Tag Archives: Stechlin

On the Poetic Status of Conservatism

There’s a point in Theodor Adorno’s essay “In Memory of Eichendorff” when he arrives at the issue of Eichendorff’s own conservatism. The essay, let us first recall, was originally a radio speech broadcast in 1957 to mark the 100th anniversary of the poet’s death (official German culture loves these sorts of anniversaries). What is at stake for Adorno is actually the appropriation of the German cultural past as part of the restoration of the Adenauer years. “But if anywhere, it is in poetry that the status of conservatism has changed in the extreme” (57). Unlike post-war conservatism’s investment in a bad status quo and a thoroughly discredited notion of tradition, historical conservatism of Eichendorff’s kind comes from a value of something abiding against “emerging barbarism” (57).

I cite this because the authors I work with also cling to a politics that seem to invite much less sympathetic readings. Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács memorably described Adalbert Stifter as the “classical author of the German political reaction,” argued that for all of his insight, Wilhelm Raabe was too bound by his social and political limitations to understand his time, and Theodor Fontane’s aestheticization of the nobility was a symptom of political “halfwayness.” (Granted, these judgments are all from Lukács’ most Stalinist period, in which, in spite of Adorno’s polemic, he still produced fantastic and provocative essays.)

The image of Fontane improved after Lukács’ essay with the publication of the letters to Georg Friedlaender, where Fontane has much sharper criticism of the nobility. And Raabe? A first encounter with Raabe through Die Akten des Vogelsangs (recently translated as The Birdsong Papers) might not give the impression of someone who had a portrait of Bismarck in his study, one that hangs there still today.

One position might be to separate the author from the politics, a move that I endorse as part of any critical practice. But that doesn’t obviate the conservative politics or conservative aesthetics in the works themselves. Like Schiller, Stifter sees art and aesthetics as means by which humanity moves from a condition of “is” to “ought.” But unlike Schiller, that is not a move that everyone can make. So in his novel Der Nachsommer (Indian Summer), which is a story about an aesthetic upbringing, only a select few enter the Rose House. In Stifter’s essays and in his stories there is little of the enlightenment universalism of, say, Goethe’s Iphigenie in Taurus (another favorite text of the post-war West German restoration). And while the “fiction of the alternative community” that Jeffrey Sammons sees at work in Raabe has a certain sexiness, then as now it remains a politically ambivalent fiction at best.

Adorno’s reading of Eichendorff’s conservatism could be applied to many of the conservative authors of the 19th century. One of the most striking aspects of Stechlin, for instance, is the extent to which the conservative and even reactionary characters seem to have insights into contemporary reality than the more liberal, “world-open” characters who subscribe to a benign cosmopolitanism. But there’s more to be gained from such a reading than that. Where Lukács tends to look for the social and political value of Raabe and Fontane in spite of their politics, Adorno is sensible to the more useful dialectic at work in the historical conservatism of one like Eichendorff. We see it also in the environmental thematic in Raabe. His novels don’t critique environmental depredation from a position that values nature as something best respected as sovereign and inviolable, but from a skepticism of and perhaps even resistance to destructive bourgeois ideologies of progress. And that is what we mean when we talk about the text’s conservatism. Jeffrey Sammons makes this point when he notes that ecology is one the “conservative values [that] have been revived in the most progressive minds” (272). And that leads us to how these texts might help us to think outside of the restrictive categories that contemporary American political discourse operates in: reading – and teaching – these texts allow us to explore alternative political constellations that existed in historical reality, to empathize with and even value the potential for alternatives in a politics that seems to antithetical to the very term, and to open ourselves up to the realities revealed by political frameworks outside of our own political commitments.

Theodor Fontane and the Tachyonic Antitelephone

Early in Fontane’s novel Der Stechlin Dubslav and Gundermann are engaged in a discussion of the telegraph. I was revisiting this passage and thinking about it in connection with issues of relativity and causality in Robert Musil’s novel Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften.

The conversation begins with Dubslav commenting that the brevity mandated by the form of the telegram has eroded language.

Kürze soll eine Tugend sein, aber sich kurz fassen heißt meistens auch, sich grob fassen. (GBA-EW 17 : 28)

Brevity’s supposed to be a virtue, but saying things briefly usually means saying them coarsely. (CHE 17)

Gundermann, a reactionary bourgeois who makes a living turning Brandenburg’s trees into planks for Berlin’s hard wood floors, seizes on these remarks to take a pot shot at the Social Democrats. The erosion of language is a “Zeichen der Zeit” (“sign of the times”) and “Wasser auf die Mühlen der Sozialdemokratie” (GBA-EW 17 : 28-29) “water on the mills of the social democrats”; CHE 17). Dubslav reverses himself in the face of Gundermann, and balances his criticism of the telegraph with something that he finds more praiseworthy about the technology.

