Academic journal article German Quarterly

German stories

Academic journal article German Quarterly

German stories

Article excerpt

Teachers of German cannot discuss our profession "from outside." But we keep trying. There are, of course, recognizable outside perspectives: the official neutrality of funding agencies, or indeed the discipline of cultural studies itself, with its self conscious origins in British class struggles and media/reception theory. However, when Jeffrey Peck, in his wellknown contribution to The German Quarterly's 1989 symposium, argues for a certain anthropological ("topographical") distance from Germany, symbolically assisted by the Atlantic Ocean, he is essentially articulating a research project, one that has been very fruitful for himself and for others within the profession. Yet he has not reached an Archimedean point from which German Studies might be clearly distinguished from "traditional" Germanistik. There is no such perspective. Indeed, for us German teachers, the Atlantic Ocean is a divide we are crossing in our minds ceaselessly To state the obvious: learning the language takes a long time, necessarily engaging major achievements of German culture (Wagner and Rilke, for me) and/or nuances of German social-political attitudes. And once those initiatory years have passed, we are irrevocably inside, or half inside, Germany's life story, entering a continuum of thinking about Germany, both creative and professional, that remains consistently alive. All the "German questions" seem perpetually open: how of ten it happens that sentences by Heine, Friedrich Schlegel, or even Luther speak directly to the sentient moment. Within such a self aware, self ironizing tradition, German Studies will never lack for resources to confront the exclusivist claims of the Zeitgeist. To seek a perspective on this tradition from an imagined outside appears neither possible nor desirable.

From the inside of thinking about the profession, teaching propels the scholar into a position on the outside, as the valuable User's Guide to German Cultural Studies of 1997 makes clear. Choices in teaching inevitably involve constructing "canons." From the outside, we proselytize about things German to our students, confronting the reserved attitude of worldlywise young people-who are, however, putting their toes and sometimes more in the cultural waters through language study Two huge difficulties confront German studies teachers. First, presenting the very quality of German culture that fascinates us, its monumental complexity and interconnectedness, renders it very hard to reduce to manageable assignments. Students may react with visceral excitement to Nietzsche: how is it possible to transfer some of that excitement to the study of Goethe, Wagner's music dramas, or Thomas Mann (who used to be a bestselling author)? Even graduate students are resistant to reading Der Zauberbergalthough they are very satisfied when finished. The second major problem is foreshadowed by Sander Gilman's piece in the GQ Symposium: the placing of the Holocaust at the center of the German Studies project. For a long time, perhaps still in 1989, that seemed an important goal, for the Free World as well as for us. But surely it has been overachieved. On the one hand, Goldhagen's quasi-deterministic diagnosis of "eliminationist anti-Semitism" reinforces a familiar teleology, impoverishing the German past as actually lived; on the other, the persistence of "fascinating fascism" in popular culture tempts some to take advantage of that reductive teleology in order to get students' attention. The uniqueness of the Holocaust is irreducible. But the multiple contexts of earlier anti-Semitisms, and the twists and turns of Holocaust reception, require attention in their own right. A colleague and I are planning an introductory course on the issues, perhaps with both English and German language versions, and we begin our proposed description thus: "More than 50 years after the Holocaust, issues associated with it such as fanatical nationalism and racism, genocide, technological efficiency, and extreme and arbitrary suffering haunt all subsequent politics, both inside and outside Germany " Since my colleague and I are within driving distance of the US Holocaust Museum and can schedule a field trip, we hope to structure a thorough and responsible treatment of the topic, including the question of resistance and the meanings of postwar memorials. …

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