The Light Club: On Paul Scheerbart's

The Light Club: On Paul Scheerbart's "The Light Club of Batavia"

by Josiah McElheny

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Overview

Paul Scheerbart (1863–1915) was a visionary German novelist, theorist, poet, and artist who made a lasting impression on such icons of modernism as Walter Benjamin, Bruno Taut, and Walter Gropius. Fascinated with the potential of glass architecture, Scheerbart’s satirical fantasies envisioned an electrified future, a world composed entirely of crystalline, colored glass.

In 1912, Scheerbart published The Light Club of Batavia, a Novelle about the formation of a club dedicated to building a spa for bathing—not in water, but in light—at the bottom of an abandoned mineshaft. Translated here into English for the first time, this rare story serves as a point of departure for Josiah McElheny, who, with an esteemed group of collaborators, offers a fascinating array of responses to this enigmatic work.

The Light Club
makes clear that the themes of utopian hope, desire, and madness in Scheerbart’s tale represent a part of modernism’s lost project: a world based on political and spiritual ideals rather than efficiency and logic. In his compelling introduction, McElheny describes Scheerbart’s life as well as his own enchantment with the writer, and he explains the ways in which The Light Club of Batavia inspired him to produce art of uncommon breadth. The Light Club also features inspired writings from Gregg Bordowitz and Ulrike Müller, Andrea Geyer, and Branden W. Joseph, as well as translations of original texts by and about Scheerbart. A unique response by one visionary artist to another, The Light Club is an unforgettable examination of what it might mean to see radical potential in absolute illumination.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226514581
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/15/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 104
File size: 202 KB

About the Author

Josiah McElheny is a New York–based contemporary artist, performance artist, and filmmaker best known for his use of glass with other materials. He has written for such publications as Artforum and Cabinet, is a contributing editor to BOMB, and was a 2006 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship.

Read an Excerpt

THE LIGHT CLUB

On Paul Scheerbart's The Light Club of Batavia
By JOSIAH McELHENY

THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS

Copyright © 2010 Josiah McElheny
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-51457-4


Chapter One

A SMALL, SILENT UTOPIA An Introduction by Josiah McElheny

As an artist interested in twentieth-century modernist aesthetics, I have often been struck by the social circumstances that informed its development. The "modern look" had its beginnings in the efforts of small groups of aesthetes in Western Europe. Many of their expositions and publications took the form of proposals for alternative ways of living, plans that in the name of progress aspired to define an entirely new world. After World War II, this aesthetic style proliferated wildly and, in architecture especially, came to dominate the urban landscape worldwide. But an earlier, little-known iteration of the modernist dialogue, one that merged universalist politics with populist spirituality, described a world that would have looked entirely different than the one we now observe. This book attempts to revisit this conversation and the alternative set of possible modernities it defined through an unusual work of fiction from nearly one hundred years ago.

Like many on the left, I have not given up hope that we can dramatically improve our society. But we have to cope with historical facts, namely, the violent legacy of large-scale attempts to enact utopian ideals that at its worst is the repeated story of totalitarianism and murder. In the history of visual culture there are many examples of artists and architects, usually men, who propose new, more "functional" aesthetic lifestyles. But these visions always seem to require the systematic erasure of what already exists. Many artists and writers in the past few decades, from those involved with the Situationist International to the design and art collective N55, from Jacques Derrida to Simon Critchely, have speculated on whether the idea of utopia can be returned to in another, less annihilating form. I too have wondered if there is a model for utopia that encompasses its own doubt, considers its own inevitable faults and failures, and sees the danger of imposing on all the plans of a subjective few.

For this we might return to the time before those famous heroes of the modernist story—Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier—began their quest to remake our life of buildings, objects, images, and information. There, in a backwater of architectural history typically dismissed as illogical, subjective, "expressionist," we find another character: Paul Scheerbart. In his writings—novels, short essays, poetry, and criticism—Scheerbart describes a new world of architecture and technology, not to mention a new vision of sexual relations. For him, the problem lies not with how to imagine a new world, but in how to achieve it. What absorbs him are the politics of how to get there. It is often hard to tell in his texts what he intends as humor, satire, or a call to arms, but he continually returns to the idea that cultural stagnation can be overcome, that renewal is possible. So it cannot be said that his view of culture has a conservative or fatalistic outlook. But at the same time, the ideals that his characters set out to achieve at the start of his stories are never realized in the way that they were intended. Scheerbart's lesson is that one must begin with the knowledge that our plans will be fulfilled in ways that we never expected. He proposes that the best we can hope for is an ironic utopia.

