Introducing Döblin’s Dystopia

About 'Mountains Oceans Giants'
Döblin’s only major foray into science fiction (fantasy? horror? fairytale?) deserves to join the pantheon of great interwar dystopias (Wells, Stapledon, Zamyatin, Huxley). But its strengths are marred by some glaring weaknesses. How far should a translator go to rescue a great but flawed work?
BACK HOMEMORE EPICS
 

CAN MOUNTAINS OCEANS GIANTS BE RESCUED FROM ITS DEFECTS, AND JOIN THE PANTHEON OF GREAT 20th CENTURY DYSTOPIAS?

This essay was first drafted as the Introduction to my full translation of Mountains Oceans Giants, which has so far been rejected by four publishers in the UK and USA, including one that specialises in historic science fiction!

THE ORIGIN

The 27th century: beleaguered elites decide to melt the Greenland icecap. Why? – to open up a new continent, for colonisation by the unruly masses. How? – by harvesting the primordial heat of the Earth from Iceland’s volcanoes.

Nature fights back, and it all goes horribly wrong…

In the early 1920s confirmed city-dweller Alfred Döblin – he was 15 before he saw his first cherry tree – became puzzled by a nagging sense of Nature:

I experienced Nature as a secret. Physics as the surface, begging for explanations. Textbooks… knew nothing of the secret. Every day I experienced Nature as the World Being, meaning: weight, colour, light, dark, its countless materials, as a cornucopia of processes that quietly mingle and criss-cross. (Die neue Rundschau, June 1924)

Döblin sensed the seeds of another epic fiction: this time set in the future, following two historical novels: one set in 18th century China, the other in the Europe of the Thirty Years War (which until 1918 headed the league table of German historical disasters). He began his new project with an episode eventually placed in Part 6: Mutumbo’s fleet, excavating the ocean to provide a refuge on the seabed, the waters held at bay by dreadful technologies. It became the lead-in to a grand venture: “I would not take off to the stars, this would be an adventure on the Earth, wrestling with the Earth.” And so human beings – “a kind of bacteria on Earth’s skin, grown over-mighty from brains and cleverness” – head for Iceland and Greenland. By early 1922, when he had essentially completed Parts 5 to 7, he could recognise the Theme that was speaking through him: “human strength against Nature’s power, the impotence of human strength”:

I keep saying “Nature”. It’s not the same thing as “God”. It’s darker, huger than God. The complete whirling secret of the world.… Now as I wrote… I found myself facing a secure, strong power that demanded expression, and my novel had a specific task: to praise the World Being. (ibid.)

Döblin’s Dedication (see below) gives voice to this urge.

THE NARRATIVE

Readers accustomed to following a story via Plot and Character may at first be disoriented by this epic of the future. Its structure is more symphonic than novelistic, driven by themes and motifs that emerge, fade back, emerge again in new orchestral voicings and new tempi. The prose – supple, rhythmic, harsh, elegiac, tender, unsparing – propels the reader on through scene after vivid scene. Mountains Oceans Giants is a literary counterpart to the painted dreams and nightmares of Hieronymus Bosch, in The Garden of Earthly Delights and The Last Judgement.

The Iceland-Greenland venture on which Döblin first unleashed his imagination is narrated with extraordinary intensity. The depictions in Part 6 of technologies for harvesting and storing Iceland’s volcanic heat, the human sacrifices the operation demands of the grim participants, driven by their hyper-Promethean urges, and the cosmic horror of this insult to Earth’s being; all these themes are sustained in Part 7, in which oil-clouds are developed to blanket the Greenland icecap with Iceland’s heat, and the biosphere responds to Tourmaline in hideous seemingly magical ways, reviving long-extinct flora and fauna and creating ghastly new lifeforms. On completing these two Parts, Döblin almost suffered a nervous collapse.

How did humanity arrive at this point, where an overweening Promethean impetus has brought calamity to humans and the Earth? Parts 1 and 2 present a broad-brush overview of the six centuries following the historical calamity of the First World War. Problematic themes are highlighted, which in many cases have become only more salient since Döblin wrote in the 1920s: mass urbanisation and migrations; traditional cultures overwhelmed; gender wars and uncertain sexual identities; junk food taken to a logical extreme; masses sedated by drugs and entertainments; meddling by rational scientific minds with the very basis of matter, both living and mineral; ever greater concentrations of power and wealth; political elites as clueless as they are ruthless.

