Posts tagged Germany
[This guest post by John Glassie is partially adapted from A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in a Time of Change, his new book about Athanasius Kircher, published by Riverhead Books.]
No one reads Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), a seventeenth-century Jesuit priest and polymath who wrote more than thirty big books on everything from optics, acoustics, linguistics, and mathematics to cryptology, Egyptology, numerology, and Sinology. Kircher was born on the eve of a municipal witch-hunt in what is now central Germany. As described in his memoirs, he then survived stampeding horses, a severe hernia, and the armies of an insane bishop, among other things, before showing up in Rome in 1633, just a few months after the Galileo trial. He lived there for more than forty years until his death.
Kircher wasn’t just a writer. He was an inventor of speaking statues, eavesdropping devices, and musical machines. (He is alleged to have invented an instrument called the cat piano. It’s probably more accurate to say he helped popularize the idea.) He was the curator of an early modern museum — a cabinet of curiosities featuring the tailbones of a mermaid and a brick from the Tower of Babel — at the Jesuit college in Rome. He collaborated with baroque master Gianlorenzo Bernini on two of his most famous sculptures. He pursued his interest in geological matters by climbing down inside the smoking crater of Mount Vesuvius. And he was perhaps the first to use a microscope to examine human blood.
The main reason no one reads him today is that he wrote everything, something like seven million words, in Latin. English translations are few and far between. Another important reason: a general sense that so much of what he wrote was wrong. It is true that many of Kircher’s ideas — secret knots of cosmic influence, universal sperm, the hollowness of mountains — didn’t stand the test of time. Kircher was steeped, like all of his contemporaries, in the magic and superstition of the pre-scientific period. But he was also a brilliant, extremely erudite man whose beautifully illustrated, encyclopedic works — books such as Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (The Great Art of Light and Shadow), Musurgia Universalis (Universal Music-making), and Mundus Subterraneus (Subterranean World) — served as benchmarks of knowledge of the era. The great intellectuals of the day, people such as Descartes, Leibniz, Huygens, Boyle, and Hooke, all contended with his writings in one way or another.
Kircher’s prose, not exactly sparse, frequently aspired to a kind of mystic greatness. Why, for example, is the sky blue? Blue is “a color by which the uninterrupted sight may contemplate that most agreeable space of the heavens.” Light itself, meanwhile, “passes through everything” and “by so passing through, it shapes and forms everything; it supports, collects, unites, separates everything. All things which either exist or are illuminated or grow warm, or live, or are begotten, or freed, or grow greater, or are completed or are moved, it converts to itself.”
Kircher’s poetical tendencies found their fullest expression in his erroneous “translations” of Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions. Oedipus Aegyptiacus (Egyptian Oedipus), his 2,000-page tome on the subject, was published in the early 1650s after two decades of work. According to one of Kircher’s later interpretations, a certain section of the Egyptian obelisk now in the Piazza della Minerva in Rome has to do with the way the
supreme spirit and archetype infuses its virtue and gifts in the soul of the sidereal world, that is the solar spirit subject to it, from whence comes the vital motion in the material or elemental world, and abundance of all things and variety of species arises.
Perhaps there’s no surprise here: it was during his own lifetime that Kircher began to develop his reputation as an author who couldn’t always be trusted. Descartes, for example, was vexed by Kircher’s claim in Magnes, sive de Arte Magnetica (The Magnet, or the Art of Magnetics) of 1641 that a sunflower seed could drive a clock — based on its innate sensitivity to the magnetic attraction of the Sun. The notion was absurd, but not so absurd that that Descartes didn’t try it himself. “I had enough free time to do the experiment,” he wrote in a letter, “but it didn’t work.”
