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Kein Cherub war es, der das wehrlose Kind aus ihrem Paradies vertrieb; es war das verjährte Vorurtheil, das feindlich den Frauen gegen geistigen Aufschwung entgegenwirkte. In der Wüste des Lebens sollte das Weib nur Kamel und Dromedar sein, das ging solange es seine eigendste Bestimmung nicht kannte”
[No cherub drove the defenseless child from her paradise; it was out-of-date prejudice that thwarted with hostility the intellectual improvement of women. In life's desert, woman was assigned to be the camel and the dromedary; this went on as long as she did not know her true calling.]
—Helmina von Chézy, Unvergessenes
WITH THESE DEFIANT WORDS, Helmina von Chézy paid tribute to her grandmother, Anna Louisa Karsch (1722–91), the first poet laureate of Prussia. Unloved, untutored, and unsupported, the Karschin, as she was known, created a body of poetry widely admired among her contemporaries. In her memoirs Helmina von Chézy proudly claimed this heritage; she was third in line in the Karsch poetic dynasty and destined for renown: “bestimmt, in der Welt eine große Rolle zu spielen” (Unvergessenes, 1:138; destined to play a great role in the world). This sense of destiny permeates Chézy's oeuvre, in particular her two memoirs Aurikeln: Blumengabe von deutschen Händen (1818; Primroses: Flowers Given by German Hands) and Unvergessenes (1858; Unforgotten). In Aurikeln she claims her place as an artist and confesses to her burning ambition to become famous; the text also testifies, however, to the cost involved in stepping beyond women's sphere: “Ich habe schwer dafür gebüsst” (97–98; I have suffered much for it). As she clearly recognized, she was caught between her desire to live and work as a writer and the gender restrictions of her time. Her outrage at the world is palpable in these words: “Dies Alles wäre nicht geschehen, wenn ich in der Sphäre der Weiblichkeit geblieben wäre, wenn nicht Alles, was mich umgab, mir vorgespielt hätte, daß eine Frau berühmt und groß werden könne, und daß dies ein schönes Loos sey” (98; None of this would have happened if I had remained within the sphere of femininity, if everything in my environment had not deluded me [to believe] that a woman might be famous and great, and that this would be a beautiful fate).
CONTEMPORARY TRAVELOGUES come in many narrative variations. What they have in common, though, is a focus on motifs “related to wandering and vagrancy, migration and exile.” Unlike the travelogues of the genre's heyday in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, recent travel narratives are “stories of disillusionment and frustration, of failing to realize dreams, [or] finding a new home,” writes Manfred Pfister. Such is the case in Sibylle Berg's Wunderbare Jahre: Als wir noch die Welt bereisten (2016; Wonderful Years: When We Were Still Traveling the World) and Rolf Niederhauser's Seltsame Schleife (2014; Strange Loop). Expressed in the nostalgia of Berg's title is a sense of loss for a time when traveling was still “possible.” Niederhauser similarly expresses misgivings about the viability of travel—the leitmotif of his novel is the Moebius strip, a strange loop that returns the traveler to the beginning of the narrative: “wenn die eine seite nahtlos in die andere überging, gab es keine andere seite” (when one side neatly turned into the other, there was no other side), implying that travel no longer leads to a destination. Both texts express the inability of contemporary travel writing to accomplish the things travelogues have traditionally done: give a nonfictional description of a journey to undiscovered or faraway places or, in the absence of undiscovered sites, give a description of the narrator's path to self-discovery, as modeled in Goethe's Italian Journey or Lord Byron's Childe Harold. In essence, the texts by Berg and Niederhauser declare an end to travel as a privileged signifier of Enlightenment values.
Both authors also point to a now obsolete paradigm in literature, where travel was traditionally linked to identity. This is particularly true for Switzerland, where both authors reside. For centuries, Swiss identity was defined by migration from the mountains to the low lands, where Swiss men found employment as soldiers, merchants, and raftsmen, and Swiss women as domestic servants.
