Tag Archives: Theodor Fontane

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.

Who’s Afraid of the Anthropocene?

Last week I presented a paper at the German Studies Association conference called “Generalweltanbrennung: Poetics and Politics of the Anthropocene in Theodor Fontane’s Der Stechlin.” The paper was the chance to revisit my work on the novel, which I had let lie fallow since finishing my PhD. The paper was part of a panel series on Anthropocene violence, the Anthropocene being a topic I’ve had the opportunity to think on and to write about over the past year. Ultimately I was very grateful to be able to participate in the discussion, because writing about the Anthropocene has meant considering some of the criticisms of the term and proposed alternatives currently circulating. I recently purchased and read the volume Anthropocene or Capitalocene: Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, and the essays contained there had me seriously examining my own use of the term.

The Anthropocene is the as yet informal term for our current moment in geological history, where humans are transforming the environment at such a scale that the traces of our activity will be legible in the layer of rock formed by the sediment currently settling everywhere on the earth’s crust. Even though humanities scholars won’t get the final say on whether the term is actually recognized as a distinct period in the earth’s history, it serves as a convenient shorthand for talking about the human production of nature, either through deliberate interventions or unintended consequences such as global warming.

The term has several problems with it, such that even people friendly to it have to admit to its imperfections. The term implicates all homo sapiens, even though the realities of uneven development mean that responsibility for and the consequences of environmental degradation are not shared equally. The term also runs the risk of becoming grist for the mill (or Wasser auf die Mühle, since this is Fontane) for geoengineers who think that we can engineer our way out of environmental stress with those tools that got us here in the first place. Essentially the term becomes a kind of Trojan Horse for the environmentalist movement.

A variation of the Trojan Horse argument has been with me since I first put pen to a dead tree on ecology and literature. My central concept of “social nature” was one that I had picked up from critical geography, ecomarxist discourses, and earlier critiques of Wilderness-with-a-capital-W and Nature-with-a-capital-N. “Social nature” posits some sort of constructivism, and constructivism that was assailed in the 1990s and 2000s as so much post-modern denial of material reality. Glen Love’s 2003 book Pracitcal Ecocriticism encapsulates the pro-science, anti-constructivist argument quite nicely. For environmentally minded thinkers in and out of the academy in those years, the Sokel hoax was a particularly vivid memory, and the conflict seems to be between a humanities scholarship that under the influence of French theory has become unmoored from the world and scientific disciplines which are somehow better poised to appreciate the world around us. The “Two Cultures” argument gets dusted off here, and C.P. Snow is cited accordingly. I’m not a fan of Snow’s text. The problem with his argument is that it sets up a false dichotomy, science vs. those awful “literary intellectuals,” and in the end science wins.

In the Anthropocene this climate, too, has changed. The relevant scientific bodies are seriously considering formalizing the term while criticism is emerging that does not appeal to science or the wholeness and integrity of Nature as a given. My own reconsideration of the term Anthropocene has, of course, everything to do with my own political and intellectual commitments. The critiques mounted against the Anthropocene argument in Anthropocene or Capitalocene speak in an idiom that I am already more receptive to. Eileen Crist’s essay “On the Poverty of our Nomenclature” even advances arguments against the Anthropocene that would be familiar from Glen Love’s book.

From my work on the paper and the conversations we had at the German Studies Association, I felt more comfortable with some of the problematic aspects of the term “Anthropocene.” It remains a convenient shorthand, a useful, if problematic placeholder. Charges against the Anthropocene, such as the charge that it plays into Promethean ideologies that justify potentially disastrous schemes of geoengineering, assume that there is only one possible way of thinking about the Anthropocene. But I don’t believe that acknowledging the extent to which human activity has altered the planet has to play into narratives that agitate against ecojustice. The question now is whether or not we can organize a society as to promote the well-being of other humans and the more-than-human world. Whether the Anthropocene is politically palatable or not depends on how a good life can be imagined or re-imagined in light of our the ecosocial reality among which we, all living things, must now live.



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.

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.

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.

A Literary Scavenger Hunt in the Ruins of Fontane’s World: Das Eierhäuschen and Spindlersfelde

A few more photos of my literary scavenger hunt in and around Berlin this summer.

