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The Intellectual after
World War III: Arno Schmidt's Science Fiction

Ursula Heise




More so than British or American literature, German literature has conventionally been divided into E-Literatur ("ernste Literatur" or serious, high literature) and U-Literatur ("Unterhaltungsliteratur" or entertaining, popular, "trivial" literature). There are few German authors whose work would compare to, say, the detective novels of Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler or the science fiction of George Orwell and Ursula K. LeGuin, which occupy an intermediate zone between high and popular culture. Science fiction in particular has gained no recognition as a serious literary genre in Germany; whereas futuristic texts by some foreign authors – notably H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and Stanislaw Lem – are acknowledged to have literary merit, comparable German texts either have been labeled "science fiction" and consequently been excluded from serious cultural consideration, or have acquired high cultural status precisely because publishers and critics have avoided associating them with this genre label.

The futuristic novels of Arno Schmidt belong to the second category. Arno Schmidt (1914-79) is probably the single most important experimental novelist writing in German after World War II; his narrative idiom, heavily influenced by James Joyce and, in the later part of his career, by Ludwig Wittgenstein, stands out by its idiosyncratic typographies, page formats and lay-outs, its omnipresent visual and phonetic puns, its persistent linguistic play on colloquial and dialectal varieties of German, and an abundance of references, allusions and parodies of texts not only from the German, but also the British, French, and Classical literary traditions. This insistently experimental and humorous literary language stands in stark contrast to the more conventional modes and styles of novelists such as Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll, or Siegfried Lenz and explains why Schmidt is much less known internationally than these other important post-War German novelists: his texts are notoriously difficult and, in some cases, practically impossible to translate (there are English translations of some of Schmidt's work from the 1950s and 60s, but none so far of texts such as Zettels Traum [1970] or Die Schule der Atheisten [1972], whose linguistic density and self-consciousness defies transferral from the original language). The enormous philological and historical erudition of Schmidt's texts as well as their sheer difficulty have placed them squarely in the category of "serious literature," and Schmidt has only rarely been acknowledged as a science fiction writer, even though four of his novels clearly belong to the genre: Schwarze Spiegel [Black Mirrors, 1951], Die Gelehrtenrepublik [The Republic of Scholars or, in the title of the English translation, The Egghead Republic, 1957], KAFF auch Mare Crisium [a title which in itself defies translation but might be rendered roughly as Village as well as Mare Crisium, 1960] and Die Schule der Atheisten [The School of Atheists, 1972] are all set entirely or (in the case of KAFF auch Mare Crisium) partly in a post-nuclear, post-World War III future. Some of the utopian and dystopian dimensions of these texts have been addressed in Schmidt criticism, even though the genre label "science fiction" occurs only infrequently. And German bookstores would never put them on the science fiction shelves: Schmidt's work, by the force of the high/low literature division, is dissociated from the genre.

Schmidt's imagined future is shaped by the context of the Cold War and its implications for the divided Germany of the 1950s and 60s. All of his futuristic scenarios take place after World War III, though this war has different consequences in the various novels. Schwarze Spiegel, Schmidt's earliest science fiction text, focuses on the lone survivor of an atomic and biological war that has killed off practically all of humankind. Die Gelehrtenrepublik, set in the early 21st century, describes the trip of an American journalist to the "hominid strip," a 400-mile wide corridor on the North American continent in which strange new species, part human and part animal, have emerged due to the radioactive contamination. This journalist, Charles Winer, also visits the "International Republic of Artists and Scientists," a floating metal island that was created in the late 20th century to offer refuge to the most talented people from the three dominant powerblocks – the US, the Soviet Union (and their respective allies), and the "Neutrals." As it turns out, however, IRAS is far from an unpolitical haven: its strict division into starboard and larboard, and the incessant manipulations and conspiracies between the two halves, replicate precisely the political division of the globe at large – there is no escape from Cold War even after nuclear confrontations. In KAFF auch Mare Crisium, the science fiction narrative is embedded in the account of a weekend in Northern Germany during the 1950s: Karl Richter entertains and seduces his girl-friend with the story of two colonies on the moon – inevitably, one American and the other Soviet – where the last survivors of an H-bomb war have fled. And in Die Schule der Atheisten, finally, Northern Germany has become a "reservation" under the government of the United States, the only (and now resolutely matriarchal) superpower left on the Earth beside the Chinese. Schmidt, then, never imagines the future of the globe without the devastation of war and deep divisions between political power blocks.

