Average Life (Grillparzer, Stifter, and the Art of Prosaic Reality)
Average Life (Grillparzer, Stifter, and the Art of Prosaic Reality)
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter focuses on realist attempts to redefine greatness by inverting aesthetics' traditional hierarchies, juxtaposing Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's thesis on the “end of art” with Heinrich Heine's declaration of the “end of the Goethean artistic period.” It also explores how realism gives up the demand for genius and instead embraces an age of epigones, of those who come too late. The chapter argues that, rather than a genial exception, the realist artist is an observer and quasi-scientific investigator of the ordinary, the everyday, and the small. It also considers Franz Grillparzer's aesthetic-hermeneutic project, in which he posits an invisible, unbroken thread from the lives of the non-famous to the great mythological figures and claims that the famous can only be understood on the basis of the ordinary. Appealing to a statistical sense of the normal distribution, Adalbert Stifter views the momentous as smaller than the small and proposes “the gentle law,” the law of regularity that lies at the base of both the common and exceptional.
The masses seem to me worthy of notice in three respects: first, as fading copies of great men produced on bad paper with worn-out plates; second, as resistance to the great; and finally, as instruments of the great. Beyond that let the devil and statistics take them! What? But it is said that statistics prove that there are laws in history. Laws? Yes, statistics prove how common and disgustingly uniform the mass is. […] Insofar as there are laws in history, the laws are worthless and history as well.
Nietzsche, On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life1
The Museum of Spirit
In his Lectures on Aesthetics (delivered in 1817–29 and published posthumously), Hegel famously announces his thesis on the end of art: “With respect to its highest determination, art is and remains for us a thing of the past.”2 In declaring art's admission to the dustbin of history, Hegel qualifies art's obsolescence in a twofold manner: first, it is “for us” that art belongs to the past, a qualification that offers the possibility that for another—perhaps another people or another time—art may still have a significance, a significant future. Second, and more importantly, it is only “with respect to its highest determination” that art has become obsolete. Following Hegel's definition of art as the “sensible shining forth of the Idea,”3 post-Romantic art simply no longer serves as a significant mode of revealing Spirit. In condemning art to (p.121) the past, Hegel does not explicitly declare or demand the end of artistic production: there can be and probably will still be art, but it will no longer fulfill art's “highest determination”—for the simple reason that all art after Romanticism comes too late. Spirit has moved on and no longer appears in sensuous form.4 Nor does Hegel entirely strip art of its dignity: its time may have passed, but art played its role in the development of Spirit and ultimately gave way to something higher, loftier: thought. Spirit has extricated itself from art's materiality and has now taken up residence in philosophy.5 Whereas Goethe and Schiller understand art as an invitation to active participation, whether as genial creator or dilettante, Hegel describes art as extending a different invitation: “Art invites us to thoughtful consideration—not, however, to call forth art again, but to recognize scientifically what art is.”6 Art no longer embodies the sensuous presence of Spirit, but rather prompts one to stop and reflect on the history of art as the path Spirit has already traversed. This, then, is the meaning of art being “a thing of the past”: art no longer makes history (i.e., it is no longer the productive unfolding of Spirit) but rather has become history (i.e., a jettisoned casing of Spirit). Art is now solely to be considered as a document of where Spirit once was, how it once appeared; as a historical artifact, art has not only yielded to philosophy but also to the museum, archive, and library—mementos and memorials of Spirit's past.
As discussed in the introduction, art in its highest (now superceded) determination “is called to present the ideal state of the world in opposition to prosaic reality.”7 When it fulfills this determination (which Hegel identifies with Greek sculpture as the perfect congruence of matter and spirit), art stands opposite the “world of the everyday and of prose”8 and thus reveals images of an ideal world. When art no longer idealizes the world, it has succumbed to the prosaic reality it once opposed. Post-Romantic art, for Hegel, no longer possesses a poetic (productive, revealing) power but rather has become a mere prosaic (i.e., historical) presence. Art belongs to the everyday; it can be collected and displayed, pondered and reflected upon, but it is no longer significant in and for the present. With its poetic power exhausted, art is relegated to “prosaic reality.”
History, for Hegel, is the epitome and residence of the prosaic: “It is not only the manner in which history is written but also the nature of its content that makes it prosaic.”9 Hegel aligns the advent of history as a discipline with the end of art's highpoint (Classical Greek sculpture) and the ascent of Rome, where the “prose of life” penetrates not only (p.122) the “real conditions” but also its “representation.”10 The prose that characterizes both the content and manner of historical writing demands a restraint from poetically transfiguring one's subject matter: prose concerns and describes the nontransfigured, nonennobled world, while poetry forms its idealized counterpart. Thus, the historian may only “relate what is at hand and how it is at hand, without reinterpreting or poetically elaborating it.”11 Viewed as prose, art no longer transfigures and ennobles the common (à la Schiller) but has become part and parcel of common life. It offers no oppositional power but has been engulfed by history. Therefore, if there is post-Romantic “art,” it exists in the manner of the everyday: art that doesn't adorn, doesn't idealize, but collects and records the “prose of the world” as history does.
The sense of art having reached a historical end is not simply Hegel's private, if influential, proclivity. Heinrich Heine also notes an end of art in the 1820s and 1830s, but he delineates this end in crucially different terms. In Die romantische Schule (1835, The Romantic School), Heine announces “the end of the Goethean artistic period,”12 which one could equally call the end of the age of genius. By defining an age and an artistic period through the name “Goethe” (who died in 1832), Heine at once pays homage to the Meister (an homage tinged with “sadness”) and breathes a sigh of relief that his time is over. This linking of a period and a name also highlights that Heine does not declare the total demise of artistic production, but only of a particular form: idealized and idealizing art.
Heine, like so many other authors, has an ambivalent relationship to Goethe, at once admiring his genius and lamenting his suffocating effects. This sense of suffocation and the resulting preparation for the end of the “artistic period” begins even before Goethe's death. In his 1828 review of Wolfgang Menzel's Die deutsche Literatur (a book that grants Goethe talent but not genius), Heine quite properly speaks of an “insurrection” of young authors against Goethe, an Oedipal battle launched by the sons against the father figure of German literature. Heine both shares and resists this attack and thus wonders where the hardness toward Goethe comes from, even among the “great minds” of the time. Heine answers this question as follows: “Perhaps many great minds view Goethe with a secret rancor because he, who was to be nothing other than Primus inter pares, succeeded in becoming the tyrant in the republic of spirits. They see in him a Ludwig XI, who oppresses the spiritually high nobility by lifting up the spiritual tiers état, the beloved mediocrity.”13 For Heine, Goethe is the “greatest representative (p.123) of this period,” a period that bears his name and that “began in Goethe's crib and will end with his coffin.”14 In the republic of letters that first commences with Goethe, the name of the tastemaker and cultural power broker is clear; his address is in Weimar. From the perspective of the great minds not recognized by the Meister, Goethe functions not as an enabler of genius, but as a tyrant who, despite his own genial production, is less than discerning in judging the talent of others. Heine implies that Goethe's fellow writers would have been content to allow him the paradoxical status of “first among equals”; yet, ironically or tragically, Goethe—especially given his desire for a coordinated movement of Meister and masses—chose to oppose the literary nobility in favor of the literary third estate, beloved mediocrity. By promoting mediocrity, Goethe ensured that he would be primus but not inter pares. As discussed at the end of chapter 3, perhaps no author has been more assailed for his poor judgment than Goethe. The list of authors dismissed by Goethe includes pretty much a “who's who” of German literature in the Age of Goethe: Hölderlin, Kleist, Jean Paul, Friedrich Schlegel, and Novalis, to name just a few.15 Goethe's genius did not extend to his taste or cultural politics; rather, he promoted the very dilettantism that he wanted to contain, if only to guarantee that his own genius and aesthetic direction wouldn't be challenged.
Goethe's predilection for mediocre talents constitutes only part of Heine's critique of the Goethean artistic period, an individual if powerful (because tyrannical) foible. More important than Goethe being the patron of beloved mediocrity is his notion of art, which for Heine amounts to a recipe for impotent mediocrity.16 The entire idea of art promoted by Goethe and idealist aesthetics in general adhered in Heine's eyes to a false concept of art, precisely because its emphasis on genial originality ignored the present world, that is, Hegel's “prosaic reality.” Goethe and his followers, writes Heine, view “art as an independent second world, which they place so high that all human activity, its religion and morality, moves along changing and wandering beneath it. I cannot, however, subscribe unconditionally to this viewpoint. The Goetheans allowed themselves to be led astray into proclaiming art itself as the highest and to turn away from the first, real world, which nevertheless deserves precedence.”17 In announcing the end of the Goethean artistic period, Heine simultaneously declares its entire project to have been a failure; the task of art is not to idealize the world (and in the process, art itself as “the highest”) but to engage the “first, real world.” Heine, in other words, shares Hegel's thoughts (p.124) regarding post-Romantic art, yet inverts its significance: yes, art belongs to the “prose of the world,” but only as such can art (again) be significant. Heine's advocation of an anti-idealizing, “prosaic” art becomes clear in The Romantic School, when he describes a visit to the Louvre and his response to its impressive sculpture collection: “Strange!” writes Heine. “These antiquities remind me of Goethe's poetry.”18 With this simple exclamation, Heine marks the museum as the location for all art that aspires for a “second, independent world.” The problem of Goethe's genial work is that it belonged in the museum from the very beginning. When art is only concerned with producing a second world, it has always already programmed itself for its archival collection. Referring to his earlier review of Menzel's Die deutsche Literatur, Heine writes in The Romantic School:
In no way did I deny the intrinsic value of Goethe's masterpieces. They decorate our dear fatherland just as beautiful statues decorate a garden. But they are statues. One can fall in love with them but they are impotent: Goethe's writings don't produce the deed that Schiller's do. The deed is the child of the word, and Goethe's beautiful words are childless. That is the curse of everything that arises merely through art.19
In Heine's ingenious reversal of Hegel's declaration of the end of art, Goethe's idealistic aesthetics guarantees the condemnation of art as a “thing of the past” precisely because the only place for art that turns away from the existing prosaic world is the museum from the very beginning. Heine explicitly does not want to dispute the beauty and excellence of Goethe's work—Goethe remains “the greatest artist of our literature”20—but his art enters the world as “statues”: cold, hard, and most of all sterile, because it is just art. The best that may emerge from such idealist art is more work immediately destined for the museum, but nothing beyond it. For Heine, art should not merely adorn the world but change it.
Heine is, of course, forging a political argument akin to the aspirations of the Young Germany movement, in which art must engage the world in order to become more than “mere” art; art must lead to action. Heine's intellectual career, however, can be characterized by his being torn between hope and despair regarding the future of art and its (political) possibilities. On the one hand, Heine articulates the hope that “the new age […] can give birth to a new art […] indeed to a new technique”;21 on the other hand, Heine is skeptical that such a transformation can take place, in part because he himself never entirely surrenders the idea of genius as a mode of natural exceptionality and (p.125) original creativity. Therefore, the name for the duality of hope and despair is “Goethe.” Goethe's death is at once a blessing and a curse: a blessing because of the hope for “new art” and “new technique,” a curse because with him the age of genius potentially yields to the mediocrity of the world. Ultimately, Heine's engagement for democratic, revolutionary politics as well as for a new political significance for art runs counter to his desire for poetic genius.22 In 1840, Heine writes: “For beauty and genius are, indeed, a type of kingdom, and they do not fit into a society in which everyone, in the ill-feeling of his or her own mediocrity, attempts to debase every form of loftier talent, to reduce it to a banal level. The kings move on, and with them the last poets leave.”23 By Heine's own admission, beautiful art now requires a type of natural aristocracy, a court of geniuses. The desire to democratize society runs counter to the conditions of beautiful art, which presupposes something aristocratic, elitist. In the world of art, when royalty departs, it takes the poets with it. The implicit critique that Heine launches against art in a society now determined by the middle class as well as the ascendant fourth estate amounts to John Stuart Mill's libertarian reservations concerning the leveling and homogenizing effects of democracy in general: when the average man assumes political power, society (from politics to artistic production) begins to be defined by a love of equality that at best prefers that no one be exceptional and at worst understands equality as the lowest common denominator—to reduce everything to the same mediocre level in the name of democracy.24 Goethe may have been the genial tyrant who foolishly elevated mediocrity, but the growing tyranny of mediocrity lowers everything to its level.
The belatedness of post-Romantic art tends initially toward a melancholic acceptance of coming too late to be genius and, thus, of being a “thing of the past.” With his epochal novel Die Epigonen (1825–36, The Epigones), written during the last years of Goethe's life and completed after his death, Karl Immermann gave voice to this belatedness of the post-Goethe generation, explicating the dilemma of those born too late:
We are, to express the entire misery in one word, epigones, and bear part of the burden that tends to stick to every generation that is born late and lives from its inheritance. The great movement in the realm of spirit, which our fathers undertook from their cottages and little huts, has provided us with many treasures that now lay upon the market tables. Without particular effort, even the least ability can at least acquire the token coins of every form of art and (p.126) science. But it proceeds with borrowed ideas as it does with borrowed money: the one who carelessly does business with other's possessions only gets poorer.25
From Immermann's perspective, the Goethean artistic period had indeed succeeded in achieving what one can call an imposing legacy. This cultural inheritance simultaneously enriches and impoverishes the epigone; the treasures of the past are readily available, but such riches equally hinder the ability to produce something new, something original. All that remains are “borrowed ideas” and accumulated capital, whose frivolous use can lead to further impoverishment. The only way, then, to turn epigonism to one's advantage is to not compete with what went before and certainly not to try to rival the age of genius, but to redefine the artist and art's relation to prosaic reality. Heine's despair in the face of the irreconcilable divide between genius and mediocrity persists, therefore, only as long as one maintains the necessity of genius. In fact, Heine's reflections on the sterility of Goethe's idealizing art already sketch a way out of the abyss of originality as well as offer a possible “new art,” one that will be adopted by the Realism of Grillparzer and Stifter: to accept that one is an epigone and thus to discard both genial originality and idealizing common life.