Ruins of the Eierhäuschen, Berlin, Germany, August 2013

On our last day in Germany we visited the ruins of the Eierhäuschen. The history of this tavern and Biergarten goes back to the 1840s. The current structure was put up in the 1890s. It was a popular destination for daytrippers on the Spree in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At some point the property became connected to the Spreepark, an amusement park in GDR times. After the fall of the wall the park and the Eierhäuschen, at that time a “Volkseigener Betrieb” fell into private hands with the general liquidation of the former East Germany. The new owner went bankrupt, and fled to Peru when he got caught up in a drug smuggling affair. It has since been caught in legal limbo, and so the building falls apart while preservationists try to find a way to save the building. Fontane’s novel Der Stechlin portrays just such an excursion. In typical fashion for the nTower of Eierhäuschen, Berlin, Germany, August 2013ovel and for Fontane generally, it’s talk talk talk, but the conversation yields some interesting glimpses into the characters’ environmental unconscious (as I argue in my dissertation chapter on the subject).

Facade of Eierhäuschen, Berlin, Germany, August 2013

“Ach, Frau Gräfin, ich sehe, Sie rechnen auf etwas etrem Idyllisches und erwarten, wenn wir angelangt sein werden, einen Mischling von Kiosk und Hütte. Da harrt Ihrer aber eine grausame Enttäuschung. Das Eierhäuschen ist ein sogenanntes “Lokal”, und wenn uns di Lust anwandelt, so können wir da tanzen oder ein Volksversammlung abhalten. Raum genug ist da.” -From Theodor Fontane “Der Stechlin” (GBA 166Front Door of Eierhäuschen, Berlin, Germany, August 2013)

“Dear me, Countess, I see you’re counting on something idyllic in the extreme and expecting something between a kiosk and a cottage when we get there. You’re in for an awful disappointment. The Egg Cottage is one of those things they call a ‘pub.’ And if we have a mind to, we can even dance there or hold a public gathering. There’s plenty of room there.” Fontane “The Stechlin” CHE 116.

Berlin Bear, Eierhäuschen, Berlin, Germany, August 2013

Not far from the Eierhäuschen are the ruins of the Spindlersfelde factory. In the nineteenth century this was a major industrial laundry facility on the banks of the Spree. It has since fallen into ruin. Because I lack the machismo and the courage for proper urban exploration, this was as close as I got.

Spindlersfeld Ruins, Berlin, Germany, August 2013

Many of the outlying Spindlersfeld buildings have been re-purposed as apartments. It seems that the main building itself will soon share in that fate, if this banner is to be believed. The factory shows up in the Egg Cottage section of Stechlin. SpindSign for Spindlersfeld Rejuvenation, Berlin, Germany, August 2013ler and his factory were also the inspiration for Adam Asche in Pfisters Mühle. In Stechlin, the daytrippers take a stroll over to the factory before settling in for drinks at the Eierhäuschen.

“An dem schon in Dämmerung liegenden östlichen Horizont stiegen die Fabrikschornsteine von Spindlersfelde vor ihnen auf, und die Rauchfahnen Spindlersfeld Ruins, Berlin, Germany, August 2013 (2)zogen in langsamem Zuge durch die Luft.” Fontane, “Der Stechlin,” GBA 168.

“On the eastern horizon, already filled with a twilight glow, the factory chimneys of Spindlersfelde rose up before them and long banners of smoke moved in slow puffs across the sky.”


“Was ist das?” fragte die Baronin, sich an Woldemar wendend.
“Das ist Spindlersfelde.”
“Kenn ich nicht.”
“Doch vielleicht, gnädigste Frau, wenn Sie hören, daß in eben diesem Spindlersfelde der für die weibliche Welt so wichtige Spindler seine geheimnisvollen Künste treibt. BesSpindlersfeld Ruins Berlin, Germany, August 2013ser noch seine verschwiegenen. Denn unsre Damen bekennen sich nicht gern dazu.” Fontane, “Der Stechlin” GBA 168.

