Happy Jew for the Happy Few

It was Dominique Bourel’s 60th birthday yesterday. Though he is not too strongly involved in the German academical system, he knows enough people in it to be entitled to a jubilee “Kolloquium”. Maybe because he is not a German Professor, he was given not the full 3-days-of-very-long-lectures-programme, but a 3-hour-firework retracing the life paths of “Happy Jews” from the 18th to the 21st century. This main theme, as organisator Christoph Schulte explained in his introductory speech, was inspired by Dominique Bourel’s thesis in his biography of Moses Mendelssohn – who was according to him a “happy jew”. The talks were interlaced with piano performances.

Honestly, I was a little bit scared when I received the invitation and saw that no less than 14 speakers were announced. As it turned out, it is absolutely possible, within 10 minutes and with 5 to 10 slides, to sketch a lively portrait of an interesting persona – or, for that matter, to make a persona interesting. Which gets me back to my wikipedia/biography questions (see this post, Christof Schöch’s comment on it, and that post): What I appreciated was, in fact, the underlying breadcrumb, the motive of the “happy jew” – the idea that one should not read the history of the jewish people as teleologically determined by the Shoah. Progroms were mentioned, the shoah was mentioned, sadistic, antisemitic murder – it was not ignored. But the story to tell was another one.

This is probably the best possible example to make my point about biographical narratives: whether you are aware of it or not, they are undermined by an ideological subtext and it is only if you question that subtext – if you drive it to its limits as with the provocative “happy jew” – that you become aware of it. And since it is not possible to do without it, it is best to do with it, to be aware of it and to consider it a structural, hierarchical component of the biography. Which is why I still doubt that wikipedia can, in the end, be a good reference for biographies: it would suppose an epistemological coherence which it cannot provide.

The colloquium took place in a wonderful place called the Mendelssohn-Remise. They have a great cultural programme that you can consult here.


Places not to be

The first letters I encoded in the past few days are not really representative of the rest of the corpora, but they forced me to deal with interesting problems concerning the architecture of our index of places. Here’s a sample:

Après la rupture de l’<placeName ref=”#l0004″>Espagne</placeName> et de
l’<placeName ref=”#l0005″>Angleterre</placeName> la guerre paroit se
perpetuer et je n’en vois plus la fin, sur tout, si <lb/>la prediction de Mr.
<persName ref=”#p0008″>Litt</persName> qui a deviné si juste dans les
affaires de la nation, se verifie, que la guerre avoit commencé en Amerique
<lb/>et ne pourroit aussi finir, que là. Le General <persName ref=”#p0009″>Platen</persName> a occupé <placeName ref=”#l0008″>Naumbourg</placeName> et
<placeName ref=”l0009″>Zeitz</placeName>. Sil parvient à chasser les ennemis
de <lb/>l’<unclear reason=”german script, not so good legible, could mean Erzgebirge”>Erthgebürge</unclear><!– wie kann ich das besser machen? –><!– ausserdem schriftwechsel in die dt schrift!!! –>, il reparera en quelque
façon les fautes en <placeName>Pomeranie</placeName>. On dit, qu’en <placeName ref=”#”>Silesie</placeName> tout est en mouvement et on pretend <lb/>même
que le Roi pourroit bien marcher vers la <placeName ref=”#l0010″>Pomeranie

A work in progress, as you can see…

My coworker Alexander Meyer, who is, among many things, in charge of helping us putting up decent TEI and data architecture, first wanted to proceed with an index of places structured in countries>regions>cities>streets as Solenne Coutagne had first suggested (only reversing it so it would be a tree).

The first difficulty I encountered was “Germany”. Germany today, Germany in 1760, Germany in 1840 are different geographical entities. So we have to give up referring to one geographical entity, we have to consider more like the word “Germany”, and let the people using the search engine figure out themselves which Germany is meant in the texts of 1760, 1784, 1806, etc.

