Prof. Hans Rindisbacher on New Book Project and German Studies at Pomona

Hans Rindisbacher in his office

Hans Rindisbacher, professor of German, has taught classes in German studies at Pomona since 1995, but his research interests extend far beyond German.

His book The Smell of Books: A Cultural-Historical Study of Olfactory Perception in Literature garnered the Modern Language Association’s Independent Scholar Prize. His research interests also include Swiss literature, culture and politics; the intersection of linguistic representation and neuroscience; and style and fashion.

Rindisbacher was recently awarded an American Philosophical Society Franklin Research Grant to travel to Bern, Switzerland, for a book-editing project titled Friedrich Dürrenmatt at 100: Swiss Writer, Global Prophet. We talked to Rindisbacher about this project as well as his passion for teaching German at Pomona. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

How do you approach teaching German at Pomona?

All of us foreign language professors at Pomona teach much more than language. I make it a point in my first-year language courses to always bring in history, the cultural and political context, movies, what’s going on in Germany, Austria, Switzerland. You have to do that; otherwise, for American students, learning a language like German makes little sense. But European studies, philosophy, music history and art history are all academic disciplines with a very strong German historical tradition, and Germany is a leading nation in the EU.

Frederike von Schwerin-High and I teach all the German courses, from first semester language to fairly sophisticated material, such as a class called Germany Black and White, about racial awareness and literature on race by Black Germans.

I get to teach a variety of classes. That’s what’s fun about being a college professor.

Who was Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and how did you become interested in him?

Dürrenmatt was a leading 20th-century Swiss author. I read Dürrenmatt back home in Switzerland. He was school reading; his best-known plays are The Visit and The Physicists.

His international breakthrough came when The Visit ran on Broadway starting in 1958 and won the New York Drama Critics’ prize for best foreign play. He was also a first-rate quirky author of detective novels (for example, The Pledge, which was turned into a movie by Sean Penn) and shorter prose, and an innovative and influential theater critic and director.

In Switzerland, he was a towering public intellectual. His rather dim view of humanity’s alleged enlightenment progress and of the world as unruly, mendacious and often violent matches the worldview of many critical observers today, making his work durably important.

What is your forthcoming book about?

It is a collection of English-language essays on the global impact of Dürrenmatt for which I have invited contributions, am editing and in some cases translating the contributions from German, and to which I am contributingan introduction and my own essay.

The volume brings together scholars who read and interpret Dürrenmatt’s work in the context of contemporary social, political and cultural developments. Dürrenmatt’s treatment of personal morals and political and economic power in collision makes our collection of essays fit well with our own troubled times and provides a fresh approach to the author in English.

What will your essay be about?

My own piece is going to be on a short text by him, which he wrote in 1989. He died in 1990, and it was published posthumously in 1994. It’s called “The Viral Epidemic in South Africa.” It’s a crazy little piece, just a few pages. It’s an anti-apartheid piece, where Whites in South Africa are infected by a virus and turn Black. That, of course, brings about all sorts of political mayhem and brings down the Apartheid regime.

This political parable received little critical attention for more than a quarter-century, but it surged into broader awareness in 2020 as an uncanny anticipation of our own double-troubled times of COVID-19 and the global protests against systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Suddenly, Dürrenmatt’s linkage of racism and a global pandemic seemed prescient.

How will you use the grant?

The grant will enable a research visit to the Swiss National Library/Swiss Literary Archives in Bern, Switzerland, where Dürrenmatt’s estate is housed. Bern also happens to be my hometown.

Dürrenmatt was in fact the initiator of the Swiss Literary Archives. He approached the government and offered his estate as the anchor of this yet-to-be established institution. They agreed, and since 1991 we have had a thriving Swiss Literary Archives as part of the Swiss National Library.

The stay will give me direct access to the most comprehensive Dürrenmatt sources and critical materials available and let me work with Dürrenmatt experts in situ.