Tag Archives: Method

Author Construction and Literary Misfires: Theodor Fontane’s “Ellernklipp”

Over the past year the publisher DTV has been issuing new paperback editions of Theodor Fontane’s novels and stories. Not every canonical author brought forth one masterpiece after another (e.g. Goethe’s Herrmann und Dorothea), but these works are oellernklipp-9783423144193ften relegated to the pages of expensive historical-critical editions and seldom, if ever, appear in bookstores with attractive re-designed covers. DTV’s reissue of Ellernklipp (itself based on the still indispensable Hanser critical edition) is one such “lesser” work that has recently hit bookstore shelves. Ellernklipp was one of the last of the narrative works that I had to cross off my list, and so I recently got myself a copy and read it over the “free” time of break.

Ellernklipp (1881) is supposed to be one of Fontane’s “failed” works. The synopsis of the current edition tries to sell the text as a criminal story, underscoring the themes of love, jealousy, and the novel’s dramatic setting, even as the afterword points to these as artistic demerits from the realm of trivial literature. Set in Germany’s Harz mountains, the story is about the forester Baltzer Bocholt. Bocholt is a widower who lives with his son. At the beginning of the novel he adopts the recently orphaned girl Hilde; as she grows both Baltzer and his son Martin develop romantic feelings for her. Father and son come to blows on the rock face Ellernklipp, Bocholt knocks Martin off the cliff to his death, and with his son out of the way Bocholt marries Hilde. Three years after the murder she has borne him a sickly child. In his guilt, Bocholt imagines that everybody suspects him of the disappearance of his son. At the novel’s climax, he returns to Ellernklipp with a shooting party. The setting reminds him of the night of the murder, he thinks he hears his son’s ghost, and he commits suicide on Ellernklipp.

Knowing that this novel is often regarded as a weaker Fontane novel, I read it trying to pin down what makes this novel a misfire relative to his more celebrated works, especially his debut novel Vor dem Sturm of three years prior (1878). My hypothesis is that the “weaker” stories suffer from the manner in which Fontane has been constructed as an author. In general it seems to me that the texts that seem to have the need to justify their existence in print – Ellernklipp, Grete Minde, Unterm Birnbaum – are also the stories where Fontane is less the social realist, the author of the “tyrannical social something” that we hear about in Effi Briest. Not coincidentally, I would suspect, those texts, as well as Quitt, are also the texts where Fontane devotes more direct attention to the representation of nature, and Fontane’s nature representation  has been poorly received during much of the history of Fontane criticism. In a canonical study of Fontane, for instance, Peter Demetz argues that Fontane is interested in social norms, not organic nature, and where he focuses on organic nature, he does so against his own talent (1964 : 121). A frequent complaint in first wave ecocriticism is goes that professional literary criticism reduces the presence of nature to so much semiosis, or dismisses the artistic value of nature in literature altogether. It could be that this line of Fontane criticism is where this complaint sticks.

On the other hand, reading the novel I had to admit to myself that the way nature enters into this novel strikes me as a valid grounds for the negative assessment of the texts. In his 1872 essay on historical novelist Willibald Alexis, Fontane famously argued that landscape description only has value in a text when it enhances the mood of the story (HFA III/1 : 456), and Ellernklipp struck me as a rather blunt application of that principle. The mountain and cliff setting seems like a shortcut to inflating the drama of the story, and the physical world gets mined for some painfully obvious symbolism. The murder occurs, for instance, under a blood moon. The lack of subtlety in the nature motif here also weighs down on other “weaker” Fontane texts, such as Quitt and arguably Unterm Birnbaum (although I would not readily admit it). The haunting of Ellernklipp after Martin’s murder is a bit more interesting. The ghost story adds an element of the uncanny, and it is interesting to consider how trauma attaches itself to a place. But then, there is nothing unfamiliar in any of this, either. Politically the novel seems closer to the conservative Fontane then, say, the socially critical Fontane. The novel is strongly inflected by a Prussian Protestantism to the extent that the logic of retribution is sealed with the title of the final chapter, “Ewig und unwandelbar ist das Gesetz” (“Eternal and Immutable is the Law”)

