Tag Archives: Urbanism

Berlin Field Studies: Reflections on Teaching a Course On-Site

Leading a discussion at the Karl Liebknecht Memorial.

Leading a discussion at the Karl Liebknecht Memorial.

This summer I had the opportunity to teach one of the University of Maryland’s field studies courses, entitled “Berlin: Its History and its Art.” Teaching in Europe I have taken students on plenty of cultural excursions, but this was the first time in my career that I had had the opportunity to organize an entire course on location. The experience was a very positive one, not in the least because I was fortunate to work with students who brought an incredible amount of energy and intellectual curiosity to the class. At the same time, a course of this kind poses a number of challenges, both of a logistical and of a pedagogical kind. I lived in Berlin for two years, and so it is a place that I am very familiar with, the town’s well-deserved reputation for constant transformation notwithstanding. Teaching a course in and on the city, however, meant approaching the place from a fresh perspective, and I will reflect on all of that here.

Designing the Course

Course description and learning objectives were set, as “Berlin: Its History and its Art” were part of the program’s stable of field study courses, but the concept and the syllabus were up to me. The course had to be more than a glorified guided tour, and certainly not a pretext for soaking up the aura of the city, rather, it had to be as intellectually challenging as any classroom-based seminar. And because of the course title, we had a dual mandate: the class was both a course in history and art history. At the same time, I wanted to critically interrogate course title, that there was such a thing as “Berlin’s art,” given that some of the most spectacular art in Berlin is not from Berlin at all. The bust of Nefertiti, which we saw, is perhaps the most celebrated instance of a work of art that reflects a problematic history, but we are confronted with similar questions in regards to the Pergamonmuseum, the Ethnological Museum (now in the middle of relocating to the Humboldt-Forum), and much else in the State Museums.

To bring both sides together, I built the class around the theoretical question of how a city’s history and identity is expressed or, as is more often the case, constructed through its art, architecture, and public spaces, which I then broke down into daily themes: “The Architecture of Absolutism” for our Potsdam excursion, or “Colonial Legacies and the Berlin State Museums” for our visit to the Ethnological Museum and the Museum Island.

I prepared some readings on Berlin history for the students to cover ahead of time. The week before the meeting in Berlin was designated for reading. In order to give them the time to dive into a specific period in more depth, I asked each student to take responsibility for a certain period and report on the key developments and their significance for the history of the city.

In order to further ensure that I was not the only person with the content knowledge, I asked each student to prepare an on-site presentation for key structures and places. Public speaking is not everybody’s favorite thing, but the stakes were low and the students had a good esprit de corps, and I was quite hearted to see how supportive they were of each other.

Berlin as a Classroom

In addition to the historical readings, I found a few useful online resources that provided for the students a basic crash course in art history and criticism. A shoutout here especially to the incredibly useful smarthistory.org. We began our first class practicing art criticism with a few artistic depictions of Berlin from Eduard Gaertner’s more realist painting of Unter den Linden to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Berlin street scenes. Including the Kirchner was also an opportunity to rehearse the development of the historical avant garde. Doing so was a chance for me to clear the air: the Hamburger Bahnhof was on the agenda, and I know that expressionist, abstract, or non-representative art can divide a room, and I wanted the students to approach the works with at least an understanding of their art historical contexts.

The biggest challenge were the variables involved in being in any city, especially one like Berlin. Some of my information was out of date; I realized too late, for instance, that you couldn’t just show up and be let in to the top of the Reichstag like you could in the past. Unfortunately for a course called “Berlin: Its History and its Art,” the museums are also undergoing a major phase of moving and renovation (as they have since the 1990s). The Neue Nationalgalerie is closed until 2019, and all I knew of what was on display was that a few things were in the Hamburger Bahnhof. Regrettably, I had no opportunity to preview the collections beforehand, so when we got to the Hamburger Bahnhof, I had the students look around a couple of galleries so that I could run through and see what was on display, then reconvene. The specific works I had wanted them to see were not out, instead they had an exhibition on the Degenerate Art exhibition. So I made up a lesson on the Degenerate Art exhibition on the spot.

The Upshot

I left Berlin satisfied with how things had gone down. Reading the papers two weeks later, I was pleased to see that the students were actively incorporating the methods for analyzing art and architecture that we had practiced in our morning seminars and on-site over the course of the week, and generating numerous original insights. I was delighted to read extraordinarily creative essays that expanded on the course’s original concept to think about various pieces of street art that the students had spotted, thorny issues of memory and memorials (an issue near and dear to the hearts of my military-affiliated students), as well as squatter culture, a topic students were surely moved to consider given that our hotel was located up the street from one of Berlin’s remaining squatter settlements.

