Peer Reviewed

Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

“Nowhere an obstacle”: Transparency, Embodied Perception, and Becoming in Paul Scheerbart’s Lesabéndio


Photograph of man with glasses
Fig. 1. Paul Scheerbart. Wilhelm Fechner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

How might we situate Paul Scheerbart within German modernism? The work of excavating his oeuvre, its conceptual and generic contours, and its entanglements with other figures and constellations of German modernism has begun in earnest, yet he is still known primarily as a theorist of glass architecture, on the one hand, and as a decades-long, subterranean influence on Walter Benjamin, on the other—Benjamin received a copy of Scheerbart’s 1913 novel Lesabéndio from Gershom Scholem as a wedding present, and continually returned to the utopian aspects of Scheerbart’s writing.[1] In his 1914 treatise, Glasarchitektur (“Glass Architecture”), Scheerbart calls for nothing less than the total spiritual renewal of humankind by means of building with colored glass, an avant-garde architectural utopianism that would influence Bruno Taut, as well as artists associated with Bauhaus and Dada.[2] “Glass Architecture” was published in Herwarth Walden’s Expressionist journal Der Sturm, and Scheerbart associated with the artists in the orbit of Der Sturm, a prominent modernist constellation in Berlin that included figures such as Walden, Else Lasker-Schüler, Alfred Döblin, and others.[3] Yet despite these associations, and despite the multimedial sweep of Scheerbart’s work—which includes dozens of novels, as well as the treatise on glass and a 1910 account of his attempt to build a perpetual motion machine—Scheerbart’s contributions to German modernism still await a fuller reckoning. In part this is surely because the books themselves, idiosyncratic, whimsical, and always of uncertain genre, at times seem written to defy the attempt to take them seriously: Scheerbart’s narrative worlds are outlandish and weightless, while his style exhibits none of the density, difficulty, or self-awareness typically associated with literary modernism. As Benjamin wrote in praise, Scheerbart’s prose is transparent, fresh as “a nursling’s cheeks.”[4]

Yet this transparency associated with both Scheerbart’s prose and his architectural fantasies about glass exhibits multiple ambiguities—ambiguities that prove quite generative for thinking about some of the discursive, disciplinary, and medial contours of German modernism, especially its engagement with questions of perception and embodiment, its relationship to monism, its retheorization of the subject, and its interrogation of the relationship between art and society. This essay reads Scheerbart’s 1913 “Asteroïdenroman” (“asteroid-novel”) Lesabéndio, to flesh out the relationship between this ambiguous transparency, on the one hand, and the novel’s utopian vision of boundlessly mobile, embodied perception, on the other. By unfolding a tension between fantasies of transparency and embodied vision, the novel engages with a key problematic of the avant-garde, yet closer examination suggests the presence of another context, namely the popular intellectual currents that circulated under the names of monism and panpsychism. Indeed, the strange, alien bodies in this novel might be seen as a missing link between modernism and monism. The ambiguous transparency of both glass and monism pivoted on the paradoxical relationships between materiality, embodiment, and perception, as a new, specific inflection of the relationship between mind (Geist) and body. In the ways in which glass in architectural discourse around 1913 flickered in and out of different modes of signification—is it transparent or is it a surface? Does it allow us to see clearly or is it what is meant to be seen? Is it material, medium, metaphor, or all three?—these questions reflect monism’s revision of the relationship between matter and spirit. Far from representing a reactionary flight into mysticism, the monist fancy that characterizes Lesabéndio ought to be seen as a playful literalization of contemporary ambiguities surrounding transparency, embodiment, perception, and materiality.

Lesabéndio I

Lesabéndio’s opening lines establish a play of familiarity and strangeness, nearness and distance, self and cosmos that characterizes the novel as a whole:

Line drawing of figure with face
Fig. 2. Illustration by Alfred Kubin from the first edition of Lesabéndio. © Eberhard Spangenberg, München / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2023.

The sky was violet, and the stars were green. The sun was green too.
Lesabéndio made his suction-foot very wide and stuck it firmly against the jagged stone cliff that fell away steeply. He then stretched his body, which consisted of nothing but a rubbery tube-leg with a suction-cup foot at one end, more than fifty meters high into the violet atmosphere.
A great transformation took place as Lesabéndio’s head rose into the air: the rubbery skin of his head began to unfurl like an umbrella. Then it slowly shut itself up again, hiding his face, and his scalp began to turn into a pipe, open at the front, while his face was at the bottom of the pipe. Two long telescopic shapes emerged from its eyes, with which Lesabéndio could effortlessly gaze at the green stars, just as if he were near them.[5]

The elements familiar to a terrestrial reader—sky, stars, sun, body, foot—establish the coordinates of a recognizable setting, while the strange attributes of these—violet, green, “rubbery,” “suction-cup foot”—confirm that these coordinates are not the expected ones. This estrangement corresponds to the play of distance and nearness described by these opening lines. Right after we read about the unfamiliar astral palette, we meet our eponymous protagonist, whose perception of the violet atmosphere immediately gives way to his movement into that atmosphere. Likewise, his bodily transformation allows him to turn his head inside out, so that his face is on an interior surface, permitting his eyes to extend telescopically, bringing the green stars close. This corporeal elision of distance and nearness and the consequent near-identity of perception and bodily movement is central to the novel. Rather than see Lesabéndio’s body and his movement into the stars in this opening passage merely as fanciful products of an idiosyncratic novel, Scheerbart makes a necessary connection between the bodily features of the Pallasians (as Lesabéndio’s people are called, after the asteroid on which they live) and the perceptual desire that propels him towards the stars. In this novel, to perceive is ultimately to become. Lesabéndio’s bodily transformation in this opening passage, suggesting the absence of any distinction between organic bodies and technology, already indicates the connection to a fantasy of vision that is at once embodied and untethered from the expected recalcitrance of matter; as we will see, this fantasy links Scheerbart’s novel both to a contemporary architectural imaginary and to the monist idea that all matter is imbued with soul and self.

Lesabéndio tells the story of the asteroid Pallas and its inhabitants, the Pallasians, who can all manipulate their bodies like the novel’s protagonist. In addition to the Pallasians’ corporeal peculiarities, their social arrangements, and their categories of work, art, nature, and technology, also differ starkly from those on earth. “The Pallasians’ entire activity was concentrated on building a wider variety of structures on the star Pallas. They wanted to renovate the landscape and alter it, to make it even more wonderful and magnificent” (11). Indeed, Lesabéndio presents its reader with something like a planetary avantgarde: every inhabitant living inside this hourglass-shaped asteroid is an artist whose occupation is to constantly rework the environment according to individual formal preference. In this project of total beautification, any distinction between art and labor is effaced. The material peculiarities of Pallasian life and reproduction mean that we see none of the kinds of life-sustaining labor we might expect—there is no child-rearing, cleaning, cooking, farming, and no production or building of any kind that is not part of an aesthetic project.[6] In collapsing art with all other social activity, Lesabéndio would seem to illustrate Peter Bürger’s theorization of the avant-garde—namely, that the historical avant-garde sought to challenge the existence of art as a domain separate from the rest of society—except that, on Pallas, distinctions between art and society or economy never seem to have existed in the first place.[7] Such universal creative activity leads to the primary conflict of the novel—between the visionary title character who seeks to build a massive tower in order to discover what lies beyond the “light-cloud” above their asteroid and those Pallasians who fear that such a transcendent undertaking will distract from the beautification of Pallas. In the end, Lesabéndio prevails: the tower is built, Lesabéndio launches himself from it into the mysterious light-cloud and becomes one with the “head system” that floats above Pallas; his new, astral body allows him to communicate with his friends on Pallas and to see into the depths of the solar system, discovering a cosmic tendency towards a joyous, painful fusion, where all heavenly bodies are also souls and selves, and all will eventually become one.

