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  • Arachnid Aesthetics:Gotthelf’s Die schwarze Spinne
  • Martha B. Helfer (bio)

Die schwarze Spinne begins with a series of circular gestures, creating a sense of hermetic containment—a textual claustrophobia, even—as it introduces its supernatural storyline as terrifyingly real. Written in simple language and syntax, the narrative unfolds in a simple, linear progression that paradoxically resists straightforward summary: circularity permeates the text’s structure and content, and is one of its defining and most unsettling features. At its core lies a corporeal curse that proves to be profoundly aesthetic in nature. A strong-willed woman named Christine dares vie with the Devil by slyly attempting to outwit him using linguistic deceit: a false oath that takes the form of a deferred promise, an indefinitely delayed Ver-sprechen. As punishment for her audacity she is first branded—marked by an invisible sign that gradually becomes perceptible in mutating, arachnid form—and then turned into a large, black, glowering spider who wreaks havoc on the local population and eventually is imprisoned in a darkened wooden window post, where she remains, invisible yet inscribed with the sign of her provenance, for over 600 years: a monstrous, lurking, ever-present threat to modernity.

This is the stuff of myth and legend, and its redaction ironically forms the basis of a nascent poetic realist aesthetic. Importantly, the text draws generative force from tales rooted in divine and diabolical deceit, and a dynamic process of inversion, of antithesis,1 is at stake in [End Page 662] their rewriting. Enwombed and entombed in wood, the spider woman Christine glosses the legend of Paracelsus, who is said to have tricked the Devil to great gain and entrapped him in spider form in a fir tree.2 She likewise inverts the storyline of her mythical forebear Arachne, who boastfully and successfully challenges the weaver goddess Athena by creating a magnificent tapestry that depicts the many ways in which the gods have tricked mortals, and is spitefully transformed into a spider by her divinely jealous rival. Unlike Arachne, Christine does not weave. She is, however, a self-reflexive figure of poiesis, of serial production or creation: she gives birth to countless black spiders that, like her, are figures of destruction. Christine is both a serial producer and a serial killer and must be contained. And this is precisely the function of the narrative itself. Die schwarze Spinne, I will argue, is a narrative about containment and a narrative of containment.3 In its circular, iterative language and structure it weaves together a deceptive, self-reflexive aesthetic that programmatically constructs poetic realism as serial containment, as artifice, as curse: as a controlled and controlling deviance from a darkly natural and deadly signifying order.

Published in 1842 by the Swiss pastor Albert Bitzius, who wrote under the pen name Jeremias Gotthelf, Die schwarze Spinne is on the surface a cautionary morality story about the dangers of corrupt unchristian mores.4 Originally intended as one in a series of historical-legendary tales, the narrative in its very conception is realist in nature, yet by design marks its fictional status from the start. Set in and around a farmhouse with a darkened window post that was standing, and readily identifiable, in Gotthelf’s time, the narrative is painstakingly detailed in its lengthy authentic depiction of the baptismal festivities that inform the storyline on all levels; it also overtly references the Black Plague [End Page 663] that swept through the region in 1434, decimating the population.5 The central character Christine, identified as a foreign woman from Lindau, likewise has historical precedent6; and the “truth” of the supernatural storyline is steadfastly asserted at key points in the narrative.7 At the same time, the text very obviously, if indirectly, draws on numerous literary sources: the myth of Arachne, the legend of Paracelsus, contemporaneous “black spider” tales circulating in Switzerland, biblical motifs linking spiders with wickedness and hypocrisy, and folkloric associations of the Devil with spiders.8 As the basis of its poetic realist aesthetic Gotthelf’s narrative thus weaves together religion, legend, folklore, myth, magic, and historical fact and converts—and indeed inverts—established history into fiction: Hans von Stoffeln, the evil feudal...


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