Tag Archives: Wilhelm Raabe

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.

Chemical Decadence: Pfisters Mühle on Stage in Stuttgart

In a 2012 interview on NPR religion scholar Elaine Pagels suggested that the enduring appeal of the Book of Revelation is that it provides a language that has been useful to movements of all sorts of political stripes since the early Christian era. “[P]eople who longed for justice have always felt that the book speaks to us now and we are now on the cusp of that great change,” she observes to Terry Gross. In appropriating the rhetoric of apocalypse, more recent environmentalist camps are in that sense only the most recent iteration of a longer tradition. In tactical terms, apocalyptic rhetoric can be a double-edged sword, as when those parties with a vested interest in the ecosocial status quo attempt to portray their adversaries as so many Chicken Littles. But as I sat in the Stuttgart State Theater recently watching their stage adaptation of Pfisters Mühle, I was reminded of the particular pleasure that can be taken when the material of Revelation is effectively deployed.

The stage version follows the plot and conventions of Raabe’s novel: Ebert Pfister and his bride Emmy are on a honeymoon at the Pfister family mill in the weeks before its destruction to make way for a new factory. Ebert sets about writing his “Sommerferienheft,” recounting how the factory Krickerode opened up upstream, how the hydrogen sulfide killed off the fish in the stream and released a stench that drove everyone away and ruined the mill. The play develops the humor of its source material: in a novel concerned also with the status of the image in the era of its mechanical reproducibility, the characters gather before a nineteenth century camera mounted upon a selfie stick. On the other hand, the humor is layered on top of the play also explores the commonplace that the memory as narrated in the text itself is somehow dangerous. When we arrive at the description of the degraded stream for instance, the dead fish rise up from the stage to haunt the characters in the present.

Everyone is a partisan in the world, as a line from the story reminds us, and Pfister’s Mill is in many ways an exploration of how nature ultimately loses out to the various ideological commitments of everyone in the years after German unification. Adam Asche, the natural scientist who helps the Betram Pfister in his court case against Krickerode in spite of his stated wish to pollute every river, stream, and bubbling spring in Germany, is in this sense different from the other characters only in his openness about his own partisan loyalties.

The play imagines modernity as an era of chemical decadence – decadence being, of course, a close relative of apocalypse. At one point Adam Asche falls into a vat of his own toxic brew. It overtakes his body and he breaks out dancing to Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” which is, I might add, a well chosen anthem for this particular story. Lippoldes, meanwhile, the novel’s living anachronism, dances down the throat of the enormous industrial drainage pipe that is the play’s main set piece.

Out of principle I find comparing adaptations to their source material to be like comparing apples and oranges, but all the same the stage adaptation gives the “where do all the pictures go?” speech to Ebert. The speech is core to the novel’s thinking about art and aesthetics in an era when nature is yoked into the process of industrial production. But the melancholy discomfort that comes with going to an art exhibition in modernity is not Ebert’s, it’s Emmy’s. Ebert dismisses it, and then later appropriates it, but what strikes me about Emmy is that she makes some very incisive observations about how urban and industrial modernity affects our perception of the world. Interestingly, it is a circumstance that has often been either missed in the reception history or has received very little comment.

Finally, the production makes a bizarre choice that I’ve never encountered before in theater. After over two hours we had something like a forty minute intermission to allow for a set change for a kind of tableau vivant. When the intermission began without a curtain, I was actually very confused. Was the play over? In the end it seemed a very ham-fisted solution to the medium’s technical limitation.

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.

Tourism, Labor, and a New Raabe Translation

I brought home a few interesting souvenirs from my trip to Chicago last week. Submitted for your contemplation is this billboard I spotted near my hotel:

Odd Billboard

“How Sublime it is to be Small”

One might say that the statement in the advertisement is self-explanatory, since one experiences the sublime because one is physically small relative to the object. Add to this that the advertisement is for skiing; it hawks an experience that commodifies the mountains. Not that there is anything particularly new or remarkable about this, the billboard is simply another document at the end of a two hundred year history of the erosion of the concept of the sublime. Context matters here, as the billboard stands in the middle of downtown Chicago. Finally, let’s not forget the legacy of Caspar David Friedrich in the advertisement, another testament to Romanticism’s long legacy.

Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich “Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer”

Another intriguing find comes from a strip mall in Avon, Ohio where I stopped in to get a burrito at Chipotle. Despite the fact that I had not request take-out, the burrito was tightly packed in layers of foil and paper. Chowing down, I noticed this on the back of the bag:

Odd statement on back of Chipotle bag from Ohio, January 2014

“Recycling turns things into other things which is like magic.”

There’s a kind of oddly self-aware commodity fetishism at work here (“like magic”), offered, I suppose, to enhance my experience of consumption by appealing to guilt over the needless use of a paper product. If recycling seems like magic, that is only because the labor processes involved are so opaque, and as it happens recycling is a particularly labor intensive industry, one which recruits both its official and unofficial workforce from the bottom rungs of the socio-economic scale. For the record, Chipotle provided no recycling or compost bins, and yes, my bag went straight to the landfill. Odd Billboard Advertising Colorado, Chicago, IL, January 2014Odd Billboard Advertising Colorado, Chicago, IL, January 2014

On another note, it has recently come to my attention that Die Akten des Vogelsangs has been released for the first time in English. Michael Ritterson has released a translation through the Modern Humanities Research Association. Buy it! I have not had the chance to peruse it myself, but I am excited to finally have this book available in English. German Moonlight, Höxter and Corvey, and At the Sign of the Wild Man are also available from the same series.

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

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.


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.”

The Literary History of Braunschweig’s Water Supply

Wilhelm Raabe’s 1884 novel Pfisters Mühle was famously inspired by an actual court case in the city of Braunschweig in the 1880s.  Raabe’s novel is often hailed as German literature’s first “Öko-Roman,” although as I have indicated in a prior post, that is by no means Braunschweig_Brunswick_Marienbrunnen_von_Süden_(2007)uncontested.  Be that as it may, the novel is responding to a significant moment in German environmental history.  Up until the second half of the nineteenth century, the volume of trash and untreated human waste dumped into rivers and streams was the most pressing pollution problem, particularly in the cities.  With the rapid industrialization of Germany, the byproducts of industrial production predictably eclipsed urban sewage as a source of woe.  The degradation of the water, in turn, meant that mills, baths, and other commercial establishments that depended on the water downstream were effectively put out of business.  The result was a series of so called “Wasserprozesse,” or “water trials” at the end of the 19th century.  Most of these trials were suits brought by commercial enterprises seeking to recoup profits lost from industrial pollution.  Pfisters Mühle dramatizes (or more accurately, under-dramatizes) the trial of the real mills in the villages of Bienrode and Wenden against the beet sugar factory Rautheim, all of which are now located within the Braunschweig city limits.

Here’s a bit of interesting history.1

  •  Braunschweig was a major center of beet sugar production in 19th century Germany.  The first factories began operation in the 1830s, and by the 1860s the industry was a cornerstone of the city’s economy.  The production season began in September, after the harvest, and lasted until late January or February.
  • Beet sugar production produces an incredible amount of waste water.  The processing of a single beet for sugar produces 30 to 40 cubic meters of waste water.  In the 1880s Rautheim would have processed about 25,000 tons of beets during the campaign, pumping out around a million cubic meters of waste water.  And Rautheim was just one of many in the Braunschweig area.  Some factories tried to dilute the byproducts of sugar production, but this only increased the consumption of water and put further pressure on the overall supply.
  • German cities began building filtration facilities in the 1860s, but the technology was often regarded as too expensive to be worth the allocation of city resources, and so they remained uncommon for decades after the technology was developed.  Braunschweig maintained filtration facilities to protect the water quality in the Oker river, which runs directly through town and provided the city with most of its drinking water, but these were ill equipped to handle the growing volume of waste from the beet sugar factories.  Rautheim maintained a small sewage farm on its premises, but this was not nearly enough to absorb all of the waste, and so most of it went into the Wabe stream, which drains into the Schunter, all of which are part of the Oker river basin.
  • The denizens of Braunschweig began noticing the decline in drinking water quality around 1880.  During the campaign of 1884-1885, shortly after Pfisters Mühle hit bookshelves (where, unfortunately for Raabe, most of the copies stayed), pollution from the beet sugar factories overwhelmed the city’s filtration facilities, and the drinking water supply collapsed.  This became a regular occurence until 1895, when the city finally expanded its purification system.
  • In January of 1891 the factory at Broitzem attempted to clear its waste water by releasing iron salt into its waste water.  This apparently cleared the water of the byproducts of beet sugar production, but gave Braunschweig’s water a red-brown color, meaning that nobody could do their laundry without staining all of their clothes.
  • In Pfisters Mühle, it is the smell of the water that drives away most of the mill’s guests and employees.  The waste water from beet sugar production contains a considerable amount of hydrogen sulfide.  The bacteria beggiatoa feeds off of the hydrogen sulfide.  Hydrogen sulfide is also the gas often responsible for the offensive odor of human flatus.

