Paul Scheerbart, who died in Berlin 100 years ago today, belongs to the paradoxical category of uncategorisable writers. There he keeps company with the sui generis likes of Raymond Roussel – in fact his position in German literature is comparable to Roussel’s in France. Both arguably presented extravagant variations on the speculative possibilities first prised open by Jules Verne but otherwise owed little to their predecessors. They both issued their own books (Scheerbart initially, Roussel consistently) and were both largely ignored by the public while finding a small but highly influential group of supporters.
The comparison has its limits: Roussel constructed a spectacularly singular realm of his own imagining from which he never strayed, Scheerbart ventured a little closer to the styles and concerns of his era, particularly in his more satirical voice. A number of his works are written in the “grotesque” format employed to greater success by contemporaries Harry Hermann Schmitz and Hanns Heinz Ewers (who called Scheerbart “the least-read author in Germany”). Scheerbart’s satire sometimes took the form of blunt irony, such as the “anti-erotic” works he proposed to counter the profusion of libidinous literature in the 1890s. Similarly, a posthumously published study of Berlin’s fin-de-siècle bohemians maintained the conceit that, far from being poor, the café-dwelling writers and artists were in fact slumming plutocrats, with factories, coal mines and vast landholdings at their disposal.
He certainly knew what he was parodying – Scheerbart lapped avidly at the font of Berlin bohemia. By day he could often be found in the Café des Westens, by night among a pan-European circle in Zum schwarzen Ferkel. Rather than looking west and dutifully aping French literary modes, the writers here were re-ordering continental linkages. Those scribbling, drinking and arguing in the tavern were just as likely to hail from the east (Stanislaw Przybyszewski) or north (August Strindberg) as Germany.
Born in Danzig in 1863, Scheerbart was already embarked on journalism when he moved to Berlin in 1887. This was a time when the city’s literary life was firmly in the hands of the Naturalists. But Scheerbart was light years away from their world of querulous labourers, suicidal chambermaids and revolting peasants, as the opening words of his first novel Das Paradies (1893) proved:
How large the world is! The stars shone through the cold heavens of eternal night. We shot out with a roar, bright sparkling streaks of fire came and went. Gigantic glowing orbs blinded us, soon giving way to the mild shimmer of smaller worlds. As our eyes sunk into the deep blue, new lights flared up and glowed like diamonds, like rubies and carbuncles. We lay on Satan’s red cloak, we gazed out, the ends of the cloth fluttering about our ears – a whoosh sounded through space.
Nonetheless it would be some time before he truly reached the stars through his writing. In fact historicism dominates his early work; not the stirring epics of early Germanic heroes which had accompanied the first phase of the empire, but rather Orientalist fantasias. Come the new century Scheerbart maintained a rate of almost two new books per year until the outbreak of the First World War. Works like 1904’s Der Kaiser von Utopia (a title of typically Scheerbartian irony) picked up on the idealistic currents of the age and suggested where they might lead. Despite his faux-naif style, Scheerbart was too perceptive to accept at face value the promise of an egalitarian, pastoral, pacific idyll which would somehow magically emerge from a hierarchical, industrialised, highly militarised society. Time and again his books – even as they tell of remote planets and their inhabitants – foresee something perplexingly close to our present-day society, from visionary constructions to machines of destruction. Some of these works were illustrated by kindred spirit Alfred Kubin, while the stippled creatures from Scheerbart’s pen expressed their own mute horror.
Scheerbart’s works attracted the attention of major literary figures during his lifetime, including Ernst Rowohlt, Julius Hart and Georg Hermann. His radical theories of glass architecture brought his ideas beyond the bounds of fiction, moving into cultural theory (Walter Benjamin), visual arts (Wenzel Hablik) and – logically enough – architecture (Bruno Taut, who dedicated one of his best-known creations to the writer). In the artist Fidus, whom we saw recently in Prague, he found another kindred spirit – his head, too, was crowded with unbuilt monuments. Scheerbart would prove an influence on literary Dadaism, which was emerging around the time of his death; in 1897, for instance, he wrote a sound poem which predated Hugo Ball‘s efforts in the form by almost two decades. In the late 1960s, artist Günther Uecker depicted Scheerbart in one of his signature nail images, recently sold at auction for a record-breaking sum. In modern Germany, Scheerbart’s works are treated with respect, with a complete works published in 1996, joining regular reissues of individual titles and analytical studies as well as an annual award for literary translation given in his name. It is probably fair to say that Scheerbart has reached as wide a public as could be expected in his home country.
However the names cited above point to another key difference between Scheerbart and Roussel. As we’ve seen, the Frenchman’s influence spread throughout the world, secretly yet inexorably, reaching into avant-garde practice in a range of disciplines. The work of Scheerbart, meanwhile, has taken a lot longer to reach beyond Germany. Only in the last dozen years or so has translation of his work into English picked up pace. The always fascinating Wakefield Press have a handful of Scheerbart titles in their list and last year’s Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!! paired the writer’s own works with commentary. This interview with one of the anthology’s editors, Josiah McElheny, provides a good introduction to Scheerbart’s thematic preoccupations.
Naturally Scheerbart’s passing was overshadowed by the carnage of the First World War. A persistent story claims that he went on a hunger strike as a private protest against the barbarity unfolding at the front. This is almost certainly untrue. The likely reason for his demise, as his friend Erich Mühsam said, was that Scheerbart simply “drank more than he ate”. A plaque in the quiet, middle class district of Steglitz remembers him, and although there is nothing in the records to suggest otherwise, the building I loitered before earlier in the week cannot possibly be the same one that stood here in 1915.
Scheerbart’s passing was noted in Herwarth Walden’s journal Der Sturm, with a Kokoschka etching of the deceased on its cover and a transcription of Walden’s eulogy; its allusions to Goethe put Scheerbart in exalted company.
German art and my friends and I in particular have suffered another major loss. Six weeks after the death of August Stramm [poet and playwright who died on the Eastern Front] we stand at your grave, Paul Scheerbart. You are one of the truly great artists, for you are timeless. While the artists of your time were tenderly preoccupied with the Earth, you captured the world beyond love and Earth. While nothing human remained alien to the artists of your time, you were acquainted with the profane. Not all things transient, but all things intransient were a parable to you. And you had the gift that so few artists possess, of finding your own form for the parable. That is why your name will shine like the world which spoke through you. We, though, bow before you in mourning and reverence, Paul Scheerbart.