Schließlich ist es doch was Großes, diese Naturwissenschaften, dieser elektrische Strom, tipp, tipp, tipp, und wenn uns daran läge (aber uns liegt nichts daran), so könnten wir den Kaiser von China wissen lassen, daß wir hier versammelt sind und seiner gedacht haben. Und dabei diese merkwürdigen Verschiebungen in Zeit und Stunde. Beinahe komisch. Als Anno siebzig die Pariser Septemberrevolution ausbrach, wußte man’s in Amerika drüben um ein paar Stunden früher, als die Revolution überhaupt da war. (GBA-EW 17 : 29)

When you get right down to it though, it really is a marvelous thing, this science business, this electric current. Tap, tap, tap and if we had a mind to (even though we don’t), why we could let the Emperor of China know we’ve gotten together here and were thinking about him. And then all these odd mix-ups in time and hours. Almost comical. When the September Revolution broke out back in seventy in Paris, they knew about it over there in America a couple of hours before there even was a revolution. (CHE 18)

Dubslav’s complaint about the telegraph was concerned with its effects on language. He speaks in favor of a notion of industrial progress, but his admiration for the sciences and technological innovation is less about technology as such and more about the telegraph’s effect on spacetime. He imagines the telegraph as a tachyonic antitelephone, a hypothetical device capable of sending information faster than light thereby causing a paradox of causality. The compression of space and time with modern technology is something that crops up again and again in the literature of the late nineteenth century, one sees it especially in the way that train travel is described. The experience of the accelerating train in many of Raabe’s texts, for instance, is often a metaphor for the experience of time in modernity. But the paradox of causality Dubslav describes is different. It is not merely that “the time is out of joint,” as Hamlet famously put it, but that it is out of joint to the extent that temporal relations are suddenly reversed.

The connections between global and local that the telegraph makes possible do more than simply establish a parallel between the lake and communication technology, rather the telegraph reproduces technologically the mythic properties ascribed to the lake (i.e. the fact that it responds physically to seismic activity anywhere on the planet). Dubslav’s example of the news of revolution echoes the revolutionary symbolism of the lake. The possibility of sending a telegram to the emperor of China more explicitly articulates the imperial side of the openness to the world that Melusine espouses. The lake, after all, connects to Java, “mit Java telephoniert” (GBA-EW 17 : 64; “has a telephone line direct to Java,” CHE 43). Both raise the specters of German colonial presence in Qingdao and New Guinea. The empire functions here as Edward Said argues it does elsewhere in nineteenth century literature, “as a codified, if only marginally visible, presence in fiction” (63), and I would add, is another important component of the novel’s geographic imagination.1 The telegraph, in short, is a physical manifestation of global networks of domination and a reproduction of the lake’s chthonic global connections.

The tachyonic antitelephone was the most intriguing discovery of this passage. Einstein’s theory of relativity was still eight years away or so when Stechlin appeared in book form. A common (mis)perception of German realism holds that the literature of this time did not rise up to the status of “world literature” that one finds in the “great” novels of England, France, or Russia in the latter half of the nineteenth century, although Fontane is in this regards supposedly the great exception. But Fontane is not the only German author of this period with the sensitivity and perceptiveness to anticipate, say, a tachyonic antitelephone.


1Said also draws the comparison of the presence of empire to the presence of laborers. “To cite another intriguing analogue, imperial possessions are as usefully there, anonymous and collective, as the outcast populations . . . of transient workers, part-time employees, season artisans; their existence always counts, though their names and identities do not, they are profitable without being fully there” (63-64). The analogy might also be applied to the notably marginal – albeit no less significant – absence of the glass workers at Globsow.

Massenkultur bei Theodor Fontane

Klaus-Peter Möller hat einen lesenswerten Beitrag zum historischen Vorbild der Werbung mit dem riesigen Kaffeemädchen im 13. Kapitel von Theodor Fontanes Roman Der Stechlin.  Fontane hatte einen sehr subtilen Sinn für die gesellschaftlichen Veränderungen seiner Zeit, der sich auch in den scheinbar flüchtigen Details seiner Erzählwelt spüren lässt.

Das Kaffeemädchen habe ich bereits in einem anderen Eintrag erwähnt.

Theodor Fontane’s Poetic Geography of Beer

It is not uncommon to see in Fontane’s novels an aesthetic geography that portrays North:South as prose:poetry.  As the Bavarian Baron Berchtesgaden remarks when listening to the birds and feeling the beautiful weather around the Stechlin estate towards the end of The Stechlin: “Wie schön! . . . Und dabei spricht man immer von der Dürftigkeit und Prosa dieser Gegenden” (GBA 454) / “How beautiful . . . and yet you always hear talk of the unpoetic barrenness of these regions” (Camden House Edition: 323).

This dichotomy manifests itself in the novel, amusingly, in the consumption of beer.  It may seem overwrought to say that Fontane has a poetic geography of beer.  But then, as is so often the case with Fontane, even thought the beer in Stechlin is a seemingly minor detail, this is an author who is famous for his “Poesie des Nebensächlichen” (“poetry of the incidental”).  To treat details like beer as irrelevant is to overlook the “große Zusammenhang der Dinge,” or “great interrelatedness of things” for which Lake Stechlin stands (GBA : 320, CHE : 226).