We may wish to identify the novel’s main tension in a conflict over the purpose of art as either function or ornament.[8] Yet this doesn’t go nearly far enough. Lesabéndio’s totalization of art must be seen within the context of a broader dynamic according to which the aesthetic recovers its broader meaning, referring to both art and sensory perception, and thus, in the guise of the tower project, overhauls Pallasian society, fuses Lesabéndio into a new, astral body, and leaves him with new organs of vision. Lesabéndio’s bodily transformation, whereby he becomes that which he wanted to see, is only the final and most spectacular of the inversions that run through the novel, capping a development that begins with the weird way Lesabéndio turns his face inside out in the opening passage, a development that also includes other spatial inversions of insides and outsides, and ontological inversions of subjects and objects.

Transparency I

Such inversions, at once spatial and conceptual, have a counterpart in early 20th-century architectural history. In his 1928 book Building in France, Building in Iron, Building in Ferroconcrete, Swiss architectural historian Sigfried Giedion proposed the idea of Durchdringung, or interpenetration, to talk about how modern architecture reconfigures space and time. Giedion: “Corbusier’s houses are neither spatial nor plastic: air flows through them! Air becomes a constituent factor! Neither space nor plastic form counts, only RELATION and INTERPENETRATION! There is only a single, indivisible space. The shells fall away between interior and exterior.”[9] As Andreas Huyssen glosses,

Giedion’s spatial interpenetration […] abolished borders between inside and outside, above and below, public and private, street and interior, fixed and fluid space. […] Interpenetration and relationality came to be perceptual and social categories for modernist architecture, replacing the fixed and structured separation of spaces, volumes, and planes as they had characterized an earlier architecture in stone. His major examples were the iron constructions of the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the industrial Pont Transbordeur in the harbor of Marseille, and Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus building in Dessau.[10]

Similarly Scheerbart calls for an open, airier kind of building with utopian aspirations in his 1914 book, Glass Architecture:

We live for the most part in closed rooms. These form the environment from which our culture grows. Our culture is to a certain extent the product of our architecture. If we want our culture to rise to a higher level, we are obliged, for better or for worse, to change our architecture. And this only becomes possible if we take away the closed character from the rooms in which we live. We can only do that by introducing glass architecture, which lets in the light of the sun, the moon, and the stars, not merely through a few windows, but through every possible wall, which will be made entirely of glass – of colored glass. The new environment, which we thus create, must bring us a new culture.[11]

Note the inversions of expected relationships. Architecture is not a part of culture but rather produces it. Culture, no longer contrary to nature, grows out of architecture. And architecture is not built structures within the natural environment, but is itself that environment. The term used for environment in Scheerbart’s German original, Milieu, has a long history in ecological thought, and should here be understood in its broader historical significance, as designating the spatial and environmental surroundings within which an organism acts and adapts.[12] For Scheerbart, architecture can be separated from culture because architecture constitutes the environment that forms culture. And yet, in a further inversion, this architectural environment needs to be opened to the broader, cosmic environment. Plainly, this paean to colored glass as link to the cosmos confounds some habitual associations with glass: this not a question of glass as protection, nor as surveillance.[13] This glass is ambiguous, opening up the possibility of a transparency effect rather than a literal transparency.[14] Scheerbart’s polemic against closed spaces begins with a play of insides and outsides, transparency and color, perception and space, nature and culture, in a way that links the kind of interpenetration heralded by Giedion to a cosmic vision of social change. In its sweeping scope, “Glass Architecture” echoes the utopian fancy of Lesabéndio: more precisely, the alien bodies in Lesabéndio seem to be custom-made to realize the goal of opening the closed self up to the cosmos, tied in “Glass Architecture” to the ambiguous promise of glass as material and metaphor.[15]

But even aside from any convergence between Scheerbart’s and Giedion’s ideas on architecture, the novel Lesabéndio explores complex forms of interpenetration, fifteen years before Giedion would name this possibility. To begin with, the tower at the center of the novel’s plot recalls the Eiffel Tower.

Line drawing of figure
Fig. 3. Illustration by Alfred Kubin from the first edition of Lesabéndio. © Eberhard Spangenberg, München / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2023.

Specifically, it is the discovery of “Kaddimohn steel,” “consist[ing] of indestructible mile-long rods,” that enables such a massive undertaking, recalling how iron and steel structures allowed modernist architecture to pursue its visions of transparency and interpenetration (Scheerbart, Lesabéndio, 18). More generally, space in Scheerbart’s novel confounds the relationship between insides and outsides. Pallas itself is shaped like an hourglass inside of a barrel, and the Pallasians live on the interior surface. Furthermore, we have already seen some of the ways in which the bodies of the Pallasians, with their telescope eyes, umbrella scalps, and suction-cup feet, reconfigure expected topologies.

Yet it is the relationship between movement and perception in the novel, rather than just the spatial contours of Pallas, that best indicates the appeal and the complexities of interpenetration in this context. As suggested by the prominence of glass, Giedion’s concept of interpenetration depended on a retheorization of transparency. Benjamin, praising the new architecture of the 1920s, writes that “Giedion, Mendelssohn, and Le Corbusier are converting human habitations into the transitional spaces of every imaginable force and wave of light and air. The coming architecture is dominated by the idea of transparency.”[16] Detlef Mertins argues that this concept of transparency was not merely optical but was “based on a phenomenology of spatial perception, albeit a four-dimensional one in which the boundaries between inside and outside, subject and object were dissolved for an observer assumed to be moving freely in space and time.”[17] Miriam Hansen likewise links interpenetration to embodied vision: “If the idea of Durchdringung comes to refer to an essential characteristic of modern architecture in various configurations […] it not only describes a new mode of spatial experience but also points toward an embodied, kinesthetic mode of seeing.”[18] Scheerbart’s work makes clear that this “embodied, kinesthetic mode of seeing” (which Hansen identifies with the experience of cinema) can be located in the literary imagination of architectural possibilities as well. And Beatriz Colomina has proposed that modern architecture hinged upon an intellectual mobility more than upon physical mobility, offering “the promise that everything can move and in so doing be modern.”[19]

Moreover, Scheerbart calls in the above passage not just for walls made of glass, but walls made of colored glass, and thus indicates a historical schism in the architectural discourse on glass that was split in multiple ways: between an emphasis on transparency and a renewed fascination with the surface, between dematerialization and matter respiritualized, between glass as immediate, non-signifying sensory experience and glass as metaphor, between literal and phenomenal transparency, and even between transparency and translucence or an “ideal of nontransparency” (Anger, Four Metaphors, 124).[20] As the medium for opening human habitation and subjectivity up to the cosmos, Scheerbart’s call for glass architecture can be understood, as we will see, along the lines of Jenny Anger’s reading of glass as a guiding “metaphor of modernism”; the fact that he calls for colored glass supports her insight that, for the circle of artists around Der Sturm (including Scheerbart) glass was more about translucence than transparency.

