Kristina Mendicino did not come to German studies by a conventional route — as a native speaker, say, or by growing up in a household where German was spoken. It was the substance of German philosophy and literature that drew her in.
She graduated from Dartmouth College in 2004 as an English major and headed for the Yale School of Drama. There she read drama, wrote about drama, served as artistic director and dramaturg of the Ensemble Company for the Performing Arts in New Haven, and was managing editor of Theater magazine for a time. But she also encountered the works of German writers: Bertolt Brecht, Friedrich Hölderlin, Heiner Müller, and others.
“While I was at Yale School of Drama, I also took courses at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences,” Mendicino said. “I quickly realized that reading and writing and teaching was what I wanted to do most. Much as I enjoyed dramaturgy and kept in touch with drama school colleagues, I’m very happy that I made that decision.”
In college, her study of literature made the limits of translation clear to her. “I became interested in the specificity of original languages. I realized that I’m not really reading the text unless I’m reading it in the language in which it was written,” she said. “If Marx or Hölderlin were writing in English, they wouldn’t have written the same books and poems.”
Her interest in German writers led her to graduate studies at Yale (M.Phil. and M.A., 2009; Ph.D., 2012, in Germanic languages and literatures) and to several years of study at German universities in Tübingen, Bonn, and Frankfurt am Main.
Mendicino comes to Brown from a postdoctoral fellowship at Notre Dame. She is joining a department that, she said, “is committed to very careful, very slow, attentive thinking and reading — a prevailing and quite beautiful principle.”
Her own thinking and reading has ranged widely. She plans to expand a study of dance in Goethe’s 1797 Hermann und Dorothea — where dance and the significant interruption of dance is an important marker for both the French revolutionaries and the German bourgeoisie — into a larger, book-length project on choreography in the literal sense of the word: dance-writing. Her interest in dance has also led to her involvement in a symposium at Brown next April on dance and theory, a collaboration involving German studies, Hispanic studies, English, music and other departments.
Mendicino will begin teaching a course on German history and culture for students who have completed language studies, as well as an upper-level course on ghosts in literature and critical theory of the 19th and early 20th century. Ghosts? “Yes,” she said, “a careful reading of how ghosts speak in texts of Marx, Heine, and Freud. Ghosts are everywhere. In the beginning of the Manifesto, for example, a ghost haunts Europe: Ein Gespenst geht um in Europa — das Gespenst des Kommunismus.”
Translation does have its virtues, Mendicino said, and she has done some herself, but it’s all about honoring the substance of the text and letting it speak. “Translation is an important and valid way to encounter a text. One can read and understand a passage, but then there’s the question of how it should be translated. That’s when things get really interesting. Your interpretation can become profoundly, productively unsettled when you translate.” She did her own translations of crucial passages from Hegel’s Phenomenology and Spirit for the book she is currently working on. The task of translating Hegel, she said, “stretches the limits of the English language and leads to the discovery of otherwise inconspicuous resonances in Hegel’s words.”
For Mendicino, the substantive achievements of German writers are untimely in the best sense of the word — timeless, urgent in a way that differs from contemporary political and economic phenomena. Asked whether the emergence of Germany as Europe’s leading economic power is creating greater interest in German studies, Mendicino makes exactly that point: “Whether Germany is leading or bearing the greatest burden in Europe today is outside the purview of the texts I work with. But whatever Germany’s position in world politics, its major thinkers and writers — Hegel, Nietzsche, poets like Hölderlin and Celan — invite us to read and think further. In their work, something contemporary is always at stake.”