In: KulturPoetik 2007, Heft 1


Elizabeth Millán-Zaibert


Explorations of Nature, Science, and Literature in the German Cultural Tradition
(1) Christian Emden/David Midgley (Hg.), Science, Technology and the German Cultural Imagination. Papers from the Conference ›The Fragile Tradition‹. Cambridge 2002, Vol. 3. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2005. 319 S.
(2) Christof Mauch (Hg.), Nature in German History. New York: Berghahn Books, 2004. 136 S.




In Chapter One of Christof Mauch’s Nature in German History, David Blackbourn tells us that »nature […] is a nodal point where the environmental, economic, social, political and cultural come together« (p. 26). Two recent collections use this nodal point to explore various aspects of German culture and history, enabling nature to emerge as a valuable lens under which aspects of the German modern condition can be examined.

In what follows, I will discuss each of the collections in turn. As I cannot possibly do justice to the details of each individual contribution in this review, my goal shall be to provide an overview of the guiding themes of each collection, with a necessarily selective focus on particular points from specific contributions to each collection.

Christian Emden/David Midgley (Hg.), Science, Technology and the German Cultural Imagination. Papers from the Conference ›The Fragile Tradition‹. Cambridge 2002, Vol. 3. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2005. 319 S.

Christian Emden and David Midgley’s volume, Science, Technology and the German Cultural Imagination, is based on the conference The Fragile Tradition: The German Cultural Imagination since 1500, which was held in Cambridge in 2002. There are 13 essays included in the volume, and the contributions are divided into three thematic sections: I. Science and the Creative Imagination; II. Technology and Literary Writing; III. Media and Modernity. The essays, though different in scope and style, are pieces of scholarship that lead the reader to reflect on how scientific/technological developments are received by literary figures and incorporated into their work. A close relation between science and literature emerges and receives sustained attention by the authors, and given that, in our age of overspecialization, the relation between science and literature all too seldom receives the attention it deserves, this collection is a welcome contribution to helping deepen our understanding of how scientific developments shape literary production.

The introduction to the volume, co-authored by Emden and Midgley, gives us a useful overview of the themes covered in the volume. The three sections are held together by topics that run through each contribution: the tension between the hopes generated by new inventions and the fears created by the human imagination in the wake of these inventions; the transformation of culture and nature initiated by the advances of technology, and the relation between science and literature. All of the investigations are situated within the »particular inflections of German intellectual traditions« (p. 9). While the exclusive focus on German intellectual traditions is admittedly narrow, it does offer the collection a sharp focus.

Section I contains four chapters, which balance historical views of nature and technology ranging from the period of August in Dresden (r. 1553-86) to the period of literary production around 1800 (in particular the fiction of figures such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and the only non-German of the group, Mary Shelley) to views from the early 1900s. Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly’s article on August Elector of Saxony’s Kunstkammer sketches how knowledge of nature was presented, ordered, and affected by particular cultural biases. The theme of cultural bias in the presentation of nature echoes throughout several of the other contributions. Jürgen Barkhoff does an impressive job of highlighting the tensions between technological progress and moral responsibility by exploring literary examples (Goethe’s Prometheus and Faust, Shelley’s Frankenstein) that tell the story of our almost limitless ability to use the tools of science and technology to progress and gain more knowledge of the workings of the world and our obvious limitations when it comes to using scientific and technological progress for the moral improvement of humanity.  The tension between scientific progress and ethical stagnation remains a timely topic. Hence, we see that a look back to the literary visionaries highlighted in Barkhoff’s piece offers valuable insight upon our contemporary cultural circumstances.