Georg Büchner already lays the framework for such an anti-idealist aesthetics in the so-called “conversation on art” [Kunstgespräch] in his novella Lenz (written 1835, published 1839).26 Büchner's Lenz (based on Goethe's early friend) takes an idealist aesthetics to task, declaring the desire to transfigure reality to be unbearable. The end result of idealist art is not a heightened, second reality but—like Heine's statues—“wooden puppets.” “This idealism,” explains Lenz, “represents the most disgraceful contempt for human nature.”27 As a counteraesthetic program, Büchner's Lenz proposes not idealization but an adherence to common life: “Let them [the idealist artists] just once try to descend into the life of the lowliest person [des Geringsten] and reproduce the twitches, the winks, the subtle, barely noticed play of facial features.”28 Büchner's Lenz thus suggests a dialectic of geniality: when the demand for genius has exhausted itself, the next mode of innovation lies in imitating or reproducing individual, yet ordinary persons. This demand to “reproduce” [wiedergeben] the “lowliest person” (whom Lenz also calls “the most prosaic people”) alters the notion of both the artist and art. Like Schiller in his critique of Bürger, the artist must descend to the common level, but unlike Schiller he must abide there and refrain from idealizing. And unlike Bürger, the writer's task is not to attune his or (p.127) her work to the sounding board of the majority's taste but to present what is otherwise “barely noticed”—because it is so common, so prosaic. Büchner's artist is, then, less a creator and more an archivist, and what he or she attempts to capture is everyday life in its diversity of twitches, gestures, and expressions. Only thus does the common and seemingly insignificant become singular:
One has to love mankind in order to penetrate into the unique existence of each being. Nobody can be too lowly, too ugly. Only then can you understand them; the most insignificant face makes a deeper impression than the mere sensation of beauty, and one can allow the figures to emerge without copying anything into them from the outside, where no life, no muscle, no pulse surges or swells.29
The anti-idealist aesthetic program outlined by Büchner's Lenz no longer concerns beauty, nor does it strive to simply capture “what is.” Rather, its goal lies in penetrating the underlying essence, the unique creatureliness subtending each being; here alone can one unearth the significance embedded in the seemingly insignificant. Such art is achieved by refraining from adding anything “from the outside” (including, presumably, the outside of art's tradition) and simply abiding by and delving into each “insignificant face” to reveal its deeper underlying impression, its muscles and pulses. While rooted in a similar aesthetics of common life as Lessing's bourgeois tragedy, Büchner's artist doesn't mobilize the common as the universal—as similar for all people—but explores the common in its particularity so that the everyday or “insignificant,” when presented in detail, assumes its own exceptional status.30
If one no longer worries about genius and originality as art's defining criteria, one can embrace one's own epigonism: in coming too late, one is right on time. Defined as an epigone, the realist artist is no longer a natural exception and thus no longer competes with nature (i.e., no longer tries to produce an ideal world). Rather, by relegating the notion of genius, the artist becomes a pseudoscientific investigator, collector, and appropriator, whose subject is common, prosaic reality in its unadorned “insignificance.” However, as Büchner's Lenz implies, the artist's task lies not merely in recording and archiving the ordinary but also in penetrating its essence. Realism neither idealizes the common nor posits it as universal, but rather shows how the small and seemingly insignificant can serve as a privileged access to greatness itself. Unlike its English and French counterparts, German-language Realism strives less to address social reality and more to reveal the (p.128) essence that underlies reality.31 In the aesthetics of German-language Realism, the relationship between exemplarity and mediocrity takes on a different form: when studied and presented in its particularity, prosaic reality is to be seen as poetry itself.
Lives of the Nonfamous (Grillparzer)
If the fate of art in Hegel's analysis is to belong to the museum of Spirit's past, Franz Grillparzer's short story Der arme Spielmann (1847, The Poor Musician)32 offers a programmatic response to how art in the age of epigones can combat its supposed obsolescence: by archiving and investigating the ordinary. As a dramatist, the narrator of the story describes himself as “a passionate aficionado of humanity, particularly of the common people [Volk],” one who is driven by his “anthropological ravenousness.”33 The artist is not an original genius but an observer and collector, whose passion for common types reaches its peak in carnival atmospheres, when “class differences have disappeared” and the people “feel themselves as part of the whole, in which the divine ultimately lies.”34 In the frame to the story, the narrator famously explicates the epigonic artist and the new relation between the extraordinary and the ordinary:
As if from an unfurled, monstrous Plutarch that has broken its binding, I collect the biographies of nonfamous people from their cheerful and secretly troubled faces, from their lively or halting step, from the behavior between family members, and from their half involuntary expressions. And truly! One cannot understand the famous if one has not penetrated the feelings [durchgefühlt] of the obscure. An invisible but unbroken thread stretches from the scuffle between two tipsy cart-pushers to the strife between the gods' sons; and the young girl, who half-unwillingly follows her lover away from the throng of dancers, contains in embryo the Juliets, Didos, and Medeas.35
Plutarch's Lives belongs squarely to the tradition of exemplarity; the book couples the biographies of notable Greek and Roman figures to sketch exempla of extraordinary greatness as well as common fallibility. The strategy of such pairing lends weight to their parallel fates and the transnational nature of such exemplarity. The narrator of Grillparzer's story, however, is interested in another version of Plutarch, in other lives, ones long overlooked and still in need of collection. Strolling among the Viennese crowd on St. Bridget's Day, the narrator imagines a version of Plutarch's Lives that has burst its binding and consists in individual, still unwritten pages of common lives scattered (p.129) about him. The “biographies of nonfamous people” that he collects from the crowd have not found their way into a canonical text, nor do they at first sight offer exempla of any sort. The narrator seeks out lives that haven't been written, but rather must first be deduced from the faces, manner, and behavior of the people in the crowd. The narrator's physiognomic gaze scours the crowd for fly sheets from an unwritten book, which can only be read from the body and its gestures. The corporal language of the common person becomes the text, the transcription of the soul, which the narrator collects in order to read as the very form of his art.
By distinguishing between the famous and the nonfamous, Grillparzer's narrator still holds onto a difference between the great and the small, the extraordinary and the ordinary, but it is not an essential difference. Rather, this distinction consists solely in a question of degree not kind. More decisively, the nonfamous person becomes the precondition for all insight into exceptionality: “One cannot understand the famous if one has not penetrated the feelings [durchgefühlt] of the obscure.” This line announces one of Realism's programmatic statements: the only hermeneutic access to greatness is through the obscure. By intimately putting oneself into the emotive state of the ordinary, both—the ordinary and extraordinary—can be understood. Grillparzer, therefore, doesn't merely differentiate the famous and nonfamous solely by degree; he inverts their rank of priority. That is, the narrator goes beyond the aesthetic claim that “the obscure of his age are just as worthy of literary representation as the famous of all time,”36 since his hermeneutic claim posits the nonfamous as the conditio sine qua non of all understanding of humanity. All roads to the famous begin with the nonfamous.
The first crucial metaphor for expressing the relation between the famous and nonfamous is the “invisible but unbroken thread” winding its way from street corner scuffles to disputes on Mount Olympus. If the thread is “unbroken,” the seemingly loose and strewn sheets of paper are actually still connected (albeit imperceptibly) to the canonical text, to the world-historical or mythological figures. Not only does continuity exist between the famous and nonfamous, but their lives are connected like the parallel lives that Plutarch delineates. This intimate relation between the ordinary and the extraordinary is at once further explicated and modified in the second metaphor that the narrator uses: an embryonic relation. If the young girl who follows her lover away from the throng is a Juliet “in embryo,” then this common (p.130) occurrence contains all the information, the entire structure of the Romeo and Juliet story (a project Gottfried Keller will undertake in “A Village Romeo and Juliet”). As with Goethe's entelechy, a teleological principle determines the relation between embryo and its stages. The substance remains the same; only the accidents vary. These two metaphoric registers, therefore, are not entirely compatible: a thread solely expresses a relationship of continuity; an embryo expresses a relation of shared essence, in which all the defining information persists through the different stages of development and permutation. With an embryo, everything is directed toward an end, while a thread doesn't require or necessarily imply an overarching, guiding principle. If the goal of Realism is not to simply reproduce reality but to arrive at its essence, the metaphor of the embryo lies closer to encapsulating this endeavor. But as will become clear in The Poor Musician, the narrator's hermeneutic task lies in following the thread of the poor fiddler to see if it is indeed unbroken.
In the case of both metaphors, however, there is no need to transfigure and ennoble the common in order to make it exemplary. Rather, the common is—without idealization and in its particularity—already exemplary: the privileged access to and the origin of what putatively excels it. Because the famous are incomprehensible without first “penetrating the feelings” of the obscure, there can be no greatness (i.e., an understanding of greatness) without the ordinary. In other words, until the lives of the nonfamous are collected, written, and read, one actually has not yet understood Plutarch. Therefore, the realist artist is not only required to follow the thread, assemble the pages, and demonstrate that they in fact belong to the book (as its key to its understanding), but also to penetrate the essence of the real in the process of collecting and reading. Since everything comes down to understanding, the artist is at heart a hermeneutist, whose goal consists in reading what lies in plain sight so that it can, in fact, be understood for the first time. If such an artist is original, it is not in the sense of producing something new, but allowing one to see the world in a new way. Realist literature, one could say, is a poetics of the purloined letter of the everyday.
The realist project outlined by the narrator within the frame of The Poor Musician is not, however, without its contradictions. The first concerns the inversion of the hierarchy between literature and life: If the faces, gestures, and gait of the common people not only constitute an unwritten text that needs to be collected but also assume the status of (p.131) true greatness, then common life becomes the very text that literature can only aspire to be. The “ruse of realism”—that is, “to make readers think that they are viewing an unmediated social reality”37—also constitutes Realism's dilemma, since the true text of literature lies outside of the text. In attempting to assemble and write about everyday life, literature becomes a diminished form of an art it cannot be, precisely because it is art—hence, its need to deny its art so as to be something higher than art. The collecting, writing, and updating of an expanded version of Plutarch's Lives can never compete with the original—not of Plutarch but of the lives of the nonfamous that can only be found in their “pure” form on the street.
The second problem of Realism's aesthetics of the common concerns the redefinition of the artist in terms of the scientist or observer. This problem can be seen in both of Grillparzer's metaphors, the “invisible but unbroken thread” and the “embryo.” Everything hinges upon the thread being unbroken; if the thread is torn or nonexistent, the entire premise of a fundamental relation between the famous and the ordinary collapses. And yet the thread cannot be seen and, thus, is not subject to empirical observation, to the very skill that the narrator as “aficionado of common people” and “anthropologist” elevates to his art. This same problem inheres in the metaphor of the embryo—only when the embryo as a teleological figure develops into a Juliet can one be sure that the young girl indeed contains her in embryonic form. Goethe seems to realize this hermeneutic problem of entelechy (at least when it comes to humans) when he concludes his digression on childhood in Poetry and Truth by noting that one can never know how a particular human's development will end—until it ends: “Even if human dispositions [Anlagen] in general possess a decisive direction, it will be difficult for the greatest and most experienced connoisseur [of humanity] to predict them with any reliability; yet, after the fact, one can indeed note which trait had pointed toward something in the future.”38 One can only read the embryo and be certain that it indeed contained in nuce a Juliet or Dido, after it has arrived at this telos. Until then, even the most adept connoisseur of humanity can't really say what the embryo entails. In other words, one can only read backward, from the unfolded form back to the embryo; the embryo is, then, never fully readable, because one cannot deduce the future from the seed. Yet Grillparzer's mythologization of the nonfamous depends on these metaphors and the methods for understanding them being valid; the relation between famous and nonfamous must hold for the realist (p.132) project to function. Therefore, everything in Grillparzer's Realism comes down to relationality and reading: if one cannot read the great in the common, the whole—which Grillparzer identifies with the “divine”—breaks apart or becomes dissonant. And it is precisely such dissonance that characterizes the nonfamous life that the narrator collects and studies in The Poor Musician.
The Insight of the Obscure
Before turning to the actual story of The Poor Musician, an obscure passage needs to be discussed, namely, the central passage on obscurity itself: “One cannot understand the famous if one has not penetrated the feelings of the obscure.” This early articulation of what will become a motto of much German-language Realism poses its own hermeneutic difficulties: What exactly does “obscure” mean and how do “obscure” people relate to both the “nonfamous” and “famous”? One can readily differentiate the obscure from the famous, since the understanding of the first enables that of the latter, but are the nonfamous and obscure the same? While Grimm has no entry for “obscure,” Zedler's famous dictionary from the eighteenth century defines “obscurae personae” as a category of Roman law and a term that Latin authors employ to designate “people who are either from a bad or lower background or about whom one has nothing particular to say or to praise.”39 In this sense, the “obscure” can be read as identical to the “nonfamous”: the type of people about whom a Plutarch has nothing to say or praise. However, as will be clear, the narrator's desired and privileged obscurity is not limited to “the praise of nonfamous men” but also entails an element of hermeneutic obscurity: a fascination for hermetic persons. Within the logic of Grillparzer's text, obscurity functions doubly: the poor musician clearly belongs to the nonfamous, but his hermetic nature renders him (at least for the narrator) exemplary among the crowd. He is common, but different: a darker shade of the everyday.
