration of a fantast trying to preserve his own tired romanticism in a post-romantic world already on the brink of revolution. The last moment of resistance to integration in bourgeois society comes when Heinrich gathers a boot and a pair of staves and insists that they are a canon and guns. The project of self-consumption breaks down along material/ideal lines, and Heinrich presents it in two ways. The first is that where the criminal’s material deprivation is an equivalent for a common human life project of achieving transcendence beyond the material. Cannibalizing oneself leaves only the organs of consumption and digestion behind, the exterior body is reduced to the mechanism that maintains the body, and this image is the equivalent of a more ineffable spiritual process. But then Heinrich presents it as more of a simple mirroring. His process is not strictly some internal affair, but rather an actualization of the internal through an unsustainable consumption of the external, which in the story is not the body, but the things in one’s surroundings.

What interests me about the story is the way that it imagines the relation to the external world, the utopic fantasy of the good life being one of extreme self-sustainability, so that even those parts of the body that depend on the work of the teeth become valuable in being metabolized. The cracks in the fantasy are obvious, as one escapes consumption by consuming everything around oneself, and in the story we learn that the couple still keeps a servant to fetch them food (because of these cracks, students sometimes react to this story with hostility towards the characters). In the end, the couple rejoins society and fits the house with an even nicer staircase than before.

Interesting sidenote: The only English translation I know of to date is from a 1934 collection of German novellas published by Oxford University Press. The translation treats one of Heinrich’s programmatic and most politically dubious speeches in a manner that seems to shy away from the politics. Heinrich begins by claiming that friends and lovers should treat the relationship “schonend,” which they translate as “with consideration,” although the verb is more about preservation. Love for each other should not destroy “die Täuschung der Erscheinung” (41), which is rendered as “the spiritual illusion” (1934 : 89). A more literal translation would be “the illusion of appearance.” We might chalk that up to the vagaries of translation, except that the translation ends there whereas in the German the speech goes on for another page. Heinrich extends his claim about friendship to the relation to church and state, which, while they could stand some improvements, should not be torn of their mythical appearance. “…will man jene heilige Scheu vor Gesetz und Obrigkeit, vor König und Majestät, zu nahe an das Licht einer vorschnellen, oft nur anmaßlichen Vernunft ziehen, so zerstäubt die geheimnisvolle Offenbarung des Staates in ein Nichts, in Willkür.” “…if one draws the holy dread of law and hierarchy, of king and royalty, to the light of a hasty, often pretentious reason, then the entire mysterious revelation of the state falls into dust, into despotism” (42). It seems doubtful that a lengthy, politically loaded speech might have been cut by mistake, especially after the language in the first part has been apparently strategically altered. But for the moment I can only speculate about the reasons that might have motivated the translator or the publisher to make these changes.


Tieck, Ludwig. Des Lebens Überfluß. Stuttgart: Reclam Verlag, 1983. Print.

Tieck, Ludwig. “Life’s Luxuries.” German Short Stories. Trans. E.N. Bennett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934. Print. 47-111

Dystopic Consumption: Christian Kracht’s “Imperium”

Christian Kracht’s most re36798576zcent novel Imperium hit the shelves two years ago around this time, giving the German press its excuse-of-the-week to get its collective panties in a bunch. The controversy over whether Kracht is a “Türsteher der rechten Gedanken” (“doorman for right-wing thinking”), as Georg Diez memorably put it in a review for Der Spiegel, is an interesting moment in German press discourse, and anyone who is interested can find relevant reviews glossed at Perlentaucher, or get their hands on the volume Christian Kracht trifft Wilhelm RaabeThe book is a helpful document of the discussion about the novel in 2012, leading up to the moment when Kracht was awarded the Wilhelm Raabe Literature Prize for the novel.

It seems appropriate that this novel should be awarded this particular prize. Kracht sets his novel in the German colonies and thus confronts a subject that threads its way tantalizingly, if sometimes obliquely, through texts such as Abu Telfan, Zum wilden Mann, and Stopfkuchen. Kracht’s style in this novel, which vaguely parodies Wilhelmine era literature, may have been a disappointment for Andreas Fanizadeh in the TAZ, but not for me, as I am admittedly something of a sucker for that sort of writing (even as a parody).

Imperium presents a panorama of radicals of various stripes seeking routes out of bourgeois German society. At the center is the historical figure August Engelhardt, who was a member of what is loosely called the Lebensreformbewegung who co-authored the book Eine sorgenfreie Zukunft (A Future Free of Worries) with essays on freeing ourselves from worries about clothing, shelter, and food. The novel follows Engelhardt’s attempt to found a utopian colony of people who eat only coconuts in German New Guinea, an experiment that the narrator casts as explicitly prophetic for Germany’s future over the first half of the twentieth century. An explicit parallel is drawn to Hitler early in the novel, and our attention is drawn to both the seeds of actual history but also to the possibilities of an alternative future (something that got lost in the furor over the novel in 2012). One of the things that makes the novel both intriguing and irritating to read is the intrusiveness of the comparisons. The novel deliberately takes over the top the conceit of much historical fiction to be really about the present moment.

Ultimately what makes the novel particularly worth reading is precisely the interplay between subsequent history and alternative futures, with the act of consumption as a fulcrum. Engelhardt and the characters around him are invested in projects of transcendence through consumption. Engelhardt sees coconuts as a path for humans to achieve divinity, they are “die sprichwörtliche Krone der Schöpfung, sie war die Frucht des Weltenbaumes Yggdrasil” (“the literal crown of creation, it was the fruit of the world tree Yggrdrasil” 19) – Yggdrasil being a symbol familiar to readers of Raabe. It’s a transcendence the leads back to nature, as Engelhardt sees in the coconut the raw materials for everything one needs in life – building materials, tools, materials for burning, etc. But in a key scene he meets Edward Halsey, who is on the way to inventing Vegemite. The two end up in an argument because Halsey’s “Vegetarismus sei aus einer eher puritanischen Tradition erwachsen und würde in einem pragmatischen und vor allem dem Kapitalismus zugewandten Realismus münden” (“vegetariansim grew more from a puritanical tradition and was led especially to a realism oriented towards capitalism,” 108-109). Both represent compromised visions of vegetarian utopianism: on the one side Engelhardt as an ascetic whose project is undone by the subtle violence and moral absolutism of his project, and Halsey, who wants to realize a vegetarian utopia through capitalistic channels. And yes, Halsey is yet another instance in German literary history of America as the space onto which crass capitalism is projected.

If we take the novel to be an indictment of utopian thinking, even as such utopianism is brought together with what would turn out to be one the twentieth century’s most catastrophic set of politics, then we’ve missed what is interesting about Imperium. What is compelling about the novel instead is its exploration of the paradoxes intrinsic to the various drop-outs who appear on its narrative horizon.