Corporal (Corporale) by Paolo Volponi

I boughCorporalet Paolo Volponi’s novel in Rome as a souvenir during my brief stay in that incredibly beautiful city this July. I gave it preference over the selfie sticks, cheap Colosseum replicas, and t-shirts with provocative slogans. Corporal has a reputation of a difficult book, and when it is mentioned in different overviews of modern Italian literature the word “experimental” is invariably attached to it. Alberto Moravia held this work in high regard, writing that “Corporal is an almost impressionistic recovery of magma in which a man incapable of relations with the world moves, and here emerges the extraordinary quality of Volponi as a writer”. These words have become the staple blurb for the novel which is rarely read, has not been widely translated (there is only French translation to the best of my knowledge), and has a nasty habit of regularly going out of print. Now that I’ve read it, I can confidently say that we’re dealing with a literary treasure that is due to various reasons is not treasured at all these days. Corporal is a stylistic gem, a profound exploration of an anxiety-ridden consciousness in the atomic age as well as a skilfully designed and orchestrated narrative that rewards a patient and attentive reader.

The general mood is set from the outset by the epigraph, which is taken from Elsa Morante’s essay Pro o contro la bomba atomica (For or Against the Atomic Bomb):

Our bomb is the flower, or rather the natural expression of our contemporary society, just like Plato’s dialogues are of the Greek city; the Colosseum – of the Imperial Romans; Raphael’s Madonnas – of Italian Humanism; gondolas – of Venetian nobility; tarantella – of some southern rural populaces;  and the extermination camps – of petit-bourgeois bureaucratic culture already infected with a rage of atomic suicide.

That is a very powerful passage, but, if the reader expects Volponi’s novel to be just one of the numerous post-Cuban-Missile-Crisis nuclear-holocaust ephemera, they couldn’t be wider off the mark. Although the topic of nuclear destruction is prominent in this book, it is just one of the several motifs which are explored in painstaking detail via the disturbed and distorted consciousness of the main character Gerolamo Aspri.

Aspri’s stream of consciousness to which we are exposed from the very first page is bound to disorient and exasperate even the most seasoned readers of experimental fiction. My personal impression when reading the book  was akin to watching a David Lynch movie: extremely preposterous actions were carried out and utterly absurd and illogical statements were made with such an air as if all the violations of common sense were the most mundane occurrences not worth any second thought. The main character of Corporal most probably suffers from a mental disorder.  His narration is erratic, jumpy and volatile. He tends to fuse reality and hallucinations to such a degree that it is almost impossible to tell which is which. He splits the language the way scientists split the atom to create the nuclear weapons he is so paranoid about. On many occasions  his rants and diatribes transform into something reminiscent of automatic writing or William Burroughs’ cut-ups: incompatible concepts are put together, familiar phrases are divested of their usual meanings, syntactic relations are disrupted, all this to create an alienating effect. That being said, it is not that difficult to follow the general plot of the novel, and although some of the reasons for the characters’ actions remain vague, we are never completely in the dark as to what happens.

The first part of the novel is narrated in the first person by Gerolamo Aspri. When we first meet him, he is on vacation in Rimini with his wife and two kids. As we learn later, he is currently employed as a school teacher with an Italian Communist Party membership and a managerial post at a factory left forever behind. He takes long walks along the beach, inspecting the place where a murder has been recently committed. He is morbidly obsessed with the unknown perpetrator. This fascination is as strong as his another obsession: an erotic longing for a teenage girl called Ivana whom he meets on the same beach. Eros and Thanatos are Aspri’s faithful companions wherever he goes, and their most sublime embodiment seems to be the hydrogen bomb whose explosion he expects with a mixture of horror and excitement.

