Tag Archives: Off the Shelf

Nis-Momme Stockmann: Der Fuchs

Nis-Momme Stockmann’s debut novel Der Fuchs is an entry in a 41NqF-ey1iLvenerable tradition of encountering the ocean as a liminal and often uncanny space. Moby-Dick opens with a wonderful description of the mysterious pall that the presence of the sea casts on Manhattan, drawing the people constantly towards the ocean. Closer to the world of the novel, there is Theodor Storm’s Rider on the White Horse (Der Schimmelreiter), where the project of dike building becomes an encounter with the barely sublimated supernatural qualities of the ocean.

Stockmann’s novel is set on the fictional island of Thule, a reference to the island in classical cartography at the very edge of the known world. Thule is located somewhere in the North Sea, a setting not far from that of Storm’s novella, with which there are many obvious affinities. At the beginning of the novel, the village milieu of the petit bourgeois has been swept away by a flood that has drowned the village, and Finn Schliemann is stranded on a rooftop. Surrounded by the flood memories and images of the past (and future) drift across his consciousness. Thule, it turns out, is like a cosmic naval where the world of humans and gods intersect.

The novel contains some interesting moments: it traffics heavily in the grotesque, with a series of unexplained murders and a severed arm that washes up on the beach; it extends from Schliemann’s immediate past into an imagined (?) post-Earth science-fiction future, and it unbinds and ultimately rebinds its various narrative strands in a way that deserves further consideration. On balance, though, I found the novel underwhelming. Its reflections on, well, God and the world, seem bloated (the novel clocks in at 715 pages). To compare it to the examples I opened with, I was missing the philosophical depth of Melville’s novel, or the understatedness of Storm’s novella. Nor are some of the intriguing aspects of the narrative particularly compelling or original. Having different levels of narration on the same page is something that Terezia Mora did in her 2013 novel Das Ungeheur, reviving the gods in a world of disenchantment is something I encountered in the novel I am now reading, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Nor did it do much for my reading experience when around page 350 I turned to the acknowledgements and found that Stockmann thanked himself. Reading this novel was part of my effort to keep well abreast of the contemporary German literary scene, especially since I deal mostly with historical genres and authors. I picked up this novel because the fantastic element and the apocalyptic nature seemed promising, both to my taste but also to my interest in ecocriticism. In the end I mostly regretted not having gone instead with Julie Zeh’s new novel Unterleuten, the other alternative in the bookstore.

Nuclear Patoralism: Alina Bronskys “Baba Dunja’s Last Love”

One of the earliest television news pieces I can recall watching is Steve Kroft’s visit to the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant for a 60 Minutes segment in 1989. A few clips are available here. The piece was possibly the first entry in a larger corpus of media documenting the ruination of the region’s former human settlements. I remember being struck by the strange beauty of the images in the broadcast: the depopulated stretches of landscapes leading up to the site, the empty streets of the city, and strange forms in the building itself, particularly the so-called “Elephant’s Foot.”

This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the explosion. The expansion of the internet in the de9783462048025cades since has meant that one need not wait on Steve Kroft to do another Chernobyl follow-up in order to see how far Pripyat has succumbed to the forces of nature. Late 20th and early 21st media have allegedly already reduced the melancholy intellectual pastime of contemplating ruins to “ruin porn,” and ruins in the exclusion zone might well constitute their own sub-genre. The catastrophe would seem to have marked the area’s exit from history – the 60 Minutes piece is now behind a paywall, but I recall Steve Kroft observing that the area had survived crusaders, Ottomans, and Nazis, but not the radiation from reactor number four.

But one of the paradoxes of the exclusion zone is that even while it appears as a fading after-image of mid 1980s Soviet life, it occupies an outsized place as an object of cultural fascination. This is one of the surprising contradictions at play in Alina Bronsky’s latest novel Baba Dunjas letzte Liebe. Baba Dunja, the text’s first-person narrator, belongs to the community of people who evacuated the area around the Chernobyl plant after the explosion, only to return to their former homeland. With mortality looming anyway, Baba Dunja figures it would be better to accept the radiation that is everywhere in her homeland than to die in a shared apartment in an anonymous high rise in an alien city.