And no discussion of the novel could, or should, evade the incest motif. Both father and son are both interested in the adopted child, leaving Hilde sexually exposed in a family that she joined not of her own volition. Last month Rebecca Solnit published an essay “Men Explain Lolita to Me,” in which she discusses what it means to identify with characters in literature. On the one hand when I teach literature, especially to beginning students, we work on separating our reactions to the characters from our assessment of the text. This distancing act is necessary for literary criticism, but there’s also a certain absurdity to it. It means mounting a rear-guard against ones own biases, even though it may be those biases that move us to write about a text in the first place. But when does such a distanced stance flatten out the more disturbing elements of the story? As I read Hilde’s story I was strongly reminded of Ottilie from Goethe’s Wahlverwandtschaften. The title itself comes from a notion in chemistry, “elective affinities,” and asks us to read the text not as a story with people in a fictional reality, but as a kind of literary Gedankenexperiment in which a principle of chemistry is applied to human figures. It is that, but, as Solnit would point out, it’s also a novel in which a man dumps his wife for his niece. Lolita, Wahlverwandtschaften, and Ellernklipp are all fictional works about pretend people, as I remind my students, but it is the fact that they are more than “just” stories that make them worth studying.

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.


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.

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?

Environmental and Aesthetic Problems: A False Dualism

Today the New York Times’ reported on a city block sized, three story high pile of petroleum coke in Detroit. The coke is a byproduct of tar sands oil production.  Usually it gets shipped off to China or Latin America for fuel, contributing to the air problem out “over there” where we in the United States don’t have to see it.  But at the moment we have a growing mountain of the stuff in Detroit.  The source of outrage here, I would argue, is not the existence of such a pile but the use of Detroit as a “sacrifice zone,” to borrow Chris Hedges’ term.  If this is how we are going to power our civilization, then would it not be better to keep the ugly byproducts within our field of vision?  Yes, the waste becomes a very real social and environmental problem for the people who ultimately are left to deal with it.  But the reason our waste gets sent somewhere else to spoil the material basis of someone else’s life is so that we wealthy consumers in the global north do not have to be confronted with either the toxicity or the sheer ugliness of things like petroleum coke.  What we have is an empirically quantifiable problem of toxicity, yes, but that is not what the article is really about.  The real issue that dominates the article is the fact that it’s ugly, and we can’t hide the ugliness from view.  In other words, the environmental problem is also an aesthetic problem.

I remember watching the pieces that 60 Minutes did on Chernobyl in 1989 and 1996. The images of the nuclear fuel, which had melted, combined with the sand, and then solidified into a kind of glass flow, were beautiful.  The radiation level on the surface when it was discovered was 10,000 Röntgen per hour.  500 Röntgens in five hours is the lethal level for humans.  Radiation is not something that humans can perceive with their bodily sensory apparatus.  In other words, we have something beautiful but deadly, and if you were to go near it, you would only perceive the deadliness through its physiological effects on your body.  That is an aesthetic problem.

Plant and animal life is slowly re-taking the town of Pripyat, by Chernobyl.  Its social character is slowly vanishing as a second nature gives way to a first.  Luckily we now have the internet to satisfy our desire for the melancholy contemplation of ruination, because in spite of its appearances, the exclusion zone is a dangerous place.  That is an aesthetic problem.

The title of Rachel Carson’s classic book Silent Spring is an allusion to Keats’ poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci.”  We start off, in other words, not with science, but aesthetics.  The book’s opening chapter “A Fable for Tomorrow” is about a town that knows it is poisoned because of the conspicuous absence of birdsong.  That is an aesthetic problem.

There’s a scene in Raabe’s novel Die Akten des Vogelsangs where the two main characters are standing on a hill, a kind of nature park where the people from the town go to relax.  In the novel, “nature” has been compartmentalized on this hill, it is planned and made beautiful.  In the middle is a copy of Canova’s sculpture of Hebe.  What we have is a compounding of aesthetic problems.

