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Adrian Daub
Adrian Daub is professor of Comparative Literature and German Studies at Stanford University. He is the author of four books on German thought and culture in the nineteenth century, as well as (with Charles Kronengold) "The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism." He tweets @adriandaub.

All Hail the Rat King

Illustration by David Huang

Adrian Daub | Longreads | December 2019 | 16 minutes (3,994 words)


The small community of Dellfeld lies amid rolling hills and leafy forests in the extreme south of Germany’s Palatinate region. Ruined castles dot the landscape. Some are impressive stalactites: you can still trace the outlines of a crumbled keep. Others are barely more than colossal piles of stone, their sandstone further melting into the landscape with every rainstorm.

In April 1895, a certain Herr Mayer found a very different kind of relic in a barn attached to Dellfeld’s village school: a wheel of ten dead rats connected at the tips of their entangled tails. A rat king. Herr Mayer sent the strange specimen on to Ludwig Döderlein, director of the Zoological Museum in nearby Strasbourg. It remains there to this day, preserved in a large, formaldehyde-filled beaker. It isn’t always on display, but whenever the museum presents it, certain people make a direct beeline to the rat king case. The questions are always the same: how did this happen? Could they have lived like this for long? Is this natural?

Herr Mayer was not alone in discovering these strange specimens. The Thuringian town of Altenburg houses perhaps the most spectacular exemplar. A mad bramble of no fewer than 32 rats sits mounted on a plexiglass pane in the entrance hall of the Mauritianum, the town’s small natural history museum. It was found in a village not too far away, in a warm space underneath a chimney. The 32 corpses look sooty and dessicated. By contrast, the rat corpses in Strasbourg have something almost peaceful about them in their flotation tank. Still, the central knot feels upsettingly autonomous, as though it might yet writhe at any moment. Looking at the grotesque tangle of tails, dirt, straw, and feces that binds the group together — it covers half the body of each of the individual rats — it’s hard not to come away with the sense that, like monsters in a story, this object is here to convey some sort of meaning.

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The Return of the Face

From The Delinquent Man: Types of Offenders, 1897. Wikimedia Commons, Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Adrian Daub | Longreads | October 2018 | 16 minutes (4,170 words)


Physiognomy — the attempt to interpret a person’s character by means of their face — was one of those things that educated 19th-century Europeans knew wasn’t supposed to work. In his 1806 work The Phenomenology of Spirit, philosopher G.W.F. Hegel devoted a lengthy, indecipherable chapter to explain why physiognomy, and its cousin phrenology, had to be hokum. But even if Europeans knew they shouldn’t put stock in physiognomy, they found it incredibly difficult to resist the impulse.

To some extent this remains true today. During the Obama years, many of us were sensitive to representations of the new president, knowing full well that the way faces are read and analyzed could easily encode very old and deeply embedded racist ideas. Then Trump was elected. In a heartbeat, we were back to reading his face, playing with his face, and displaying it next to animal faces. Where does this temptation come from?

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Here at the End of All Things

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad, based on cartography by Dyson Logos.

Adrian Daub | Longreads | August 2017 | 20 minutes (5,033 words)


“The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars […].”

— Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science”

I spent my adolescence around maps of places that didn’t exist. An older cousin read The Lord of the Rings over the course of a hot summer when I was nine, and I watched in fascination as he traced the Fellowship’s progress across the foldout map that came with the book in those days. This, I decided, had to be what grown-up reading looked like.

Maps were my entrée into geek life, and they remained the medium through which geekdom moved: beat-up paperbacks handed around between school friends, boxed sets at the local game store — we probably spent about as much time poring over maps as we did reading or dreaming up the stories that took place within the worlds they represented. The science fiction we read did without them, but any cover featuring a dragon, a many-turreted castle, or a woman in a leather bra suggested you’d find a map the moment you peeked inside the book.
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“BRAAAM!”: The Sound that Invaded the Hollywood Soundtrack

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad.

Adrian Daub | Longreads | December 2016 | 15 minutes (3,902 words)


You walk into a local multiplex a few minutes after the lights have dimmed. You find your seat to the first trailer, some confection involving superheroes or zombies. As the light flickers over you, strings churn from the speakers, interrupted at certain intervals by a massive blast of indistinguishable brass, like an alphorn next to an amplifier.

Does this sound familiar? At some point movies started braying at us like ships lost in a fog, and we have come to accept that as perfectly normal. Variations on this sound sequence — a simple string motif interrupted by sudden bursts of non-melodic noise — are everywhere in film soundtracks and trailers. It is the noise that goes with people in spandex standing in a Delacroix-style tableau, or so Hollywood has decided. It is the sound we know is coming when a trailer intercuts CGI objects slamming into each other with portentous fades-to-black.

The internet and the sound’s creator refer to it as BRAAAM. (If you think you’ve successfully avoided it, here’s a sample). It may sound synthetic, but it’s usually produced with brass instruments and a prepared piano. Although it has its roots in a scoring style composer Hans Zimmer employed for much of the early ’00s, the BRAAAM heard in seemingly every trailer was first recorded for Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception, and has been adapted, copied, and even outright sampled ever since. Is BRAAAM something that happened to us, or is it something we, as moviegoers, desired?

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