Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 2, pp. 21-26

This is the second week spent in the universe of Arno Schmidt’s immense erudition and linguistic legerdemain. I feel quite comfortable with what little I have been able to understand so far. Hopefully, John E. Woods’ forthcoming translation will help me to fill the inevitable gaps.

What I did not mention in my previous post is the significance of abbreviations for ZT. Most of the time the main characters are referred to by using the initial letters of their names: W for Wilma, P for Paul, Fr for Franziska, and DP for Daniel Pagenstecher. And of course, there is some play around these and other shortenings, as Schmidt is intent upon harnessing all the elements of the text that can contribute to the overall ambiguity of his novel.  Pagenstecher speaks at length about the necessity of certain abbreviations in their scholarly discussion. The first one he comes up with is S for all matters sexual. Then, he suggests the letter P for Partridge’s lexicographic materials (P1 and P2 for the two volumes of  A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, and P3 for A Dictionary of the Underworld). In passing, Hans Henny Jahnn gets chided for the overuse of the word “loins” (Lenden).

The topic of writers’ abuse of alcohol reappears in the conversation. Both Pagenstecher and Paul mention Poe’s dipsomania, which Wilma prefers to regard as  “sacred inebriation”. There are also a number of writers listed who are supposed to have indulged in drinking. The discussion of Poe and drinking is finished by Franziska who quotes  from the Bible (Proverbs 24-16) “For a just man falleth seven times, [and riseth up again: but the wicked shall fall into mischief.]” The obscene pun to the right, mashing the word “fallen” (to fall) with “phallus” reads: “an 1 Tag 7 mal phallen? : Das hät ich nie gekonnt!” (in 1 day 7 times phallen : I would never have been able to!”

Another important abbreviation introduced by Pagenstecher is DP. Yes, it looks exactly like his own initials, which are extensively used by Schmdit throughout the novel. However, in this case DP stands for “Dichter=Priester” (Writer-Priest) or “Displaced Person”, being one of the two major categories into which Daniel divides authors. DPs attach great importance to myth and “flirt with second sight”. Pagenstecher believes that Poe belongs to this category. DPs are averse to technical progress and innovation; they “flee civilisation”, but by doing it they also reject science and the very spirit that enables them to write in the first place: “to all intents and purposes, these DP gentlemen would prefer to completely abandon >Spirit< as a weak=fantastic and lecherous (geil) little creature; and write just >automatically<“. The second category is Mosaikarbeiter (Mosaic Worker).  Arno Schmidt reckoned himself among the representatives of this class. The mosaic worker is an artisan who creates his texts from already available tesselae rather than through some mystical inspiration.  In Arno Schmidt’s case the thousands of index cards perform the function of the coloured stones that compose the enormous mosaic of Zettel’s Traum. In his own words: “Ich bin ein fleißiger Mosaikarbeiter, kein Dichter” (I am a diligent mosaic worker, not a writer). 

The next significant subject of discussion is Poe’s description methods. According to Pagenstecher, writers-priests are unable to describe objects in a simple, unpretentious manner.  As an example of that, he provides an excerpt from MS. Found in a Bottle, in which a solar eclipse is evoked in the following way:

About noon, as nearly as we could guess, our attention was again arrested by the appearance of the sun. It gave out no light, properly so called, but a dull and sullen glow unaccompanied by any ray. Just before sinking within the turgid sea its central fires suddenly went out, as if hurriedly extinguished by some unaccountable power. It was a dim, silver-like rim, alone, as it rushed down the unfathomable ocean.

The self-styled “icy intellectual” Pagenstecher draws the emotional Wilma’s attention to this simple fact: instead of simply writing “solar eclipse” the myth-pursuing writer came up with the extinguished “central fires”, and in lieu of writing “moon”, he referred to “some unaccountable power”. As revealed in further discussion the said eclipse actually took place in February, 1831. For many spectators the eclipse proved to be a disappointing spectacle, as the darkness did not seem “dark” enough. More information on this important event could be found here. A sentence from Pinakidia, in which the words “eclipse of the sun”  appear, proves the fact that Poe was familiar with the term.  Then Pagenstecher conludes that the passage above is not a virtuoso description of “phosphene”, but  just a primitive copy of reality. Franziska casts a shadow of doubt on Pagenstecher’s theory by supposing that since the eclipse took place in February, the sky was overcast, and, consequently, the phenomenon could not seen. However, this objection is overruled as there has been plenty of evidence that the eclipse was observed in many locations.

I am not completely sure of the following, but for the time being that is how I understand this part of the argument between Daniel and Wilma. Pagenstecher goes on to show that Poe’s description of the solar eclipse is not a product of the conscious mind. Wilma is up in arms against this hypothesis, leaning on the authority of Arthur Hobson Quinn, the author of Edgar Allan Poe: Critical Biography. Pagenstecher brings up Poe’s alter ego Julius Rodman, the narrator in Poe’s unfinished novel The Journal of Julius Rodman. A passage from this text shows that Rodman’s descriptions of reality are strongly influenced by his emotional state.  He does not distort the physical properties of the objects, but rather the effects they produce on the viewer. According to the host, the “superiority of the infallible author”  in Poe’s story is a fabrication of the unconscious (ubw=fingierte).  Then Pagenstecher makes slight of Poe’s biographer, who is held by Wilma in high esteem, by calling him a mere “elevated teacher for 20-year old kids “.

to be continued

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2 Responses to Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 2, pp. 21-26

  1. kshomer says:

    Just checking in to say I’m still reading these, so thank you. Is Poe referenced throughout Zettel or only in this first section? Of course, I suppose this is only the first 1% of the novel. You said 1500 pages, right?

  2. It appears that there is a reference to Poe on almost every page. It could be a quotation (either from his work or from work about him) or some indirect allusion by one of the characters. Basically, that’s the paradox of this book’s popularity and cult status: it is indeed a 1500 page book in which four scholars discuss the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

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