Questions, Questions, and More Questions–The Result of Trying to Interpret German Short Stories

Personally, I find the readings for this week to be particularly interesting.  I mean, I never would have thought that I would be writing a scholarly essay on the Grimm Brothers’ fairytale “Little Snow-White”.  Reading stories like this, however, has reminded me that even supposedly simple works of art can have a deeper meaning–if you take the time to interpret them.  After all,  like “Little Snow-White”, the other two short stories, “Fair-Haired Eckbert” and “The Earthquake in Chile”are also fictitious (though it is believed that “The Earthquake in Chile” was inspired by the events that occurred in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755); yet, being fiction doesn’t seem to make them any easier to interpret.  In fact, I would even say that, in some ways, the fictional elements of these stories make interpretation even more difficult.  After all, authors have a lot of freedom when it comes to composing a fictional work; they can defy reality by making that which is impossible achievable. In “Fair-Haried Eckbert”, Ludwig Tieck, makes full use of his power that fictional authors have by telling the tale of a knight, who has a wife with a very unusual childhood.  While reading “Fair-Haired Eckbert”, I get the sense that this is a story that has meaning layered on top of meaning–there is just so much going on, all at once! Every time I think that I am starting to come up with a solid interpretation of “Fair-Haired Eckbert”, I re-read the story, notice something new (and contradictory to my interpretation), and get confused all over again.  One thing that I find particularly confusing occurs at the end of the narrative.  After paranoia causes him to kill his friend Walther and distrust Hugo, Eckbert abandons all notions of friendship and rides into the wilderness. In his delirious state, Eckbert finds “himself entangled in a labyrinth of rocks, from which he could discover no outlet”(44)–he has becomes as lost and confused physically as he is mentally.  Eventually, Eckbert crosses paths with an old peasant, who reminds him of his dead friend Walter.  Frightened, “Eckbert spurred his horse as fast as it could gallop, over meads and forests, till it sank exhausted to the earth.  Regardless of this, he hastened forward on foot” (45).  In the sharp contrast to the frantic state just described, in the next line, Tieck goes on to write: “In a dreamy mood he mounted a hill” (45).  Tieck’s choice to use the word “dreamy” here confuses me.  When I think of a “dreamy mood”, I think of a relaxed, carefree, head-in-the-clouds state.  Yet, Eckbert was just perviously in a mad fit of fright, which seems anything but relaxed.  Tieck then goes on to describe  how Eckbert “fancied he caught the sound of lively barking at a little distance; the birch-trees whispered in the intervals…” (45).  On the wind, Eckbert also hears the following song:

 

Alone in wood so gay,

Once more I stay;

None dare me slay,

The evil far away:

Ah, here I stay,

Alone in wood so gay. (45)

The description of this scene left me rather bewildered.  Not only does it seem unusually peaceful and pleasant, when compared to the previous place and state Eckbert found himself in, but the words of the bird’s song state that “evil is far away”.  Yet, in the paragraph following this description, evil anything but far away, it is nigh.  For, after hearing the song, Eckbert is described as being in an enchanted, dream-like state, in which “he was incapable of thought or recollection” and everything had become “a riddle that he could not solve” (45).  He then is confronted with the old woman from his wife’s past, who Eckbert learns was really Hugo and Walther, his only two friends.  Upon discovering this Eckbert cries, “in what frightful solitude have I passed my life?” (45).  Yet, the bad news doesn’t stop there, for the old woman informs Eckbert that his wife, Bertha, was really his sister.  In despair, “Eckbert lay distracted and dying on the ground” (46).  Thus, it seems as though Eckbert has lost everything important to him;  he has lost his ability to reason and think clearly, his friends, and the innocent love that he felt towards his wife. Everything in Eckbert’s life has been touched by evil and corrupted.  Therefore, I am confused about the significance of the words of this song.  Earlier, the bird’s song always highlighted a significant truth about the situation portrayed in the story, yet this doesn’t seem to be the case here.

