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  • Not Forgotten:On Stifter and Peirce*
  • Zachary Sng (bio)

The reader looking for a coherent picture of the Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter would probably be frustrated by the diversity and the heterogeneity of different Stifters available out there. This is true not only of writings in academic journals and learned monographs, where nuanced differentiations and paradoxical juxtapositions are perhaps to be expected, but also of the newspaper articles and reviews meant for a more general audience and to which one turns for a more sustained attempt at coherence and clarity on such matters. The numerous texts produced in 2005 to commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of Stifter's birth prove no exception. Is Stifter a celebrant of the mystery of Nature's gentle harmony or a devotee of its terrible, demanding sublimity? Is he a faithful chronicler of the minute and quotidian or an advocate of submission to universal reason and abstract laws? Opinions differ drastically. One thing does emerge, however, with some clarity: these and other such contradictions do not coexist in some horizontal plane of possibility that presents the reader (even the [End Page 631] post-modern one) with the luxury of 'choice.' Rather, they are laid on top of one another, each canceling and overwriting the previous one in an agonistic drama before which the reader can only react as an awed spectator.

Stifter's texts are themselves densely populated with readers and interpreters, and thus dramatize the contention of interpretation within themselves. In addition, the reader familiar with Stifter the writer would also have encountered Stifter the reader and meticulous re-writer, constantly revising and overwriting his own previous texts and drastically altering them. Trying to interpret even one individual text written by Stifter often means, therefore, already making a choice about which layer to privilege in a confusing palimpsest of traces. Take, for example, the complex story "Die Mappe meines Urgroßvaters," which Stifter wrote and re-wrote over the course of some 25 years or so. As Albrecht Koschorke has recently noted, comparing one central passage that describes a thwarted suicide across its different versions brings to light some quite surprising revisional choices.1 In this passage, the embedded first-person narrator has just had a falling-out with Margarita, with whom he is deeply in love. In despair, he decides to kill himself. In the earliest version, the so-called Journalfassung of 1841, the description of his actions leading to the aborted suicide is as follows:

[Ich lief] in den Wald zu einer wohlbekannten Birkenstelle, – aber da ich dort war, – – ach es ist ein unbeschreiblicher Augenblick, da man eines solchen Entschlusses ist, um so mehr, je ernster er gemeint ist. Es war ein ganz heiterer warmer Nachmittag; der Wald, damals noch viel größer als heute, so still, so ganz todtenstill und harrend, daß die vielen Birken, alt und jung umherstanden, und alle mich ansahen; – dem grünen Rasenplatze gegenüber, viele Klafter hoch, standen taube graue Felsen, eine stumme, glänzende Lichtflut prallte von ihnen zurück – auf ihr wird meine That durch den Himmel schwimmen – von dem Firmamente hing die tiefblaue Frühlingsluft, so erdwärts, daß man meinte, die Gipfel der Bäume seyen in ihre Farbe getaucht. – – Einen Moment wartete ich noch – – vor einigen Augenblicken zirpte ein wenig abwärts eine Heuschrecke, – es war mir, als wäre mir leichter, [End Page 632] wenn ich sie noch einmal gehört hätte, aber sie schwieg – – ich wartete noch – sie schwieg. . . .


The rhythm of Stifter's prose is dominated by a density of adverbs and adjectives that infuse the forest scene with vitality and bring it, so to speak, to life. But this impenetrable texture also evokes a sense of dark foreboding, and installs a retardation that highlights the curious juxtaposition of richly layered life and absolute, ominous stillness. We know something is about to happen here, but everything is held in intolerable suspense. We wait alongside the narrator, with bated breath and a sense of anticipation that mounts with each terrible dash, for some sort of resolution.

This nuanced, expressionistic mode of description becomes replaced by something else in the second version: the Studienfassung from 1847...


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