The reactions of the students to various places and works that we encountered meant led to plenty of surprises and teaching moments for me. This is, of course, always the case when one teaches material for the first time, but being on-site introduced a wider range of variables into the mix. Many of them only grew to love the city over the course of the week, as some were genuinely surprised by the German capital’s grittiness. Having already been thoroughly sold on Berlin before I ever arrived there, if anything I went through a reverse process of learning to see the city and its culture with a more critical eye than I did at the beginning of my first exchange year. I was especially charmed by the way the students reacted to the art museums. Their excitement over seeing an original Picasso took me back to when I was eighteen years old and stood rapturously before the canonical works of art in the National Gallery in London or the Louvre.

A few final points on what worked, and what I intend to incorporate next time.

  • Use of maps. In spite of my students’ joke that they were my ducklings, it was important to me to be sure that I spent ample time orienting them on where they had been and what they had done. I frequently stopped before city maps in the mass transit system to point to where we had been and where we were going. The first seminar also included a detailed study of the city map and a discussion of how to use the mass transit system.
  • Cultural scaffolding. There were a few moments of cross-cultural misunderstanding that I will be sure to prep the students on next time. How to tip in Germany was something students were unsure about, for instance. Some students are also unaware of the taboo (and more generally the laws regarding) photographing interesting people on the street. One student had a mildly embarrassing encounter over photography, which they resolved peacefully and with grace, much to their credit.
  • Social media. My students took the initiative to correspond over Facebook. While my social media presence is curated with students in mind, I still believe in maintaining digital boundaries, especially online. In this case students organized themselves. Some expressed the wish that I had taken this on in order to facilitate travel arrangements, a thought that admittedly had not occurred to me. Whether I would want to bend my practice and facilitate organization over Facebook is a matter I will have to consider. Brent Foster’s essay on Chronicle Vitae this week gets at the possibilities and pitfalls of venturing into that territory with my field study groups.

Photos used with permission.

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Leading my students down the Straße des 17. Juni.

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.

Teaching Metropolis in the Country

A lingering question I have is about effectively integrating places into the teaching of literary criticism. I refer not only to real existing places that are represented in literature either directly or in more or less veiled forms, but also to the places where we encounter literature. It’s a big question in ecocriticism, and one that I intend to take up in my own work later on down the road. For now, rather than delving into the theoretical issues of this question, I want to share some thoughts on a writing course I taught at Cornell in 2011 and 2012 called “Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture.” Because this course was meant to fulfill a first year writing requirement, all content was selected first and foremost in the service of the objective of guiding students from high school to college level writing. I designed the course to include a range of texts ranging historically from Tieck’s Life’s Luxuries and Stifter’s Tourmaline to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. The idea was to give the students ample opportunity to explore different problems in their writing by setting a wide variety of texts in dialogue with one another.

One thing that was important to me in creating the syllabus was that  “Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture” not become reified terms, that is, that we don’t talk about them as if they were things “over there” that we needed to drive five hours to New York City to experience. And here’s where place comes in. We were a group of American and international students who grew up in all types of human settlements doing this class at a campus in a small town surrounded by farmland. Unfortunately, it is not unheard of for visitors to our neck of the woods to have difficulty seeing only farmland. For instance Jon Stewart, whose comedy sometimes suffers from a certain metropolitan provincialism, came to Cornell and quipped that “Ithaca is in the middle of nowhere . . . On the way up I didn’t pass anything I couldn’t milk.” But if he had looked past the cows, he would have seen a part of the world that is living with the very real and difficult legacies of its commercial and industrial past, as opposed to  New York City’s overgrown ahistorical backyard.

Ruins of the Ithaca Gun Factory near Cornell, since demolished.

Ruins of the Ithaca Gun Factory near Cornell, since demolished.