The first instance where beer becomes significant is when the day-trip party arrives at the Eierhäuschen, a real-existing outdoor restaurant in Berlin-Treptow and we see a sign advertising the Munich beer brand Löwenbräu.  Ostensibly about a flight from the urban milieu, this is the section in the novel when we glimpse the new industrial age most directly, namely when they see the Spindler cleaning factory at Spindlersfeld.  Spindler was also the inspiration for Adam Asche in Pfisters Mühle.

Later in the novel we meet Dr. Pusch, who, like Fontane himself, spent time as a journalist in England, but unlike Fontane, made it over to the United States, where “er fand indessen das Freie dort freier, als es ihm lieb war” / “he found freedom (although the outside or outdoors would also be a legitimate translation, AP) a bit freer than to this liking” (GBA : 353, CHE : 249).  He has settled in Berlin, and the narrator shares this with us:

Als wichtigstes Ereignis seiner letzten sieben Jahre galt ihm sein Übertritt vom Pilsener zum Weihenstephan.  “Sehen Sie, meine Herren, vom Weihenstephan zum Pilsener, das kann jeder; aber das Umgekehrte, das ist was.  Chinesen werden christlich, gut.  Aber wenn ein Christ ein Chinese wird, das ist doch immer noch eine Sache von Belang.” (GBA :353)

The most important event of his last seven years he considered to be his change from Pilsener beer to the Bavarian lager brand Weihenstephan.  “You see, gentlemen, from Weihenstephan to Pilsener, anybody can do that.  But the reverse, now that’s something.  Chinamen are becoming Christians, fine.  But when a Christian becomes a Chinaman, that’s still a matter of some importance after all, you know. (CHE : 249)

Switching beer brands becomes a symbol for a certain relation to the direction of the power shift in Germany after 1871, and worldwide in the era of colonialism.  What’s remarkable about switching from pilsner to Weihenstephan is that it runs against the centralization of power within Germany from the South to the North, and globally around an imperialist Europe.  Drinking Weihenstephan or Löwenbräu would seem to position oneself outside and away from the political culture of the German Empire.

Or does it?  As any homebrewer (such as myself!) is aware, the late nineteenth century was also the moment when beer brewing moved outside of the home or local tavern and became a mass market commodity.  Weihenstephan, supposedly the oldest brewery in the world, is a brand most Americans can find in the grocery store, and Löwenbräu is a global brand with a brewery in Texas that supplies the American market.  On the other hand, the narrator does not tell us which specific brands of pilsner are being consumed.  The Bavarian beers are the only named brands, and they are available at some distance from their sites of production.

I always enjoy Fontane because he has a particularly sensitive set of antennae, and he sees the creep of consumer culture in the nineteenth century.  In another moment in Stechlin, Woldemar is making his way through Berlin.  He passes a wall where

ein wohl zwanzig Fuß hohes, riesiges Kaffeemädchen mit einem ganz kleinen Häubchen auf dem Kopf freundlich auf die Welt der Vorübereilenden herniederblickt, um ihnen ein Paket Kneippschen Malzkaffee zu präsentieren. (GBA : 147)

a gigantic coffee girl some twenty feet tall, a tiny bonnett on her head, cheerfully looks down on the world of those passing by to present them with a packet of Kneipp’s malt coffee. (CHE : 102).

The ad is a monstrous, almost frightening document of consumer culture that appears between in a text that straddles German realism and aesthetic modernism.  And aren’t we here already on the way to the opening titles of Mad Men?

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.

Thinking in 140 Characters

Early in Theodor Fontane’s last completed novel Der Stechlin (available in English as The Stechlin), there is an amusing conversation at telegraphy that reminded me of contemporary anxieties about speech in the digital age.  Dubslav von Stechlin observes:

Es ist das mit dem Telegraphieren solche Sache, mances wird besser, aber manches wird auch schlechter, und die feinere Sitte leidet nun schon ganz gewiß.  Schon die Form, die Abfassung.  Kürze soll eine Tugend sein, aber sich kurz fassen, heißt meistens uach, sich grob fassen.  . . .  So läßt sich jetzt beinahe sagen, >das gröbste Telegramm ist das feinste<.  Wenigstens das in seiner Art vollendetste.  Jeder, der wieder eine Fünfpfennigersparnis herausdoktert, ist ein Genie. (1998 : 26).

That’s how it is with this telegraphing business, some things are improved but some are made worse too, and more elegant manners suffer absolutely for sure.  Just the form, th style.  Brevity’s supposed to be a virtue, but saying anything briefly usually means saying them coarsely.  . . .  So nowadays you could almost say, the coarsest telegram is the most elegant.  At least the most perfect of its kind.  Anybody who comes up with another five-pfennig saving is a genius. (1995 : 17).

Interestingly, the lake itself, we are told, stands in a telegraphic relationship with the rest of the world.