Merlin or the Waste Land (Merlin oder Das wüste Land) by Tankred Dorst (in collaboration with Ursula Ehler)

DorstMerlinIf you, like myself, have suffered through Thomas Malory’s indigestible Le Morte Darthur, you would feel vindicated by the large-scale deconstruction of the Arthurian romances undertaken by Tankred Dorst and his collaborator Ursula Ehler in this epic play. The 1981 premiere of Merlin in Dusseldorf  was nine and a half hours long — surely, an overbearing experience not any spectator can sustain, although neither that one nor the subsequent stagings were complete, as the play performed in its entirety would run to the tune of 15 hours. Consequently, seeing Merlin on stage so far has meant the inevitable foregoing of some parts of the original text.  Anyone who would like to experience this unwieldy play in its complete form has to read it. This situation is not uncommon for German language dramatic works: think, for example, of such monumental plays as Goethe’s Faust or Karl Kraus’ The Last Days of Mankind. Since there has been an English language production of Merlin based on an abridged translation, the play is well-known in the theatrical milieu. However, the complete text as an autonomous work of literature has not reached the English-speaking reader  yet — hence my modest contribution to filling in this gap.

In general lines, Dorst’s and Ehler’s play faithfully follows Mallory’s account of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table from the promising beginnings of this idealistic society to its tragic dissolution and the demise of its leader. The only glaring omission is the story of Tristram and Isolde (the bulkiest part of Le Morte Darthur, as you know) which is just slightly sketched out in several letters exchanged between Queen Guinevere and Isolde. The course of the major events recounted by Mallory has been preserved, and we know in advance how everything is going to end. Nevertheless, Merlin is full of surprises, as its authors add a new and rather gloomy spin to the familiar legends both in terms of narrative techniques, of how the stories are presented, and in terms of the specific details of each episode. Another significant instance of licence taken by the German playwright and his collaborator is the introduction into their text of “outsider” characters who do not belong to the traditional Arthurian world. By making a new embroidery on the old canvas the authors present the audience with a modern interpretation of the traditional motifs, in which the story of the Round Table serves as a blueprint for the destruction of a civilisation.

Merlin is a dynamic, I would even say stroboscopic, work that consists of 97 scenes some of which are just several sentences long. Genre-wise it is a patchwork comprising drama, verse, narrative and songs. Quite often the poems and songs are recited in foreign languages: English, Italian, Old French, Celtic Breton. The play consists of a short prologue in which Christ, illuminated by a thousand light-bulbs, drives away pagan gods, and the following four parts: Merlin’s Birth, The Round Table, The Grail, Destruction. Merlin is the controversial, complex protagonist of the unfolding drama who has something of Faust and something of Peer Gynt. He frequently behaves like a traditional Trickster figure provoking, tempting, misleading and making fools out of the gullible Arthurian knights. Merlin’s magic is of diabolical nature as he is the child of ugly giantess Hanne and the Devil himself. The sole purpose of Merlin’s coming into existence seems to be the fulfillment of his dark progenitor’s intention as he is already born as a grown-up man, ready to work miracles and cause mischief among human beings.  In the course of dialogues between the wizard and his father we learn what kind of grand and wicked design the Devil had in mind when begetting Merlin: to unite the knights of the Christian oecumen and to send them on the path of evil that will eventually lead them to hell. Being far from an obedient son, Merlin appears to be revolting against his father’s wish: while he readily gets down to the business of establishing the new chivalric society, he refuses point-blank to instill in his wards inclination towards evil. Instead, he opts to leave them with the choice which path to take. This, at first glance unbiased position suits the Devil just right, for he knows well enough that letting humans choose between good and evil is the surest way of dooming them to eternal perdition. When King Arthur, under the tutelage of Merlin, founds the fellowship of the Round Table, he is perhaps one of the very few who naively think that a great chivalric Utopia is being inaugurated, that thanks to the new order all strife and iniquity will become obsolete. What we see unraveling before us, instead, is not so much a sequence of courageous and noble deeds, but a series of petty conflicts between utterly depraved and vicious characters bent on satisfying their sadistic urges or monomaniacal goals. Yes, they have come together, but there is nothing noble or altruistic about their unity. The Round Table allows for synergy of wickedness that will inevitably result in a full-blown apocalypse.