The community seems to be living out a kind of pastoral idyll. The text’s treatment of the pastoral motif is signaled by the image of a rooster, which marks the chapter breaks after the opening scene involving the death of the neighbor’s annoying rooster. The returnees maintain gardens and have developed networks of mutual support. To access the world beyond, Baba Dunja walks out of the exclusion zone to a lonely bus stop and rides into town to check her postbox. But radiation is an interesting phenomenon. In the moment of exposure it is not something that is immediately sensible; we cannot see or taste it in the moment of exposure, and we only know it through the effects it sooner or later will have on our bodies. It has an invisible presence, but that invisible presence structures life in the exclusion zone. For instance, whenever Baba Dunja’s hears of the birth of a new child, her question is whether the child is healthy. Behind the grandmotherly tone is an obvious fear of the effects of the ecological reality on the body. Because the exclusion zone is relatively depopulated, it is tempting to see it through the lens of a kind of environmental fantasy, a place where nature is “coming back” in spite of ecological catastrophe. But beneath the seemingly idyllic life in the zone lurk the signs of environmental dysfunction. Baba Dunja was visited by a biologist studying spiders, we learn. It seems that the spider population in the zone has exploded because there are now too few birds to keep them in check.

The biologist, it turns out, is also a sign that the exclusion zone is not as removed from world affairs as one might assume. Baba Dunja, for instance, has been featured in news coverage of the returnees living in the exclusion zone. The novel’s major conflict develops when a man brings his daughter into the community after his wife leaves him. Baba Dunja confronts him over the endangerment of the child, the confrontation escalates, the man attempts to strangle her, and Baba Dunja is rescued by a neighbor who slays the man. The murder is taken up by the authorities, and Baba Dunja goes to trial.

The novel is a compelling read because of the kinds of contradictions that structure life in the zone, as the story portrays it, such as the fact of making a life in and on a poisonous landscape, or the condition of being both removed and the center of media attention. As I read it I thought about the ambiguity of the language we use to talk about radiation in general. “Strahlen,” from which we get the language of “Strahlung” (radiation) and “verstrahlt” (irradiated) has both positive and negative connotations. While the English “radiation” is connected to “radiance,” there seems to me to be more distance between the two forms in English than there is in German. The ambiguity to the term “strahlen” is nicely captured in Horkheimer and Adorno’s famous line from Dialektik der Aufklarung that “die vollends aufgeklarte Erde strahlt im Zeichen triumphalen Unheils.” The “verstrahlte” landscape in Baba Dunjas letzte Liebe literalizes the radiant disaster of progress.

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.

Picturing (Eco)misanthropy in Ilija Trojanow’s “Eistau” (“The Lamentations of Zeno”)

A comeistau-9783423142885mon charge used against ecological politics is that it hates humanity and reflexively rejects the benefits of progress. Consider, for instance, this New Yorker cartoon of 2006, where two cavemen muse on the fact that they have clean air and organic food, yet don’t survive past thirty (never mind that infant mortality accounts for the “low” life expectancy before 1900, and that in the Paleolithic if you could make it to 15 you had a decent chance of making it to 54). This kind of charge is little more than a cudgel that reduces all of environmental politics to a deep ecology caricature. At the same time the charge does not come from nowhere, and what’s more, it’s not at all clear that (eco)misanthropy is necessarily a bad thing, especially as a corrective to the kind of blunt anthropocentrism that gave us Interstellar.

Ilija Trojanow’s novel EisTau (The Lamentations of Zeno, the paperback edition of which appeared this year) is an exploration of a character given to a kind of ecomisanthropy. Zeno Hintermeier is a glaciologist through whose eyes we see that such a seemingly taboo attitude at least comes from an understandable place. Reflecting on how whale oil was a source for glycerine, Zeno thinks:

Was für eine bewundernswerte Innovation, aus Walen Sprengstoff herzustellen, was für ein leuchtendes Sinnbild des Fortschritts: Wesentliches zerstören, um Überflüssiges zu produzieren.

What a marvelous innovation to make explosives from whales, what an illuminating symbol of progress: destroying the essential for the production of excess. (131)

Zeno is based in Munich for most of his career, and his work is devoted to a distressed Alpine glacier. When he visits his beloved glacier to find nothing more than a few scattered, muddy blocks of ice, his personal and professional lives sink into crisis. He joins a company that takes ecotourists on Antarctic cruises, where he gives talks about the local ecology. The text of the novel shifts between his journal entries and montage of mass media language from after the novel’s end, in which we slowly discover that Zeno has hijacked the ship, marooned all the people on board, and eventually committed suicide. The protagonist has an interesting name: Zeno of Elea, after all, is known for his paradoxes of motion, such as that when traveling we never reach our destinations as we are only ever halfway. Global warming is a kind of catastrophic personal and environmental break-out from this non-movement in movement: Glaciers hit definite points of no return as they melt, a circumstance correspondingly mirrored in the activation of Zeno Hintermeier’s Todestrieb towards the end of the novel.

