Tag Archives: Realism

Unpacking My Storage Unit: A Literary Encounter with My Things

German realist literature has a well-earned reputation for its fascination with stuff – actual, material things. Anyone looking to say something smart about Adalbert Stifter, Gustav Freytag, Gottfried Keller, and even (or arguably especially) Theodor Fontane could make a lot of hay looking at furniture, garden ornaments, or the pictures on the wall. Adalbert Stifter is the best example. His descriptions of things buttress his stories‘ claims to represent both material reality itself and reality’s moral structure.

Trailer for Heiner Goebbels “Stifters Dinge”

The thing about things is that they point in two directions: insofar as they have accumulated over time they point backwards to the past. It is no accident that we encounter more than a handful of private museums in the texts from this period. But things also point towards an assumed future, because their preservation assumes a future where they will be necessary and relevant. Both past accumulation and an assumed future are at stake in Stifter’s novel Der Nachsommer (Indian Summer) where so much of the activity at Freiherr von Risach’s estate is devoted to the restoration and preservation of statuary.

Things as guarantor of a stable reality, signs of a good past, and the promise of a morally fulfilled future: this is a vision to which Wilhelm Raabe repeatedly gives lie. In Zum wilden Mann (At the Sign of the Wild Man) the pharmacist sits bankrupt in an empty house. Pfisters Mühle (Pfister’s Mill) gives us the one good poem Raabe ever wrote, the apocalyptic vision of „Einst kommt die Stunde,“ in which „Der liebe, der alte vertraute Plunder / viel tausend Geschlechter Zeichen und Wunder“ (“the dear old familiar junk / Signs and marvels of many thousands of generations” ) is swept away in a massive cloud of dust. Then there is the climax of Akten des Vogelsangs, when Velten Andres sets fire to all of his mother’s things, her „museum of the heart” as a final act of secession from the society around him. It’s tempting to see Velten’s bonfire as one supreme act of badassery, but it’s not entirely clear how to evaluate it. The others in the community fly into a panic, and while the narrator Karl is fascinated, his wife flees the scene and implies that Karl’s fascination with his friend might also cost him their relationship. While Velten claims it’s an “external clearing-away to the interior,” the fire is followed by a regression to his old room reading greasy copies of books he loved in his younger days.

Raabe is an acquired taste, and I don’t mind admitting that I acquired my own taste partly on account of a fascination with characters like Velten – problematic as I understand that fascination to be. I was moved to think again, however, about all the things and the destruction of things in German realism recently when I returned to the town I spent my last few years as a graduate student in to empty out the storage unit containing all of the things I had acquired in my graduate years. Furniture, papers, household items, and books – boxes and boxes and boxes of books – had been sitting in a storage unit for nearly two years now.

Far from an act of badassery, parting with my own things was the result of a cost-benefit analysis: keeping the unit another year was not practical relative to the actual value of what I was storing. But it still meant parting with the signs and wonders of my years as a graduate student. Apart from the exhausting work of sorting everything were the emotions connected to revisiting the remnants of those years. Opening the unit was like opening a time capsule, with the items and documents seeming to narrate back to me my memories of those years. There were my move-out documents from the apartment I had prior to moving to Ithaca to begin my program in 2008, while from 2014 there was a copy of my first job contract after graduating. There was the small end-table, the first piece of furniture my wife-to-be and I bought after we moved to Ithaca, and off of which we ate our first dinner in our first apartment. I also parted with the desk on which I wrote everything from my first seminar papers to my dissertation, a real wood desk I had picked up for free and fantasized about refinishing one day. And I had to part, too, with the coffee table, bookshelf, and standing lamp I had purchased from a colleague who, a few years later, passed away far too young.

It was not all sentimentalism: the things did have to go, and in the end I was more happy than regretful at having to part from them. Nor did everything go: most of the 1,000 or so books I shipped to Germany. They tell their own story about those years. Some were there because I thought at some point that a self-respecting scholar had to have them in arm’s reach, some I honestly believed I’d make time for, some were freebies the hidden cost of which was in the having. Some were leftovers of abandoned dissertation ideas, others were there for no better reason than Ithaca has a great library book sale and I had to learn how to manage my own „Kaufrausch.“

Even as I teach my students to approach artworks from a critical distance for the purposes of their academic writing, we all write our own biographies in one way or another, and I wrote about ecopolitics and ecoaesthetics in German realism because that was one of the ways in which those stories got under my skin. The mixed feelings that come with parting from objects that are themselves dumb but for the meaning I ascribe to them brought to mind again the extent to which our own experiences and concerns belie the stance we assume as scholars and teachers of literature.