Such ambiguous transparency is crucial to understanding Lesabéndio and its exploration of embodied perception. What I want to suggest is that Lesabéndio links a mode of seeing associated with interpenetration and transparency to forms of desire, affect, and becoming that must also be understood in the context of modernist explorations of monism—particularly questions surrounding the relationships of mind to matter and perception to embodiment.


Monism is a diverse body of thought unified by the rejection of the Cartesian dualism of mind and matter. This dualism, when calcified into an unbridgeable opposition between observing, disembodied mind, on the one hand, and observed physical bodies, on the other, had important epistemological and disciplinary consequences for the study of the natural world.[21] For some scholars, monism involves a normative ethical awareness of the ecological connectivity of all matter, including human observers and nonhuman nature.[22] All of these facets of monism in general are relevant for understanding Lesabéndio, but by the early twentieth century the context of monism was a more specific one, representing a current that arose within the natural sciences in the 19th century—particularly surrounding the difficulties of accounting for the behavior of living matter as distinct from matter in general—and which had broadly diffused into the cultural atmosphere around 1900.[23] In this context, the rise of monism in Germany is associated with two figures, Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801–1887) and Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919). Haeckel is best known for his work on evolution; as a popularizer of Darwin’s evolutionary theory in Germany, Haeckel merged natural selection with a teleological commitment and the monist belief that matter is ensouled (“beseelt”) down to the smallest scale.[24] Fechner is associated with panpsychism, the doctrine that all that exists possesses the quality of mind, spirit, or soul. One specific contribution was Fechner’s theory of “psycho-physical parallelism,” the idea that to every physical process there corresponds a mental or psychic process, and vice-versa, such that there is a unity between mind and body seen as two expressions of the same essence. Locating mind and soul in all matter—rather than seeing them as the discrete properties of individual humans—means that individuals aren’t as neatly bounded as they might appear but are instead integrated into and dispersed throughout their environment; and conversely, that there is no such thing as dead matter that is ontologically distinct from conscious, living subjects.[25]

Thus, despite their different trajectories and theoretical frameworks, both Fechner and Haeckel emerged from a context in which the rapid theoretical and experimental gains in the life sciences of the nineteenth century forced a confrontation with twin problems that inhered in the long legacy of Cartesian dualism: how to explain the behavior of living matter beyond the laws that could account for matter in general, and where to locate the set of concerns, phenomena, and processes grouped under the term “Geist.” Though German monism of the nineteenth century arose from problems intrinsic to the natural sciences of the time, it was not long confined to this context. By 1900, monism was a broad cultural current, shaping ideas about life, embodiment, matter, perception, and the universe, influencing science as well as literature, occultism, and beyond.[26] Monika Fick has identified a “monist intellectual approach” consisting in the foundational decision to understand body and soul, the physical and the mental, as a unity. Yet this was a vexed unity: although dualism was increasingly viewed as untenable, monism could not sidestep the question of whether the physical or the mental had priority, as Fick argues (Sinnenwelt und Weltseele, 12).

A 1906 letter from Scheerbart to artist Alfred Kubin suggests the extent to which monism and panpsychism suffused the cultural atmosphere of the time while still being tied to Fechner: “I didn’t get to know Fechner until the idea of the stars as really living beings was already quite familiar to me.”[27] Monism certainly helps make sense of the sentience granted to asteroids, comets, and stars in Lesabéndio. Beyond this, however, it might contribute to a deeper understanding of the novel’s architectural fantasies of interpenetration and transparency, in that monism helps us think about the novel’s various kinds of fusion: of bodies into each other, of desiring/perceiving subjects and desired/perceived objects. For Fechner and others who followed him, questions of perception and cognition were central, since they concerned how the physical world gives rise to mental sensations. And if all matter is imbued with subjective properties of mind, soul, or will, the task for science is to render this immaterial, inner side of matter perceptible (Fick, Sinnenwelt und Weltseele, 53–58). Thus around 1900 there was a broad current that located an agential, spiritual force in all matter at the microscopic level (59).

But isn’t this reactionary occult nonsense? Indeed, Monika Fick has documented the proximity of monism to spiritualism and the occult, while Hubert Bär has situated Scheerbart in relationship to the renewed interest in occultism around the fin-de-siècle, arguing that the animating drive behind Scheerbart’s interest in panpsychism, astrology, and the like came from the desire to transcend reality as it is given to the senses (Fick, Sinnenwelt und Weltseele, 105–29; Bär, Natur und Gesellschaft bei Scheerbart, 81–83). For Bär, Scheerbart’s work must also be understood in the context of a broader reaction against materialism and literary naturalism, especially as these two were seen as linked in a shared commitment to the empirical natural sciences.[28] Thus although Scheerbart must be located within the context of monism, according to Bär, Scheerbart outdoes this context in his disavowal of all materialist limits (Bär, Natur und Gesellschaft bei Scheerbart, 117–18). In this respect, Scheerbart is often characterized as disdaining existing reality in favor of a playful transcendence. As Erich Mühsam summarized Scheerbart’s project,

Scheerbart’s philosophy is essentially this: all earthly, worldly, clearly-demarcated matters are unbelievably petty, inessential, and indifferent compared to the magnificence of the cosmos. Whoever knows himself to be a citizen of the infinite universe is far too occupied with his fantasy to observe earthly things in any other way than with good-natured superiority. The infinite possibilities of the extraterrestrial world are the worthiest spiritual occupation of humanity. The petty affairs of our bodies, our relationships to each other, and the interests of self-preservation are not worth the solemnity with which they are customarily treated.[29]

Given the proximity of both monism and Scheerbart’s work to contemporary occult tendencies, monism would indicate a longing for wholeness and meaning, and a retreat from material reality that is anti-modern. Such an anti-materialism and flight into the beyond could well undermine any grounds of social critique, resulting in a glib quietism in the face of human suffering.[30] Simply put, can we even read Scheerbart as a modernist or should his work be consigned to a retrogressive eddy at the margins of the main current of modernism?

One way of affirming the former option would be to say that everyone was doing it: in the broader context, modernism involved a reaction to naturalism and a desire to transcend the merely given that often took occult, mystical, or spiritualist forms.[31] Sure, there was a bohemian dalliance with many kooky ideas, and, sure, Scheerbart took some of these pretty far. We can concede the flirtations with the occult, with mysticism, with spiritualism, and with monism as an unfortunate part of the flotsam of the intellectual history of the fin-de-siècle, while still recognizing that someone like Scheerbart contributed a radically fresh style and a utopian vision of social transformation and unlimited perception that, as has been documented, would influence contemporaries from Benjamin to Bruno Taut to the interwar avant-garde—so why toss the baby out with the bathwater?