Zeno is something of a latter day Cassandra, who is now not simply ignored, but dismissed as an irrational wet blanket:

Er war eine Spaßbremse, er war ein Spinner, aber wenigstens ein Spinner mit Überzeugung, Sie werden ihn nicht verstehen.

He was a party pooper, he was a nut, but at least a nut with conviction, you will never understand him. (140)

As a teacher Zeno is in the bind of wanting others to appreciate the subject he specializes in, and frustrated that his students necessarily don’t share his appreciation or devotion. During an expedition to the glacier he has devoted his life to, he remarks of his students:

Sie waren nicht einmal peinlich berührt ob ihrer Ignoranz, als stünde ihnen das Grundrecht zu, Vernichtetes zu vergessen.

They did not even have a touch of embarrassment over their ignorance, as if they had a fundamental right to forget what had been destroyed. (56)

The situation is presumably worse on the ship. Zeno shares an enclosed space with a group of passengers present for the aesthetic consumption of nature. We learn, for instance, that the cruise ships space themselves out so that all on board have at least the illusion of being the only humans in a space radically other from civilization, even as human economic activity is transforming the terrain before their very eyes. In this context Zeno is little more than a form of infotainment, the knowledge he shares ultimately does not result in any change in his audience’s attitudes towards nature or everyday practice. At one point a passenger sees a skua steel an egg from a penguin’s nest. The passenger saves the egg, for which she is rewarded with a bite in the hand, causing her to fall down and crush another penguin and the eggs in her nest.

One of the questions I pursue in my research is how an environmental thematic squares with a certain historical notion of the autonomy of the work of art. The reception of the novel was initially cold partly because it was seen as didactically coerced. My own feelings about the novel were mixed. Zeno’s ecomisanthropy is actually quite interesting, but the character’s own voice makes for some exasperating moments. The descriptions of sex struck me as particularly hackneyed. That would just be a complaint about artistic merit, except that the female characters end up appearing as distant and flat. Zeno’s ex-wife is a shrew, and even the more sympathetic Paulina, with whom Zeno has an affair in the novel, appears as a more distanced sexual object viewed through the lens of national stereotypes. This doesn’t combine well with the portrait of the ecomisanthrope that the novel sketches. And that’s unfortunate, because instead of a nuanced portrait of an attitude that is often quickly dismissed, we encounter in this novel yet another example of an ugly and ultimately self-defeating masculine brand of conservationism.


On edit: 27. April 2016: Eistau is now available in English under the title The Lamentations of Zeno.

Philippe Squarzoni, Climate Changed

There is a common assumption underwriting much 51vMHuzcL2Lof so-called “first wave” ecocriticism that our contemporary ecological dilemmas are a matter of some sort of wrong thinking that grounds our destructive behavior. Certain modes of writing, the thinking goes, reorient us back towards nature, and so the major intervention of ecocriticism when it first hit the scene was precisely in giving serious critical consideration to the political aspect of literary encounters with nature such as Thoreau’s at Walden Pond or Abbey’s in what is now Arches National Park. When I first picked up my copy of Philippe Squarzoni’s graphic novel Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science, I assumed from the cover that I was in familiar territory. I expected to follow the narrator through the basics of global warming science, and to see a triumphant conversion at the end. The persistence of conversion narratives in environmentally themed writing is fascinating, but Squarzoni is after something different. His book seizes on the ambiguous moment prior to the sea-change of conversion.

As always, translation is interpretation, and the original French title Saison brune is much more ambiguous. The “brown season,” we find out, is a liminal moment in Glacier National Park where the ice is gone but the green of spring has yet to make an appearance. The novel is an exploration of that liminal moment as a general condition when the shape of the future is not yet determined: on the global scale, the fact that we could still take charge of our destinies and avoid the worst impacts of global warming, while on a personal scale, it reflects Squarzoni’s (by which we mean the narrator who wears Squarzoni’s face) feelings about being middle aged. He reflects on the political and economic problems that are warming the planet, and confronts their intractability. To board an international flight or not? To drive a Hummer or to drive a smaller vehicle? Squarzoni spends much of the book reflecting on these issues at a personal and at a global scale while wandering through the world, both the real world “out there” and the utopian images of advertising.