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.

Teaching Storm’s “The Rider on the White Horse”

41siL+8ITpL In my German culture survey course I recently had the opportunity to teach a unit on Theodor Storm’s novella The Rider on the White Horse. My motivation for including this unit was to give the students the opportunity to explore the relation between the text as an artistic artifact and its historical context. This is important work for students in general, but especially for the students who are drawn into this particular survey course. The students at my current institution are all affiliated in one way or another with the American military community here in Germany. They are motivated by a desire to become better acquainted with their host country, and many arrive with intellectual commitments leaning more towards the political history component of the course. Since the course is more cultural history, what is at stake in looking at cultural documents (literature, films, works of art, all of which we cover) is to work through with the students the historical and political stakes of aesthetic objects.

Theodor Storm’s The Rider on the White Horse (Der Schimmelreiter in German) is a very handy text for discussing the relation between the seemingly abstract (say, realism as epistemology) and the text’s “concrete” material historical context. The story is a frame narrative about the construction of a dike in Friesland, the main character, Hauke Haien, is an autodidact in geometry who overcomes the barriers imposed by a quasi-feudalistic order to realize the Promethean project of wresting arable land out of the sea. The novella is also a ghost story, as the project claims Haien’s life and he haunts the dike as a kind of revenant.

I paired the novella with excerpts from David Blackbourn’s The Conquest of Nature, an environmental history of hydrological engineering in Germany. Blackbourn’s thesis is that projects like dam building, river straightening, etc. were a crucial condition for the process of state formation in Germany from the eighteenth century to the present. Putting the novel within the context of environmental history not only speaks to student interest, but opens up possibilities for making the theoretical issues that undergird the story clear to students encountering those concepts for the first time. The relegation of the fantastic to nature and the sea, which Hauke seeks to overcome through his engineering prowess, for instance, opens up the possibility for a Frankfurt school reading of the domination of nature. The building of the dike is also connected to social transformations: whereas before Hauke the position of Dikemaster seemed to be concerned primarily with the preservation of the available land, Hauke Haien’s dike turns out to be a good investment, producing surplus value to those members of the community who invest capital in his undertaking. The week prior to reading Storm, we had didacticized The Communist Manifesto in class. While the unit on Marx was connected to the political constellations of the pre-March period, it provided a useful framework for understanding how environmental transformation was connected to the shifting class dynamics of the novella.

The politics of the project within the novella are also useful fodder for discussion. In the story, opposition to the dike comes from community members who are reluctant to have to pay additional taxes in order to support the dike. Obviously the question of taxation in order to pay for infrastructure is a familiar problem to students; I like to refer it back to Blackbourn’s basic thesis of the connection between environmental transformation and the state.

The Rider on the White Horse is also valuable from a medial standpoint. The conceit of the frame narrative is that the story is contained within the pages of a nineteenth century family journal. The medial context is also a key element to the novella’s claim to reality, as the family journal culture of the late nineteenth century had its own strategies for creating a kind of reality effect, strategies based on the innovations of print technology that made a mass media possible in the first place. Of course these were also the journals in which texts like Storm’s first appeared. The Rider on the White Horse was printed in the journal Deutsche Rundschau in 1888. The fact that such journals have been digitized means that students can easily get a better picture of the context in which the novella’s first readers would have originally encountered the story. I could have brought in Deutsche Rundschau, but instead I showed the students an edition of the journal Über Land und Meer, which is more visually interesting and makes for a better case study in medial realism.

A final word on translation: the text has been translated variously as The Rider on the White Horse and The Dikemaster. I use James Wright’s translation, which has been reprinted in the New York Review of Books classics series. Unfortunately there’s no way to render the low German dialect that Storm transcribes in the novella into English. The language politics comes through in other ways, but less so, and for the purposes of my course that’s too bad, as that would be another avenue of exploration in connecting the work of art to the more generalized interests that bring the students into the class. But this version beautifully captures both the interesting pacing of the novella and Storm’s marvelous descriptions of the sea, which has a presence in the story familiar to any fan of Moby-Dick.