Since some of the German reviewers were pointing out the excessive violence of the play, I was half-expecting a Texas Chainsaw Massacre treatment of the material which had been far from bloodless already in its medieval form. This did not turn out to be the case, although there are several scenes that are clearly meant to shock with its Grand Guignol attention to gore. For example, Parzival who comes to the king’s court as a feral adolescent obtains his first armour by gouging out the eyes of its possessor with a sharp twig and then by scraping the murdered knight’s flesh out of the armour with a knife like “the meat of a lobster out of the half-opened shell”. Most of the violence, however, is of psychological character. It is latent in most of the dialogues, even if they seem quite innocent or even benevolent at first. The atmosphere of lurking menace never leaves the stage. The characters may be exchanging opinions or sharing secrets, or just bringing one another up to date — but this is just on the surface. The ulterior motifs of betraying the trust of the other, of pushing them towards some harmful decision, of using them to one’s own purpose and then discarding them to a horrible fate are all too obvious to ignore. They are tangible in almost every scene of the play, and that is exactly what the dark magic that got the Arthurian society running in the first place is about. In this fictional world, nobody can escape the pervasive violence, even those who are perfectly aware of its fictitiousness. At one point, a skeptical spectator climbs the stage to check if the Siege Perilous at the round table can do him any harm. As soon as the man takes a seat, he is engulfed by flames.


An Abrams tank exposing its Medieval roots. Art by Jody Harmon. Image Source.

Merlin is as self-reflexive as it gets. Lots of postmodern tricks are employed here, but they are not an end in itself. First and foremost, the play is a very dense, personal vision of the Arthurian romances, obviously refracted through the prism of avant-garde art and the cold war mentality and presented as a series of heterogeneous elements bearing the imprints of these preoccupations. The Theatre of the Absurd and the surrealists have definitely been a significant influence: there are echoes of Beckett and Ionesco as well as a couple of scenes that would make David Lynch proud. At the same time, without any direct reference, there is a subtle evocation of the menace characteristic of the period in which nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers and the subsequent obliteration of the life on earth were considered by many a possibility. Let us not forget that the fellowship of The Round Table is a society primarily based and totally dependent upon the use of lethal weapons. A knight covered in armour from head to toe loses humanity, his face is transformed into the soulless steel mask of war expediency. He represents the incessant drive to perfect the engines of destruction, thus himself becoming a symbol of future military innovations: tanks, submarines, strategic bombers. The Devil confers on Merlin the ability to look into the future, so that the mischievous magician can fully appreciate the coming reincarnations of the technocratic militarised societies similar to the Arthurian knights in appetites, morals, and ambitions, but greatly surpassing them in hardware and armament. For what it’s worth, the evanescent Sangreal sought after by the brave knights may be, in fact, enriched uranium whose significance they cannot yet grasp due to the limitation of their epoch. It is only Merlin who is allowed from time to time to talk anachronistically, and analyse the medieval goings-on around him from the point of view of a twentieth-century person.


A Heap of Broken Images. Bartholomew Beal. Image Source.

The alternative title of Merlin is The Waste Land. It is not only an homage to T. S. Eliot’s modernist classic, but also the recognition of the leitmotif accompanying this extensive and overpopulated play from start to finish. The German for “the waste land” is  das wüste Land in which the word wüste can be translated as either “desert” or “waste”. Indeed, in Merlin we often come across the disquieting imagery of sterile lands, be they natural deserts or man-made wastelands of mass destruction. The wasteland is  a constant latency for the fellowship, even when the landscape around them is nothing but a flourishing idyll. For Dorst and Ehler, the barren environment of sand and rock is a hidden dimension that under certain circumstances can penetrate reality, for example with the assistance of Merlin’s wizardry. We get the first significant glimpse of the wasteland in a chilling scene called Have I dreamt my Life? In it, the youthful Sir Beauface viciously taunts the elder knights because of their old age and is punished by Merlin who inveigles him into plunging his face into a bowl with bewitched water. When Beauface lifts his face after just several seconds, everybody sees a decrepit old man who has just returned from a long journey to some distant desert clime. This magic occurrence leads to the sudden opening of the portal to the extra dimension, as the inhabitants of the desert with whom Beauface spent most of his life, enter the world of the Round Table knights looking for the missing sojourner. Their arrival is entrancing and eerie. The gathered knights watch them come with growing anxiety, for the spooky strangers also act as the harbingers of the fate reserved for the fellowship: a wasteland with mounts of iron-clad corpses and the myriads of bluebottle flies swarming above them.

A high, buzzing, mysterious sound is in the air. The light changes, becomes pale. A procession of strange, very large shapes slowly comes in: a huge black man is carrying an old woman, she is sitting in a contraption with a tall backrest propped against his head, her legs are on his shoulders, her face turned in the opposite direction. As a headdress she is wearing a golden bird with its wings spread. — Then comes a richly-clothed old man, the brother of the woman. — Four servants are carrying in a raised askew litter the corpse of the dead father in white winding sheets. — A frail old man with an iron mask on his face is dragging an enormous chopped-off human hand that has completely withered. — A man with wide, fluttering sleeves. — A naked man whose skin is spotted with wounds and scabs like the ailing skin of the earth. Swarms of midges. He is carrying a big bundle on his head. — A dried-up tree with brown leaves. The procession enters slowly and silently. There is no noise of the footsteps; it seems as if they were walking through deep sands and had to withstand a strong wind. They climb up the tabletop. The bundle is unfolded: it is a large silk cloth embroidered with figures. The man with the wide sleeves raises his arms, and sand starts running out of his sleeves, infinite amounts of sand; it keeps running all the time while the strangers are standing there. Little by little, the round table turns into a sand desert.

This motif of the sterile sun-dried land becomes more prominent in the penultimate part of the play in which the Arthurian knights search for the Holy Grail. Once visiting the barren realm of the King Fisher and failing to heal the wounded grail keeper, Parzival is no longer able to leave the wasteland. He continues wandering in the desert even when he is physically present in a lush green meadow with singing birds. Sir Gawain, who meets his befuddled fellow roaming about in the invisible wasteland tries to bring him back to reality, but all is in vain. Parzival is doomed to remain there, perhaps until one of the knights finally achieves the Grail. This scene, called The Waste Land, is key to the whole play because it contains the metaphor of the wasteland we carry within. It is a question of time when it becomes a wasteland without. Dorst and Ehler take over the symbolism of the wasteland poetically examined by T. S. Eliot and develop it further keeping in mind the horrors and the anxieties of the second half of the twentieth century. The legend of the maimed king whose land has been turned into a desolate, sterile desert mimicking his own infertility resulting from a genital wound was utilised by Eliot with respect to the torpid, disoriented, weak society that has recently survived the senseless butchery of the Great War. In Merlin, the image of wasteland acquires additional aspects, for it is applied to the society that has experienced by far more destructive Second World War and is hypothetically facing nuclear annihilation.  The wasteland in Merlin comes to signify the destructive potential of any progressive urge of man, a metaphysical desert that man will never tire of materialising in real life with each new spiral of his technological development until the wasteland is large enough to swallow the whole planet. Here is what the Devil has to say on this count:

The idealists, the Grail seekers, the founders of Round Tables and ideal states, of new orders and systems, who promise salvation with their theories and want to bring great happiness to humankind […] I am not only speaking of Arthur, I also mean others who come after him in hundreds of years –, in the end they lead whole nations straight to hell! — To me!


How Mordred was Slain by Arthur, and How by Him Arthur was Hurt to the Death. Arthur Rackham.

In another crucial scene almost at the end of the play, when the armies of Mordred and King Arthur have obliterated each other, effectively putting an end to the Utopian fellowship, we are granted a peculiar glimpse of the future. The scene consists of a monologue that perhaps is being delivered by a scientist from some extraterrestrial civilisation. By that time the life on earth has been extinguished as the sun has run out its course.  The speaker does not know what kinds of cataclysms happened before that, but it doesn’t matter any more. The humans have disappeared forever, and, in the speaker’s words: “the few traces of their existence remain mysterious”. The drama of human progress is over, and, as has been foreseen, it has ended in wasteland. We do not know what those remaining artifacts are, but, perhaps, among them there is a chronicle of devastating intercontinental warfare that will be eventually deciphered and read by the aliens with the same interest as we now read about the bloody and cruel exploits of the Arthurian knights.


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Reading Zettel’s Traum Suspended

Medieval_sysiphus.jpegI started reading Arno Schmidt’s legendary magnum opus about a year ago.  I knew quite well that it was an enormous challenge not least because German is the weakest of my reading languages, although the “germanness” of Schmidt’s language in this book frequently emulates the “englishness” of Joyce’s in Finnegans Wake. By keeping my reading diary I’ve managed to stay on course until now. What is more, I’ve got somewhat accustomed to all the quirks and joyful transgressions of Schmidtian writing, and the scavenger hunts he has been constantly sending me on have been a lot of fun too, as all my favourite books such as The Recognitions, Terra Nostra, Los Sorias and Gravity’s Rainbow have stimulated my curiosity in a similar way. But, as with any cerebral pleasure, there is a serious downside to a thorough and attentive reading of Zettel’s Traum: the amount of time invested in the effort. While assiduously deciphering the Rosetta stone of Schmidt’s text, I was robbing myself, and consequently my readers, of other great books that had to be made known on my blog. I naively thought that I would manage to have it both ways until I realised that I was facing a serious dilemma: either abandon all my reading and dedicate myself solely for the reading and exegesis of Zettel’s Traum for at least a year (otherwise, at the present pace, it would take me four more years to finish the book) or to address all the backlog of the untranslated literature I’ve been meaning to review, some of it truly marvelous. I have decided in favour of the latter. This, however, does not mean that I have abandoned my project altogether: anything can happen, and I might resume my Sisyphean labour, especially when John E. Woods’ translation finally becomes available and, hopefully, throw some light on the numerous obscurities of the original. I know that there is a group of faithful readers who have been diligently following all my posts and  have encouraged me with their comments. Thank you all! Without your support I would probably have stopped much earlier. I know that there is at least one reading group of Bottom’s Dream already established on Goodreads under the auspices of Nathan “N.R.” Gaddis, who, for all I know, may be the present-day reincarnation of Borges. When you finally get your copies, you may want to join this or a similar cenacle, for I am sure you will get more out of the book by reading it along with others. As for my copy, to the shelf it goes (the lowest one, firmly resting on the floor, of course!) until better times as I am already reaching for the next untranslated book to be reviewed here.


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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.


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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Forthcoming: Between Dog and Wolf by Sasha Sokolov

DogWolfI thought it would never happen. No, there was no way Sasha Sokolov’s most impenetrable novel would be translated. Reading  Between Dog and Wolf  back in the 1990s made me reconsider the presumptuous notion that I “knew” the Russian language. Even with the assistance of the four volumes of a facsimile edition of Vladimir Dal’s Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language I was not always able to make out what was going on in this maverick masterpiece. What I was positive about, however, was the fact that for the first time in my life I saw the Russian language perform impossible tricks right before my eyes. Sasha Sokolov wasn’t just a writer –  he was a magician, an alchemist creating his text by some secret crafts like a homunculus in a retort.

In my view, since the beginning of the twentieth century there have been four great Russian wordsmiths, and Sasha Sokolov is certainly one of them. The other three are Andrei Bely, Vladimir Nabokov and Alexander Goldstein. These writers have shown that they could do with the language whatever they pleased, creating works of breathtaking stylistic complexity and sheer brilliance at the sentence level. It is worth noting that Nabokov welcomed Sokolov’s debut novel  A School for Foolscalling it “an enchanting, tragic, and touching book”. We can regard Nabokov’s warm response as the symbolic gesture of an older grand stylist passing on the baton to a younger one. A School for Fools is an unconventional novel in many respects, but it doesn’t come even close to the runaway weirdness and verbal pyrotechnics of Between Dog and Wolf. Although this novel is obviously a parody of various styles and literary traditions, like all great works, it transcends the ludic element and breaks out into the sphere of the sublime.


Hunters in the Snow, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The protagonist of the novel is an itinerant knife-grinder with the name as uncertain as the proverbial position of an elementary particle. It keeps changing all the time. He wanders about the fictitious lands partly based on the the Volga region, and partly on the landscape in Pieter Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow which, by the way, inspired Sokolov to write the novel in the first place. Eight years prior to the publication of Between Dog and Wolf it had also been used to a stunning effect by another Russian master: Andrei Tarkovsky in his film adaptation of Solaris. There is no shortage of Breugelian grotesques in the book, the main character Ilya being the most prominent and the most eloquent of them. The story of his love, miseries, and existential horror is related in an eclectic torrent of verbiage flaunting a wide range of mimicked styles and genres, obscure archaisms and hilarious wordplay. From time to time the main narrative is interrupted by sequences of poems from the collection A Hunter’s Sketches  (titled after Ivan Turgenev’s famous short-story collection) although “interrupt” might not be the most appropriate word here, for the poems are as carnivalesque and off-the-wall as the prose. Sokolov’s next novel Palisandria, which came out in English as Astrophobia, was a longer work with a more convoluted plot, more copious literary allusions and a bigger cast of characters, but it couldn’t rival Between Dog and Wolf in its linguistic intensity. In terms of language, this short novel still remains the zenith of Sokolov’s writing career.

Let me remind you that everything written above refers to the original Russian text. I have no conceivable idea how this philosopher’s stone may be re-transmuted in the English language. Alexander Boguslwaski, who has also translated A School for Fools, must be exceptionally brave to have undertaken this challenging task. Sasha Sokolov has created a new kind of Russian for his novel that makes a short shrift of the impatient reader and sends the patient one on an arduous journey of rediscovering his own mother tongue. In order to convey that in translation, a new kind of English has to be created. Whether the translator has succeeded in pulling off this feat we’ll see pretty soon.


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Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 26, pp. 317-336

“The intricacy of the universe is drifting, it seems, towards a new maximum”. Thus begins the third part of Zettel’s Traum, which is called Dan’s Cottage (A Diorama). This statement could refer both to the expansion of the universe we know about from modern cosmology and to the growing complexity of the fictional world of Arno Schmidt’s novel.

Daniel and his guests have breakfast pursuing an idle chat peppered with  the usual obscene puns and references to Poe. For want of amontillado, they have to make do with Fanta. Wilma calls Pagenstecher’s garden “a little Eden”, and that’s enough of a pretext to explore the theme of the garden as paradise in Poe’s works and elsewhere. Since the host of the Jacobis prefers to pronounce “Eden” as Aidenn, he doesn’t have any trouble in arriving at the etyms he is most interested in. The Greek language dictionary fetched by Franziska comes in handy. Therein he points out the word Aidoion (private parts, pudenda) which Franziska can’t read as she doesn’t know the Greek letters. The Lenore of The Raven mentioned by Wilma fares no better than Eden: as Pagenstecher  indicates, lena is the Latin for “whore” (but, actually, a procuress or a brothel-keeper).

A digression on the importance of wit as a way of thinking produced by the unconscious (and which, as notes Daniel, writer and theologian Joseph Görres believed to be of demonic nature) leads Pagenstecher to yet another pronouncement in which he places Joyce above Poe. In his opinion, a writer who parodies himself is by far wiser than the one who takes himself seriously. Thus Joyce is a more honourable writer than Poe.

Unexpectedly, Franziska sings the mechanical doll’s aria  (Les oiseaux dans la charmille) from Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann. The song is about a girl in love who finds the reflection of her feelings all around her: in the birds singing in the hedgerow and in the sun shining in the sky. Why exactly this song? Perhaps for Franziska it shares some garden/paradise motifs with the unfolding discussion. Wilma is surprised, as her daughter’s French has never been any good. 

Pagenstecher offers to his audience a brief insight into Islamic eschatology: the conceptions of the Judgement Day and the paradise (Jannah). He recommends to the Jacobis the vivid descriptions of the things to come found in Karl May’s Oriental adventure novel Am Jenseits (In the Hereafter) in which a blind seer, saved in the desert by the protagonists Kara Ben Nemsi and Haji Halef Omar on their way to Mecca, recounts his formidable visions of the end of time. Perhaps the exotic adventure novel of Karl May is not the best source for the Islamic views on the last days and the afterlife, but, as you probably know it, Karl May was one of Arno Schmidt’s (and, consequently, Pagenstecher’s) favourite writers.


Cul de Paris. Image Source

PARadISe for Poe, in terms of etyms, also stands for the city of Paris. Not only is it the setting for such stories as Rue Morgue and Purloined Letter, but also French was the foreign language that Poe knew best.  Pagenstecher comes up with various arguments as to why Paris is of paradisaical nature for Poe, most of them related to what Mikhail Bakhtin would call “material bodily lower stratum”. In The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade, the legendary queen castigates the element of female dress which she describes as “the protuberance of the region which lies not very far below the small of the back”. As it turns out, the name of this fashionable item was cul de Paris, literally “the ass of Paris”. For Daniel, of course, it should be ambiguously perceived as cul de Par(ad)is, i. e. also as “the ass of paradise”. Via a dubious etymological interpretation of  Lutetia Parisiorum, the name of the ancient town established at the place of the present-day Paris, Pagenstecher arrives at the notion of Paris as the excremental paradise. Contrary to what he says, I couldn’t find anything scatological about the word luteus. Different places in the French capital are also subject to etym-analysis. A volume of the Brockhaus encyclopedia brought by Franziska reveals to Daniel’s guests that “the vicinity of Palais Royal” mentioned in Rue Morgue was a stomping ground of prostitutes.

Pagenstecher seems a bit confused by Wilma’s request to clarify the significance of the names that appear in a text from Poe’s Marginalia, a compendium of aphorisms and witty observations:

Here is a book of “amusing travels,” which is full enough of statistics to have been the joint composition of Messieurs Busching, Hassel, Cannabitch, Gaspari, Gutsmuth and company.

Eventually, Daniel says that he seriously doubts that Poe has read any of the authors on this list, and, what is more, he questions the very idea of Poe being well-read.  The only explanation Pagenstecher can produce is etym-based, no surprise here: bush, hussy, cunny & bitch etc.

to be continued


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