Thursday, December 17, 2015
On a Beginning
The world is indifferent to the meanings that writers impose upon it. There is an enormous inertia in the silence, or, more accurately the confused babble of voices and sounds, that precedes the spoken word aspiring to meaning. Utterance defies the white noise emitted by world. This white noise is the equivalent of the blank page on which the writer inscribes his words. The first problem that the artist faces is how to rouse himself from the torpor of existence, the dull, inconsequential inertia of meaninglessness.
Franz Xavier Schoenwerth (1810 - 1886) was a Bavarian civil servant, private secretary to King Maxmillian II. (King Maximillian was the father of Ludwig, the Mad King of Bavaria, Wagner’s patron and the great castle-builder). Schoenwerth, who was made a Knight of the Realm for his services, was a typical German polymath, a type ubiquitous in the 19th century. He knew all modern European languages as well as Gothic, Latin, and Greek. Near the end of his life, Schoenwerth was close to mastering Babylonian cuneiform and Sanskrit. Most importantly, Schoenwerth was a great collector of folktales, proverbs, and customs in the Upper Palatine region of Bavaria. In this regard, Schoenwerth followed the lead of the Grimm brothers. Indeed, Jacob Grimm told King Maximillian that if there was "anyone who could replace me (with respect to the collection of folklore), it would be Schoenwerth." His magnum opus is Aus der Oberpfalz– Sitten und Sagen (From the Oberpfalz – Customs and Legends), a three-volume compendium of Palatine folklore published between 1857 and 1859 that was lavishly praised by Jacob Grimm.
When Schoenwerth died, 46 fascicles of handwritten notes were left in the possession of his wife Maria. At her death, this Nachlass was transferred to the historical society for Oberpfalz and Regensburg where it was duly catalogued, filed, and forgotten. In the mid-1980's, the formidable Erika Eichenseer, a folklore specialist in Regensburg, discovered Schoenwerth’s notebooks, a cache of materials that contained more than 500 unpublished Maerchen (or fairy-tales). (Frau Eichenseer is a robust white-haired woman often photographed in a traditional Dirndl; she has flaming red lipstick and startlingly blue eyes.) Eichenseer published 136 of these stories from Schoenwerth’s trove in 2010 in a book entitled Prinz Rosszwifl und andere Maerchen (Prince Dungbeetle and other Fairy Tales). The book was immediately hailed as an important addition to the Maerchen literature, translated into many languages (a Penguin edition in English is forthcoming), and, already, the source of several new operas and children’s theater plays based on the tales.
One of the stories collected by Schoenwerth from a place called Neuenhammer, a small town in Bavaria, is called "The Enchanted Crow". Here is how that story begins:
In a meadow, a knight sat on a horse and slept. Then, a crow came and pecked at the horse so that it kicked with its hooves, awakening the knight. "Why are you troubling my horse?" the knight cried. "So that you’ll wake up again," the crow said, "since you have been sleeping now for three years." The knight noticed that his beard was a yard long and that what the crow said was true. He said to the crow: "Tell me how I can thank you." "By giving me one of your three sisters for my wife," the crow said. "Here is my picture," he added.
After this extraordinary introduction, the rest of the fairy tale is fairly conventional. The knight has three sisters – the two older girls reject the crow’s advances with horror, but the youngest sister receives the crow (who is, of course, a handsome, bewitched prince) as her suitor. The crow sends his fiancee to the nearby village, dressed in rags and assigned menial tasks, an ordeal that the girl must undergo in order to reverse the evil spell enchanting the prince. The crow offers the girl a magic feather, plucked from his breast, to use as a quill. Anything that the girl writes with this quill immediately happens. And, so, armed with the magic quill, the maiden resists several attempts at seduction inflicted on her by a gardener, a huntsman, and a Taubennarr ("the fool who cares for the doves in the dovecote"). Predictably, the story ends with the crow’s arrival as a handsome young prince who sweeps up in his arms the bedraggled girl, working as a cook in the king’s kitchen, departing with her to his own palace.
But what fascinates me about this story is its opening, the narrator’s understanding that something extraordinary is required to rouse the listener from an indifference and torpor that is the equivalent of sleep. This introduction embodies for me the magic gesture that initiates a narrative, the decision to rouse the world from its slumber. And, I think, it is significant that the story is about writing – the vehicle of the heroine’s salvation is, in fact, a magic quill that makes what is written come true. Certainly, it is the wish of any writer to be vested with a magic writing instrument of this kind, a quill that can inscribe words to rouse the world to action.
There is a wonderful and tiny poem I know by heart. The poem is my talisman and I recite it to myself once a day. The little verse is by the German Romantic poet and novelist Josef von Eichendorff.
Schlaeft ein Lied in aller Dingen
Die da traeumen fort und fort
Und die Welt hebt an zu singen
Treffst du nur das Zauberwort.
This poem is called Wuenschelsrute ("The Divining Rod") and the German may be translated
A song sleeps in all things
Dreaming on and on,
And the world begins to sing
If you find the magic word.
This quatrain seems prefatory to me. It is the introduction to all work of art. Everything is sleeping, inert and silent, until the artist finds the magical phrase or expression to revive the world and give it voice.