Aspri’s infatuation with Ivana is never destined consummate because of a devastating tornado that strikes the beach. She and her boyfriend are riding in a paddle boat when this happens. The drowned boy’s body is recovered later, whereas Ivana is never found. Distraught and heartbroken, Aspri moves on. He will be meeting more people, and doing things one hardly expects from a school teacher. An overheard conversation about a lawyer and art seller from Urbino who is rumoured to have killed his son refuels Aspri’s obsession with the mysterious murderer: he superimposes his image with that of the man mentioned  by the speakers. Equipped with the knowledge that the possible perpetrator’s last name ends with “ati”, Gerolamo travels to Urbino where he soon enough finds a certain attorney called Trasmanati. The attorney’s collection of paintings is likely to interest Aspri’s German friend with whom he maintains a long-lasting correspondence. Without hesitation, he telegraphs Overath to come to Urbino. This Overath is a very strange and elusive person. I’m tempted to view him as some kind of Mephistophelian presence in Aspri’s life. Art collection is just one of many activities pursued by Overath, and only few of those seem to be legal. Their visit to Trasmanati’s house ends up in a scuffle as Aspri suddenly attacks Overath, intending to bludgeon him to death with the host’s cane. The teacher goes haywire when the German, overwhelmed by the dark beauty of Trasmanati’s Renaissance paintings, utters a pompous disquisition on the immortality of the soul. Nobody is seriously injured and the friends part their ways, but only for a while, as they are to be reunited again under very specific circumstances.

The second part is narrated in the third person, which does not prevent it from being as confusing as the first one. We come to know the Mr. Hyde side of Aspri’s personality as we encounter him in Milan actively involved in drug trafficking and prostitution under the alias Joaquin Murieta, which is the name of the notorious 19th century Mexican outlaw. Aspri’s alter ego keeps a diary and some of its entries  appear in the narrative. Murieta keeps a colourful company consisting of smugglers, pimps, drug dealers, whores and hustlers of any stripe. There is also an Ivana, but this time she’s anything but the nymphet from Rimini: she is a prostitute married to her own john who is simply referred to as Ivana’s husband. There is a competition between Murieta and the omnipresent Overath for Ivana’s attention, and her husband doesn’t seem to mind. When we come to think of it, why should he, with as many as forty street walkers under his control? Besides the forty prostitutes, we are also introduced to the same number of greyhounds whose names are abstract nouns like Equality, Liberty, Fraternity, Mendacity, Death, Wickedness: Murieta and his associates decide to expand their business by opening a dog race track. The accounts of these nefarious characters’ wheeling and dealing  often include lengthy political and philosophical discussions which are tinged with the sense of the grotesque, not the least due to the way the main character perceives and interprets reality.

For some time, the shadowy existence as Joaquin Murieta is everything Aspri the teacher, constrained by societal norms, could wish for. However, the protagonist’s stint in the criminal underworld, despite all the adventures, dangers and passions, can neither stop his growing alienation from the surrounding world  nor curb his terror of nuclear war. Eventually, he casts the adopted gangster persona aside to become a mere teacher again. The catalyst for Aspri’s decision to leave Milan is his son’s tragic death in a boating accident.

The third part, again narrated in the first person, is set in the magnificent city of Urbino. Aspri has moved there to work at a local school. His main mission, however, is scouting the nearby foothills of the Apennines in search of the most appropriate place for an atomic shelter. Aspri also enters in a relationship with Trasmanati’s housekeeper Imelde who, after the lawyer commits suicide, is left in charge of his home and the numerous art pieces pending the auction. But when Gerolamo finally rents an estate that satisfies his goals both geographically and meteorologically (he is very meticulous about the direction of the winds that are likely to carry radioactive fallout), he does not even conceive the possibility of sharing his ark with anyone else. In fact, fully aware of the Biblical undertones of his project, Aspri calls the shelter Arcatana (literally arklair or arkburrow). Exhibiting enviable capacity for work,  he manages to construct the facility single-handedly in less than two years.  Aspri is portrayed as a kind of Anti-Noah whose primary goal is not to preserve the seed of humanity for the future regeneration, but rather to create conditions for his complete detachment from mankind and its history, reaching the state of ultimate solipsism that he is going to maintain until and beyond the atomic annihilation of life on the planet.  Rather than pondering on conservation of the human race, Aspri fantasises about a new species that will evolve out of his mutating organism:

