Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 16, pp. 149-157

Elevated Hunting Blind

The next important landmark of the journey is an elevated hunting blind discovered in the forest. All the four characters climb it. Franziska shows Pagenstecher a small doll representing a Native American girl that she calls Narra-mattah (after the white girl kidnapped by Indians  in Fenimore Cooper’s tale The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish). The raised platform opens to the observer a beautiful panorama of the forest. As soon as the word “panorama” is uttered, the pandora box of Pagenstecher’s erudition is opened again. Paul believes that “panorama” is an ancient Greek word.  Daniel condescendingly tells him that the first use of the word dates back to the beginning of the 19th century.  Pagenstecher readily grabs the opportunity to regale the Jacobis with another historical excursus. Poe is his starting point: the word “panorama” is mentioned in Arnheim in connection with the view one can enjoy on the summit of Aetna. Originally, however, “panorama” was known not as a natural view but rather as artificial entertainment first introduced in 1792 by English painter Robert Barker.


Cross section of Robert Barker’s panorama at Leicester Square. Robert Mitchell, c. 1793.

Obviously enthusiastic about the subject, Pagenstecher gives a detailed description of Barker’s sophisticated contraption that attracted numerous visitors and earned its designer tons of money. The Englishman’s invention inspired a lot of creative minds, as various modifications of his panorama were soon to follow. For example there was Gropius’ pleorama that presented to the viewers  panoramic views while they were sitting in a rocking boat or Daguerre’s diorama that ingeniously used two transparent screens with pictures through which light was filtered.

Pagenstecher singles out two distinct periods in the development of the panorama. In the first one, from 1800 to 1850, the most popular subject matter of the panorama was a city view, whereas during the second (1860-1900) the thematic focus was on battle scenes.

It is also important to remember that this new type of entertainment had a considerable influence on works of literature. Pagenstecher uses Jules Verne’s adventure novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth as a case in point. The descriptions of the fantastic landscapes in the hollow earth owe a great deal to the effects created by the panorama and its successors. Here is one of the fragments quoted by Daniel:

‘That must be true. But if prehistoric animals lived in the subterranean regions, who is to say that one of those monsters is not still wandering around in the middle of these dark forests or behind these steep rocks?’

At the idea, I scanned the horizon with a certain dread; but no living creature appeared on the deserted shores.

I felt a little tired, and went and sat down right at the end of a promontory, at whose foot the waves were noisily breaking. From there I could see right round the bay, constituted by an indentation in the coast. At the end there had formed a little harbour enclosed by pyramid-shaped rocks. Its calm waters slept, sheltered from the wind. A brig and two or three schooners might have anchored there with room to spare. I almost expected to see some ship coming out, all sails set, making for the open sea on the southerly breeze.

But this illusion soon faded. We really were the only living creatures in this subterranean world. At times, when the wind dropped, a silence deeper than the silence of the desert fell upon these arid rocks and weighed upon the surface of the ocean. I tried, then, to penetrate the distant mists, to tear apart the curtain which had fallen over the mysterious depths of the horizon.

Despite its verisimilitude, this scenery has nothing to do with the known world on the surface; it is an “illusion”, just like the sophisticated panoramic views painted on moving canvas.

to be continued

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