The next obvious thing is that we will have to tag those place names both in French and in German to make them searchable. I am now wondering if it would be worth putting the English variant of the place names too.

In those letters written during the Silesia war, as you see, Beausobre’s correspondent gives him information concerning troop movements, and some of the places named there do not really exist any more (they may have been inhabited in the 18th century and are only very small places now, not even villages), or they carry names like “Neustadt”, “Breitenfelde”. There are at least 10, if not 20 places called like that in Germany. Probably historians would know immediately which Neustadt is meant, but I have trouble spotting it. And my problem is, I really don’t care where this or that Neustadt is, and I don’t want to spend all of my encoding time looking for it when I know that there are letters dealing with publications I will be much more eager to retrace. I am looking for a way to isolate all the “unspotted” places and mark them as elements on which I would require feedback from my historically knowledgeable readers, or something like that.

In the end, this WILL be crowdsourcing, I guess… (and about that, see this paper by Hubertus Kohle!)

Materiality on a Scooter (@ Ribaltone’s with Toni Bernhart)

When I was 12, I discovered in an old family house (which used to be, in the 18th century or so, a post house) a whole bunch of papers – pictures, household accounts, letters – retracing the family history. I put it all in a trunk and thought I should either bring it to the local archive (but was afraid they would not take it because it was not so old and not so interesting) or at least protect them from decay, cold, heat, rain, fire… When I next considered actually taking care of it a few years later, dormice had brought their food and loot in the trunk and pretty much  everywhere in the room under the roof I had left the trunk in. My mother had thrown everything away months before – imagine stinking rotten eggs left in a closed room for months, with the summer’s heat warming the roof…

Deep inside of me, I am still convinced that my mother could have saved some of the material, if she had really wanted to. Part of me refuses to accept that the connection to our direct family history (though I honestly have little in common with those 19th century peasants and their struggles to sell their probably not so good wine) is now abstract, where it could have been palpable. What does materiality really mean, when it comes to archives? Should it be a purely individual, emotional access to the old piece of paper, or should it be made part of some kind of general interest? Should you be able to borrow old manuscripts from archives and bring them home on your scooter, or should they be left in their sanctuary?

Toni Bernhart and I discussed this yesterday when we started talking about the August Boeckh papers. I told him how difficult (and, in the end, expensive) it had turned out to be to spot and list the Boeckh papers (even only the ones that are in Berlin). My initial idea to take Boeckh as an exemplary corpus and to reconstruct the totality of his Nachlass in order to make it an actually tillable field for generations of scholars to come – well, it is not working  as smoothly as I had figured first. It is confronted to the fact that a random, but probably not irrelevant part of this corpus is private property. On the one hand, I understand the Boeckh family for not wanting to give away their precious treasures. On the other hand, they only want the materiality of it, and this is not really what I am looking for in the first place: I don’t want the book, I want its content – I want to see, for instance, which handwritten commentaries the margins contain (ah! the margins! I will tell you about encoding those at some point!). So I was all in all pretty happy when I discussed with Mrs. Angela Boeckh the possibility of digitizing some of it (and here goes another funding application…). But Toni Bernhart felt about that much stronger than me, saying that, especially when it comes to preserving the materiality, the only place valuables should be is a big archive like the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. He had a good point really. Of course, there could be a world war and it could all be destroyed. But it would actually take a world war – and not dormice.

The Osteria Ribaltone is an awesome restaurant, on the Viktoria-Luise-Platz in Berlin-Schöneberg. So appreciated that you really have to make a reservation if you want to be sure to get a table!

How critical should critical be? (Corpus Part Three)

I am polishing two papers connected to Louis de Beausobre, whose correspondence is the third of the four corpora we will edit first (at least part of it). As good an occasion as any other to post on that corpus and the edition problems I am seeing coming.

