Wilhelm Busch: The Art of Letting Off Steam Through Symbolic Inversion

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Gladwell, Joan
symbolic inversion , 1848 revolution , Biedermeier , comics
In the aftermath of the failed revolution of 1848, which had been sparked by demands for democracy and constitutional reform, Germany’s princes reluctantly introduced new freedoms regarding print and the right to assembly. However, reactionary forces in governments unwilling to cede power quickly repressed these freedoms, leading to tighter controls on public and private life. Consequently, dispirited citizens clutched at the old Biedermeier ways, withdrawing to an “ill-remembered social order of bygone days” (Shorter 169). It was against this backdrop that the illustrated works of Wilhelm Busch (1832–1908) appeared in the popular Bilderbogen (“picture broadsheets”) of the day, and later as stand-alone Bildergeschichten (“picture stories”), using satire and symbolic inversion to mock German society by skewering assorted political, social, and cultural sacred cows. The aim of my dissertation is as follows. I will start by examining Busch’s use of symbolic inversion as a way of implying a shift in power between figures of authority and the disgruntled “second-class” citizens of Biedermeier society: women and children. Next, I will examine how Busch’s animal characters, particularly apes with their close resemblance to mankind, mock human pretensions of biological superiority. Finally, I will show how objects meant to serve their human “masters” overpower them, even in their homes, suggesting that there was no refuge from the vagaries of a rapidly changing world. Key to my analysis will be an exploration of the mechanism of “inside out” and “upside down,” described by Mikhail Bakhtin with regards to the carnival scenes of Gargantua et Pantagruel, as a sanctioned and mocking way of questioning the power of the state and its institutions. Along the way, I will compare and contrast Busch’s picture stories with similar strips in the Fliegende Blätter, in order to prove how groundbreaking the author’s exposé of nineteenth-century German society truly was. As I explore the synergy between image and word, I will demonstrate how Busch’s use of symbolic inversion is slyly subversive, undermining established authority in the political, social, and cultural arenas, and providing a safety valve in the form of humour that transcends the boundaries of class, education, and gender.
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