But mightn’t it be better to keep the bathwater and lose the baby instead? Rather than defend Scheerbart’s contributions by way of the influence he exerted, that is, can we take the intellectual context of monism seriously as a formation that necessarily responded to contemporary dilemmas in science and philosophy alike, while allowing for pseudo-scientific offshoots that left the terrain of science far behind, even as they sometimes preserved a scientific attitude and vocabulary? In other words, the better rejoinder to suspicions about Scheerbart’s monism is that the dichotomy between monism and modernism is flawed, and the border between empirical natural science and occult speculation was blurrier than one might think. To take one example, discussed at length by Fick, the concept of the “Empfindungsschwelle”—the threshold for conscious perception theorized by Fechner—logically entails the existence of a space below the threshold, a space that could be filled not just by stimuli of insufficient magnitude, but also by other, more speculative kinds of stimuli. For Freiherr Carl du Prel, lowering the threshold for perception might allow humans to glimpse the cosmic connectivity of all things, even registering the physical traces of thoughts, souls, mind, and Geist. The theory of evolution, moreover, would seem to support the idea that human perception would improve in as-yet unimaginable ways.[32] Thus the same concept that arose in the context of empirical science striving to articulate the relationship between consciousness, perception, and material embodiment could also give rise to flights of occult fancy. If all matter down to cells and protoplasm bears the vital properties of mind, why not imagine in turn that spirit (Geist) might be able to take on physical form? In the context of the time, the leap from the self-organizing activity of living matter, seen in a concept like the Zellseelen, to the idea of astral bodies was perhaps not as great as it might seem to us in hindsight.

Considered from another angle, there may be a deeper affinity or resonance between monism and avant-garde fantasies of transparency and embodied perception. The possibility of expanded perception, which du Prel took in the direction of spiritualism, was also a dream shared by modernism and the avant-garde alike. In particular, the possibility of new organs of perception, rendered literal in Lesabéndio, linked the natural sciences and the most occult speculations, vexing any absolute separation of these two domains.[33] Scheerbart’s work could thus evince both a murky longing for wholeness and a lucid appeal to transparency and mobility characteristic of the avant-garde; this is a tension, to be sure, but not necessarily an irresolvable antinomy. The alien bodies that populate Lesabéndio embody precisely this wish for new organs of vision, connected both to the desire for fusion with the cosmos and the dream of intellectual mobility and enhanced perception, a dream Scheerbart shared with later, more daylight visions of modernist architecture, such as that found in Giedion’s praise for Le Corbusier: “Neither space nor plastic form counts, only RELATION and INTERPENETRATION! There is only a single, indivisible space. The shells fall away between interior and exterior” (Giedion, Building in France, 169). In fact, the bodies of the Pallasians seem custom-designed to have it both ways: wholeness and fusion as intellectual mobility, and intellectual mobility as wholeness and fusion. In other words, if we wish to assess the modernity of Scheerbart’s literary imagination, it is not necessarily in the manifest content of his politics that we must look (though his sympathy with pacifism, anarchism, and anti-imperialism would likely complicate the charge that the fantasies of fusion in Lesabéndio represent a reactionary or even proto-fascist mysticism).[34] Rather, we should look at what the bodies are doing in this novel, and how they reflect the desire for heightened perception found in both monism and the avant-garde. Another look at the relationships between embodiment, perception, and art in Scheerbart’s novel will illustrate this connection between a monist desire for fusion and the ambiguous transparency of the avant-garde.

Lesabéndio II

Several features of the bodies in the novel destabilize the distinction between self and other, in ways that presage the disappearance of Lesabéndio’s own body into the “head system,” the mysterious cosmic object that floats just above Pallas. As we have seen, many features of Pallasian bodies—most notably their elasticity, mobility, and perceptual organs—function as wish-fulfilling, inborn prostheses. They are able to shape their eyes into telescopes and stretch and propel their bodies to great heights; both by looking and by moving, they are able to bring the distant closer, and locate themselves among the objects of their curiosity. Even the novel’s structuring project—the construction of Lesabéndio’s tower—originates in the desire to see what lies beyond the light-cloud above their asteroid.

Line drawing of two creatures speaking
Fig. 4. Illustration by Alfred Kubin from the first edition of Lesabéndio. © Eberhard Spangenberg, München / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2023.

Pallasians can also make their bodies light up at will, contributing during the long Pallasian nights to the symphony of lights along with the “light towers” and the phosphorescent balloons that grow on Pallasian trees (Scheerbart, Lesabéndio, 21). This bioluminescence leads, during the construction of Lesabéndio’s tower, to the invention of wireless telegraphy, enabled by the Pallasians’ ability to shape their scalps into receivers for radio waves (123). The only other species described in detail in the novel also evinces a similar collapsing of bodies and media. The “Quikkoyaners,” small, jelly-like inhabitants of the jelly-like asteroid Quikko, have the ability to shape their bodies and even their asteroid in order to enhance their vision of distant objects.

Line drawing of creature's face
Fig. 5. Illustration by Alfred Kubin from the first edition of Lesabéndio. © Eberhard Spangenberg, München / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2023.

Indeed, the ability of bodies in this novel to amplify perception and reception is not limited to the bodies of sentient beings but extends to the planetary and asteroid bodies as well. At the narrow opening deep in the middle of Pallas that connects the tips of the asteroid’s northern and southern funnels, devices—called “skin pieces”—have been arranged to transform the nightly winds passing through the opening into music:

The moveable skins created fantastical harmonies, which could naturally be made to sound quite orchestral by means of small and large horns and special metal instruments.
The Pallasian who manufactured these skins, with the help of his friends, was named Sofanti. At the beginning of the night, crowds of Pallasians would gather in the south funnel to hear Sofanti’s newest melodies. (27 [Translation modified])

The echoes between the asteroid and the musical instrumentation are semantic as well as literal—the asteroid’s two funnels (“Trichter”) are represented by the horns (“Schalltrichter”), which themselves resemble the Pallasian body configuration that allows them to invert their heads. Moreover, this imagined art combines architecture, sculpture, and music in order to make the shape of Pallas itself perceptible, in the service of a communal aesthetic experience. Jenny Anger has recently characterized the “figurative mixing of the arts,” (as opposed to the theory, associated with Clement Greenberg, that modernism emphasized the distinctness, autonomy, and purity of the different arts) as “essential to Euro-American modern art, theory, and practice” (Anger, Four Metaphors, 2). Anger’s term helps make sense of the diffuse multisensoriality of the art and aesthetic experience in Lesabéndio, which combines visual, acoustic, sculptural, and architectonic modes.

The art in Lesabéndio could be said to hinge on the category of mimesis, provided this is understood not in terms of the representation of forms, but as a deeper engagement with perception and with formative potential as such. The mimetic dimension of the art depicted in Lesabéndio is elaborated well by Miriam Hansen. Describing Benjamin and Adorno’s concept of mimesis (in an essay, it should be noted, in which she also discusses Giedion’s interpenetration but not Scheerbart), she writes,

the mimetic is not a category of representation, pertaining to a particular relationship with a referent, but a relational practice—a process, comportment, or activity of “producing similarities” (such as astrology, dance, and play); a mode of access to the world involving sensuous, somatic, and tactile, that is, embodied, forms of perception and cognition; a noncoercive engagement with the other that resists dualistic conceptions of subject and object. (Hansen, Cinema and Experience, 147.)

From this perspective, we glimpse a deeper convergence between technology and nature at the heart of this novel, representing an underlying commonality between its avant-garde imagination of the total revolution of everyday life and its monism. Lesabéndio is not about restoring a pretechnological harmony to industrial society but rather about the dream that technology and nature both might turn a friendly face towards the subject, and collapsing the divide between perceiving, knowing, and becoming.

The various bodies of the novel blur distinctions between aesthetics, prosthetics, and movement, suggesting a cosmos in which will is reflected in the behavior of matter, and attraction functions as a universal force. An early passage in the novel directly compares curiosity to gravity, and excessive fascination to planets that are tidally locked to their sun. Biba, expressing his admiration for the sun, asks,

“Why, then, do all these satellites allow themselves to be chained by the big sun? I think it must be mainly because of their boundless curiosity and boundless admiration. Neither of the two big stars closest to the sun rotates on an axis. They stare constantly at the sun and are blown away by intoxicated admiration.” (Scheerbart, Lesabéndio, 8.)