These centuries in which humanity persists on its industrial-technological track culminate in the dreadful Urals War, embarked on for frivolous reasons and abandoned in neither victory nor defeat. A lingering PTSD afflicts masses languishing demoralised and degenerating under the effects of Synthetic Food and near universal urbanisation. Parts 3 and 4 depict the change of direction embarked on by the ruthless Marduk, dictator of the Berlin townzone, who to the disquiet of elites in other townzones encourages depopulation and a revived agrarianism. More wars ensue.

Part 5 invokes anti-Promethean ‘primitive’ impulses: shamans, ghosts, and parables played out on the stage bring home to the suffering masses how unnatural is their way of life, and stimulate them to regain agency. The back-to-the-land Settler movement intensifies, and the London elite hit on just the thing to defuse the tensions: open up new land for settlement – on Greenland. Calamity follows.

The Greenland monsters unleashed by the mysterious power of the Tourmaline webbing bring havoc to Europe. In Part 8 the townzones retreat underground. A defensive line is strung across land and sea from Norway to Ireland, made of Tower-humans: conglomerations of living and mineral matter activated by the power of Tourmaline into gigantic living piles, topped by a gigantified human; these intercept the monstrous flying dragons. In their subterranean laboratories, techno-elites continue to meddle with living and mineral matter, to the point where they can transform themselves into any life form. Post-human Giants rampage; but some (including Delvil, initiator of the Greenland plan) decide to face down the Greenland menace; they embed themselves in the granite moors of Cornwall and Devon.

The final Part 9 tells of survivors among the Greenland expeditionaries who make their way back to ruined Europe, arriving at last in a gentle bucolic Aquitaine, to which Settlers have migrated to recover their humanity through toil in the fields and sacramental sex. Here the expeditionaries strive to come to terms with the meaning of their horrendous deeds.

THE THEMES

As this summary shows, there is no lack of ambition in the conception and the narrative. While Döblin’s world-building can be faulted in some respects – communication technologies remain at a 1920s level; ‘fliers’ and underground trains coexist with horses and carts – the encompassing Theme of Humanity, Technology, and Nature focuses on enduring features of humanity’s Promethean adventure. The technologies depicted in some detail share one significant characteristic: all draw on and affect Nature in an elemental way. Fire, Earth, Water, Air and Light are constantly perverted to destructive and inhuman ends:

  • Fire is harnessed in deadly weapons (e.g. the ray-weapons that ring every townzone; the fire-mines of the Urals War), and of course plays a central role in the Greenland venture;
  • Earth is perverted into foodstuffs, into weapons for destroying the Earth (e.g. Tourmaline webs), into a substrate for the half-mineral half-alive Tower-people;
  • Water with its interchangeable molecules is posited by elite theorists as a template for a humankind freed from individuality; technology can make holes in the sea;
  • Air, omnipresent as the wind, is weaponised as squall bombs; and underground cities must resort to an artificial atmosphere;
  • Light is applied as weaponry (invisibility cloaks; deadly rays) and as a source of gruesome entertainment (Light Paint).

In the background is the sostenuto hum of two questions: can humans exercise sovereignty over Nature when they cannot control their own Promethean creations, or even themselves? And: can Meaning be found in lives lived apart from Nature?

The human need for Meaning shows itself in many ways. Machine-worshippers sacrifice themselves to whirring turbines. Statues of dying metal bulls keep memory of the Urals War alive. Strolling players perform fables that help despairing audiences recognise their plight. Shamans and sorcerers offer solace. Bonfires help the Greenland survivors come to terms with their ghastly deeds.

THE LANGUAGE

Leaving aside for the moment the pervasive surface features of Döblin’s prose, we find that he employs at least four distinct registers:

  • the ground tone is provided by historical narrative, either broad-brush or in close up (e.g. the development and consequences of Synthetic Food);
  • Superimposed on this are occasional passages of poeticised encyclopaedic exposition – e.g. the Sahara in Part 1, the fertile African landscape in Part 5, the atmosphere and the Sun in Part 6 – that place human activity in a cosmic and natural-world context; these exemplify Döblin’s advocacy of a Tatsachenphantasie – a ‘fantasy of facts’.
  • Much of the narrative comprises heightened visionary prose, sometimes just a paragraph or two (e.g. in Part 2 ‘Flags’: “What was happening to men and women”), but often sustained through many intense pages (e.g. the Urals War in Part 2; and long passages of Parts 6–8).
  • Lastly, there are several novelistic close-ups (Döblin calls them ‘reports’) in a rather traditional naturalistic style, depicting (mostly) named individuals, e.g. in Part 1 the tribal encounter with advanced technology, and the story of Melise of Bordeaux; in Part 3 the relationship between Jonathan and the ruthless Marduk; in Part 7 the collision between Holyhead, the oil-cloud developer, and the tribal Syrians Bou Jeloud and Jedida; in Part 8 the subterranean erotic games of Ibis and Laponie; and in Part 9 the sad love story of Mayelle and Servadak. The attentive reader of even the first few pages may notice all four registers. Moods and perspectives shift constantly within and between these registers.