Without making the course about Ithaca itself, I selected readings that complicated the city/country dichotomy. With Tourmaline we looked at Vienna and the liminal space of its suburbs. We looked at maps to explore the city/country dichotomy as a social condition that shaped some of the aesthetic problems we were writing about. The first chapter of Mike Davis’ City of Quartz was an easy way to introduce the critique of mass culture, but he also begins the book by talking about a socialist settlement in the desert as representing a kind of alternative future for the city itself. And W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn together with Wilhelm Raabe’s Stopfkuchen (Stuffcake or Tubby Schaumann in English translation) allowed for conversations and assignments on the surprising connections between supposedly remote places and global networks of power and injustice that we might otherwise think of as a relation of metropolitan core to colonized margin.

Chapter six of Rings of Saturn was especially useful for getting around the danger of reifying “Metropolis,” “Modernity,” and “Mass Culture.” The chapter begins with a small iron bridge over the river Blyth, a river that used to be a major shipping lane but has been silted up. The narrator sees only rotting barges, and “nothing but grey water, mudflats, and emptiness” (138). It turns out that the bridge was for a narrow gauge railway (the railway being, of course, the symbol of industrial modernity par excellence). The bridge leads the narrator to a history of China from the Opium Wars to the death of the Dowager Empress, a calamitous history in which Europe was deeply implicated. The bridge doesn’t just “bridge” England’s eastern coast with China, but as an object from this history infects the surrounding landscape. The narrator moves on to Dunwich, once an important port city claimed by the ocean where “you can sense the immense power of emptiness” (159, “den gewaltigen Sog der Leere” in the German), and goes then to the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. The novel weaves together seemingly infinite constellations of history and culture, at times I suspect even making fun of itself for doing so. This poses a challenge for teaching, because with such a text it can be easy to miss the forest for the trees. But it’s a rewarding text to include in a course that thinks about both historical and aesthetic problems that spring from the urban experience, because it hangs on to more global contexts while also pushing assumptions that readers bring to a text. In class we spend time talking about the extensive work the novel does in teaching us how to read it (the first chapter is a kind of field guide to the rest of the novel), and then mid-way through I ask the students to turn to the back cover of the English edition, look at the label “fiction,” and tell me what they think.

 

Official Versions: Reflections on Teaching “Blade Runner”

Students in my first year writing seminars are often surprised to discover that the supposed intention of the author is not the ultimate measure of literary criticism. The confusion is understandable for a readership with the luxury of being unconcerned with intentional fallacies and the death of the author. Because the writing seminars are about making the transition to college-level writing and argumentation, rather than casting discussions of authorial intent as a literary studies no-no, I bring in texts where “intent” is a serious critical problem that in turn helps the students practice looking at an object of study and asking first, “what kind of argument can I build with the materials at hand?” In the “Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture” seminar I taught in the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012, I did this with Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner.

Blade Runner is part of a unit I have on Los Angeles, in which I pair the film against the first chapter of Mike Davis’ 1990 book City of Quartz. This chapter covers various “myths” of Los Angeles, and Davis reads this film and the noir genre in general as a “great anti-myth” (37) to Southern Calfiornia boosterism (Davis’ section on the German exiles is also a handy way for getting the Frankfurt School on the students’ radar when we don’t have room to read the culture industry essay). Where Los Angeles and Southern California in general is famous as a happy land of sunshine, it constantly rains in Blade Runner, and moreover a pall of sadness and decay hangs over the world of the film, one that for Los Angeles’ detractors has more truth to it than the booster image.

Seven different versions of Blade Runner appeared between 1982 and 2007. The 2007 remastered version was released also included some “tweaks and enhancements,” as Scott put it in his introduction to the 2007 version, and he has given this last version an official sanction. I show students the 1992 version, but in order to investigate the question of intentionality, I like to compare one still from the 1992 version and a still from the same scene in the 2007 version. This scene is from the movie’s climax, the replicant Roy gives a very moving speech about the marvelous things he has seen, then dies. He realizes that it is death the gives those experiences meaning, and then we see a dove he has been holding fly off, rather obvious symbolism for the soul’s departure. The camera places us, the viewer, within the world of the film, and we look up as the soul leaves (as opposed to the possibility, one used very commonly, where the camera retreats into the sky and we look down on the scene of death from the perspective of the soul). Here are the stills I show my students, both showing the dove’s flight. The first is from the 1992 version, the second from the 2007 version.

dove 1

Dove’s flight, “Blade Runner,” 1992.

Dove2

Dove’s Flight, “Blade Runner,” 2007.

