06 May, 2008

Ahasuerus

By the time I wander to bed Lily is already asleep, wreathed in shadows. Her form is barely visible, half under the silk sheets, scotopically indiscernible as scarlet, barely lit by the first few photons of morning twilight—the whole effect is of a late Malevich, black on not quite black. I nudge and prog at a dormant knee that has invaded my half of the bed, so as to enter, and she stirs still asleep, recontorts herself, like a kitten, and as I settle my head on the pillow, she comes to rest with her shoulders pressing down against mine. I lie half-trapped, restless as ever, contemplating.

I have stayed up all night finishing Sartor Resartus. It is the sort of book you stay up all night finishing, even if you have read it before. I find it immensely difficult to turn the pages—and often I find myself turning them, only to realise I have hardly understood or digested the page apparently just read. I force myself to go back, mostly. And I read it in different editions. First in my undated but elegantly bound Ward & Lock edition from around the turn of the last century. Then in Rodger Tarr's critical edition in the Library. Finally on Gutenberg.

Sartor is curious in its combination of two usually distinct modes of Romantic thought—the 'total irony' of Tieck and early Schlegel; and the yearning floridity of Werther, Novalis or Wordsworth. It is Nietzsche contra Wagner. Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, the protagonist, stands for the latter; his editor for the former. Of course it is not that simple—but it is the duality of these two moods that most strikes me in the work.

In the middle of the second book, Teufelsdrockh gets dumped.
I was alone, alone! Ever too the strong inward longing shaped Phantasms for itself: towards these, one after the other, must I fruitlessly wander. A feeling I had, that for my fever-thirst there was and must be somewhere a healing Fountain. To many fondly imagined Fountains, the Saints' Wells of these days, did I pilgrim; to great Men, to great Cities, to great Events: but found there no healing. In strange countries, as in the well-known; in savage deserts, as in the press of corrupt civilization, it was ever the same: how could your Wanderer escape from—his own Shadow?
You see how quickly Carlyle shifts tone. The syntax of that last line has the zesty unmistakeable ring of—Zarathustra. "Wer hat nicht für seinen guten Ruf schon einmal—sich selbst geopfert?" "Was meinte jener Gott, welcher anrieth: 'erkenne dich selbst'! Hiess es vielleicht: 'höre auf, dich etwas anzugehn! werde objektiv!'—Und Sokrates?Und der 'wissenschaftliche Mensch'?" But for the moment I am less concerned with the gangasrotagati, and more with Carlyle's image of the wanderer and his shadow. Tarr annotates:
Compare Goethe's epigram: 'Was lehr' ich dich von allen Dingen? — / Könntest mich lehren von meiner Schatte zu springen!" (What shall I teach thee, the foremost thing? / Couldst teach me off my own shadow to spring!) Compare also The Life of John Sterling (1851), 130.
This is lazy editorship. 'Compare, compare, compare.' Well, why? Is there a broader context? Tarr doesn't tell us. It's also a rotten translation of the German. And as for John Sterling (1851), p. 130, there is no p. 130. Or rather it is a blank page immediately following a chapter-heading. I go on Gutenberg's John Sterling and word-search 'shadow'. And I find no remotely plausible match. Like his namesake, Tarr is evidently messing with us.

But consider this. Carlyle was writing Sartor around 1830. He knows modern German literature back to front, and he knows older German literature pretty damn well too. In 1830 he also begins writing a History of German Literature; the primary focus of this is Märchen and folklore, and yet it doesn't get much beyond the Nibelungenlied. Given these facts, it seems inconceivable that Carlyle was not familiar with what was, since its 1814 publication, one of the most famous books in Germany—Chamisso's latter-day fairytale, Peter Schlemihl. This is a story about a man who diabolically bargains off his shadow for a bag of inexhaustible wealth, is exiled from society, and becomes a wanderer. Chamisso himself was something of a wanderer—a French nobleman who left during the Revolution. In a letter to Madame de Staël, he wrote:
I am nowhere at home. I am a Frenchman in Germany and a German in France. A Catholic among Protestants, a Protestant among Catholics, a Jacobin among aristocrats, an aristocrat among democrats.
(Compare Einstein's famous quip: 'If relativity is proved right the Germans will call me a German, the Swiss call me a Swiss citizen, and the French will call me a great scientist. If relativity is proved wrong the French will call me a Swiss, the Swiss will call me a German, and the Germans will call me a Jew.' Or don't.)

