Theses Doctoral

Understanding the Present: The Representation of Contemporary History in Ludwig Börne, Heinrich Heine, and Georg Büchner

Swellander, Michael

Understanding the Present examines the thematization of the historical present in nineteenth-century German literary texts. In theorizations of political literature, such as Jean-Paul Sartre’s writings on “committed literature,” an emphatic concept of the present is a given. Of course, the present is a notoriously elusive temporality. The texts discussed in this dissertation, rather than focusing on accurate sociological representations of the present or an intensive rhetorical engagement in its political discourse, interrogate how the present can be evoked in literature in the first place. Understanding the Present discusses the forms privileged by certain authors in the representation of the present – prose, periodicals, drama – as well as the paradoxes such approaches posed. Rather than discussing these texts in terms of “operative literature” or “committed literature,” which has been a trend in scholarship since the 1960s, this dissertation approaches the nineteenth century from the perspective of so-called Gegenwartsliteratur. It does not claim the successful or unsuccessful political intervention of these texts, but rather shows how their authors imagined a literary intervention in the political present could occur at all.
Chapter one shows Ludwig Börne’s popular magazine Die Wage: Eine Zeitschrift für Bürgerleben, Wissenschaft und Kunst, not only as surreptitiously carrying barbs against state-sanctioned censorship, as is most common in studies of the periodical, but as following a program of political historiography. Börne’s text is therefore subversive at a structural level and presents a poetics of representing the present. Chapter two shows how Heinrich Heine used the republication of his political journalism to reflect on the essential dynamic of understanding the present whereby one can only comprehend contemporary events with reference to the past and future. Georg Büchner’s drama, Dantons Tod, the subject of chapter three, presents a paradox similar to Heine’s, but through a little observed aspect of his citational practice, which I call “internal citation.” By showing his characters wittingly and unwittingly quoting each other in the play and repeating certain gestures, Büchner draws out ambiguities of authorship in political discourse and raises important questions about the experience of the present. Together, these three texts contribute to the study of political literature by interrogating the central notion of the emphatic present in it.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Germanic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Huyssen, Andreas A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 9, 2019