The narrators' cynicism vis-à-vis human society, one of Schmidt's main vehicles for his social and political critique, however, also leads to a certain ambivalence in what would otherwise be an unremittingly dystopian view of the future. Precisely because they are to some extent hostile to the company of humans, Schmidt's protagonists relish the disappearance of a normal social environment in favor of real or imagined scenarios in which they can devote themselves entirely to their cultural and intellectual pursuits. This is quite obvious in Schwarze Spiegel, where, as several critics have pointed out, humankind has been wiped out, but the natural world is intact and idyllic, and libraries and art galleries have been conveniently left standing for the narrator to enjoy. >1 In the midst of what, in a standard science fiction novel, would be post-nuclear devastation, the narrator builds a cottage and meditates on art and literature – more like Thoreau on Walden Pond than Traven on the Terminal Beach. Charles Winer in Die Gelehrtenrepublik comes to loathe the hypocrisy, corruption and latent militarism of the Republic of Artists and Scientists, but finds a more honest and congenial society among the mutant centaurs of the "hominid strip." In KAFF, the abundance of material comforts at the house of Karl Richter's aunt in the agricultural North German countryside stands in stark contrast to the scarcity of resources and the hostility of the environment that faces the colonists on the moon (even as the proximity of the border between the two Germanies also suggests parallels to the opposition between the two lunar settlements). And William T. Kolderup, the aged reservation senator in Schule der Atheisten, functions as the incarnation of literary, cultural, and historical memory with not only his extensive collection of books and paintings, but also his recollection of the most arcane details of cultural history, in the midst of what the visiting American Foreign Minister and her entourage cannot but perceive as a retrograde and primitive environment deprived of all the comforts of advanced societies. All of Arno Schmidt's futuristic texts, therefore, create – with varying means and different contexts – a tension between post-World War III dystopia and rural idyll.

As the examples of Karl Richter and William Kolderup in particular show, remote rural locations, so far from signifying a withdrawal from culture, function on the contrary as backdrops for intense and sophisticated cultural reflections in Schmidt's texts. Schmidt's protagonists, however resistant they may be to the "official" sphere of culture, often seem more at home in the world of books than the world of people, and find the countryside quite congenial to their pursuits. Their knowledge of and interest in the cultural past is as amazing as it can appear obsessive and pedantic at times. This knowledge, which they don't hesitate to divulge at any and every moment, gives Schmidt's text a historical and literary depth that is unparalleled in science fiction. If many authors take the motif of atomic annihilation as an occasion to break with history and everything the reader knows about contemporary society and its past, Schmidt on the contrary constructs his narrations as dense intertextual webs that allude to and quote from texts ranging all the way from Heraclitus, the Bible, and Middle High German to William Thackeray and James Joyce. The title Die Gelehrtenrepublik, for example, is a direct reference to Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock's Die deutsche Gelehrtenrepublik (1774) even as the motif of the mobile metallic island is taken straight from Jules Verne's L'île à hélice (1895); quotations and allusions in the text range from the popular novelist Karl May and James Fenimore Cooper to Hölderlin. >2

In general, there is hardly a page in Schmidt that does not overtly play with the literary tradition. Imagining the future for him always means revisiting the past and engaging cultural tradition, as becomes perhaps most obvious in KAFF auch Mare Crisium, where both the American and Russian lunar settlements have built up library collections with books salvaged from Earth. But since the Americans let each individual decide which one book he or she wanted to take on the escape trip, over 800 of the nearly 1,000 colonists took the Bible, so that the Glasstown library contains 843 copies of the Bible, but little else. Through a well-planned collective effort, the 16,000 inhabitants of the Russian colony, by contrast, have brought along approximately 60,000 volumes, to the infinite dismay of the visiting American first-person narrator. No other feature of Schmidt's future scenarios illustrates quite as strikingly the importance Schmidt attributes to the vital relationship between visions of the future and engagement with the (literary) past – at the same time that the success of the Russians' collective cultural venture makes the isolated position of his intellectual protagonists appear even more precarious.