[…] man-animal-emerald prepared to get resurrected (this word is so ugly, religious, and so papally filled with lead that it won’t bring back to the surface even a cork, not even a turd) to re-emerge different, encrusted, made thinner, split in half, discoloured, one-eyed, rendered bat-like by darkness, lizard-like by earth, eel-like by mud, monoped, coelenterate, with or without fur, mute, feathered, carnivorous, omnivorous, virus, bacterium, blue alga, moss, sponge, fungus, mould, jellyfish, disflagellated (here we go again, religious thoughts), flagellated (but has nothing to do with some column of Hellenistic imitation, and Palestinian portico, centurion’s red tunic), multi-cellular, capable or incapable of photosynthesis, provided that it is alive, alive, alive, and therefore able in its own way to think, to grow, to reproduce, and different, different, different from the present fearful creature, naked and covered in sticking plaster (not me, dear Imelde of the blue little nose, not me) sedentary and stercoraceous, with the brain, the nose, the prick chasing after services to give and to receive.

While Aspri is building the fallout shelter, he begins studying his new scripture,  a sacred text that will prepare him for the world to come: an issue of a medical journal dedicated to the survival during and after nuclear war.

The fourth and final part is very short. Just like the second, it is narrated in the third person. The main setting is the hospital where Aspri is admitted after sustaining a pelvis injury at the farm. Confined to his ward, he nevertheless tries to manage various issues related to the up-keeping of the rented property by employing a waiter from the billiards bar he used to frequent. The waiter is happy to run errands for him, but gradually it becomes apparent that he is hiding something from his employer, as well as that Overath, unbeknownst to Aspri, might be interfering with his grand project of resurrection from the nuclear ashes. But there is no way to be sure if any of Gerolamo’s suspicions are true, as his dreams, hallucinations and reveries keep re-inventing the drab reality he is incapable of escaping.  Straddling a rocking horse on his bed, brought to him so he could look through the window, he cuts a solitary and grotesque figure. The waiter reports to him that some unknown vandals have started raiding the estate, and the dismantling of the fallout shelter is just a matter of time. Where will Aspri go when he is dismissed from hospital? What will he do? How much of what has been seen or told by him is true? I am afraid that the burden of answering these questions has been laid on the readers, provided that they have managed to reach the novel’s end.

Corporal was written between 1966 and 1974, the period which corresponds to the heyday of Italian auteur cinema. Fellini’s 8 1/2, Pasolini’s Il teorema, and Antonioni’s L’avventura were made during that time. There is a certain affinity between Volponi’s novel and those groundbreaking films. Corporal manages to encompass the existential void of Antonioni, the eroticism of Pasolini, and the carnivalesque dreamscapes of Fellini. It is in many ways a product of its time with its hysteria around the atomic bomb and the preoccupation with leftist politics. But, just like those great cinematic works, Volponi’s novel succeeds in transcending its topicality, which is now a mere curiosity, a bizarre insect in the amber of the Cold War era. After all, the main concern of this astonishing monument to the Italian language is neither nuclear war nor the split personality, although these topics are most likely to attract the attention of the reader. In this unusual, uncomfortable, often frustrating novel Paolo Volponi, like nobody else, makes us aware of the two grand complexities that we cannot avoid, no matter how we try, no matter what kind of shelter we try to build around us: those of the world we are born into and of the language we use to make sense of it. That sounds hopelessly trite, I know. But it takes a genius to express this idea in such a grandiose, multi-layered verbal symphony that is Corporal – yet another great unknown patiently waiting for us to catch up with it.