Kant observes in his discussion of the mathematical sublime that we can can estimate the magnitude of something (a mountain, a galaxy, etc.) through measurement, but that does not mean that I know the magnitude of the measure.   The metric system in America has the same problem, because when Americans ask how many miles are in x kilometers, they are trying to obtain a sense of the magnitude of the measure.  We haven’t understood the data if we haven’t grasped it through intuition and thus obtained a real understanding of the concept.  Put very basically, the numbers are meaningless if they are not understood aesthetically.  In my example of Chernobyl, I told you how deadly 500 Röntgens in five hours was so that you could have a sense of how much radiation is in 10,000 Röntgens an hour, and only then do you know what a problem that is.

Common sense would have us distinguish between environmental problems and aesthetic problems.  Nobody ever got poisoned by a novel, at least not literally.  But the distinction is illusory, and if we cling to it then we have failed to understand the environmental crises we are confronted with.  Aesthetics in the narrow sense of perception and judgment is how we arrive at a sense that there is a problem in the first place.  Aesthetics in the broader sense of “relating to art” can also help us to conceptualize how we got here and to imagine other possible kinds of relations.

This is the point, in other words, where we who do cultural studies can legitimately enter the conversation on environmental problems.  And we can do so without selling ourselves short simply because we operate in more speculative realms.

Literature and Limnology

There’s an interesting history of studies of German realist texts coming from the natural sciences.  The earliest critical essays on Wilhelm Raabe’s Pfisters Mühle that are worth citing today are a pair of essays that appeared in 1925 by noted German limnologist August Thienemann.  Thienemann’s studies of dams in the first half of the 20th century make him an important figure in the history of ecology in Germany.  While Thienemann discusses the issue of industrial pollution, his interest is more a disciplinary one, that is, how Raabe borrowed from the natural scientists, specifically studies by his acquaintance and fellow member of the Kleiderseller Heinrich Beckurts.1  Still, Thienemann’s discoveries are of no small significance for Raabe scholarship.  Much of the philological background that was included in the notes in the current critical edition, the Braunschweig edition, are from Thienemann.  Bacteriologist Ludwig Popp’s 1959 essay on Pfisters Mühle situates the novel within an environmental history of Braunschweig.  Popp includes some of his own findings on the water quality in the area, taken after the factory that inspired the story had been shut down.2 These were some of the essays Horst Denkler criticized as not being wrong, but as magnifying aspects of the texts without connecting them to the larger narrative structure(85-86).3

Turning to the scholarship on Fontane, I have just finished reading Heinz-Dieter Krausch’s 1968 essay “Die natürliche Umwelt in Fontanes “Stechlin.”  Dichtung und Wirklichkeit.” 4  Krausch was working at the research station on Lake Stechlin, the eponymous body of water in Theodor Fontane’s last finished novel Der Stechlin (available in English as The Stechlin).  Krausch’s essay is all about the physical characteristics of the actual lake and its surroundings.  As interesting as his account is, the result is an essay that falls more on the side of “Wirklichkeit” (reality) and less on the side of “Dichtung” (poetry).  In other words, the essay spends most of its time outside of the text.  For instance, the novel cites the myth of the red hen, which supposedly rises out of the lake’s water when there’s some major seismic event somewhere on the planet.  Krausch suggests that this may be traced back to fishermen on the lake at night whose nets released methane produced by decaying organic matter on the seafloor, which their torches then ignited (345).  A discussion of the symbolic importance of this myth within Fontane’s novel, however, is not supplied.

None of this is to cast aspersions on Thienemann, Popp, Krausch, or any other natural scientist who feels moved to write about literature of engaging in bad critical practice.  I mean to suggest instead that when we in literary studies ask how we might cross disciplinary boundaries to explore our objects of study (i.e. people and places that may have physical equivalents but are, in the final analysis, mediated through language), it is important not to lose sight of the important questions that literary studies exists to explore in the first place.

1. Thienemann, August. “»Pfisters Mühle«. Ein Kapitel Aus Der Geschichte Der Biologischen Wasseranalyse.” Verhandlungen des Naturhistorischen Vereins der preußischen Rheinlande und Westfalens 82 (1925): 315-29.

—. “Wilhelm Raabe und die Abwasserbiologie.” Mitteilungen für die Gesellschaft der Freunde Wilhelm Raabes 15 (1925): 124-31.

