On January 23, 2023, I celebrated my 80th birthday. For me this was a major milestone on the winding path that leads us forward in life; but much like my 30th birthday it turned out to be an event about which I had mixed feelings. A week or so after I had embarked on my ninth decade of life, I had an appointment with my ophthalmologist who asked me how I felt about turning 80. As a person who is reflective by nature, I confessed to having mixed feelings as I thought about the past and the future. “Don’t reflect too much,” my doctor counseled, “you can’t change the past and you can’t foresee what will happen in the future. You have to live in the present moment and make the most of it.” That’s good advice, I think.
One of the nicest birthday presents I received was a spectacular special edition of works by fine-art photographer Gray Malin (The Essential Collection, New York: Abrams, 2021. 352 pp.). In his introduction to this impressive coffee table book, Malin writes:
My grandfather had a beautiful collection of cameras and his love of photography definitely influenced my father, who in turn gave me my first camera. I discovered the darkroom in high school and continued to pursue photography as a minor in college. For me, it was a totally addictive experience, watching my images slowly come to life in the developing trays. What started as a hobby turned into a passion that became a career when I decided to leave my corporate job to pursue being a full-time fine-art photographer in my early twenties. With absolutely no guarantees, this was truly the definition of a “leap of faith” or “follow your dreams” moment and one that changed the entire course of my life. (7)
As I was reading Malin’s remarks, it occurred to me that I also had taken a leap of faith early in my career and made a decision that changed the entire course of my life. I’d like to tell you my story which not surprisingly involves East Germany and a serendipitous confluence of people and events.
As I’ve reported elsewhere, my interest in GDR literature was awakened in the spring of 1974, when prominent East German prose writer Christa Wolf spent six weeks at Oberlin College as Max Kade German Writer-in-Residence. She was accompanied by her husband Gerhard, a well-known literary scholar and editor with connections to many contemporary GDR authors and publishers. I spent a lot of time with the Wolfs while they were in Oberlin, and they introduced me to the East German literary scene through carefully selected readings and instructive conversations that were truly fascinating. When I told the Wolfs that I would be taking a one-year sabbatical leave in 1975-1976, they encouraged me to think about doing a project on GDR writing in the 1970s and promised to assist me. During the course of our discussions, the outline of a possible project gradually emerged. The focus would be on new directions and trends in East German literature during the short-lived period of “thaw” that occurred soon after Erich Honecker replaced Walter Ulbricht as leader of the ruling Socialist Unity Party in 1971. Another prominent GDR author—Ulrich Plenzdorf—came to Oberlin as writer-in-residence in the spring of 1975. Plenzdorf and I became good friends that semester, and he too helped me shape and finalize plans for my first sabbatical leave, a good portion of which I intended to spend in the GDR.
In retrospect, and now with the wisdom of hindsight, I can see clearly that my interactions with the Wolfs in April and May 1974 were slowly but surely preparing me to take a “leap of faith” into a new area of specialization in German studies: East German literature. At that time, I was thirty-one years old and had been teaching at Oberlin College since September 1969. I had a doctorate in German literature from The Johns Hopkins University, where I had learned nothing at all about East Germany or its literature. (It was quite common in those Cold War days for academic programs in the West to ignore the literature of the other Germany, the German Democratic Republic, a communist country with about eighteen million citizens that was occupied by the Soviet Union.) My doctoral thesis, which I published in 1974, was in a niche area of specialization, Anglo-German literary relations, which I realized would provide me with very limited prospects for scholarly productivity in the future. Using material extracted from my dissertation I had published an article in a prestigious scholarly journal and given a conference presentation. I perceived that it was time to move on and was contemplating making nineteenth-century German literature my primary field of scholarly research. The Wolfs’ influence and encouragement were decisive factors in my decision to step out of my comfort zone and head in a different direction. I took their advice to heart, trusted them, and would eventually decide to make East German literature my primary area of specialization. I was eager and ready at this stage of my career to try something new. Sometimes you must challenge yourself in order to achieve the most life-changing results, and that is just what happened to me.