Clearly we have here one of Scott’s tweaks/enhancements. When I show these I ask the students to break into partners and do two things. 1.) Describe exactly what you see on both images, and how one differs from the other then 2.) what is the effect of each version of the shot for the scene and the film as a whole (now you can bring in a little interpretation)? The objective is to help the students practice thinking of the text on its own terms, as opposed to Ridley Scott’s terms, and to take seriously this scene as a moment that does its own work in constituting the meaning of the film as a whole. Change the scene, change the meaning.

How would I answer the question of the effect of the shot for the scene? First a bit of context: Roy dies in a rainy landscape bathed in the blinding light of advertisements (the “D” in the background is from a TDK product placement).TearsinRain

After he sinks into death, we cut away to the dove. But in the versions up until 2007, his soul flies off into a seemingly sunny sky. The 2007 version creates more consistency between shots, as the weather is the same and the architecture is more consistent.

Prior to 2007 the realism of the world breaks down at the moment of Roy’s death, and we see the soul retreat into a blue sky. But the smog and cold buildings remain in the shot; the world that we have seen throughout is not suddenly gone or forgotten. Were that world to be completely wiped away, we would have something more like the happy ending of 1982, where the city is gone completely and our main characters fade into a mountainous “natural” landscape.

From the final scene of "Blade Runner," 1982 theatrical release.

From the final scene of “Blade Runner,” 1982 theatrical release.

I always read the scene of Roy’s death pre-2007 as an image of hope and even redemption that does not collapse into some kind of simplistic escape. But in the 2007 version, the dove’s flight is more uncertain. The course out of the sad, rainy, overbuilt LA of November 2019 is less direct, the clouds form a kind of iron grey ceiling. Maybe the cloudbreak that seems to be forming gives us back some hope, but that seems to invest a lot in that one small spot on the screen. In making the environment of the scene more consistent from shot to shot, the 2007 version also makes the world of this LA much more tightly sealed.

Closeup 2007 Dove's flight

Closeup 2007 Dove’s flight

According to the commentary on the 2007 DVD, the sun was coming up as they were shooting the scene, and without 21st century digital technology it more or less had to look that way until it could be “corrected.” So in one sense the hope and redemption reading derives from an accident. But my aim in the class discussion is to guide the students to a point where they can view the pre-2007 version as a document that has its own legitimacy as a historical cultural artifact that is still out in the world. The fact that we living after 2007 have access to a more “realistic,” or more accurately a more consistent version does not invalidate readings of the prior version. It just makes the 2007 version different. Whether that difference amounts to more artistic merit is a matter that individual viewers can decide for themselves. The point is that a text will always be more than the vision of a single creator, and not just because of technical limitations, external pressures from editors, publishers, and audiences, or the creator’s own status as historically contingent subjects. Instead my objective is to bring the students to a place where they reflect on the text as a living thing out in the world, and in cases where we have multiple versions. Examples from literature include Goethe’s Werther, Shelley’s Frankenstein, most of Stifter’s stories, Raabe’s Ein Frühling, and Keller’s Der grüne Heinrich. In most of these instances preference for one version or another has shifted over the years for different reasons, even though we know there is one version the author endorsed over others. What texts with competing versions reveal is that even in instances where we can safely speak about the author’s intention, that does not mean that we the critics have to yoke ourselves to the figure of the author. This may be self-explanatory for people who already have degrees in literary studies, because it legitimates our own practice, but when we teach it is important to remember that for the students this is an unconventional way of thinking about an object of study.

For the record, my preference is for the 1992 version, and that is the version I show. It splits the difference between Scott’s vision and the technical contingencies that determined the making of the film in the early 1980s. I am not in principle opposed to “tweaks and enhancements,” even though these seem to me not substantively different from the practice of colorizing classic black and white films. But I do care about watching a film as a product of a particular historical moment, flaws and all.

 

Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Warner Brothers, 2007. DVD.

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. 2nd ed. London: Verso, 2006.

Memory and Urban Development in Stifter’s Tourmaline

I’m gearing up for writing on Stifter, and have been reviewing some of the stories from the collection Bunte Steine (Colorful Stones). Unfortunately I woke up one recent morning to find my well-loved Reclam edition graced with a pile of feline vomit, so I decided to spring for an edition of the collected works. The historical critical edition being out of my price range, I went with the Insel edition edited by Max Stefl.