Exaggerations and even fabrications notwithstanding, Kircher wrote only one book that could rightly be called a work of fiction, and that was Itinerarium Exstaticum (Ecstatic Journey) of 1656. At the time, Kircher wanted to enter the discussion about all the new astronomical observations afforded by the telescope, but an insufficiently critical treatment of the new astronomy could get you in trouble with the Inquisition, if not burned at the stake. So he wrote it as work of the imagination — the story of a cosmic dream in which an angel named Cosmiel leads Kircher’s fictional stand-in, a priest named Theodidactus (“taught by God”), on an edifying flight through the heavens.
There isn’t much doubt, by the way, that Kircher privately believed in the Copernican model of the universe. But his opinion wasn’t based solely on the astronomical evidence. A sun-centered system also made much more mystical sense. “The whole mass of this solar globe is imbued . . . with a certain universal seminal power,” Cosmiel explains about the Sun. It “touches things below by radiant diffusion.”
Whatever else may be said about it, Ecstatic Journey represented a step toward modern science fiction. In fact, although Kircher’s scientific stature largely faded, his work influenced many writers and artists, including Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Marcel Duchamp, and Giorgio De Chirico.
In Poe’s story “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” the narrator comes face to face with a mile-wide vortex in a northern sea, and is understandably awe-struck. “Kircher and others imagine that in the centre of the channel of the Maelström is an abyss penetrating the globe, and issuing in some very remote part,” he says. “This opinion … was the one to which, as I gazed, my imagination most readily assented.”
• Scans of Kircher’s books offered online by various libraries and institutions. Google Books and the Internet Archive provide access to many scans as well.
• John E. Fletcher and Elizabeth Fletcher. A Study of the Life and Works of Athanasius Kircher “germanus Incredibilis”: With a Selection of His Unpublished Correspondence and an Annotated Translation of His Autobiography. Leiden: Brill, 2011.
• Athanasius, Kircher, China Illustrata. translated by Charles D. Van Tuyl from the 1677 original Latin edition. Muskogee, Okla: Indian University Press, Bacone College, 1987.
• Athanasius Kircher, The Vulcano’s: Or, Burning and Fire–vomiting Mountains, Famous in the World: With their Remarkables. Collected for the most part out of Kircher’s Subterraneous World (1669).
• Daniel Stolzenberg. Egyptian Oedipus: Athanasius Kircher and the Secrets of Antiquity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger, a niece of Paul Celan, was born in 1924 in Czernowicz and died at age 18 of typhus in the Mikhailovska labor camp. Fifty-seven poems survived in a notebook that she called “Blütenlese” (Harvest of Blossoms).
This is the last poem in her notebook:
Tragedy:Dec. 23, 1941
This is the hardest: to give yourself
and know that you are unwanted,
to give yourself fully and to think
that you vanish like smoke into the void.
(translation by Pearl Fichman)
Bobrowski wrote a few books of short stories (Mäusefest, Boehlendorff, and Der Mahner), two novels (Levins Mühle / Levin’s Mill and Litauische Claviere / Lithuanian Pianos), and four volumes of poetry (Sarmatische Zeit / Samartian Time, Schattenland Ströme, Wetterzeichen, and Im Windgesträuch).
He was very much a writer who himself reads writers no one reads, such as Jakob Reinhold Michael Lenz (the actual Lenz from Büchner’s novella) and Boehlendorff. Boehlendorff was a friend of Hölderlin and their letters became the subject of a great essay by Peter Szondi on Hölderlin’s surpassing of classicism (“Überwindung des Klassizismus”). Here is an excerpt of the Bobrowski’s story “Boehlendorff”:
But one has heard, my dear Boehlendorff, and of course read, you went around with a whole swarm of poets in Germany.
Taciturn, Boehlendorff, put out?
With a whole swarm. Try to remember: Neuffer, Schmidt, Wilman, Zwilling, Seckendorff, Magenau, a certain Hölderlin, Sinclair.
But surely not all at the same time? What was it like? Master Hölderlin went to live at glazier Wagner’s, in Homburg the air is good, Herr von Sinclair went to court, Zwilling set his heart on a uniform.Well, Boehlendoriff, says Pastor Beer.
It wasn’t like that, says Boehlendorff slowly, and now the sentence Boehlendoriff brings forth wherever he goes, here in the provinces, whose answer Boehlendorff reads on the wood, the wood of the fences and the wood of the barn doors, and on the earth during the rain, the sentence families object to and Herr von Campenhausen and Pastor Giese’s wife, the sentence with which Boehlendorff steps out of this drawing room as he stepped out of the folding doors of the estate houses and the french windows of the parsonages: How must a world be created worthy of a moral being?
Moral being, oh for God’s sake. Everyone is that, or thinks he is, wherever he goes, this Boehlendorff. Moral being.
And a world?
The valley of shadow imposed upon us as an ordeal?But which one day will happen.
And be created?
We all had ideas one time or another, says Pastor Beer. And, as they say, water subsides.
And the people, what do they say? When he tells of the revolution of the Franks and of the Helvetians? Around a lake and unimaginably high mountains. What do the people say?
Sit and cover their faces with their hands, sigh through their fingers: horrible. With eyes closed.
When Boehlendorff has gone out they say: Good person, the Hofmeister, that fellow.
(from Marc Linder’s translation of a collection of Bobrowski’s stories, I taste Bitterness)
prehistory, of ancestral
star-time, rolling suns
over the dance of the peoples,
as the south,
a reddish bird, roars
in the falling mountains.
a song on the sword-point,
girl. Voices of birds
above the banks now.
we see you
clearly, the form of the manly
goddess under the oak-tree,
proud head as
high as the branches.
Dreamily your hands
when the sun declined —
the swallow which we loved
came then no more.
Deep, riddled with hail,
Did you stay,
a friend with gentle speech,
hands? — we heard the drag
of air and the dusk, I have
drunk a water.
with burning sails,
I shall go, Boötes to my right,
above my head the Swan, —
windless, night, I shall go,
Some of Bobrowski’s work has been translated into English: New Directions publishes Levin’s Mill, a collection of his poems (Shadow Lands), and a selection of his stories (Darkness and a Little Light).
During his lifetime he was recognized and awarded a couple of prizes, among them the prize of the Group 47.
He influenced a number of his contemporaries. Gerhard Wolf (Christa Wolf’s husband) wrote a few studies on Bobrowski, a 1967 biography and a description of Bobrowski’s room (Beschreibung eines Zimmers).
Michael Hamburger has translated some of his poetry and his correspondence with Bobrowski was published in German. He was translated into Dutch by C. O. Jellema (a Dutch Michael Hamburger) who also wrote an essay on Bobrowski’s poetry (“Over de poëzie van Johannes Bobrowski”). Jellema’s translations can be found in his Verzameld Werk.
No one reads German polymath Paul Scheerbart (1863-1915). Yet during his prolific career his eccentric fiction, art, and poetry influenced a range of intellects, from architect Bruno Taut to writer Walter Benjamin. It’s a testament to Scheerbart’s prophetic vision that his fiction has attracted such lasting attention: he wrote mostly outer-space novels and utopian stories about things like glass architecture.
Beyond the quirky concepts, however, Scheerbart’s work has a revolutionary, philosophical zeal and the image of him that arises is that of a steampunk Ralph Waldo Emerson with imaginative powers equal to those of Thomas Edison and Jules Verne.
Some major university presses have published a handful of Scheerbart’s work in English. MIT Press brought out his glass architecture novella, The Gray Cloth and Ten Percent White: A Ladies’ Novel, and University of Chicago Press published The Light Club (the full title is The Light Club of Batavia: A Ladies’ Novelette), about an underground utopia created by a group of wealthy humanists. These are enjoyable books, optimistic, ironic, and, as the titles indicate, pro-feminist for their time.
The most recent Scheerbart in translation is Lesabendio: An Asteroid Novel, and kudos to Wakefield Press (in Cambridge) for creating a wonderful illustrated edition of Scheerbart’s short novel about brainy humanoid worm-aliens, dreamers who float around and consider their place in the cosmos. Using the basic tropes of sci-fi, Scheerbart creates a sharp social satire of European salon culture, industrial ambition, and the groupthink of his day, including offhand musings like this about quantum mechanics and string theory that are startlingly accurate:
Lesabendio fell asleep. He dreamed of an enormous solar system—and it appeared to him like a system of millions of rubber bands that were continuously being stretched apart and then rebounding back together again.
My favorite Scheerbart in English so far is The Perpetual Motion Machine (Wakefield Press). The central question seems to be—is success or failure better for the imagination? Translator Andrew Joron did great work capturing Scheerbart’s wonderful range of raw emotion as he struggles to tell “The Story of an Invention,” as the book is subtitled. The diary of intense frustration hits innumerable highs and lows as Scheerbart tries, fails, and fails again to invent a real perpetual-motion machine (he and his wife needed the money). “I’m getting nowhere with my prototype,” he says. “This has not in the least hindered the outpouring of my imagination.”
(The book also shows off Scheerbart’s impressive skills as a draughtsman: it includes 26 schematic diagrams of prototypes for a real perpetual motion machine, which will prove humorous for anyone familiar with, say, gravity, or the concept of friction.)
Eventually, Scheerbart uses failure as a route to revelation, and revelation as an engine for belief in infinite creativity. The diary gives way to several short stories, including “The Astral Direction,” in which Scheerbart mentions “the significance of the Earthstar.” His failures have yielded a vision that “The Earth itself is a perpetual motion machine” and if his “perpet” (his nickname for a perpetual motion machine) could actually harness gravity’s power it would cause a “sublime revolution,” bringing about the “obsolescence of labor,” freeing humanity from “nation-states” and “militarism.” He imagines great changes ahead. “We are standing, then, before a cultural earthquake. A great many old arrangements will be undone.”
He was right, but unfortunately wrong about the nature of the impending earthquake—World War I would soon break out. The mass death would reveal how earnest Scheerbart was about his dreams for utopia and peace: Joron states in his introduction to The Perpetual Motion Machine that Scheerbart is said to have killed himself in a hunger strike protesting the war.
No one reads Reinhard Lettau (1929-96), a German-American writer, activist, and scholar who wrote: numerous short stories, a radio play, critical works, poetry, English translations (with Ferlinghetti) of love poems by Karl Marx; and, whenever permissible, avoided noting his middle name: Adolf.
Among the vast archipelago of short(-short) fiction—near the islands of Buzzati, Calvino, Thurber, Barthelme, and Hildesheimer—there is the seldom visited and often uncharted islet of Lettau’s short works. Chief thereof is found in his American debut Obstacles (1965), a volume that contains English translations of his first two books of stories: Schwierigkeiten beim Häuserbauen (Difficulties in Housebuilding, 1962) and Auftritt Manigs (Enter Manig, 1963).
The 21 of the three- to eight-page prose pieces that comprise Difficulties in Housebuilding are Lettau at his most charming and inventive. A favourite of mine is the epistolary “Potemkin's Carriage Passes Through”; here is an excerpt that reveals the essence of the book (my emphasis):
April 11, 1784
[…] Of course the roofers are really painters, and so are the glaziers who insert windows with deft brushes. The bricklayers are painters and so are the masons; the only people who work at their true trade here are the stagehands who put up the scaffoldings and lent a hand with our lodgings. But since then no one’s seen them do any work. I am told that they are lying around drinking behind the wooden wall that looks like a tavern from the road. One of them supposedly had the idea of throwing a stone through one of the not-so-well-painted windows in the village, the other day, and replacing it with real glass. If this practice spreads, I almost fear for the success of my mission.
April 12, 1784
The meaning of my last sentence in yesterday’s annotations can best be illustrated by the fact that more and more fake window fronts have, since then, been replaced by real ones. […] Sometimes I can’t help feeling that we are in reality building two villages: a false one and a real one, without actually wanting to build the real one, as though it were growing by itself out of the false one, as if by necessity.
All the stories in the American (Pantheon) edition are translated by the prolific Ursule Molinaro. The British (Calder & Boyars) edition of Obstacles (1966) supplants eight of Molinaro’s translations with new ones by Ellen Sutton and adds a Sutton translation of another Lettau story (“The Road”) to the end of the first book. However, in all eight cases, I prefer Molinaro’s translations for their economy and diction, and her in-sentence sequencing of events makes for better poetic and comedic effects.
[The 57 shorts, none longer than a page, are centered on the character Manig, who] is treated like a tracing powder that is thrown into turbulent water to expose hidden currents: Lettau uses Manig to isolate and depict behavioral patterns, only to cleverly undo them. Manig is portrayed predominately through pantomime, and some of his gesticulations are clownlike. […] Lettau disrupts reality by equating the thing with the word and the absolute with the relative, and by separating image from reality through leaps in logic and optical illusions.
Lettau’s other works in English translation:
- Enemies (1973), Agnes Rook’s translation of Fiende (1963). A six story collection that is best saved for completists, because the set of three new stories ridiculing war are outdone by the two similar war stories in Obstacles: “A Campaign” and “A Pause Between Battles”. The three shorter, supplemental stories, one of which is Rook’s version of “The Road”, are also redundant.
- Breakfast in Miami (1982), Lettau’s and Julie Prandi’s translation of his radio play Frühstücksgespräche im Miami (1977). Caricatures of deposed dictators meet in Miami and say their piece. Yet another only for the completist, but, on the strength of Obstacles, I remain optimistic about his still untranslated later works, which can be found—with promising cover art—in Alle Geschichten (Complete Stories, 1998).
For more about his life and writings:
- BookRags.com has most of the DLB’s article on Lettau.
- The obituary from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where Lettau taught Writing and German Literature from 1968-90.
(Images: the cover art is by Günter Grass; here’s an online gallery of Grass’ graphic work, 1972-2007.)
Cover by Hans Bellmer. Here’s a bio of Mynona (pseudonym for Salomo Friedlaender, 1871–1946), from The Golden Bomb:
While the Friedlaender part of him was a tireless philosopher, propagating a mixture of Stirnerian ideas and neo-Kantianism (his numerous philosophical included Kant For Children), his Mynona half (being the reverse for the German word for “anonymous”) wrote several novels and countless grotesques which were widely published in Expressionist periodicals. However, the two sides cannot be understood separately, for, as he wrote, “above all, the grotesque humorist has the desire to refresh the memory of the divine, mysterious primal image of true life….” Although friends with almost all of the Expressionists and a star attraction at their readings, this bohemian writer and “forerunner of the laughing Dada,” as one Dadaist described him, was too “uncomfortable” for many: he died in poverty in Paris after being refused help to emigrate to the United States by Thomas Mann.
A quote from Mynona’s “A Child’s Heroic Deed” (1913, included in The Golden Bomb):
Exactly nine months after this blood red sunset, poor Mathilde brought a monstrosity into the world: a creature as red as a hard-boiled crab, with spiny outgrowths instead of hair. But nonetheless it managed to live, and was known throughout its life as the red hedgehog.
From the back cover of Dover’s pairing of Meyrink’s Golem and Paul Busson's Man Who Was Born Again:
The Man Who Was Born Again by Paul Busson (1873–1924), Tyrolean and Viennese journalist and author, is well-known as perhaps the finest adventure fantasy in early twentieth-century German literature. The story of reincarnated memories in eighteenth-century Germany and France, it offers a fine integration of supernatural powers, ghosts, witchcraft, black magic, demons, and evocation of the dead; it is unique in its combination of wild imagination and realism.
