Phonograph, Symbolic. Acoustic Evidence in Arno Holz’ Phantasus

Thomas Forrer

The fact that modern verse features a strong sense of contemplation not only of its poetic, but also its medial, conditions – meaning that they take into consideration their own composition in writing and print in an exceptional manner – coincides with the advances in media technology since the 1870s. The invention of the phonograph and, somewhat later, the gramophone; the ever-shortening exposure times in photography, now measured in milliseconds; and, additionally, cinematography – all these contribute to the emergence of a new concept of medium, which only subsequently includes writing. In other words, writing, as Friedrich Kittler indicates, proves to be a medium only through the apprehension of medial differences emerging from the development of technological media: the gramophone, photography and the typewriter.[1] By 1900, as has become well-established, writing – be it alphabetical writing or musical notation – is no longer the sole medium for registering sounds: the phonograph had been recording sounds and noises in real time since 1877, independently of phonological, prosodic, or musical systems which the written notation of sounds and tones relies on. When the recital of verse can be reproduced phonographically, the pedagogy of reception and declamation of verse, as existing in the form of metrics, becomes almost entirely obsolete.

The extent of this change can be witnessed in a phenomenon that particularly strikes present-day readers of the printed poems of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock from the second half of the 18th century. Klopstock, the great reformer of German poetry, had developed his own stanzaic forms influenced by Greek odes, thereby defying the customs of literary reception of the time.

Figure 1: Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Der Eislauf (“Ice skating”), (Klopstock 1798: I, 217)

In order to make the verses accessible to a contemporary audience, Klopstock set a second notation in metric writing above the notation in alphabetic writing, instructing the reader on its recitation.[2] The doubling demonstrates that writing was in need of at least one further system to indicate the performance of sounds. In this case, meter serves as a filter that admits only very specific acoustic data if these are to pass through “the bottleneck of the signifier” at all, to use Kittler’s words (Kittler 1999: 4).[3] Meter compensates for the imprecision of writing by regulating its translation into sound.

With the emergence of technological media towards the end of the 19th century, the need for filtering and regulating its sounding in order to record its performance waned, and significant metric innovations became apparent in poetry, often referred to in German literary history as a departure from tradition.[4] Marshall McLuhan points out, however, that typographic experiments in verse from 1900 onwards, for instance, did not originate out of protest, but as a result of the technical possibilities of the typewriter:

Figur 2: Typescript, E.E. Cummings (1923), (Cummings 1976: 59)

Writing and typesetting become one at the typewriter, thus making it possible to include typeset as a substantial dimension in lyrical production from the outset (McLuhan 2010: 283f.). Friedrich Kittler also addresses the issue of change in verse: according to him, poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé or Stefan George had dispelled the last imaginary voices from their lines and introduced a verse of silent printed letters. At the same time, Kittler continues, the gramophone brought audible verse, such as that produced by numerous songwriters from 1900 onwards, to a broader audience; only now, in contrast to the circumstances of earlier oral culture, a technical device is responsible for mnemonics (Kittler 1999: 80–82), and consumption takes the place of reception.

Audible verse for illiterates, silent verse for letter fetishists – those are the two alternatives in media history and media theory that Kittler distinguishes in modern poetry around 1900. However, the divide between writing and acoustic phenomena, clearly revealed for the first time by the phonograph, also prompted a re-evaluation of the potential means of representing the sonic in writing. Notations that no longer withhold the para- and nonverbal nuances of speech from writing – despite all medial difference – are already to be found in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. In 1879, two years after Edison’s invention of the phonograph and in light of the shortcomings of writing versus the singularity of acoustic or visual phenomena, Nietzsche writes: “The art of writing requires above all substitutes for the modes of expression that only a speaker has available: hence for gestures, accents, tones, looks. Style in writing is therefore completely different from style in speaking, and something much more difficult – it wants to make itself just as clearly intelligible as the latter, but with fewer means” (Nietzsche 2012: 203).[5] In reference to the classical orator Demosthenes, Nietzsche also has the “bottleneck of the signifier” in mind: “Demosthenes delivered his speeches differently than we read them; he first had to rework them with the idea of their being read” (Nietzsche 2012: 203).[6] Yet it is not only a fascination for the rhetorical actio that spurred Nietzsche’s interest in written substitutes for accents, tones, looks, and gestures. The aforementioned acoustic and visual phenomena all become recordable for the first time through technological media – phonographic recording and photography – and therefore also open to discourse. In the light of the media-historical changes, it can be stated that Nietzsche is also looking in particular for written substitutes for technical recording devices, i.e., it is ultimately about transforming the art of writing into a technique.