Pervasive surface features of Döblin’s prose include comma-less sequences of nouns, adjectives or verbs. These can be reflected tolerably well in English translation, and should pose no difficulty for the reader.

Unusual sentence structures work better in German than English, for English does not capitalise its nouns; has lost most of the overt signs of case (so fixed word order is usually the only way to identify subject, direct object, indirect object); and does not mark a past/ passive participle from a past tense (does English ‘lived’ translate ‘lebte’ or ‘gelebt’?) Rather than tinker with unusual English sentence structures, I have striven to reproduce as fully as possible the vigour of the vocabulary with its sounds, its vivid sights and restless movements.

A PROBLEM

In the long essay from Die neue Rundschau from which we quoted above, Döblin describes the creation of this novel, and his struggle to give suitable voice to the Themes that had so seized hold of his imagination.

Having first drafted the later Parts (Iceland-Greenland and the horrific aftermath) in the same sort of way he had approached his two earlier epics – nourishing his imagination on maps, ethnographies, museum exhibits, photographs, historic documents, and allowing that imagination, apparently without strain, to shape itself into remarkable narratives – Döblin now approaches his big theme with a conscious agenda: to depict ‘human strength against Nature’s power, the impotence of human strength’. Unanchored as this book was in any historical reality, he admits that this task was a struggle: ‘everything I touched on was at risk of growing into an entire book. I constantly had to cut back and apply the brakes.’ The first two books depict mass actions, broad-brush developments, but ‘after the synthetic food and the Urals War, at first no more progress was possible, no way over the ridge. Another register was needed.’

And here he tries to explain, or justify, the weakest component of the novel. Although he had long called himself ‘an enemy of the personal – it’s nothing but swindle and lyricism’ and having declared that ‘the epic has no use for individual persons and their so-called fate’, he allowed Parts 3 and 4 to swell to become ‘a novel in themselves’, detailing the triangular emotional entanglements of four figures: the tyrant Marduk, who has created man-eating trees; his young friend Jonathan, whose mother was among Marduk’s victims; the seductress Marion Divoise, and the innocent young Elina.

In theory, this component could have formed a strong narrative in its own right, however tangential to the thrust of the Promethean dystopia. But Döblin here allows his marvellous gift – his unconscious or pre-conscious imaginative muse that can conjure other times and places into vivid undeniable life – to be overridden by a conscious effort to map out a programmatic plot. The attempt is, frankly, a failure. Many a reader must have given up on Mountains Oceans Giants before the end of Part 4, bored by the unconvincing characters and uncharacteristically flaccid prose (such a contrast to the hard vigorous prose of the other Parts.) It was precisely this, I guess, that provoked Thomas Mann’s tart comment: “Very few people can read Döblin’s books through to the end.”

A (BOLD) SOLUTION

In my translation of Mountains Oceans Giants, I seek to rescue the many virtues of the work, so that Anglophone readers are not deterred from following the narrative through to the central Iceland-Greenland venture and its unforeseen consequences. I do this by cutting much of Parts 3 and 4, eliminating entirely the two emotional-triangle storylines. The cuts amount to some 22,000 words, or 12% of the total for the novel.

In making these cuts I was mindful of the indefensible editorial decision taken by Walter Muschg in his 1960s edition of Döblin’s South American epic: Muschg simply cut the third part of the trilogy entirely. He was wrong to do so, for that part throws the two previous parts into a new thought-provoking focus. Here the cuts do not, I think, do any such damage to the overall scheme of Mountains Oceans Giants.

I hope that with its weaker component deleted, Döblin’s dystopian epic can take its rightful place alongside the other great 20th century interwar dystopias: Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come, Zamyatin’s We, Huxley’s Brave New World, Stapledon’s Last and First Men.