Adalbert Stifter Gesammelte Werke Insel Stefl

Such abject matters aside, I wanted to look at the third novella in the cycle, Turmalin (a translation under the title Tourmaline is available in Eight German Novellas from Oxford UP ISBN 0192832182, sadly out of print). A historically underrated entry in Bunte Steine, Turmalin may be the strangest story in a strange collection. At the beginning the narrator tells us

Der Turmalin ist dunkel, und was da erzählt wird, ist sehr dunkel. (1959 : 133).

The tourmaline is dark in colour, and the events which I am going to relate here are very dark, too. . . (1997 : 128).

This is basically a promise of catnip to anyone inclined to the particular pleasures of nineteenth century German literature. The story is about a Viennese gentleman living probably sometime in the late 18th century in one of Stifter’s most marvelously phantasmagoric bourgeois interiors. After his wife has an affair with a visiting actor, she vanishes, so the gentleman packs up his daughter, locks the door, and vanishes. The second half of the narrative is taken up by a woman living in one of Vienna’s suburbs. She tells of how she saw the man on her street. After the father dies, she takes in the daughter, who by now has a monstrously sized head and speaks a thoughtless archaic German.

The suburbs are a curious marginal space beyond the greVienna 1780 Mapen belt that used to be the glacis to the old town city walls. It’s the “empty” space on this map of Vienna from 1780. Note also that this map shows the course of the Danube prior to its “correction.” From the 1860s to the turn of the century, this space would be a construction site as the old walls came down and it became the modern Viennese Ringstraße.

The novella ends with the girl being absorbed into a new family idyll, but lest things get too sentimental, Stifter gives us this:

Der große Künstler ist längst tot, der Professor Andorf ist tot, die Frau wohnt schon lange nicht mehr in der Vorstadt, das Perronsche Haus besteht nicht mehr, eine glänzende Häuserreihe steht jetzt an dessen und der nachbarlichen Häuser Stelle, und das junge Geschlecht weiß nicht, was dort gestanden war, und was sich dort zugetragen hatte. (1959 : 180).

The great actor is long dead, Professor Andorf is dead, the woman no longer lives in the suburbs, the Perron house no longer exists, and on its site and that of the neighbouring houses now stands a row of splendid residences; and the young people do not know what once stood there, or what happened there. (1997 : 163).

It’s an unnerving ending, as in a single sentence we find out that two people have died, the old street has all but vanished, and the space is now populated by people who have no memory. It’s an image from the production of space where the memory of a place is dependent on a kind of spatial continuity. With the old structures replaced, the new generation that has since moved in lead ahistorical lives, opening a gap into which the text of the novella presumably steps. Placing the text in this role is a move that happens elsewhere in the literature of this period, and the texts’ ability to function as a site of memory is always a precarious one. Ultimately what I find unnerving about this story is not the ephemerality of life or urban space, but the picture of collective amnesia. It’s a debilitating condition, suffice it to say. On a personal note, Stifter is describing a historical process that shaped my own life world as a teenager in an area of San Diego that is a picture of everything wrong with post-war urban planning in the United States.

If we look outside the text, it is ironic that the neo-classical and neo-gothic ensemble that would go up in what is now the Ringestraße would be a perfect case study of nineteenth century historism.

Wiener Rathaus, Vienna's neo-gothic city hall on the Ringstraße.

Wiener Rathaus, Vienna’s neo-gothic city hall on the Ringstraße.

Stifter, Adalbert. “Tourmaline.” Eight German Novellas. Trans. Michael Fleming. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. Print. 128-163.

Stifter, Adalbert. Gesammelte Werke. Vol. III. Ed. Max Stefl. Frankfurt a.M.: Insel-Verlag, 1997. Print.

Love Canal Retrospective

Retroreport.org this week published a retrospective on Love Canal. I’m reminded a bit of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s thoughts on such “concerned citizens” movements in his essay “A Critique of Political Ecology:” That their targets are limited in scope and susceptible to social illusion, but they are germs of greater mass movements.

The Retroreport series, I might add, is an incredibly thoughtful and enlightening antidote to the pace of the news cycle, what with its painfully short historical memory.

