Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 27, pp. 337-350

Wilma talks disapprovingly about Pagenstecher’s eremitical existence, calling it “TIMON=Dasein”, invoking the rich Athenian from Shakespeare’s play Timon of Athens who ends up living in a cave after squandering his fortune on the manipulative friends and various hangers-on. Daniel is bluntly reproached for being an eccentric who lives as if he were in a fairy tale. His reaction is, as usual, calm. He urges her to think for a moment that the ability to lock oneself in at the right time may be a formidable art form.

An interesting digression on the significance of cats. Pagenstecher tells his companions how, according to an old Baden flood legend, human race was saved by a cat. The obvious pun on the word Menschgeschlecht (mankind) is made in the jocular supposition that it might have been derived from schlecht (bad). The legend in question belongs to the rich tradition of sunken cities or kingdoms that can be traced back to the island of Atlantis and beyond. The mythological place mentioned by Daniel is called Sunkenthal or Suggenthal. Let me give you a short summary of the legend provided by Jacob Grimm in his seminal study Teutonic Mythology:

When the water had wrecked and swamped all the houses in Suggenthal, there remained alive only that old man and his son, and one small infant. This child, a boy, floated in his cradle all through the flood, and with him was a cat. Whenever the cradle tilted to one side, the cat jumped to the other, and restored the equilibrium; in this way the cradle safely arrived below Buchholz, and there stuck fast in the dold or crown of a tall oak. When the water had subsided, and the tree was accessible again, it was fetched down, and child and cat were found alive and unhurt. As nobody knew who the boy’s parents had been, they named him after the tree-top Dold, and the name is borne by his descendants to this day.

Actually you might have encountered a reference to this legend before in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow that extensively uses Grimm’s treatise. Here is the relevant passage beautifully describing a Swiss city as seen by Tyron Slothrop, the protagonist of the novel, from a mountain top in the Alps:

The city below him, bathed now in a partial light, is a necropolis of church spires and weathercocks, white castle-keep towers, broad buildings with mansard roofs and windows glimmering by thousands. This forenoon the mountains are as translucent as ice. Later in the day they will be blue heaps of wrinkled satin. The lake is mirror-smooth but mountains and houses reflected down there remain strangely blurred, with edges fine and combed as rain: a dream of Atlantis, of the Suggenthal. Toy villages, desolate city of painted alabaster. . . .

Back to Zettel’s Traum. When Pagenstecher finishes retelling the legend, he points out that the surviving baby and the cat are the progenitors (die Ahnherrn) of, respectively, “the new human- and catkind” (Neuen Mensch= & Katzheit). Thus the Biblical myth of the Great Deluge and the legend of the submerged city are fused together. If you can read German, I recommend checking out this captivating post which looks in more detail at this particular episode in the book as well as at the treatment of cats in Zettel’s Traum in general.

Francis_Danby_-_The_Deluge

The Deluge, Francis Danby

What made Poe volunteer for military service? Good question to ponder. Just like Marcel Proust’s year long stint in the French army. Wilma observes that Proust must have felt like in a harem what with all the men around him.

Pagenstecher discusses the origins and the meaning of the name Arnheim. The Dutch city of Arnheim was built in the place that the Romans had used to call Arnoldi Villa, and since the maiden name of Poe’s mother is Arnold, it is pretty obvious for Daniel why the writer chose this name for the fictional domain in his tale.

Provoked by Wilma’s wondering whether he has ever desired a foreigner or a Negro woman (Negerin), Pagenstecher comes out as an inveterate linguistic bigot. He confesses that he could not love even a local woman if she spoke only a dialect such as Plattdeutsch or Bayrisch and not standard German. His justification is the already mentioned fact of him being a brain-animal (Gehirn-tier) whose thinking is inextricably linked with language – dialects, therefore, irritate him. I guess this really shows to which extent Daniel has transformed himself into a purely bookish person. But shouldn’t alarm bells start ringing when any kind of “purity” is being pursued so vehemently?

The aphoristic marginal statement ” ‘zoophile’ is the Greek for ‘misanthrope'” emerges when the discussion touches on the often observable fact that hostility towards fellow humans goes hand in hand with love for animals. Surely, we can find numerous examples of this in life and literature: from  the farouche cat lady in your house to Gulliver’s last voyage.

Pagenstecher returns to Walter Scott. He focuses, in particular, on his novel Anne of Geierstein. In quite a bold statement based on an entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica he places this writer beside Shakespeare and Dickens, emphasising the tremendous influence Scott has had not only on his contemporaries but also on the following generations, including Poe. He quotes a landscape description from Scott’s novel which bears affinity to the domain described in Poe’s tale.

Ellison, the creator of the domain, is discussed at some length. Pagenstecher marvels at his enormous fortune and the way he dispenses with it. He also looks at the four “conditions of bliss” espoused by Ellison.

to be continued ?

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