Killing Time: Waiting Hierarchies in the Twentieth-Century German Novel

Killing Time: Waiting Hierarchies in the Twentieth-Century German Novel

Killing Time: Waiting Hierarchies in the Twentieth-Century German Novel

Killing Time: Waiting Hierarchies in the Twentieth-Century German Novel

Synopsis

Waiting is a ubiquitous, mundane experience and is thus uneasy on the radar screen literary criticism. Yet, as William (Purdue Univ.) reveals in this analysis of novels by seven prominent 20th-century German and Austrian authors, waiting is fundamental to social hierarchies and integral to the power dynamics structuring modern life. In a lengthy introduction, the author explains different philosophical and sociological concepts of waiting and time and outlines the reasons why waiting and corresponding metaphors of time attracted the attention of Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Anna Segher, Uwe Johnson, Ingeborg Bachmann, Wolfgang Hilbig, and Marlene Streeruwitz. Her main thesis, carefully articulated through close reading, is that rituals of waiting function to keep disenfranchised groups or individual characters subjugated and that the texts linguistic structures also reflect perceptions of time. For each of the works she selects - Kafka's Der Vershollene, Mann's Der Zauberberg, Segher's Transit, Johnson's Mutmassungen uber Jakob, Machmann's Malinam Hilbig's Ich, Streeruwitz's Nachwelts - William documents in great detail how characters cope with (self) imposed regimens of waiting and what this waiting exposes about sociopolitical and personal imbalance of power.

Excerpt

Waiting is often considered a necessary nuisance; it exemplifies the notion of lived time as opposed to clock time, as Henri Bergson illustrated in 1907: “If I want to mix a glass of sugar and water, I must … wait until the sugar melts. This little fact is big with meaning.” the qualitatively perceived “real concrete duration” of a waiting interval signifies more than its artificially measured length, or “abstract time.” Waiting time tends to coincide with our impatience, as Bergson observed, but in his 1889 essay Time and Free Will he had reasoned that the act of intuiting time marks a unique internal experience that cannot be predetermined or repeated, implying that the subjective experience of waiting for an outcome may guarantee our freedom from a deterministic future.

Beyond Bergson’s seemingly trivial sugar-water example, waiting periods are often symptomatic of the larger personal, political, and social power dynamics that structure and stratify modern existence. As Barry Schwartz remarks in his sociological study Queuing and Waiting, in many circumstances the “distribution of waiting time coincides with the distribution of power.” By analyzing how language is used to convey the multifaceted phenomenon of waiting, this study investigates how German-language novelists represented starkly hierarchical relationships in the past century. Twentieth-century German-language novels reflected the reality of how those in power consistently force their subordinates to wait—both waiting for and waiting on their superiors. By scrutinizing the linguistic and narrative devices through which the novels expose such hierarchical patterns, this study reveals how literary language reflected the shifting perceptions of time and space as the century moved through its cataclysmic changes. By considering the language as well as the sociohistorical backdrops of diversely im-

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