This technique of writing no longer adheres to Buffon’s famous dictum from the 18th century, that “the style is the man himself” – the man in the sense of an author-subject, who, when writing, gives “but the order and the movement” to his thoughts (Buffon 1921: 286, 279). On the basis of written depictions, Nietzsche’s reflections on style in writing take into account those characteristics of the medium which are beyond the author’s control. In his time, these were particularly evident in the context of photography. As Lorrain Daston and Peter Galison have elaborated, photography as a method of observation and recording was considered by the natural sciences to be “free of personal interpretation” and “objective” and, as such, not belonging to the domain of the arts (Daston and Galison 2007: 115–190).[7] Not that the new writing style contemplated by Nietzsche deals with any form of analogous rendition of the rhetoric actio; likewise, it would be false to claim that he envisioned photography or even had the phonograph in mind. Rather, Nietzsche’s reflections on style in writing – as compared to style in speech – maintain a “contemporaneity” with the new recording media; they “are allied” with them,[8] in that the new media bring into play a new, singular object by means of their technical – or, to speak with Sigmund Freud – “evenly-suspended” attention.[9] And it is to this object that the style of writing needs to do justice: not by imitating photography or phonography, but by recalling the means of writing that form the filter that this object has fallen through until now, in order to find written substitutes for a deficit in writing technique – therefore, a crux.

Nietzsche tackles this problem at several points in his collection of poems Songs of Prince Vogelfrei by exposing aspects of the traditional methods of written verse – meter and rhyme – through hyperbole and parody (Forrer 2014). In his Dithyrambs of Dionysus, however, he dismisses the supplementary and tone-structuring meter system. The irregular verses of Nietzsche’s Dithyrambs – which paved the way for free verse, one of the epochal inventions of modern verse in German[10] – provide no specific instructions on recital form. Their rhythm only becomes evident during the act of recitation and, with each process, can vary significantly. Nietzsche’s Dithyrambs compensate the acoustic shortcomings of writing in such a way that the notation in verse form does signal its lyrical nature, yet at the same time allows far more tolerance concerning recitation than traditional, metric verse, since the placement of accents and intervals, as well as the enunciation of syllable lengths, during recital does not follow a matrix of meter and strophic structure. Accordingly, one of the characteristics of these irregular verses is that they increase the difference between written notation and acoustic recitation. Given the lack of acoustic detail in writing, they elevate this difference to a basic principle of lyricism, thus reflecting the singularity of the recital in all its nuances that, in 1900, only a phonograph could record.