Ruth Wisse, in a book on schlemihl literature, reads the shadow of Chamisso's Schlemihl as 'that extension of the self which is visible to others though extraneous to its owner. In the self-sufficiency of his room Peter does not miss his shadow, but the moment he attempts to mingle in society, he is mocked and ostracized'. When the Devil wants to swap back his shadow in exchange for his soul, Schlemihl refuses to trade—for the outer soul is less important than the inner soul, which must be protected at all costs.


In one scene, he discovers his shadow in a wood and chases after it:
The shadow on my moving fled before me, and I was compelled to begin an active chase after the unsubstantial wanderer. The eager desire to be released from the perplexities in which I stood armed me with unusual strength. It fled to a distant wood, in whose obscurity it necessarily would have been immediately lost.
Sadly, he doesn't catch it. The Devil retains possession. And later, when the Devil, walking beside him, allows him the temporary loan of his shadow, Schlemihl tries to start his horses and race off with it, but
I could not elope with the shadow, it slipped away when the horse started, and waited on the road for its lawful owner. I was obliged to turn round, ashamed; the man in the grey coat, as he unconcernedly finished his tune, began to laugh at me, and fixing the shadow again in its place, informed me it would only stick to me, and remain with me, when I had properly and lawfully become possessed of it. 'I hold you fast,' he cried, 'fast attached to the shadow; you cannot escape from me.'
In Peter Schlemihl, the wanderer has, much to his own chagrin, escaped from his own shadow, or rather it has escaped from him. I find it much more likely that Carlyle had this story in mind than an epigram by Goethe. Teufelsdrockh, like Schlemihl, is a Judaified German—a Wandering Jew. But for Carlyle, the shadow of a man is not a boon which grants him free access to society—it is a spectre of doubt, haunting him. Schlemihl is a wanderer because he has no shadow, but Teufelsdrockh is a wanderer because he has a shadow. Vain truly, he later adds, is the hope of your swiftest Runner to escape "from his own Shadow"! And still later, Teufelsdrockh exclaims—
Wretchedness was still wretched; but I could now partly see through it, and despise it. Which highest mortal, in this inane Existence, had I not found a Shadow-hunter, or Shadow-hunted; and, when I looked through his brave garnitures, miserable enough?
All wretched mortals are, like Schlemihl, hunting Shadows. (True, we are getting back to Plato's Cave as well—but nuances have begun to accumulate.)
Try him [man] with half of a Universe, of an Omnipotence, he sets to quarrelling with the proprietor of the other half, and declares himself the most maltreated of men.—Always there is a black spot in our sunshine: it is even, as I said, the Shadow of Ourselves.
A 'black spot in our sunshine'—is Carlyle thinking of the other Diogenes, who bid the great Alexander to 'stand out of my sunlight'? (This related, incidentally, by yet another Diogenes.) Compare, compare, compare.

*

Did you think I wasn't going to mention Nietzsche again? Nietzsche has not one but two wanderers-and-his-shadow. The first is a little standalone bit that comes as a second sequel (1880) to his transitional work, Human, All Too Human. The Wanderer converses with his Shadow as a prologue and epilogue to a collection of aphorisms in the traditional Nietzschean manner.
The Shadow: It occurred to me that I've often been at your heels like a dog, and that you then—

The Wanderer: And couldn't I do in all haste something to please you? Don't you have a desire?