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Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 10, pp. 97-107

Pagenstecher and the Jacobis perform a detailed analysis of The Island of the Fay, which is more of a philosophical sketch than a proper tale. They begin with the epigraph by Latin grammarian Servius:  “Nullus enim locus sine genio est” (No place is without its genius). The etyms of “locus” suggest not only “madness”, but also “drugs”, invoking thus the widespread tradition of seeing genius closely connected with insanity and mind-altering substances. Servius’ statement was taken by Poe from the Roman scholar’s annotations to Virgil’s Aeneid and, as Pagenstecher reveals, it is just the first part of the sentence. The second reads: “qui per anguem plerumque ostenditur” (that usually appears in the form of the snake). Next point of discussion is the question of verecundia (coyness, modesty) in Virgil. We learn that Herder berated the great poet for his suggestiveness, and Hume chastised the ancients in general for their “scurrility”.

Then they proceed to scrutinise  methodically the text itself, coming up with different etyms and, consequently, with more puns. At one point Wilma, obviously tired of all the nasty double  entendres produced by Pagenstecher and her husband, accuses them of trying to make out of Poe a mere teller of dirty jokes, whereas she views him as a consummate hylotheist, that is somebody who believes that all matter is God. The kernel of this belief may be found in the following passage from The Island of the Fay:

As we find cycle within cycle without end, — yet all revolving around one far-distant centre which is the God-head, may we not analogically suppose in the same manner, life within life, the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine?

The etym method brings to the forth the author’s alcohol abuse as “Spirit Divine” becomes “>spirt<” and “>de vino=wine<” (wine spirits). Pagenstecher is unperturbed by Wilma’s accusation and asks the woman to suspend her judgement.

The focus of the discussion shifts to the “oscillations between reason and imagination”. Pagenstecher believes that Poe’s theoretical preambles bear the same function as pictorial illustrations in a book.


Arno Schmidt in his leather jacket in 1960. Photo: Wilhelm Michels. Image Source

Daniel rejects literary scholar Killis Campbell’s interpretation of  The City in the Sea as a poem about Babylon, dismissing the Philolügner (philologists+liars). Franzisca comes up with the idea that this city of sin is more likely to refer to Sodom and Gomorrah. Their conversation subsides for a moment as a light two-wheeled wagon drawn by a single horse approaches them. In it there is a fellow in a green leather jacket and brown trousers. The man gives the company an intense look and drives on. They have just met their creator.

An intense wordplay around being hungry and food follows. Paul confesses to having “Vulvs=Hunger”; he would like to have something with lots of “Culorien” (calories+culus (ass)). There is definitely “Uppeteat uff Ghoularsch”. (appetite – upper teat, goulash – ghoul, Arsch (ass)). As it turns out, his favourite dish is macaroni.

Returning to the interrupted conversation, Pagenstecher confirms Franzisca’s interpretation, and quotes from Al Araaf, an earlier poem, which contains some seeds of the shorter and more controlled The City in the Sea: “the stilly, clear abyss of beautiful Gomorrah !”  Daniel is convinced that Poe refers exactly to the city of sin mentioned in both poems when describing the Island of the Fay.

There is a brief detour to Poe’s story Some Words with a Mummy, in which the notion of “The Great Movement or Progress” gets a satirical treatment.

Wilma reproaches Pagenstecher for “corrupting” her daughter by his theorising. Daniel objects to this, maintaining that the participation in their discussions brings to Franzisca nothing but enlightenment and a unique insight into the human condition.

Next is the etym analysis of “the circular island” in The Island of the Fay. At the outset, Pagenstecher states that its round shape is anomalous as the interaction of the stream and sand render river islands spindle-shaped. The associations produced by the discussants include: circus, >zirkuläres Irresein< (circular insanity), Circe’s island.

