07 August 2005

Grimm, Kleist, Details, and Belief

Waggish continues to be one of the most thought-provoking weblogs I've encountered, and the latest post, about the Grimm tales and Heinrich von Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas is worth reading carefully. Waggish takes his inspiration from a Times Literary Supplement review (subscribers only) by Gabriel Josipovici of a new selection of the Grimms' fairy tales. While most of the review is about the translation, the choice of text, etc., one paragraph offers some tantalizing ideas about fiction, with Kleist's novella Michael Kohlhaas as a key.

For the sake of context, at least, it's worth noting how Josipovici leads up to Kleist. First, a few sentences about belief and storytelling are important:
...what we are witnessing in the transformation of the tales is a phenomenon that has analogues in other times and places. ... We see it in the Jewish tradition in the transformation of biblical narratives into Midrash. God calls Abraham. Why? The Bible does not say. But Jewish tradition finds it hard to live with the apparently arbitrary ("How odd of God to choose the Jews"), and so elaborates a series of stories about Abraham's childhood, about his belief in the one God, his hatred of idol-worship, and his consequent persecution by the idolatrous King Nimrod. That, then, is why God called Abraham and told him to leave his house and go where He, God, would tell him. We are at the point of transition, in all these cases, between two different attitudes to the world and to storytelling.
Which leads to a discussion of Walter Benjamin's essay "The Storyteller", and then Kierkegaard:
Benjamin is not simply looking at differences between stories and novels, he grasps that to make sense of both sets of phenomena you need to have some understanding of what it is that drives storytelling on the one hand and novel writing on the other. More light is shed on this in a remarkable entry by Kierkegaard in his journal for 1837 (he was twenty-three). It is worth quoting in full:

There are two recommended ways of telling children stories, but there are also a multitude of false paths in between.

The first is the way unconsciously adopted by the nanny, and whoever can be included in that category. Here a whole fantasy world dawns for the child, and the nannies are themselves deeply convinced that the stories are true . . . which, however fantastic the content, can't help bestowing a beneficial calm on the child. Only when the child gets a hint of the fact that the person doesn't believe her own stories are there ill-effects -- not from the content but because of the narrator's insincerity -- from the lack of confidence and suspicion that gradually envelops the child.

The second way is possible only for someone who with full transparency reproduces the life of childhood, knows what it demands, what is good for it, and from his higher standpoint offers the children a spiritual sustenance that is good for them -- who knows how to be a child, whereas the nannies themselves are basically children.
Then comes the key paragraph:
This suggests that what happened to the Grimm Tales in the course of fifty years of "revision" was that they were transformed from tales told by speakers who were deeply convinced that they were true (whatever meaning one assigns to the term) into tales told by writers (Wilhelm Grimm, in effect) who did not believe in them and therefore added scene-setting, morality and psychology to make them both attractive and meaningful. It also gives us a hint as to why a novelist like Dickens had (and still has) the effect he had on his readers: he was one who knew "how to be a child". However, it was perhaps Kleist alone among the writers of the century who really grasped what was at issue here. His great novella, Michael Kohlhaas, takes many of the elements that go to make up the Grimm Tales and stands them on their head, bidding an anguished farewell as it does so both to community values and to the power of wishful thinking. But Kleist had no successors, and, by and large, nineteenth-century novelists and storytellers took the path of Midrash and romance, still the staple diet of readers of twentieth-century fiction, with neither writers nor readers quite believing what they are doing, but under a strange compulsion to pretend that they do.
Waggish responds:
What is the nature of this pantomime compact between writers and readers which Josipovici only mentions briefly? Modern day American fiction has evolved into a sort of psychological shorthand, in which physically descriptive details and moody variations on images have come to point to a shortlist of mutually agreed upon emotions. By definition, none of them are particularly original. A look through Raymond Carver will isolate the basic vocabulary of jealousy, love, sex, family, etc., etc., but the vocabulary has been with us back through Updike and Cheever all the way to the malaise of Sinclair Lewis, the schemata of John Dos Passos, the tough guy tactics of Hemingway, and the decadence of Fitzgerald. (I don't especially care for any of these authors.) There is an aspect of the fairy tale and the fable to tales that share this vocabulary, because they tell us what we already know--or rather, reiterate what we've already heard. The pretense lies in perpetuating the myth that these stock emotions have an emotional veracity transcending their unoriginal artifice.
In an elegant response to/building from both Josipovici and Waggish, Spurious writes, among other things:
For many years, all of my 20s, I wanted to write and devoted as much time to writing as I did to my studies. Reading back now, I see I wanted to seize on the bareness of telling -- to write a writing which spoke without details, which burnt away the dross and left the raw experience. Reading Kafka again, and Handke, taught me my mistake: telling asks for details; it demands them. Only by details -- Klamm's eyeglasses, the faces of the peasants, the beer in pools on the floor of the public house -- might telling occur. This was a life-changing lesson: literature's gift, which can also be the gift of film (Tarkovsky, Bresson ...) and of music (Will Oldham, Bill Callahan), is given by way of details. Only thus might the event, the hotel garden, be told.
What to do with all this, other than meditate on it for days and weeks and years, lifetimes?