I also find it interesting to compare the scene mentioned above to another part of the story.  Earlier, Bertha describes her first encounter with the old woman and how she came to live a solitary life in the woods.  Before meeting the woman, Bertha says that she was also in a very distressed state of mind, in which she “was tired and spend, [she] scarcely wished to live, and yet [she] feared to die” (34).  Then upon nearing the old woman’s house in the woods, she describes nature in a very breathtaking, peaceful way, for “the trees were standing with their tops in the glow of the sunset; on the fields lay a mild brightness;…the pure sky and open paradise…and, from time to time, the rustling of the trees, resounded through the serene stillness, as in pensive joy” (35).  And while Bertha observes all this, she hears the old woman’s bird singing in the background:

Alone in wood so gay

‘Tis good to stay,

Morrow like today,

Forever and aye:

O, I do love to stay

Alone in wood so gay. (35)

But, while living in the woods, Bertha states that “‘I never fairly thought I was awake, but only falling out of one dream into another still stranger” (36).  Thus, like Eckbert at the end of the story, Bertha cannot tell whether she “was dreaming now, or had before dreamed” (45).  Thus, it seems as though Tieck is recalling Bertha’s first encounter with the old woman at the end of the story.  Yet, why would the author do this?  What purpose does it serve, if it serves any purpose at all?

(Aside: Also, what is the significance of the title.  The story is called “Fair-haired Eckbert, but it mostly seems to be about Bertha and her childhood.  Why does Eckbert have to be “fair-haired”?)

I also have a question concerning “The Earthquake in Chile”.  Religion seems to be cast in a bad light in this story.  When Josefa’s father discovers that she is secretly meeting with her lover Jerónimo, he places her in a nunnery as punishment.  Despite becoming a nun, Joesfa, continues to meet with Jerónimo and the two conceive an legitimate son.  Upon going into labour pains, the nunnery discovers that Josefa is pregnant and, “with no regard to her condition, [Josefa] was immediately thrown in prison…” (5).  Then, immediately after giving birth to her child, “by order of the archbishop, she was subjected to the most harrowing trial” (5).  For doing nothing more than falling in love with a man and having a child, Josefa is sentenced to death.  On the day of Josefa’s execution all the “pious daughters of the city invited their girl friends to attend the spectacle offered to divine vengeance at their sisterly side” (7).  Thus, the devout religious people seem to be portrayed in a heartless and blood-lusting manner.  Yet, Jerónimo, who was thrown in jail for his immoral acts, does not seem to abandon religion entirely, as he  “flung himself down before the image of the Mother of God, and prayed to her with tremendous ardor, believing her to be the only one from whom salvation could still come” (7).  What I find interesting to note here is that Jerónimo does not pray to God, but to Mary and that he believes that only Mary can save Josefa.  But why? I get why Jerónimo might have no faith in God after his love had been sentenced to death by religion, but I don’t understand  why Jerónimo still  has faith in Mary.  Isn’t Mary still associated with the religion that sentenced Jerónimo’s love to death?  Then, later, after being freed from prison by the earthquake, Jerónimo “bowed his head so low that his forehead touched the ground,in order to thank God for his miraculous rescue…” (9).  Yet, upon recalling Josefa’s execution, “he began to regret having prayed, and the Being that rules above the clouds seemed fearsome to him” (9-11).  But, when he discovers that Josefa is alive, he shouts “‘O Holy Mother of God!'” (11).  So, God seems to be largely associated with negative aspects, whereas Mary seems to be praiseworthy, someone worth worshipping.  I may be reading into this story way too much, but I would really like to know why you think Mary and God are portrayed in this way!

Thanks for taking the time to read my massive blog post!

The Monster is a Mirror: Questioning the Uncanny Power of the Doppelgänger

I have a twin.  This is something that you may or may not already know about me.  Since my twin also happens to be a girl, one of the most common questions that I am asked is this: “Are you identical?”.  Unfortunately, I am unable to provide anyone with the answer to this inquiry.  After all, there is a special medical test that twins have to take (I believe that it is a DNA test) in order to see if they really are identical and my twin and I never ended up taking it.  So, when asked this question, all I can tell people is that my twin and I look related; we look related enough that people sometimes have a hard time telling us apart, that the unsuspecting viewer will occasionally mistake us for one person, who happens to miraculously change clothes every 10 s.   Young children also seem to have difficulty wrapping their minds around the fact that there is two of us.  For some reason, they often make make my twin and I into one person; thus, when we happen to be standing together, the child will examine us with a sense of sheer bewilderment upon their face.  So, I assume that my twin and I look similar to some extent.