In Raabe’s most famous novel Stuffcake (1889) we learn that Heinrich Schaumann is financing his amateur archaeology by renting out some of his arable land to the local beet sugar factory.  When I taught that novel, I made sure to draw the students’ attention to this.  Later that semester I was as surprised as they were when W.G. Sebald’s narrator in Rings of Saturn falls into a conversation with a beet sugar farmer who pointed out “the curiously close relationship that existed, until well into the twentieth century, between the history of sugar and th history of art” (194).2  Sebald’s novel links this to the global networks of exploitation that evolved out of European colonialism, a problem that also lurks in the background of Raabe’s 1889 novel.

1.  See Behrens, Christian. Die Wassergesetzgebung im Herzogtum Braunschweig nach Bauernbefreiung und industrieller Revolution: Zur Genese des Wasserrechts im bürgerlichen Rechtsstaat. Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, 2009 Hamburg.; Blasius, Rudolf, and Heinrich Beckurts. “Verunreinigung und Reinigung der Flüsse nach Untersuchungen des Wassers der Oker.” Deutsche Viertelsjahrschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 27.2 (1895): 337-60.;  Kluge, Thomas, and Engelbert Schramm. Wassernöte: Umwelt- und Sozialgeschichte des Trinkwassers. Aachen: Alano, 1986.; Uekötter, Frank. Umweltgeschichte im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. München: Oldenbourg, 2007.

2. Sebald, W.G. The Rings of Saturn. Michael Hulse, trans. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1998.

Environmental and Aesthetic Problems: A False Dualism

Today the New York Times’ reported on a city block sized, three story high pile of petroleum coke in Detroit. The coke is a byproduct of tar sands oil production.  Usually it gets shipped off to China or Latin America for fuel, contributing to the air problem out “over there” where we in the United States don’t have to see it.  But at the moment we have a growing mountain of the stuff in Detroit.  The source of outrage here, I would argue, is not the existence of such a pile but the use of Detroit as a “sacrifice zone,” to borrow Chris Hedges’ term.  If this is how we are going to power our civilization, then would it not be better to keep the ugly byproducts within our field of vision?  Yes, the waste becomes a very real social and environmental problem for the people who ultimately are left to deal with it.  But the reason our waste gets sent somewhere else to spoil the material basis of someone else’s life is so that we wealthy consumers in the global north do not have to be confronted with either the toxicity or the sheer ugliness of things like petroleum coke.  What we have is an empirically quantifiable problem of toxicity, yes, but that is not what the article is really about.  The real issue that dominates the article is the fact that it’s ugly, and we can’t hide the ugliness from view.  In other words, the environmental problem is also an aesthetic problem.

I remember watching the pieces that 60 Minutes did on Chernobyl in 1989 and 1996. The images of the nuclear fuel, which had melted, combined with the sand, and then solidified into a kind of glass flow, were beautiful.  The radiation level on the surface when it was discovered was 10,000 Röntgen per hour.  500 Röntgens in five hours is the lethal level for humans.  Radiation is not something that humans can perceive with their bodily sensory apparatus.  In other words, we have something beautiful but deadly, and if you were to go near it, you would only perceive the deadliness through its physiological effects on your body.  That is an aesthetic problem.

Plant and animal life is slowly re-taking the town of Pripyat, by Chernobyl.  Its social character is slowly vanishing as a second nature gives way to a first.  Luckily we now have the internet to satisfy our desire for the melancholy contemplation of ruination, because in spite of its appearances, the exclusion zone is a dangerous place.  That is an aesthetic problem.