Louis de Beausobre was born in 1730 in Berlin as the son of the French reformed pastor Isaac de Beausobre (for those who understand French, take a little look at the French wikipedia page on him: the comparison between the French and the English version illustrate pretty well the point of my last post on wikipedia and biographies) and a much younger Prussian pastor’s daughter. Louis de Beausobre should not be mistaken with his older half-brother Charles Louis de Beausobre (1690-1753) who was a theologian and followed his father’s steps as a pastor before reaching, in the last three years of his life, the status of a member of the Berlin Academy of Science (in the theological section).

Louis’ career path is very different and it gives an accurate account of the way Frederick II. actually constituted a francophone elite in Berlin and Potsdam – beyond such symbolical measures as the invitation of d’Alembert and Diderot or the no less symbolical outcome of Voltaire’s stay in Potsdam.

Louis de Beausobre went to school at the local French Highschool (Collège Francois), where he was greatly influenced by his philosophy teacher Jean Henri Samuel Formey (who was himself in a major intellectual debt towards father Isaac de Beausobre). He then went to Frankfurt/Oder to study philosophy (the letters to Formey suggest it was mainly Baumgarten who counted as a teacher for him). I don’t think he really had a lot of occasions (or for that matter any reasons) to work on his German until that point, but it probably happened then. In 1752, Frederick, who had promised Isaac de Beausobre to support (financially, but, as it turned out, also institutionally) Louis, funded a two-year-stay in Paris. When he returned, Louis de Beausobre was received as a member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences – as a philosopher – and stayed  there until his death in 1783.

Beausobre developed a philosophy that turned out to be very close to Frederick’s. Who did influence whom? Can it be considered a tendency in terms of history of ideas, or did a few persons – among which Beausobre, who definitely profited from insider input on the Sanssouci doings – see the opportunity to create a closeness of interest with the king and seized it? The situation seems to me so intricate that it is not possible to have a clear overview of it in the current state of research – we need much more archives to be made accessible (working on it!!). Anyway, Beausobre was a skeptical philosopher just like Frederick, as I have shown in my paper “Pyrrhonismus und Politik an der Akademie der Wissenschaften um 1750” (that will be published this year in the volume Liaisons culturelles. Französisch-deutsche Kulturlandschaft um 1800, ed. by Anna Busch, Nana Hengelhaupt and Alix Winter).

The letters addressed to Beausobre and the few ones we have by him have – just like for the other corpora – a specificity I have to somehow make fit into our general editorial guidelines. Ironically enough, what I first considered would be easier to handle in that corpus than in others is now worrying me: the language. For the German texts, we have established clear rules as to what belongs to the diplomatical and what belongs to the critical version of the text (concerning the difference between diplomatical and critical, see this post and this presentation of the edition in German). Writing out abbreviations in the critical part I can implement on a French text, no question. But what I am confronted with now – and it will be the case in other corpora for sure – is that 1) the gap between 18th century French and today’s French seems to me to be bigger than between 1800-German and today’s German and 2) People who are no native speakers and still write in French because it is the usual communication language in Europe in the 18th century make mistakes or write in such an approximate way that makes it even harder to understand. So now I have to choose: Should I be “more critical” with the French texts than with the German ones, and correct things I assume are not “readable”? While taking a look at René-Marc Pille’s dissertation on the French letters by Adelbert von Chamisso last week, I found for instance a letter to a mister “Chamuseau”: as long as it is a person’s name, we have a way to tag and identify it as the Chamisso it actually is. But for substantives, verbs? I am afraid the over-correction would drag me too far though, and I think that in the end the French texts might be rather “less critical” than the German ones. So: polish your 18th-century French to get ready to Beausobre (and his German correspondence partners who write in French to him)!

Source: The first Beausobre manuscripts we will edit are preserved at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-PK.


My first thoughts on Frederick and pyrrhonism are to be found in the edition of Frederick I was part of until recently, in the volume: Friedrich der Grosse – Philosophische Schriften, ed. by me and Brunhilde Wehinger in 2007 (Akademie-Verlag Berlin)

The second paper I was mentioning is called “Louis de Beausobre, entre cour et Académie. La correspondance d’un intellectuel francophone en Prusse au XVIIIÈme siècle” and will be published in: Entrer en communication de l’âge classique aux Lumières, ed. by Pierre-Yves Beaurepaire and Heloise Hermant, Paris, Classiques Garnier, in preparation for 2012.



