Alfred Döblin’s Surreal Foray Into Climate Fiction

Alfred Döblin’s Surreal Foray Into Climate Fiction

Alfred Döblin’s Surreal Foray Into Climate Fiction

The 20th-century German writer’s novel Mountains Oceans Giants is a stunning and strange look into what an environmental apocalypse might look like.


Alfred Döblin’s sprawling 1924 epic, Berge Meere und Giganten—recently translated into English for the first time as Mountains Oceans Giants—begins in a relatively near future when the earth is on a crash course for disaster. “None were still living of those who came through the war they called the World War,” Döblin writes. A fading memory in the space of the text, World War I retained a decisive influence over the author’s Weimar Republic in both symbolic and material terms. The German scholar Rudolf Kayser was likely thinking of the brutality of mechanized trench warfare when he remarked, in 1932, that the human race was “dying of its own works.” By then, the Great Depression and contemporary political turmoil would have colored his outlook as well (the Weimar Republic itself “died” early the following year). If some Germans in the interwar period saw promise in technological acceleration, more dreaded its consequences. Facing threats from the sky to the factory floor, people had to wonder: How long could humanity hold out?

In Mountains Oceans Giants, Döblin tenders an answer through a speculative history that covers some 600 years across nine semi-chronological chapters. The centuries witness torrents of both innovation and catastrophe—indeed, the latter often because of the former—that project concerns common to Döblin’s post–World War I moment (new borders, migration, corporatization). His book reads at times like an encyclopedia, akin to Moby-Dick, focusing less on individual characters than on the events and effects of European development. By the opening chapter, the West has become a technocracy, abjuring national designations in favor of uniform industrial “townzones”: Berlin, London, New York, among others. Local senate leaders—such as Berlin’s Marduk and London’s Francis Delvil—secure power by managing technological change and access to new products, the most impactful of which is synthetic food. The food “transformed every condition of life,” Döblin writes, “and necessitated a reversion to the strictest regime of government…its success threw them into turmoil.” Grasping for power, the various townzones instigate a war against Asia, hoping the effort will revitalize the economy and placate urban unrest. It backfires; afterward, the West “struggled for its own existence.”

In Part Five, fed up with technoid mishaps, the masses revolt, dispersing from the cities to reclaim premodern modes of life and production. As their numbers expand, these so-called “settlers” require more land to cultivate, prompting the senates to respond with an initiative that seems mutually beneficial. “One day, at a discussion in London, the word Greenland was uttered, and immediately grabbed the soul,” writes Döblin. The chauvinistic senates cull heat from Icelandic volcanoes, converting it to energy via Tourmaline webs to melt the ice in Greenland, thus rendering the territory colonizable. “All will see what a reinvigorated human spirit can achieve,” proclaims Delvil, the plan’s primary architect. What better way to demonstrate culture’s supremacy over nature? Yet, much to Delvil’s chagrin, nature fights back.

The book’s final sections chronicle the Greenland project and its aftermath. (This edition’s translator, Chris Godwin, suggests that readers may want to read the later parts first, then return to Part One.) More than arable land, Greenland’s runoff uncovers grotesque monsters composed of flora, fauna, and minerals that begin to drift toward continental Europe, forcing Delvil and his colleagues to implement defensive strategies. In the ensuing pages Döblin reports their solution: to transform humans into similarly immense hybrid beings (some of the “giants” of the book’s title) to battle the Greenland creatures. The conflict causes yet further destruction, with humans—or what’s left of them—ending the story in limbo. Ever the megalomaniac, Delvil takes the proceedings personally: “He hated this world,” Döblin narrates, “the Earth that had done this to him.”

In its time, the apocalyptic vision of Mountains Oceans Giants seemed closer to the conservative Zivilizationskritik of Oswald Spengler than to the wave of playful Zukunftsroman (future novels) that gripped Weimar readers. Yet one wonders if Döblin’s forecast of Germany’s industrialized future was in fact optimistic, considering how much of the scientific and climate change that takes centuries to occur in his book has already happened. Reading this document of a period often analogized to our own, the question reverberates: How long can humanity hold out?

Marked by curiosity, Döblin, a physician as well as a writer, grew interested in nature while visiting the Baltic Sea in 1921; he spent the following months back home in Berlin buried in natural scientific literature and drafting what would become his fourth published novel. His prior efforts, including The Three Leaps of Wang Lun (1916) and Wallenstein (1920), had already demonstrated his capacity to integrate detailed research into elaborate semi-historical narratives. Drafted on either end of World War I, the two novels diverge in setting—18th-century China versus the Europe of the Thirty Years War—and style, in a manner that indicates Döblin’s quick formal development. For, as the 1910s progressed, he shifted from an eccentric take on the expressionism of his Berlin peers associated with journals like Der Sturm to an idiosyncratic prose at once more arcane and specific, as redolent of historical scholarship as avant-garde poetry.

