By Lisa Fung

If Gabriele Schwab, Distinguished Professor of comparative literature at UC Irvine, had followed her dreams, she would likely be a doctor in her native Germany.

But her father, a watchmaker, stood in the way, saying medical school would be “wasted on a woman.” So, she considered psychology. Again, her father objected. “He said, ‘No, then you will end up being an old spinster because who would want to marry a woman who can look through you?”

Ultimately, Schwab turned to literary studies, initially with a focus on literature in English and the romance languages. “That’s a profession my father was happy about,” she says, “because in Germany at the time practically everybody who studied these fields became a high school teacher; very few went on to get their Ph.D. I never wanted to teach high school, but I thought I’ll just gamble and see what works.”

Her gamble paid off. Schwab went on to earn a Ph.D. – eventually two – and became the first woman in her field to be hired on a professorial track at the University of Konstanz at a time when there were only a handful of women professors at German universities. And she did marry and have two children. Today, Schwab is an internationally recognized professor of comparative literature in the UCI School of Humanities, where she has found a way to meld her interests in medicine, psychology, critical theory, politics and literature in her teaching and her writing.

Upon first meeting the slight, soft-spoken scholar with her remains of a German accent and easygoing laugh, it’s hard to imagine her attraction to such topics as nuclear annihilation. But the steely resolve she demonstrated in forging her own academic path remains, as does her constant thirst for new learning experiences.

“The psychology interest stayed with me throughout my whole life,” she says. “When I wanted to do medicine, I wanted to do psychiatry. Those interests didn’t go away.”

Schwab’s perspective was shaped, in part, during her formative years as a child growing up in Tiengen, a Swiss border town, in the shadow of World War II and against the backdrop of the fall of the Nazis and the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Her upcoming book, Radioactive Ghosts (University of Minnesota Press, 2020), examines the legacy of the nuclear bomb and the many facets of nuclear politics through the lens of her varied interests.

Though Radioactive Ghosts deals with critical theory and scholarly topics, Schwab makes it accessible to a range of readers by interspersing art, music and pop culture references with writings ranging from Jacques Derrida to Gertrude Stein to James Baldwin to “The Simpsons.” Her carefully curated discussions are uncannily timely, with topical ties to climate change, the colonization of indigenous people, African American civil rights struggles, feminism and planetary extinction.

The new book, she says, is something of a companion to her 2010 book Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma (Columbia University Press). “That was my way of dealing with my legacy, my German legacy, being born in the aftermath of fascism and the Holocaust,” she says. “I always felt my generation had to address this legacy in some way.”

Schwab also believes it is the responsibility of her generation and those that follow to address the consequences of nuclear energy and nuclear war. 

“I was quite active in the antinuclear movement when I still lived in Germany. We were all afraid of nuclear war because Germany is strategically located close to Russia,” she says. “When they started to build the first nuclear power plants, a really strong movement emerged in response. We grew up with a real fear of nuclear destruction.” 

Schwab traces her activism to “Night and Fog,” the 1956 Alain Resnais documentary short film about the Nazi concentration camps, which she calls “the single most traumatic film I have ever seen.” The French film was required viewing at her high school, she says, “and it really turned my life upside down” because it was the first time she heard about the Holocaust. “I had grown up with war stories, but nobody ever talked about the concentration camps. Ever. The film was such a shock,” she says, pausing in thought for a moment. 

“That also taught me about silence,” she continues. “I think I became a political person at that time. I think all my commitments to do the type of work that I do were born at that time.”

Her political consciousness extended to her travel, particularly in the ’70s, while the Vietnam War raged on. “Many Germans traveled to the U.S. at the time, but I didn’t want to go. I also didn’t go to Spain or to Greece at the time because of their dictatorships,” she says. “That has something to do with being born in Germany after the war, being very conscious of fascism. I didn’t want to compromise.”

While working on her Habilitation, or final qualification to become a professor, Schwab got to know Murray Krieger. The UCI literature professor came to speak at the University of Konstanz and spent a semester there in 1982 as a visiting professor. “He said, ‘I really want to get you to work at Irvine. At the time I thought it was one of these things, you know, where you say, ‘if you ever come to the U.S., come visit me’,” she says, laughing.

Krieger was one of the co-founders of the School of Theory and Criticism, a prominent summer school for critical theory and later the Critical Theory Institute, of which Schwab later became the first female member in 1986. He had been traveling though France and Germany, seeking to recruit a younger generation of scholars to UCI. A few months after she finished her Habilitation, Schwab did receive an invitation from UCI for a one-year visiting professorship.

She arrived in Orange County in 1983 – her first time in the United States.

“My first thought was, how can I stay here for an entire year?” she says, laughing. “But the university at the time was absolutely fantastic, and for my field – critical theory – it was literally the best place to be.”

But there was another reason to celebrate. “I had women colleagues,” she says. “I had never ever been in a meeting or at a conference where I had women colleagues. And I had students – women students – who had a chance for a career. And they were confident. It was a different thing. It didn’t take very long for me to think, if I have a chance to stay here, I will stay.”

Initially, there wasn’t a position for her after her yearlong stint was over, so Schwab applied to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. She was offered both positions, but opted for Milwaukee, where she taught intellectual history. Two years later, Irvine came calling again. She returned to Southern California in the fall of 1986 and has remained since.

Nuclear threats are less palpable for students today than they were for Schwab. “One of my students said in a class on nuclearism, ‘I thought it was more of a history class about the past. I didn’t realize it was still an issue today,’” she says. Another took her course because of his interest in an internet game dealing with nuclear war and a nuclear apocalypse. “It’s so different where students get their information,” she says, noting that now-decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Plant is a mere a half-hour’s drive from the UCI campus. San Onofre was shut down in 2013, but still continues to discharge radioactive waste.

During her research for her book, she says, she learned that in the ’50s and ’60s, many teenagers, were convinced they would not be able to live a full life because they feared they would be killed in a nuclear war. “That’s certainly no longer the case now,” Schwab says, “but as you can see from the book, I don’t think the danger is gone.” 

With Radioactive Ghosts, her hope is that people will become more mindful and educated about energy “and not be fooled by people saying, ‘oh, this is the cleanest energy.’ It’s clean as long as nothing goes wrong. But how often things went wrong is documented,” she says.

She’s just started another book titled Beckett in the End Times – this time a collection of writings about the Irish playwright and writer Samuel Beckett, whose works deal with many of the existential themes Schwab addresses in her own writing.

Even amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Schwab remains active and is constantly looking for new ways to continue her quiet activism.

This fall, she will participate in the “Airspace Tribunal,” a multifaceted, international political art project that seeks to embrace airspace safety – protection from “physical or psychological threat from above” – as a human rights concern. The project was conceived by University of Kent law professor Nick Grief and artist-filmmaker Shona Illingworth. “It’s probably one of the most exciting invitations in my career,” Schwab says.

Regarding the focus of her research on the psychopolitics of nuclear danger and environmental destruction, she says, “I want readers to be scared, but I do not want them to be paralyzed by fear,” she says. “I wanted to show what people have done. I want them to be very mindful and act in a certain way. And to vote. They should not vote for a lunatic who has his finger on the trigger.”

Radioactive Ghosts is available for pre-purchase now via the University of Minnesota Press here and Amazon here. It comes out October 20, 2020.

Environmental Humanities