2. Popp, Ludwig. “»Pfisters Mühle«.  Schlüsselroman zu einem Abwasserprozeß.” Städtehygiene.2 (1959): 21-25.

3. Denkler, Horst. “Die Antwort literarischer Phantasie auf eine der »größeren Fragen der Zeit«: Zu Wilhelm Raabes »Sommerferienheft« Pfisters Mühle.” Neues über Wilhelm Raabe: Zehn Annährungsversuche an einen verkannten Schriftsteller. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1988. 81-102.

4.  Krausch, Heinz-Dieter. “Die natürliche Umwelt in Fontanes “Stechlin.”  Dichtung und Wirklichkeit.”  Fontane-Blätter 1.7 (1968): 345-353.

Literature and the Environment: A Few (Eco)Critical Positions

As I began trying to articulate my dissertation project, I knew what phenomena were present in the texts that I wanted to talk about: urban and industrial sprawl, pollution of the air and water, the cultivation of nature, etc.  The challenge for this, as for any project, was to find both the right language and the right framework for bringing these phenomena together into a cohesive critical project.  They are, broadly speaking, environmental issues, or at least we would categorize them as such today.  But how could I talk about them in a way that was coherent and true to the texts, while achieving what all of us at a research university are supposed to be doing, that is, generating “new knowledge?”  Exploring possible answers to this question, of course, is more or less what ecocritics have been up to for the last couple of decades.  The questions here become, how does one read a text in an ecologically mindful fashion?  How does one sustain a critical project based on such a mode of reading?  Ultimately what these questions boil down to, though, is one that drives literary studies: how does one read?

It turns out that a discussion unfolded in Raabe scholarship in the 1980s and early 1990s over just these issues, with Wilhelm Raabe’s novel Pfisters Mühle as the object of contention.  This was ecocriticism’s most protean stage, when texts on the environment and literature were appearing, but before we began to get volumes, journals, and associations.  A quick gloss of the debate:  In 1980 Horst Denkler published an essay entitled “Wilhelm Raabe: Pfisters Mühle (1884).  Zur Aktualität eines alten Themas und vom Nutzen offener Strukturen” in the volume Romane und Erzählungen des bürgerlichen Realismus: Neue Interpretation.  The essay appeared again under the title “Die Antwort literarischer Phantasie auf eine der »größeren Fragen der Zeit«: Zu Wilhelm Raabes »Sommerferienheft« Pfisters Mühle” in Wilhelm Raabe: Studien zu seinem Leben und Werk, which appeared at the time of the author’s 150th birthday in 1981.  The essay is published elsewhere, including as the afterword to the Reclam edition of Pfisters Mühle.1  The goal in the essay is to bring together the subjects of industrialization, environmental depredation, historical change, etc. together in a way that would more properly account for the polyperspective nature of the novel (Denkler 86-87).  But Denkler also argued that the subject of pollution in the novel makes it particularly relevant today (87).  Jeffrey Sammons critiqued this relevance argument in a piece that eventually became a chapter in his seminal book on Raabe Wilhelm Raabe: The Fiction of the Alternative Community.2  In a nutshell, Sammons felt that asking about contemporary relevance might be interesting, but as a critical practice runs the danger of bringing the text to us in our time, rather than encountering the text on its own terms (269, 282).  The discussion continued in 1992 with Heinrich Detering’s article on Raabe’s texts Pfisters Mühle and Meister Autor3.  Detering points to the concreteness of the environmental thematic, and very helpfully situates it within the larger poetic context.  Denkler is continuing a line of argumentation that Hermann Helmers developed in his 1987 article “Raabe als Kritiker von Umweltzerstörung,”4 and together these two essays are useful models for how one can read the real-existing environmental thematic within the text’s overall poetological framework.

This discussion is tremendously important for my dissertation, both because I write about Pfisters Mühle, but more importantly because it gets at the most basic issues of critical stance and disciplinary convention that anyone interested in literature and the environment inevitably bumps into.  None of what I am about to say is new or revolutionary, but it is worth saying out loud as a means of achieving some sort of critical orientation.  All of these points are ultimately related, and I’ll have more to say about them later, but for now, here we go.

