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“A Romance with One’s Own Fantasy”: The Nostalgia of Exile in Anna Seghers’s Mexico

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 February 2023

Matthew Philpotts
Affiliation:
University of Manchester
Sabine Rolle
Affiliation:
University of Edinburgh
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Summary

IN THE FUTURE OF NOSTALGIA Svetlana Boym defines “the predicament of Lot's wife” as the “fear that looking back might paralyze you forever, turning you into a pillar of salt, a pitiful monument to your own grief and the futility of departure.” In many ways Lot's wife remains the quintessential representation of the dangers of nostalgia in exile. Her predicament is the predicament of exiles everywhere: home is lost or, indeed, never existed to begin with, but nostalgic feelings persist, creating “a romance with one's own fantasy” (B, xiii). This romance is visible in literature produced by exiles as they wrestle with the question of how to look back — for looking back is at times unavoidable or even essential — without turning to salt.

From 1941 to 1947, Anna Seghers lived in exile in Mexico. In the opening paragraphs of Der Ausflug der toten Mädchen, an autobiographical novella dating from Seghers's exile period, Seghers's protagonist Netty describes the Mexican landscape as utterly alien, harsh, and unwelcoming. Netty is physically and emotionally weak throughout the narrative; she has escaped Nazi Germany but still does not feel safe:

Um Rettung genannt zu werden, dafür war die Zuflucht in diesem Land zu fragwürdig und zu ungewiß. Ich hatte Monate Krankheit gerade hinter mir, die mich hier erreicht hatte, obwohl mir die mannigfachen Gefahren des Krieges nichts hatten anhaben können.

Her homesickness is palpable in the opening paragraphs, and eventually it results in either a waking dream or a hallucination of Germany. In other words, Netty does indeed look back over her shoulder at the destroyed homeland — but she does so in a way that does not paralyze her. In Boym's terms, Netty's nostalgia is reflective, rather than restorative, and allows her to move forward, rather than stagnate. Although both forms of nostalgia involve “longing” and a “sentiment of loss and displacement” (B, xiii), restorative nostalgia is characterized by nationalist revival, the restoration of origins, and “total reconstructions of monuments of the past” (B, 41). In contrast, reflective nostalgia does not have homecoming as its ultimate goal. Reflective nostalgia, writes Boym, “lingers on ruins, the patina of time and history, in the dreams of another place and another time” (B, 41), but it does not attempt to recreate that time; rather, it acknowledges what has been lost, even as it longs for it.

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Edinburgh German Yearbook 3
Contested Legacies: Constructions of Cultural Heritage in the GDR
, pp. 30 - 46
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2009

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