By introducing Mountains Oceans Giants on the web, rather than in the form of a published book, we can highlight its strengths through extensive  excerpts accompanied by critical commentary. We hope in this way to build a readership, start some informed discussion of Döblin ‘beyond Alexanderplatz’, and thus encourage book publishers to take on more of Döblin’s works in translation.  (At some point – but not too soon – we shall probably post the deleted passages, so that readers can decide for themselves whether the translator has made the right decision.)

NOTES ON THE TRANSLATION

Döblin presents the reader of what is already a challenging work with a wall of text: paragraphs often pages long (not uncommon in German literature); sections within each Part marked only by a single line break. I have adopted a more English paragraphing, and have supplied short section headings.

I have silently amended typos, misspellings and clear geographical errors (e.g. ‘east’ where the context requires ‘west’). Wherever possible I have checked place names, and adopted current standard spellings. In a few cases historical names are amended to the current name (e.g. ‘Oslo’ not ‘Christiana’). The excellent online map of Iceland at http://kortasja.lmi.is was extremely helpful in visualising the geography of Iceland and locating many of that island’s place names.

APPENDIX

DEDICATION

What am I doing when I speak of you? I have a feeling I should not utter a single word about you, not even think of you too clearly. I call you “you” as if you were a creature, animal plant stone like me. Then I see my helplessness, and that every word is in vain. I dare not step closer to you, you monsters, you monster, that have borne me into the world, there where I am and how I am. I am just a scrap floating on water. You Thousand-named Nameless, you lift me, move me, carry me, grind me.

I have written much already. I have merely tiptoed round you. In fear I distanced myself from you. In my humility before you there sat a fear of paralysis and stupefaction. I have always, I confess, kept you as something dreadful in a dark corner of my heart. I hid you there, kept the door shut.

Now I speak – I will not say “of you” – of him: of the Thousandfoot Thousandarm Thousandhead. Of that which is the gusting wind. What burns in fire, tonguing hot blue white red. What is cold and hot, thunders, piles up clouds, pours water down, creeps magnetically here and there. What gathers itself in an animal, turns its slit eyes right and left onto a deer, makes it jump and snap, open and shut its jaws. Of that which makes the deer afraid. Of its blood that flows, that the other animal drinks. Of the Thousandbeing that dwells in matter stones gases smoke. Ever anew the pattering blending blowing away.

Changes, changes every minute. Here where I write, on paper, ink flowing, in the daylight that falls onto white crackling paper. How the paper curls, creases under my pen. How the pen bends, straightens. My guiding hand wanders left to right, back to left from the end of a line. I feel the pen against my finger: that’s nerves, washed by blood. Blood flows through the finger, all the fingers, through the hand, both hands, arm, chest, the whole body, its skin muscles entrails, in every surface corner niche. So many changes in this one here. And I am just one thing, a tiny piece of space. On my desk the white cloth, three yellow tulips shrivelling. Every leaf incalculably rich. Next to them green leaves of whitethorn hawthorn. Down on the lawn pansies forget-me-nots violets. It is May. I have not counted the flowers trees grasses in the beds. Something is happening every second in every leaf stalk root.

The Thousandnamed is at work there. There it is.

Song of thrushes, rattle squeal of tramlines: There it is.

Silence, filled with movement that I do not hear but yet know is happening: there it is. The Thousandnamed. Ceaselessly curling turning climbing falling twining.

I walk on soft springy ground at the flat end of the Schlachtensee. Over there, tables chairs of the old Fischerhütte restaurant. Mist on the water and the reeds. I walk on the air’s ground. Enclosed in this moment with a myriad things in this corner of the world. We together are the world: soft ground reeds the lake chairs tables in the Fischerhütte, carp in the water, flies above it, birds in the gardens of the villas of Zehlendorf, cuckoo-calls grass sand sunlight clouds anglers fishing-rods lines hooks bait children singing warmth electrical tension in the air. How dazzling the sun as it rampages up there. Who is it. What masses of stars rampage around it, I can’t see them.

Dark rolling rampaging forces. You darkly raging tangled, you soft delightful almost unthinkably lovely hardly bearable heavy never-resting forces. Quivering grasping fluttering Thousandfoot Thousandspirit Thousandhead.

What do you want with me. What am I in you. I must speak of you what I feel. For who knows how long I have to live.

I do not want to go from this life before I have given voice to that which – often with terror, now in calm, and harkening – I sense with such foreboding.

   – Alfred Döblin, 1924