1.  Respect the historicity of the texts.

Discourses, concepts, and political positions all change with time.  “Environment” and “ecology” do not mean today what they did in the nineteenth or even the early twentieth centuries.  “Environmentalism” already in 2013 designates a broad spectrum of sometimes antagonistic camps.  In the American popular imagination it is often (and often unfairly) affiliated with the left, but historically has cut across political camps.  For that matter, some ways of thinking that seem to be the province of some leftism and left liberalism were out-and-out conservative in the 19th century.  At the same time, authors will be products of their respective ages, whose thinking is either within or in some way related to the particular paradigms of their own historical moments.  In this context, too, no matter how scientifically well-informed an author is, his or her knowledge will not go beyond that of his or her own time.

2.  Politicized readings are important, but that doesn’t cancel out the first point.

This has to do with my first thesis, and has to do, too, with the question of relevance.  In the case of mid- to late 19th century German realism, there are lots of continuities between what the authors are depicting and what we are dealing with now in 2013.  In that sense, I contend that the literature can help us think about contemporary environmental questions.  BUT that alone doesn’t make them authors that we should all read and encourage others to read as a way of promoting good ecological consciousness, whatever that would be.  It is also worth saying again that environmental thinking cuts both ways politically.  In the case of Raabe, his critique of “progress,” which comes at the expense of the natural environment, in his novels, was a point that his National Socialist readers latched on to in order to integrate the author into the regime’s cultural politics.

Instead I see my task as being one of understanding the contours of the environmental thematic and working out the formal and aesthetic stakes thereof.  This might be an abandonment of the activist stance that many ecocritics assert.  That’s a theory versus practice problem, about which I’ll have more to say later.  For the moment I tend to feel that whether a text has a given contemporary use-value is a question best left up to the reader.

3.  The stakes of the argument must come from the text itself.

Supposedly Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It prompted a rejection note from a publisher who quipped “these stories have trees in them.”  When this story pops up in ecocritical scholarship, it is usually presented as evidence of the disconnect between the literary establishment and the material world.5  But we can also invert the moral that this anecdote supposedly has.  “These stories have trees in them.”  So what?  We might expand that and say that “these stories have oak, birch, and linden trees in them.”  So what?  One of the basic assumptions in writing about literature and the environment is that “environment” is more than “setting,” a term that Lawrence Buell (whom I recently had the distinct pleasure of meeting) has pointed out “deprecates what it denotes” (84-85).6  Enough intent goes into the construction of a text that there isn’t much that is harmless or incidental.  But if these details can’t be integrated into the larger poetological framework, then all you have is something that is interesting, but not particularly compelling.  “Oak, birch, and linden” really are just trees, and all we have are notes on settings, and maybe motifs.  But we don’t have a work of criticism.

4.  Like the production of energy, the critical project also needs to be sustainable.

“Sustainable” means here that your approach should be able to have enough purchase on enough texts that we are not simply building a critical movement around one genre, one national literature, one analytic, or one conclusion.  In ecocriticism one need not look far to find “place” held up as a favored category, “realism” as a mode of writing that best promotes some sort of ecological consciousness, or “nature writing” as a genre that is intrinsically environmentally “good.”  So-called second wave ecocriticism, of course, has taken this point to heart, and produced some very exciting work on urbanism, science fiction, electronic music, etc.  I don’t necessarily think that every work of art needs to be able to be subject to ecocritical inquiry in order to justify journals and professional associations, but we also should be thinking about ways that we can have a large enough gene pool that we don’t limit our critical scope.

1. My citations from Denkler are from the 1988 volume Denkler, Horst.  Neues über Wilhelm Raabe: Zehn Annährungsversuche an einen verkannten Schriftsteller.

2. Sammons, Jeffrey. Wilhelm Raabe: The Fiction of the Alternative Community. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

3. Detering, Heinrich. “Ökologische Krise und ästhetische Innovation im Werk Wilhelm Raabes.” Jahrbuch der Raabe-Gesellschaft (1992): 1-27.

4. Helmers, Hermann. “Raabe als Kritiker von Umweltzerstörung. Das Gedicht »Einst Kommt die Stunde« in der Novelle »Pfisters Mühle«.” Literatur für Leser (1987): 199-211.

5.  See the section “Representing Nature” in Michael Cohen’s essay “Blues in the Green: Ecocriticism under Critique,” available here: http://www.asle.org/site/resources/ecocritical-library/intro/blues/

6. Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995.