May 20, 2013 | by Michael Lipkin
My literary hero, Adalbert Stifter, was introduced to me by a professor of German studies during my sophomore year at Binghamton University. At the time, I lived alone in a studio apartment on the west side of Binghamton, a small city in upstate New York crippled by its loss of the computer and defense industries. The low standard of living and high crime rate, palpable even in the city’s nicer parts, are all the more jarring for the beautiful view of the Catskill Mountains that graces the area. At the end of the school year, the cold lifts, the rains stop, and the weather turns mild. The air, normally raw and wet, is balmy, and thick with the smell of pine.
In an e-mail, I expressed particular curiosity about the desiccated natural landscapes in Thomas Bernhard’s novels, and my professor suggested that I read Adalbert Stifter, an Austrian author who, despite the endorsements of Thomas Mann and W.G. Sebald, is remembered as a hokey sentimentalist, interested mostly in mountains and flowers.. The stories, novellas, and novels for which Stifter is known were written at the height of the Biedermeier period, a time of bourgeois reaction after the catastrophic, continent-wide destruction unleashed by the Napoleonic Wars. Beidermeier culture was fond of middle-class comfort, of painted plates, copper prints, simple furniture, and little knickknacks. Rather than challenge the political repression of post-Metternich Europe and take stock of the hopes for equality and immediacy in human relations shattered by the failed revolutions of 1848–49, the German-speaking world of Stifter’s time withdrew into the home, the family, and from there, into a world of fantasy.
Desperate for my professor’s guidance and approval, I found Stifter’s novella collection Bunte Steine (Many-Colored Stones) in the deathly quiet German-language stacks of Bartle Library. Read More »
March 13, 2013 | by Michael Lipkin
In 1784, a twenty-five-year-old Friedrich Schiller, then Germany’s most famous playwright, published a notice announcing his new journal, the Rheinische Thalia. “It was a strange misunderstanding of nature that condemned me to the calling of poet in the place where I was born,” he wrote, reflecting on his path to fame. “To be inclined towards poetry was strictly against the laws of the institute where I was educated, and ran counter to the plan of its creator. For eight years, my enthusiasm struggled against the military rules, but passion for poetry is fiery and strong, like first love. What those rules should have smothered, they only fanned.”
These bitter words were written in memory of the Hohe Carlsschule, the military academy founded by Carl-Eugen, Duke of Württemburg, where Schiller spent his teenage years and young adulthood. In Germany the duke was known for his autocratic rule, wasteful spending, and eleven illegitimate children. At the same time, Carl-Eugen was deeply interested in statecraft and, above all, in educational reform. Decades into his rule, he decided to found an academy whose goal was to create a bureaucratic class free of the aristocracy’s tangled family loyalties. The only criterion for entrance was merit. Accordingly, students from bourgeois backgrounds (like Schiller) vastly outnumbered the noble-born.
Schiller was fourteen when he was sent to the Carlsschule, and he was not happy to be there. Visits from family were strictly regulated; female relations, particularly sisters and cousins, were forbidden entirely. Worse, Élève 447, as he was now known, had to wear a uniform, march in formation to meals, and sleep in a dormitory that was kept lit even at night to make sure the students weren’t masturbating. Any violation of the rules or attempt to flee resulted in the student’s having to write out his crime on a red card, which he wore pinned to his chest at mealtimes. As the students ate, the duke would work his way around the tables, read each card aloud, and give the student a slap. Serious offenses were punished by imprisonment or caning. Read More »