Adalbert Stifter’s Disappearing World

Adalbert Stifter’s Disappearing World

Adalbert Stifter’s Disappearing World

His uncanny writing bears witness to the early stages of capitalism offering a glimpse of the natural world before modernity.


Reporting from Vienna on May Day, 1844, the Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter painted a happy picture. In a feuilleton, he took readers to the Prater public park, where the “highest, high, and lowliest of Viennese society” had come for the spring festival. He marveled at the coffeehouses and beer gardens, ogled the society ladies and wealthy burghers, and was stopped in his tracks by Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elisabeth, around whom a crowd had gathered. “Here the people wave in greeting,” he idly noted. “And their rulers know that they are safe in the densest of crowds as in their palace.”

Episodes like this help explain why Stifter was considered an apologist for the ruling classes. An old-fashioned storyteller, painter of dreamy landscapes, and sometime educator of the aristocracy, he lived through a period of political repression and upheaval—and seems to have been untouched by its passions. He wrote essays, dramas, short stories, three very long (and very bizarre) novels, and some 30 novellas, which were widely read. Free of conflict and innocent of the state, these works largely unfold in the countryside, are filled with gentle pastoral incident, and close on this or that Christian moral. Their affinity with the popular genre of Dorfgeschichte, or village idyll, was not lost on progressive critics, who were less than impressed. The poet Joseph von Eichendorff complained that Stifter’s writings had “not a trace of modern Zerissenheit,” or turmoil. More viciously, the dramatist Freidrich Hebbel dismissed him as a bard of “beetles and buttercups.”

Stifter’s afterlife has been more vexed and contradictory. Much taken by his portraits of rural happiness, one school of readers have praised him in more-or-less nostalgic terms. For Herman Hesse, his books held the “essence of true humanity.” Rilke commended the “simple spirit that gazes out so purely at the world’s phenomena.” Writing in the 1960s, with the discontents of mass society on her mind, Hannah Arendt wondered if he would ever again find an audience. “Our sense of homelessness in society and alienation from nature…are constantly contradicted by Stifter,” she reflected in an admiring, posthumously published essay. His “intimate and altogether happy relationship with reality” was a thing of the past.

Others have sensed more troubled depths beneath the placid surface. Nietzsche found in Stifter’s work a disguised critique of aristocratic decadence. (He named Stifter’s Indian Summer as one of two German novels worth reading from beginning to end.) Kafka and Hugo von Hofmannsthal heard a kindred gloom in his prose. “Stifter is one of the strangest, most enigmatic, secretly audacious and strangely gripping narrative artists,” Thomas Mann wrote in his essay “The Inception of Doctor Faustus.” He exhibits “a bias towards the excessive, elemental-claustrophobic, the pathological.”

Both readings have their merits. Stifter was a kind of Christian naturalist—in this, like Wendell Berry and Thomas Merton—who worshiped the rhythms of pastoral living, which he tried to sanctify in his work. “Stifter tended to stress the centrality of a moral purpose as validating of all creative writing,” the critic Alexander Stillmark observes. “And chose to designate his own writing as ‘ethical revelations’ rather than literary works of art.” Yet he also struggled with melancholy all his life, which he ended by his own hand at the age of 63; something of that disquiet can be sensed in his writings. As W.G. Sebald has pointed out, his repeated expressions of faith in God “bear all the signs of unbelief,” and nature, which he rapturously praised, reveals a darker face in his fiction, over which storms, floods, fires, and blizzards loom large.

Neither tendency, religious or agnostic, entirely crosses out the other, and their conflict makes for a profound tension, best seen in a historical light. Brought up in an agrarian world steeped in religion, Stifter lived to witness the onset of capitalist modernity. He chronicled, with growing unease, how humankind’s relation to the natural world changed in this period. That his misgivings were smuggled into a Dorfgeschicht is part of the puzzle. Stifter revealed, as if from within, the collapse of a belief in God and nature, precisely by extolling both in absolute terms. It is uncanny to revisit his writings at a time when vast parts of the earth are turning uninhabitable. His unease about a disappearing world echoes our own, as does his denial about the onrushing future.

Adalbert Stifter was born in the Bohemian market town of Oberplan in 1805, into a family of petty horse traders. A bright if exceedingly reserved child, he was mentored by the local schoolmaster and, after his father’s early death, sent to a Benedictine monastery, a period he recalled as the happiest of his life. In 1826, he enrolled as a law student at the University of Vienna, where he was drawn to other subjects. Like his hero Goethe, he studied philosophy, literature, painting, and music, not to mention geology and natural history, which sat uneasily with his faith. “Why is it, since surely all natural laws are marvels and creatures of God, that we perceive His Being within them less than when a sudden change or possibly a disturbance of these occurs?” he asked in a gripping account of a solar eclipse in 1842.

Stifter came of age in the Biedermeier period between the Napoleonic wars and the failed uprisings of 1848, when an uneasy peace prevailed across Europe and the French Revolution’s dreams lay buried. Arriving in Vienna, then swarming with police and spies, he was drawn to the city’s artistic circles, where his crippling anxiety marked him as an outsider. (“As soon as I enter the company of distinguished people,” he lamented, “I find that the schoolboy’s feelings of facing his headmaster, priest or even bishop regularly revive in me.”) A gifted pedagogue, he tutored schoolchildren, making a reputation among the upper classes, even instructing Prince Klemens von Metternich’s son Richard. Meanwhile, he began a tortured, decade-long epistolary relationship with his “soul mate” Fanny Greipl; when she stopped answering his letters, he married Amalia Mohaupt, a nearly illiterate member of the demimonde. He dragged out his coursework and, in the end, abandoned his dissertation.

Financially struggling, socially isolated, and emotionally unhappy, Stifter published his first story in 1840—to great acclaim. “The Condor” is an intense, fantastical account of a young woman who accompanies scientists on a hot-air balloon flight. The dizzying ascent, which finally makes her ill, also brings home the sublime dimensions of the universe: “The entire vault of the sky, the lovely blue canopy of our heaven, had become a black abyss, plunging into the depths without measure or limit.” Over the next decade, Stifter wrote dozens of stories and novellas that similarly depicted everyday activity against spectacular natural panoramas. He thought of himself as an idealist, extolled science and philosophy, and held firm liberal values. When rebellion broke out in 1848, Stifter attended some meetings with radicals in Vienna, though he recoiled from the ensuing nationalist violence, which Metternich soon put a lid on as foreign minister. Securing a position as inspector of schools in Upper Austria, he fled the city and never returned.

Stifter’s first major work after this period was Motley Stones, a cycle of six novellas, published in 1853 and appearing now in a fluid new translation by Isabel Fargo Cole. In her introduction, Cole suggests that the book marks his “reckoning with certain tensions of previous years,” though how so is hard to make out at first. The collection retains Stifter’s peculiar formal tendencies: nested and incomplete narratives that have to be pieced together by the reader; saintly, somewhat sketchily drawn characters, animated by grace rather than passion or ambition; prolonged, almost fanatical descriptions of the countryside; a kind of dense, bric-a-brac prose. Like the earlier fictions, these tales unfold in idyllic villages, modeled on those in the Oberplan region, home to noble pastors, hardy artisans, sweet children, and the like. Cole argues that Stifter was offering a “rejoinder to Hebbel, an apologia for ‘small things,’ for harmony and balance as an alternative to the strife of 1848.”

However, there is now a darker narrative undercurrent, which erupts at crucial moments, casting the preceding events in a new light. It can take a while to get there. Generally, Stifter begins with long, descriptive set pieces, which unspool in catalogs of patient detail that catch the slightest seasonal change. “Regarding the mountain’s yearly chronicle,” the narrator says early in “Rock Crystal”:

In the winter the two prongs of its summit, which they call horns, are snow-white, and when visible on bright clear days loom blinding in the air’s dark blue; then all the alpine fields surrounding the summit are white; all the slopes are white; even the perpendicular cliffs which the locals call walls are covered with the white wind-blown hoarfrost, and with delicate ice, like a varnish, so that the whole great mass rises like a magic palace from the rimy gray of the forest freight spread heavily about its foot.

These establishing shots wander across the landscape, orienting the reader to its landmarks, before Stifter focuses on his protagonists. While the scene-setting will be crucial to the little action that follows, the comprehensive zeal with which he pursues the task—in this case, for over 10 pages—goes far beyond dramatic necessity. That and his impartial affection for things modest (brooks, breezes) and sublime (mountains, storms) point instead to the heartfelt materialism that made up the better part of his reverence. “For Stifter, reality really means nature and man,” Arendt noted. “And for him, man is but one of its most perfect products.”

Even the plots, such as they are, have arboreal rhythms, tending to begin as walks or journeys. In “Granite,” the child narrator and his grandfather hike up a nearby mountain range. “Limestone” follows a land surveyor on duty in a wretched, dry province. The natural descriptions can feel outlandish, even incantatory, as if Stifter were bending the novella back into an oral folktale. “They walked past the hazel shrubs, they walked across the stones, they walked across the brook with the little gray fish and blue dragonflies, they walked past the turf,” begins a passage from “Cat-Silver,” perhaps the oddest story in the collection, about the friendship between the children of a rural manor and an orphan who squats on the property.

This goes on for a while, probably too long for modern tastes, before the stories keel over. The transition is handled in different ways, sometimes with an abrupt change in perspective. Halfway up the mountain, the child in “Granite” hands over the narrative reins to his grandfather, who proceeds to recount the history of a plague that swept through the region two generations before. His tone is calm, matter-of-fact, free of moralizing and explication, which lends his chronicle an element of fatalism, leaving suffering unredeemed: “The white petals still lay on the road, and the dead were carried out over them; the spring leaves peeped into a chamber, and a sick man would be lying there.” Although the worst is averted and society emerges once more, the vivid picture of nature transformed into a force of destruction, and of human helplessness in its face, hangs over the landscape. “My sleep was not a good one,” the child says the next morning. “Many things dwelled with me, the dead, the dying, victims of the plague.”

Desolation is a recurring motif in Motley Stones. For its first half, “Granite” is a quiet, graceful account of the relationship between the surveyor and a beloved rural pastor. Then the priest falls ill and, in a death-bed confession, recounts his youth, which was plagued by learning disabilities: “The names of the letters escaped me, and then I couldn’t say the syllables they formed.” He was forced out of school, deemed unfit for work, and—worst of all—never overcame his fear of women. While the story ends on a happy note, with his entry into the church, which brings him peace of mind, the hectic, agitated tone of his recounting suggests that darker passions still rumble beneath his piety. Like Kafka’s rodent in the burrow, he is a thwarted man in retreat from other people.

Dramas of the natural world and the self are brought together most powerfully in “Rock Crystal,” the collection’s best-known novella. The story turns on the contrast between two journeys, back and forth across a mountain valley. On Christmas Eve, Konrad and Susanna set off to visit their grandmother in the neighboring village and reach their destination safely. But everything goes wrong on their return, as they are trapped in a sudden snowstorm, lose their way, and by nightfall are stranded far out on a glacier. The sense of disorientation builds subtly, gradually, incessantly, in time taking on a metaphorical dimension, as if the children have lost their spiritual bearings:

There was nothing but whiteness surrounding them, and all around no intervening darkness could be seen. There seemed to be a great wealth of light, yet it was impossible to see three steps ahead; everything was swathed, if this can be said, in one great white darkness, and there were no shadows, there was no judging the size of things, and the children could not tell whether they were heading uphill or downhill.

They are found on Christmas morning, a happy ending that Christian admirers like W.H. Auden have taken at face value. (He described “Rock Crystal” as a “quiet and beautiful parable about the relation of people to places, of man to nature.”) Less credulous readers will feel that the story’s emotional truth lies in the feelings of utter confusion and isolation evoked during the storm. The setting is not incidental. “The realm of the glacier is absolutely unhistorical,” Georg Simmel wrote in his great essay “The Alps” (1911). “Associations with the rise and fall of human fate that to some degree accompany all landscapes are no more.” Simmel’s point is that unchanging ice formations, for all their majesty, do not answer the human soul, which is pulsing, dynamic, forever in flux. A seemingly unnatural part of nature, the glacier reflects our own uneasy place in the world.

Early in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1998), the narrator is admitted to a hospital in Norwich, England, and administered a heavy dose of painkillers. Looking out his window on the eighth floor, he confesses to a curious sense of vertigo. “I found the familiar city, extending from hospital courtyards to the far horizon, an utterly alien place,” he says. “It was as if I were looking down from a cliff upon a sea of stone or a field of rubble…. All I could hear was the wind sweeping in from the country and buffeting the window.”

Some of the images and thoughts woven through this description are cribbed from Stifter’s story “The Condor,” about the balloon flight. Something about the plight of an individual looking upon humankind from a great distance obviously struck a chord with Sebald, who found much to admire in his Austrian forebear. “Stifter writes at a time when the attempt to ascribe meaning to everything is beginning to atrophy,” he reflected in a pathbreaking article, “To the Edge of Nature: An Essay on Stifter” (1985), which brought a new materialist understanding to this slippery writer’s outlook. Rejecting the pious “constructions of meaning” placed by Stifter on his own texts, Sebald argues that their “real gravity [is] in profound agnosticism and a cosmic pessimism.”

Sebald is right to draw our attention to Stifter’s white darkness. Far from a beatific Christian, he is better seen in the tradition of morose German-language heretics: alongside Heinrich von Kleist, who also killed himself; Georg Büchner, his colleague in the tutoring racket; Franz Kafka, who called him “my fat brother”; Robert Walser, another avid hiker; Thomas Bernhard, who gave him a friendly roughing up in Old Masters; and Sebald, his finest critic. All these men—and tortured masculinity is part of it—were idealistic, high-strung, thwarted, and out of step with bourgeois society. Intellectually drawn to order and harmony, they harbored grave doubts about those beliefs they held most dear: in God, the sanctity of the state, morality. Aesthetically, they turned away from realism and social drama, preferring leaner, more idea-driven forms. Politically, they were quietists for the most part (except Büchner), though with radical literary visions.

Stifter stands out for the attention he lavished on the natural world. Attacked as “psychologically uncurious” in his own time, his fiction in fact reveals, with great subtlety, the ways in which our sense of self is mediated by our surroundings. Natural phenomena are not simply metaphors in his stories, though they serve a dramatic purpose. Rather, they are the medium through which people come to know their convictions—or confront their utter confusion, as in “Rock Crystal.” Critics have largely missed this aspect of his work, which is perhaps one reason Stifter has been underrated. Of late, however, more writers have begun to confront the spiritual unease of living in complicity with climate change, which we dimly know is destroying our natural world, even if we can’t quite confront what that means. (See recent books by Ben Ehrenreich, Amitav Ghosh, and Helen MacDonald.) Stifter offers one interesting model to follow. As Sebald noted, he presented “human beings as strangers not only in society but even in nature, their former house.”

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