Poe’s likening of the butterflies on the island to flowers leads to the unearthing of the concept  “maiden blossoms” and its mythological manifestations. We are reminded that the Greek word “psyche” means both “soul” and “butterfly” and that women in general are often compared to insects. For example, there is the famous line from the 1917 operetta Schwarzwaldmädel (Black Forest Girl) which goes: “Malwine, ach Malwine, du bist wie eine Biene” (Malwine, oh Malwine, you are like a bee).

to be continued

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Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 9, pp. 82-96

The motifs of complexity, labyrinthine tortuousness and fogginess inevitably lead to those of vertigo, intoxication, and hallucinations. The roots of this maze-feeling are to be sought in the atmosphere of the cluttered backstage to which Poe was exposed when he was a baby. What with all the “Gerumplgerümpl” of the props. (Gerumpel – rumble, Gerümpel – junk).

Pagenstecher points out the same paucity and lack of variety when it comes to Poe’s landscapes: usually there is a valley, a single crooked tree, and fog.  As for water, it is overwhelmingly present in many of his works in all possible shapes and forms. The next topics of the discussion are Poe’s favourite colours ( which are yellow and red) and the scents described in his tales.

The four discussants enter a village. They come to a village shop. Paul and Daniel get inside and chat while perusing various goods. Pagenstecher speaks about the “duplication” (Zweiteilung) of Poe’s texts. This concept refers to different theoretical asides, prefaces and interludes that “bisect” the works in question. Daniel gives psychoanalytical explanation to this peculiarity of Poe’s writing. This rambling theorising was Poe’s way to gratify his Super-Ego and get its permission to channel into the texts his fantasies and dreams. They say hello to the shopkeeper Frau Schurzfleisch whom Paul calls under his breath “Adwhorable Krietscher”. The second word combines the English “creature” and perhaps the German “Kriechtier” (reptile). Then we have some interesting variations on the expression “business is business”: “pussynäss iss pussynäss”  (nass is wet), “boosiness is boosiness”, and “bushynest ist bushynest”.

The discussion returns to the subject of smells, this time not so pleasant. Different aspects of “goat smell” are mentioned. After that the men talk about the etyms related to “labyrinth”, “sinuous” ,”err”, “vague” and “vapors”.

The men leave the shop. A conversation between  Franziska and Pagenstecher follows. It has been  sparked by the latter’s remark that she seems to be as full of biblical  sayings as “a dog is full of fleas”. It turns out that she had to prepare a school assignment on the book in the Bible that mattered most to her. She has chosen Sirach or The Book of Ecclesiasticus because of its brevity. A dark-brown dog appears. Franziska is afraid of the animal, but Pagenstecher calms her down and talks to the dog which proves to be quite friendly.

Wilma asks Pagenstecher to return to the analysis of Poe’s texts and suggests The Island of the Fay for a more detailed scrutiny.

to be continued

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Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 8, pp. 72-81

More meandering peroration on Undine, nymphs, water and labia. The dirty puns keep appearing at a steady pace. For example: Musicalisch=mösiculisch (Möse is the German for “cunt” and culus is the Latin for “ass” (cf. French cul, Italian culo).

The company crosses the brook using stepping stones. Pagenstecher enquires Franziska about her favourite book. Most probably tongue-in-cheek, she replies that it is The Canon of Eclipses by Austrian astronomer Theodor von Oppolzer. The book is a compilation of lunar and solar eclipses between 1207 BC and 2161 AD. At the time of its publication, 1887, it was the largest collection of the respective data with more than 13000 eclipses described. Ridiculous etym interpretation of the title and the author follows, in which “Oppolzer”, for example, refers to “upholsterer” and “opportunity”.

Next, Pagenstecher suggests to Franziska some kind of repetition game in which she should say the same sentence ten times. The sentence in question is “Ich soll meine Reize nicht gar so gewandt verwenden” (I absolutely shouldn’t use my charms so deftly). Upon each repetition the phrase mutates slightly and eventually turns into the following: “Ich soll meine Reize ohnGewand Dän nich zuwenDän” (I should not give my charms without clothes to Dan). This game, like most of the verbal pyrotechnics employed by Daniel is aimed at exposing the hidden subconscious messages of the speaker. Thus Franziska’s desire for the mature and intellectual Pagenstecher is laid bare.