The title of Rachel Carson’s classic book Silent Spring is an allusion to Keats’ poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci.”  We start off, in other words, not with science, but aesthetics.  The book’s opening chapter “A Fable for Tomorrow” is about a town that knows it is poisoned because of the conspicuous absence of birdsong.  That is an aesthetic problem.

There’s a scene in Raabe’s novel Die Akten des Vogelsangs where the two main characters are standing on a hill, a kind of nature park where the people from the town go to relax.  In the novel, “nature” has been compartmentalized on this hill, it is planned and made beautiful.  In the middle is a copy of Canova’s sculpture of Hebe.  What we have is a compounding of aesthetic problems.

Kant observes in his discussion of the mathematical sublime that we can can estimate the magnitude of something (a mountain, a galaxy, etc.) through measurement, but that does not mean that I know the magnitude of the measure.   The metric system in America has the same problem, because when Americans ask how many miles are in x kilometers, they are trying to obtain a sense of the magnitude of the measure.  We haven’t understood the data if we haven’t grasped it through intuition and thus obtained a real understanding of the concept.  Put very basically, the numbers are meaningless if they are not understood aesthetically.  In my example of Chernobyl, I told you how deadly 500 Röntgens in five hours was so that you could have a sense of how much radiation is in 10,000 Röntgens an hour, and only then do you know what a problem that is.

Common sense would have us distinguish between environmental problems and aesthetic problems.  Nobody ever got poisoned by a novel, at least not literally.  But the distinction is illusory, and if we cling to it then we have failed to understand the environmental crises we are confronted with.  Aesthetics in the narrow sense of perception and judgment is how we arrive at a sense that there is a problem in the first place.  Aesthetics in the broader sense of “relating to art” can also help us to conceptualize how we got here and to imagine other possible kinds of relations.

This is the point, in other words, where we who do cultural studies can legitimately enter the conversation on environmental problems.  And we can do so without selling ourselves short simply because we operate in more speculative realms.

Literature and Limnology

There’s an interesting history of studies of German realist texts coming from the natural sciences.  The earliest critical essays on Wilhelm Raabe’s Pfisters Mühle that are worth citing today are a pair of essays that appeared in 1925 by noted German limnologist August Thienemann.  Thienemann’s studies of dams in the first half of the 20th century make him an important figure in the history of ecology in Germany.  While Thienemann discusses the issue of industrial pollution, his interest is more a disciplinary one, that is, how Raabe borrowed from the natural scientists, specifically studies by his acquaintance and fellow member of the Kleiderseller Heinrich Beckurts.1  Still, Thienemann’s discoveries are of no small significance for Raabe scholarship.  Much of the philological background that was included in the notes in the current critical edition, the Braunschweig edition, are from Thienemann.  Bacteriologist Ludwig Popp’s 1959 essay on Pfisters Mühle situates the novel within an environmental history of Braunschweig.  Popp includes some of his own findings on the water quality in the area, taken after the factory that inspired the story had been shut down.2 These were some of the essays Horst Denkler criticized as not being wrong, but as magnifying aspects of the texts without connecting them to the larger narrative structure(85-86).3

Turning to the scholarship on Fontane, I have just finished reading Heinz-Dieter Krausch’s 1968 essay “Die natürliche Umwelt in Fontanes “Stechlin.”  Dichtung und Wirklichkeit.” 4  Krausch was working at the research station on Lake Stechlin, the eponymous body of water in Theodor Fontane’s last finished novel Der Stechlin (available in English as The Stechlin).  Krausch’s essay is all about the physical characteristics of the actual lake and its surroundings.  As interesting as his account is, the result is an essay that falls more on the side of “Wirklichkeit” (reality) and less on the side of “Dichtung” (poetry).  In other words, the essay spends most of its time outside of the text.  For instance, the novel cites the myth of the red hen, which supposedly rises out of the lake’s water when there’s some major seismic event somewhere on the planet.  Krausch suggests that this may be traced back to fishermen on the lake at night whose nets released methane produced by decaying organic matter on the seafloor, which their torches then ignited (345).  A discussion of the symbolic importance of this myth within Fontane’s novel, however, is not supplied.