But Schmidt's works are not only extremely intertextual, they also play self-consciously with author figures, narrative frames, embedded stories, and a multitude of other devices that foreground how the story is created and transmitted. Die Gelehrtenrepublik and KAFF auch Mare Crisium are particularly conspicuous examples: Charles Winer's report about the International Republic of Artists and Scientists is accompanied by a preface and footnotes by its fictional German translator, Chr. M. Stadion (an anagram of Arno Schmidt), one of only 124 Germans who have survived World War III, and who frequently reviles Winer for his lack of taste, his sexual inclinations, and his occasional remarks about his German ancestors. Since this resistant translator presents the readers of the novel with the only version of Winer's report they'll ever see, it is therefore very difficult for them to rely on the accuracy of what they read. And the text is subject to other kinds of censorship as well: as the first paragraph of the novel makes clear, "Interworld Law #187" allows the translation of certain "politisch oder sonst irgend anstößiger Broschüren" [politically or otherwise offensive tracts] only into dead languages (with only a little over 100 native speakers remaining, German in the early 21st century qualifies) and after a special license has been granted. >3 In KAFF, Karl Richter gradually makes up his story about an H-bomb war and the two lunar colonies over the course of a weekend so as to keep his girlfriend Hertha entertained; the science fiction narrative alternates and interacts with the story of the days the couple spend with the aunt, and often new developments in the story are triggered directly by statements or events that have just taken place in the main narrative. The unfolding story is also part of a complex game of seduction Richter plays with Hertha, and some of its details are motivated by his erotic intentions or her comments and criticism. The future, in other words, is being molded and remolded before the reader's eyes.

If narrative strategies such as these already set Schmidt's futuristic texts apart from run-of-the-mill realist science fiction, his late work Die Schule der Atheisten is even more experimental. An oversized, heavy folio like Schmidt's other books from the 1970s, this text cannot even be referred to as a novel; its subtitle classifies it as a "Novellen-Comödie" [novella-comedy], and its basic structure is that of a play: it is preceded by a list of dramatis personae, and the text is organized as a dialogue with the speaker's name identified at the beginning of each utterance. But, needless to say, this text could never be staged, since it is as experimental in its treatment of dramatic conventions as Schmidt's other texts in their use of narrative strategies. What characters think and what they say is not always clearly distinguished (sometimes, entire scenes consist only of what a character thinks), and even the difference between stage directions and dialogue is sometimes blurred.

The typography is equally experimental: besides extensive play with punctuation marks, superimposed letters and different font sizes, some pages include columns or special bordered fields with texts that the characters are in the process of reading, reproductions of paintings or documents, or photographs. Its use of dialectal varieties of German, wild punning and pervasive sexual and scatological humor make this a particularly entertaining book to read, but also a virtually untranslatable one. The local and the global, the trivial and the important interweave in intricate ways in this science fiction drama: even as the plot follows the most minor thoughts, utterances, and actions of three progatonists – the aging William T. Kolderup, his granddaughter Suse and her closest friend (the latter two almost exclusively preoccupied with sexual adventures) – momentous political events unfold around them. The American Foreign Minister Nicole Kennan visits the reservation and there meets with the Chinese Foreign Minister Yuan Schi Kai, two of the most influential political figures in the world in 2014, for talks whose outcome could shape the future course of global events. At the same time, the book offers highly amusing and sophisticated reflections on the relation between dominator and dominated as the inhabitants of the North German reservation prepare for their illustrious guests by carefully staging all the details and incidents of the visit so as to create the most effective combination of "rough living conditions," "native legends" and exotic charm. This tourist reinvention of local culture constantly collides but also intermingles with both the bawdy and scatological motifs that prevail in the thoughts and conversations of some of the "natives," and Kolderup's enormous and genuine erudition, which sets him apart from both the rural German population and the visiting foreign politicians.

Kolderup, the intellectual in a politically and geographically remote location, is a typical Schmidt protagonist, and the juxtaposition of his approach to culture with that of others who have either no knowledge of the past or only a pretense of education is also characteristic of Schmidt's other science fiction texts. The narrator of Schwarze Spiegel, the last surviving intellectual after World War III, takes books from the Hamburg library and writes a letter to the author of an, in his view, completely misguided Reader's Digest article about the state of culture (regardless of the fact that, in the universe of the novel, there is no postal service to deliver his letter and the author is no longer alive); >4 Charles Winer's perspective on culture is constantly contrasted with that of his translator, Stadion, as well as with that of the various artists, scholars, and administrators he meets in the International Republic of Artists and Scientists. And in KAFF, Karl Richter's historical expertise and inventive genius is contrasted with the culture of the surrounding German countryside even as his alter ego on the moon is forced constantly to compare the two lunar colonies and their experiments with culture after the destruction of their native planet. In all of Schmidt's science fiction texts, then, the fundamental issue is the fate of culture and education in societies that have gone past the point of self-destruction, and in which only vestiges of the earlier civilizations remain.

