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Die Wuste: Terra incognita - Erlebnis - Symbol: Eine Genealogie der abendlandischen Wustenvorstellungen in der Literatur von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart.

Die Wuste. Terra incognita--Erlebnis--Symbol. Eine Genealogie der abendlandischen Wustenvorstellungen in der Literatur von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. By UWE LINDEMANN. (Beitrage zur neueren Literaturgeschichte: Folge 3. Bd. 175) Heidelberg: Winter. 2000. 450 pp. DM 98.

Announcing his intention to lay the foundation for a future 'Geschichte der Wuste' (p. 15), Uwe Lindemann offers a detailed outline of significant aspects of 'desert' and 'wilderness' (the German Wuste encompasses both). His cultural history (Part I) begins with a survey of geographical descriptions from Herodotus down to the explorations of Carsten Niebuhr, Volney, and Ludwig Burckhardt. Alongside such scientific views a series of metaphorical images emerged. From the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians by way of the Bible and the hermits of late antiquity down to Dante and Swedenborg, the desert was feared as the scene of temptation and even as hell itself, while the human imagination from antiquity to the Renaissance was prompted by its horror vacui to populate that vast emptiness with wondrous peoples and creatures. Since both Old and New Testaments featured the desert wilderness as the locus of divine revelation, asceticism as theorized by Origen was practised by the saints Jerome, Anthony, and other anchorites of late antiquity. This practice persisted into the eighteenth century, even though the Northern European forest had to be substituted for the Near Eastern and North African deserts as the site of hermitage. In a final transformation the German mystics interiorized the wilderness, seeing in it both a metaphor for man's remoteness from God and the necessary condition of emptiness for the unio mystica with God.

Part II lays the groundwork for modern literary appropriations of the image. Beginning with the wilderness as the setting for knightly adventures in Chretien de Troyes' Perceval and Yvain and of illegitimate love in Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan, Lindemann traces the transformation of the religious symbol into a literary topos in Petrarch (notably sonnet 35 from the Canzoniere) and the introduction of elements from the locus amoenus into the locus desertus. He adds brief readings of four texts exemplifying romantic associations with the Wuste: the world in ruins (Volney's Les Ruines), the encounter with the angel (Brentano's 'Ich bin durch die Wuste gezogen'), the Bedouin as quixotic fool or sage (Wordsworth's The Prelude), and the projection of the poetic imagination (E. T. A. Hoffmann's 'Der Einsiedler Serapion'). Next, Lindemann reviews the discovery of the desert by such nineteenth-century writers and artists as Chateaubriand, Lamartine, and Fromentin and the transference of the image onto the modern city with its loneliness and ennui.

Part III shifts from overviews to analyses. Flaubert's La Tentation de Saint Antoine is seen as the culmination of the images traced in the earlier chapters and here adapted to Flaubert's own hermit-like existence and his critique of civilization. In Also sprach Zarathustra Nietzsche transforms the desolation of the wilderness into the consciousness of the creative individual. In L'Immoraliste Gide uses the desert as the symbol of a world stripped of moral, ethical, and social values and from which his early heroes are unable to break loose. The oeuvre of Antoine de Saint-Exupery displays his ambivalent view of the desert both as a refuge from a decaying civilization and as the model of a future society. Conceding that the image is marginal in Borges' work, Lindemann argues that in two stories, El tintorero enmascarado Hakim de Merv and El inmortal, it is introduced to support the themes of labyrinth and immortality that concern Borges. Paul Bowles remythifies the desert to recover the mystery of terra incognita. In his essays and La Chute Camus is obsessed with the question of human communication in the nihilistic desert or wilderness of modern civilization. For Wolfgang Hildesheimer the Wuste has become a pure image--timeless, placeless, without history--for the devastation of the world and the end of fiction.

Lindemann's dissertation (Bochum 1998) is impressively, even oppressively, learned: it contains 200 pages of (often digressive and sometimes irrelevant) notes and bibliography, and the author works with original texts in six languages. Yet it remains sketchy; inevitably so, given its scope. The meaning of the wilderness in Christian theology has been covered authoritatively in a standard work not cited by Lindemann: George H. Williams, Wilderness and Paradise in Christian Thought (New York: Harpers, 1962), which explores also the Iberian mysticism of St John of the Cross, the wilderness church of Joachim da Fiore and St Francis, and the wilderness theme in the seventeenth-century Puritan reformation. The discovery of the desert in the nineteenth century has been exhaustively treated in several works not cited here: Raymond Schwab, La Renaissance orientale (Paris: Payot, 1950); Pierre Jourda, L'Exotisme dans la litterature francaise depuis Chateaubriand (Paris: Boivin, 1938-1956); Jean-Marie Carre, Voyageurs et ecrivains francais en Egypte (Cairo: Institut francais d'archeologie orientale, 1956). These also analyse the glamour of Oriental studies in the wake of Napoleon, Champollion, Silvestre de Sacy, and the fantastic Ferdinand Eckstein ('baron sanskrit'). Otto Spies in Der Orient in der deutschen Literatur (Kevelaer: Butzon, 1949-51) covers the decades from Brentano to Hildesheimer.

While it is difficult to fault Lindemann's selection of representative writers, it is a pity that he did not include Laforgue, who played a crucial role in the transmission of the French images of the wilderness to T. S. Eliot for The Waste Land. Lindemann focuses almost exclusively on prose works; yet many studies have emphasized the importance of the desert for such poets as Vigny, Gautier, Leconte de Lisle, and Rimbaud, all of whom are barely mentioned, if at all. The systematic approach, which reveals similarities among writers, neglects biography: most readers know about Flaubert and Gide in North Africa; but how many are aware of Hildesheimer's residence in Palestine or Bowles's sojourn in Morocco? Those experiences often mark a shift from the simple appropriation of a literary image to its imbuing with personal meaning. Rimbaud's life imitates art when he goes to Africa to seek the desert he had long featured in his poetry. 'L'Exode nihiliste' of which Laforgue speaks (in 'L'Ile') anticipates the Wuste achieved by Hildesheimer a century later, and exemplified by the Grenzsituationen celebrated by Alfred Andersch (Die Kirschen der Freiheit) and Ernst Junger (Uber die Linie).

One could quibble with points of interpretation. Is the bower of Tristan and Isolde indebted to the Christian wilderness tradition (p. 104) or to the love scene of Aeneas and Dido in Aeneid 4? Is not Volney in Les Ruines reenacting Gibbon on the ruins of Rome, or the ancient topos Roma fuit? In general, the individual interpretations are persuasive; the weakness lies in the selectivity and brevity of the texts analysed.

Lindemann has produced what he promised: useful, albeit isolated, foundation stones for a literary history of the desert and the wilderness. Let us hope that he, or another, will return to the topic and erect the entire edifice that this fascinating motif of cultural history deserves.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Ziolkowski, Theodore
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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