Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 19, pp. 184-200

As you might have heard, John E. Woods’ translation of Zettel’s Traum is finally available for pre-order. So, let me continue with my slow and patient reading of the book amid the cries of jubilation reverberating throughout  the ranks of Arno Schmidt’s English language readership.

The theme of magic transformation is further explored. This time the metamorphosis concerns human beings and plants. After some speculation around the fascinating topic of nesology (study if islands) and the closer look at the landscape depicted by Poe in Rodman, Pagenstecher introduces the Jacobis to Ludvig Holberg’s 18th century science fiction satire Niels Klim’s Journey to the World Underground .  If you have ever wondered about the origin of the bizarre anthropomorphic tree portrayed on the cover of the typescript edition of Zettel’s Traum, then here is the answer: it is one of the creatures living in a country called Potu on planet Nazar, which is situated in the Underground World that the title character of Holberg’s book discovers by chance.


Pagenstecher notes that transformation of a human being into a plant is a very old and widespread phenomenon in literature and myths; so old, in fact, that even Ovid can be considered a latecomer to the subject matter. Language itself reflects this ancient relation between humans and flora: for example the German for “procreate” is sich fortpflanzen, where “pflanzen” literally means “to plant”.  According to Daniel, Poe’s Rodman is one of the foundation fathers of the “metamorphotic” (spelled as Metamorvotik), comparable only to Ovid, Niels Klim, Darwin and Erasmus. His interest aroused, Paul wants to learn more about Niels Klim.

In the quotation that follows the traveller disembarks on the shores of Music Land where he meets another fantastic species: half-humans, half-bass violins. In compliance with the local laws, if any of them is found guilty of a misdeed, their bow is taken away, which is tantamount to death penalty.  What do these animated stringed instruments have to do with Edgar Alan Poe? Pagenstecher, for whom nothing is ever far-fetched, draws a parallel between these creatures and Angel Israfel (“whose heart-strings are a lute”) from Poe’s well-known poem.

Daniel is certain that Poe read Niels Kim not only because the book was easily available at the time, but also because  he, as many DPs (Writers-Priests) was fascinated by the like utopias. Another passage from Holberg’s book offered by Pagenstecher recounts the mores of the land of Cocklecu in which gender roles are reversed: the men do all the household chores, whereas the women rule the country. What is more, it is women who woo males, write them love letters and shower them with gifts. In addition, Pagenstecher tells the Jacobis about the already mentioned tree-men from Potu and the denizens of Pyglossia who have no mouths and communicate through their backsides, which subjects those who talk with them to wicked stench. The latter made me think of the man who taught his asshole to talk from William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

Pagenstecher seizes the opportunity to examine the principles of the rebus once the concept is inadvertently introduced into the discussion by Paul (who merely says “Rebus sic stantibus”, i. e. “in these circumstances”). For Daniel rebuses are similar to the unconscious which makes itself manifest in pictures that patients see in their dreams. Just like rebuses, these unconscious tableaux  have to be deciphered and verbalized by the psychoanalyst in order to be properly understood. Pagenstecher offers some French language rebuses for his audience to solve. These include pictures and letters. Here is a very simple one (if you know French, you will guess it):  G a   No? OK, literally it’s  Gé grand, A petit! (big ‘G’, small ‘a’), but it also sounds like  j’ai grand appétit (I am very hungry). Purportedly it was Voltaire’s reply to Frederick the Great’s similar rebus-like offer to have dinner at Sanssouci Palace. Despite his obsession with the hidden meanings and the secrets of the unconscious, Pagenstecher denies Wilma’s accusation to the effect that he reduces Poe’s tales to mere verbal rebuses that had “escaped” the author’s unconscious. That would be a one-sided and simplistic approach which does not fully correspond to his methodology.

More literary texts depicting humans metamorphosing into plants are examined. This one is from Lucian’s True History, which is considered to be one of the earliest examples of science fiction:

A Snare of Vintage_ for Lucian_s True History

Aubrey Beardsley, A Snare of Vintage, for Lucian’s True History Image Source.

We now crossed the river by a ford, and came to some vines of a most extraordinary kind. Out of the ground came a thick well-grown stem; but the upper part was a woman, complete from the loins upward. They were like our painters’ representations of Daphne in the act of turning into a tree just as Apollo overtakes her. From the finger-tips sprang vine twigs, all loaded with grapes; the hair of their heads was tendrils, leaves, and grape-clusters. They greeted us and welcomed our approach, talking Lydian, Indian, and Greek, most of them the last. They went so far as to kiss us on the mouth; and whoever was kissed staggered like a drunken man. But they would not permit us to pluck their fruit, meeting the attempt with cries of pain. Some of them made further amorous advances; and two of my comrades who yielded to these solicitations found it impossible to extricate themselves again from their embraces; the man became one plant with the vine, striking root beside it; his fingers turned to vine twigs, the tendrils were all round him, and embryo grape-clusters were already visible on him.

After all the talk about magic transformations described in literature it is high time something similar happened to the discussants themselves, and it does: Franzisca and Wilma are turned into miniature trees. The metamorphosis is narrated in two parallel columns. If you remember, it is already a second manifestation of magic in Zettel’s Traum. We encountered the first one a bit earlier when the ladies  turned into horses.

After another brief foray into the text of Rodman reflecting some of Pagenstecher’s preoccupations with the symbiosis of humans and plants (i. e. “we saw here an immense & magnificent cuntree…),  Daniel draws the attention of his audience to a modern literary work dealing with a similar subject, namely Ernst Wilhelm Eschmann’s 1957 novel Die Tanne (The Fir-Tree). The novel tells the story of one Philip Meller, who after being rejected by a girl finds consolation in a friendship with a fir. He comes to understand the language of the tree; she reveals to him various secrets about the world of plants and even falls in love with him. According to Daniel, the story is a typical case of dendrophilia.

to be continued

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6 Responses to Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 19, pp. 184-200

  1. Alexandros Damigos says:

    Bottom’s Dream by Dalkey Archive Press 300 pages? Only 300 pages? Something’s wrong here…

  2. I guess it’s a typical Amazon error. There have been cases when they indicated a ridiculously low page count such as 2 or 3 pages or some enormous number like 10,000. Anyway, the information about the book should appear at some point on the Dalkey Archive website, and then we’ll know for sure all the additional data.

  3. nautilus says:

    Thank you for your answer! Your posts on Zettel’s Traum are very useful! Great job! Have a look on Das „Festungsprojekt“ of Marianne Fritz, for your untranslated texts…

  4. Great to know that what I’m doing is of some use. Thanks for the recommendation! Yes, Marianne Fritz with her experimental mega-novels is a worthy subject for my blog, although I have to confess that her later work seems to be even more daunting than Zettel’s Traum.

  5. KSHomer says:

    The fact that the list price is $70 means that they probably left off a digit in the page count.

    Thanks for continuing your work on Zettel’s Traum though I am probably more intimidated now than before you started.

  6. Yes, Zettel’s Traum is hard work. The ideal way to deal with it is to use it as “background music” in your reading. If I stopped reading other books I would go nuts. It is a long, patient marathon. But already at this point I think there will be way more people who will come to treat it as an art object than an actual book. Very few will read it from cover to cover. Perhaps the only person who’s really “read” it is Woods himself.

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