Los Angeles Myths
Stefan Keppler-Tasaki is a fellow at the Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles, where he is studying how the city and its past has influenced modern German literature.
Dec 30, 2019
Los Angeles has long been a favorite destination for Germans – and a refuge for the persecuted. The West Coast of the United States became a place of asylum for many intellectuals who had to flee Germany when the Nazis came to power. Philosophers like Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, as well as writers like Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, and Alfred Döblin fled Nazi Germany and went to the United States in order to continue writing, working, and leading free lives.
German literary scholar Stefan Keppler-Tasaki currently lives in Los Angeles at a location that was very important to the history of German exile: He is a fellow at the Thomas Mann House, where the author Thomas Mann lived with his family during his exile between 1942 and 1952. At that time, the modern house in the glamorous Pacific Palisades neighborhood was a meeting place for conversations, parties, and intellectual salons. The idea now is to bring back this tradition. In 2016, the German federal government bought the house and renovated it. Its grand opening was held in 2018. German-speaking intellectuals and scholars can use the residence to spend time reflecting on German-American topics.
Stefan Keppler-Tasaki was in Los Angeles from the end of August until the end of 2019. He is working on a survey of writings from the Villa Aurora, where author Lion Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta lived after immigrating to the United States. The villa is just a few miles away from the Thomas Mann House and serves as a retreat predominantly for German-speaking authors and artists who have received fellowships to work on projects in the villa.
Keppler-Tasaki’s research project “Die Villa Literatur der Villa Aurora” (The Villa Literature of Villa Aurora) examines works that were written there or that include Villa Aurora as a literary setting or motif, but also works that deal with Los Angeles. Among the literary works he is studying are several books published after the turn of the millennium: Michael Lentz’s Pazifik Exil (Pacific Exile), Kevin Venemann’s Sunset Boulevard, and Volker Harry Altwasser’s Glückliches Sterben (Dying Happy), just to name a few. Questions of forced migration and asylum take on a unique character when viewed through an American lens, hence bringing a new perspective to current issues in Germany related to the influx of refugees fleeing civil wars in their home countries. How does migration change society? What does immigration do to a country’s sense of national identity?
This is not Stefan Keppler-Tasaki’s first time working on the topic of German-American relations. A professor of German literature, Keppler-Tasaki teaches at the University of Tokyo and is a regular visiting researcher at Freie Universität Berlin. He wrote a book about Alfred Döblin, who had to emigrate to Los Angeles via Lisbon in 1940 because of the Nazi terror. “Döblin had a difficult relationship to the United States and to Thomas Mann, whose success he resented,” explains Keppler-Tasaki.
In his book Massen, Medien, Metropolen (Masses, Media, Metropolises), Keppler-Tasaki describes how the German-Jewish refugee Döblin reacted to conditions in the United States, what he thought about Nazi rule, and how his financial difficulties increasingly forced him into isolation and despair.
“Los Angeles is a place that combines great success stories with stories of failure,” says Keppler-Tasaki. He finds this just as fascinating as the cultural diversity that continues to characterize the city. Keppler-Tasaki himself crosses borders, with cultural exchange as a common thread throughout his life. He concluded his doctoral thesis on Goethe with an analysis of Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years), which deals with German emigration to the United States in the early nineteenth century.
As an assistant and junior professor at Freie Universität Berlin, Keppler-Tasaki was a cofounder of the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies in 2008, which primarily addresses transnational projects. In 2012, he accepted an appointment as professor of modern German literature at the University of Tokyo, where he promotes German-Japanese exchange. After his stay in Los Angeles, Stefan Keppler-Tasaki plans to further advance the collaboration between the University of Tokyo and Freie Universität Berlin. In the Temporal Communities Cluster of Excellence, he represents the University of Tokyo on the advisory board of the international network.
This text originally appeared in German on December 7, 2019, in the Tagesspiegel newspaper supplement published by Freie Universität.