Sunday, May 3, 2015

Short Story Month: 2015--Ludwig Tieck, "Fair Eckbert"

Citing Boccaccio, Cervantes, and Goethe as the most important contributors to the novella form, Ludwig Tieck, the most significant 19th-century theorist of the novella, agrees with Goethe's notion that the story should be strange and unique and yet commonplace, as well as with Schlegel's concept that the event should be described as objectively taking place.  However, the most controversial element of Tieck's theory is his notion of a Wendepunkt, a "twist in the story" or turning point "from which it takes unexpectedly a complete different direction, and develops consequences which are nevertheless natural and entirely in keeping with character and circumstances."  It is this "extraordinary and striking turning point," says Tieck, that distinguishes the novella from other narrative forms .
Tieck's Wendepunkt is not a mere technical device; rather it is one of the results of that combination of the old allegorical romance form and the new "realistic" form initiated by Boccaccio that creates a new and unique genre. If the story begins in the world of sacred reality but reaches a point at which events seem to be accounted for in terms of psychological reality, that generic turn is what Tieck means by Wendepunkt.  If, on the other hand, the tale begins realistically and turns at some point to a form in which the laws of nature or psychology do not seem to apply, that generic turning point is also a Wendepunkt.
A failure to determine how past generic conventions are combined in a new way has resulted in critical difficulties with Ludwig Tieck's most famous novella, "Fair Eckbert".  Walter Silz says that because the tale makes use of the supernatural, it is more a "gruesome marchen" than a novella, while E. K. Bennett and John Ellis tolerate the supernatural events by calling the work a "romantic novelle" or by suggesting that, while not a marchen, it makes use of fairy tale conventions.  The problem is not only that the story makes use of such fairy-tale motifs as a magical bird, a grotesque old lady, and a child who runs away from home to enter an enchanted world, but also, as Ellis notes, that characters seem to do things without any reason, and as Bennet suggests, there does not seem to be any logical connection between the events in the tale.
The logic of Tieck's tale must be understood in two different ways, for the tale contains a tale within itself, and both inner and outer tale have their own sets of conventions.  Bertha's tale within the tale is dominated by an oneiric-logic that makes it seem predominantly like a fairy tale.  However, Bertha's story differs from fairy tales because, presented as a told story of a personal experience, it becomes a self-conscious embodiment of psychological processes. 
As Bruno Bettleheim has noted, fairy tales externalize inner processes; through the disguised means of story, they structure the unconscious anxieties and conflicts of the child's mind. However, they are not explicitly presented as such, nor are they taken to be such by their tellers or listeners; rather they are presented and received as tales of the supernatural, pure and simple.  When Bertha begins the story of her youth and tells her listener that he must not regard it as a fairy tale, no matter how strange the events, her injunction insists that the listener  regard her story as an account of a personal life and thus an illustration of inner processes, rather than as merely a fairy story.  In this way, Tieck foregrounds the thematic nature of the marchen form as revelatory of inner unconscious processes. 
That the story's subject matter is the nature of fairy tale itself as an externalization of the unconscious is made clear from the beginning of Bertha's tale.  She does not leave home for any of the reasons that we usually associate with the fairy tale departure of children, i.e., to escape an abusive step-parent or to seek her fortune in the world; rather she leaves because her childhood is torn between the two realms of reality that 19th- century short narrative frequently deals with:  the world of fantasy and the world of everyday existence.  Bertha's clumsiness, which makes her father scold her, reflects her failure to deal with the everyday world of objects and external reality because fantasies always occupy her mind. 
  Because Bertha's story is about the child's retreat from the external world into the world of fantasy or fairy tale, the specific motivation for her leaving home cannot be made clear; she leaves the house scarcely realizing what she is doing, for truly her departure is an unconscious one, both in the manifest story and in its latent meaning.  Her journey into the oneiric mountains which reveal no sign of human habitation, her encounter with the strange old woman, whose face twitches so that Bertha is never sure what she really looks like, and with the bird that lays an egg each day with a pearl or gem inside are all characterized as if they were dream--even a dream within a dream, says Bertha.  As the dream events become familiarized to her, the dream reality takes on the appearance of the only reality there is.
But even in this dream within a dream, Bertha falls further into fantasy when, as a result of her reading, she imagines a romantic vision of a beautiful knight who she longs to meet in fleshly reality.  At this point in the story, she departs from the old woman in much the same unconscious way that she left her home, as if her "intentions were already standing before her" without her being "distinctly conscious of it." Just as the conflict between fantasy and reality made her unconsciously leave home, a yearning for the reality of her fantasy makes her leave once again. 