Scheerbart published Der Lichtklub von Batavia: Eine Damen-Novellette (The Light Club of Batavia: A Ladies' Novelette) in 1912. It is a little-known text; the tale is rarely included in bibliographies of Scheerbart's collected works. Translated into English here for the first time, it tells about the formation of a club dedicated to building a spa for bathing, not in water, but in light, at the bottom of an abandoned mineshaft. Its themes of hope, desire, and madness are clear, even in this brief description. The narrative unfolds at a hotel in "Batavia," which in Scheerbart's time was the name for Jakarta, the capital of the Dutch colony in Indonesia, but in the late eighteenth century was also the name of the Netherlands itself. As was typical, the location remains ambiguous, though the mosquitoes and humidity are suggestive of his interest in "exotic" locales.

Der Lichtklub was published in the very first issue of Die Kritische Tribune, a journal of politics, literature, and cultural criticism that only survived for one year. Scheerbart's story, subtitled somewhat subversively Eine Damen-Novellette (A Ladies' Novelette), was in this context a kind of "diversion within the frame"—it appeared between an essay on the war in Tripoli involving the Ottoman Empire and Italy, and a piece on corruption in the Reichstag (the parliament in Berlin). Scheerbart's subtitle signals from the start his abiding desire to goad the self-satisfied status quo.

Scheerbart wrote Der Lichtklub as a Novelle (his use of the phrase Ladies' Novellette is more mischief), a literary genre popular in Germany. Not a short novel, and not a short story as it exists in literature in English either, the Novelle is marked by its focus on a single event or chain of events that lead to a surprising, often ironic, turning point. The plot is described in a brief, schematic manner; subnarratives are suggestively sketched in the fewest possible words. Within this format, Scheerbart is surprisingly effective at conjuring another reality, but his deadpan language leaves one uncertain of his intentions. It was the elliptical, self-reflexive, and fanciful quality of Der Lichtklub that first suggested to me the possibility of a speculative expansion of this strange story. The explorations that unfold in this book are a collaborative attempt at doing just that: examining the resonant, romantic, ridiculous, repugnant, and sublime proposal Scheerbart envisions.

Scheerbart

Paul Scheerbart was born in 1863 in Danzig. His father and mother were both dead by the time he was ten; he moved to Berlin at the age of twenty. His father practiced carpentry among other professions; his mother was a deeply religious woman. Primarily self-educated, Scheerbart never graduated from gymnasium though he took the examinations more than once. He began writing for newspapers in Berlin in 1885, covering everything from politics to crime to cabaret. He himself paid for his first novel, Das Paradies: Die Heimat der Kunst (Paradise: The Home of Art), to be published in 1889, using a modest inheritance he received from relatives of his mother.

In addition to his novels about "astral romance" and other unusual subjects, he wrote regularly about fashion and the applied arts and in 1897 published his first essay focusing on glass in architecture. Later, in 1912, he attempted to found a society for glass architecture, which brought him in touch with the architect Bruno Taut. Soon after this, Taut was commissioned to create a pavilion for the Cologne Werkbund Exhibition of 1914 (an exhibit of innovative building technologies and design) by the glass and construction industries. The two men became fast friends and in the end, Taut embedded various aphorisms and poetic phrases by Scheerbart about glass architecture in the interior walls of the pavilion, adjacent to a cascading fountain, such as "Colored glass / Destroys hatred" and "Light permeated the Universe / It comes to life in the crystal." Taut dedicated the building, the Glashaus, to Scheerbart.