The visual economy of the book is remarkable. It draws widely from literature, art history, and film to consider what it means to unpack the “brown season” as a global and as a personal condition. At one point the narrator recounts the story of a skydiver who jumped without his parachute, a single mistake that could never be undone. We see the plane flying away, just after the moment that the individual’s future had been determined (as it happens the skydiver in question was one Ivan McGuire, who died in 1988). The departing plane also ends the memory of childhood summers in the south of France, and makes an appearance when Squarzoni decides not to fly to a conference because of the carbon planes put into the atmosphere. As he knew, the plane still takes off without him. The falling is also significant: in one panel Squarzoni and his partner fall from a bridge and land in the streets of Manhattan, doing battle with a personified consumer culture. The shooting of Santa Claus was an especially satisfying turn in this fantasy. Such drastic imagery is poised against pages of “talking heads,” that is, experts Squarzoni interviews. I personally liked these parts of the book, they seem at first repetitive, but I found the portraits to be very expressive, bringing a strong affective component to the science portions of this personal journey.

Because this is a graphic novel, to write about it without sharing actual images from the book seems somewhat unjust, but I don’t want to overstep the bounds of fair use. However, pieces can be viewed at this interview with Squarzoni.

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.”

Thoughts on Re-Reading “One Hundred Years of Solitude”

Even before the news of Gabriel García Márquez’ passing on April 17th arrived, I had been thinking that it was about time I take One Hundred Years of Solitude back off the shelf. Admittedly I did so with something of a guilty conscience, as his obituary in the New York Times mentioned that Márquez had feared that that book would overshadow his other literary accomplishments.

I first encountered One Hundred Years of Solitude in twelfth grade English. Suffice it to say, I was dazzled from the very first line. I was partial to the fantastic element, but also to the detailed plasticity of the narrative world – i.e. Pilar Tenera’s “explosive laugh [that] frightened off the doves” or José Arcadio’s “flatulence [that] withered the flowers.” I read the novel first out of the 1998 Harper Perennial Classic’s paperback, which had on the back a quote from William Kennedy’s review of the novel saying that “it takes up not long after Genesis left off and carries through to the air age.” It was a claim that stuck with me, and one of the questions that I had of the novel when I first read it was about the relation of the narrative to actual historical time. In other words, when and where is Macondo?

While at the time that question might have come from a privileging of the “realism” in “magical realism,” the novel itself raises this question. The major turning point in the plot is loosely based on the 1928 Banana massacre, in which the Colombian army slaughtered an unknown number of workers on the behalf of United Fruit Company, today’s Chiquita Brands, lest anyone forget. And the novel also depicts the process of Macondo’s integration into a thoroughly disenchanted world history: at the beginning Macondo is an island whose contact with the outside world comes through fantastic products brought in by Arab and Gypsy traders, but as our solitary one hundred years proceed, we see the introduction of centralized bureaucracy, film, and most disastrously, the train.

In the April 18th episode of Democracy Now! in honor of Márquez, Isabel Allende remarked that Márquez “gave us back our history.” And it is the creation of an officially sanctioned historical narrative and the concomitant act of amnesia that shook me most re-reading the novel now. After the massacre José Arcadio Segundo wakes up on the train with the bodies of the striking workers on the way to being dumped in the ocean. He jumps off and walks back to Macondo, only to find that in the minds of the people, the massacre never happens. Solitude catches up to him as the only human in the town who remembers the event. The climate itself instead becomes a site of collective grief, as the town’s atmosphere of decadence is washed away in a four year rainstorm that gathers as the bodies of the workers are transported to the ocean and into oblivion.

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.

Marlen Haushofer: The Wall

Austrian literature is on the agenda today, so before I arrive at the actual subject of this post, I should mention that with the arrival of August 2013 we are now 100 years from the nice day at the opening of Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities.  Here’s to a century of the parallel campaign!

Following a recommendation I recently finished reading Marlen Haushofer’s 1968 novel Die Wand, available in English under the title The Wall.  The novel is back on everyone’s lips because a film adaptation appeared about a year ago.  I missed its theatrical release, but it looks like it will be released on DVD in the United States in October.

When I picked up the novel I expected something akin to an Austrian strain of nature writing.  The novel is a first-person “report” by a nameless narrator who goes on a trip with relatives into the Alps.  They leave one evening, and only the dog returns home.  When she sets out to investigate their disappearance, she runs into an invisible wall, beyond which the world is motionless.  The mystery of this fantastic event is never really unraveled, although the narration makes it pretty clear that the arrival of the invisible wall is a thinly veiled nuclear catastrophe.  What unfolds from there is a kind of post-apocalyptic Robinsonade.  The report covers about a year and a half after this strange calamity in which the narrator appears to be the only human left alive.