The correspondence between the phonograph and the new forms of written presentation in modern poetry can also be traced in the writings of Arno Holz. The poet from Berlin lived from 1863 to 1929 and is considered to be an important reformer of both German narrative prose as well as German poetry. Along with Johannes Schlaf, he developed a naturalistic writing style that particularly focuses on details of the depicted scene in the vernacular while also attempting to convey actions and conversations in real-time. Consequently, Holz’s naturalism was instantly associated with the new media of the time. Concerning the art of his time, the German critic Franz Servaes wrote in 1899: “This passionate addiction emerged to seize even the most immediate instance; to elevate to unprecedented heights the capacity of nerves, eyes, and ears to record and perceive. Photography had to write down immediate impressions of light for us, the phonograph had to record those of sounds rushing past. And everything has to occur with scientific accuracy” (Servaes 1899: 71).[11] And, as such, Holz’s poetry took care to render details accurately (Servaes 1899: 75). From then on, the word of Holz’s “phonographic method” took on a life of its own – it was even said to have been a quote of his[12] and was later associated with an aesthetic of depiction that dealt with nothing more than the relationship between “language and reality.”[13] However, Holz’s poetry does not attempt to become the phonograph – rather, the phonograph is its prerequisite,[14] as 23-year-old Rainer Maria Rilke already noted in 1898. Rilke, who, as a student, had witnessed a reconstruction of Edison’s phonograph in his physics class (Rilke 1987b: VI, 1085f.), comments on the literary collaboration of Arno Holz and Johannes Schlaf with the vocabulary of a modern media technician when he writes: “Holz was in need of a companion, a subtle sounding device, from which he could read off the most delicate vibrations, which he would never have found in the orchestra of life.”[15] Rilke’s observation is made in the context of the suggestion that Arno Holz was more of a theorist than a poet, although it also is to be understood as a comment on the medial conditions of a naturalistic writing style. Rilke makes it clear that Holz’s naturalism does not share any relation to the polyphony of real life, but rather with another medium: namely, “a subtle sounding device” that makes “the most delicate vibrations” readable. Rilke thus associates Johannes Schlaf, Holz’s collaborator and co-author, with Edison’s phonograph, which could both record and play sounds with its tinfoil sheet cylinder, whereas other, similar, devices could play the cylinder as well. While Holz, who is capable of reading these vibrations, is also compared to a phonograph, the comparison is only to a reduced version of it. Holz’s apparatus can only read what others have already recorded; it cannot transform the vibrations it detects into sound; it evidently lacks the membrane that connects the device with the acoustic environment.

Despite the polemic directed against Holz in Rilke’s comparison, it does include a point relevant for media history: The missing membrane is reminiscent of the separation between writing and the acoustic. Writing does not permit the acoustic to be analogously conveyed, but can only represent them either symbolically or indirectly. If Holz’s poetry relies on a “subtle sounding device,” it is precisely because it makes the “orchestra of life” audible and turns it into a challenge for poetry[16] – even though this orchestra would, in fact, have always been audible. The media “define that which is real,” according to Norbert Bolz (Bolz 1987: 34), or, as Rilke writes less prosaically of the sounds and noises of the reconstructed phonograph of his school days, “we were confronting, as it were, a new and infinitely delicate point in reality.”[17] If Holz’s poetry is to be regarded as phonographic, then only so because it strives for a new reality – namely, that of the phonograph – and not because it fixes reality in an analogous way.

Might it then be that the naturalistic way of writing is in fact more of an intermedial writing technique? In his 700-page polemical treatise Die neue Wortkunst (“The new art of Words”), Holz quotes appreciatively from Franz Servaes’s essay, which states that Holz and Schlaf not only “record all that is vernacular in much finer nuance than previously,” they also pay heed to that “which can be referred to as the ‘physiognomy of speech’: those little liberties and indulgences which do not adhere to syntax, logic and grammar […], and which those who would mirror life otherwise would attempt to brush off, that usually contain and reveal the ‘essential’.” (Holz 1925: 254)[18] Recalling the clue paradigm in Morelli, Freud, or Sherlock Holmes (Ginzburg 1980), this is equally a clue pointing towards the new, analogous media, which record such details without distinction. A vivid example of this style of writing can be found in the beginning of Papa Hamlet, the narrative text that made Holz and Schlaf instantly famous in 1890. It is set in the attic room of a run-down Hamlet actor:


Was? Das war Niels Thienwiebel? Niels Thienwiebel, der große, unübertroffene Hamlet aus Trondhjem? Ich esse Luft und werde mit Versprechungen gestopft? Man kann Kapaunen nicht besser mästen? …

       „He! Horatio!“
Gleich, Nielchen! Wo brennt’s denn? Soll ich auch die Skatkarten mitbringen?“

       „N…nein! Das heißt …“

       – – „Donnerwetter noch mal! Das, das ist ja eine, eine – Badewanne!“

Der arme kleine Ole Nissen wäre in einem Haar über sie gestolpert. Er hatte eben die Küche passiert und suchte jetzt auf allen vieren nach seinem blauen Pince-nez herum, das ihm wieder in der Eile von der Nase gefallen war.

