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  • At the Limit of the Obscene: German Realism and the Disgrace of Matter by Erica Weitzman
  • Alyssa Howards
Erica Weitzman, At the Limit of the Obscene: German Realism and the Disgrace of Matter. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2021. 282 pp.

After several decades of lively scholarly discussion on the topic beginning in the 1990s, this volume adds a compelling new dimension to German realism and its engagement with the material world. In her profoundly intellectual and innovative reflection on this literary movement, Weitzman examines via the aesthetic concept of obscenity the questions of materiality posed by realism. She begins by carefully examining the loaded title words realism and obscene—a task easier said than done, given the plasticity of these terms. Beginning with the origins of the former term as a designation for true-to-life depiction, she traverses its elusive meaning and interpretation in German Studies. Weitzman deconstructs the latter word as a similarly evasive term: we most readily understand obscene as a synonym for pornography, but as she explains, this aesthetic concept extends far beyond our common understanding of this term.

It is in their relationship to matter, Weitzman offers, that realism and the obscene most profoundly intersect, and examining their role in the representation and regulation of the material is the task of her investigation. The book comprises five literary case studies, chronologically ordered from the last half of the nineteenth century into the twentieth century. Of note is Weitzman's inclusion of some works that no longer are part of the canon, thereby offering a richly layered set of examples.

Beginning her inquiry with Adalbert Stifters Der Nachsommer (1857), Weitzman identifies in the novel a "leitmotif of trash, disorder, decay, and chaos," arguing that Stifter stages these castoffs in the spirit of the day's picturesque painting style, repurposing and redeeming them as aesthetically valid objects or even as treasures (22). She thereby recontextualizes Stifters (infamous ordering and framing in Der Nachsommer as not simply the restoration of what she astutely identifies as discards but as a narrative on the resurrection of human meaning in objects. [End Page 137]

The subsequent novel, Gustav Freytag's bestselling Soll und Haben (1855), is the quintessential example of programmatic realism, whereby objects are imbued with meanings that reflect the novel's human actors. While her attention to Stifters material emphasized their transformation from rubbish, Weitzman's focus here is on Freytag's anthropomorphic sublimation of matter. Another contribution to the scholarship on Soll und Haben is Weitzman's observation of Freytag's staging of his Jewish characters, a "materialist" treatment that "perpetually blurs the border between thing and human," ultimately excluding them from modern, middle-class Germany (60).

Like Soll und Haben, Theodor Fontane's Grete Minde (1879) holds the questionable distinction of a onetime bestseller that is no longer central to the canon. This historical novella resurrects the distant past backdrop of the Protestant Reformation to address contemporary realist issues. Here, this study's truly impressive range—close reading, history, theory—converge as she extracts from the book's distant setting how the iconoclast debate is resurrected centuries later in realist focus on materiality. Fontane, Weitzman argues, uses the novella and its Reformation-era themes to reflect, sometimes uneasily so, on the task of the realist novelist and the potential of mimetic representation itself to be a form of idolatry.

Moving in the last half of her book out of the strict confines of realism, Weitzman notes a shift in the discourse on obscenity beginning with the naturalist period. In her chapter on Arno Holz, an author often overlooked by posterity, she explains how, unsurprisingly, naturalist authors more explicitly engage with obscenity than do their realist predecessors. Weitzman highlights Holz's use of the two central trademarks of naturalism: the genre of theater and the depiction of lower-class literary figures. Here, the tensions between depictions versus appearances of reality come into play.

The volume ends in the twentieth century, with Gottfried Benn and Franz Kafka. Known for the influence of his medical training, Benn, in contrast to the other authors in this study who try to restore or conceal the unsavory, intends to shock with...


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