Professor’s Bookshelf: Ulrich Plass
Associate Professor of German Studies Ulrich Plass is hard at work on a new book, “Exile, Crisis, and Dialectics: Adorno’s Philosophy of ‘Damaged Life’ in Context.” Of course, that’s only when he’s not busy teaching a First Year Seminar, traveling across the globe for his research, or trekking down to Florida to give lectures on Adorno and Nietzsche. Professor Plass sat down with The Argus to discuss discovering German Studies after moving to America from Germany, reading personal letters to explore the private lives of authors, and appreciating the timeless appeal of Kafka.
The Argus: Summer is a great time to read the books piling up on your bookshelf. What did you read this summer?
Ulrich Plass: Now, I have to say that you’ll probably be disappointed in my summer reading list because it’s basically just a continuation of the stuff I read anyway. There isn’t any break in continuity, as if all of a sudden I get to read detective novels over the summer. So for me, summer just means I’m not meeting with students, I’m not teaching, but I’m pretty much doing the same thing I’m doing all year long—I just have a little bit more time for myself.
I read a lot of smaller things: articles, journals, essays. I reread this wonderful book by Friedrich Nietzsche called “Ecce Homo,” with the puzzling subtitle, “How to become what you are.” It is, technically speaking, his autobiography, but he doesn’t talk very much about his life. Instead, he rereads all the books he has written and so encounters himself as the reader of his own book. It’s really a kind of hyperbolic, overstated book at times. The individual chapters are titled “Why I am so wise,” “Why I am so clever,” and “ Why I write such good books.” The last one is called, “Why I am destiny.” So obviously he thinks very highly of himself.
I was actually teaching this at the end of this spring term, and then I ended up giving a conference paper on it. That was a very nice sense of continuity. I could teach something in class and then work on it for scholarly purposes.
A: Was there another book you read this summer that you particularly enjoyed?
UP: Another example of what I’ve been reading [is] “The Arcades Project” by Walter Benjamin. It is over a thousand pages long, so I’m reading just one section of it. This is a very strange book because it actually isn’t really a book. This is a project that Walter Benjamin was engaged in for the duration of the 1930s while living in Paris. He spent most of his days at the national library, collecting all kinds of materials about life in 19th-century Paris. His idea was to discover a different kind of history of the 19th century, what he called “primal history.” The idea was not to rewrite the history of great events or great conquerors but to write the history of the forgotten underside—what he calls the “refuge of history.”
A: What did he collect then? Just writings?
UP: Basically, it’s just a collection of quotations with his own commentary. So, when you read this, you have just a series of excerpts—just stuff that he read while he was at the library and then his own commentary on these quotations. He never finished this project because he died in 1940. We have only basically boxes and boxes of these documents left and no complete essays. This was put together after his death by an editorial team, so we can actually read it like a book. The idea of the project was that he would mostly just assemble these quotations as a sort of modernist avant-garde style. Even though he never had a chance to finish, this is still super interesting to read. You find great stuff there.
A: I’ve heard you also really like Kafka. Could you tell me a little bit more about him?
UP: Yes, I love Kafka. I wrote a short intro to Kafka, but it’s published in German. So, it’s supposed to be an introduction for German students. In order to do that, I had to go through unbelievable numbers of pages of secondary research. The scholarship on Kafka is astonishing. That isn’t always so much fun to go through, but what I’m enjoying right now is that I’m teaching a First Year Seminar on Kafka. The texts themselves are so rich. I’ve read the stories so many times, I’ve taught them numerous times, but I always learn something new. That’s really the mark of good literature—you always discover something new.
A: You said that you wrote the introduction in German. Do you often travel to Germany?
UP: I go almost every summer. But the center of my life is here; I live in Middletown, very, very close to Wesleyan. I was doing summer research in Berlin this summer, which was fun. Mostly though, because I’m a literary scholar, I can pretty much go wherever I want. It also means that I tend to travel with many books, which can be backbreaking.
A: What was your favorite book growing up?
UP: Hm, that’s a hard question. I don’t have any favorite books. I’m not a keeper of top ten lists. I don’t have any lists of favorite books, or favorite movies, or even favorite songs. That really comes and goes. There are certain periods when I like particular kinds of reading, and then I discover something else, and that completely takes over for me. So, I’m almost impulsive in how I can discover a different passion.
A: When did you become interested in German studies?
UP: I went to a high school in Germany and did my first three years of college level studies in Germany. There, I studied [subjects] wildly across the board. I studied German and American studies, political science, and some philosophy. Then, I decided to make a change and went to the United States. The easiest way for me to be in the United States as a German native speaker was to teach the language. So, this is how I almost by default ended up in German studies. This is kind of ironic: I think I only discovered the German cannon, thoroughly, while I was in the United States.
A: I look forward to going abroad like that in college. I think traveling is one of the best ways to learn.
UP: Yes, I think you’re right. I think every student should go abroad for a semester. It’s a really important experience to get out of your comfort zone for a little while. Because if you always stay within your comfort zone, you might be a great person—you’ll always be a great person—but there will just be something missing in your life.
A: What book or genre can you recommend to students that will spur an interest in subjects that they generally wouldn’t explore?
UP: I would say maybe for the introspective type—and I would count myself under the category—I like reading diaries. Diaries by writers. Writers, that is what they do professionally; they write books. But the diary is a strange sort of genre because they write to themselves; they are their own audience. It just gives you a different sense of intimacy at times, not being guarded, also imperfection and despair. Extreme degrees of happiness and despair.
Another neglected genre is letters. Reading them offers very personal modes of expression. It can be inspiring and touching. It’s also interesting if you compare it to our very confessional nature today, where people like to post all kinds of private information online. We have a very different idea of what privacy is. It used to be incredible how many letters people used to write a day, and how good they were. It’s much easier to communicate by email, because it’s almost like having an instant dialogue. But with the letter, it is going to be traveling for days, even weeks, and by the time it arrives, the person who wrote it might be a different person than they were when they wrote it.