       „Hä? Was? Was sagste nu?!“
       „Was denn, Nielchen? Was denn?“


       „Aber Thiiienwiebel!“

       „Amalie? Ich …“

       „Ai! Kieke da! Also döss!“

       „Hä?! Was?! Famoser Schlingel! Mein Schlingel! Mein Schlingel, Amalie! Hä! Was?“[19]


Even though this presents topics and a diction previously quite unheard of in German literature, Holz has no illusions concerning his medium[20] when he states in Die neue Wortkunst: “A perfectly exact reproduction of nature through art is something absolutely impossible, […] because the material for reproducing it that we humans happen to have at our disposal […] will always remain inadequate” (Holz 1925: 131).[21] This problem is also expressed in the title of the monumental cycle of poems Phantasus, which Holz first published in 1898 in two issues of 50 accessible poems each. He proceeded to edit the cycle repeatedly throughout the following decades, until it became so large that the edition of 1925 encompassed 1,345 pages, and critics mockingly called it the “Elephantasus” (Schulz 2009: 150f.). According to myth, Phantasos is one of the three Greek dream deities. In dreams, Morpheus mimics human forms, and Phobetor takes on the guise of animals; Phantasos, however, appears before the dreamers transformed into “soil and rocks and waves / and tree trunks, anything without a mind,” as it says in Ovid’s Metamorphosis (Ovid 2010: 310; XI, 320f.). In naming his cycle of poems after the god who translates the soulless and the real into the dreamlike, Holz is referring to the crux of naturalistic writing. While the phonograph records the clamor of the real indiscriminately and plays it back in the same manner, the medium of writing can only evoke the real – the concern of naturalism – through the imaginary. Should writing not only want to denote, but also to present, the real, it has to “quiver” in the face of it (Kittler 1999: 10). Correspondingly, Holz considers naturalism first and foremost to be a method of presentation and not a question of matter (Holz 1925: 271).

This becomes quite evident through the typeset of the Phantasus poems alone: The free verses are set around what Holz calls the “middle-axis,” that is, they are centered, an alignment which he also calls “typographical music” or “ear-image” (Holz 1925: 659), where the typeset expresses the difficulty verse has in conveying the sound from which it is so distant. In Die neue Wortkunst, Holz indicates that preferably, the intended sound patterns should already be suggested to the greatest extent possible by the typeset of the “middle-axis,” and yet it is this form in particular that requires a lively recital in order to reach its full impact (Holz 1925: 503).[22] The unconventional typeset calls attention to the arbitrary and distanced relationship between writing and phonetic realization. Writing, so says Holz, only presents the speaker with “hieroglyphs,” that is to say, nothing more than “notes” (Holz 1925: 503). The inherent music, with all its “swells, inflections, sudden changes in tone, and shifts in tempo,” as Holz once cited from Nietzsche (Holz 1925: 670), therefore “has to be made on one’s own” (Holz 1925: 503). There is no metric instruction: The deviation from left-aligned type coincides with the deviation from metric tradition, which had developed its forms within this particular typeset. By comparison, Holz’s “middle-axis” makes “typographic faces,” to use McLuhan’s words (McLuhan 2010: 284). It is a clue suggesting a new lyric orality, a music at odds with writing.