They go past a ploughman with “a face like a cowpat” who is ripping open “the abdominal epidermis of Mother Earth”. The labourer is accompanied by a woman, most probably his wife, with breasts “like 2 fat geese”.


A page from a 16th-century Aljamiado manuscript. Image source.

Pagenstecher opposes Wilma’s conviction in the diversity and richness of Poe’s language. Whether or not he is playing the devil’s advocate here is difficult to say. What is clear is that Pagenstecher’s attitude towards the writer is anything but reverential, and he is always ready to put a wet blanket on Wilma’s adoration. Anyway, when it comes to Poe, says Daniel, one should rather discuss the poverty (Armut) of  his texts. You will not find any description of winter in Poe, nor are there any children featured. In a fascinating digression about etym analysis, Pagenstecher likens its practitioner to a Leverrier  contemplating multiple soap-bubble worlds, who can eventually see the single phenomenon lurking in this multiplicity and to whom the proof of the aljamiado is revealed. (Urbain Le Verrier was a famous French mathematician who specifically dealt with celestial mechanics. Aljamiado refers to any manuscript in which a European language is transcribed in Arabic letters.) Returning to the paucity of images and themes in Poe’s works, Pagenstecher also singles out the ever-present wanderer and the frequently encountered “maze sensation” (Labyrinth=Gefühl), that is, those situations in which a character feels as if walking through a maze. To prove his point, Daniel quotes from The Journal of Julius Rodman, The Island of Fay, A Tale of the Ragged Mountains, and The Domain of Arnheim. The image of mist or vapour is also overused in many of Poe’s stories. In general, as Pagenstecher points out, Poe overindulges in the motifs of intricacy, complexity, tortuousness and the like.  Hence the scatological pun furzwikkelt which combines verzwickt (intricate), wickeln (to wrap) and Furz (fart).

to be continued

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Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 7, pp. 62-71

The discussion about what makes a book a favourite continues. Pagenstecher dwells on Walter Scott’s historical novel The Bride of Lammermoor, which was admired by Poe. Daniel draws Paul’s attention to the fact that the name of the main character, Edgar Lord Ravenswood, contains Poe’s name and the title of his most celebrated poem. The fictional castle Wolf’s Crag left to Edgar as inheritance by his father becomes through the etym reading of Pagenstecher “Vulvs Crack”.

The next subject of their conversation is the abnormal frequency with which Poe uses the word “crystal” when describing water. They digress into the problem an English speaker runs into when pronouncing the name of Immanuel Kant. Pagenstecher has a scurrilous pun on the ready “a manual cunt”. He goes on to wonder what would happen if Goethe’s last name was “Fick” (German for “fuck”). In that case, the Germans would have to say things like: “Great Fuck said” or “Fuck’s Faust”.  After this detour a host of etyms related to “crystal” are considered; for example, such Latin words as cristula, crissal, crista, cristae, crissum.  Next, we read a passage from Poe’s essay The Rationale of Verse, in which the author uses a crystal to prove his point that “[v]erse originates in the human enjoyment of equality, fitness”. A case of “crystal fetishism” described by sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld is also mentioned here. The meandering exploration of the various “crystal” etyms leads to the mock generalisation about the early spread of Christianity: to wit, that it was due to the Romans’ wish to rapturously adore labia (“von Deren SchamLippen schwärmen”).