The Politics of Celebrating the City

In his autobiography Von Zwanzig bis Dreißig (From Twenty to Thirty) Theodor Fontane explains his inability to make friends with the author Theodor Storm by chalking the difference between them up to a clash between his own cosmopolitanism vs. Storm’s fealty to his North Friesland home:

He was for the Husum Dike, I was for the London Bridge; his ideal was the Schleswig Heath with its red erica bushes, my ideal was the Heath of Culloden with the graves of the Camerons and Mackintosh. (HFA III/4 : 372, translation mine)

Spitzweg "Newspaper Reader in the Garden"

Carl Spitzweg “Newspaper Reader in the Garden”

Storm had been some ten years in his grave by the time Fontane published this comparison. While it is unflattering and in no small measure self-serving, Fontane’s characterization of Storm as an author bound to his small corner of the planet is reflective of the judgment that German realism is a provincial realism. Perhaps the best example of this judgment is to be found in Erich Auerbach landmark study Mimesis of 1946. For Auerbach, German literature of the late nineteenth century, in this view, falls short of the French model in representing an emerging European cosmopolitan modernity. Despite the fact that Fontane claimed for himself a certain cosmopolitanism, he does not entirely escape Auerbach’s charge of provincialism, because his novels, while in some measure provincial, are a “transition to a freer, less secluded, more cosmopolitan realism” (Auerbach 516-519, quote 517).[1].

I don’t cite this in order to “disprove” Auerbach. First because the book was written in exile and Auerbach’s judgment is made against the backdrop of the catastrophe of National Socialism and thus deserves its historical due, second because we now have decades of scholarship to show that the literature of the area was sensitive to European and global realities.

The charge of “provincialism” is certainly an understandable one, especially if one thinks about literary history from a socio-historical perspective, and more especially if one considers the political climate in Germany after 1848. Auerbach bases this judgment on the political fragmentation after the revolution, an account that is pretty basic to most histories of German literature in the nineteenth century. But the allegation of “provincialism” has a curious flip-side, and carries with it some more dubious implications.

The first curious thing about the charge of “provincialism” is that it is grounded in aspects of the novel that one might just as easily celebrate in the context of a different national literature. Storm’s attachment to the Husum Dike might make him a “provincial,” but plenty of American ecocriticism might just as easily see in him a sensitivity to “place.” The reason is that having a “sense of place” implies a connection to one’s immediate environment, which supposedly leads one to ecological right thinking. Of course”place” can also take one down some politically problematic roads, and not just because its connotations resonate with certain aspects of National Socialist ideology. [2].

The second reason is that the charge of provincialism carries with it a normative concept of literature. It privileges a “modernity” as the end point of literature, a privileging that necessarily comes at the expense of prior modes of expression. Ironically, it is not unlike the normative view of realism that sees the 19th century realist novel as the ultimate flowering of the novel form. What’s odd about the charge that German realism is “provincial” is that it is in realism where the provinces come into view, as Lilian Furst argues in her study of European realism All is True (99). If this is the case, then the argument might go that Dickens’ London or Flaubert’s Paris makes room for the representation of the provinces, somehow, but it’s a strange argument to make (and radically reduces the canon of realism).

Finally, the charge also posits a normative view of the reality that realism denotes (to speak with Roland Barthes). The assumption is that reality in “modernity” exists in the city. It’s ironic that if someone from Upstate New York had never ventured east of the Catskills or below the Pennsylvania state line he would be hopelessly provincial, but New York City’s microgeographies are something of a cultural joke, and part of the city’s charm (e.g. Kramer’s “long-distance” relationship with a woman living downtown in an episode of Seinfeld, or Saul Steinberg’s take on Manhattan parochialism in his famous New Yorker cover). This itself is a kind of provincialism particular to the supposedly “cosmopolitan,” one that makes it harder to recognize how a place like upstate New York has historically been shaped by the vicissitudes of uneven development (which, as I have written, is why I include texts about “rural” spaces in a course called Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture). But where this metropolitan provincialism really loses its charm is when it translates into matters of policy. So the New York Times can editorialize in favor of fracking upstate, because we just don’t have the economic opportunities available in such wealthy urban centers as New York City. Just do it with caution, and for God’s sake, not in the city’s watershed!