Missing Link

This week, we had the honor and the pleasure to welcome Helga Meise in our group, for a fruitful and Ersamus-sponsored exchange of ideas – including an intervention of her in our BA-class on Romantic German female writers (awesome presentation on Sophie von La Roche’s Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim and its importance in German literary history) – and a presentation of her latest research results on the novel writer Maria Anna Sager. Now that is someone you can try googling and wikipedying as much as you want: you won’t find any trace.

As she explained it to us, it took Helga Meise no less than 30 years to reconstruct who that writer was. As Helga was working on her dissertation, she found by total chance a novel, written by a woman (“ein Frauenzimmer” says the frontispiece) in the year 1771 – significantly, the exact same year Sophie von La Roche’s Sternheim was published. The difference between both texts is all the more striking. Not only does Sager dismiss any kind of male patronizing – which was in itself a significant way of breaking with the rhetoric of female writing preceded, explained, introduced by at least one male editor in a preface or a foreword. She also invokes all the traditional elements used in these prefaces – the usefulness of the book, the style, the reader it is conceived for – but only to ironically flip them to their opposite: not a legitimation discourse, but a discourse of non-legitimation. Which is, ultimately, as we know, an interesting form of legitimation. But in 1771? The modernity of the writing, Helga Meise showed it in her further interpretation, extends to the whole novel and to the following one, published in 1774.

In order to get to know who that extraordinarily writer was, there were very few tangible elements to start the search 30 years ago. The first book was edited, as I wrote, by a “Frauenzimmer” (a lady), the second one carries the initials M.A.S. This, and the publisher, a known representative of Enlightenment in Prag, were pretty much the only two leads. With the help of colleagues who went through archives in Prag and Vienna, Helga Meise reconstructed parts of Sager’s life. But only parts, really. These will be presented in her edition of Sager in the collection “Frühe Frauenliteratur in Deutschland” (Olms Verlag, coordinated by Anita Runge). Hopefully, you will be able to read it all in a year or so.

There is no definite proof that Maria Anna Sager (whose testament carries no trace of anything connected to writing, for instance) is in fact the author of those two Pirandellian novels. Only four copies of the books are still preserved (at least in Germany and Austria – please let me know if you find a copy somewhere else in the world!). Apart from a quotation of a recension of the first book in the second one, almost none of the historical information reconstructed through the archive matches the text or gives any kind of clue as to her position and her self-understanding as a writer.

In that sense, Maria Anna Sager is a missing link between us and those two novels (which, that at least is for sure, have been written by the same person). But we need that link in order to be able to make sense out of those two novels in a publishing context where the hits were called Fräulein von Sternheim and Leiden des jungen Werthers. We need it even if it is empty. We need a mental placeholder, something to fill out our inner metadata on these texts. Why it it so? Well, in this case, it does not have so much to do with a craving for information and with the need we have to put everything in the appropriate drawer. It has to do with the fact that these novels, although published in the 1770s, seem to be written just for us, addressed to us. They are so amazingly modern that it is just unbearable to think that there was someone, back then, who was so close to us, and we know absolutely nothing about her. She could be a symbol, she could be a living memory. But she is desincarnated, even her archival, paper self does so much as not exist. So – should she have a wikipedia entry? Should she exist on the web? How? As what?

The part I personally find the most delectable is the irony of having a woman, and a woman we know nothing of, being an exemplary and, maybe (surely) in its kind, unique connection between us and the writing of the late 1770s – in spite of all the male writers of the late 18th-century constantly showing off with their despise for their contemporary readers and their hope to be writing “for future generations”. They certainly had the publishing establishment backing them up on that. But when it comes to the text, four copies are enough…