“TOURISTS GO HOME” was a battle cry that could be heard in several European cities in the summer of 2017. Beleaguered citizens in places like Barcelona, Venice, and Dubrovnik demanded that authorities curb the number of visitors because they were pushing up prices, bringing traffic to a standstill, and spoiling local neighborhoods and cultures. Worldwide, tourism is the largest industry, providing employment for one in eleven people, and popular destinations have, indeed, experienced record-breaking levels of sightseers. In 2017, 75.6 million people visited Spain, and Venice, a city with a population of 55,000, saw 28 million visitors. Dubrovnik announced plans to drastically cut the number of tourists from 8,000 per day to 4,000. Residents angered by overcrowding, unrestricted hotel development, and the spread of Airbnb rentals are by no means limited to iconic European cities. Municipalities and countries from New York City to Thailand struggle with managing tourists’ impact on ways of life, resources, and the environment, while wanting to maintain the revenue tourism generates. Projected growth rates for the industry show that the problem of supply and demand will worsen over the upcoming decades, particularly given the rise in Chinese tourism. How to preserve localities that have been marked and marketed, sometimes for centuries, as embodiments of beauty and desire, while simultaneously granting access to millions, whose very presence destroys what they are seeking, is thus tourism's key challenge. Not surprisingly, the United Nations designated 2017 as the “International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development,” advocating that the capital generated by tourist businesses be used for goals such a poverty reduction, improvement of local ecologies, and employment opportunities.
While mass tourism jeopardizes famous sites, more affluent travelers are seeking to bypass the preselected experiences tourism provides in search of authenticity. In fall 2017 Benedict Allen, a British writer and traveler, was reported missing in a remote region in Papua New Guinea, where he had wanted to meet with an indigenous group he had first visited thirty years ago. Allen eventually was found and revealed: “I don't take a GPS because for me it is all about disappearing into a place.”
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the unification of Germany in 1990 allowed East Germans to finally travel freely to western countries. This new freedom to travel to the West not only impacted the worldview of many former GDR citizens, but also found its way into the writings of East German authors throughout the 1990s and into the present. In her study on contemporary German literature around the turn of the twenty-first century, the literary critic Christine Cosentino examines several tendencies by which contemporary German authors deal with America in their texts. One tendency she describes is “die Reise in die USA als Topos für die Suche nach Identität, die den politischen Hintergrund weitgehend ausspart” (the journey to the USA as a symbol for the search for identity, which largely leaves out the political background). This tendency—finding one's identity by traveling to America—is noticeable in literature by East German authors from the 1990s, one of whom is Angela Krauß. In many of her works, particularly in her novels Die Überfliegerin (1995) and Milliarden neuer Sterne (1999), travel to America is a catalyst for the narrator experiencing her own identity in relation to past experiences, specifically her life in East German society. The exploration of the new world manifests itself in these texts as a discovery of the narrator's inner self.
Sophie von La Roche's America novel, Erscheinungen am See Oneida (Phenomena at Lake Oneida, 1798), centers on a French aristocratic couple from Flanders who go to live on a remote island in upstate New York. Carl and Emilie von Wattines have fled to the United States from the French revolutionary Terror, in which several of their relatives lost their lives. On advice from a Quaker friend in Philadelphia, they find their way to an island in Oneida Lake. There they live without contact with other Europeans for four years, producing two children and making a modest life for themselves, before moving to a new town founded by Dutch and German settlers on the lakeshore. A narrator traveling in the region pieces their story together from what he learns from them and their friends. At the crux of the tale is how the Wattineses, Crusoe-like, manage to survive in their isolation.
Three factors play a role. First, in spite of being aristocrats, they possess a bourgeois ethic, demonstrating qualities like modesty, hard work, and resourcefulness that help them to thrive. Second, they have brought a whole library of reference books with them, including the entire Encyclopédie and Buffon's Histoire naturelle, to which they frequently refer for how-to information. Finally and most interestingly, Emilie Wattines decides to reach out and make contact with the local indigenous people, the Oneidas, when she is about to give birth.
In recent years, the works by the German-Jewish poet Gertrud Kolmar (1894–1943) have found renewed interest among scholars. Raised in the upper middle class of Berlin and fully acculturated in the German cultural heritage, Gertrud Kolmar was persecuted, under the pressure of the National Socialist regime, because of her Jewish roots. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she chose to remain in Nazi Berlin and continued to write until her death in Auschwitz in 1943. Even though her published work spanned the innovative period between 1917 and 1937, Kolmar's poetic oeuvre from the years 1927 to 1937 has received the most attention. Though neglected by scholars, Kolmar's earlier work is fascinating precisely because it gives prescient insight into her poetic adaptations of questions concerning place, power, and gender at the end of the First World War.
My essay investigates an early poem in Kolmar's work: “Die Aztekin” (The Aztec Woman), written around 1920 and published in Früher Zyklus I. In memoriam 1918. Kolmar's “Aztekin” illustrates a testing ground for colonial fantasies and gendered mappings in its imaginary space of a poetic “Aztec empire.” The poem responds not only to preestablished writings on gendered conquests in the New World but also, more specifically, rewrites them in the perceived context of an imperial apocalypse in and after 1918, between megalomaniacal power struggles and the collapse of the Wilhelmine empire.