The Shadow: Nothing, except perhaps the same desire that the philosophical 'dog' had of the great Alexander: move a little out of the sun, it's getting too cold for me.
What is the Shadow for Nietzsche? A creature of the light:
The Wanderer: Only now do I notice how impolite I am, my beloved shadow: I have not said a word about how pleased I am to see you as well as hear you. You should know that I love the shadow as much as I cherish the light. For facial beauty, clarity of speech, quality and firmness of character, shadow is as necessary as light. They are not opponents: they are rather affectionate, holding hands—and if the light disappears, the shadow slips away after it.

The Shadow: And I hate the same thing you hate: the night; I love human beings, because they are devotees of light and I'm pleased when their eyes shine as they discern and discover knowledge—untiring knowers and discoverers that they are. That shadow, which all things cast, if the sunshine of perception falls upon them—that shadow am I as well.
A paradox: the shadow is allied not to darkness but to light. He is perhaps the dark and wise part of the soul that only appears in high contrast: only appears in the day, in affirmation. The Shadow is a familiar. Teufelsdrockh tried to shake his off; Schlemihl tried to recover his—Nietzsche's Wanderer learns from his. And Zarathustra meets his shadow too. (What book could be more like Sartor than Zarathustra?) At first he runs away, hoping to escape it: but as we have learnt, he cannot. He turns to confront the wretched being.
'Who art thou?' asked Zarathustra vehemently, 'what doest thou here? And why callest thou thyself my shadow? Thou art not pleasing unto me.'

'Forgive me,' answered the shadow, 'that it is I; and if I please thee not—well, O Zarathustra! therein do I admire thee and thy good taste. A wanderer am I, who have walked long at thy heels; always on the way, but without a goal, also without a home: so that verily, I lack little of being the eternally Wandering Jew, except that I am not eternal and not a Jew.'
Zarathustra's Shadow represents freedom without constraint: 'This seeking for my home: O Zarathustra, dost thou know that this seeking hath been my home-sickening; it eateth me up. Where is—my home? For it do I ask and seek, and have sought, but have not found it. O eternal everywhere, O eternal nowhere, O eternal—in-vain!'

And so Zarathustra delivers a little sermon: 'Thy danger is not small, thou free spirit and wanderer! To such unsettled ones as thou, seemeth at last even a prisoner blessed. Didst thou ever see how captured criminals sleep? They sleep quietly, they enjoy their new security. Beware lest in the end a narrow faith capture thee, a hard, rigorous delusion! For now everything that is narrow and fixed seduceth and tempteth thee.'

It is necessary to recall that this is not any old shadow, but Zarathustra's shadow: and so it is his opposite and double. The shadow is always a principle within us, an anima, that contains our opposite. It is always a burden. It was, in fact, a burden even for Schlemihl. For at the end of the book, divested of his shadow, he takes wing, leaving society and communing directly with nature, clad in seven-league boots. We must always have an ambivalent relation to our shadow, desiring and despising it, seeking to escape, and seeking to return. The shadow is there, a presence, and not there, an absence. It is beautiful because it is most like us. And so they say that art was first created when man tried to trace the outline of his own shadow in the sand. But it is not us: it is, even, the not-us.

*

We have been wandering for some time now. You will excuse me, reader. Why, you ask? It is in your nature. After all, I trust you have been—following closely.

11 comments:

John Cowan said...

Well, relativity was correct, but the Germans called Einstein a Jew anyhow. So he was two-thirds right. Which is better than being two-thirds Cherokee.

e-kvetcher said...

Sorry, what's the connection to Ahasuerus?

Conrad H. Roth said...

I meant this Ahasuerus.

Greg Afinogenov said...

