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New Book by W&L's Prager Examines Myths and Realities of the East in German Lit

A new book by Debra Prager, associate professor of German at Washington and Lee University, “Orienting the Self: The German Literary Encounter with the Eastern Other” (Camden House, 2014), examines novels that follow their protagonists’ education or enlightenment predicated on an encounter with the East.

Prager studies five works that contain a powerful perception of the East as the scene of desire, fantasy and personal fulfillment. “These novels give a much more open-minded view of the East, with each of these authors offering an encounter with the East as a solution, a way to get back to a more kind humanity and a more tolerant world view,” she said. Many other European and German works reinforced negative clichés about the East that prevail today.

“How we look at cultures that are not our own, especially ones that we deem exotic, are as much a construction of our fantasy as they are a reality,” Prager continued. “These stereotypes are old, but they continue to reflect our own fears and cultural issues—history, politics and social reality.”

The first chapter analyzes, “Parzival,” an Arthurian romance written in 1205, and deals with the ideologically Christian and distorted medieval view of the world outside of Europe. One character is a half-French, half-African, fabulously wealthy king of India. “This shows how confused they were in the Middle Ages about what was Africa and what was the East—it was all just one place,” commented Prager.

Prager follows with an analysis of “Fortunatus,” written in 1509, the fictitious travels of a Cypriot protagonist. Since many of the world maps of the 15th century would have shown Cyprus as a middle point between West and East, Prager suggests that the German author’s choice to make the main character a Cypriot was a decision to tell the story of someone who experienced the East and the West as equally strange. As a result, the novel explores the phenomenon of being the stranger as well as what it is like to observe other cultures that are strange to us.

Prager next examines “Heinrich von Ofterdingen,” written in 1802. “In this chapter I talk about how German historians and philosophers started to think of the world’s cultures as having originated in the East. Suddenly the Orient became not just the site of the Holy Land, but the source of poetry, philosophy, language and of humanity itself. Cultural historians, archaeologists, and poets looked to the East to discover the origins of culture and return to a purer state of being,” explained Prager.

The ports of Japan opened to the West in the 1850s for trade and military negotiations and started to export huge amounts of Orientalia to Europe, reflecting a cultural obsession with the East in the late 19th century. The novel “Effi Briest” reflects those desires among the German middle and upper classes, as represented in the wishes and fantasies of Effi Briest, a young woman trapped in an arranged marriage in a repressive Prussian society.

The final chapter examines Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” (1924), which tells the story of a young German engineer who, while visiting his cousin in a Swiss sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, falls in love with a Russian woman. As a result of his fascination with the seductive patient, the young man extends his original two-week visit into seven years. His obsession with the Russian woman and his interaction with other patients designated as “Eastern” trigger periods of intense self-reflection and intellectual and emotional discovery.

“Western Europeans had a tendency to lump the Slavs in with the rest of the East,” noted Prager. “There was a sense that Eastern culture was more sensual and vibrant, more dangerous, and it often doesn’t really matter if the culture, object, or person in question is Russian, Japanese, Chinese or Middle Eastern. There’s a joie de vivre, an excitement, an intense sexuality, a freedom and a liberality that the East represented. On the other pole in “The Magic Mountain” is the protagonist’s Prussian discipline, and there’s a push-pull between these two sides.

“I think this work is especially important at this time,” continued Prager. “My point is that some aspects of our understanding of Asia and the Middle East, in particular, haven’t really changed very much. In “The Magic Mountain,” the author actually comments on the power of Oriental stereotypes—which society itself constructs—to enthrall us. Any reference to the ‘Orient,’ conjures up a hodgepodge of ideas—the veil, the sultan, the terrorist, the geisha girl, the topless Balinese dancer. All these crowd together under that rubric. But the same can be said of contemporary notions of the East that are dual in nature. We operate with two equally authoritative realities: the imaginary one (think of the jumble of associations we have with the East: harem girls, flying carpets, duplicitous Asians, self-indulgent sheiks, bloodthirsty Arabs) and the factual one. They coexist in our minds. In fact, the constructed stereotypes and clichés about the ‘Oriental Other’ exert as much force on our perceptions as experienced or observed in reality.

“Modern media portray the Middle East with images of the crying woman, the burkha, the veil and the violent Muslim,” Prager continued. “There are virtually no other pictures of the Middle East—they are just continuously recycled. We need to be more aware of how our view of people is filtered through the lens of these longstanding preconceptions, and constructed through literature and the media, and how we’re trapped in these ideas that make it very difficult for us to understand people when we’re not seeing them for who they really are.”

Prager joined Washington and Lee in 2006. She received a B.A. in history from Princeton University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Germanic languages and literatures from Harvard University.