I admit that in the first fifty pages I began to wonder where exactly the novel was going.  Much like Defoe’s novel, the plot at the beginning seems to set off on a kind of providential narrative.  Within a few pages, the narrator has a cow and a cat in addition to a dog.  She learns how to work with the earth, managing to grow potatoes and store food, and she adapts to the rhythms of the various seasons.  In spite of the opening of the novel, in which the narrator talks about having forever lost track of time, the fact that the report is partly the result of a limited amount of paper, and that she is undertaking the project as a means of clinging to her own reason, I wondered from the first fifty pages or so that I might be headed for a story of “how I learned to stop worrying and live in sustainable harmony with nature.”  The apparent providential narrative instead ended rather quickly, and the narrator developed a much different relation to her circumstances than her predecessor in 1719.

For one thing, the report becomes a prolonged reflection on the conditions and possibilities of freedom.  The narrator is on one side of a wall.  She is both free and imprisoned in relation to the dead world beyond the barrier.  She also meditates on the question of freedom as it relates to the animals she lives with and cares for.  The cow Bella keeps her alive, but they exist in a relationship of mutual dependency.  The animals are interesting characters in their own right, but also occasion reflection on the nature of care and the possibility of freedom within the obligations the narrator feels towards her non-human animals.  She also contemplates what it would be like if she were living in her situation with a man, and concludes that in spite of the companionship, she would not be better off.  There is no such thing as inner freedom, she decides at one point.

There’s also the problem of writing itself.  In the opening paragraph the narrator talks about having lost a few days, so already there is a question of accuracy as it relates to calendar-time.  But she is also writing as a way of fending off insanity, the risk of “in die Dämmerung starren” (8).  Writing in this sense is about preserving one’s own humanity.  But preserving humanity here is not about staving off animality.  The Dämmerung that the narrator mentions is not animality, but a kind of thoughtless abyss.

I’ve attached the U.S. trailer for the film version below.  The English dubbing in this trailer is done by the actress who plays the protagonist herself, Martina Gedeck.

“Uncommon Ground” Reconsidered

It has been almost two decades since the publication of the volume Uncommon Ground. While some of the essays now appear somewhat dated (the Nature Company, for instance, has long since vanished from America’s malls, although that by no means diminishes the essay’s relevance), the book articulates a line of thinking that has had an enduring presence in environmental history and philosophy, and the arguments it puts forward continue to raise hackles amongst the environmentally committed both inside and outside the academy. J. Baird Callicott and Michael P. Nelson have done all of us a tremendous favor by collecting a large sample of essays on the concept of wilderness by academic as well as activist supporters and detractors in The Great New Wilderness Debate (1998) and The Wilderness Debate Rages On (2008), and I can only recommend those two books to anyone who wishes to orient themselves in the wilderness discussion. If nothing else, they are a testament to how polarizing the arguments in Uncommon Ground continue to be.
I recently got myself a copy of Uncommon Ground, and felt moved to share a few reflections. First a bit of background: the book evolved out of a colloquium that took place at UC Irvine in 1994. Being a UCI alumnus, that alone makes me a rather sympathetic reader. William Cronon edited the book, and his seminal essay “The Trouble with Wilderness” is the leading text in the volume. The basic thesis of the essay:

Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, [wilderness] is quite profoundly a human creation – indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history.  It is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an untouched, endangered, but still transcendent nature can for at least a little while longer be encountered without the contaminating taint of civilization.  Instead, it is a product of that civilization, and could hardly be contaminated by the very stuff of which it is made.  Wilderness hides its unnaturalness behind a mask that is all the more beguiling because it seems so natural.  As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.  For this reason, we mistake ourselves when we suppose that wilderness can be the solution to our culture’s problematic relationships with the nonhuman world, for wilderness is itself no small part of the problem. (69-70).

As Cronon himself acknowledges, these claims will seem heretical to many of different ecological stripes. I don’t think anyone will say that he wasn’t at least right on that count. Particularly from an activist point of view, this claim would at best be a weak basis on which to build an environmental politics, at worst a philosophy that justifies the activities of Monsanto (although it’s also worth saying that Monsanto never needed permission from humanities scholars to do what it does). The paperback edition responds to the furor that the book’s initial appearance provoked. The subtitle was changed from Toward Reinventing Nature to Rethinking the Human Place in Nature,and included a preface that emphasizes the reality of what we commonly think of nature. Nevertheless, the paragraph above is an easy go-to text for anyone who wishes to take umbrage with the so-called constructionist camp. And that is unfortunate, because in the texts that I have read that cite Uncommon Ground, Cronon’s essay seems to eclipse the many other thought provoking essays.

