At the Limit of the Obscene

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ISBN 978-0-8101-4318-0

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ISBN 978-0-8101-4317-3

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ISBN 978-0-8101-4316-6
Publication Date
February 2021
Page Count
288 pages
Trim Size
6 x 9

At the Limit of the Obscene

German Realism and the Disgrace of Matter
Erica Weitzman

At the Limit of the Obscene: German Realism and the Disgrace of Matter examines the fear of materiality in German-language realist and postrealist literature. The book argues that with German literature’s turn in the mid-nineteenth century to the depiction of the profane, sensual world, anxiety emerged about the terms of that depiction—with consequences not only for the formal development of realist poetics but also for the conception of profane physical matter itself.

Erica Weitzman analyzes works by Adalbert Stifter, Gustav Freytag, Theodor Fontane, Arno Holz, Gottfried Benn, and Franz Kafka to show how efforts to represent the material world in human terms led to an idea of the obscene as an excess of sensual appearance beyond human meaning: the very obverse of the anthropocentric worldview that realism both propagates and pushes to its crisis. At the Limit of the Obscene thus brings to light the troubled and troubling ontology underlying German realism, at the same time demonstrating how it shaped—and continues to shape—our ideas about materiality, alterity, perception, knowledge, representability, and the relationship of human beings to the nonhuman world.

About the Author

ERICA WEITZMAN is an assistant professor in the Department of German at Northwestern University. She is the author of Irony’s Antics: Walser, Kafka, Roth and the German Comic Tradition, also published by Northwestern University Press.


At the Limit of the Obscene is a masterful study of the concept of obscenity, in both its historical and theoretical permutations, as it played out in the tradition of nineteenth-century German realist literature and its afterlife in the early twentieth century. Weitzman moves with enviable grace through the German intellectual tradition from Kant forward, weaving in references to legal cases and contemporary critical interventions, and with great originality leads the discussion into the equally important tradition of French phenomenology.” —Eric Downing, author of The Chain of Things: Divinatory Magic and the Practice of Reading in German Literature and Thought, 1850–1940

“In her impeccably researched and elegantly written book, Weitzman uses the category of the obscene to unlock Poetic Realism's contradictions as well as its solutions. Mandatory reading for all those interested in 19th-century German prose and, more generally, in questions of materialism and literature.” —Eva Geulen, author of The End of Art: Readings in a Rumor after Hegel