After delineating his theory of exemplarity based not on idealizing but on penetrating the essence of the obscure, the narrator discovers the nonfamous life that will become the new entry in his expanded version of Plutarch's Lives. Scouring a crowd of motley street musicians on the edge of the festival (including a harpist with a repellant gaze, a crippled veteran on a barrel organ, and a lame and deformed boy wrapped around a violin), the anthropological gaze of the narrator lands upon an old fiddler:
(p.133) Finally—and he drew my entire attention—an old man around seventy dressed in a threadbare but not unclean heavy wool overcoat with a smiling and self-approving countenance. […] As he worked away on his old and very cracked violin, he marked time not only by raising and lowering his foot but also by the harmonious movement of his entire bent body. But all the trouble he took to lend his performance unity was fruitless, since what he played seemed to be a disconnected [unzusammenhängend] sequence of sounds with neither measure nor melody. Nevertheless, he was completely absorbed in his work: his lips quivered and his eyes were fixed on the score before him—yes, a score! For while all other musicians who played more for gratitude relied on memory, the old man, in the midst of the tumult, had placed a small, easily portable stand in front of him, which held the dirty and dog-eared sheet music that most likely held in the most beautiful order what he rendered so completely without connection [Zusammenhang]. It was precisely the uncommonness of this equipment that had drawn my attention to him.40
While the narrator mentions an array of other possible nonfamous musicians to choose from, it is only the poor musician that attracts his “entire attention.” And the reason is that everything about him is out of joint. His obscurity differs from that of the other musicians because he is truly and doubly obscure: nonfamous and impenetrable at once. He is just like all other nonfamous street musicians yet different from the rest. His capacity pales in comparison to his passion; his fitful, corporeal marking of the measure results in no discernable measure in the music; he plays from notes but doesn't hit a right note; the score is held in “the most beautiful order” but what he plays has no order, no connection. Either Jakob—the name of the poor musician, which the reader first learns late in the story—cannot read the measure or he lacks the ability to translate it into practice. There is an essential disconnect between his passion and his practice, his desire and his ability. Indeed, his very judgment of what he is playing lacks. When the street urchins implore him to play a waltz and leave disgusted at his noncompliance, the fiddler is mystified: “I was playing a waltz,” he says in explanation, even though the narrator's ear agrees with the children.41 Jakob is, in a word, dissonance personified. Despite all his passion and dedication, the fiddler's art is a fruitless art, constantly out of step with itself.
Despite the narrator's professed love for humanity in carnival situations, when class differences disappear and all are one, he seeks out the one who, in fact, stands out from the crowd. This process of selection—the fact that there is a selection process—is crucial.42 Apparently, not all nonfamous or obscure people are equal, at least not for the narrator's aesthetic-hermeneutic ends. Some people, it seems, are more (p.134) ordinary (i.e., less interesting) than others, and only the one whose obscurity is equally hermetic whets his anthropological ravenousness. Unlike Schiller and Hegel, the aesthetic representability of the common is not a question of stripping away or idealizing the everyday; and unlike Büchner's Lenz, who advocates for every insignificant face in its particularity, one could say Grillparzer's narrator establishes an “elite” among the obscure, a privileged status determined by the nonfamous needing to additionally embody a hermeneutic riddle. One must be common, but in an uncommon way. This privileging the uncommonly common allows the narrator to elude the aesthetic dilemma of how ordinary life can also be art, since the poor musician immediately stands both for and apart from the obscure.
It is the disjunction between the common sight of such a street musician and his utterly uncommon performance that attracts the narrator's “anthropological ravenousness.” What ultimately “seals the deal” and, in fact, determines the poor street musician as an exemplary case of nonfamous obscurity is Jakob's perfect Latin rendering of a line from Horace's First Satire: “Sunt certi denique fines”—“ultimately there are fixed limits.” While the narrator only emphasizes the flawless Latin, more is at stake in this quotation, which comprises the full riddle of the street performer. This citation is truncated and therefore an incomplete or even nonconnected rendering of the standard, full quotation: “[E]st modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines” [There is a measure in all things, and ultimately there are fixed limits].43 Horace is of course referring to what he calls “the golden mean.” By leaving out the need for a measure, indeed, the certainty that “there is a measure in all things,” Jakob only sees the limits and has no concept of the mean that lies in between. The thread that the narrator will pursue in the hope of finding it “unbroken” is then a textual thread, one beginning with and contextualized by Horace and the golden mean. He will read Jakob like a text, whose lack of coherence compels the narrator qua hermeneutist to want to learn more and decipher the riddle so as to discern the whole, the divine: “I shook with desire to hear the connection [Zusammenhang].”44
Jakob presents a hermeneutic challenge of the first order; his obscurity lies not only in his insignificance as a musician but also in the impenetrability of his “art.” Relating part to whole in a constant back-and-forth movement constitutes the hermeneutic method since Schleiermacher, and with Dilthey it becomes the structure of the subject (p.135) (the life-nexus) and the humanities in one. With the poor fiddler, however, such a nexus is apparently lacking. Following the narrator's inversion of the relation between the nonfamous and the famous, there are two enigmas that need to be unraveled: first, what is the connection holding together the poor musician's music and life (both individually and in relation to each other) and, more importantly, how do the nonfamous not only relate to but also enable the understanding of the famous, since this is the premise of the narrator's literary project? If Jakob is to contain, say, a Mozart or a Bach in embryo, what is the substantial, teleological relation? Or to use the narrator's other metaphor: what is the “invisible unbroken thread” that connects the world of the measureless fiddler and the genius?
The narrator comes to see the logic lurking behind the dissonant music when he visits Jakob a few mornings later. The narrator describes the music as a “demonic concert,” which only reveals its measureless measure to an attentive ear. Unlike Goethe's Jarno or the Tower Society in general, the narrator does not descend upon the musician to dissuade him from his art, much less to enlighten him about his inability as an artist. The poor musician awakens the narrator's interest not as a case to be improved or corrected; rather, the narrator withdraws explicit judgment and critique,45 remains in the anthropologicalhermeneutic mode, and aspires to understand the nonfamous in its obscurity. Together with Büchner's Lenz, which also emphasizes “understanding,” Grillparzer's The Poor Musician enacts a paradigm shift from aesthetic judgment to hermeneutic understanding, which also marks a difference between Classical and Realist aesthetics: the task isn't to judge art (or life) but to understand it, how it works, its logic. If Wilhelm Meister is an exemplary dilettante insofar as he surrenders art, the exemplary status of the poor musician, who surrenders nothing and cannot be seen as having achieved a “balanced measure,” must be arrived at via a different strategy:
After I had listened for some time, I finally recognized the thread—the method in the madness, as it were—running through this labyrinth. The old man took pleasure in playing. His conception [of music] differentiated simply between two things: euphony and cacophony. The first filled him with joy, indeed, rapture, whereas he avoided the second as far as possible, even when it had a harmonic basis. Rather than emphasize sense and rhythm in a piece of music, he stressed and prolonged the notes and intervals that were pleasing to the ear. In fact, he did not hesitate to repeat them capriciously, while his face often assumed an expression of ecstasy. He rid himself of the dissonances as quickly as (p.136) possible, whereas, out of conscientiousness, he did not exclude a note from the passages that were too difficult for him, but rendered them in a measure far too slow when set against the entire piece. One can thus easily imagine the confusion that resulted. For me it was well-nigh too much.46
The metaphor of the “thread” returns here, and since the thread leads through a labyrinth and offers a “method to the madness,” one can speak of an “invisible thread”—or “obscure” thread—determining Jakob's playing. Each piece of music is measured and evaluated according to its moments of euphony and cacophony: the first produces rapture in the poor musician; the second is avoided as much as possible. The aesthetic principle tying together the old fiddler's musical practice is, then, foremost his pleasure itself. And the cost of such absolutely subjective pleasure is high: neither sense nor rhythm but the simple joy of euphony guides his execution. Jakob remains faithful to the whole, insofar as he plays every note of the composition, but the dissonant passages are quickly dispelled, while the harmonious ones can be repeated at will. Every note is there—the whole remains untouched—but the whole is executed at times with repetitions, at times too quickly, and at times in “a measure far too slow” to make the piece intelligible. Jakob reads all the notes, but his timing, his connecting tact, is always off. The whole—which is also the “divine”—exists, but it is dissonant, fractured. And yet, the poor musician clearly possesses and displays aesthetic principles, albeit rather idiosyncratic ones. His music is only chaotic when judged via comparison with general principles of musical interpretation and execution; taken on its own, in its particularity, his music has a logic, a coherency. It may not be beautiful (for the narrator it is “well-nigh too much”), but this artistic lack only makes it all the more hermeneutically interesting. As a collector who strives to penetrate the essence of the obscure, the narrator recognizes the musician's dissonance not to dismiss it but to understand it.
Everything—and nothing—changes when the narrator cedes the word and encourages Jakob to relate his life. Although the poor fiddler begins by denying having a story to tell—“I have no story”—as soon as he gets going, he assumes “the position of one who comfortably narrates.”47 The missing connection in his music is matched by his inverse and equally great ability to narrate his life in perfect coherence. Everything Jakob lacks as a musician he possesses in abundance as a narrator. After announcing that he is the son of a powerful court advisor and statesman, the poor musician “spun, visibly pleased, the thread of his narration further.”48 Despite the “unbroken thread” of Jakob's autobiographical (p.137) narration, the determining feature of his life's key episodes remains, as in his music, a failure of connection, a missed context. As Roland Heine aptly sums it up, “without recognizing it as his life problem, the poor musician has run aground on connection in his life.”49
A slow learner compared to two brothers, the first crucial moment in Jakob's life (the event that, in his words, derails him from the right path) is a Latin exam with his father present. Despite being given all the answers in advance by the teacher, the poor musician struggles to recall one word from Horace: “But I, looking for the word inside me and in connection [Zusammenhang] with the others, couldn't hear it.”50 Just as the narrator's “anthropological ravenousness” is whetted by a (fragmentary) Horace citation, the decisive scene in the musician's life is a failed or forgotten context in Horace's Ars Poetica. The author of the golden mean both awakens the narrator's ravenous interest and provides the answer to the connection—namely, the poor musician's constant failure to see the connection. Jakob's deafness to the nexus between things causes his downfall as his father shouts the missing word: “Cachinnum” (i.e., “guffaw,” “derisive laughter”). In The Poor Musician, context is everything, and here as well. As Roland Heine points out, the context that Jakob cannot recall concerns the necessity of a poet using words in the proper context.51 The passage from Horace addresses what one could call the golden mean of dramatic character: “If the words are discordant [absona] with the speaker's fortunes / The Romans, in the boxes and pit alike, will raise a loud guffaw [cachinnum].”52 While Heine rightly highlights Jakob's Freudian repression of the word demarcating “what he secretly fears: the derisive laughter about his failure,”53 more is at stake, since this passage designates dissonance or discordance—Jakob's métier—as precisely that which dismantles the possibility of connection. What attracts the narrator to Jakob—the discordance between his (Latin) words and his station in life—can equally be a cause for laughter. Therefore, this passage (which is also Jakob's lapsus) thematizes not only the disconnect between the musician's elegant words and his dissonant music but more importantly the narrator's larger hermeneutic project of connecting the famous and nonfamous via an unbroken thread. If the poor musician is the narrator's test case, how then can discordance articulate a harmonious whole?
Subsequently debarred from the family house and living with the servants, Jakob is given a job as copyist [Abschreiber]. Here again he falters due to a lacking sense of context and connection: “An incorrect (p.138) punctuation mark, a missing word in the concept—even if it could be deduced from the sense—caused me bitter hours.”54 Even when the context is clear or can be clearly deduced, the very fact that a word is missing prompts the poor musician's inability to decide what the proper context is and, thus, what the whole is or should be: “In doubt whether I should exactly cling to the original or add from my own [knowledge], the time passed in fear, and I gained the reputation of being careless although I tortured myself at the job like no one else.”55 Jakob's problem is a hermeneutic one: How do the parts connect to provide a coherent whole? Moreover, what is the whole? His inability to recognize whether the original whole (since it is apparently missing a part and thus is not whole) or the assumed whole (i.e., one supplemented via a deduction of the relation of parts to whole) should have priority marks him as one condemned to miss the nexus between part and whole.
In this key hermeneutic scene of this literary text about hermeneutics, the poor musician not only is “confronted with a hermeneutic problem that mirrors his existential problem,”56 but more decisively, he becomes the narrator's doppelgänger, since he has to decipher the ultimate form of obscurity: a missing word in a text. In a way, Jakob has to read himself and, by extension, the place of the obscure in the book that previously had been dedicated only to the lives of the famous. That is, in being confronted with the question of the whole, Jakob equally has to decide the status of the text, of the book itself, its completion and coherency. This scene offers, therefore, a moment of insight that doubles and disrupts the narrator's parallel aesthetic-hermeneutic project of the invisible or obscure thread. As a copyist whose task is to faithfully reproduce what lies before him, Jakob's hermeneutic question of what constitutes the “whole” text is justified: if he supplements the original, he no longer copies—and thus no longer preserves—the whole but creates what amounts to a second or para-whole; and if he leaves out the assumed missing word, the whole, while remaining faithful to the original, remains incomplete. Even when he penetrates the obscure, Jakob is faced with an inextricable dilemma, for regardless of how he proceeds, the whole may not, in fact, be whole.57 The constant threat of a missing word announces an always possible lacuna, a permanent obscurity disrupting the relation between part and part, part and whole, small and great, nonfamous and famous.