After Wallenstein and his trip to the Baltic, Döblin escalated his apparently academic commitments, with Mountains Oceans Giants reflecting his research on the level of both content and form. Abandoning what was left of an expressionistic idiom, he instead mimics the rhythms and effects of scientific writing: objective yet hypothetical. Indeed, to reach the level of a “science” had become the goal for many Weimar-era disciplines. The Wilhelmine period’s uneven development and the chaos of World War I, often translated through the subjective stylings of romanticism or expressionism, had given way to a rationalized sensibility, cool and matter-of-fact—a “new objectivity,” as it came to be known. Although the restless Döblin never subscribed to the Neue Sachlichkeit, he nonetheless adapted its rhetorical strategy—sober reportage based on observation and citation—for his own project. Articulating a common response to Mountains Oceans Giants, the scholar Ritchie Robertson recently called it the “poetry of fact,” a designation that would be applied to much of Döblin’s subsequent work, especially his opus, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929).

Yet—as the socialist critic Béla Balàzs put it—“facts do not amount to the truth.” Leftists of the period observed a passive cynicism in “objective” literature, its professed neutrality cloaking bourgeois positions. Ernst Bloch saw it as deceptive, as “sheer façade”; Walter Benjamin accused its practitioners of “left-wing melancholia.” Without subjective interventions, objectivity implied narrative self-evidence—that its events occurred without, or despite, human agency. Döblin, too, made a point to suppress the narrator, what he called the “hegemony of the author.” In some ways Mountains Oceans Giants represents the pinnacle of this project, not just with its passages of scientific jargon but also with its long chronological durée, which moves at a clip that sweeps the anonymous masses aside as it goes. Delvil receives a detailed characterization, for example, whereas the “nosy” Greenland natives who greet the colonists disappear after a few sentences, disposed of as “five hundred human corpses.” Here, as elsewhere, the façade of objectivity cracks, with narrative judgment (“nosy”) abutting numerical specificity. If facts conceal, rather than reveal, the truth, skeptical readers might wonder if Mountains Oceans Giants accumulates data only to distract from ruling-class misadventures or to justify them with empirical evidence.

If the facts can overwhelm, however, their details also invite scrutiny. As they pile up, one gets a sense of instability, as if the entire edifice could topple at any moment. For all its “objectivity,” then, Döblin’s epic reads more like other florid works of European modernism rather than the sober novels of the Neue Sachlichkeit. His slurry of data represents a kind of modernist device, a self-reflexive trick to undermine objectivity, highlighting its incompatibility with nature’s complex materials: The more fastidious his explanation of a given technical initiative, the more catastrophic its effects turn out to be. In addition to the story itself, Döblin marks (and travesties) scientific limits in the form of his prose. Notably, he strings nouns or verbs together without commas, an approach that—in Godwin’s deft translation—confirms its utility with the Greenland episode’s efflorescence of organic mutations. “Plant grew on plant, held slowly swimming darting animals tight with tendrils…. The plants had ubiquitous siphon-roots support-roots…drinking-ducts feet jaws.” In order to capture such rapid processes, Döblin implies, prose can’t be detached; rather, it must chase after the impossible referents—a “blooming concrete phenomenon,” as he would later say.

Berlin Alexanderplatz came to define Döblin’s legacy, both in his lifetime and over the ensuing decades. Unlike its predecessors, it focuses on a single character (Franz Biberkopf) and covers a short timespan and limited geography (Berlin in the 1920s). Chaotic in plot and form, Alexanderplatz found an enthusiastic reception in Germany and a quick translation into English (by Eugene Jolas in 1931), helping to secure its status as a modernist totem. Yet one finds the seeds of its immersive and clamorous style buried in Mountains Oceans Giants, a book better known for its lukewarm if bemused reception. Both of the works could aptly be defined as an “epic,” not just in a general sense but also as Döblin himself interpreted the term in 1929 (in an essay Godwin has translated). Distinguishing the epicist from the novelist, Döblin argues that the former employs “the report mode”; the epicist “must approach very close to reality, its solidity, its blood, its smells, and then must pierce through it.” But reportage doesn’t preclude creation, even fabulation. In the epic, Döblin understands “reality, phantasy and wish-fulfillment” as co-constitutive. Mountains Oceans Giants itself relies on contemporaneous facts—whether culled from news reports on industrial monopolies or from scientific libraries—to imagine the facts of the future. Like the human mind, an adequate picture of reality holds both types of fact in suspension.