Besides the fact that planets are described as sentient, we should notice the relationship between curiosity and gravity, and not just because it literalizes the trope of being “drawn toward” something. In Lesabéndio, to want to know about something is to move towards it; at its extreme, this means that to perceive something is ultimately to become it. This is a dynamic that collapses ontology and epistemology, with higher knowledge represented as a literal, material fusion of subject, object, and medium.

And yet, for all the novel’s emphasis on matter and materiality—the physicality of Pallasian bodies, the types of materials that are produced from Pallas and how they are used, the architectural and logistical disquisitions, the exploration of various heavenly phenomena including the texture and qualities of the light-cloud—materiality here often seems strangely light and immaterial, effortlessly subordinated to the will. Materiality can stand for interconnection and fusion, but without the friction, entanglements, inertia, or obstacles usually associated with the material world. A description of the “light-cloud” is symptomatic of the novel’s unproblematic, ethereal materiality: “The cloud was made from trillions of the finest threads of spider silk spun in smooth swirls, nowhere knotted up or tangled” (Scheerbart, Lesabéndio, 20). And even leaving aside the ways in which sexuality, gender, and reproduction are conspicuously bracketed out in the novel, the plasticity of Pallasian bodies serves primarily to express the will and bring the far close, whether through their inborn telescopes or through their breezy, floating movements.[35] Jameson’s hypothesis of the alien body in science fiction as “little more than a distorted expression of Utopian possibilities” is apposite here—the mobile, prosthetic, metamorphic qualities of Pallasian bodies precisely link will, desire, perception, knowledge, and becoming.[36] In other words, the whimsical bodies in Scheerbart’s novel literalize contemporary utopian fantasies identified both with monism (the spiritualization of matter, the fusion of subjects and objects) and the contemporary avant-garde (intellectual mobility, enhanced perception, and a metaphorical transparency); moreover, Lesabéndio’s bodies concretize the ways in which these utopian imaginaries may have overlapped or moved in parallel.

The utopian dimension of Lesabéndio depends on the effortlessness of the Pallasians’ movement, and the way that the objects of their desire and perception are brought close, as planets are drawn to each other through a gravitational curiosity. Obstructions to a clear line of vision lead to movement, including the massive, collective movement represented by Lesabéndio’s tower.

Line drawing of creatures floating upward
Fig. 6. Illustration by Alfred Kubin from the first edition of Lesabéndio. © Eberhard Spangenberg, München / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2023.

Conversely, the movement into the light-cloud enabled by the tower leads to a higher order of vision. When Lesabéndio fuses with the “head system” at the end of the novel, his body dissolves into the “yellow light-snakes” that constitute the mysterious cloud. The first change after this bodily dissolution is that he develops new organs of vision,

enormous extending glass balls through which he could suddenly see everything in the solar system much better than he could previously.
He looked again through the big glass balls, and found he could enlarge or shrink them at will. He could also give them other shapes, and pull them in toward himself or send them out far away. And nowhere did he feel an obstacle. (Scheerbart, Lesabéndio, 193. Translation modified)

“And nowhere did he feel an obstacle”: this is the apogee of the novel’s treatment of bodies and perception, where Lesabéndio’s new form can draw on all the perceptual, mobile possibilities of the material world without any of its constraints. His new eyes are “glass balls,” yet they lack glass’s telltale frangibility, and can instead be sized and resized, shaped, and reshaped as though they were fluid. Materiality is here imbued with will—and thus foregrounded—but also thereby subordinated to it to the point of being completely effaced. This uneasy identification of matter and spirit recalls the core ambiguities of monism. By the same token, glass here must be read as both literal and metaphorical, in that Lesabéndio’s new eyes magnify his distant surroundings while also signifying optical desire, perfect perception, and the annihilation of difference and distance. The “glass balls,” like Pallasian bodies but at a much more immodest scale, bring the far near and join subjects and objects. The transformation of Lesabéndio into a star caps a development that is already immanent in the novel’s opening description of his plastic, prosthetic body, which can transpose its vision and physical location into the atmosphere and the stars. Here this development is taken to its logical extreme—as he becomes a heavenly body, his atmosphere becomes a lens, an eye, a telescope. The same cosmic object that he built the tower in order to see now becomes his organ of vision, allowing him to see (and desire) farther. “He also noticed that he was developing new organs again. Gradually, he was able to see by means of the atmosphere of his star—the atmosphere functioned on all sides for him like a colossal telescope” (Scheerbart, Lesabéndio, 221). This cosmic, embodied perception depends upon a specific invocation of materiality (the atmosphere functions as a lens) while also necessitating dematerialization, since the teleological absorption of the desiring, perceiving subject into its object necessitates a transparency that is optical and mobile, intellectual, epistemological, and ontological alike. Lesabéndio here suggests how transparency and the dissolution of the individual body might coincide. Recall that, in Fick’s discussion of the “threshold of perception,” one of the consequences of Fechner’s concept was to raise the possibility of new or enhanced organs of perception (Fick, Sinnenwelt und Weltseele, 64). So although the depiction of Lesabéndio’s metamorphosis may be so far out as to seem entirely idiosyncratic to Scheerbart, when read instead in the spirit of Jameson’s suggestion that the alien body in science fiction represents a “distorted expression of Utopian possibilities,” it concretizes a dilemma of materiality, in a way that links the interest in embodiment and perception shared by monism and the contemporary avant-garde.

Crucially, Lesabéndio’s new body also bears on the relationship between subjects and objects in Scheerbart’s novel. If Lesabéndio’s fusion with the “head-system” is the fulfillment of the novel’s corporeal theme, it is no less a consequence of how the novel treats knowledge and perception. Plainly, the way for a subject to know its object is to become it. Lesabéndio, now fused with the head-system, sees as what he once desired to see, and the cosmic landscape he now surveys reveals further inclinations towards fusion:

“The asteroid ring must become unified!” [the other asteroids] all said. “We will go farther when we are all united together—like the spirits of the Ring of Saturn. Of course, this will also generate a lot more pain.”
“We always want to come closer to one another,” he thought to himself, “even when there is terrible suffering to be overcome first. It’s bliss—once one has withstood the process. I can feel it. Surrendering oneself to a Greaterness is also very painful. But it’s necessary, nonetheless. And I’m so glad to submit and surrender myself to bigger stars—especially the sun.” (Scheerbart, Lesabéndio, 221)

By persistently worrying the distinction between action and actor, subject and other, and self and cosmos, Scheerbart’s novel also complicates the relationship between activity and passivity—or, as German expresses it more tangibly, between tun and leiden. Doing and suffering, acting and being acted upon, making and becoming—these are not structured as opposites in Lesabéndio but rather as necessary counterparts in a single process. If anything, doing and suffering as a linked pair stand against fatigue and inaction. As Pallasians near their end, they become fatigued and transparent, losing their vital force and becoming evanescent (Scheerbart, Lesabéndio, 40) Pallasian affect, energy, fatigue, and death are manifestations of their relationship to an aesthetic project; these projects in turn can either successfully or unsuccessfully reflect the cosmic tendency towards unity.