With Malcolm Humble’s piece »Monism and Literature in the Later Years of the Kaiserreich«, we come to a most interesting intersection of the scientific and literary, as he considers the legacy of Ernst Haeckel, particularly the reception of his thought by figures such as Gerhart Hauptmann and Wilhelm Bölsche, and the life-reform movements around 1900. Humble shows that recent accounts of Haeckel and his contemporaries, which tie their interest in eugenics to an affinity with National Socialism are misguided. He goes back to a time before the Sonderweg and the misappropriation of ideas from Haeckel and Charles Darwin by the Nazis in order to distinguish between the reception of Haeckel’s thought and what Haeckel actually hoped to accomplish with his work. Humble’s excellent portrait of the scientific landscape in Germany around 1900 brings much needed attention to the productive exchanges between leading literary and scientific figures, and to the very project of fusing poetry and science. He discusses, for example, Wilhelm Bölsche’s Die naturwissenschaftlichen Grundlagen der Poesie (1887), which was but one attempt to make science more popular by allowing it to enter into conversation with poetry. Humble also brings attention to Hauptmann’s appreciation of Bölsche’s ability to fuse Darwin with Goethe, not allowing science to leave poetry behind in the exploration of nature.

Attempts to silence this ringing endorsement of the fusion of poetry and science came from the skeptical empiricists who were influenced by thinkers such as Ludwig Eduard Boltzmann, Heinrich Hertz, and Ernst Mach. The story of nature that emerges from this intellectual constellation is told by Daniel Steuer in his contribution to the volume, »Ernst Mach and Robert Musil: Laws of Conservation and the Metaphysical Imagination«. As Steuer reminds us, in 1912 Musil declared that »all intellectual daring today lies in the natural sciences. We shall not learn from Goethe, Hebbel, or Hölderlin, but from Mach, Lorentz, Einstein, Minkowski, from Couturant, Russell, Peano« (p. 93). Steuer’s fascinating account of how noted Gestalt-theorist Carl Stumpf (under whom Musil wrote his 1908 dissertation on Mach) influenced Musil’s literary projects and his view of the boundaries between science and literature, provides us with another variation on the theme of the relation between science and literature.

The four chapters of Section II bring the reader into conversation with the leading intellectuals of the Weimar Republic, including Walter Benjamin, Bertold Brecht, Alfred Döblin, Georg Simmel, Siegfried Kracauer, Robert Musil, and Joseph Roth. The Neue Sachlichkeit, which emerged during this period, is used to trace the concern to synthesize »organic and mechanical pulsations« (p. 158), thus giving rise to a new view of nature against the backdrop of the various technological projects unfolding during the period. Midgley’s piece shows that literary texts stand in relationship to specific cultural situations, making an investigation of the relation between cultural history and literary imagination a pressing task if we want to understand both technological and literary innovations that shape culture. Harro Segeberg in his »Industrial Culture, Writers and the Media: On the History of Literature and the Media in the Weimar Republic« continues in a similar vein, tracking the responses to technological developments in the work of the period’s leading intellectuals. While Brecht emerges as a writer who enthusiastically endorsed aspects of mechanical reproduction, other thinkers are revealed to be more melancholy in the wake of such changes. Benjamin, for example, lamented the replacement of the flowing hand of the writer by the »motor impulses« associated with the typewriter (p. 154). The story of how technological developments shaped aesthetic reflections on modernity is continued in Jeanne Riou’s article »Joseph Roth’s ›Bekenntnis zum Gleisdreieck‹: Technology, Experience and the Feuilleton in the 1920s«. Riou does an excellent job of connecting Roth’s 1924 piece on a railway intersection, the Gleisdreieck in Berlin, to the general issue of urban topography and the mythology of modernity. Simmel’s lyrical reading of the bridge as a marker of culture and Kracauer’s discussion of subways and railways also figure prominently in her piece. As Riou tells us:

Of particular interest will be the relationship between melancholy reflection on the dangers of technology, on isolation, estrangement and objectification as its human prices, and the more positive view of the modern city which these texts sometimes present indirectly, the sense of an open future (p. 158).