Wilma and Franziska finish bathing, get out of the water, and get dressed. Pagenstecher’s statement about the chastity belt being mentioned in The Book of Isaiah (3.20) does not seem to be true, at least not in the English translation, unless the sashes here has a different meaning from what we’re used to:

In that day the Lord will snatch away their finery: the bangles and headbands and crescent necklaces, 19 the earrings and bracelets and veils, 20 the headdresses and anklets and sashes, the perfume bottles and charms, 21 the signet rings and nose rings, 22 the fine robes and the capes and cloaks, the purses 23 and mirrors, and the linen garments and tiaras and shawls.


Raphael, The Sistine Madonna

When asked by Wilma what they two were talking about while she and her daughter were splashing in the river, Pagenstecher discloses the topic of a favourite work of art, be it a painting or a book, and the hidden reasons for it being such. When asked about their favourite Cuntswerke (Kunstwerke “works of art”  + etym cunt) Wilma mentions Franziska’s appreciation of Raphael’s Madonna Sixtina. Pagenstecher immediately comes up with his etym-based explanation: sixteen, Sex=Teener.

Poe’s fascination with Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s novella Undine provides ample fodder for Daniel’s further promotion of his theories. The word Undine brings forth such etyms as undies, undercurrent, inundation, nudation, whereas the writer’s last name yields the predictable “Fucké” and “Ficket”. The etym-transformation of “Undine by Fouqué” gives us “Undone by Fuck”, and Poe’s notorious pronouncement “for one Fouqué there are fifty Molières” becomes “For 1 fuck there are 50 molls”.

to be cuntinued


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Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 6, pp. 52-61

This is how Stephens describes Seir, a mountainous region that  is identified in the Bible with Edom, and is believed to lie between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba:

If I had never stood on the top of Mount Sinai, I should say that nothing could exceed the desolation of the view from the summit of Mount Hor, its most striking objects being the dreary and rugged mountains of Seir, bare and naked of trees and and heaving their lofty summits to the skies as if in a vain and fruitless effort to excel the mighty pile, on the top of which the high priest of Israel was buried.

For Pagenstecher, however, “seir” is not just part of  Biblical geography. It is a multi-layered etym which leads to a variety of hidden meanings and implications. He brings to the attention of his guests a whole series of similar-sounding words, such as Zaire, seer, Ceres, Sirius. But the main clue to this etym lies in the fact that Poe served nearly two years in an artillery regiment. As Pagenstecher reveals, in artillery parlance seir stood for the touch hole, a special vent in a cannon in which a fuse was inserted.

The conversation steers to James Fenimore Cooper and the theme of chastity in Leatherstocking Tales. The etym reading of the protagonist’s name yields “a) >nutty<; b) >bum<; c) >poo(p)<“. However, it’s not the most popular work of Cooper which arouses Pagenstecher’s main interest. The tireless etym hunter shifts his focus to the lesser-known The Monikins. In this satyrical fable the main character John Goldencalf travels to the land of talking monkeys. Some parallels between Cooper’s novel and Poe’s Pym are discussed. In both texts there are cannibalistic motifs and mysterious drawings on the rock. Pagenstecher talks at length about the tails of the monikins, this subject being a goldmine for his patent double-entendres as one of the German words for a tail is Schwanz (the other is Schweif), and, as most of you know, this word also stands for “prick”.  The epitome of this racy ambiguity is the expression “Schwanz=Mitaffern”, which contains “Schwanz mit Affen” (tail with monkeys) and “Schwanz  Metaphern” (prick metaphors).

Amid banter and small talk, the company leaves the Field of Terror, going through the same typographically designated barbed wire fence: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx.  Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene and its influence on Poe’s novel are discussed. Pagenstecher quotes a passage that refers to the cannibalistic practices of a certain “savage nation”:

In these wylde deserts, where she now abode,

There dwelt a salvage nation, which did live

Of stealth and spoile, […]

Thereto they usde one most accursed order,

To eate the flesh of men, whom they mote fynde,

And straungers to devoure, which on their border

Were brought by errour, or by wreckfull wynde:

A monstrous cruelty [gainst course of kynde.]


