Friday, February 22, 2013

Sir, the winter is also very beautiful. - enjoying the view atop Indian Summer

Stifter carefully places his characters in a landscape.  Sometimes – often – he invents them, like the boulder-strewn hills in his novella “Limestone.”  I actually looked that one up in a book about Stifter several years ago, because I wanted to see photos.  But Stifter had made it all up.

The fields and Alps and glaciers of Indian Summer are not so unusual, so I am not sure what it would mean to say that Stifter had invented them, although in some sense he obviously did.  Instead, Stifter has a character, a painter, do the invention.  His immense painting features “naked cliffs towering up not as an ordered formation but as if by chance like massive boulders placed here and there indiscriminately on the earth, like strangers who, like the Norsemen, settled on islands that didn’t belong to them…  it was torn and jumbled, devoid of trees and bushes, it had dry grass lining white glaring furrows, and piles of quartz stones.”  (387)

And most importantly, it is all imaginary:

“He has set a task for himself of portraying a subject he has never seen,” my host said, “he only sees it through the power of his imagination.”

Those Norsemen were a surprise.  Indian Summer is generally sparse with the metaphors.  I do not really understand the purpose of this painting, but I certainly recognize it as Stifter’s work.

The narrator, Heinrich, begins the novel on a path to be a scientist, with geology and botany as his main interests.  I guess I am just writing about geology now.  Heinrich is pondering his collection of marble specimens:

Will a great deal, will everything completely change again?...  If through the influence of wind and water, the mountains are constantly broken off, if the rubble falls down, if they are further split and the river ultimately brings them to the lower areas in the form of sand, how much can that continue?...  Thus, will one day the mountains have disappeared completely?...

Such questions put me in a serious, solemn mood; it seemed as if a more profound existence had come into my very nature.  (192)

This is the sort of thing W. G. Sebald pulled out of Stifter.

In some sense the climax of the narrator’s story, before the host’s revelations and the romantic plot necessarily bring the book to a close, is a winter hike to an Alpine glacier that he had first visited around page 277.  The hike, in the company of a local mountaineer, is described in detail.  The glacier, the mountains, and the view shift into abstraction – e.g., the glacier’s “sides peered out from the general white in iridescent blue or green” (381) or “[e]verything stood out immovably, silently, solemnly in a gentle blue, a golden shimmer or a distant dull silver” (382).  A few pages earlier, lower down the mountain, Heinrich’s companion

standing beside me, commented, “Sir, the winter is also very beautiful.”

“Yes, Kaspar,” I replied, “it is beautiful, it is very beautiful.”  (379)

Some sort of perfect balance of science and art, of knowledge and beauty, has been achieved, a duality has been resolved, within one branch of the larger symbolic world of the novel, the rock side of the Plants and Rocks idea.  Roses and marble.  The garden and the glacier.  The ephemeral but continually renewed; the permanent yet continually changing.

Next, then, some flowers.


  1. I like the direction taken here with the balance between science and art. This kind of thinking is somewhat in line with my own.

  2. The novel is very much about that balance, some ideal fusion. Although working through the novel's ideas, I suspect the aestheticism comes out on top.

  3. I continue to feel quite sympathetic to these excerpts. I really like the painter who conjures a mountain out of his own imagination. That is right in line with some aesthetic ideas in Roger Fry's Vision and Design, which I've been reading lately.

    By the way, Tom, I've awarded you the blog of the year award:

  4. I need to write something about the tradition Stifter is standing on. Yes, sympathetic, me too!

    Roger Fry - very plausible. Stifter would likely kick and scream if he saw how his ideas about painting and landscape in retrospect, at least, point towards abstraction. But they do, what can I say.