Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Comparative Literature


Charity Scribner

Committee Members

Vincent Crapanzano

John Brenkman

Subject Categories

Comparative Literature | German Literature


Max Frisch, Elias Canetti, Elfriede Jelinek, Atmosphere


Critical Climates examines the interest in myth among a number of literary figures from 1950 to 1989 in relation to the concurrent re-emergence of the German aesthetic concept of Stimmung. At once referring to atmosphere, milieu, mood, disposition and harmony, while carrying along its root Stimme, or voice, this dissertation shows how Stimmung informed a literary practice among German-language authors that engaged the relationship between narrative, ideology and collective moods in a way that can be spoken of in terms of a mythopoesis. This project builds upon contemporary scholarship that focuses on Stimmung as a way to refigure literary studies beyond cultural studies and poststructuralism, as well as work that analyzes social phenomena in terms of atmosphere to make sense of affect’s political importance. This study, however, differs somewhat from these approaches by focusing on the manner in which writers themselves appeal to an atmospheric and acoustic consciousness in their own literary texts and social critiques. This shift in register not only reveals various attempts to reintroduce into the language of critique a concern for the collectively breathed and mediated climates in which these writers lived, but it considers the way in which past literary experiments were responding to a felt need for new collective narratives that dominant forms of ideology critique struggled to offer.

With particular attention paid to texts by Max Frisch, Elias Canetti and Elfriede Jelinek, I show how these authors depart from academically sanctioned forms of critical engagement by drawing on their respective training in architecture, chemistry and musical performance. I argue that by doing so they bridge the gap between esoteric reactionaries responding to the failed promises of the 1960s on the one hand, and more rational approaches seen in some of the work of the Frankfurt School’s later generation on the other. Grounding their writing in these particular disciplines, the authors here make clear the extent to which those aspects of experience that exist prior to ideology remain only vaguely thought: namely, the manner in which architectural spaces attune social relations, to what extent power and its narrative practices insinuates itself in the air that we breathe, and how the sounds and silences of voices sustain gender, class and racial injustices. The way in which these authors write these atmospheres into their work ultimately reveals a latent affinity to the socially constitutive force of myth and its inherent relationship to collective identity and transformation. I trace this relationship between the various connotations of Stimmung and myth back to Johann Gottfried Herder’s interest in folklore and climate, through Friedrich Nietzsche’s understanding of mood and ideology, and, finally, Peter Sloterdijk’s critique of post-68 cynicism that culminates in a call for more artistic and literary forms of engagement. What Frisch, Canetti and Jelinek ultimately – albeit implicitly – argue for is a recuperation of myth and its relationship to these affective experiences on the side of rational critique.