The Intersection of the Demonic and Ecological Spaces in German Modernism
Written by Amy Ainsworth, PhD student (University of Cambridge)
Amy Ainsworth(University of Cambridge): I am a 1st year PhD student researching the demonic as it may be traced in different kinds of primarily ecological space in German modernist literature, and the implications of its presence for those who must navigate these spaces. I am exploring the links between the use of the demonic as a literary device and the encroachment of modernity, the impact of the demonic in ecological spaces on the individual psyche, and the ways in which these ideas might inform our approach to the environment in modernist literature.
The demonic appears persistently throughout Western literary history, manifesting itself in a number of ways: as a destructive negative drive, as the persistence of irrationality in a supposedly rational world, as an enormously powerful creative energy. Given the intrinsically ambivalent nature of the demonic, it may materialise as a combination of these, and in other ways entirely. My research draws on a significant body of theoretical work on the demonic, whilst exploring the concept in a context rarely touched upon. The demonic is frequently linked with character – with the experience of the individual – but it has rarely been explored in a spatial context. My work examines the intersection of the demonic as a mysterious, irrational and profoundly powerful force or energy with different kinds of ecological space in German modernist texts.
The demonic as it emerges in a literary context as an unknowably, highly generative but potentially destructive force appears particularly potent when it can be found in natural spaces. Goethe, for example, who produced significant theoretical work on the demonic, linked the concept with the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which appears to have had an enormous impact on the young writer. His work demonstrates profound awe and a respectful fear of the demonic as an unknowable, chaotic and uncontrollable force which moves through nature. There is therefore a precedent here for spatialising the demonic in an ecological context. Working in a German context, my research necessarily draws on Goethe’s theoretical work, which contributed in a significant way to the German conception of the demonic. It differs from the English-language understanding of the concept, in which it is more frequently linked with Judeo-Christian notions of evil. In a German-language context, although these links are still present, the demonic is often read – due in part to Goethe’s writings – as a powerful energy which may be simultaneously highly creative and profoundly destructive.
My own exploration of the literary demonic in ecological spaces focuses on modernist literature. These spaces as they are represented in modernist texts have previously been neglected as a focus of research, given modernism’s engagement with the individual’s psyche rather than with the external world. I would argue, however, that natural spaces in modernism have much to offer: they are frequently disquieting spaces which reflect or challenge the psychological experience of those who must navigate them. They are also not merely subordinate to human agendas – they are not simply there to be exploited. Rather, they foreground the ‘more-than-human’, which frequently takes the form of the demonic as a powerfully productive and destructive force. Locating the demonic in these spaces may therefore offer a new way of reading these spaces ecocritically. Those who come into contact with these modernist spaces are almost always forced to contend with a ‘something’ lurking behind them – an unknowable and sometimes threatening force which I will argue emerges particularly intensely in natural spaces. These are spaces which resist human exploitation, and in this literary context they have significant creative and destructive power. My current work explores these ideas as they appear in literary swamps and wetlands, with a focus on Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice) and Stefan Zweig’s perhaps less-known but highly significant 1922 work Der Amokläufer (usually translated as Amok). These texts feature two very different kinds of swampy space: Venice, the swamp city, and in Der Amokläufer, a colonial outpost in which the unnamed protagonist attempts to escape his life in Europe. Both characters – middle-class, professional men – seek escape in the swamp but are forced to contend with more than they bargained for. The swamp, historically reviled and even feared, is a space of contradictions: it is lively and dangerous, teeming with life yet associated with death and decay. The demonic, as a force which is itself simultaneously representative of enormous generative potential and of destruction (frequently of the self), thrives in this kind of space. In both of these literary works, the swamp consumes the individual who attempts to navigate it in order to find escape in the unfamiliar exotic. These spaces are mysterious, powerful in their own right, and not quite controllable. They have a huge and ultimately fatal impact on the physical and psychological experiences of the protagonists of these texts. Tracing the presence of the demonic in these works demonstrates the immense potential of ecological spaces in literature, and is a fascinating way of exploring the representation of the psyche in modernist texts.