None of this is to cast aspersions on Thienemann, Popp, Krausch, or any other natural scientist who feels moved to write about literature of engaging in bad critical practice.  I mean to suggest instead that when we in literary studies ask how we might cross disciplinary boundaries to explore our objects of study (i.e. people and places that may have physical equivalents but are, in the final analysis, mediated through language), it is important not to lose sight of the important questions that literary studies exists to explore in the first place.

1. Thienemann, August. “»Pfisters Mühle«. Ein Kapitel Aus Der Geschichte Der Biologischen Wasseranalyse.” Verhandlungen des Naturhistorischen Vereins der preußischen Rheinlande und Westfalens 82 (1925): 315-29.

—. “Wilhelm Raabe und die Abwasserbiologie.” Mitteilungen für die Gesellschaft der Freunde Wilhelm Raabes 15 (1925): 124-31.

2. Popp, Ludwig. “»Pfisters Mühle«.  Schlüsselroman zu einem Abwasserprozeß.” Städtehygiene.2 (1959): 21-25.

3. Denkler, Horst. “Die Antwort literarischer Phantasie auf eine der »größeren Fragen der Zeit«: Zu Wilhelm Raabes »Sommerferienheft« Pfisters Mühle.” Neues über Wilhelm Raabe: Zehn Annährungsversuche an einen verkannten Schriftsteller. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1988. 81-102.

4.  Krausch, Heinz-Dieter. “Die natürliche Umwelt in Fontanes “Stechlin.”  Dichtung und Wirklichkeit.”  Fontane-Blätter 1.7 (1968): 345-353.

An Introduction to Wilhelm Raabe

At this point it is probably important to say a little bit about who exactly Wilhelm Raabe is.  He is, of course, a German realist author, and he is the author who inspired Wilhelm_Raabe_1910my dissertation project.  Unlike the other authors I am covering, Adalbert Stifter and Theodor Fontane, Wilhelm Raabe is unfortunately less familiar to audiences beyond the German speaking countries.  There are several reasons for this, not the least of which are a historic dearth of translations, a rocky reception history in his own lifetime, and the appropriation of his legacy by a conservative and frequently anti-semitic circle of readers after Raabe’s death in 1910, who in turn paved the way for the author’s integration into National Socialist cultural politics in the 1930s.1  Beyond that, Raabe can be a pretty hard author to read.  By “hard,” of course, I mean that he demands of his reader a certain level of intellectual labor and a willingness to accept that there are certain things that we won’t “get.”  His stories are narrated in a rather idiosyncratic idiom, he reduces plot in some cases down to nothing (the “climax” of Stopfkuchen is the word “yes”), and he sprinkles his texts with numerous allusions that even people steeped in 19th century philology might not get right away.  Of course, to my mind his singular language and his subversion of narrative conventions and genre typologies is the pleasure of reading him in the first place!

For the curious beginner, I would recommend Stopfkuchen (translated under the rather awful title of Tubby Schaumann, but the title means Stuffcake) which is available in print in English in the collection Wilhelm Raabe: Novels. I can also recommend the novella At the Sign of the Wild Man available in new translation in the collection German Moonlight; Höxter and Corvey; At the Sign of the Wild Man.

Here is a little bit of information from a handout I give to students and others forced to listen to me talk about this guy.

Biographic Details

  • Wilhelm Raabe: German Realist Author, born 1831 in Escherhausen, active 1856 – 1900 in Berlin, Stuttgart, and Braunschweig, died 1910 in Braunschweig.
  • Major Works: Die Chronik der Sperlingsgasse (Chronicle of Sparrow Alley, 1856), Der Hungerpastor (The Hunger Pastor, 1864), Abu Telfan, Oder die Heimkehr vom Mondgebirge (Abu Telfan, or the Return from the Mountains of the Moon, 1867), Pfisters Mühle (Pfister’s Mill, 1884), Die Akten des Vogelsangs (The Documents of the Birdsong, 1896).

Notable Works Available in English

1. On this point see Jeffrey Sammons’ history of Raabe reception in the 20th century The Shifting Fortunes of Wilhelm Raabe: A History of Criticism as a Cautionary Tale.