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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