Think Piece

“Jules Verne would roll over in his grave,” or Döblin on the Future

by guest contributor Carolyn Taratko

Migrants streaming into Europe’s cities, postcolonial conflicts brought home, Greenland’s melting ice sheet, scientists emancipated from nature’s constraints through the use of genetic engineering; these sound like today’s headlines, but in fact they come from the pages of Alfred Döblin’s novel Berge Meere und Giganten (1924). It narrates the story of humans between the twenty-third and twenty-eighth centuries. Along general lines, it is a story of bipolar world of great, urbanized powers, East and West, a catastrophic war (the Uralische Krieg), and the quest for new areas of settlement in Greenland to relieve growing population pressure. Its epic form allows for many digressions: descriptions of landscapes modified by technology, war and hubris, accounts of battles and love triangles burdened by cultural baggage in a world of empowered, even ferocious women. It is, in one word, staggering. The force of the imagination behind this work is a wonder in itself.

Alfred Döblin (c. 1930s)
Alfred Döblin (c. 1930s)

This earlier novel by the author of the famed Berlin, Alexanderplatz runs over 600 pages and resists any neat summary. Günter Grass once described it as “written as if under visionary influence.” Döblin clarified his goal: to write so that “Jules Verne would roll over in his grave” (Döblin, AW, Brief an Efraim Frisch, 2. Nov. 1920, 120). Yet it has largely been forgotten, partly due to the fact that scholars are unsure of how to handle such works. Among historians utopian/dystopian works are a relatively underexplored source, liable to be written off as curiosities. It is as if the act of marveling at their visionary power, at the uncanny “accuracy” of the predictions held within such fictions somehow precludes taking them seriously.

Döblin began work on Berge Meere und Giganten in the fall of 1921, a year after the publication of his historical novel Wallenstein, set during the Thirty Years War. He oriented the project around the question, “What will become of man, should he continue to live in this way?” The time he spent researching, he reported to friends, was marked by extreme physical exertion and a neurotic state that bordered on mania. Döblin’s time at a military hospital Alsace-Lorraine during the First World War had brought him into direct contact with the horrors of the war that serve as the origin of this fictional universe. The recurring images of flesh mangled by machines that appear in the novel are hardly writerly abstractions.

Wider political forces also gave life to this novel. Contemporary observers and generations of historians have commented on the crisis-ridden years of the Weimar Republic. There is no doubt that, in Detlev Peukert’s words, the “birth trauma” of the Weimar Republic in the November Revolution and the Treaty of Versailles left the German government vulnerable to a prolonged crisis of legitimacy. Saddled with reparations, bound with demands for disarmament and dealing with maimed territory, the young republic faced challenges both at home and abroad. But for Döblin it was the failure of the 1918/19 Revolution (which he would later make the subject of a four-volume historical novel) that proved to be the most colossal disappointment. How to move forward? What had once seemed to be the best hope for the future – Social Democracy– had been largely discredited and hollowed out. Döblin experienced outrage, supplanted by recognition.

His outrage was best articulated in his journalism from these years. But even for as sharp an eye as Döblin, reportage and satire had its limits. Within the framework of a historical novel, Döblin was able to pursue a different “truth.” The novel, he wrote, is privilege to its own truth—not the “facts” of journalists or of white-bearded historians (Döblin seems quite unimpressed with the latter group), but personal and social truth (Echtsheitscharakter). It could address gender relations, love, marriage, friendship—in short, things that no newspaper and serious history book could illuminate. Such were the arguments Döblin marshaled in favor of the historical novel, whose setting in the past granted it a certain degree of plausibility. A novel set in the distant future failed to offer such security.

If Döblin was convinced of the power of the historical novel to represent and critique, why did he spend years drafting a novel set in a distant future, a space that would unsettle the reader and court the bounds of plausibility? We can see from his years of embittered reportage that Döblin was ready to take his critique not only of Weimar Germany and of the increasingly apparent tendencies of urbanization, mass culture, rationalization in the “the West” one step further.

Döblin did not make the jump to utopian fiction in 1921 in isolation. Utopian works gained wider currency as a genre and intellectual project in the early twentieth century. Novelists turned towards future-oriented, experimental forms, academics began to take utopia seriously as objects of analysis, and across the political spectrum in Germany such projects were embraced as a means of representing a world worth striving for. As the sociologist Hans Freyer wrote in 1920, utopia constituted a “creative form of practical rationality.” Rüdiger Graf has identified the transformation that the term “utopia” underwent in the early twentieth century, shedding its earlier fantastical and pejorative sense to become recognized as a form of critical debate at the very heart of the emerging social-scientific project. The intensified interest in utopia followed from a general acceptance that these constructions (no longer just fictions) acted as a determining force in political behavior. Graf has charted the development of utopian studies alongside sociology; the two represented twin approaches to understanding the crisis of the 1920s. In the wake of the World War, the Russian Revolution and revolutionary events that swept across Europe, a dawning awareness of the contingency and malleability of circumstances was accompanied by an acceptance of utopian discourse. Graf refers to this process as a radicalization of Reinhart Koselleck’s concept of the Sattelzeit: an intensified encounter in which the horizon of expectation overtakes that of experience.

And here we must return to Döblin. Seen in this light, Berge Meere und Giganten is no mere flight of fancy; it is a rigorous exercise in historical imagination and continuity. Within Döblin’s novel we can see the horizon of expectation playing out in front of our eyes in lurid detail, defying any neat summary.

Carolyn Taratko is a PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University. For the 2014-2015 academic year, she is based at the Freie Universität in Berlin. Her current research focuses on resource management and perceptions of crisis in late nineteenth- and early twentieth century Germany.

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