Thursday, December 16, 2004

In a lonely place

I have been researching Josef Ponten (1883-1940), a minor German writer of the Weimar and early Nazi periods. Ponten was born in Raeren, a town near Eupen. His ancestors came from the area between Aachen, Eupen-Malmedy, and Maestricht, living at different times in what would become different nations, and Ponten moved between Eupen and Aachen several times. He published at least one novella before he completed his studies in architecture and served in World War One.

After the war his writing activities intensified. However, he spread himself over several disciplines: novellas, travel, art and architecture. In 1920 he moved from Aachen (due to the Belgian occupation) to Munich. There he drew close to Thomas Mann, mostly because he felt that he should be considered a great writer. Mann was not entirely impressed with Ponten: he felt that Ponten could be excessively nationalistic at times. Conversely, Ponten could be critical of Mann's work, and he found The Magic Mountain repulsive. Nevertheless, the two authors helped each other out in their careers: Mann was critical at getting Ponten an appointment to the Prussian Academy of Poetry, noting that Ponten expresses the "concept of the nation as the center and connection of art and thought." Ponten was also friends with Hermann Hesse, who contributed illustrations to one of Ponten's books.

His literary legacy is not impressive. He wrote numerous novellas, travel books, and some works on art and architecture (the most intriguingly titled being Architectur, die nicht gebauet wurde (Architecture that should not be built)). Culturally, his most notable works were an epic series on the Volga Germans in Russia. In 1925 Ponten was invited by the communist government to participate in a gathering of European intellectuals (a trip designed to cast the Soviet Union in a favorable light). On that trip, Ponten met a teacher and bureaucrat from the Volga Republic. (Geitner Simmons has several posts on these people (here and elsewhere)). The meeting led Ponten to consider the larger problem of the Auslandsdeutsch (Germans abroad), which became one of his major literary themes in the 1930s. He published a few books specifically on the Volga Germans themselves: Wolga, Wolga (1930), Rhein und Wolga (1931), and Im Wolgaland (1933).

However, the most impressing parts of his writing may have been more related to his travel writing. Ponten thought of the landscape as a formative element of the individual that could not be displaced. It was so personal that it could not be captured by geographers and planners. According to Ponten, the German landscape, as imagined and lived, was decentralized, still reflective of the German experience of fragmentation (Stammesdarstellung: representation of the tribe).

The novel Die Insel (1921) reflects Ponten's feelings about the affect that the landscape has on the mentality and behavior of individuals. The plot itself is somewhat mundane (and I will be brief on it because a summary would make the novel seem anti-clerical, and Ponten's object could easily have been the academy): the isolation of an island-cloister is disturbed by the arrival of a woman, leading to a predictable breakdown in the religious practices of the monks. Nature, in the novel, is a force that moves the characters and influences them to take different actions.

I find this novel interesting because it questions the extent to which autonomy is possible. The people who come to the island are trying to resolve the restlessness that they feel by isolating themselves in (what looks like) nature. The truth is that their longing is not for nature, but for home, and the island becomes another experience in lives that are physically, socially and culturally migratory. Autonomy, whether the moral autonomy of the monks or the social isolation of the woman, does not satisfy: it is as artificial as the worlds they left behind.

Autonomy cannot be a strategy for cultural survival. I know that Jonathan Dresner considered this in the context of medieval Japan. Ponten suggests (and I believe that he was addressed writers of nostalgic Heimat novels) that success will always be temporary and, ultimately, elusive.

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