Me and my twin. See if you can guess which one is me!
Me and my twin. See if you can guess which one is me!

In his essay, “The Uncanny”, Sigmund Freud states that, in order to determine the source of the uncanny impression that one gains when reading literature, one “must content oneself with selecting the most prominent of those motifs that produce an uncanny effect, and see whether they too can reasonably  be traced back to infantile sources” (141).  Freud then goes on to explain that, in a particular piece of literature, these elements of uncanniness “involve the idea of the ‘double’ (the Doppelgänger), in all its nuances and manifestations–that is to say, the appearance of person who have to regarded as identical because they look alike” (141).  He even is so bold so as to state that this uncanny feeling brought on by the Doppelgänger is “intensified by the spontaneous transmission of mental processes from one of these persons to the other–what we would call telepathy–so that one becomes the co-owner of the oner’s knowledge, emotions and experience” (141-142).

This is one of the problems that I have with Freud’s “The Uncanny”.  First off, being a twin myself, I can state with certainty that twin telepathy does not exist.  At least, not to the extent that Freud is proposing here.  Believe me, there are times when I wish that my twin could read my thoughts and that we could have secret telepathic conversations.  However, I can’t project my thoughts to my twin or translate my experience into unto her.  And, as far as I know, she hasn’t been able to do any of these thing either.  However, sometimes, if you take my twin and I to the same place at different times, we have the tendency to do or say the same things.  For instance, when I was four or five, my dad took me to a job site of his.  I hopped out of his truck, put my hands on my hips and asked him what he was doing working way out in the middle of nowhere.  He just looked at me in shock.  Apparently, the other day, when he took my twin sister with him, she did and said exactly the same thing.  This is the closest thing that I have experienced to “twin telepathy”.  So, it seems that, to some extent, twins, perhaps, are able to relate their emotions unto one another (yet, I am not really sure if we become “co-owners” the emotion, meaning that we become equally effected and aware of the emotion).  However, this “telepathic” effect doesn’t seem to translate over to knowledge or experience.

Even if we accept that this whole telepathic thing is false, then Freud still holds that the presence of the double is enough to invoke an uncanny feeling in one.  Yet, if I saw a person who looked like me walking in the street, I wouldn’t feel particularly uncanny, even if I realized that this person was not my twin.  In fact, even if I discovered that I had a secret triplet, I would feel more undignified that my parents didn’t see the need to inform me of this rather than uncanny.  I mean, I have spent my whole life surrounded by the notion that there is another person who resembles me.  So, seeing another individual who looks like me does not seem particularly frightening or unusual.  In the only footnote for the third part of “The Uncanny”, Freud relates to an experience in which he is a passenger on a train.  Suddenly, the train lurches forward and the door to the toilet next to him swung open and a man similar in appearance to Freud walks out and turns to enter the compartment in which Freud was sitting.  When Freud attempts to inform the man that this is his seat, he realizes that the man wasn’t a man at all, but was his own reflection in the mirror in the bathroom door (162).   Even though Freud says that he wasn’t frightened by this experience, he still “found [the double’s] appearance thoroughly unpleasant” and felt particular “displeasure…at seeing [this] unexpected [image]” of himself (162).  I’ve had a similar experience, albeit it didn’t occur on a train, in which I have mistaken my own reflection for my double.  Taking my reflection to be my twin, however, I did not feel the same displeasure at my apparent double.  In fact, I started to ask my “twin” something before realizing my mistake.  Immediately, I began to feel embarrassed at my own confusion.  I’m not sure if you can take this experience to be uncanny, but if you can, then it is important to note that unlike Freud’s experience–in which the sentiment of uncanniness was the result of being confronted with one’s own image–in my case, the feeling I had was brought on by the apparent lack of a double.   So, I am wondering how we can attempt to fit this into Freud’s theory of the uncanny.  Even though Freud mentions somewhere in “The Uncanny” (I can’t seem to find the quote right now) that the uncanny effects that he describes won’t necessarily be considered uncanny to everyone, he states that what he describes will seem uncanny to most people.  But, I feel that there are enough twins, triplets, etc. present in society for them to be lumped in with “most people”.  Thus, I feel that it would be worthwhile to try and fit twins, and their experiences, in with Freud’s theory.