Rochelle Tobias works at the intersection of modern German literature and philosophy with additional expertise in German-Jewish culture, environmental thought, religious studies, and aesthetic theory. She received her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California at Berkeley in 1996, where she studied German, French and English literature from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries with special emphasis on modern poetry. Since then she has expanded her research fields to include phenomenology (especially Husserl), theories of the novel, and the concept of “world” in twentieth-century European literature and philosophy.
Professor Tobias’s scholarship has consistently emphasized what Adorno called the non-identical elements of a work that escape our cognitive grasp, even if, at the same time, they enable representation. She sees this structure at play in romantic, modern and postmodern literature as well as in intellectual traditions as diverse as the philosophy of nature, scholastic theology, and psychoanalysis.
Her first book The Discourse of Nature in the Poetry of Paul Celan: The Unnatural World (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006) examined the enigmatic images in Celan’s poetry and argued that they have a common source. They are taken from the disciplines of geology, astrology, and physiology, or what could be called the sciences of the earth, the heavens, and the human being. She claims that Celan’s poetry borrows from each of these disciplines to create a poetic universe, which attests to what is no longer and projects what is not yet.
Her second book Pseudo-Memoirs: Life and Its Imitation in Modern Fiction (University of Nebraska Press, 2020) revisits some of the foundational questions of literary criticism, aesthetics, and theories of prose fiction. In theoretical reflections that stretch from Aristotle to Friedrich Schlegel and Lukács to Blanchot, and close readings that extend from Robert Walser to W.G. Sebald, she examines what it means to tell a story and whether life takes the form of a story. These questions have gone largely unaddressed in narrative theory.
She also edited Hölderlin’s Philosophy of Nature (Edinburgh University Press, 2020), published on the occasion of the poet’s 250th birthday, that charts the relation between Hölderlin’s poetic theory and his concept of nature. Human history and natural history prove to be deeply intertwined in ways that would seem to anticipate ecological thought in the Anthropocene. With Philippe P. Haensler and Kristina Mendicino, she also edited Phenomenology to the Letter: Husserl and Literature, which is the first anthology in decades to evaluate the significance of Husserlian phenomenology for literary studies.
Tobias is currently working on two book projects. The first is on Rilke and probes the subjective constitution of the world and the concomitant representation of the self as an ever-changing and ever-expanding landscape. The second sketches Robert Walser’s incarnational poetics and claims that his texts engineer the birth of the author outside the book in a modern-day version of the word made flesh.
Professor Tobias’s honors include a fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies at the Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich in 2009 as well as research grants from the American Association of University Women and the DAAD. She is the Director of the Max Kade Center for Modern German Thought at Johns Hopkins.