Contrary to the 18th century writer, Klopstock, who, in order to better determine the relation between letters and recital, doubled the writing by also printing it metrically, Arno Holz pits writing against writing in Phantasus in order to represent the sounds and noises which in the medium of writing have always been lost: a technique already discernable in the first and shortest edition of the Phantasus. A particularly good example for this is a sextain which ontogenetically thematizes the conditions for the (re-)production of naturalistic poetry:


Vor meinem Fenster

singt ein Vogel.


Still hör ich zu; mein Herz vergeht.


Er singt,

was ich als Kind besass

und dann – vergessen.[23]


The dash in the last verse figures not only as the unbridgeable distance to the childhood, recalled in a dim memory through the bird’s song, it also corresponds with the window that separates the space of the singing bird from the space of the poetic persona. Silence dominating the space of the poet might be read as a metonymy for written poetry, which is also silent. However, in thematizing the act of hearing, the poem presents poetry as a scene of lost singing, meaning that the dash also figures as the translation of the acoustic into a poem, a translation that is simultaneously an annihilation. The “orchestra of life,” as Rilke calls it, is literally overwritten by the poem. In so doing, the poem suggests what the poetic persona “owned as a child”: namely, the audible singing, which the medium of writing can henceforth only express indirectly.

Therefore, should poetry want to take on acoustic phenomena, it must fabricate writing that, on the one hand, is finely textured enough to thematize a certain event and, on the other hand, also wide-meshed enough to prevent the verbal description from suspending the audibility of the event. In accord with the rhetoric figure of evidentia, this technique could be called acoustic evidence. For the Roman rhetoric Quintilian, evidentia is an animated, vivid narration that leads the listeners to see things more with “the eyes of the mind” than to simply follow the words of an account of them (Quintilian 1922ff.: XI 2/40; VIII 3/61f.). Acoustic evidence, however, works oppositely: The sounds and noises should be described in such a way that one believes to be hearing them with “the ear of the mind” rather than reading about them. It is precisely this experiential evidence – that the senses can neither be replaced nor determined by writing – that the rhetoric technique of the evidentia allows for.

This is why the evident or, as it were, also auditory, description does not need to be complete. If only some well-formulated details are pointed out, then the listener, as Quintilian wrote, can “imagine himself other details that the orator does not describe” (Quintilian 1922ff.: VIII 3/64). To achieve this, one is also allowed to use instructions such as “Imagine that you see!” (Quintilian 1922ff.: IX 2/41). This last means is one that Arno Holz uses in the poem cited above. When it says: “still hör ich zu” (“silently I listen”), this awakens the imaginary ear of the reader. Similarly, this is also the case in the following poem, in which the relation between reading and sensing is explicitly mentioned:


Du liest, dass der Herzog von Devonshire jährlich 100'000 Pfund verbraucht,

und beneidest ihn um seine Jaspispaläste.




Bekuck dir den braunen, grüngesprenkelten Kattunpuckel deiner alten Zeitungsfrau,

horch, was über deinem Fenster die Schwalbe mit ihren Jungen zwitschert,

freue dich, wie die wilde Distel, die du nach Hause trugst, nach Honig duftet,

sauge in dich die Sonne!


Jede Sekunde, die du lebst, vergeudet über dich Schätze.[24]


The naturalistic and quite simple moral of this poem is accompanied by a performative contradiction. Although it advises against reading in the first three verses, the poem does not stop there, but rather goes on to make an appeal for immediate looking and listening – an appeal which can only be grasped by reading. However, the poem differentiates between two attitudes towards reading: When the “Duke of Devonshire,” a nobleman, is cited as a figure of material wealth (rather than, for instance, an industrial magnate), the reading which is spoken of in the first verse becomes associated with the concept of representation. To read a character as representational means to perceive it as a conventional symbol within the framework of a semiotic system where it takes the place of certain absent ideas or matters while simultaneously signifying them – in which regard Michel Foucault, in his semiotics of representation, points out that representation is fundamentally nothing else than the representation of representations (Foucault 2002: 70f.). Accordingly, their significance results from the position they occupy relative to other representations, for which Ferdinand de Saussure coined the semiotic term value (Saussure 1959: 114ff.).