That summer, from June 27 to July 2, 1974, I attended the annual meeting of the American Association of Teachers of German in Bonn, Germany. From there I traveled to West Berlin, where I spent a few days as a tourist. The Wolfs had invited me to visit them at their home in Kleinmachnow, a small town just outside the Berlin city limits. I booked a room at the Interhotel Potsdam, which was located not far from Kleinmachnow, but I didn’t stay there. I slept at the Wolfs’ place and spent the better part of two days in their company. We had an in-depth discussion about the project I was planning to do while on leave and the Wolfs reaffirmed their readiness to help me with it in various ways. It was then that I made the definitive decision to make East German literature the focus of my research from that point on—a decision I have never regretted.
After returning to Oberlin, I had two major tasks to carry out in preparation for my forthcoming leap of faith:
First, I needed to part company in a decisive manner with my previous field of research, Anglo-German literary relations. I had in my office at the college a few cartons filled with research materials which I had saved and was planning to use for future projects. I decided to throw everything out, a conclusive action that would prevent me from returning to my previous research interests. A professor of English who occupied the office directly across the hall from mine, witnessed me tearing up photocopied materials and filling my wastebasket with them every afternoon for a week. “What are you doing, Zipser, he asked?” When I told him what I was doing and why, his only comment was this: “You’re crazy.” However, I knew what I was doing and was determined to press forward, tackle whatever challenges the future might have in store for me, and leave the present behind.
Second, I needed to draft a sabbatical leave proposal and submit it to the dean and faculty council for approval. I did that during the fall semester of 1974. Some of my colleagues in the German Department were opposed to my crossing over to a new field and counseled me not to do it. They reminded me that I was expected to teach, among other things, courses in nineteenth-century German literature, which I intended to continue doing. Moreover, even though my colleagues—like myself, I should add—knew very little about East German literature, some doubted that it would constitute a serious field of study. But when my sabbatical leave proposal was approved, the die was cast, and I began working on an exciting project in a new and very different field. What I liked most about my project was that it would bring me into contact with living writers, something I had come to enjoy through my annual involvement in Oberlin College’s German writer-in-residence program.
Ulrich Plenzdorf’s guest writer residency in Oberlin in the spring of 1975 could not have come at a better time, as far as my leave project on East German literature was concerned. He not only gave me more encouragement and advice, but—like Christa and Gerhard Wolf the year before—he helped me develop and shape the project I proposed to undertake on GDR writing in the 1970s. When I was working on the project in East Germany, he continued to assist me in meaningful ways, as did the Wolfs. In retrospect, I realize that I could not have produced an 840-page book like DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter (GDR Literature During the Thaw), nor most of my other major publications on GDR literature, without the strong and unwavering support of the Wolfs and Ulrich Plenzdorf. To this day, I remain very indebted to them.
Let me conclude by asking and answering this question: What, exactly, is a leap of faith? The Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) wrote about the concept of religious faith in his philosophical works Fear and Trembling and Concluding unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments. According to Kierkegaard, faith does not involve logic, reason, and rationality. Faith is an intangible phenomenon that cannot be measured; it begins precisely where thinking leaves off. Therefore, a leap of faith is a phenomenal occurrence during which a person—having trust in something intangible—leaps figuratively over the emotional and psychological boundaries of logic and reason to explore or interact with something. My use of the term leap of faith—and Malin’s as well—is idiomatic and without religious dimensions. It involves a willingness to do something based largely on one’s conviction that it will prove productive, despite having little or no evidence or assurance thereof. It is of course impossible to know the outcome because, as Kierkegaard is fond of saying, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” In retrospect, I can see clearly that my decision to abruptly shift gears and plunge headlong into a new area of specialization required a huge leap of faith.