Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 23, pp. 262-280


Phallus impudicus

Another metamorphosis takes place. Daniel and Paul turn into mushrooms, whereas Franziska and Wilma assume the roles of picky mushroom pickers (the pun is intended). When they are discussing different visual aspects of the mushrooms, one might get a feeling that in reality they are assessing a pair of male organs: Arno Schmidt doesn’t spare double entendres to create this effect. For instance this is how the younger of the two ladies comments on a mushroom: “Basis schicklich behaart […] enorm dikk!” The literary translation will be: “the basis is properly hairy […] enormously thick”. But, of course, the reader cannot avoid the English meaning of the German word for “thick”. On another occasion the skin on the mushroom cap is described as “prä=putzig”. The word putzig means “funny” or “amusing”, but, at the same time we are made to think of  Präputium, the German for “foreskin”. Once the transformation is over, the company continues chatting about different types of mushrooms. Pagenstecher gets the ball rolling by introducing to his friends the notorious common stinkhorn whose Latin name (Phallus impudicus) says it all.

Pagenstecher conducts a brief historical overview of the wedding ceremonies and traditions of ancient Romans. They pass a place called in the original text Sandloch (literally, “sand hole”). Most German-English dictionaries will translate this word with the golf term “sand trap”, which is wrong here. Wörterbuch der donauschwäbischen Landwirtschaft (Dictionary of Danube Swabian Agriculture) gives a more useful definition: “a natural depression in sandy soil in which water often accumulates”. On page 267 there is a hand-drawn map of the territory crossed by Daniel and the Jacobis that depicts the said depression. I suppose the drawing was done by Schmidt himself. Pagenstecher indicates a certain spot in the sand crater in which the surface has been vitrified because of extreme heat. That is where a lightning once struck. He goes on to explain to his audience that there are certain places that are more likely to attract lightning bolts than others.

Daniel points out the sloppiness of Poe’s narrative constructions. When Wilma tries to oppose him by referring to the meticulous composition of The Raven, the man shrugs off her objection by saying that although in Poe’s smaller pieces there is undeniable consistency, it is not achieved by the author’s craft, but is rather the emotional product of the Writer-Priest’s delirium. (The verb he uses is heraus=deliriert – “brought forth by delirium”).

Back to the close reading of Julius Rodman and and the attendant etym-analysis. Pagenstecher makes Wilma cringe with his scatological interpretation of the phrase “buoyant spirits” applied to the enthusiasm of Rodman’s expedition participants. Indicating that the French word boyaux means intestines, Daniel asserts that the hidden message here is that “the intestinal spirit” (Darmgeist) was floating above the men: i. e. they were farting a lot.

Pagenstecher believes that Poe cannot be considered strictly American because of his cosmopolitanism. Imagine that in the distant future, a thousand years from now, after several nuclear wars, Poe’s works will be discovered by our descendants. Will they be able to reconstruct the United States of the mid-nineteenth century the way it is possible to recreate the Dublin of the beginning of the twentieth based on James Joyce’s Ulysses? Daniel’s answer to that is an emphatic “no”. Fenimore Cooper’s Littlepage Manuscripts would be by far more appropriate candidate for the task.

Daniel reiterates his point about the lack of planning and formal structure in such travel accounts as Pym and Rodman that, at the end of the day, are a mere concatenation of episodes, incidents and filler material.

A brief detour to the subject of innocence leading to self-righteousness. Pagenstecher gives to his companions food for thought: did Noah do the right thing when he saved himself? Shouldn’t he had drowned with the fellow humans if he was so honest and respectable?

The next topic of the conversation is the dogs and dog names in Poe’s works. The writer has a predilection for Newfoundlands. There is one in Pym called Tiger, another one in The Gold-Bug called Wolf, yet another called Neptune in The Light-House. What is more,  it is mentioned in Rodman that one member of his party has a large Newfoundland dog. An etym-analysis of the name Neptune follows.

Pagenstecher dwells on the similarities between the mystical studies of bile (Gallen) and his etym theory. I am not completely  sure what he is talking about here. Perhaps it has to do with the ancient four humours philosophy. Yet again he has to defend his etym-analytical approach against Wilma’s disapproval. He assures her that he does not advocate the excessive spawning of word-monstrosities (Wort=Missgestalten) overgrown with etyms like cauliflowers with their florets. What he is trying to promote is a more subtle approach to the text when hidden meaning is revealed by only slight changes in the word, legitimized by homonymity and dream symbolism. He also highlights the importance of  utilising foreign languages in etym-analysis, for when indecent things are couched in Latin or French terms they are not as harsh for German speakers as in their mother tongue.

to be continued

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2 Responses to Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 23, pp. 262-280

  1. Marc Myers says:

    This is truly amazing. Not only does it give a good “vorwort” as to what is in store for the reader, but it also gives one a reading list to start this summer
    before the publication (hopefully!) in Sept. Cheers!

  2. Thanks a lot for the positive feedback! Sometimes I feel that reading Zettel’s Traum is a second job I don’t get paid for, so it is the attention and gratitude of my readers that enormously motivate me to keep going.

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