It’s time to put the provincialism charge to rest, because it has been thoroughly debunked, and because making it puts us in a bad corner politically. But when it comes to the study of literary texts, the biggest reason may be simply that sheer reading pleasure starts at the same place as any critique in a robust sense: from a sensitivity to the qualities and characteristics of a literary work in all its particularity.

1.Erich Auerbach. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.Trans. William Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

2. For a useful critique of place, see Ursula Heise.Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. A useful recent study on place in German realism is John B. Lyon. Out of Place: German Realism, Displacement, and Modernity.New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

Maps: Illustrating the Economic and Material Background of German Realism

The theoretical problems that underpin both the critical discourse and the literary production in the era of German realism can be very surprising for an audience schooled on the Victorian novel.  When I first encountered German realism myself, it seemed to me to be not realism at all.  How can literature be “realistic” while at the same time be committed to a process of transfiguration (Verklärung)?  Doesn’t the German verb itself, verklären, imply a moving away from realistic representation?  These questions might be naive, but they were my basic point of departure.  Since I had mostly dealt with the Anglophone canon in school, when I thought of “realism” I thought of Dickens’ London.  I associated the term with the kind of misere that Theodor Fontane specifically rejects in his essay “Unsere lyrische und epische Poesie seit 1848” (147-148).1 This is not to say that the authors of this period simply ignored the changing reality of German in this period.  Early in Adalbert Stifter’s Der Nachsommer (Indian Summer, 1857), for instance, Heinrich Drendorf visits a valley filled with factories and carefully studies the production processes there.  But this scene occupies all of a paragraph, and in the next he’s off studying plants.  My initial question might have been summed up as: “where have all the street urchins gone?”

This and other questions evolved into the basic problem that my dissertation seeks to address. The problem boils down to a basic aporia that has puzzled me about German realism since the start, namely the contradiction between the programmatic realist imperative to portray the world in a way that is objective and poetically transfigured (verklärt) and the increasingly prosaic character of that world.  After several years of formulating and re-formulating a question that might be sufficient to drive a dissertation, what I really want to know is this: what happens to a realist program of aesthetic transfiguration when an industrial mode of production has transformed the environment to such an extent that it no longer lends itself to poetic representation?

In the spirit of Frederic Jameson’s injunction to “always historicize!,” we might actually look at what was going on in the physical world at the time that the literature was written.  Here are three maps of Cologne that make visible the material basis of the theoretical questions my project raises.

Cologne 1807 2This first map is a representation of Cologne in the year 1807.  The city has been under French control since 1794, the year prior Napoleon had dissolved the Holy Roman Empire and issued Prussia a stinging defeat at Jena-Auerstadt.  There is no bridge over the Rhine.  The surrounding areas show little development, and the city walls clearly delineate the boundary between city and country.

Here is another map of Cologne, this time from 1845.  Cologne has since fallen under Prussian control, and the Catholic/Protestant divide within the expanded Prussia has caused no small amount of tension. There Cologne 1845are a few distinct changes in the landscape.  We now have a bridge over the Rhine, and railroads extend at least up to the city walls.  Nevertheless, the city’s physical makeup hasn’t change all that much.  The wetlands on each bank of the Rhine to the south of the city still appear to be in place.

Compare this to the Cologne 1893following map of Cologne from 1893.  Within one human lifetime, the city has radically changed.  The railroad network is much more extensive, and settlements like Nippes have been transformed into dense areas of industrial development.  The wetlands on the left bank of the Rhine have also vanished, and “nature” can now be found in the lovely “Stadtwald,” adjacent to Braunsfeld and Lindenthal.

These maps speak volumes about the historical processes underway in Germany after 1848 and especially after 1871.  These processes are there even in the texts that are truest to the tenets of programmatic realism.  Taken together, there is an interesting story to be told here, one that, I believe, may not be so alien to an English language readership after all.

1.  Reprinted in Plumpe, Gerhard (ed.). Theorie des bürgerlichen Realismus: Eine Textsammlung. Stuttgart: Reclam Verlag, 1997. 140-148