MLN 119.3 (2004) 451-473
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Nestroy at the Rip
Hört zu, ein neuer Pantalon ist auf dem Markt ankommen,
Den Charletan jagt er davon, hat selbst den Platz genommen,
Der seltsam Kund in einer Stund wird tausend Possen reißen.
Aber sogleich bringen wir die Gegenfrage: Wie soll der Riß herausgerissen werden. . . ?
Vorspiel, Thought at the Wall
"Ich sitze fest zwischen vier Wänden." It could be the "festsitzen" that catches our attention in this line from a communiqué sent through the "Gitter" on his cell in a Vienna jail to his friend Carl Lucas in January 1836. Such sitting fast no one would associate with the frenetic Johann Nestroy. And yet communiqués often seem to issue out of restriction in his plays, to escape through narrow openings, to barely arrive at their destination and then hardly intact. Communication often seems the product of a certain confinement, although this cannot necessarily be reduced to the stifling socio-political confinement of Metternich's Vienna, even if those infamous politics have their place in a discussion of the conditions of Nestroy's art. He does sit in a Viennese jail: Johann Nestroy, Arrestee. But we concern ourselves with another kind of "festsitzen" in the vicinity of bars one can not necessarily be behind ("hinter Gitter" is the German expression) that might even have debarred Nestroy from communicating directly to Lucas had they been standing face to face, what, in the strange collection of phrases found in Nestroy's Nachlass under the [End Page 451] title scrawled in pencil and finished with a flourish "Reserve," he termed "das Sprachgitter." "Drücken Sie die Lippen des Vertrauens an das Sprachgitter der Freundschaft [Press the lips of confidence on the speech-bars of friendship]" the phrase runs (Reserve 75).1 Although we cannot be precisely certain what this phrase is meant to communicate, we can infer its own law of communication from it. When confident lips press on friendship's language-bars, one cannot be confident what is communicated, even if the saying has been scrawled with the friendliest intentions. What the lips seem to articulate here, as elsewhere in Nestroy's writing, is what confidently interrupts communication between acknowledged friends—in the case where both speaker and addressee have or believe they have each other's best interests at heart, something is held back, blocked. Our confidence that Nestroy the Arrestee's phrases speak to Lucas, and in turn to us, in our best interest bites down hard on the Sprachgitter that separates us from him. What must be in question in an understanding of Nestroy's art, then, is how confinement produces communications and how a Sprachgitter which anyone would judge a hindrance to communication could possibly be held in reserve in communication, could be itself a Reserve. What is it reserved from and for whom? Even behind the friendly missive sent by Nestroy out of the Vienna jail a Sprachgitter sits in reserve:
I sit secure between four walls. . . . Before my barred-window [Gitterfenster] is a wooden tub, such that light can only penetrate from above, a precaution so that I can't correspond with other wrongdoers, companions of my heinous deed, through sign language [durch Zeichensprache]. I write you these miseries, (so that you see,) how highly art and artists are respected in Vienna and with what remarkable humanity the artist is treated for the slightest offences. Thus I sit in the most piquant isolation.2
In an epoch and a city of state-sponsored obstacles to communication, we observe a small breach of security: the letter that communicates the obstacles to communication transforms Nestroy's imprisonment. At the most banal the letter is an ironic commentary on the poor treatment of "art and artists . . . in Vienna"; at the most intriguing, it turns the prison into something else, a theater perhaps. [End Page 452] While Nestroy writes this note light hits him from above, like an actor playing a scene. It is well...