The issues discussed by Riou are approached in a rather expansive, suggestive way, yet some of the details are left unattended (for example, she leaves the assertion that bridges and doors are »epistemological thresholds« (p. 162) unsupported; the claim is certainly provocative and suggestive, but more analysis of the point would have shed light on its precise meaning). Axel Goodbody’s piece rounds off the section well, by situating philosopher Hartmut Böhme’s views of nature within the context of technological, ecological, and cultural projects.

There are five essays in Section III, ranging in focus from particular figures and works such as E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Die Jesuitenkirche in G. to W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, to issues facing thinkers in the wake of a shift from the silent images of photography to the multimedia spectacle of cinema. Of particular value is Carolin Duttlinger’s piece on a little-studied technological advance that drew the attention of thinkers such as Benjamin, Max Brod, and Franz Kafka. This was the Kaiserpanorama, which consisted of stereoscopic views of distant geographical locations. Benjamin saw in the Kaiserpanorama a »residue of nineteenth-century visual culture«, an »anachronistic counter-model to modern culture« (p. 248). The silent and contemplative reception of images from the Kaiserpanorama was, for Benjamin, »similar to the reception of religious or auratic images« (p. 249). Duttlinger contrasts Benjamin’s interest in the stereoscopic images to Kafka’s interest in the same, claiming that Kafka was drawn to the images »because of their corporeal, three-dimensional character« while »Benjamin’s fascination is derived from the interplay between distance and proximity« (p. 249 f.). Duttlinger’s original and thorough piece is representative of just what makes this collection so valuable.

One caveat should be brought to mind when coming to this collection, a caveat that is articulated by Midgley, as he tells the reader that, 

my investigation is exploratory, and my conclusions are provisional, but I believe that this topic [i.e. poetic responses to early aviation] provides a good opportunity to illustrate a problem which confronts us whenever we try to move between literary interpretation and cultural history: it is the problem of linking the broader evidence of cultural change in a human society to the specific utterance of literary texts (p. 109).

Perhaps in light of the broad issues broached in the collection, provisional conclusions are the most we can expect. Yet, the reader should then be prepared to feel a bit frustrated at times, by the open-endedness of the conclusions and the sweeping scope of certain claims. Particularly troubling was the lack of precision regarding the meaning of ›Romanticism‹, a term referenced by several of the authors, with no careful attention to the details of which part of Romanticism was being discussed (early, middle, late) or which aspect of Romanticism was relevant to the discussion. Nonetheless, the attentive reader will certainly come away from this collection with new insights on the cultural situation of Germany in the wake of scientific and literary developments which have shaped our view of nature and of our place within it.

Christof Mauch (Hg.), Nature in German History. New York: Berghahn Books, 2004. 136 S.

Christof Mauch’s collection is based on a lecture series that took place at the German Historical Institute in the fall of 1999. He tells us at the outset that

despite the broad chronological, geographic, and thematic range of the essays presented here, there are indisputable gaps. Nonetheless, this collection does give a sampling of the diverse approaches scholars are taking in addressing the key issues in the environmental history of Germany. Taken together, these essays illustrate the ways that environmental questions have come to figure prominently in German cultural, political, and economic life (p. vii).

The collection does indeed give a sampling of diverse approaches to nature: we are given insight into the role of technology in managing nature, the close connection between nature and national identity, and the influence of ideology on our ideas of nature.

In his article Conquests from Barbarism: Taming Nature in Frederick the Great’s Prussia, David Blackbourn does an impressive job of linking Frederick the Great’s project to physically transform the wetlands of the North German Plain to a project of taming nature. In his article The Political Ecology of the Rhine, Marc Cioc also discusses the social and political dimensions of efforts to tame nature. Cioc focuses upon the role of Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, and France in shaping the Rhine’s political ecology, and he carefully unpacks what it means to speak of the Rhine as an ›international river‹, tracing the saga of this body of water (so widely referenced in the German tradition) from its political battles to the peace treaties that shaped its ownership, and the philosophers (Martin Heidegger) and poets (Friedrich Hölderlin) who have sung its glories. The ways in which the freedom of the river has been restricted by technology is also discussed by Cioc, who maintains that »today’s Rhine is anything but free: it is harnessed from its headwaters to its delta by a chain of hydrodams, locks, reinforced banks, wing dams, reservoirs, and harbors« (p. 36). Cioc discusses the costs of such technological intrusions to the animal species that inhabit the river. His contribution is a fine example of how a specific natural entity, in this case a river, can be used to uncover cultural, political, and environmental aspects of history. The taming of the Rhine becomes, in Cioc’s rendering of this tale, a fascinating chapter of German history.