E. F. Bleiler’s intro to this 1976 paperback is pretty thorough. He ends his section on Busson with a paragraph contradicting the back cover text:
Today Paul Busson seems to be forgotten in the Germanic world except as a journalist in the memory of a now very old generation. He was never known at all in English. The translations The Man Who Was Born Again and The Fire Spirits went almost unheeded, even though they appeared at a dearth-time of fantasy [late 20s]. Yet these two novels offer inimitable universes, where fantasy assumes such strong actuality that it achieves its own reality. Even after fifty years, in another language, these universes remain viable.
As an indication of obscurity, even I—Jujutsu master of book search—cannot locate a copy of The Fire Spirits.
In a July 2008 email exchange about a shared favorite writer (Hans Henny Jahnn), the artist Herbert Pfostl brought up an author completely unknown to me, Juergen von der Wense, saying “he is A UNIVERSE—the most astonishing mind—a beautiful discovery.” Luckily, Herbert then provided an intro to the author and some translations of aphoristic passages on his Blind Pony blog.
Herbert: “In November 1966, a day before his 72nd birthday, composer, translator and wanderer Juergen von der Wense died in Goettingen, Germany, in an attic filled with 10,000 pages of writings on science, poetry, philosophy and music. Few splinters from it ever reached the public…”
If you’ve read Juergen von der Wense, visit me if you ever wind up in Philadelphia. I’ll buy you a gigantic beer and beat the rest of your secrets out of you.
No one reads Arno Schmidt (1914-1979), a little-known major German writer whose corpus ranges from (seemingly) straightforward stories to writing that assails the reader with a literary and linguistic density of the highest degree—he is Germany’s Joyce.
Parsing Schmidt’s trade=mark syntax will reveal, among much else: tremendous wit, metanarratives, caustic social commentary, and passages fully charged with melopoeia.
English readers will have to wait for the amazing John E. Woods to finish translating Schmidt’s magnum opus, Zettels Traum (Bottom’s Dream)—it’s twice as long as Finnegans Wake—but, for the meantime, Woods has already provided us with sublime translations of Schmidt’s works, and he recommends the Collected Novellas as the place to start. In addition, I would suggest beginning with the volume Nobodaddy’s Children, which contains Scenes from the Life of a Faun, Brand’s Heath, and Dark Mirrors.
For more about this juggernaut of literature, see:
- Arno Schmidt at the Complete Review, where he is well-loved, and strongly influenced their Literary Saloon dialogs (Radio Dialogs I, II)
- "The Intellectual after World War III: Arno Schmidt’s Science Fiction", an essay by Ursula Heise
- "Watching TV with Arno Schmidt", an essay by Volker Langbehn; also, see his analysis of Zettels Traum (Google preview)
- Dalkey Archive is the current fountainhead of Schmidt in English
- Green Integer publishes the little sibling of Zettels Traum, The School for Atheists, and a selection of Schmidt’s erudite literary criticism, Radio Dialogs I and II
(Image: “Kühe in Halbtrauer” (trans. “Cows in Half Mourning”) by Jens Rusch; a title of a short story by Schmidt)
No one reads Alfred Kubin (1877-1959), who in addition to being an illustrator also wrote the bizarre and eerily prophetic novel The Other Side (1908), which tells the story of a journey to the disquieting city of Pearl, a place where a citizen’s mood is mirrored by his or her surroundings. Parts Meyrink (another author no one reads), Poe and Kafka, Kubin described the book as “a sort of Baedeker for those lands which are half known to us.”
No one reads Herbert Rosendorfer, whose matryoshka-esque novel The Architect of Ruins—with its cast of 600 nuns, dildo-brandishing dwarves, conmen, cannibals, and psychotic psychics—was recently reissued by Dedalus.
Summing up Rosendorfer’s work, a reviewer in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes that "Herbert Rosendorfer is a German writer. Despite that he has a sense of humor."
Painting by Minoru Nomata (via But Does it Float/50 Watts)
update, Sept. 20, 2012: Herbert Rosendorfer has died.