“Der alte Stechlin schüttelte jedem die Hand…”

The homeschooling part of the day seems to work somewhat better now (in spite of the difficulties to access the teachers’ material: the platform is unreachable most of the day , so that we have now organized to download everything in the evening for the next day, preparing a daily folder for each kid – boy, are we lucky to have several computers!). Getting some structure into the other two thirds of the day is still a challenge.

While I keep doing things all day long, it feels like I do nothing. I haven’t found time to finalize anything, organization and communication are taking up absolutely all my energy. Most of the Erasmus students have now reached home and are at their parents’, and I am (by far!) not done preparing exercices to put online, let alone classes, but my students seem to be progressively adjusting, which is really good news. 

My main efforts are to free some time for reading in order to not drown in organization completely, and I have grabbed a novel I have been wanting to read for some time now, Der Stechlin by Theodor Fontane.  Beautiful writing, a historical setting in one of my favorite periods, pittoresque and very funny at that, and also quiet a Schinken, a ham, a big book that will last a good while. I have not been able to move very far into it at this point, but I noticed how I stumbled, at the very beginning, upon a simple sentence: 

Der alte Stechlin schüttelte jedem die Hand…

I couldn’t help but think “he is completely crazy to shake hands to every guest considering his age, he is going to get contaminated”. It’s not just me, I think – we have now internalized the gestures that protect from the virus to the point that it seems to affect all that we perceive: in TV series, in movies, in novels, we expect people to act accordingly to these life-saving gestures. It is amazing that this dissonance between earlier and new social patterns can have become so quickly part of our instinctive world perception – and quite scary, too. How long will it take to “erase” this reaction, once this is all over?

Among the projects I hope to be able to write about soon, the freshly started DAHN project should provide for some input. It will provide opportunities to elaborate on egodocuments and communication modes and their evolution along time – keeping in touch, too, with the reality of the communication conundrum virus and confinement condemn us to – to quote Fontane and old Stechlin again:

Es ist das mit dem Telegraphieren solche Sache, manches wird besser, aber manches wird auch schlechter, und die feinere Sitte leidet nun schon ganz gewiß. Schon die Form, die Abfassung. Kürze soll eine Tugend sein, aber sich kurz fassen heißt meistens auch sich grob fassen.

I for one would like to take his advice, and with it, the time needed for writing long, beautiful, dedicated words – and not just quick notes – in these troubled times. 


Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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