“What’s that?” asked the baroness, turning to Woldemar.
“That’s Spindlersfelde.”
“Don’t know the place.”
“Perhaps you do after all, dear lady, especially when you hear that in this very Spindlersfelde, none other than that most important gentleman of the world of ladies’ fashions, Herr Spindler himself, conjures his mysterious arts. Or better yet, his secret arts. Because our lady friends don’t care to admit their dependence on them.” Fontane “The Stechlin” CHE 117

“Ja, dieser unser Wohlthäter, den wir . . . in unserm Undank so gern unterschlagen. Aber dies Unterschlagen hat doch auch wieder sein Verzeihliches. Wir thun jetzt (leider) so vieles, was wir, nach einer alten Anschauung, eigentlich nicht thun sollten. Es ist, mein’ ich, nicht passend, auf einem Pferdebahnperron zu stehen, zwischen einem Schaffner und einer Kiepenfrau, und es ist noch weniger passend, in einem Fünfzigpfennigbasar allerhand Einkäufe zu machen und an der sich dabei aufdrängenden Frage: ›Wodurch ermöglichen sich diese Preise‹ still vorbeizugehen. Unser Freund in Spindlersfelde da drüben degradiert uns vielleicht auch durch das, was er so hilfreich für uns tut.” Fontane “Der Stechlin” GBA 168.

“Why yes, of course, that benefactor of ours, whom we . . . in our ingratitude are pleased to keep quiet about. But this business of keeping quiet has something forgivable about it too, you know. These days, unfortunately, we do so many things which according to an older point of view we really ought not to do. It’s not proper, I think, to stand on the platform of a horse car between the conductor and some delivery woman with baskets on her back, and it’s even less fitting to make all sorts of purchases in a fifty-pfennig bazaar and silently pass over the question that keeps forcing itself upon one, ‘What is it that makes prices like this possible?” Theodor Fontane “The Stechlin” CHE 117.

Spindlersfeld Ruins, Berlin, Germany, August 2013 (3)

Literary Scavenger Hunt: Raabe and Fontane

Here are a few more photos from my summer research trip in Germany, where I hit up a few of the places that turn up in one form or another in my research. After Braunschweig I made my way up to Berlin. When I wasn’t seeing the insides of archives, I was hunting down a few places that left their thumbprints in literary history.

The former Spreegasse of what used to be Kölln, one of the twin citiesSperlingsgasse 2013, Berlin, Germany, July 2013 that made up historic Berlin. The street was renamed the Sperlingsgasse after its fictional counterpart in Raabe’s debut novel. Raabe lived here during his abortive university studies, and composed his first novel in this street.

Kölln was obliterated in the war, and now it’s a largely faceless collection of buildings near the old museums. The Sperlingsgasse now predictably has little in common with the street that is at the center of Raabe’s first novel. In the novel the narrator sings the praises of his old district:”Ich liebe diesen Mittelpunkt einer vergangenen Zeit, um welchen sich ein neues Leben in liniengraden, parademäßig aufmarschierten Straßen und Plätzen angesetzt hat, und nie kann ich um die Ecke meiner Sperlingsgasse biegen, ohne den alten Geschützlauf mit der Jahreszahl 1589, der dort lehnt, liebkosend mit der Hand zu berühren.” (BA 1 :11).

Sperlingsgasse 2013, Berlin, Germany, July 2013 (2)“I love these old quarters in larger cities with their narrow, crooken, dark alleys, in which sunshine only dares to cast furigve glances; I love them with their gable houses and wondrous eaves, with their old canons and artillery, which people have placed on the corners as curbstones. I love this center of a past era, around which began another life of straight streets that march like parades. I can never turn around the corner of my Sparrow Alley without regarding and lovingly touching the old canon barrel leaning there with the year 1589 etched on it.”

I managed to goad a friend with a car into an expedition out to Lake Stechlin.  It was a very hot day, and the crowds had come out to the lake. We walked through Neuglobsow, adjacent Fontane Sculpture, Neu-Globsow, Stechlin, Germany, July 2013to Lake Stechlin. Historically glass production ended in the area well before the year the novel is set in, but the memory of the glass industry is kept alive.  Here a Fontane sculpture sits in front of a guest house “At the Sign of the Glass Maker.”Statue of Fontane in Globsow by Lake Stechlin. “At the Sign of the Glassmaker” behind him refers to the historic glass industry in Globsow. In one scene in Der Stechlin Dubslav fears the implications of the fact that the industry places the village in a larger global supply chain, preparing for the “Generalweltanbrennung”:

Die schicken sie zunächst in andre Fabriken, und da destillieren sie flott drauf los und zwar allerhand schreckliches Zeug in diese grünen Ballons hinein: Salzsäure, Schwefelsäure, rauchende Salpetersäure. Das ist das schlimmste, die hat immer einen rotgelben Rauch, der einem gleich die Lunge anfrißt. Aber wenn einen der Rauch auch zufrieden läßt, jeder Tropfen brennt ein Loch, in Leinwand oder in Tuch, oder in Leder, überhaupt in alles; alles wird angebrannt und angeätzt. Das ist das Zeichen unsrer Zeit jetzt, ›angebrannt und angeätzt‹. Und wenn ich dann bedenke, daß meine Globsower da mitthun und ganz gemütlich die Werkzeuge liefern für die große Generalweltanbrennung, ja, hören Sie, meine Herren, das giebt mir einen Stich. (GBA-EW 17 : 79-80).

“First off they send them to other factories and there they just go ahead as fast as they can distilling things right into these green balloons, all kinds of awful stuff as a matter of fact: hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, smoking nitrate acid. That’s the worst one of all. It always has a reddish yellow smoke that eats right into your lungs.
But even if that smoke leaves you in peace, every drop of it burns a hole, in linen, in cloth, in leather, anything at all. Everything gets scorched or corroded. That’s the sign of our times these days. Scorched or corroded. And so when I consider that my Globsowers are going along with it, and as cheerfully as can be, providing the tools for the great universal world scorching, well then, let me tell you, gentlemen, that gives me a stitch of pain right here in my heart.” (CHE 53)

The crowd at the lake. Evidence in the manuscripts suggests that Fontane imagined the Stechlin manor to be situated on the peninsula in the middle of this photo.

Lake Stechlin with Bathers, Stechlin, July 2013

In the beginning of Der Stechlin Fontane says of the lake:

Alles still hier. Und doch, von Zeit zu Zeit wird es an eben dieser Stelle lebendig. Das ist, wenn es weit draußen in der Welt, sei’s auf Island, sei’s auf Java, zu rollen und zu grollen beginnt oder gar der Aschenregen der hawaiischen Vulkane bis weit auf die Südsee hinausgetrieben wird. Dann regt sich’s auch hier, und ein Wasserstrahl springt auf und sinkt wieder in die Tiefe. Das wissen alle, die den Stechlin umwohnen, und wenn sie davon sprechen, so setzen sie wohl auch hinzu: “Das mit dem Wasserstrahl, das ist nur das Kleine, das beinah Alltägliche; wenn’s aber draußen was Großes giebt, wie vor hundert Jahren in Lissabon, dann brodelt’ hier nicht bloß und sprudelt und strudelt, dann steigt statt des Wasserstrahls ein roter Hahn auf und kräht laut in die Lande hinein. Das ist der See, der See Stechlin.” (GBA 17 : 5)

“Everything is silence here. Yet from time to time at this very spot things to get lively: That happens when far off in the outside world, perhaps on IcelLake Stechlin, Stechlin, July 2013and or in Java, a rumbling and thundering begins, or when the ash rain of the Hawaiian volcanoes is driven far out over the southern seas. Then things start to heaving at this spot too, and a waterspout erupts and then sinks down once more into the depths. All of those living around Lake Stechlin know of it and whenever they bring it up they’re almost always likely to add, “That business about the water jet’s harldy anything at all, practically an every day occurrence. But when something big’s going on outside, like a hundred years ago in Lisbon, then the water doesn’t just seethe and bubble and swirl around. Instead, when the likes of that happens, a red rooster comes up in place of the geyser and crows so loudly it can be heard over the whole countryside.” That is the Stechlin, Lake Stechlin.” (CHE 1)

The waters of Lake Stechlin are extraordinarily clear, even though the lake is confronted with its own ecological pressures. In 2003 the fish Fontane’s cisco (coregonus fontanae), endemic to Lake Stechlin, was first described and named after Theodor Fontane.

   Crystal Clear Waters of Lake Stechlin, Stechlin, July 2013

Fontane and “Die Welt”

I recently returned from Germany where I was doing a bit of work on Raabe and Fontane.  While perusing the manuscript of Die Stechlin in the Berlin Stadtmuseum I was broached by a reporter who was doing a story on the Fontane collection there.  She asked me a bit about my research and my interest in Fontane.  The article appeared on August 6 in the newspaper Die WeltYou can read it here.  I’m quoted at the bottom.

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.