Pain and suffering are necessary costs of this process of becoming; as such, they are linked to transformation and rebirth rather than to death alone. In the novel’s penultimate chapter, Lesabéndio is able to make himself understood, in the form of a “blue-greenish light,” in order to communicate the knowledge he has gained:

“The greatest suffering and the greatest bliss not only accompany each other often […] they are almost inseparable. That’s something one must get used to. The Sun has already told me that we may not fear pain—the pain of death being perhaps the greatest pain. However, it also contains the greatest bliss—because this dissolution into something bigger and stronger than ourselves is an extraordinary and wonderful sensation. […] Think of the death of the asteroid ring. It would be very painful—but also an incredible bliss. Death is just an absorption of the self into the Greaterness.” (Scheerbart, Lesabéndio, 209–10)

This cosmic vision of fusion, where death is the dissolution in something greater than oneself, is also literally true for Pallasian bodies. When a Pallasian grows tired and decides to die, he chooses a living Pallasian to incorporate him into his body.

Line drawing of larger creature talking to smaller creature
Fig. 7. Illustration by Alfred Kubin from the first edition of Lesabéndio. © Eberhard Spangenberg, München / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2023.

Likewise, when Lesabéndio grows fatigued and transparent upon the completion of his tower, he is absorbed by the light-cloud, where he lives on in new form. It is tempting to view this fusion of individuals and their subordination to the collective as a proto-fascist glorification of pain and sacrifice. This reading might be buttressed by the association between glass architecture and surveillance, which was not new to the postwar period but informed earlier debates about the relationships between architecture, visibility, and hygiene as well.[37] On this reading, the utopian implications of Scheerbart’s novel would be tainted by the connotations of glass architecture with regimes of control, and by the association of individual dissolution with a proto-fascist subjection. But the contemporary context matters: this dissolution of the individual and the rejection of architectural closure in Lesabéndio and Glasarchitektur are parallel projects, and together represent a key part of the novel’s critique of the dualist conception of the individual subject. Furthermore, this dissolution of the individual connects the novel’s portrayals of aesthetic experience, embodied perception, and transparency. Unlike the “X-Ray architecture” of other contemporary discussions of building with glass (Colomina), what matters for Scheerbart is not the visibility of interior space to outside surveillance but rather opening up the interior to the cosmos—the perspective is of a subject on the inside (Scheerbart, “Glass Architecture,” 41). In order to better understand how the tendency towards fusion in Lesabéndio relates to the contemporary architectural discourse of glass, we need to consider the question of transparency once more.

Transparency II

As we saw earlier, the architectural discourse of Durchdringung identified with Giedion was not merely about optical transparency or even a new kind of structure. Rather, the interpenetration of interior and exterior space, and modernist architecture more generally, involved the perception of “an observer assumed to be moving freely in space and time,” “an embodied, kinesthetic mode of seeing,” an “intellectual mobility” (Mertins, “Transparency,” 3; Hansen, Cinema and Experience, 152; Colomina, “X-Ray Architecture,” 31). Yet in the light of the otherworldly illumination given off by the evanescent, metamorphic alien bodies in Lesabéndio, a certain ambiguity comes into view as we reconsider the relationship between transparency and perception: if modernist architectural discourse links the concepts of embodiment, perception, and mobility, then the same embodiment that conveys this mobility may also constrain it. Just as Lesabéndio’s fusion with the cosmos depends on an infinitely plastic embodiment that is also, at each stage in his transformation, a disembodiment, so too does the promise of an infinitely mobile, embodied perception aimed at by theorists of modern architecture reach a limit which bodies may transgress only in the imagination. Bodies can, after all, only move so quickly. If thus viewed as an aspiration, a dream, or a fantasy, Durchdringung and its ideal of mobile, embodied vision has a metaphorical status—as a figuration of the modern—as much as a literal meaning that describes a revision of spatial, perceptual relationships in modern architecture.

Glass, too, can be understood as an ambivalent, contradictory metaphor in modernist architectural discourse. As one of the “four metaphors of modernism” in Jenny Anger’s book of the same title, the attraction of glass for Scheerbart, Taut, and others pivoted counterintuitively on an “early twentieth-century ideal of nontransparency” (Anger, Four Metaphors, 124). Building on the recognition that “some of the most stirring modernist works that address or incorporate glass do not seek actual transparency,” Anger demonstrates that the use of glass often involved color and translucence in order to produce a higher-order, metaphorical transparency (123–24). To be sure, although glass in contemporary discourse also attracted an “ideology of transparency,” Anger shows through careful readings of Scheerbart, Taut, Walden, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Paul Klee, August Macke, László Moholy-Nagy, and others that much of the glass used, described, or imagined was not in fact transparent (124). Rather, “translucence produced the desired effect of transparency” (135). Anger discusses at length the example of Bruno Taut’s Glashaus (glass house), created for the 1914 German Werkbund exhibition in Cologne. Just as Scheerbart had dedicated his Glasarchitektur to Bruno Taut, the Glashaus’s façade bore aphorisms by Scheerbart (141). Drawing on the contemporary reception and details of Taut’s construction, Anger shows that the translucent, colored glass of the Glashaus evoked an “experience of the ‘oceanic feeling’ or the Gesamtkunstwerk: an overwhelming flow and mixture of colors and sensations all resolving in harmony” (138).

This is a complex interplay of literal and metaphorical transparency and translucence. As Anger writes, “metaphorical transparency is not dependent on actually transparent glass,” and Scheerbart’s utopian investment in glass involved “the possibilities of translucent glass” (158). Though Anger does not consider Lesabéndio in her discussion of Scheerbart, it is notable that the experience evoked by the Glashaus recalls the cosmic fusion undergone by the protagonist of Scheerbart’s “asteroid novel.” Indeed, the light-cloud above Pallas perfectly exemplifies this relationship between translucence and transparency: though the light-cloud itself is not transparent, fusing with it gives Lesabéndio access to a higher-order transparency, in that his new body permits him to see into the depths of the cosmos. The ambivalence of transparency in contemporary architectural discourse means that a metaphorical transparency, or the “effect of transparency,” is often more significant than glass’s ability to be seen through.

Anger’s work provides the means to complicate an identification of glass with literal transparency or sensory immediacy. Lutz Koepnick has argued that glass’s appeal for Scheerbart, Taut, and contemporaries was that it moved architecture beyond representation. “Thanks to their material qualities, their paradoxical immateriality, glass buildings could address the inhabitant’s sensory perception directly. They overcame the past’s obsession with signification and, in so doing, enabled the modern architect to become a social engineer.”[38] This is largely convincing, but both Lesabéndio and Anger’s reading of glass as a metaphor of modernism raise the possibility that, even for Scheerbart and Taut, glass’s refusal to signify might itself be understood as an act of signification that aims at metaphorical transparency—what glass signifies, among other things, would be the transcendence of signs and symbols. To be sure, compared to the architectural historicism of the nineteenth century, glass is blank, but this state of being unencumbered by signification is necessarily something that happens on the level of representation. In other words, glass can only intervene into long-standing architectural disputes about signification by itself signifying, by acting as metaphor, and by forming a modernist imaginary as well as actual buildings. Transparency for Scheerbart is a metaphorical effect produced by literal translucence. When we consider that the opening passage of “Glass Architecture” called for creating a new culture by letting starlight into rooms through colored glass, the difficulty of imagining the literal practicability of this proposal (how bright would stars actually have to be to provide any discernible illumination at all through colored glass?) indicates the degree to which this cosmic opening should be read metaphorically, aspirationally, imaginatively. Likewise, we have seen how other things in Lesabéndio can play the role of glass in attaining the effect of transparency, such as the bodily transformations in Lesabéndio. Glass, in being glass, cannot just be glass.