The Lachte west of Lachendorf

They come to the river Lachte. Wilma and Franziska decide to take a swim. Their undressing is described in two parallel columns. While  the mother and daughter are bathing, Daniel and Paul discuss the meaning of the term “favourite author”.  Herder’s opinion of the subject is presented in a lengthy quotation from his essay On the Cognition and Sensation of the Human Soul. Here is the relevant excerpt:

Where it is worth the effort, this living reading, this divination into the author’s soul, is the only reading, and the deepest means of education [Bildung]. It becomes a sort of enthusiasm, intimacy, and friendship which is often most instructive and pleasant for us where we do not think and feel in the same way, and which really indicates what the name favorite author refers to. Such reading is competition, heuristic; we climb up with the author to creative peaks or discover the error and the deviation in its birthplace.

to be continued

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Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 5, pp. 42-51

Poe’s early childhood spent travelling with his mother Eliza Arnold, a small-time actress, from one production to another, had a formative influence on the impressive child. Pagenstecher believes that the “metaworld” of the theatre the child was exposed to from his early days, with its bizarre sets, exaggerated gestures and grease-painted faces considerably affected the themes and the style of Poe the writer. He also states that while his mother was performing on the stage, the three-year old Edgar used to be placed in a laundry basket in the wings.

Another of Pagenstecher’s observations: there is no winter in Poe’s tales. They proceed reading some of the passages from Pym, and Wilma, hitting upon the following sentence, says that it is a description of snow: “We were nearly overwhelmed by the white ashy shower which settled upon us and upon the canoe, but melted into the water as it fell.” Her husband shrugs off the idea, noting that it’s probably just volcanic ash. Pagenstecher, of course, regards this scene through the prism of his quirky theories. He believes that the mysterious white substance is the powder that some dancers dabbed on their cheeks in the wings where the little Poe could observe them. Whereas the vapour “flaring up occasionally” on the horizon is nothing but the quivering stage curtain. Moreover, Daniel is positive that theatre imagery is present in all of Poe’s tales.  Obviously, it is represented not in a straightforward manner, but rather unconsciously, in close relation with etyms.

The allegorical character of Poe’s novel draws a comparison with Phineas Fletcher’s poem The Purple Island, or the Isle of Man. The 17th century English poet described the human anatomy  in his verbose and detailed allegory as elements of a landscape in which rivers represented veins, forests stood for hair, and mountain ridges signified bones. The full text of the poem is available here, if you are interested. The anatomical interpretation of the landscape in Pym immediately leads to the evocation of bodily functions such as urination and menstrual bleeding. What is more, in a multilingual punning spree Pagenstecher reveals Gordon Pym as an ass fetishist. He says that Pym’s journey to the south is yet another proof that the real hero navigates towards “S” (i. e. ass). Whereas a breast fetishist is most likely to go up north with its alabuster mountains, Poe’s main character meets natives (i.e. nates) in fissures (i.e. cracks). To which Wilma exclaims in disgust “Assez!” which is the French for “enough”, but, ironically enough, in compliance with Pagenstecher’s etym theory she is also saying “Asses!”

The next point of discussion is John Lloyd Stephens’ travelogue Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea and the Holy Land, and its influence on Pym. Poe wrote a long and detailed review of this book, which despite being rather critical, also  considered its merits: “Although in some respects deficient, the work too presents some points of moment to the geographer, to the antiquarian, and more especially to the theologian.” Comparing different passages from Arabia Petraea and Pym, Pagenstecher shows Poe’s borrowings from Stephens’ account. A longish passage from Stephens’ description of the historical city of Petra follows. The mountainous landscape depicted by Poe in his novel, according to Daniel, owes much to the scenery described in Arabia Petraea. There are also similarities between the experiences of Stephens and his travelling partner Paul among the rocks of Petra and the adventures of Gordon Pym and Peters in the mountains of Tsalal.

to be continued

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