This is admittedly not the kind of text likely to capture the imagination of readers whose interest in science fiction is geared mainly toward voyages into outer space and aliens with exotic body shapes. But it does have a certain affinity with New Wave science fiction writers of the 1960s such as J.G. Ballard and Thomas Disch, who suggested that the genre should not focus on outer but on inner space, and whose novels describe in great detail how individuals cope with the changes that future technological, social, and cultural developments impose upon them. Through the precarious situations his protagonists find themselves in and by means of his extremely experimental, self-conscious, and highly erudite narrative idiom, Schmidt addresses the issue that he perceived as most pressing in his day: clearly, for Schmidt the predicament of the post-World War III intellectual, devoted to knowledge in a culturally and sometimes physically hostile environment, was not entirely a scenario of the future. It is also a complex allegory of what Schmidt perceived to be the situation of culture (particularly, but not only, in Germany) after World War II. But if Schmidt's futuristic texts are pieces of sustained cultural and social critique, they are also brilliant contributions to science fiction – and, last but not least, enormous fun to read: and that is a combination which only few writers in the genre achieve.

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footnotes

>1. For example Gnüg 281-83, Vollmer 57-60. ^

>2. For a detailed discussion of these and other sources of Die Gelehrtenrepublik, see Schmidt-Henkel 565-80 and Schweikert's essay. ^

>3.  On the issues of translation and censorship in Die Gelehrtenrepublik, see Hinrichs 227-38 and Helmes, esp. 220-22 and 228-30. ^

>4. The Reader's Digest article referred to is not fictional; it is "Man, an Autobiography," Reader's Digest, July 1947 141-76. Interestingly enough, though, as one critic has pointed out, Schwarze Spiegel is clearly indebted to a science fiction novel called Earth Abides by the very same author who wrote the article, George R. Stewart, which was published in 1949 (Vollmer 72-73). ^

 

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works cited

Gnüg, Hiltrud. "Warnutopie und Idylle in den fünfziger Jahren: Am Beispiel Arno Schmidts." Literarische Utopie-Entwürfe. Ed. Hiltrud Gnüg. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1982. 277-90.

Helmes, Günter. "Von 'Formindalls' und anderen 'Hominiden': Überlegungen zu Arno Schmidts Die Gelehrtenrepublik." Arno Schmidt: Das Frühwerk II: Romane: Interpretationen von 'Brand's Haide' bis 'Gelehrtenrepublik.' Ed. Michael Matthias Schardt. Aachen: Alano-Rader, 1988. 216-55.

Schmidt, Arno. "Dark Mirrors." Nobodaddy's Children. Transl. John E. Woods. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1995.

---. Die Gelehrtenrepublik: Kurzroman aus den Roßbreiten. Bargfeld: Arno Schmidt Stiftung, 1985.

---. Die Schule der Atheisten: Novellen-Comödie in 6 Aufzügen. Ed. Bernd Rauschenbach. Bargfeld: Arno Schmidt Stiftung, 1994.

---. KAFF auch Mare Crisium. Frankfurt: Fischer, 1994.

---. Leviathan und Schwarze Spiegel. Frankfurt, Fischer, 1974.

---. The Egghead Republic: A Short Novel from the Horse Latitudes. Transl. Michael Horovitz. Eds. Ernst Krawehl and Marion Boyars. London: Marion Boyars, 1979.

Schmidt-Henkel, Gerhard. "Arno Schmidt und seine 'Gelehrtenrepublik.'" Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie 87 (1968): 563-91.

Schweikert, Rudi. "Sattapadavitihárena: Über Leeres und Ungelehrtes zu Arno Schmidts "Gelehrtenrepublik." Germanistisches Elend: Wider die Pseudo-Wissenschaftlichkeit: Mit den 'Opfern' Arno Schmidt, Kurd Laßwitz und Karl May. Frankfurt: Bangert und Metzler, 1985. 57-81.

Vollmer, Hartmut. "Glückseligkeiten letzter Menschen: Arno Schmidts Schwarze Spiegel." Arno Schmidt: Das Frühwerk II: Romane: Interpretationen von 'Brand's Haide' bis 'Gelehrtenrepublik.' Ed. Michael Matthias Schardt. Aachen: Alano-Rader, 1988. 55-98.

 









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