A Literary Scavenger Hunt in and around Braunschweig

I was in Germany this past summer doing some archival research.  When I wasn’t poring over ancient drafts and letters, I was out and about visiting some of the places that turn up in one form or another in the fiction.  Obviously none of these places match the imagined places in the literature one to one, but then principles of literary criticism shouldn’t always spoil our fun.  Here are a few pictures of places in and around Braunschweig that turn up in Wilhelm Raabe’s works.The Braunschweig Palace, Braunschweig, Germany, June 2014

First on the tour is the Braunschweig “Palace.”  The Raabe collection is here, part of the Braunschweig city archive.  The current building is modeled on the residence of the Dukes of Braunschweig, which was completed in 1841. The original building was badly damaged in the firestorm of October, 1944 and the ruins were demolished in 1960. From the 1960s until the last decade the site was a large public park. In the 2000s the city decided to build a copy of the palace. To raise the funds, the city sold the park in spite of public protests. Today the north side houses the city museum and archive, the south the city library, and the main entrance leads into the “Palace Shopping Arcade.” From my seat in the archive I was able to watch shoppers pull into the parking garage.

This is the Oker River.  In the Middle Ages it ran straight through the center of town, but now at least the above ground portion runs in a moat around the old town.  I’ve already written about Braunschweig’s water problems at the end of the 19th century here and here.The Oker River, Braunschweig, Germany, July 2014

Braunschweig’s former train station now houses a bank.. The building served the city into the 1960s, and has since been converted into a bank. If we accept that Die Akten des Vogelsangs is set in Braunschweing in this period (which we can’t really, but as I said about the principles of literary criticism):

“Es war eben ein anderer Zug, ein Vergnügungszug, angelangt, und ein Gewühl aufgeregten und dem Anschein nach sehr vergnügten Volkes, das unserer Stadt und ihrer hübschen landschaftlichen Umgebung seinen Besuch zugedacht hatte, quoll uns daraus entgegen. Der Morgen war schön, die Sonne schien, ein fröhlicher Schenktisch war von einem sorglichen Komitee errichtet worden: die fremden Liedergenossen oder Sangesbrüder kamen nicht nur mit ihrem musikalischen Hoch, sondern auch mit viel Durst bei uns an, und eine einheimische Blechmusikbande brach mit schmetterndem Hall zum Willkommen los: die Stadt und Residenz hatte sich sehr vergrößert und verschönert seit dem Tage, an welchem Mr. Charles Trotzendorff sein Weib und sein Kind aus ihr weg und zu sich holte, und der jetzige Bahnhof, von welchem ich nun die Frau Nachbarin, die Mutter des Freundes, nach Hause führte, stand damals auch erst auf dem Papier und lag noch auf den Tischen der Fürstlichen Landesbaudirektion.” (BA 19: 312-313)Former Train Station, Braunschweig, Germany, June 2014

“Another train pulled in, a tourist train, and a mass of excited and apparently happy people, who had come with a mind to pay our city and its lovely surroundings a visit, flowed out and towards us. The morning was lovely, the sun was shining, a cheerful drink table had been set up by an interested committee: the singing crowd did only only arrive with their musical cheer, but also with considerable thirst, and a local brass band brook into a piercing tune of welcome: the city and residence had been greatly expanded and beautified since the day Mr. Charles Trotzendorff summoned his wife and child away, and the current train station, from which I led my dear neighbor, the mother of my friend, home, had only just appeared on paper and was still lying on the tables of the court building offices.”

The Kohlmarkt in Braunschweig. In order to facilitate traffic to the train station, the city cleared knocked down some of the historic structures on the west side of the square. The historical marker from Der Kohlenmarkt, Braunschweig, Braunschweig, Germany, June 2014which I learned all of this didn’t have much to say about the people who lived there, but in Raabe’s novel “Meister Autor” the narrator meets a city planner who tells him:

»Es hat uns noch keine Nivellierung so viele Mühe verursacht als diese hier,« sagte er, »aber dafür wird auch keine der neuprojektierten Straßenanlagen die Stadtbevölkerung in ihrer Vollendung so sehr überraschen und erfreuen wie diese. Den Kanal hinter den wackligen Mauern füllen wir natürlich aus, da haben wir dann noch die Rudera einer alten Stiftung, die müssen selbstverständlich weg. Die alten Damen verlegen wir vor das Tor in eine gesunde, wahrhaft idyllische Gegend, und so kommen wir hier aus dem Mittelpunkte der Stadt in gradester Linie zum Bahnhofe, — ohne daß zu dieser Stunde ein Mensch in diesem hier umliegenden Gerümpel irgendeine Ahnung davon hat. Es ist wundervoll!«

“‘There has never been a levelling that has caused us as much trouble as this one,’ he said, ‘but for that none of the newly planned streets will surprise and cheer the denizens of this town quite as much as this one. We’ll fill in the canal behind the tumble-down wall, and that leaves the spinsters’ home, obviously that will have to go. We’ll move the old ladies beyond the gate in a healthy, truly idyllic area. Thus we’ll be have the straightest line possible from the center of town to the train station, and no person in this heap around us will even have a clue about what’s going on. It’s wonderfull!” (BA 11 : 76).