Perhaps something about details. In the introduction to the edition of Kleist's stories that I have, translators David Luke and Nigel Reeves tear into Michael Kohlhaas (which can be acquired on its own from Melville House):
Unfortunately, however, Kleist was not content to finish Michael Kohlhaas on those lines, but introduced a bizarre and fantastic sub-plot which seriously damages the artistic structure of an already long and complex narrative. ...

Michael Kohlhaas has the dramatic urgency of the best of Kleist's other stories, but none of their economy of means. Its ever increasing and ever more confusing complications suggest that the narrator wishes to lose both himself and the reader in an impenetrable world, in a maze of detail and coincidence. The mystifying affair of the old woman was to have been, perhaps, the culmination of this process, raising it to a supernatural level. ...

In Michael Kohlhaas the "real" and the "fantastic" are not compellingly fused but clumsily mixed. ... a further explanation may be that Kleist wanted to appeal to the popular taste, at this peak period of German Romanticism, for folkloristic, fairytale-like material. ... But Kleist was "romantic" and irrationalistic in too profound a sense to have needed to make such concessions to literary convention.

...the weighty realism of Michael Kohlhaas is stylistically and structurally marred by an ill-considered excursion into the region of the fantastic and the uncanny...
What has so upset Luke and Reeves about Michael Kohlhaas is not the inclusion of fantastic elements (they praise such elements in others of Kleist's stories) or the melding of fantasy and "the real" to create "the uncanny" (again, this is praised in other stories). Instead, it's the weight of details, and the inability to reconcile those details with the apparent fantasy -- the inability to suspend disbelief. Luke and Reeves come up with logical reasons why they find the addition of the Gypsy woman story to the historically-based first two-thirds of the story credible, essentially saying, "There are too many coincidences, and it's not psychologically plausible."

"Telling asks for details," as Spurious said. Luke and Reeves think "the narrator wishes to lose both himself and the reader in an impenetrable world, in a maze of detail and coincidence". Josipovici says, "Michael Kohlhaas, takes many of the elements that go to make up the Grimm Tales and stands them on their head, bidding an anguished farewell as it does so both to community values and to the power of wishful thinking." Perhaps Luke and Reeves were blinded by an addiction to shorthand, because Waggish is onto something when he says, "Modern day American fiction has evolved into a sort of psychological shorthand, in which physically descriptive details and moody variations on images have come to point to a shortlist of mutually agreed upon emotions."

Reading Michael Kohlhaas can be a profoundly odd experience if your main diet is mainstream 20th century U.S. fiction, either "popular" or "literary", because it seems to be a sea of details, a flow of events in which the characters are mostly built from externalities and therefore made distant to the reader, unapproachable -- the sort of people who wouldn't find much help in the Self Help aisle at the bookstore. And then, kerplop, it becomes a fairy tale. Various sorts of readers are likely to make different meanings from this turn, but it is significant. Josipovici's "scene-setting, morality and psychology" are not entirely absent from Michael Kohlhaas, but they are also not the story's reason for being -- they exist as the minimum necessary for there to be any basic sense to the narrative.

Is there some element that is the story's reason for being? I'm not sure, and I think I'd need to have a better knowledge of Kleist and his milieu to venture much of a guess. But I doubt it can be distilled to one element, because Michael Kohlhaas is too complex, too all-encompassing to be reduced to one single pearl of critical cleverness. It seems to exist almost in between Kierkegaard's two types of stories, as if it were a tale requiring neither and both belief and unbelief, because both leads to habits that produce dogmas and shorthands, and so belief and unbelief must be used against each other. The details are essential for the creation of belief and for its destruction. This is different from Josipovici's description of the modern contract of "neither writers nor readers quite believing what they are doing, but under a strange compulsion to pretend that they do" because the terms are muddier, with no clear delineation of where the believing should begin or end, or even if it's important at all. It's almost as if Kleist says to the reader, "Believe if you want, or don't if you want -- it doesn't really matter, because that's not why we're here." The text becomes a kind of indifferent god, an object that requires neither worship nor doubt, and is impervious to both.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Matthew. Must get round to writing something on Gene Wolfe and telling - Peace, Book of the New Sun ...

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