In positing the obscure—in the double sense of ordinary and hermetic—as the key to understanding the great, the narrator implies that (p.139) one has not yet read, not yet understood, Plutarch's Lives. Until the lives of the obscure are elucidated, the lives of the famous remain obscure as well. If the nonfamous of world history cannot be understood, not only does the narrator's hermeneutic project—which is also the coming foundation of the humanities—break down but so does humanity itself, at least as something legible and held together by a common thread. If the “thread” that holds the musician's life together is a broken or failed connection, then the relationship constructed between nonfamous and famous cannot be one of continuity (and certainly not of embryonic teleology) but must be one of repetition: What “holds together” the famous and nonfamous is a repeatedly broken thread that, in its very repetition as broken, creates a dis/continuity between all, a relation of repeated difference. Jakob, one could say, does not miss the nexus, but marks it as always missing. This is the insight of the obscure. In this light, The Poor Musician offers not only an updated and expanded version of Plutarch's Lives based upon the biographies of the nonfamous but also a new notion of the book: one that has always already burst its binding.
The Sublimity of Regularity (Stifter)
Perhaps no German-language author felt the weight of being an epigone more than Grillparzer's fellow Austrian Adalbert Stifter, who programmatically renounces genius in favor of an artist modeled on the researcher and collector. And perhaps no writer has placed the small, ordinary, and common at the center of his work with more insistence than Stifter. Responding to Friedrich Hebbel's 1849 reproach that he rejoices in “bugs and buttercups,”58 Stifter does not dispute but affirms this preference. In the preface to his collection Bunte Steine (1853, Multi-Colored Stones), Stifter admits his predilection for “the small” and for “ordinary people” and promises to offer something slightly different: something “even smaller and more insignificant.”59 This emphasis on the small forms the crux of Stifter's aesthetics, in which the seemingly insignificant, precisely through its unassuming nature, can reveal the remarkable. In elevating the small over the great, Stifter, like Grillparzer (whose The Poor Musician Stifter admired greatly),60 inverts the hierarchy of greatness, but unlike Grillparzer, his theoretical method of arriving at the truly great—what Stifter will also call the “whole” as well as the “universal” and “world-maintaining,” all of (p.140) which can be summarized in his famous phrase “the gentle law”—does not consist in a hermeneutics of particularity; rather, Stifter advocates a quasi-scientific procedure for answering the dilemma of vision, of how to see the “invisible,” by collecting the everyday and ordinary in order to abstract from them toward something higher:
The flowing of air, the rippling of water, the growing of grain, the waves of the sea, the greening of the earth, the gleaming of the heavens, the twinkling of the stars, I consider to be great; the splendidly approaching storm, the lightning that splits houses, the tempest that drives the surf, the fire-spewing mountain, the earthquake that buries whole countries, I do not consider to be greater than the former phenomena. Indeed, I think they are smaller, since they are only effects of much higher laws. They appear at isolated places and are the results of one-sided causes. The force that causes the milk in the poor woman's little pot to surge up and overflow is the same one that drives up the lava in the firespewing mountain and makes it flow down the mountainsides. These phenomena are only more conspicuous and compel the gaze of the ignorant and inattentive toward themselves, while the mental process of the researcher tends primarily to the whole and the general and can recognize magnificence only in them, for they alone sustain the world. The details pass away and in a short time their effects can hardly still be recognized.61
In this often cited passage, Stifter performs a crucial inversion of the categories of the great and the small, the extraordinary and the ordinary, and does so by relating them not (as in Grillparzer) to each other, but to that which stands over the great and small alike. The powerful, violent expressions of nature—storms, lightning, volcanoes, earthquakes—are, in Stifter's view, actually smaller than the small due to three factors: First, they are not great in themselves but are “effects of much higher laws.” That is, their greatness is not immanent but lies external to them. Second, their putative magnitude is measured by their effects (destroying houses, nations), whereas the greatness of small events lies precisely in their ability “to have an effect only through that which they are.”62 Great events need to leave a mark to appear as such, whereas small ones can simply be and in this being have their effect—their activity and essence are one (the air flows, the water ripples). Finally and most importantly, the overpowering phenomena of nature are small due to their infrequency and exceptional status. Much like Lessing's discussion of the two Cleopatras (Corneille's sublime heroine and his “completely common woman”), Stifter argues for greatness based not on exceptionality (power, strength, etc.) but on regularity. As Eric Downing has argued, Realism (p.141) is determined by the figure of repetition; and, therefore, that which repeats itself most frequently is also the truly great insofar as the regular is the truer representative of and ingress into “how things are.” The common occurrences of nature possess a greater power than the exceptional precisely because the small events occur so often and have an effect by merely “being.”
Akin to Grillparzer's “invisible, unbroken thread,” Stifter does not argue that the great and the small adhere to different orders; rather, the natural force that drives the milk to boil over “is the same as” that which causes a volcano to erupt. If both the great and small are manifestations of the same “higher laws,” why does he privilege the small over the great, since they, too, are an effect of the same law? Why can't thunder, an earthquake, or a volcano equally reveal the universal? Everything is a question of perception, of vision and thus the difference between what Stifter calls the “gaze of the ignorant and inattentive” and “the mental process of the researcher.” For Stifter, it is actually a rather mediocre gaze that allows itself to be taken in by what is simply “more conspicuous” [augenfälliger, literally, that which “falls into the eyes”]. The properly sublime form of vision attunes itself to quotidian life and is awestruck by its force of regularity.63
Stifter's one example of the true “researcher's mental process”—a singularity that raises it to exemplary status—is a man who every day, year in and year out, uses his compass at the exact same hour to observe the small oscillations of the needle pointing north, observations that he then collects in a book. While the ignorant gaze (attuned to the spectacular moments of nature) may take this for an almost dilettantish endeavor, as mere “playing around,”64 Stifter's true observer notes with amazement that “these observations are really being made all over the world, and from tables compiled from them it is apparent that many little changes in the magnetized needle often occur at all points of the earth and to the same degree.”65 The protocols of research, which are equally the protocols of epigonic artistic production, come to light here and are essential for understanding Stifter's method. First, the absolute regularity of the observation: the object is not a singular event, nor even a small specimen, but a mass of data assembled over years. Second, it is not the individual data in isolation that are revelatory, but only the tabulated and compared results that proceed from accumulation.66 That is, the small and seemingly insignificant in isolation is just that: small and insignificant. “In time the details pass away.”
(p.142) Unlike Büchner, Grillparzer, and many others, Stifter does not propose immersing oneself in the particular for a monadic or hermeneutic image of the whole; rather, only the cumulative force of such minor, individual observations reveals something remarkable: the magnet shiver that encompasses the world. An everyday occurrence is elevated here not for its monadic particularity, but for what it first reveals as an aggregate force. By collecting the common and then abstracting from it, one avoids Grillparzer's implicit hierarchy of some nonfamous entities being more important, more interesting than others. Viewed as data, all everyday events are equally interesting and important. Stifter's realist project also differs from his French counterpart Balzac, who famously describes himself in the preface to The Human Comedy (1842) as the “secretary” of French society. Such a social stenographer writes “the history forgotten by historians” by becoming “a more or less faithful, more or less felicitous, patient, or courageous painter of human types, the narrator of dramas of inner life, the archaeologist of social property, the namer of professions, the registrar of good and ill.”67 Like Grillparzer, Balzac wants to compose the lives of the nonfamous, but unlike Grillparzer, not in order to connect them to the lives of the famous as their hermeneutic key, but rather as a necessary supplement to the existing, canonical history. Balzac's notion of Realism aims for a complete history, for an all-encompassing image of society. Stifter's method, on the other hand, consists neither in a hermeneutic nor a historical investigation, but in the quasi-scientific attempt to assemble and tabulate data so as to uncover its underlying law. The gentle law, this “world-maintaining” power, may be atemporal, but its perception and deduction demands a patient adherence to the flow of time—days, months, years.
Stifter can thus be seen as undertaking a crucial rewriting of Kant's notion of the sublime. For Kant, the dynamic sublime occurs when the subject is faced with the same natural phenomena (as well as their destructive capacity) that Stifter dismisses as smaller than small. Kant writes in the Third Critique:
Bold overhanging and, as it were, threatening cliffs, thunderclouds piled high in the sky and approaching with thunder and lightning, volcanoes in their completely destructive power, tornadoes with the destruction they have left behind, the ocean set into a rage, a powerful river's high waterfall […] we call these objects sublime, since they raise the powers of the soul above their ordinary measure [ihr gewöhnliches Mittelmaß].68
(p.143) Kant locates the sublime in the subject, when the imagination is confronted with a magnitude (mathematical sublime) or power (dynamic sublime) that exceeds its ability to simultaneously comprehend the object and forces it to recoil in impotence and failure. Reason, however, steps in and declares that it is not nature testing the limits of the imagination but reason itself. In the sublime, the imagination excels its “ordinary measure,” falls back on itself, and thereby learns the measure-giving power of reason.
In his earlier text, “Solar Eclipse on July 8, 1842,” Stifter still agrees with Kant by locating the sublime in exceptional moments of nature and, in fact, explicitly rejects their calculability as a reason for their sublimity. In defending “the wondrous magic of the beauty that God gave to things,” Stifter maintains that one should not object to such extraordinary magnificence simply because a solar eclipse is “easily calculable via the laws of movement of [heavenly] bodies.” On the contrary, a solar eclipse's beauty shines forth not because of but “despite the calculations.”69 Stifter ends “Solar Eclipse” with a crucial rhetorical question that a decade later will no longer be rhetorical but an expression of disbelief that such a question can even be posed: “Why do we notice God's being less in natural laws, since they are also his wonders and creations, than when a sudden change, a disturbance of them occurs, where we, filled with terror, suddenly see Him standing before us?”70 With the preface to Multi-Colored Stones, Stifter radically alters, indeed inverts, this model by unequivocally positing the sublimity of the calculability of the small: from the perspective of the preface, to attribute a solar eclipse's sublimity to “a sudden change” in natural law (which, it should be noted, isn't a change or disturbance at all, but calculable) would amount to being fascinated by a “special effect” of nature. Such special effects distract one's gaze from the true sublimity that can only be revealed in the repeated and largely calculable events of nature. The compass measurements become “awe inducing” [ehrfurchterregend] in the face of the overpowering realization that the same minor deviations are occurring simultaneously throughout the world. One can speak of a cumulative sublime of minutiae, a sublimity felt in the face of the mighty regularity of the world.
Stifter therefore privileges the small and seemingly insignificant, since it is only the collective force of such quotidian minutiae—meticulously observed, recorded, and calculated—that offers a negative presentation of the infinite, of the law that stands over the exception and (p.144) the norm alike. What is sublime is regularity itself, particularly the calculability of “the many small changes,” which for Stifter's “ignorant gaze” would seem to contest such ordered deviations. In Stifter's sublime, the negative insight into the “world-maintaining” gentle law occurs, then, not through the putatively grand—which as a deviation from the norm is rather insignificant—nor through the small in isolation, but through the sheer force of regularity that is best witnessed in infinitely repeated and thus normative occurrences. The ability to see this, however, requires the nonquotidian skill to observe what cannot be perceived as such.
Perceptions of the Unperceivable
If both the exceptional and the ordinary in their isolation are insignificant, then Stifter's poetics of vision is, as Downing underscores, “not about vision at all, or only in the second place,”71 and this for the simple reason that the true object of inquiry is not something that can be seen or perceived. If Grillparzer follows the invisible thread between the famous and nonfamous via a hermeneutics of part and whole, Stifter's preface does not display an interest in individual phenomena per se, whether great or small, but rather in what subtends but is ultimately exterior to both. The collective force of the small is simply the access to it. The question then becomes: how does one see the invisible? Just as one cannot see light, one has no eye for magnetic fields. Even though we do not have a “corporeal eye” for such “immeasurable events,” we do have “the spiritual [eye] of science, and this teaches us that the electrical and magnetic power acts upon a monstrous stage.”72 Empirical vision is, then, ultimately only a means to an end, to a higher form of (mental or spiritual) vision, just as the small only serves a greater end: revealing the whole and universal. In espousing scientific observation, Stifter is wholly cognizant of its limits:
But because science only secures grain upon grain, only makes observation on top of observation, only compiles [zusammen trägt] the universal out of the particular, and finally because the mass of phenomena and the field of data is infinitely large—God has thus made the joy and bliss of research inexhaustible—we, too, can represent only the particular in our workshops, never the universal, for this would be creation.73
The scientific perspective only consists in individual observations that, even when brought together, never add up to the universal. One can (p.145) and must abstract the universal from the particular data, but only as an approximation. Even the slow, patient gaze of the scientist runs up against its finitude in the face of an infinite project. In reading this passage, Downing arrives at the central issue at stake in Stifter's desire to perceive the “whole” and “universal”: “As both scientist and realist artist the investigator sees only discrete, unconnected pieces and fragments without immanent, intrinsic meaning or connection. […] From within the realist's empirical sphere itself, there is no general lawgiving or meaning-giving reality.”74 This issue touches upon the crucial dilemma in Stifter's thought, which extends to the potential problem of Stifter's method: if one can “represent only the particular […] never the universal,” there may be no way of getting beyond the piecemeal work of the empirical investigator, who due to finite limits can only observe, tabulate, and calculate isolated phenomena. As with Grillparzer's invocation of the invisible, unbroken thread, the individual pieces only make sense if they are truly held together. How is one then to arrive at the universal law from discrete, limited data? How can Stifter deduce or presuppose the “gentle law,” if one has no access to it?
Stifter's admission that the true researcher only collects fragments seems to disavow the very significance-lending function that would enable his realist project to succeed, that is, to reveal the universal from the accumulated data. Downing concludes that this threat of a missing whole results in Stifter's science actually being dressed-up theology: “God supplies the missing unity, or rather Stifter supplies God to supply the missing unity and law—the law of unity—which guarantee that the pieces and fragments function as pieces and fragments, as signifiers of a common but empirically absent reality. […] Realism becomes a matter not of scientifically recording what is there but of religiously believing in what is not.”75 For Downing, Stifter has to rely on God as an original supplement or supplement for the missing origin not only to hold together the disparate phenomena, but more importantly to lend significance to what otherwise is a series of random events. Stifter's poetics of the gentle law would then be ultimately held together by belief. This interpretation, however, is only implicit in Stifter's text. This is not to say that Stifter wasn't rather conservative in his religious belief,76 but in this text God does not function ex verbis as the supplement to the missing unity nor does the divine bestow meaning; in fact, the one thing God does here (if he does anything) is make the task of science infinite and, therefore, guarantee that its joy—the (p.146) joy of discovering the hidden—will be inexhaustible. God doesn't guarantee knowledge, but the impossibility of its completion.77 As long as the whole isn't completely discovered (which it never will be), there may be no realized whole, and Stifter's mentioning of God doesn't change this. But given that the “gentle law” in nature is deduced from a series of tabulated individual measurements of small phenomena (as the example of the magnet field and the “field of data” attest), there is another possible explanation, another way of seeing the gentle law: to view the gentle law as analogous to statistical probability, in which a large enough field of data performs the awe-inspiring feat of organizing itself into a coherent, normal distribution.
The Statistical Law
In statistics, when enough data has been accumulated and tabulated, one can note the sublime regularity that determines natural phenomena (average temperature, rainfall, or terrestrial magnetism)78 and predict with astonishing precision how, on the whole, the general tendencies of nature will be. This regularity in no way precludes the seemingly exceptional event—tornado, thunderstorm, hurricane, and so forth—but as exceptions they fall on the far, small ends of the bell curve and, from a statistical perspective, are both marginal and accounted for in the law of averages. The statistical bell curve, therefore, might help explain Stifter's predilection for the norm over the exception, since the exception (or the large deviation) plays a minor role in statistical regularity. Hence, Stifter can discount the exceptional as smaller than the small because with respect to the underlying law of regularity, the large exception, precisely due to its deviation from the norm, is indeed (statistically) irrelevant—accounted for but not significant in the final count.
While Stifter studied mathematics and physics and successfully completed a course on statistics,79 this is not to suggest that he immediately applies statistical thought in the gentle law. Rather, statistical thought belonged to the discourse of the time, a discourse that Stifter was well aware of and that, together with his defense of the middle versus extremes, offers a moment of clear structural overlap. Moreover, Stifter does not merely allude to scientific data collection in the preface but mobilizes it as the foundation for his method and argument (however precarious this will turn out to be). The suggestion that Stifter's notion of the gentle law bears similarities to statistics' normal (p.147) distribution also helps to elucidate one of the more tendentious instances of doubling and repetition in the text: the mapping of the gentle law as a natural force onto the human, social sphere. “Just as it is in external nature,” writes Stifter in an apparently abrupt transition, “so is it also in the inner nature of the human race.”80 This resemblance between the natural and social worlds (i.e., the laws of nature and those of human behavior) is one of the more astounding and debated elements of Stifter's realist theory. Stifter, however, is fully in line with the thought of his time. In 1835 the Belgian statistician Adolphe Quetelet published A Treatise on Man, his pathbreaking study on statistical regularity in human behavior. Eighteen years before Stifter, Quetelet claims that the regularity in natural phenomena can also be observed in human actions:
It would appear, then, that moral phenomena, when observed on a great scale, are found to resemble physical phenomena; and thus we arrive, in inquiries of this kind, at the fundamental principle, that the greater the number of individuals observed, the more do individual peculiarities, whether physical or moral, become effaced, and leave in a prominent point of view the general facts, by virtue of which society exists and is preserved.81
Quetelet's postulate of a “resemblance” between moral and physical phenomena clearly sets the stage for Stifter's repetition of the natural and social gentle law. Moreover, Quetelet does not rely on God as meaning-giving instance; he, too, evokes God but does so to declare that it would be an “injustice to the Creative Power” not to suppose that “whilst all is regulated by such admirable laws, man's existence alone should be capricious, and possessed of no conservative principle.”82 As in Stifter's example of the compass measurements and tabulations, regularity—and thus meaning—appears for Quetelet solely on a “great scale.” God does not lend meaning or offer regularity where there seems to be none; rather, the apparently chaotic, individual data organizes itself into a regular distribution. Following the law of large numbers, “individual peculiarities” (i.e., deviations and exceptions) can be effaced to reveal what “preserves” society as a whole. In the end, Stifter, like Quetelet, elevates the small and ordinary—not, however, as ends in themselves, but rather for the perspective they open up when collected, tabulated, and processed: the sublimity of regularity.
With the rise of statistics in the late seventeenth century, discussions of humanity with respect to the individual slowly gave way to probabilities, expectancies, and risk factors that are first determined by the (p.148) accumulation and averaging of a large data pool. This data-fication83 of the human reached the point of a paradigm shift by 1830: “By around 1830 l'homme éclairé had given way to l'homme moyen.”84 Quetelet coined the term l'homme moyen or “the average man” in 183185 to designate the statistical conglomerate—derived from a given society's birth rates, height, weight, life expectancy, crime rates, education, and so forth—that crystallizes the tendencies of a society. As the product of a series of numbers and data, Quetelet's average man is the modern numerical “everyman,” who is at once no one, since no one person will meet the measure of the average. The average man, according to Quetelet, “is a fictitious being, for whom everything proceeds conformably to the medium results obtained for society in general.”86 Quetelet's average man thereby embodies a paradox: precisely as a fiction—as the aggregated average of society's tendencies—the average man is more real, more representative of society than any real person can ever be. Despite being averageness personified, l'homme moyen does not mark for Quetelet the lowest common denominator but the social incarnation of Aristotle's notion of the mean—the perfect balance and ideal of a society.87 Therefore, if the Enlightenment designated the individual as the seat of reason, the emergent field of statistics displaced the locus of ratio from the subject to the social body. Even when the individual does not or cannot follow the dictates of reason, society as a whole (represented by the average man) displays a remarkable regularity and predictability, which forms a sort of universal rationality in the midst of otherwise individual irrationality. For statistics, the chaos of individual information or action recedes when enough data is collected and viewed in the proper perspective.
It is precisely this structure of rationality (i.e., predictable regularity) emerging from a vast amount of individual, seemingly capricious data that links Stifter's thought on the gentle law as a social force to the ascendance of statistical thinking and, in particular, to what Quetelet variously calls “social statistics,” “social physics,” and “moral statistics.” Quetelet's insight lay in noticing that not only such natural, even occurrences like birth and death rates demonstrate an astonishing regularity, but so do voluntary actions such as marriage, suicide, and murder—which, when viewed from the perspective of free will, should not follow a calculable probability but should fluctuate considerably. With enough data, however, a large aggregate of social behavior, including voluntary acts, will fall into a normal distribution. The tools that allow one to describe rainfall, the earth's magnetic field, and (p.149) the like are also those that offer insights into social behavior on a large scale.
Stifter himself describes the progress of scientific thought as moving away from the exceptional and slowly becoming aware that greatness lies elsewhere. Immediately following the sentence that we “can only represent the particular in our workshops, never the universal,” Stifter writes: “The history of what is great in nature has also consisted in a permanent change of perspectives on this greatness. […] [A]s their [human's] senses were opened, when they began to direct their attention to the connection [Zusammenhang], the particular phenomena sank ever deeper and the law ascended ever higher.”88 The path of history as the path of its conception follows a trajectory from the great to the ordinary and from the ordinary to the higher law organizing it all. While the law for Stifter does not change, mankind's limited, finite access to it—and thus the law's conceptualization—certainly does.89 Eventually, all “particular phenomena sink” in importance in favor of the “connection” of things, the patterns and distribution of events, which make one aware of an “invisible” law. Quetelet shares this method of collecting diverse phenomena in order to arrive at a logic or law governing its connection. Without appealing to history, Quetelet equally maintains that the law first reveals itself when one abstracts from the infinite sense data and gains an overall picture: “By removing oneself still further from the object, the individual loses sight of the individual points, no longer observes any accidental or odd arrangements among them, but discovers at once the law presiding over their general arrangements.”90 Both Quetelet and Stifter look for the “law” that governs the otherwise chaotic, manifold phenomena of everyday life. Therefore, as with Grillparzer, Stifter seeks the nexus, the set of relations that inheres and holds together apparently disparate phenomena. Whereas Grillparzer, however, delves into the particularity of the obscure to discover the monadic relation of connection, Stifter's “Preface” relegates even the individual to the greater connection between things—the law that holds it all together, the great and the small.
How Gentle Is the Gentle Law?
This is not to claim an identity between Stifter's gentle law and Quetelet's social statistics. As will become clear, great differences emerge. For now, two crucial moments of overlap should be highlighted that help elucidate what Stifter wants to achieve with the analogy (p.150) between data collection and the gentle law in the ethical sphere. First, both Stifter and Quetelet map the physical onto the social thereby rendering Stifter's putatively remarkable doubling not all that remarkable from the perspective of statistical thought. Second, both rely on the law of large numbers to efface individual exceptions and to provide a model of ordered regularity. As the number of instances increase, the collected data follow the pattern of a regular distribution, in which “normal” behavior—small, repeated, and generally nonexceptional events—clusters around the center, and individual idiosyncrasies or deviations fade into the margins. In other words, by collecting enough individual data a pattern emerges that at once effaces exceptions and offers an image of society or nature in its regularity.
In Stifter's case, this preponderance of the normal results in seeing the moral or social phenomena of wrath and revenge (extremes, exceptions) as akin to earthquakes and volcanoes, just as mastering oneself and reasonableness are small, daily, and barely noticeable events like grain growing and stars twinkling. The destructive power of wrath and revenge is, again, smaller than the small, “because these things are as much products of individual and one-sided forces.” While Stifter also dismisses tornadoes and earthquakes, “because they are the results of one-sided causes,” he does not additionally declare that destructive human emotions and social acts are “the effects of much higher laws” (as he does with the correlated natural phenomena). This raises the crucial question of whether wrath and revenge adhere to the same “gentle law” as mild, imperceptible, sustaining human acts. The passage in which he delineates the difference between violent, destructive acts and those “sustaining humanity” is admittedly not easy to interpret:
There are forces that aim for the survival [Bestehen] of the individual. They take and use everything that is necessary for their own existence and development. They secure the survival [Bestand] of one and thus of all. But if someone unconditionally grabs everything that his being needs for himself, if he destroys the conditions of another's being, then something higher grows angry in us; we help the weak and oppressed, we restore the state of affairs. […] There are, therefore, forces that work toward the existence [Bestehen] of humanity as a whole, forces that may not be limited by individual forces, indeed, that, on the contrary, have a limiting effect on them.91
Stifter seems to posit two forces at odds: the forces aiming for individual survival versus those directed toward the survival of humanity as a whole. As such, his mapping of the natural gentle law onto the social (p.151) gentle law appears to collapse under the weight of its own contradiction, since it is precisely the universality of the law (which should account for great and small, the exception and the norm alike) that lends it its meaning-giving function.92 If the two forces—call them the individualistic and the altruistic—arise from different sources, there can be no unity, no coherence, and thus no gentle law in a double respect: first, there would be no one law governing the natural and social alike and, second, there would be no single ethical law that accounts for both destructive and preserving acts. Stifter, however, describes the individualistic force as simultaneously working toward the “survival of one and thus of all.” It is only when (“Aber wenn …”) this force lapses into a one-sidedness that “unconditionally” works for its own survival and thus “destroys” another being that one can speak of a destructive force—but then only as a permutation of this same force when it works for the survival “of one and thus of all.” As in Goethe's notion of a “balanced measure,” it is one-sidedness that leads to a derailment of equilibrium between working for oneself and others in one gesture.
The bigger issue—and ultimately the stumbling block—for Stifter's explication of the gentle law in social interaction (as opposed to in natural phenomena) lies not in deviations from the law, but in the response to such destructive one-sidedness. On the one hand, Stifter declares that “something higher in us grows angry,” which points to the “higher law” naturally and spontaneously asserting itself. In this view, when some deviate from and oppose the gentle law, the majority naturally counteracts to defend and uphold the law, driven it seems by the law itself. If this is the case, the law will always sustain and assert itself, a point Stifter explicitly makes: “The power [Gewalt] of this law of right and morality [dieses Rechts-und Sittengesetzes] is so great that wherever it has been fought, it has always walked away from the battle victorious and glorious.”93 From this perspective, the gentle law is a metaphysical constant throughout history, a description of what “guides the human race.”94
Such a teleological principle, it should be noted, is not entirely foreign to earlier, largely eighteenth-century conceptualizations of statistical thought. In “Idea for a Universal History” (1784), Kant appeals to the regularity in marriage, birth, and death in order to hopefully “discover a natural intention in this absurd course of human things” and, thus, perhaps a telos to history, a definite plan “for creatures who have no plan of their own”:95
(p.152) As deeply hidden as its causes may be, history […] allows us to hope that if history observes the play of freedom of the human will on the whole, it may be able to discern a regular course in it, and what seems complex and irregular in the single subject may be seen from the standpoint of the human race as a whole to be a steadily progressing, though slow development of its original dispositions.96
While Kant doesn't come across here as the greatest admirer of humanity and its ability to progress in history, it is precisely statistical regularity emerging from free (i.e., unpredictable) will that offers hope for a providential force guiding the whole, while the individual remains inscrutable. As Theodore Porter underscores, Kant (following Süßmilch) still views statistical regularity as “indicating divine wisdom and planning,” as pointing to a certain divine ordinance and direction to history, which is only revealed when human will is viewed on the whole.97
On the other hand, and opposed to this teleological description of human history, Stifter remarks later in the preface that entire populations can and do lapse into a universal one-sidedness that leads to the downfall of nations: “Measure is the first thing that disappears in peoples in decline.”98 This emphasis on measure and, in particular, on the possibility that a whole nation can lose its measure means that the gentle law doesn't always maintain itself, much less humanity. After declaring the law “always victorious,” Stifter admits that at times individual people or whole nations meet their demise for the sake of defending the law. He tries to rescue this failure of the law to “maintain” humanity by appealing to a tragic-sublime feeling that views the vanquished as actually not “defeated” but “triumphant” because they fought for the whole. The point nevertheless remains: the law does not always hold and holds no guarantees. From this opposed perspective, the gentle law is not a descriptive but a prescriptive law, that is, a moral imperative—a demand for how one ought to act and, thus, constantly in danger of being violated and neglected.
Therefore, it is the human response to the law's transgression that lays bare the lack of clarity in Stifter's notion of the gentle law. Why does one uphold and fight for the law? Because the law steers and, as it were, guides human action on the whole, despite deviations, as a teleological form of providence? Or simply because the law is a prescriptive, moral law that commands such behavior? Either interpretation parts ways with Stifter's initial description of scientific method, which compiles the universal from disparate, individual data. When it (p.153) comes to the human sphere, the gentle law is no longer discovered through the observation, collection, and tabulation of a discrete “field of data” but arrives and is imposed from above. Ultimately, Stifter wants a metaphysical atemporal law that indeed determines the whole of human action (e.g., “something higher in us grows angry”) but can only advocate for a moral imperative, a “moral law” in the social sphere. That the gentle law is not a description of history but rather a veiled appeal (i.e., may something higher in us grow angry) is clear when one reads the ensuing declaration that entire nations can and do collapse as a result of a loss of measure—a danger that amounts to a pressing anxiety for Stifter.
Stifter's paradigmatic example of such national-historic ruin is the Romans, whom he discusses in a series of essays collected as “Vom Recht” (1850, “On Right”). For Stifter, the Romans slowly surrendered to their sensual depravity and “thus the great empire sank ever deeper into softness and addiction to pleasure.”99 In this text written a few years before the preface, Stifter even admonishes contemporary Europe for tending toward the same one-sidedness as the Romans. Conjuring the specter of unnamed “wild peoples” from Middle Asia, Stifter warns that Europe, too, could repeat Rome's demise if it remains “foolish, amoral, soft, feminine, and non-united.”100 Leaving aside the rather hair-raising politics of this passage, the issue remains: If humans must fight to maintain a balance in the face of one-sidedness and therefore can always succumb to a universal loss of measure, then the gentle law in human interaction does not sustain humanity; rather, and more emphatically, humanity must repeatedly try to sustain the gentle law, which depletes it of its sublime regularity and relation to scientific method. Ultimately, the gentle law for human behavior is simply a moral imperative dressed up as statistical regularity. It is at this juncture that the resemblance between the natural and the social spheres breaks down: that which maintains the world can also fall apart—and therefore it never existed as a universal law in the first place. This threat of collapse is Stifter's great anxiety, a dread expressed in Yeats's poem “The Second Coming”:
- Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
- Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
- The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
- The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
- The best lack all conviction, while the worst
- Are full of passionate intensity.101
(p.154) Stifter, it goes without saying, is an advocate of the middle and mean, a writer who sees his job as fending off and effacing extremes, particularly political extremes such as revolutions, in favor of the slow rhythm of the inauspicious everyday. Therefore, the goal of his poetics lies in prosaic reality itself, in affirming and stabilizing its nonheroic, nonexceptional normality.
The Art of Prosaic Reality
It is only after Stifter has (more than precariously) mapped the gentle law of nature onto that of social interaction that he explicitly mentions art—this in a preface to a collection of short stories. The belatedness in arriving at literature raises at least two questions: First, why does the gentle law need literature at all, that is, what does literature do for or how can it reveal the gentle law? Second, what is the relation—however precarious or implied—between literature, scientific method, and the gentle law?
Given Stifter's demotion of the exceptional and one-sided in favor of the small, it comes as no surprise that he is not interested in the heroic genres of epic and tragedy, even when it means meeting one's demise by defending the gentle law. Rather, Stifter preaches an art of regularity, an art that attunes itself to and records like a compass needle the silent, slow, almost imperceptible repetition of the everyday. Hence, he rejects both tragedy and epic—as exceptional and onesided—in favor of events that recur according to the rhythm of daily life:
But no matter how powerfully [gewaltig] and in what great traits the tragic and the epic have an effect, no matter how excellent they are as levers in art, it is generally always the ordinary, everyday, and countlessly recurring human activities in which this law lies most securely as their center of gravity, since these activities are lasting and founding; they are, as it were, the millions of tiny roots of the tree of life.102
This passage is remarkable because it all but declares tragedy and epic to provide better subject matter for art than prose (Stifter's exclusive métier), which means that more than beauty or aesthetic effect is at stake in Stifter's reflections on literature. If tragedy and epic make for better art but do not belong to Stifter's privileged genres (since they feature exceptional figures furthest removed from the center), then Stifter—in a revised version of normative aesthetics—proposes a poetics (p.155) of the normal. Like Lessing, Stifter professes a literature of the completely common—without, however, a tragic conflict and end. And in advocating a literature of everyday acts in their countless repetitions, Stifter follows Heinrich Heine's rejection of idealizing aesthetics—not, however, to expressly engage the first world so as to change it; rather, Stifter raises everyday life to his art because prosaic reality as it is constitutes for him the actual art of the world, what maintains and preserves it. Here Stifter's thought on literature remains aligned with statistics: it is precisely the small, ordinary, and recurrent acts that, in their collective force, are at once sublime and preserving. Therefore, Stifter implies that prosaic reality should enter poetry as poetry's ideal. One needs poetry not to idealize or to offer an alternative to the prose of the world but to affirm it. Whereas Wilhelm Meister's renunciation of his dilettantish artistic practice allows an affirmation of one's prosaic soul in the service of poetry, Stifter mobilizes poetry to preserve prosaic reality itself.
This inversion of the hierarchy between poetry and prose, the exception and the quotidian, has wide-reaching consequences. The conservative political tenor (in the literal sense of conserving things) has been elegantly delineated by Downing and others. Stifter himself situates the preface in light of “the events of the past years,” which is generally interpreted as the failed revolutions of 1848.103 If there was ever an author of repute who went to great lengths to defend the meaty part of the bell curve and a notion of moderation as a societal, collective ideal, it was Stifter. As Helena Ragg-Kirkby underscores, moderation paradoxically becomes a mania for Stifter.104 Moreover, given that the gentle law in human interaction is ultimately neither the cumulative effect of human action (i.e., a statistical description of society) nor a delineation of human history's necessary course (i.e., a teleological principle) but a fragile moral imperative, literature should affirm prosaic ordinariness as a bulwark against the disturbances to normality that arise from “poetic”—nonquotidian, nonconforming—acts. Because there probably cannot be a truly statistical literature—one that aggregates a vast pool of data—Stifter's literary practice, therefore, approaches Büchner and Grillparzer in “penetrating the feelings of the obscure.” The desired outcome of this investment in the ordinary is, however, not to trace the thread of hermeneutic understanding but to present exemplary figures drawn from putatively ordinary life. For Stifter, poetry (in the metaphorical sense of exceptional, worldchanging acts) is potentially destructive because it is an unpredictable, (p.156) original, and originating force, whereas prosaic normality preserves and maintains by offering nothing different. One can speak in Stifter of the desire for an exemplarity of unadorned mediocrity itself, of prosaic reality in its “countless” repetitions.
One story from Multi-Colored Stones serves as a perfect example of Stifter's attempt to render mediocrity itself exemplary: Limestone (1853, Kalkstein). This story is chosen for two reasons: first, because in many ways it is a rewriting of and response to Grillparzer's The Poor Musician, an elective affinity reflected in the story's original title Der arme Wohltäter (1847, The Poor Benefactor);105 and, second, because it is precisely the differences between the two stories that reveal the dilemmas of trying to raise unadorned ordinary life to an exemplary status. Limestone begins, as is to be expected, under the dictates of the gentle law: “I relate a story here that a friend once told us, in which nothing out of the ordinary [nichts Ungewöhnliches] occurs and yet I have not been able to forget it.”106 This opening line presents the full paradox of Stifter's project of elevating unadorned prosaic reality—what countlessly repeats itself—to poetry: If nothing unusual happens and, thus, if the events of the story are interchangeable with any other quotidian events, how can they be unforgettable? What sets them apart that renders them memorable? Or, expressed in terms of exemplarity: how can that which is claimed to be absolutely ordinary be a model for imitation?
In his Ästhetik des Häßlichen (1853, Aesthetics of the Ugly), Karl Rosenkranz underscores the problem of the aesthetic representability of the common or ordinary in terms familiar from Hegel, Schiller, and others: “But as that which is present in multiple examples and doesn't stand out in any way, the ordinary [das Gewöhnliche] is aesthetically meaningless. It lacks a characterizing individualization. […] The frequency of its repetition, the extent of its copious existence renders the ordinary blasé, since a second example is a mere tautology and lacks the allure of newness.”107 If the ruse of Realism—and one of its defining characteristics—is to deny its art (in favor of its claim to be reality), the additional ruse of Stifter's realism is to act as if the ordinary itself were unforgettable, aesthetically interesting, and thereby worthy of art. In The Poor Musician, Grillparzer skirts this dilemma by foregrounding a process of selection, in which not all common, nonfamous lives attract the narrator's interest. Only the uncommonly common, the doubly obscure, whets his anthropological hunger and offers the hermeneutic key to the great and small alike. The narrator of Limestone (p.157) seems to recognize this dilemma—the dilemma of Stifter's art—and complicates the status of this “nothing out of the ordinary” in the very next line: “Among ten listeners there will be nine who reproach the man who appears in the story; the tenth person will think about him often.”108 The narrator posits an opposition not between the unforgettable and the forgettable (which would seem to more adequately characterize the everyday), but between the unforgettable and the annoying. Both possible reactions raise the supposedly ordinary to what one could call “hyperordinary”: something one cannot not emotionally respond to, whether it is in the form of attraction (10 percent) or repulsion (90 percent). The very logic of this calculation defies the putative ordinariness—the interchangeability and repetitive nature—of the story's main character.
In its characters, events, and plotline, Limestone is remarkably similar to The Poor Musician. Anarrator meets a curious but common figure in the sparsely populated backlands, a Catholic priest who seems to pose a hermeneutic riddle: the priest's abject poverty that he literally wears on his back coupled with his fetish for fine white linen undergarments that peek out from under his threadbare black robes. As in Grillparzer, the narrator cedes a great portion of the story to the pastor's direct narration (though here without the narrator's compulsion), whose personal history ends up being rather identical to Jakob's (excluding the family drama and rejection): the pastor is the son of a powerful business man; a slow learner compared to his more intelligent twin brother, the pastor fails at his studies and moves into the backroom of the house, while his brother takes over the family business upon the father's death; finally, the business fails and the brother dies, leaving the protagonist broke. Whereas Jakob picks up the violin to fulfill his life purpose, the unnamed protagonist becomes a priest. Just as the poor musician's passion for music can be traced back to his love for a lower-class woman singing a popular song outside his window, the pastor's fetish for fine white linen is intimately tied to his one failed love object: the daughter of a washwoman, who hung such fine linen for her upper-class clients and wore them herself.
The dissonance between the threadbare and the exquisite, however, does not constitute the hermeneutic drive of Limestone. Unlike Jakob, the unnamed priest is not uncommonly common, nor is he selected because he stands apart from other common figures. Although the priest's “uncommon poverty constantly crosses” the narrator's mind, and although he is astonished that the priest “wore the finest and most (p.158) beautiful linen,”109 Stifter's narrator ultimately isn't driven by “anthropological ravenousness.” Referring to the fine white linen, the narrator comments: “Since he never alluded to the matter, it need hardly be said that I did not mention it either.”110 Without a dissonance or question of connection propelling it forward, Limestone gains its force by what doesn't happen or, rather, what happens imperceptibly but only is revealed at the end.
Limestone takes place over several decades, with long periods of interruption and noncontact between the narrator—a land surveyor—and the pastor. One cannot speak of highlights, tension, turns, or much suspense occurring in the story. For the vast majority of the narrative, not only does nothing out of the ordinary occur, nothing much occurs at all. Not trying to hermeneutically decipher the priest, the narrator seems to be driven by genuine friendship. In the decades of their relationship—largely defined by distance—two encounters are described in detail: The first is their shared experience of a powerful storm that floods the local Zirder River. The storm is presented as an exception that, through observation and its resulting knowledge, can be seen as occurring in congruence with the gentle law of nature, its regular rhythm: “What a storm! Such an uproar is caused by the most tender, the softest elements of nature. […] And once the downpour is over and the air has been thoroughly mingled, the sky is soon there again in its purity and clarity, often on the next day, ready to absorb the vapors that will be produced by the heat, and the process slowly repeats itself.”111 The one “less pleasant” effect of the storm is the flooding of the river, which poses a threat to the children from the neighboring village who must cross the river on their way to school and whom the priest and narrator help across the high water. The second detailed encounter takes place many years later, after the priest falls ill and requests that the narrator keep a copy of his will, upon which the priest narrates his life story as described above. At the end of his life story—told with virtuosity equal to Jakob's—the priest declares: “In this house I began saving money for a purpose,”112 a purpose that isn't revealed immediately but becomes clear a few pages later when (after many more intervening years) the priest dies and the testament is opened.
From the last will one learns that the priest had been saving what little money he could spare. The goal of this regular investment—often of pennies—was to build an endowed schoolhouse for the children from the neighboring village so that they would not have to cross the Zirder when it flooded. Everyone, writes the priest at the beginning of (p.159) his will, “should find or search for something that he has to perform,”113 and the priest's life mission was to save the children from this danger. The cumulative force of the priest's life savings, however, doesn't amount to much, and nowhere near enough. The amount saved, including the sale of the priest's possessions after his death, is cataloged by the narrator under the rubric of an ever-increasing notion of “not enough”:
The sum saved by the pastor together with the amount taken in by auctioning his possessions were all told far too small to have founded a school. They were even too small to build a mid-size schoolhouse, as was common in the area, much less a schoolhouse with classrooms and living quarters for the teachers, not to mention securing the salaries of the teachers and compensating the existing teachers.114
Were Limestone to end here, the priest's lifetime of renunciation would have been well intentioned but in vain. Expressed in terms of The Poor Musician: if the story were concerned only with hermeneutic understanding, with “penetrating the feelings of the obscure,” this tragiccomic end of the pastor would more than suffice to comprehend the nexus between the priest's poverty and his purpose. Just as Jakob dives into the flooded Danube to save a neighbor's unnecessary tax papers and dies from the resulting illness, the priest would have given his life, albeit for a nobler purpose, but not reached his goal and expired with little effect. Rather bitterly one could say “nothing out of the ordinary.”
Limestone, however, doesn't end at understanding; its realist intention doesn't lie in a hermeneutics of the obscure, but rather in offering a model of exemplarity drawn from supposedly ordinary life. Parting ways with Grillparzer, Limestone concludes with a final twist—in fact, the only real twist to the story—that borders on kitsch. The priest's life project succeeds in having an effect, for when word of it spreads, the wealthy locals are inspired to contribute the remaining money to realize his last will: “As the matter of the testament and its insufficiency became known, the well-off and the rich from the area immediately came together and underwrote an amount that appeared sufficient to be able to execute all of the priest's intentions. And if more was necessary, each declared himself willing to make an additional payment.”115 Whereas Jakob departs with little fanfare (except, of course, Barbara's tears), the priest leaves his mark. Out of failure springs success, and the narrator explains why: “But just as evil is always intrinsically purposeless and has no effect on the plans of the world, while goodness bears fruit, even when begun with inadequate means, so, too, was the (p.160) case here.”116 This grand claim—spoken with the authority of the gentle law as a metaphysical constant117 —perhaps explains what the narrator means when he states that “nothing out of the ordinary” occurs in Limestone: From the metaphysical perspective of goodness's purported eternal victory, the success of the priest was guaranteed and thus utterly ordinary. The only thing that would have been out of the ordinary would have been if the priest's purpose hadn't “bore fruit.” In what amounts to a banal platitude, goodness is the ordinary itself. All it apparently needs are the right exempla, examples drawn from humble, everyday life—a status the priest clearly achieves postmortem, as evinced by the response of the rich as well as the story's last line: “And many people will stand in front of his grave with a feeling that was not dedicated to the priest while he lived.”118
If Lessing raises common life to the heart of tragedy yet divorces exemplarity from imitation, since the mere capacity to suffer along with other common people renders one exemplary; and if Goethe declares nonexceptional artists exemplary only when they renounce the desire to be exceptional; and finally, if Grillparzer locates the exemplarity of the obscure in their hermeneutic difficulty and not in their imitability, then Stifter delineates in Limestone a rather traditional notion of exemplarity in which literature offers models of “good, simple lives” for imitation—all, one could say, in the service of the law. Since the supposedly world-maintaining law is itself in need of maintenance, the function of literature vis-à-vis the gentle law is to provide exemplary, everyday heroes who can inspire others to conform to the law.
The paradox of the priest's supposed “ordinariness” returns, however, when one recalls the opening lines' calculation of how most listeners will respond: if the good always bears fruit, if the good, like the priest, is “nothing out of the ordinary,” why do 90 percent take offense at him upon hearing the story? The vast majority, it seems, don't view him as exemplary—or, at best, see him as a negative exemplum—whether due to his fetish for white linen or, far more likely, due to his squirreling away pennies without a realistic sense of just how much money would be necessary for his life task. The narrator doesn't leave the latter unnoted: “It lay in the priest's nature that he didn't understand worldly matters and had to be robbed three times before he invested his savings.”119
The fact that the narrator expresses the reader's reaction in terms of probability recasts the relation between an art of the ordinary and scientific method. As with Lessing's two Cleopatras, Stifter presents Limestone (p.161) as a question of probability, but unlike Lessing it is a probability not of presented reality but of the reader's emotive response to this presented reality. The frame in realist literature generally serves to create the effect of the real by contending the reported authenticity of what is to come. This is also the case in Limestone, since the narrator presents the priest's story as “once told” to him by a friend. But whereas the earlier version, The Poor Benefactor, mobilizes a form of hyperreality by declaring that the friend's story needed some literary polishing to work as a story (though the “facts” remain the same),120 Limestone excises this extra appeal to the story's veracity and thematizes instead its probable effect on the reader, its degree of felt ordinariness: statistically, 90 percent will view the priest as reproachful and thus all but ordinary; only 10 percent will think of him in positive terms. Therefore, it is as if Stifter recognizes the incongruence in his presentation of the gentle law—between its scientific and moral tendencies—and has the narrator mobilize probability to highlight just how “out of the ordinary” the pastor and his project are, despite the simultaneous declaration of his ordinariness. This repetition and open admission of a discrepancy, in which numbers run counter to morality (since the priest is the embodiment of goodness), allows one to read Stifter's gentle law in a different light.
Limestone doesn't merely claim to present reality (which, like Corneille's Cleopatra, can be at once exceptional and historically real), but regular, ordinary reality, for here both the gentle law and goodness are said to abide. The narrator's reference to the probable effect of this reality undermines, however, both its ordinariness and the efficacy of the gentle law as embodied by the priest. Based on the narrator's calculation, the priest cannot be the norm; in fact, it is only by virtue of his unusualness that he gains his exemplary status. The priest's exceptional status means several things for Stifter's project of aspiring to elevate prosaic reality to poetry itself. First, as that which doesn't stand out, prosaic reality in and of itself cannot be exemplary for the aesthetic reasons outlined by Rosenkranz; exemplarity, like art, demands a “characterizing individuality.” It is as if the narrator has to highlight the priest's probable, divisive effect to justify why the story is worth relating in the first place. Second, and far more decisive for Stifter's own work: The ultimate ruse of Stifter's realism is not that unadorned ordinariness is worthy of art, but rather that the unusual is somehow usual, as gentle and normal as the law itself. By the narrator's own admission, the gentle law, the law of goodness finds a receptive audience (p.162) in a small percentage of society, which means that it is not the norm that upholds and embodies the law; rather the rare, exceptional, and out of the ordinary do so. The law, in other words, is to be found not in the dead center and regular occurrences of society, but in its margins and in the minority.121 Hence its fragility, its need of maintenance. Therefore, from the perspective of Limestone, Stifter's evocation of a literature of the gentle law can indeed be read as the literary revelation of what lies hidden from sight—not, however, in the intended sense of the invisible, world-preserving force that is first “seen” in the sublimity of regularity. Rather, Stifter's realism is the literary revelation of what hides and maintains itself in the margins, deviations, and exceptions. Against Stifter's will and for the sake of the gentle law, it is a realism of the irregular and out of the ordinary.
(1.) Nietzsche, KSA 1, 320; Uses and Disadvantages of History, §9, 154.
(2.) Hegel, Werke 13, 25; Aesthetics, 11.
(4.) Even taken on its own terms, Hegel's thesis on the end of art is admittedly complicated, since he appeals throughout the Aesthetics to epistemological reasons (art is too sensuous for truth now), reception-aesthetic grounds (art no longer speaks to us as to earlier peoples), and the exhaustion of artistic subject matter and forms, which renders art arbitrary, mere play. For a full discussion of these issues, see the first chapter of Geulen's The End of Art. For a precise reading of the relationship between comedy and the end of art in Hegel, see Hamacher “(The End of Art with a Mask).”
(5.) “Thought and reflection has outstripped beautiful art” (Hegel, Werke 13, 24; Aesthetics, 10).
(6.) Ibid., 26; Aesthetics, 11. Danto largely agrees with Hegel's assessment and posits Warhol's Brillo Boxes as the moment when art catches up to philosophy: “I should like to believe that with the Brillo boxes the possibilities are effectively closed and that the history of art has come, in a way, to an end. It has not stopped but ended, in the sense that it has passed over into a kind of consciousness of itself and become, again in a way, its own philosophy: a state of affairs predicted in Hegel's philosophy of history. […] Suddenly in the advanced art of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, art and philosophy were ready for one another. Suddenly, indeed, they needed one another to tell themselves apart” (Transfiguration of the Commonplace, vii–viii).
(7.) Hegel, Werke 13, 257; Aesthetics, 196.
(12.) Heine, SäS 5, 360; RS 1.
(13.) Heine, “Die deutsche Literatur,” in SäS 1, 454. For Heine and the exceptional minds who feel jilted by Goethe in favor of mediocre, nonthreatening authors, there is a secret pleasure in anticipating the Meister's death, when his adversaries will receive their just admiration: “And so Goethe will not be able to prevent that these great spirits, whom he would have liked to do away with in life, will join him in death and find their eternal place next to him in the Westminster of German literature” (ibid.).
(15.) Heine, for example, remarks on Goethe's response to the Romantics' general praise of him: “The new school paid him homage as king, and when he became king, he showed his gratitude as kings are wont to: by insultingly rejecting the Schlegels and kicking their school into the dust” (Heine, “Die deutsche Literatur,” in SäS 1, 445).
(16.) This discussion of Heine's critique of Goethe is indebted to Eva Geulen, who kindly sent me her unpublished essay “Nachkommenschaften: Heines Ende der Kunstperiode und die Folgen.” See also Jauß's discussion of Heine, Goethe, and art in Literaturgeschichte als Provokation, 109–14.
(17.) Heine, SäS 5, 393; RS 34.
(21.) Heine, “Französische Maler,” in SäS 5, 72.
(22.) See Jochen Schmidt: “Thus Heine's entire oeuvre is infused with a longing for genius and ‘art’ in the sense of the idea of autonomy, precisely because of his enmeshment in daily-political engagement” (Schmidt, Die Geschichte des Genie-Gedankens, II, 64).
(23.) Heine, Ludwig Börne. Denkschrift, in SäS 7, 141.
(24.) Mill will be discussed further in the conclusion.
(25.) Immermann, Werke II, 121.
(26.) Holub argues against reducing Büchner's text to one of the first expressions of a realist aesthetics: “The Kunstgespräch is not so much a program for realism as an attempt to define an alternative to what is perceived as idealism in art, an endeavor to explore the manner in which texts refer and relate to the world outside the text” (Holub, Reflections of Realism, 43).
(27.) Büchner, Lenz, trans. Sieburth, 30–31.
(30.) Holub offers a provocative reading of Lenz that highlights the dilemma of trying to capture everyday, prosaic lives in art, since the figures have to be halted, frozen, and petrified, with the result that “imitation turns into annihilation” (Holub, Reflections of Realism, 56).
(31.) Erich Auerbach writes that none of the German Realists—including Fontane, whose social realism “still does not go very deep” (452)—managed to produce “serious realism,” which represents man “as embedded in a total reality, political, social, and economic, which is constantly evolving” (Auerbach, Mimesis, trans. Trask, 463; cf. 491).
(32.) Grillparzer began The Poor Musician in 1831, which was completed in 1846 and first published in 1847.
(33.) Grillparzer, AS, 147–48 and 150; Poor Musician, 216 and 218.
(36.) Seeba, “Wie es sich fügte.” In Interpretationen. Erzählungen und Novellen des 19. Jahrhunderts. Band 2, 99.
(38.) Goethe, HA 9, 72. For a fuller reading of this Goethe passage and his notion of childhood, see my article: “The Promises of Childhood: Autobiography in Goethe and Jean Paul.”
(39.) See Zedler's Großes Vollständiges Universal-Lexicon (1732 ff.), entry: “obscurae personae.”
(40.) Grillparzer, AS, 149–50; Poor Musician, 217.
(41.) Grillparzer, AS, 151; Poor Musician, 219.
(42.) The fact that the narrator emphatically retains and desires difference—particularly his distance from the crowd—has been emphasized by many scholars, though usually to comment on the narrator's character (aristocratic, elitist) and the contemporaneous social relations. Ellis, for example, writes: “This alleged love of the people is a pretentious aristocratic pose; only when safe from them [the people], and feeling superior to them, can the narrator indulge it” (Ellis, “The Narrator and His Values,” in Bernd [ed.] Grillparzer's Der arme Spielmann, 36).
(43.) Horace, Satires, Epistles, and Ars Poetica, 12–13.
(44.) Grillparzer, AS, 150; Poor Musician, 218. Roland Heine has examined the significance of the hermeneutic “connection” in The Poor Musician with great lucidity, including its relation to Dilthey, in his article “Ästhetische oder existentielle Integration?”; the following discussion of “connection” is indebted to his article.
(45.) The role and character of the narrator have become a central focus of Poor Musician scholarship in recent decades. In general, the narrator doesn't walk away looking too good. Ellis—rather implausibly—roundly condemns the narrator and sanctifies Jakob: “The two display very much the same contrast as artists that they show as men: the Spielmann technically incompetent, yet completely honest and sincere; the narrator technically slick and clever, conscious of literary effect but without integrity, concerned with applause and a shallow kind of impact rather than with real artistic value” (41–42). Cook equally speaks of the narrator's “exploitation of the fiddler as a literary subject” (327). Swales offers a more balanced and fitting assessment of the narrator. While the narrator, according to Swales, does not identify with Jakob and indeed distances himself from him, the narrator nevertheless remains “strangely fascinated by him”: “It is almost as if the narrator were ashamed of the moment of weakness for the Spielmann—and immediately adopts an ironic and consciously withdrawn tone in order to distance himself from him” (69 and 70). All citations from Bernd (ed.) Grillparzer's Der arme Spielmann.
(46.) Grillparzer, AS, 156–57; Poor Musician, 224.
(49.) Heine, “Ästhetische oder existentielle Integration?” 655.
(50.) Grillparzer, AS, 160; Poor Musician, 227.
(51.) See Heine, “Ästhetische oder existentielle Integration?” 656–57.
(52.) Horace, Ars Poetica, vv. 111–12.
(53.) Heine, “Ästhetische oder existentielle Integration?” 657.
(54.) Grillparzer, AS, 161; Poor Musician, 228.
(56.) Heine, “Ästhetische oder existentielle Integration?” 658.
(57.) For a different reading of the problem of part and whole (and hole and whole), see Geulen's “Stellen-Lese,” which argues that it is Jakob's additive sense of totality, one that rejects any process of selection—and thus allows no (p.204) “holes” [Lücken]—which compels the whole to collapse (Geulen, “Stellen-Lese,” 499).
(58.) Stifter, Leben und Werk, 234. Hebbel's bitter epigram is directed not only at Stifter but also Brockes, Geßner, Kompert “and others.”
(59.) Stifter, HKG 2/2, 9; Preface, 1.
(60.) “I don't think I am wrong when I maintain that this little story is a masterpiece” (Stifter, Leben und Werk, 188; letter to Aurelius Buddeus, August 21, 1847).
(61.) Stifter, HKG 2/2, 10; Preface, 2.
(63.) Stifter's affirmation of the small and insignificant brings him into close proximity to Emerson's famous evocation of the “common” and “familiar,” which has been so lucidly analyzed by Stanley Cavell. In “The American Scholar” (1827), Emerson writes: “I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; […] I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. […] The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body;—show me the ultimate reason of these matters; show me the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking, as always it does lurk, in these suburbs and extremities of nature; let me see every trifle bristling with the polarity that ranges it instantly on an eternal law” (cited in Cavell, Emerson's Transcendental Etudes, 20–21). Throughout his writings on Emerson, Cavell develops what he calls “the extraordinary of the ordinary,” “a perception of the weirdness, or surrealism, of what we call, accept, adapt to, as the usual, the real” (ibid., 39). In so doing, Cavell aligns Emerson's immersion in the quotidian with Kierkegaard's “perception of the sublime in everyday life” (ibid., 25) as well as “Wittgenstein perceiving our craving to escape our commonness with others, even when we recognize the commonness of the craving” and “Heidegger perceiving our pull to remain absorbed in the common, perhaps in the very way we push to escape it” (ibid., 64).
(64.) Stifter, HKG 2/2, 10; Preface, 2. Stifter's teacher in Krensmünster, Koller, published scientific articles on astronomy, meteorology, and terrestrial magnetism. The textbook for physics included a section on terrestrial magnetism. See the excellent commentary to the preface, in HKG 2/3, 101.
(65.) Stifter, HKG 2/2, 11; Preface, 2.
(66.) Dittmann also emphasizes that Stifter does not propose an identity of particular and universal, “which would lead to the unity of the Classical symbol, but rather demands a universal that rests on summation” (Dittmann, “Zur Genese des ‘sanften Gesetzes,’” 113).
(67.) Quoted in Furst (ed.), Realism, 29.
(68.) Kant, KU, 107, §28; CJ 144.
(69.) Stifter, Werke VI, 587–88.
(71.) Downing, Double Exposures, 32.
(72.) Stifter, HKG 2/2, 11; Preface, 2.
(74.) Downing, Double Exposures, 30.
(76.) In “Vom Rechte” (1850, “On Right”), Stifter asserts: “One of the saddest signs [of the times] is the abatement and decline of religion” (Werke VI, 339). In the next section on “means against the moral collapse of nations,” he lists school and church as the surest way to prevent a nation's demise and even supports communities that have established a “moral police” (ibid., 345 and 347).
(77.) In developing the aporias and paradoxes of Büchner's Lenz, Holub highlights that while realism in general conflicts with religious thought, “Lenz predicates his doctrine of art on the existence of God as the original Creator. Only then can the writer or artist be called upon to imitate Him. If God does not exist, then presumably there is nothing and no one to imitate. […] God in Lenz is thus both a source of meaning and a mediator of this meaning to the human being” (Holub, Reflections of Realism, 50–51). Despite the evocation of God in Stifter's preface, the divine performs the opposite function: he guarantees knowledge's essential incompletion.
(78.) In her discussion of Quetelet, Lorraine Daston explicitly mentions terrestrial magnetism as a point of reference for early social statistics: “Social phenomena, like the complex physical phenomena of terrestrial magnetism or weather patterns, followed regular periodic cycles: diurnal, monthly, seasonal, and annual” (Daston, Classical Probability, 383).
(79.) Stifter's academic transcript from 1827 lists his study of “the theory of statistics,” a test he passed the same year (Stifter, Leben und Werk, 54 and 70). On Stifter's experience and expertise in teaching mathematics and physics, see Alois Freiherr von Fischer's letter of recommendation from March 22, 1849 (ibid., 222).
(80.) Stifter, HKG 2/2, 12; Preface, 3.
(81.) Quetelet, A Treatise on Man, 6.
(83.) The term data-fication comes from Jürgen Link's impressive study Versuch über den Normalismus (1997, An Essay on Normalism). For a sample of Link's work on the various regimes of normalism in English translation, see the interview with him in Cabinet: The Average, vol. 15 (Fall 2004) as well as the essays translated and collected in Cultural Critique, vol. 57 (Spring 2004).
(84.) Gigerenzer et al., The Empire of Chance, 37.
(85.) While the birth year of the “average man” is often given as 1835 (i.e., with the publication and success of A Treatise on Man), Stigler dates his actual birthday as March 5, 1831, in a speech Quetelet gave in Brussels. See Stigler “The Average Man Is 168 Years Old,” in Statistics on the Table, 51–65.
(86.) Quetelet, A Treatise on Man, 8.
(87.) Quetelet, in fact, identifies his average man as a society's ideal, its most perfect specimen: “An individual who should comprise in himself at a given period all the qualities of the average man would at the same time represent (p.206) all that is grand, beautiful, and excellent” (A Treatise on Man, 100). For this reason, Quetelet locates a decisive role for the average man in art as the artist's model: “The necessity of veracity in faithfully representing the physiognomy, the habits, and the manners of people at different epochs has at all times led artists and literary men to seize, among the individuals whom they observed, the characteristic traits of the period in which they lived; or, in other words, to come as near the average as possible” (ibid., 96). Paradoxically, Quetelet's average man is also the great, world-historical figure. Following Cousin's thought on the great man, Quetelet calls his statistical average man the “best representative of his age” and the “greatest genius” (ibid., 101).
(88.) Stifter, HKG 2/2, 11–12; Preface, 3.
(89.) Downing comes to a different conclusion regarding Stifter's notion of history: “Stifter manages to depict a natural world that seems to exclude history—by which I mean not any concrete history, but the very idea of history, of temporal unfolding, development, embeddedness or maturation. […] As a result, nature itself in Stifter has no development” (Downing, Double Exposures, 33). While this may be true, one must recall that Stifter is referring to nature and its scientific understanding at the middle of the nineteenth century, whereby a dynamic notion of nature as evolving, as having a history, is first developed with the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859.
(90.) Quetelet, A Treatise on Man, 5.
(91.) Stifter, HKG 2/2, 12; Preface, 3.
(92.) Downing, for example, argues for a fundamental difference between the “gentle law” as expressed in nature and in the human, social world: “In his human world, we see no such continuity. Instead, Stifter expressly presents two different, opposed forces, one violently individual, the other repressively (and only repressively) social: the idea of the individual force, in all its disruptive violence, as nonetheless a consequence, an effect, or simply a part of the social, general law (of reality) is, apparently, excluded” (Downing, Double Exposures, 35).
(93.) Stifter, HKG 2/2, 14; Preface, 4.
(95.) Kant, Werke XI, 196.
(97.) Quetelet also tends at times toward a teleological notion of regularity. In Du système social et des lois qui le régissent (1848), he writes that “nothing escapes the laws imposed by the all-powerful into organized beings. […] All is foreseen, all is law-like: only our ignorance leads us to suppose that all is subject to the whims of chance” (cited in Porter, The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 51). The difference between a teleological notion of statistics and a contingent one is crucial. As a contingent phenomenon, statistical constancy only holds sway in the short term, not as a permanent law. If the factors involved in determining human behavior change (e.g., education, income, etc.), the relevant statistical outcome equally changes. The center of gravity embodied by the average man therefore only possesses stability for the present conditions—which, for (p.207) Quetelet, can (and often must) change. Quetelet himself repeatedly underscores the societal causes of individual human behavior, particularly of criminality: “It is the social state, in some measure, which prepares these crimes, and the criminal is merely the instrument to execute them” (A Treatise on Man, 6). For Quetelet, it is not first and foremost the individual that needs modification, but the social forces that condition and in many ways determine behavior. See also my essay “Die üblichen Verdächtigen.”
(99.) Stifter, Werke VI, 335.
(101.) Yeats, “The Second Coming,” in The Collected Poems, 184–85.
(102.) Stifter, HKG 2/2, 14; Preface, 5.
(103.) The year 1848 marked a break in Stifter's life, for, as in Yeat's poem, not only did the center not hold, but from Stifter's perspective “anarchy” and “the blood-dimmed tide” were also indeed “loosed” upon the world. In a letter to Gustav Heckenast from September 4, 1849, Stifter writes: “As the irrationality, the vacuous enthusiasm, then the badness, the emptiness, and finally the criminality expanded and took the world in its possession, my heart almost literally broke” (Stifter, Leben und Werk, 228). As many scholars now suggest, while Stifter's defense of regularity clearly opposes political revolution, it does not have to line up with staunch political conservatism. In “On Right” (1850), Stifter rejects the revolutions of 1848 but also proposes the course of slow reform, of changing the system from within: “Therefore the most sacred teaching of history is this: before you hurl yourself into the confusion and misery of a revolution, seek the redress of your malady along an indefatigable but peaceful path, even if it lasts many years” (Stifter, Werke VI, 321). Quetelet seems to be much of the same mindset, in his case as a response to the 1830 revolution in Belgium. The words that Gigerenzer et al. use to delineate Quetelet's politics could equally apply to Stifter: “Quetelet was more of a bureaucratic liberal than a laissez-faire one, and he had high hopes for statistics as a source of expertise. The legislator must not seek to block the historical path of the social body, but he can hope to avoid the perturbations to which it is subject. It is the task of social physics to identify each force of perturbation, so that it can be nullified with an equal and opposite force. That is, the social physicist can learn how to avoid disorder and social turmoil, which Quetelet assumed to be inessential or perturbational” (Gigerenzer et al., The Empire of Chance, 43). Downing thus rightfully points to Russell Berman's interpretation of Stifter as a proponent of “cautious liberalism” (Double Exposures, 271).
(104.) See Helena Ragg-Kirkby, Adalbert Stifter's Late Prose. The Mania for Moderation.
(105.) While Stifter read the proofs of Grillparzer's The Poor Musician in July 1847, most scholars now plausibly argue that the time span between his reading of Grillparzer and the submission of The Poor Benefactor (probably in December 1847) was too short for Stifter to have begun the story only after Grillparzer. Rather, Stifter probably already had a draft of The Poor Benefactor (p.208) finished and then, upon reworking it, was influenced by Grillparzer's story. See the commentary to Limestone in HKG 2/3, 367–71, and Ward, “Tales of Truth,” in Ward (ed.), From Vormärz to Fin de Siècle, 16–18.
(106.) Stifter, HKG 2/2, 63; Limestone, 35.
(107.) Rosenkranz, Ästhetik des Häßlichen, 192.
(108.) Stifter, HKG 2/2, 63; Limestone, 35.
(117.) This assertion wasn't part of The Poor Benefactor, but was added for Limestone and is wholly congruent with the context of the preface's gentle law.
(118.) Stifter, HKG 2/2, 132; Limestone, 87.
(120.) In The Poor Benefactor, the narrator claims to renounce “artistic objectivity” and instead to “narrate through the eye of our friend.” The only two professed literary improvements are, first, to put in a coherent sequence “what the friend related over great periods of time and without order” and, second, to change inessential minor details and subplots so that the living relatives of the priest “don't feel unpleasantly affected” by the story gaining a wider audience (Stifter, HKG 2/1, 59).
(121.) The tension in Stifter is thus not only between “the surface and the depths, between moderation and mania” (Ragg-Kirkby, Adalbert Stifter's Late Prose, 6) but also between “center and periphery” (Metz, “Austrian Inner Colonialism,” 1477). Whereas Metz, however, argues that Stifter participates in a form of inner colonialism, in which the center further marginalizes the periphery (defined by race, religion, etc.), it is also the case that Stifter in many cases (and against his will) must take the side of the margins, for it is here that his ideal of the gentle law—understood as measure, tradition, constancy, and so forth—is represented and has its preserving force. If, as Stifter argues throughout “On Right,” contemporary Europe is threatened with losing its measure and lapsing into one-sidedness, the hope for the gentle law lies in the minority, the exception itself. Geulen makes a similar argument in her unpublished paper “Stifter-Gänge,” delivered at Cornell University's 2006 conference on Stifter.