Comparative Literature

Dark Lens: Imaging Germany, 1945

University of Chicago Press, 2019


In Dark Lens literary theorist Francoise Meltzer takes up images of war ruins, asking the question of whether viewing such destruction can create an empathetic response that might translate into less human suffering in the future. She starts this inquiry with textual and artistic representations of post-war Germany alongside a set of photographs taken by her mother, who had been part of the French Resistance in World War II, of a bombed-out town in Germany in 1945. Through these visual objects, she explores “the problems of aestheticization, the representation of catastrophe, and the targeting of civilians in war,” and engages with larger questions about how to think about “the ‘acceptability’ of suffering under certain circumstances of war” for many who see enemies in these photographs rather than civilian victims.


See Francoise Meltzer speaking on Dark Lens at Western University here.


Françoise Meltzer is the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, where she is also professor at the Divinity School and in the College. Meltzer is the author of five books, most recently of Seeing Double: Baudelaire’s Modernity, and a co-editor of the journal Critical Inquiry.

“It is the ‘righteous pleasure in retribution’ that worries Meltzer in Dark Lens, a work of scholarship organized around a collection of previously unpublished amateur photographs, taken by Jeanne Dumilieu (the author’s mother), that feature ruins in the wake of the Allied bombings of Germany... Our gaze is precisely what Meltzer is interested in investigating. What and how do we see when we see these photos? Can we even see the ruin as such? This proposition suggests a provocative way of rereading the history of interest in and representation of ruins. Perhaps our enduring obsession with them—and our drive to depict and behold them—is fueled by our very inability to reckon with destruction."
Nathan Goldman,
Lapham's Quarterly