Viewing glass as a metaphor in Lesabéndio helps us understand and situate the relationship of bodies, perception, and transformation in this novel. As Lesabéndio’s body fuses with the light-cloud and achieves a higher-order transparency registered by his enhanced perception and the effortless subordination of matter to will, this body precisely joins contemporary modernist discourses of glass and transparency to core elements of the monist imaginary: the fusion of subjects and objects, the spiritualization of matter, the teleological evolution towards higher forms of embodiment and perception. This reconfiguration of transparency in Lesabéndio is affected by a style that Walter Benjamin compared to “the freshness of a nursling’s cheeks,” writing that “Scheerbart’s prose is of such transparency that one understands why he was the first to welcome the glass architecture which, after his death, would be banished from his country as subversive.”[39] Yet this transparency, as we have seen, is ambiguous as that of glass. Scheerbart’s transparent prose aimed at a particularly anti-realist conception of fantastic literature, whereby the epistemological stakes of the fantastic depended upon a radical skepticism vis-à-vis phenomenal appearance, ultimately in order to indicate other possible worlds, perspectives, and unseen sides of existence.[40]

Transposed to the weightless arena of Scheerbart’s writing, the ambiguities of transparency, embodiment, media, perception, and materiality that linked the contemporary contexts of monism and modernism could play themselves out, borrowing from and inflecting each other. The utopian dreams of transparency, perfectly mobile bodies, enhanced perception, of a culture open to the cosmos—these could take shape in Scheerbart’s novel, decanted into the imagined alien bodies whose desires and transformations illuminate an under-explored side of German modernism.


This article has gone through several transformations and has benefitted from generous feedback from several audiences. Among the most helpful of these have been the other members of the IASH Fellowship at Binghamton University; the participants in the 2018 DAAD Faculty Summer Seminar at Cornell University, particularly Patrizia McBride, Josh Alvizu, and Julie Johnson; and Andreas Huyssen, et al.

[1] The last few decades have seen a steady trickle of Scheerbart scholarship, though with Christina Svendsen’s recent translation of Lesabéndio and a panel series devoted to Scheerbart’s work at the 2018 conference of the German Studies Association, among other engagements, it seems that this interest is increasing within North American German Studies.

[2] Rosemarie Haag Bletter, “Paul Scheerbart’s Architectural Fantasies,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 34, no. 2 (1975): 97. Detlef Mertins, “The Enticing and Threatening Face of Prehistory: Walter Benjamin and the Utopia of Glass,” Assemblage 29 (1996): 14–16.

[3] Jenny Anger, Four Metaphors of Modernism: From Der Sturm to the Société Anonyme (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 142. Hubert Bär, Natur und Gesellschaft bei Scheerbart: Genese und Implikationen einer Kulturutopie (Heidelberg: Groos, 1977), 31. I am grateful to Julie Johnson for recommending Anger’s work to me in response to an early draft of this project in the context of the DAAD Faculty Summer Seminar.

[4] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, 4: 1938–1940, ed. Michael W. Jennings and Howard Eiland, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006): 387.

[5] Paul Scheerbart, Lesabéndio. An Asteroid Novel, trans. Christina Svendsen (Cambridge, MA: Wakefield Press, 2012): 7.

[6] Hubert Bär has suggested we see a connection between Scheerbart’s own highly tenuous material situation and the often effortless way that material necessity is treated in his novels. Bär, Natur und Gesellschaft bei Scheerbart, 89.

[7] Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011): 49–50.

[8] Cornelius Partsch links the “philosophical and technological foundations” of Lesabéndio to the German Werkbund and Bauhaus, emphasizing i.a. the Werkbund’s rejection of the excessive ornamentation of Jugendstil. Cornelius Partsch, “Paul Scheerbart and the Art of Science Fiction,” Science Fiction Studies 29, no. 2 (2002): 212–13.

[9] Sigfried Giedion, Building in France, Building in Iron, Building in Ferroconcrete (Santa Monica, CA: The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1995), 169.

[10] Andreas Huyssen, Miniature Metropolis: Literature in an Age of Photography and Film. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 17–18.

[11] Paul Scheerbart and Bruno Taut, “Glass Architecture,” in Glass Architecture and Alpine Architecture, ed. Dennis Sharp, trans. James Palmes and Shirley Palmer (New York: Praeger, 1972), 41.

[12] Georg Toepfer, Historisches Wörterbuch der Biologie. Geschichte und Theorie der biologischen Grundbegriffe, vol. 3 (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 2011), 583–85.

[13] Jenny Anger writes that “the modernist insistence on transparency, when it appears, may belie the need for (invisible) protection.” Anger, Four Metaphors, 128.

[14] Jenny Anger draws on Colin Rowe’s and Robert Slutzky’s distinction between literal and phenomenal transparency in order to argue for the importance of translucence in modernism. Anger, Four Metaphors, 26.

[15] Nikola Roßbach has explored the different aspects of glass in Scheerbart’s work, insightfully connecting glass to Scheerbart’s engagements with narrative, theater, and utopian and reformist thought. Nikola Roßbach, “Glas: Zur Ästhetik Paul Scheerbarts,” Musil-Forum 29 (2005-2006): 172–89.  

[16] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings Volume 2: Part 1: 1927–1930, trans. Rodney Livingstone et al., ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap, 1999): 264.

[17] Detlef Mertins, “Transparency: Autonomy & Relationality,” AA Files 32 (Autumn 1996): 3–11, 3.

[18] Miriam Hansen, Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 152.

[19] Beatriz Colomina, “X-Ray Architecture: Illness as Metaphor.” Positions 1, no. 0 (2008): 30–35, 31.

[20] I thank my Binghamton colleague Julia Walker for first lending me this insight about the schism in the architectural discourse on glass, and for the felicitous formulation of “matter respiritualized.”

[21] For a lucid survey of the effects of Cartesian dualism on the ways science approached non-human nature, see Jessica Riskin, The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument Over What Makes Living Things Tick (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016). For an early 20th-century summary of the disciplinary conundrums presented to both the sciences and the humanities by Cartesian dualism, see Helmuth Plessner, Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch. Einleitung in die philosophische Anthropologie (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2016), 78–126. In English translation: Helmuth Plessner, Levels of Organic Life and the Human, trans. Millay Hyatt (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019), 34–74.

[22] Eric Paul Jacobsen, From Cosmology to Ecology: The Monist World-View in Germany from 1770 to 1930, (Bern: Peter Lang, 2005). Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), 253–54.

[23] Fick, drawing on the work of Kurt Bayertz, identifies the main idea of monism as “die Aufhebung der Trennung zwischen Materie und Geist, als den leitenden Impuls die Überwindung der Subjekt-Objekt-Spaltung heraus; er spricht von der ersehnten ‘Wiederverzauberung der Welt,’ die man mit den Mitteln der rationalistischen Naturerkenntnis zu erreichen suche.” Monika Fick, Sinnenwelt und Weltseele. Der psychophysiche Monismus in der Literatur der Jahrhundertwende, (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1993), 13–14.

