Literature and Life
Literary scholar and Leibniz Prize winner Steffen Martus ponders the many connections between literature, academia, and society.
Jan 15, 2018
Sometimes, when riding his bike across the Museumsinsel to Humboldt Universität early on a summer morning, literary scholar Steffen Martus would be overcome with a true “Madeleine” moment, he says, such as in Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time, tasting a small French cake prompts such sharp memories that the past seems to come alive. While Martus often felt such “auratic moments” during his early years in the Berlin Mitte district of the 1990s, today he must constantly remind himself “just how lovely a place he is working in.”
Martus’s workplace is Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, founded as the first Berlin university in 1810 and the stamping ground of many of the authors and literary scholars who are the object of his current research. To this day, he rides his bike to the university, albeit more from the need to “speed between desks” than to experience leisurely life Unter den Linden. He means this literally: Martus parks his bike right next to his desk on the 6th floor of the Institute of German Literature on Dorotheenstrasse, where the 49-year-old has held a professorship since 2010. His other activities include co-editing the Zeitschrift für Germanistik and text + kritik, membership in various advisory committees and juries for literary prizes, and his role as speaker of the DFG Literary Studies Review Board. Additionally, Martus contributes regular reviews to feature pages of the Berliner Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung, FAZ, and Zeit.
In 2015 Martus was awarded the prestigious Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz prize in recognition of his single-minded pursuit of his work and rapid rise to fame as a “trend-setting representative of German literary studies”. His own take on the course of his academic career is not one of single-mindedness at all, but rather of a trajectory marked by random events, propitious moments and above all, finding himself in the right “milieus,” where good decisions simply came about of their own accord. From the outset, this was the case for the young man from Karlsruhe, who by talking with friends was inspired to choose Regensburg for his studies in German language and literature, philosophy, sociology, and political science. Strangely enough, it was during a course for which the lecturer seems to have been badly prepared that literature was revealed as the future of Martus’s life’s work. He explains, “The conflicts at this seminar provoked a peculiar type of self-activation among us students, which for me felt like the flipping the switch.” It was here that Martus first became involved with the Romantics, something he has never let go of.
“One has to take into account elements that may be coincidental, unplanned, unintended, without motivation, sometimes even of no apparent interest”. Steffen Martus
Such haphazard connections are still of interest to him now: in his own teaching, for which he received a prize for excellence in 2002, but also when researching literature. “One has to take into account elements that may be coincidental, unplanned, unintended, without motivation, sometimes even of no apparent interest.” When he addresses the work of an author or an epoch, Martus is concerned with more than the just the literary work. His work involves a detailed interpretation of the functions that writers and literature perform within a society. “What I attempt to do is see literature as implanted – as deeply as possible – in the political, economic, and social environment of its time, right down to trivial, everyday elements.”
Examples in this vein are Martus’s biography of the Brothers Grimm published in 2009 and his 2015 portrait of the German Age of Enlightenment. These are already established as standard works that, despite their wide-ranging scope and intellectual nature, enjoy widespread popularity outside academia, too. In turn, his academic activity benefits enormously from seeing life behind the scenes at nonspecialist publishing houses and from his own reading tours. When conducting historical research for example, he often finds himself wondering why a literary work is overlooked by contemporaries. “I've come to the conclusion that the likelihood of a reader first coming into contact with a book, then taking an interest in it, spending money, and finally investing time in reading it, is incredibly small,” Martus says. It was “amazing and interesting” moreover to learn what sort of insights into our current society readers of his books were seeking. “They can allow themselves a more excitable type of curiosity than a scientific researcher, who tries to keep his objects of study at a distance.”
A coming project will require Martus to rethink things all over again: it involves communication about literature not just with people, but also with machines. As part of a small group of researchers, he will be using Big Data to undertake a survey of the entirety of literature in the former German Democratic Republic. “I am very excited to see what kind of perceptions will emerge from this. We will be considering well-known authors, yes, but hundreds of their contemporaries too.” Already, Martus apprehends the approach of an era wherein computers will change the nature of the discussion as well as the methods of working of literary scholars. Availability of data is one aspect, but relations and questions of trust between researchers in diverse disciplines is another. “At the moment, I voice an opinion as to whether one interpretation is plausible. With statistics, things look different.” Martus explores such changes in the day-to-day work of people in the humanities in projects on the so-called praxeology of literary studies. He also works with representatives of digital humanities, reconstructing structures, and processes from the history of ideas based on large data reserves.
A second project will involve Martus in traditional methods of literary study once again. He will set out to analyze, contextualize, and describe contemporary literature in the style that is usually applied to past epochs of literary history. “I wonder what one might learn about our present condition by taking an exclusively literary perspective.” The project will take a broad view of social debate and literary themes, as well as marketing opportunities or work conditions. And it will examine what people actually do with books today (besides reading them): in other words, it will treat our banal, daily approach to literature.