Besides the obvious Jung connection (and the excellent fantasy novel by Ursula Le Guin--it was either A Wizard of Earthsea or The Farthest Shore, I think), this whole post for some reason reminds me of Simplicissimus (which I wrote about here). If the shadow is an "outer soul," or a Nietzschean fluidity and absence of constraint, he's all shadow--and towards the end of the book he says to himself: "Thy life hath been no life but a death, thy days a toilsome shadow, thy years a troublous dream, thy pleasures grievous sins, thy youth a fantasy, and thy happiness an alchemist’s treasure that is gone by the chimney and vanished ere thou canst perceive it." The brilliance of Grimmelshausen, I guess, is that he turns the whole "natural fool" canon (of which schlemihl literature is obviously a part) upside down: though a fool, Simplicissimus is the farthest thing from authentic, pure, ingenuous. He's not an inner soul in search of an outer, but the other way around.

james ashley said...

john,

Well I'm one-sixteenth Cherokee, just like my pa and my grand-pappy before me. What's wrong with that?

James

Conrad H. Roth said...

Greg, you link to the online Goodrick translation; I hope this isn't the one you read, as it misses out lots of rude bits. If you don't have it, I recommend getting hold of the Weissenborn 1963 Calder translation, which is unexpurgated.

Simplicissimus has less in common with the schlemihl genre, and more in common with picaresque--the hero might be compared to Nashe's Unfortunate Traveller, Jack Wilton, or Richard Head's English Rogue--where actions, not inner life, create (or constitute) character. If you see the novel in this context it doesn't seem quite so 'turned upside down'.

As for LeGuin, I've never read her.

Ray Davis said...

Compare Hans Christian Andersen:

"What annoyed him most was not so much the loss of his shadow, but the knowledge that there was already a story about a man without a shadow. All the people at home knew that story. If he went back and told them his story they would say he was just imitating the old one. He did not care to be called unoriginal, so he decided to say nothing about it, which was the most sensible thing to do."

Not so, as it turns out.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, Ray; I didn't know this story.

Andrew W. said...

I think you are absolutely right that Carlyle's influence here is not Goethe, but Schlemihl, however, it is very hard for me to think of Carlyle without thinking of Goethe.

It's funny that the Wikipedia entry on this work mentions Tristam, but misses altogether more obvious influences - the Wilhelm Meister books.

The construction of the novel, with the editor "presenting" the work of Teufelsdroeckh, is very Goethean.

Indeed, he appears to be mocking some of the early criticisms of Goethe's Wanderjahre, that this final novel's pastiche format was the mark of an old man trying to cobble together some short stories before he died, a strange criticism, considering Goethe would have had little trouble publishing a collection of his grocery lists...

As I have not read much of Sartor, I will refrain from making any more comparisons, but given my current interests, your post has found a place to rest its feet for a while!

Granuaile said...

Dear Mr. Roth,

Excepting the line where Carlyle has his odd Professor grant that custom doth make dotards of us all, I confess the sum of the Sartor eludes me. (Your offhand bit about digesting its toothy grains makes shamelessly easy my admission of failure; believing, as I must, that upon daffodils and dunghills the sun unfazed shines alike). Having languished in Riyadh since ’98, I daily suffer the stakes of Teufelsdrockh’s claim -- the real fright of outrageous convention unrivalled. From this bleak vantage point, the proof abides under a suffocating cover of double-knit polyester; the soggy vestiges of female forms cast long, sad shadows over this barren landscape. So when all is said and done, perhaps Carlyle’s notions of attire address presence as much as absence.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Andrew: thanks, yes, Goethe is clearly central to Sartor, and Carlyle was apparently re-reading Goethe a great deal during this period. The fragmentary presentation of the novel--the editor offering us literally scrapts out of bags--is also straight from the fragmentism of Schlegel and Novalis. However, I did not know about the criticisms of Goethe, so thanks for contributing these. I recommend perservering with Sartor though!

Grace, many thanks for this poetic contribution; good to know that words can flower in the desert, even incarcerated in burkas. And I hope you will also perservere with Carlyle--'tis a thing of beauty when you get to know it.