That same year Scheerbart published two books, both about a utopian glass world. Glasarchitektur (Glass Architecture), a "novel" that is often mischaracterized as a kind of construction manual, comprises 111 aphorisms about the state and future of building with glass; in it he trumpets the eventual triumph and primacy of glass architecture throughout the world. The book, dedicated to Taut, formed a thematic template for Gläserne Kette (The Crystal Chain), a collaborative project that Taut began after WWI and Scheerbart's death, with a group of artists and architects. They shared drawings, manifestos, and poetry by mail, exploring the theme of a new world of brightly colored crystalline architecture. For the group (as it had been for Scheerbart) the crystal was a central motif and their correspondence touched on its rich metaphoric allusions. Perhaps the only building that expresses many of the Crystal Chain's ideals, albeit 40 years after the group's dissolution, is the Berliner Philharmonie by Hans Scharoun.

Scheerbart's Das Graue Tuch und Zehn prozent Weiß: Eine Damenroman (The Gray Cloth and Ten Percent White: A Ladies' Novel) from 1914 takes the form of a more conventionally structured narrative, and it echoes the inscrutable humor and misdirection of Der Lichtklub. It is the story of a "glass architect" and his new wife, Clara, who travel the world building new colored edifices in a dirigible or "airship." At the beginning of the book, Clara signs perhaps the oddest prenuptial agreement ever proposed: she promises to wear only gray clothing with a maximum of ten percent white detailing, in order to not detract from the color schemes in her husband's creations. In a typical Scheerbartian move, the fascistic nature of her husband's demand is undermined and then left ambiguous: halfway through the story the contract falls apart but the marriage itself survives. It is unclear where Scheerbart stands on this; here again he creates a picture of progress toward a better world, an attempt that he proposes is both necessary and impossible.

Influence

Scheerbart knew many important figures in Berlin and was admired and influential in his own time. However, ten years after his death in 1915, few were interested in his work. Walter Gropius, who had for a time been a follower, and even Taut, had moved on to ideas they deemed more practical and consequential. By 1925 Taut was building socialist housing blocks for the middle class and Gropius was designing factory-like buildings for the Bauhaus. But influence can reappear or be rediscovered.

Until the 1990s, Scheerbart was a seldom-remembered figure, at least outside of Germany. In literary circles he is perhaps best known as a "science fiction" writer; in architectural history before the nineties, he is rarely mentioned though he plays an interesting role in two books on the letters and politics of the Crystal Chain. In fact, until the twenty-first century the only English translation of his major works was a 1972 publication of Glass Architecture. The contemporary reevaluation of modernist history has led many to reclaim him as a prophet of the International Style of modern architecture and as inspiration for recent developments in the use of glass in buildings. The former, at least, seems misguided, for Scheerbart did not believe that glass architecture represented the height of rationality, practicality, or functionality—tenets that Internationalist modernists hold dear. Far from it. He viewed glass architecture as instead offering the possibility for a new cosmopolitan spirituality and a transcendent connection to nature. Glass, for Scheerbart, embodied the metaphoric potentiality of color and light, and the crystal was the natural form that symbolized these ideals. In Glass Architecture, he dreamt of buildings that were antimonumental, always changing, never the same: "Then one thinks of the great palaces and cathedrals of glass and the villas of glass, of the town-like structures, on solid land and in the water—often in movement—and of ever more water in ever different colors. On Venus and Mars they will stare in wonder and no longer recognize the surface of the earth."

Translation, Frames, Critiques

The difficulties of translation, the difficulties inherent in the idea of utopia, and the difficulties of inhabiting the attitudes of the past in a meaningful way are all tackled in this book by creating a series of varying frames for Scheerbart's Der Lichtklub. The translations, responses, and commentary that follow attempt to address the problematic ideas, both evident and implied, within the story and perhaps more broadly in Scheerbart's oeuvre.

Der Lichtklub is from a time altogether different than our own. Though it speaks of a desire for a new, technologically improved world, a desire that seems vaguely familiar to us, it was written before the apocalyptic destruction of WWI and is infused with the prejudices and assumptions of the premodernist era. The horror of that war and the resulting shifts in political and national identity separate us from his era. Scheerbart speaks in the language of a future that did not happen, so the implied politics in his story can be difficult for us to understand. Der Lichtklub combines optimism and friendly skepticism; its ambivalence—and its sexual politics—seems almost bizarre today.

The English translation of the story is by Wilhelm Werthen, a German, with some assistance from a period English-German dictionary I had in my studio. He worked to make the text as clear as possible to the contemporary reader, a task made difficult by the fact that the original is often confusing, even to native German speakers. Although Scheerbart's style is not complex, its brevity and contradictions make every word count.