[24] On the ways in which Haeckel’s influence contributed to the context of Scheerbart’s work, see Bär, Natur und Gesellschaft bei Scheerbart, 117–20, 125–26. “Haeckel and his students […] seized on the idea of evolution as a key to a new understanding of the world, a world in which there are no impassable boundaries and no irreconcilable opposites. ‘Development’ became a sort of magic word that grounded a new, harmonious view of the cosmos.” Peter Sprengel, “Fantasies of the Origin and Dreams of Breeding: Darwinism in German and Austrian Literature around 1900,” Monatshefte 102, no. 4 (Winter 2010): 458–78, 459. On “development” in Haeckel and the broader context, see Lynn K. Nyhart, Biology Takes Form: Animal Morphology and the German Universities, 1800–1900 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 139. And on Haeckel’s belief that cells have souls, see Robert Brain, The Pulse of Modernism: Physiological Aesthetics in Fin-de-Siècle Europe (Seattle: University of Washington Press): 45–54; and Kate Armond, “Cosmic Men: Wyndham Lewis, Ernst Haeckel, and Paul Scheerbart,” Journal of Wyndham Lewis Studies 4 (2013): 41–62, 44.

[25] On Fechner’s psycho-physical parallelism, see Fick, Sinnenwelt und Weltseele, 37–41.

[26] A popular work Haeckel published in 1899 to popularize his monist Darwinism was called Der Welträtsel, a title that perhaps suggests the scope and the tone of fin-de-siècle monism. But it wasn’t just Haeckel: Monika Fick discusses the work of psychiatrist August Forel, doctor Carl Ludwig Schleich, and zoologist August Pauly to show how science around 1900 moved within the conceptual space established by Fechner’s psycho-physical parallelism, indicating the influence of monism within the natural sciences, at the same time that the monist approach was shaping tendencies in literature and giving rise to occult speculations. Fick, Sinnenwelt und Weltseele, 53–58.

[27] Quoted in Clemens Brunn, Der Ausweg ins Unwirkliche: Fiktion und Weltmodell bei Paul Scheerbart und Alfred Kubin (Oldenburg: Igel, 2000), 100–1. Translation mine. On Scheerbart, Fechner, and monism see Brunn, Der Ausweg ins Unwirkliche, especially 40–43; Cornelius Partsch, “Paul Scheerbart and the Art of Science Fiction,” 213–14; Bär, Natur und Gesellschaft bei Scheerbart, 82–83; Peter Sprengel, “Künstliche Welten und Fluten des Lebens oder: Futurismus in Berlin. Paul Scheerbart und Alfred Döblin,” Faszination des Organischen. Konjunkturen einer Kategorie der Moderne, ed. Hartmut Eggert, Erhard Schütz, and Peter Sprengel, (Munich: Iudicium, 1995), 80–82.

[28] Bär, Natur und Gesellschaft bei Scheerbart, 83. “In der methodischen Objektbestimmung ist Wirklichkeit für die Naturalisten, was das Objekt der Naturwissenschaften ist: auf geschichtslose Gesetze reduzierbare Natur.” Bär, Natur und Gesellschaft bei Scheerbart, 102. Monika Fick has also argued that the monist unity of body and soul aimed to transcend naturalism. Fick, Sinnenwelt und Weltseele, 130.

[29] Erich Mühsam, “Paul Scheerbart,” Die Friedens-Warte 15, no. 2 (February 1913): 57. My translation.

[30] For a reading of contemporary anti-materialism that goes in this direction, see Bär, Natur und Gesellschaft bei Scheerbart, 94–95, 119.

[31] “Es ist festzuhalten, daß seit etwa 1890 nicht nur von Hermann Bahr das ‘Moderne’ als das den Naturalismus Überwindende definiert wurde und daß man im Monismus das Programm dieser Überwindung sah.” Fick, Sinnenwelt und Weltseele, 358. See also Bär, Natur und Gesellschaft bei Scheerbart, 107, 128, 151.

[32] Fick, Sinnenwelt und Weltseele, 124. “[D]ie Evolution, die immer neue Anpassungsformen hervortreibe, sei der Garant für die ständige Herabsetzung der Schwelle, für die einstige biologische Verwirklichung des ‘Astralleibes.’ So steht den Spiritisten der Seelenbegriff zur Verfügung, wie ihn die Vertreter des Monismus in Biologie und Psychologie herausgearbeitet haben. […] Immer spannungsloser gestaltet sich der Ausgleich zwischen dem ‘spiritualistischen’ und dem ‘materialistischen’ Ansatz. Je weiter die Naturwissenschaften fortschreiten, desto geheimnisvollere Kräfte werden der ‘Materie’ zugeschrieben. Die seltsamste Blüte der Entwicklung ist der Spiritismus: mit der ‘Verleiblichung der Seele’ das exakte Gegenmodell zur (monistischen) ‘Beseelung des Leibes.’” Fick, Sinnenwelt und Weltseele, 127–28.

[33] “Denn wenn unsere Sinnesorgane auch nur einem kleinen Wirklichkeits-Ausschnitt angepaßt sind – was verwehrt die Behauptung, daß es Rezeptoren für die uns verborgenen physischen Reize gebe, daß wir im Laufe der Evolution noch zu einer Totalerfassung der Realität physiologisch befähigt und eingerichtet würden? Es ist dies die Frage, an die der (pseudowissenschaftliche) Spiritismus anknüpfen wird. Die Frage, wie das Individuum, das Subjekt, die ganzheitliche Wirklichkeit in sich aufnehmen könne, welche Organe es in sich ausbilden müsse, wie die Schranken zu überwinden seien, führt uns unmittelbar in das Gebiet der Dichtung hinüber” Fick, Sinnenwelt und Weltseele, 64.

[34] Hubert Bär identifies Scheerbart’s affinities to political anarchism both in terms of his relationships (e.g. his friendship with Erich Mühsam) and his ideas (which resemble the more elaborated positions of Kropotkin, Landauer, and Stirner), seeing in Lesabéndio the utopian attempt to depict an anarchist society (among other things). See Bär, Natur und Gesellschaft bei Scheerbart, 42, 201–207.

[35] “Das ändert nichts daran, daß es wohl kaum einen anderen Autor seiner Zeit gibt, bei dem der gesamte Bereich der Sinnlichkeit, soweit sie mit Sexualität verbunden ist, so unsinnlich behandelt wird wie eben bei Scheerbart.” Peter Sprengel, “Künstliche Welten,” 85. On Scheerbart’s antieroticism and the sublation of sexuality in his work, see Bär, Natur und Gesellschaft bei Scheerbart, 130–51.

[36] Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, (New York: Verso, 2005), 118.

[37] Colomina, “X-Ray Architecture,” 30–35. For a thoughtful consideration of how the utopian aspects of Scheerbart’s writing about glass architecture might relate to the possibilities of surveillance afforded by glass’s transparency, see Andre Schuetze, “Der gläserne Raum: Paul Scheerbarts Utopie einer Glasarchitektur,” Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 48, no. 1 (February 2012): 31–50.

[38] Lutz Koepnick, Framing Attention: Windows on Modern German Culture, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 248–49.

[39] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings 4: 1938–1940, ed. Michael W. Jennings and Howard Eiland, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003): 387.

[40] Brunn, Der Ausweg ins Unwirkliche, 18–20, 22–27.