Linda Parshall discusses quite a different kind of taming project, that undertaken by Prince Hermann Pückeler Muskau (the Green Prince of Germany), as he shaped nature to enact his vision of aesthetic and social utopia. Parshall attempts to connect the Green Prince to the Romantic Movement, yet the details of the Romantic connection are not made precise enough to be convincing. Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn also addresses the taming project of nature within the context of garden design, pushing his analysis to make a connection between the history of gardens and landscape design in Germany to the ideas of nature and landscape in Nazi ideology.

The relation between nature and ideology in postwar West Germany is also explored by Sandra Chaney. In her article For Nation and Prosperity, Health and a Green Environment: Protecting Nature in West Germany, 1945-1970, Chaney discusses how the development of a healthy Umwelt became more important than the idea of untainted Heimat. Chaney gives an impressively detailed account of the formation of new parks during the postwar period in Germany and the protests in favor of the environment that had to be couched in careful terms so as to avoid falling under the shadows of the despicable claims that had been made during Hitler’s time about an exclusively (and excluding) German Heimat and the need for Lebensraum. The final contribution of the collection by Franz-Josef Brüggemeier presents the problem of the devastating effects of pollution, and the death of forests, Waldsterben as »not so much an empirical phenomenon but rather a social and cultural construction« (p. 130).

Each shift in a particular approach to nature is charted within »the larger framework of German political and cultural history« (p. 6), which, as in the Emden/Midgley collection, situates the themes in a rather narrow, but also sharply focused context. Unfortunately, the two collections also share the imprecision mentioned above regarding the use of the term ›Romanticism‹: it is mentioned in several of the contributions, but never clearly defined. This is particularly disturbing given the many stereotypes that surround the Romantic Movement and its place in German culture.

Given that so many of the contributors go to great lengths to provide a nuanced discussion of the shifts in meaning of nature and its relation to national identity, within the context of Germany, a nation where the notion of identity is particularly difficult to broach because of the atrocities that took place in the name of the German nation during the 20th century, some of the claims made by Mauch in his introduction are quite unsettling. After clearly laying out the scope and focus of the collection, stressing, in particular, the relation between nature and national identity, Mauch states: »Given the emotionally charged relationship between Germans and their trees, one can understand that Berlin mayor Ernst Reuter called the destruction of the city’s wooded central park, the Tiergarten, during World War II ›the most painful wound that Berlin had suffered from the war‹« (p. 3). I, for one, cannot understand how, in the wake of the wounds inflicted upon humanity in Berlin during that period, anyone could really believe that the destruction of trees was the deepest wound Berlin suffered: such a claim is insensitive and deeply offensive. Nor do I understand how Mauch could repeat Reuter’s assertion, without further analysis, especially since several of the contributors go to great lengths to show just how complicated the relation between nature and national identity became in Germany in the period of WWII and its aftermath. Mauch’s almost flippant turn away from those complications makes it seem that in caring for nature, one moves away from a deep concern for the humans that are part of nature too. This problem notwithstanding, the collection can be recommended as a valuable contribution to our understanding of the troubling relation between nature and national identity.

Prof. Dr. Elizabeth Millán-Zaibert, DePaul University, Department of Philosophy, 2352 N. Clifton Ave., Suite 150, Chicago, IL 60614-320; E-Mail: