Reading Zettel’s Traum, Week 3, pp. 27-32

Wilma’s query to find out which Poe critic Pagenstecher prefers triggers the latter’s dismissive rant against the already-mentioned Freudian Marie Bonaparte. He says that most of her ideas are wrong and that her research is conclusive proof of the statement “a WOMAN should never write a thesis on a MAN“. That makes Pagenstecher somewhat of a sexist, right? On the whole, Pagenstecher does not hold the other critics in high esteem either, declaring that “NOBODY could become a POE=adept, let alone POE=lyhistor.” The word “polyhistor” is derived from the Greek  polyistōr which means “very learned” and is a less frequently used synonym of “polymath”. The obvious question arising from Pagenstecher’s statement is: should we consider his creator, Arno Schmidt, such a POE=lyhistor? The very essence of Zettel’s Traum, which is, in general lines, a polymathic exploration of the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe, seems to support this idea.

Pagenstecher tells Franziska that the ring with the spinel gemstone that he gave her earlier has magic properties: if on the day the gift is received the new owner turns it on their finger so that the stone is on the inner side of the finger, then both the giver and the receiver should speak only truth for 24 hours. In this connection, there is a marginal reference to  Shakuntala’s ring that  reminded King Dushyanta about his spouse whom he had forgotten because of Shakuntala’s father’s curse. Then Wilma and Paul have an argument whether an object they see in some distance is a tree root or a hare. The “root” springs up and runs away.

Wilma asks if Pagenstecher can come up with a new interesting hypothesis regarding Poe’s works, which might be challenging as the “Poe market” has been overcrowded. And at this point, Daniel goes into some lengths to present his theory of  etyms and its implications. We realise at this point that the portmanteau-words, multilingual puns, and other linguistic shenanigans in Zettel’s Traum are the actualisation of this theory.

As the starting point for the consideration of etyms, Pagenstecher chooses Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams in which the bizarre imagery and the illogical plots of dreams are explained as the product of the unconscious. In a similar way, etyms are the language of the unconscious, a hidden dimension of a written text. He goes on to give some simple examples. A philosopher who is fascinated by the notion of the “whole” cannot avoid thinking about its homonym “hole”. The Latin word “mundus” (the world) makes a German think about “Mund” (the mouth). Pagenstecher then says that he will refrain from mentioning longer quotations and Cun(s)tworte (another obscene pun on Kunstworte “coinages”). German poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock is mentioned in this relation, as, according to Pagenstecher, he compiled long lists of homonyms.

The corollary of the Etym Theory is that each text, even the most innocent, can be read in two different ways: either literally, when only the meaning on the “surface” is taken into account or in a more skewed manner, with etyms showing the sexualised unconscious messages below the surface. Thus, etyms are  “parasites” living on “host-words”. Franziska chillingly compares etyms to “an assaulting army of bacteria”.

Pagenstecher draws the Jakobis’ attention to the significance of words and their meaning for the primordial man. They must have been regarded as magical. All you have to do is utter a combination of letters (S=U=S=I) to call your horse, and the animal will come to you! Nothing short of miraculous.

Wilma then briefly summarises the main idea: Poe’s works also contain the hidden messages from the unconscious, and only a hierophant can read them. To make things clearer (I’m not sure about this, however), Pagenstecher gives a visual example.  Imagine that an artist paints a demure maiden in a high-necked dress in the foreground of his picture. This is the “official theme” of a text. As an embellishment, the girl has a red rose in her hand.  In the background there is a hill with two tops with a small pink pavilion on one of them. The building has a decorative crown on its rooftop. The more high-necked the dress is, the more pink is the pavilion.

Furthermore, Pagenstecher notes that a distinction should be made between “universal etyms” and “subjective etyms”, which are valid only for the works of a given author.

Paul’s neat conclusion is at the same time an apt description of what kind of novel Zettel’s Traum is: “a text which, according to Pagenstecher, consists of words plus etyms would bring more to the language. It would transform mere Freudian slips into a new elastic art”.

to be continued


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