Sonja Boos in Memoriam

Sonja Boos: In Remembrance

The members of the faculty in German and Scandinavian grieve for their colleague and friend Sonja Boos, who succumbed to cancer on June 21st of 2021.
She was forty-eight.

Sonja joined our department in 2013 and quickly became integral to its esprit de corps. She was a creative and uncomplicated colleague for whom collaboration came naturally. Indeed, we can hardly comprehend that her time with us comprised a mere eight years.

Sonja’s first book, Speaking the Unspeakable in Postwar Germany: Toward a Public Discourse on the Holocaust, appeared with Cornell University Press in 2014. The project treated public addresses given in the postwar period by such intellectual and literary figures as Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, Peter Szondi, Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann, Uwe Johnson, and Peter Weiss. With its publication Sonja established herself as a major voice among critical reassessments of the received notion that postwar discourse unfolded in a public sphere that had successfully dealt with its very recent past. Her interest in a “counter-public” (Gegenöffentlichkeit), to which she ascribes these figures, also mirrored her sustained pedagogical focus on excluded voices.

Sonja’s second book, which was being readied for press at the time of her passing, and which she completed while struggling with her illness, is titled The Emergence of Neuroscience and the German Novel: Poetics of the Brain. With attention to writers like August Klingemann, Jean Paul, Franz Grillparzer, Gottfried Keller, Theodor Fontane, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Franz Kafka, this ambitious and original work seeks to revise the dominant narrative about the distinctive psychological inwardness and introspective depth of the German novel by reinterpreting the genre’s development from the perspective of the nascent discipline of neuroscience. It is an extended exercise in the “poetics of knowledge,” of which Sonja was an effective advocate. Specifically, the book asks how the novel’s formal properties—stylistic, narrative, rhetorical, and figurative—correlate with the formation of a neuroscientific discourse, and how the former may have assisted, disrupted, or intensified the medical articulation of neurological concepts.

Sonja was an engine of activity, but one collaborative achievement in particular stands out. In 2019, in the immediate aftermath of an almost catastrophic blizzard, Sonja assembled a host of scholars from Germany, France, and North America for a two-day conference titled Feminism Cinema Theory: Critical Intersections in the Practice and Theorization of Experimental Filmmaker since the 1970s. The conference addressed a “counter-public” of a different sort—women filmmakers and artists who have worked to articulate female experiences and critical perspectives to which the film industry has generally turned a deaf ear (and blind eye). The fact that Sonja was able to bring this off amid the snow-induced chaos is illustrative of the strength and determination that served her—and all of us—as she fought to the end.

We hold her memory dear and feel her presence still in Friendly Hall and beyond. Our colleagues Dorothee Ostmeier and Mathias Vogel remind us of Dido’s lament and provide us with these lines (as conveyed by Henry Purcell), so resonant of the comfort we wish for ourselves and for Sonja’s husband, Britton, and daughters Dora and Colette.

Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me,
On thy bosom let me rest,
More I would, but Death invades me;
Death is now a welcome guest.

When I am laid, am laid in earth, May my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in thy breast;
Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.