The following verses in Holz’s poem can – and must – also be initially read in this conventional manner, yet now with the writing and the structure of the representation being, as it were, cleared away by the words: “bekuck” (a colloquial verb meaning “watch” or “gaze”) and “horch” (“listen”)! Yet, if what is asked of the party addressed as “you” is not an impossible feat, namely to read and at the same time not read, then the demand to watch and to listen must stand in relation to an aspect of the reading itself, particularly considering that the swallows which are to be listened to do not nest under the eaves all year round: their twittering is, therefore, to be heard while reading by the “inner” ear. Even when such an acoustic imagination emanates from conventional signs, it breaks with them precisely through the individuality suggested by the poem: In the verses four to six, the mention is of “deiner alten Zeitungsfrau” (“your old newspaper lady”), the swallows that twitter “über deinem Fenster” (“over your window”) and “Distel, die du nach Hause trugst” (“the thistle that you carried home”).

The repeated use of the 2nd Person singular stresses the uniqueness of inner listening, which cannot be replaced by signs. In this manner, the poem contemplates not only its own medium, writing, but at the same time also takes into account the singularity of sensory phenomena which had, through photography and the phonograph, become storable for the first time.

In the following passage from the Phantasus, reading and hearing are mentioned as well, whereby acoustic evidence is now created in the contrast to silence – a psychophysical technique that Holz applies in numerous poems. Once again, tones and noises are set in front of conventional reading; in a way, they are audible, as soon as the book is “thrown away”, as in the following stanzas:


Ich bin ein kleiner, achtjähriger Junge

und liege, das Kinn in beide Fäuste,

platt auf dem Bauch

und kucke durch die Bodenluke.

Unter mir, steil, der Hof,

hinter mir, weggeworfen, ein Buch.

Franz Hoffmann. Die Sclavenjäger.


Wie still das ist!


Nur drüben in Knorrs Regenrinne

zwei Spatzen, die sich um einen Strohhalm zanken,

ein Mann, der sägt,

und dazwischen, deutlich von der Kirche her,

in kurzen Pausen, regelmässig, hämmernd

der Kupferschmid Thiel.[25]


A further evidence technique is the interruption of reading in favor of listening, as it is done in the following poem by means of ellipses:




Der Ahorn vor meinem Fenster rauscht,

von seinen Blättern funkelt der Thau ins Gras,

und mein Herz





Ein Hund … bellt, … ein Zweig … knickt, – still!




In 1898’s Phantasus, ellipses appear with such frequency in connection with the acoustic that one can assuredly speak of a method. This clearly shows that the difference between writing and that new world of sound, which the phonograph was able to record, constituted a fundamental prerequisite for this poetry. It is precisely this difference that the literary technique of acoustic evidence takes into account: If writing is to provoke imaginary acoustic events, of which the notation it is simultaneously denied, the imagination cannot be bound by any prescript. What Holz formulates about the recitation of free verse, namely that its music “has to be made on one’s own”, holds true in the same degree for acoustic evidence. One can only have an imaginary acoustic experience, if at all, unexpectedly and on one’s own.

Nonetheless, in spite of this singularity,[27] the imagination activates a structure of repetition. Through the imagination, the purpose of writing seems to be fulfilled. The imagination repeats what writing is admittedly not able to reproduce, but in so doing, it proves writing to also be a repetition, namely one of an acoustic occurrence, that retroactively has always been preceding. If acoustic evidence evokes something singular and unheard of in writing, this will prove itself to be, in the moment of its eventful coming-into-being, always already repeated and heard. This is naturalism on its summit: Only in the affirmation of the difference between writing and the “orchestra of life” is the precondition provided which allows the medium of writing to bring this orchestra to sound.


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