If facts alone do not amount to the truth, then for Döblin they form a dialectical pair with fiction from which a sense of veracity emerges. “[W]e have recently become aware,” he wrote of The Odyssey, “that much more truth, even historical truth, underlies these myths and sagas than was once suspected.” Did he hope that Mountains Oceans Giants would one day serve the same function? The year he began writing it, he published a volume of satirical essays written under a pseudonym for left-leaning magazines. Shifty in his politics over time, Döblin at least remained engaged, not detached like many of his objectivist peers. In this light, the endless detailing of corporate endeavors and scientific events in Mountains Oceans Giants seems less like concealing than demystifying opaque phenomena (“the mysterious becomes, after being repeated ten times, no longer mysterious,” Döblin once noted). It helps that his chronology wavers and is rarely made explicit, leading readers to wonder when the scenes are occurring. “For everyone who reads an epic work, the reported events are happening now,” Döblin would clarify. Such presentness renders Mountains Oceans Giants mythic and intimate at once, an extremity of registers proper to the experience of upheaval it catalogs.

“Nothing is more epic than the sea,” Walter Benjamin wrote in his review of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Fittingly, the sea—ever rising—is the site of Mountains Oceans Giants’ narrative thrust, where it “pierce[s] through” reality. From the sea arise all manner of things: “The tangle around Greenland knew no distinction between living and dead, plant animal earth.” The humanoid giants materialize in similar fashion: “Treetrunks and animal carcasses swelled through the skin of the belly…melded with them.” These processes emphasize a key dynamic: In Döblin’s epic, nonhuman entities collaborate among themselves for protection, whereas humans prefer to integrate technology into their bodies individually. Here, only natural processes, not artificial ones, keep pace with contingency. If Döblin anticipates later post-humanist scholarship, Mountains Oceans Giants’ impact still rests on its inquiry into human culpability. Neither anti-human nor anti-technology, Döblin dilates the existential conflict between those with power—namely capitalists, whether in the 1920s or 2500s—and those without. Science breeds catastrophe when it serves the former at the latter’s expense.

By the 1940s Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer would understand progress as an outgrowth of its opposite, regression. But in the 1920s many, including Döblin, held open the possibility that innovation would enrich our lives—that it could, in Benjamin’s words, “transform human beings…into completely new, lovable, and interesting creatures.” Is Döblin’s epic a guide for imagining these transformations? Not so much, insofar as he avoids prescription. Early in Mountains Oceans Giants, he refers to “the notorious aimless instability of world history.” With its chronological back-and-forth, the book implies a concept of time that Benjamin would advance the following decade: history as a state of emergency, an ongoing crisis, in which the past lies beneath the present as blood lies beneath the flesh, ready to pour out. The conjuncture of biological and historical events structured Benjamin’s theories, and as Mountains Oceans Giants nears its end, humanity and history likewise sit, indeterminate, at the onset of emergence and destruction. Grappling with such a situation, one of Döblin’s characters, Ten Keir, voices a somewhat naive, perhaps bad-faith desire: to create “an enduring form of humanity.”

Does humanity endure? Can it? If Benjamin perceived the world as on the brink of apocalypse, he imagined, too, the possibility of redemption. Döblin, for his part, plants a sort of redemption in the book’s finale. A new figure, Venaska, “a slender woman with light brown skin and thick black hair,” oversees a kind of ecological rebirth. (Her introduction betrays the primitivist and gender-essentialist bias that threads Döblin’s prose, his undercomplicated belief in women’s and nonwhite peoples’ innate connection to nature.) While the complex and multitudinous transformations that ensue don’t repair the earth’s damage, they signal possibility for a society no longer bound to technocratic commitments, more in tune with the pulse of human life. “Breast to breast the blackness lay with these humans,” Döblin writes in the final line; “from them light gleamed.”

Today, our “senates” continue to create disasters for which only they can provide the necessary, if flawed, adaptations. The “objective facts” of climate science often fail to account for the asymmetrical effects of climate change. Still, even if, as weather patterns shift, the ruling class can hold out longer and better than the rest of society, it seems unlikely that anyone can last the 600 years until Döblin’s forecasted ecological rejuvenation. In real life, ice from Greenland will flood 25 million more people every year (recall Döblin’s own Germany this summer), while our own preventative geoengineering projects bear more than a whiff of the experimental scientific exploits in Mountains Oceans Giants and report “mixed” results. Yet the book’s closing image of a “gleaming” collective humanity remains stirring: Can contemporary masses—unevenly distributed and resourced—shine their light through the fog descending from above?

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