An often cited passage from the book that Cronon is not responsible for comes towards the end, when the colloquium participants shared a few concluding thoughts on their time together in Irvine and the arguments they presented. In her remarks Anne Spirn appears to have second thoughts about the kinds of positions that emerged at the colloquium and in the book itself:

But I also remember our discussions as so abstracted from the “nature” in which we were living, which I was feeling so intensely but perhaps not expressing verbally.  Sometimes the talk seemed so disembodied.  I regret that we didn’t fully engage the tangibility, the “reality,” of nonhuman nature.  I wonder how different our conversations might have been if they had not taken place under fluorescent lights, in a windowless room, against the whistling whoosh of the building’s ventilation system. (448)

The comments have the appearance of tacitly acknowledging that because of the conditions in which academic discourse all too often happens, the authors lack the authority to make the claims that they do. It would seem that Spirn is taking the side of those in the environmental humanities in particular who seea sustained unmediated encounter with nature as the prerequisite for ecocriticism, ecophilosophy, environmental history, and unfortunately I have seen some of the book’s critics use this particular quote to bolster their own criticisms. But I wonder if Spirn’s words haven’t been unfairly turned against the project. The quote above follows a reminiscence about the collegiality at the colloquium, and the quote itself reads like more of an afterthought than a weighty counterargument. In any case, Spirn’s point is not that “had we gone outside we would have discovered that nature is real after all.” She goes on to say:

Our discussions deepened my awareness of how nature is and has been culturally constructed, but now more than ever I feel it crucial to reassert the reality of nonhuman features and phenomena.  I hope our book doesn’t overemphasize the cultural construction of nature to the extent that readers come away with the impression that nature is only a construct. (448)

In other words, it’s less of a negation of the project itself and more of a qualification against possible abuse by an overly sympathetic readership. This is not the first time this point is made in the book, nor is the affirmation of the reality of the world just a flimsy rearguard defense against ostensibly common-sense objections. What the essays in the book really get at is the strange dialectic of first and second nature that Neil Smith talks about in Uneven Development. There is a world out there, but it’s a world that is constantly being cycled through the labor process, for one thing, but also perceived through its cultural mediation. Getting away from the crowds in Yosemite Valley and exploring the far reaches of the park may be an encounter with reality, but the the windowless room with the noisy ventilation system that Spirn mentions also has a real existence in that sense.

Cronon has a beautiful moment in the introduction to Uneven Development where he encounters this dual character of the planned space. He describes the non-native snails that would come out to enjoy the water from the automatic sprinklers that kept alive his garden of non-native plants. He writes:

The snails were the one element of this garden that had somehow escaped automation and control, the one example of nature doing its own thing instead of what the planners had prescribed.  Never mind that the snails could hardly have been native to the place and depended just as much as our succulent plants on the artificial rain that our computer delivered each night.  Because they didn’t fit the plan, they somehow seemed more natural.  (43).

What Uncommon Ground arrives at is not a naïve Weisheit letzter Schluß that “it was all a construct.” Instead the book offers a nuanced way of accounting for environments that we would (and should) otherwise shudder at simply because they represent our society’s worst excesses in the consumption of the planet.

It seems to me, then, that the salient point in Cronon’s essay is not merely that nature is not what we commonly take it to be. The passage that sticks with me is instead the conclusion, where Cronon writes:

But if we acknowledge the autonomy and otherness of the thing and creatures around us – an autonomy our culture has taught us to label with the word “wild” – then we will at least think carefully about the uses to which we put them, and even ask if we should use them at all.  Just so can we still join Thoreau in declaring that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World,” for wildness (as opposed to wilderness) can be found anywhere: in the seemingly tame fields and woodlots of Massachusetts, in the cracks of a Manhattan sidewalk, even in the cells of our own bodies.”  (89)

And this is what the so-called constructonists have over the camp that seems to think that you can only talk about nature after you’ve logged enough hours in “wilderness.” There is no easy ground here on which to base a political program, but at least we have a framework for thinking about more than what commonly gets offered to us as “nature” and “wilderness.”