     This is the SchunteThe Schunter, Braunschweig, Germany, June 2014r north of Braunschweig.  Pfisters Mühle was based off of a lawsuit that began when pollution from the beat sugar factory at Rautheim made its way into the Wabe, then the Schunter, effectively shutting down the mills at Bienrode and Wenden.

Former Bienrode Mill, Braunschweig, Germany, July 2014

This is the mill at Bienrode that was involved in the suit, at least what’s left of it.  The mill was finally shut down in the 1960s, and in the 1980s it was converted into an apartment building.  ObWabe Stream, Polluted by Rautheim, Kleidersellerweg, Riddagshausen, Braunschweig, Germany, July 2013 (3)viously there is not much to look at these days.

This is the Wabe stream along the so-called Kleidersellerweg.  The Kleiderseller is a group of prominent Braunschweig citizens who meet for a Stammtisch.  In Raabe’s day they followed this route to the Grüne Jäger, a restaurant and tavern in Riddagshausen, now officially part of the city of Braunschweig.  Pfisters Mühle began when Raabe noticed the degradation of the Wabe on his way to the Kleiderseller’s Thursday night meet-ups. 

This is the Grüne Jäger.  It is actually a very pleasant place, and a welcome stop in the middle of a bike ride through the countryside around Braunschweig.

Grüner Jäger, Raabe's old hangout,  Riddagshausen, Braunschweig, Germany, July 2013 (2)

The former sugar factory at Rautheim. The Duchy of Braunschweig was the center of beet sugar production going back as far as the 1830s. Krickerode Wilhelm Raabe’s “Pfisters Mühle” is modelled on Rautheim.  The factory was in operation from the mid 19th century until after the Second World War.  From Pfisters Mühle:Former Beat Sugary Factory, Rautheim, Rautheim, Braunschweig, Germany, July 2013

“Jenseits der Wiese erhob sich hoch aufgetürmt, zinnengekrönt, gigantisch beschornsteint – Krickerode! Da erhob sie sich, Krickerode, die große, industrielle Errungeschaft der Neuzeit, im wehenden Nebel, grau in grau, schwarze Rauchwolken, weiß Dämpfe auskeuchend, in voller “Kampagne” auch an einem zweiten Weihnachtstage, Krickerode!” (BA 16 : 99)

“Beyond the field rose high Krickerode, with its high towers, battlements, and gigantic smokestacks. There it rose, Krickerode, the great accomplishment of the modern industrial age in the shifting fog, gray in gray, black clouds of smoke, white steam billowing out, even on the second day of Christmas in full “campaign,” Krickerode!”

A few photos of the remains of the factory.  Some of the buildings currently house a few small businesses, although as far as I could tell, other structures stand empty.  I was hoping to get a shot of the drainage pipe that leads into Wabe for the sake of showing people the most famous drainage pipe in German literature, but the vegetation was too thick to find it.

Former Beat Sugary Factory, Rautheim, Rautheim, Braunschweig, Germany, July 2013 (4)

Former Beat Sugary Factory, Rautheim, Rautheim, Braunschweig, Germany, July 2013 (8)

Former Beat Sugary Factory, Rautheim, Rautheim, Braunschweig, Germany, July 2013 (13)

Former Beat Sugary Factory, Rautheim, Rautheim, Braunschweig, Germany, July 2013 (16)

Wolfenbüttel is not far from Braunschweig.  I took a pleasant bike ride out there one day.  Lessing’s house is there, and the library is world famous.  But of course I made my way out to the suburbs to visit the Weiße Road to Weiße Schanze, Rote Schanze in Stopfkuchen, Wolfenbüttel, Geramny,  July 2013Schanze, on which Raabe modeled the Rote Schanze in Stopfkuchen.

The Weiße Schanze now stands surrounded by single family homes, a process that is already visible in Raabe’s novel.

The people who named the streets here are well aware of the area’s claim to literary fame.  There is also a street named for Wilhelm Brandes, who wrote the first noteworthy study of Raabe’s life and works.

