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Wesley Lim, Vanderbilt University, Dept. of German Studies

Dancing in the City: Scenes from the Works of Rilke, Lasker-Schüler, Döblin, Endell and Müller

A young boy named Malte is walking through the streets of Paris around 1900 and notices a man with a strange gait. He is fascinated by the man’s angular and jerky movements as they intensify, quicken and become uncontrollable. Overwhelmed and at the end of his tolerance the man falls to the ground. This mysterious example from R.M. Rilke’s novel Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge highlights characteristics pervading literature written around the turn of the century such as the city setting, urban movement, modern dance and bodily awareness. 

As a former dancer and current Ph.D. candidate in German Studies, I want to explore the theme of dance in German literature. I am particularly interested in the emergence and interconnectedness of modern dance, the metropolis, and the individual’s awareness of his or her own body around 1900 in Europe. The themes of the city and the body received significant attention in the works of many authors during this time because of, as I will argue, their interest in the condition and experiences of the modern individual being affected by the stimuli of the metropolis. With increasing urbanization and technological development, people had to learn to cope with the anonymity of the city and the overstimulation of the senses within the city. Many authors wrote about their surroundings in not only their fiction but also in their personal writings such as in journals and essays.

In my research I have discovered a connection between the urban space, specific dance scenes that occur within these spaces, and the description and aesthetic experiences of the narrators. In my dissertation I will analyze poems, journal entries, novels, theoretical essays and newspaper articles of Rainer Maria Rilke, Alfred Döblin, Else Lasker-Schüler, August Endell, and Robert Müller. The texts I am focusing on were written between 1900 and 1915 and are representative of the prevalence of the dance motif in a wide range of genres. Each narrative takes place and is written in one of the following cities: Paris, Vienna and Berlin. These texts involve a narrator who becomes engaged in a scene either happening on a stage or in the streets of the city. The space in which the movement happens provides confines and forms the kind of movement. My thesis is that the narrator’s depictions of the movement in the streets of the city are, in a sense, performances. The urban landscape then becomes a stage where the performers are sometimes not aware that they are being observed by the narrator.