Monday, September 16, 2013

Der Mann ohne Eigenschatten (weitergespiegelt)

In a lengthy novel, more admired than read, Robert Musil depicts the initially spring-fevered, ultimately autumnal society of Vienna under the Hapsburgs;  the novel opens in 1913.   Its title is the haunting Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (literally, a man without qualities or personal characteristics) -- haunting despite or rather because of the nagging fact that, like some paradox in a dream, it makes no sense.  The concept is looming and formless -- something best unmentioned, or to scare the children with.

Yet now it occurs to us (and we seem to have been the first to notice this), that the familiar “plain-text” title with Eigenschaften   is a Deckname, a cryptonym for something … darker, yet lying phonetically  just beneath the surface.  And so exactly does this key  fit that lock, that the hidden mechanism  springs open at a touch:

~  Der Mann ohne Eigenschatten ~

So what would be this “Eigenschatten”?   
There is a technical meaning of the term, defined in Wikipedia:

Der Eigenschatten (auch: Körperschatten) eines Körpers  ist der Schatten, den der Körper auf sich selbst  durch sich selbst  verursacht. Dabei sind aber nur Schattenflächen gemeint, die auf den jeweiligen schattenverursachenden Flächen liegen. Anders formuliert ist der Eigenschatten die Menge der nicht beleuchteten also die der Lichtquelle abgewandten Seiten.

But that is not the meaning that concerns us here.  We allude rather to one who, for grievous diabolical reasons, can cast no shadow -- who has no shadow to call his own.

I'll just take this, now ... you won't feel a thing ...

The notion is familiar to students of German literature:  it is the central plot-device of Chamisso’s celebrated  novella Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte, in which the hapless title character (a Pechvogel, and eponym of all later schlemiels and schlemazels) sells his shadow to the Devil -- a bad bargain.
(Cf. additionally  the opera by Richard Strauss, “Frau ohne Schatten” (1919).)

~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"If I were alive today, and in the mood for a mystery,
this is what I'd be reading: "
(Ich bin Adelbert von Chamisso, and I approved this message.)

The eerie image of the man-without-a-shadow -- penumbrous dual of the shadow-without-a-man --  yet came to our author  innocently enough.   From Karl Ude’s introduction to the Goldmanns Gelbe Taschenbücher  edition of the work:

Die Erzählung ist entstanden aus einer zufälligen Frage an Chamisso, der sein Reisegepäck verloren hatte,  ob er nicht auch seinen Schatten verloren habe?

[Note:  I use the term “dual” here  in its mathematical sense;  yet the kindred notion of Doppelgänger  is here curiously appropriate.]

For another, exceedingly strange story,
and not unrelated in theme,
try this:



Orthoëpic interlude

So -- how do you pronounce the guy’s name -- Chamisso?
The man was French in origin;  and the worthy Webster’s New Biographical Dictionary, to which I myself, as editor, contributed not a few pronunciations (though not this one), gives -- for its pronunciation in English -- a value of orthographic “ch” which derives from French (here I translate into “newspaper-style” transcription):  sha-MISS-oh.   But the name is quite odd, for French or for German;  I do not know how his drinking-buddies called him.

An idiotic stab at the pronunciation is offered here for internauts:
Ignore it.

To resume.  
The man was, as we say, French, of noble origin (whence the “von”) and had to flee the overexuberant antics of the French revolution.  He spent the rest of his life dedicated to German life and letters.   With what results, we mention here.

And yes, I am aware, there is a parallel, between his Lebensbahn and mine -- ich, der ich Fremdling und Flüchtling bin,  nun jetzt in Herbstesalter,  in deutschem Kulturgut  fummelnd
Yet there is a more deep-cutting parallel:  and this, between Chamisso and Schlemihl.   For Chamisso himself was a Mann ohne Eigenschatten -- living in dreadful exile, his roots quite sliced, condemned to stammer in an alien tongue.

Für psychologisch tiefgreifende Krimis,
in pikanter amerikanischer Mundart,
und christlich gesinnt,
klicken Sie bitte hier:


[Update 6 Aug 2013]  An interesting article by Costica Bradatan  explores the writerly bilingual dilemma here:

In her exploration of the Catholic religion, “Letter to a Priest,” written the year before her death in 1943, Simone Weil noticed at some point that “for any man a change of religion is as dangerous a thing as a change of language is for a writer. It may turn out a success, but it can also have disastrous consequences.” The Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, who was one such writer, talks of the change of language as a catastrophic event in any author’s biography


To recur to the thorny subject of the Eigenschatten.
The poet and mystic Christian Morgenstern  has discoursed in rhyme  upon this matter:

Das Lied vom blonden Korken

Ein blonder Korke spiegelt sich
in einem Lacktablett –
allein er säh’ sich dennoch nich,
selbst wenn er Augen hätt’!

Das macht, dieweil er senkrecht steigt
zu seinem Spiegelbild!
Wenn man ihn freilich seitwärts neigt,
zerfällt, was oben gilt.

O Mensch, gesetzt, du spiegelst dich
im, sagen wir, – im All!
Und senkrecht! – wärest du dann nich
ganz in demselben Fall?

This we have managed, by a heroic feat of compression, to reproduce, for a world-wide anglophone audience, the original dozen lines by a mere six:  thus doing our ecological bit to stave off the impending Global Pixel Shortage (“Peak Pixel”):

A cork upon a mirror stood;
though had he eyes, ‘twould do no good,

because he stands on self upright,
his mirror image -- out of sight.

E’en we! beamed forth  beyond the sky
see not ourselves  with inward eye.

(This miracle of minimalism we achieved by means of Korf’s own invention,
described by Morgenstern  in “Die Brille”.)

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