IMG_9276

And here is the Weiße Schanze.  Evidently it is a Biergarten now, although it wasn’t open when I showed up.  In the novel, the Saxon Prince Xaver bombarded the city from this point during the Seven Year’s War. I did not get close enough to look for the guard cat the narrator encountered. His description of the rote Schanze:

Weiße Schanze, Rote Schanze in Stopfkuchen, Wolfenbüttel, Geramny,  July 2013“Noch immer derselbe alte Wal und Graben, wie er sich aus dem achtzehnten Jahrhundert in die zweite Hälfte des neuzehnten wohl erhalten hatte. Die alten Hecken im Viereck um das jetzige bäuerliche Anwesen, die alten Baumwipfel darüber. Nur das Ziegeldach des Haupthauses, das man sonst über das Gezweig weg und durch es hindurch noch von der Feldmark von Maiholzen aus gesehen hatte, erblickte man heute nicht mehr. … Eine Römerstraße, auf der vor, während und nach der Völkerwanderung Tausende totgeschlagen worden waren, konnte im laufenden Saeculo nicht mehr überwachsen und von Grasnarbe überzogen sein wie die alten Radgleise und Fußspuren, die über den Graben des Prinzen Xaverius von Sachsen auf dem Dammwege des Bauern zu der Roten Schanze führten.” (BA 18 : 49-50)

“The same old trench and rampart, as good today in the second half of the nineteenth century as they were in the eighteenth. There it was, the same rectangular hedge enclosing the farm, the same old treetops. But you used to be able to see the tiled roof of the main house from the Maiholzen fields over and through the branches, and now you couldn’t. … Not even a Roman road, where countless thousands had been slaughtered before, during, and after the migrations, could have looked more grassy and overgrown today than those old ruts and footprints on the embanked way leading over Prince Xaverius of Saxony’s trench to the farm at Red Bank.” (“Tubby Schaumann, 189-190).

Further afield, I stopped in at Raabe’s birthplace Eschershausen on the way to Amelungsborn, site of Das Odfeld.  Raabe loved to pun on his own name (“Rabe” with one “A” means “raven”).  His study is decked out in a raven motif, his novels and stories are conspicuous for their avifauna, and his fans have a history of getting in on the fun.  To wit, this whimsical mobile in Eschershausen, which is turned by a small stream beneath.

Finally, Kloster Amelungsborn.  It has a beautiful garden that I could not recommend highly enough.

Kloster Amelungsborn, Site of Odfeld, Amelungsborn, Germany, July 2013

One of my favorite scenes in any Raabe novel happens early in Das Odfeld.  It is the strange battle of the crows that presages the destruction during the battle the following day:

“Vom Südwesten her über den Solling stieg es schwarz herauf in den düstern Abendhimmel. Nicht ein finsteres Sturmgewölk, sondern eine Krähenschwarm, kreischend, flügelschlagend, ein unzählbares Heer des Gevögels, ein Zug, der nimmer ein Ende zu nehmen schien. Und vom NordIMG_9742en, über den Vogler und den Ith, zog es in gleicher Weise heran in den Lüften, wie in Geschwader geordnet, ein Zug hinter dem andern, denen vom Süden entgegen.” (BA 17 : 26).

“From the southwest above the Solling black rose into the bleak evening sky. Not dark storm clouds, but a swarm of crows, screeching, beating their wings, an uncountable army of birds, a column that never seemed to come to an end. And from the north, above the Vogler and the Ith, the same in the skies, ordered like a squadron, one column after another towards the one from the south.”

History and the Urban Landscape

In case you hadn’t seen it, the Smithsonian Magazine has put up an interesting page with interactive images in which contemporary satellite photos of American cities are laid over historical maps.  A small window can be moved around the image to see how the layout of streets has changed over the last century and a half.  The transformation of the coastlines is particularly remarkable as cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago colonize the bodies of water on which they sit.  As New York experienced with Hurricane Sandy the maps also tell a rather catastrophic story.

The project has a way of firing up the imagination.  Looking over mid-19th century Manhattan makes it easier to imagine the city Melville wrote about in the opening of Moby-Dick, where the sea figures as a site of commerce but also as an ineffable presence that casts the city’s residents into reveries.

It also calls to mind the Welikia project on the environmental history of the New York City region.  They made headlines with this image splitting contemporary Manhattan with its imagined state prior to the construction of the city.

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?