It is inevitable, of course, in the logic of fairy tale that Bertha should return to the village from whence she came and wish to surprise her parents with her new riches.  When she finds out they are dead, she becomes self-consciously aware of the dream state as ironic wish-fulfillment, realizing, "as a result of a remarkable accident the dream of my childhood had really come true.  And now it was all in vain."  Of course, the "remarkable accident" is no accident in a similitude of the real world, nor a manifestation of poetic justice, as the Renaissance novella might have presented it, but rather the fulfillment of the story's requirements that inner desires be actualized.  At this point Bertha must give up her childhood fairy-tale world; thus she kills the magical bird she has stolen from the old woman as the last remnant of that past world.  However, because the past continues to haunt her she makes a final attempt to move into adulthood by marrying the knight Eckbert; with this gesture her story-within-the-story ends.
Now that we are back to the frame, which is Eckbert's story, we enter into a different realm of motivation and logic of events, for we are, comparatively speaking, "back to reality."  Eckbert's anxiety about the telling of the secret story to his friend, Walther, can be accounted for consciously rather than unconsciously, just as his original motivation for urging Bertha to tell the story can be accounted for as an irresistible impulse to tell a friend a secret to make him even closer a friend.  However, after the story is told, Eckbert regrets the confidence, fearing that it is human nature that the listener will misuse the secret.  This  anxiety transforms the "real" story of Eckbert in the frame into a fairy-tale-like story, as Eckbert, unconsciously, without knowing what he is doing, kills Walther and thus mysteriously "causes" the death of Bertha simultaneously.  This double loss of wife and closest friend makes Eckbert feel that his life seems "more like a strange fairy-tale than an actual mortal existence." 
The pattern of Bertha's story is repeated as Eckbert once again has an impulse to tell the story (which we assume also contains Bertha's story within it) to a new friend, Hugo; and once again he experiences the conscious anxiety that he will be betrayed.  He begins to see the face of his old friend Walther in the face of others as he unconsciously makes the same trek through a maze of rocks that Bertha made in her childhood.  When he hears the song of the bird that Bertha heard as a child, "it was all up with Eckbert's consciousness and his senses; he could not solve the mystery whether he was now dreaming or had formerly dreamt of a woman Bertha.  The most marvelous was confused with the most ordinary--the world around him bewitched--no thought, no memory was under his control."  The climax of the story comes abruptly and rapidly as the old woman appears and tells Eckbert that she is both his friend Walther and his friend Hugo, and that Bertha was his sister.  Eckbert falls to the ground, despairing, "In what terrible solitude have I spent my life."  Delirious, dazed, and confused, Eckbert dies, hearing the old woman talking, the dog barking, and the bird repeating its song.
The key to understanding the story as Eckbert's, although most of it is taken up by Bertha's insert tale, is recognizing that Tieck foregrounds the conventions of marchen as an objectification of the unconscious.  The unconscious tale is indeed Eckbert's and revolves around the problem of the self and its relationship to the "other."  Unless we understand that Eckbert "dreams" both Bertha and the framed implications of Bertha's tale, there is no way to understand how the inhabitants of Bertha's dream/tale come to occupy the world of Eckbert's dream/tale. 
The story is an objectification of Eckbert's basic human situation, for it embodies the essential loneliness of the mind itself which cannot be shared with the other.  There is no "other" in this tale, only the lonely and isolated self that is Eckbert.  Eckbert's final cry, "In what terrible solitude have I spent my life," reflects the "lonely voice" that Frank O'Connor has identified as characteristic of short fiction as a genre, for the story's combination of the conventions of projective dream/fairy tale with the conventions of subjective character consciousness is typical of the 19th-century development of short fiction.  For example, the same generic combination creates interpretative problems in Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," as the marvelous and the ordinary become confused and Brown cannot tell whether he has dreamed the events in the story or whether they have actually occurred.

At the beginning of the story, Tieck leads us to believe that the frame of the tale takes place within the real world, while the story Bertha tells is marchen or dream story.  At the end of the tale, the reader realizes that the entire story is a play with "reality" as a projection of the unconscious--that Eckbert's reality is no less a story reality than Bertha's, for all is fictional reality; nothing exists outside the story, and nothing can exist inside the story except the lonely isolated self.  It is the foregrounding of this self-conscious awareness, this play with the marchen conventions and the objectifying of the unconscious as the very subject matter of "Fair Eckbert," that makes Tieck's story an advance over the marchen that precedes it and establishes it as the basis for the self-reflexive self-consciousness of short stories that follow it.  

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