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Wilke, Sabine. Masochismus und Kolonialismus. Literatur, Film und Padagogik.

Wilke, Sabine. Masochismus und Kolonialismus. Literatur, Film und Padagogik. Tubingen: Stauffenburg, 2007. 246 pp. 48.00 [euro] hardcover.

Genealogical overviews of masochism generally follow a line from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's infamous Venus im Pelz to theoretical efforts by Krafft-Ebing, Freud, and Gilles Deleuze. Psychoanalytic perspectives, understandably, dominate the discussion. The volume under review here quite decisively chooses a different path. Following current debates in cultural studies, it points to a visual dimension present in discussions and depictions of masochism from early on. Its aim is to link masochism to issues of race, gender, and to some extent also class. In addition to "high" literature, Masochismus und Kolonialismus also draws on film, and on what we know about colonial exhibitions and pedagogical materials. First and foremost, its aim is to correlate the history of masochism with that of Germany's colonial expansion.

The result is a wide variety of challenging and original readings. For instance, it at first makes little sense that Lola Lola's (Marlene Dietrich's) audience in Josef von Sternberg's Der blaue Engel (1932) is composed largely of black men, while the film is situated in a small German town in the late 19th century. But it does make sense as an intertextual reference to Sacher-Masoch's Venus im Pelz, whose protagonist is humiliated not only by his mistress, but also by her three black servants. The scene may also be read as a commentary on colonial pedagogical literature and on the many travel narratives (fictional or non-fictional) that not only propagated strong masculine and feminine role models, but also a strict hierarchy between the races. Through this masochistic scenario, Sternberg and Dietrich offer a counter-reading of modernity that allows for a far more complex understanding of the power dynamics underlying German colonialism. But Der blaue Engel, like other cooperative efforts of Sternberg and Dietrich, also complicates the audience's (particularly the female audience's) attempt to identify with any particular figure in the film.

German colonialism advertised itself through images and texts. While these often emphasized the importance of self-sacrifice in the interest of Germanhood, in practice colonial imagery often articulated a fascination with the exact opposite of these "German" values. White women especially were supposed to keep the colonial enterprise on track so that their men would not "verkaffern" or "verkanakern," as someone phrased it at the time. Nevertheless, women are largely absent from popular texts such as Gustav Frenssen's Peter Moors Fahrt nach Sudwest (1906). Wilke includes detailed analyses of works by Gabriele Reuter and Frieda von Bulow, and shows that texts written by women internalize many colonialist stereotypes, but also appear to be more explicit about the masochistic dimension of life in the colonies, including all its ambiguities. Later texts such as Ingeborg Bachmann's fragment Der Fall Franza deploy explicit masochistic sexual imagery in a similarly ambiguous way. In Bachmann, different forms of identity politics clash: as a woman, the text's protagonist identifies with women of other cultures, while simultaneously having to acknowledge that her skin color makes her a perpetrator rather than a victim. Although Bachmann is far more explicit than earlier authors concerning the sexual nature of the (post) colonial double-bind, her work is representative for much of postcolonial writing in German after 1945 in that it high-lights paradoxes rather than offering a clear course of action.

Masochismus und Kolonialismus certainly makes the case that there is a masochistic subdiscourse underlying much of German (post)colonial writing, and that the concept can help us understand colonialism's dynamics. I am less convinced, however, that this is a specifically German phenomenon, and would be more inclined to say that masochism is inherent to any relationship that depends on hierarchical extremes (this may also explain why masochism may seem absent in, and yet nevertheless relevant for, German depictions of the Pacific). A question that perhaps also could be pursued more explicitly is whether masochism is not also a defense mechanism of intellectuals facing colonial abuse or postcolonial injustices. But none of this should detract from the fact that this is an original and highly informative volume.


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Author:Niekerk, Carl
Publication:The German Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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