A pair of Austrian and American collaborators have contributed a "poetic translation" of the text that addresses the gaps in our comprehension of Scheerbart's strange futuristic world by carefully considering issues of class and sexuality. In From the Shadows, artists and writers Ulrike Müller and Gregg Bordowitz rail against the blindness of Scheerbart's characters and reveal the constructions of their roles as women, as men, and especially as beneficiaries of wealth.

German-born, New York-based artist Andrea Geyer translates not only the language of Der Lichtklub but also the format itself. In The Club of the Visionaries she transforms the Novelle into a play and a critique of class and gender suggestive of Brecht's Lehrstücke, or "teaching-plays," a modernist, Marxist form he worked with in the 1920s and 1930s. Instead of critiquing Scheerbart's blind spots from a contemporary viewpoint, she plays Scheerbart's own game and creates yet another layer, satirizing further the societal roles played out in the original.

My own contribution is a portrait of a larger, ongoing project about Der Lichtklub that includes the translations and collaborations in this book, performances, film, and sculpture. I have tried to absorb Scheerbart's text and its critiques back into the traditional English literary form, the short story. The Light Spa in the Mine reflects the attitudes and methods that inform many of my artistic projects, such as my tendency to try to recolonize events from the past. It reframes Der Lichtklub as a history and creates a so-called metanarrative. The main character recounts an improbable tale about a forgotten moment in history by reciting passages of an obscure memoir that he has come to memorize through obsessive scholarly study. By bringing the text to our own era and fleshing out what Scheerbart appears to imply, I hope to highlight its parallels to our own moment, a time when technology is once again viewed as offering the best hope to satisfy longing and abolish shadows.

Commentary

For Georg Hecht, a poet who also died in 1915, Scheerbart was without peer. In his commentary (printed in the same issue of Die Kritische Tribune, and reprinted here with an English translation by Barbara Schroeder) he struggles to explain, without demystifying, this author he worshipped. For Hecht, it is the experience of reading all of Scheerbart's work that alone allows us to glimpse his meaning. It is as if Scheerbart can only be comprehended in a world that consists solely of his own prophesies.

Branden Joseph, an art historian and a founding editor of the journal Grey Room, inhabits Hecht's artlessness and style in an essay that responds to and expands on the poet's 1912 appraisal. Joseph unearths a new chain of influence when he describes how Walter Benjamin, another visionary writer focused on the primacy of "experience," was deeply affected by Scheerbart. For Benjamin, Scheerbart was an example of what he called "the true politician," a phrase that points to the most important aspect of Scheerbart's thinking: his world of fantasy was in fact his attempt to discuss politics by other means.

Branden Joseph once suggested to me that Der Lichtklub provides a good outline of Scheerbart's oeuvre, in that it touches on his main themes of technology, architecture, and love, so perhaps this book could be used as a lens for examining some of his other numerous works and might encourage further translations.

Utopia Today, Tomorrow, Yesterday, or Never

Scheerbart was no revolutionary or anarchist. In fact, he saw himself as fighting against unthinking seriousness: "I became a humorist out of rage not out of kindness." Still, he wanted to participate in the construction of a new order, or at least an image of one. Glass Architecture is grounded not in the language of a new constitution but in descriptions and instructions for materials and methods of building. This tells us that Scheerbart viewed politics as something that had to be formed not of abstractions but out of everyday things.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from THE LIGHT CLUB by JOSIAH McELHENY Copyright © 2010 by Josiah McElheny. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

A Small, Silent Utopia, An Introduction by Josiah McElheny

Der Lichtklub von Batavia: Eine Damen-Novellette von Paul Scheerbart

The Light Club of Batavia: A Ladies Novelette by Paul Scheerbart

Translated from the German by Wilhelm Werthern

From the Shadows, A Poem by Gregg Bordowitz and Ulrike Müller

The Club of Visionaries, A Play by Andrea Geyer

The Light Spa in the Mine, A Short Story by Josiah McElheny
Über Scheerbart von Georg Hecht
About Scheerbart by Georg Hecht
Translated from the German by Barbara Schroeder

On Scheerbart, An Essay by Branden W. Joseph        

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