Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Lures of shiny, silvery tin shaped like human hands - Meyrink's symbolizing

Jorge Luis Borges once edited a series of little books that have tantalized later readers.  One of them contained three stories by Gustav Meyrink, all from Bats.  St. Orberose discusses the project; he led to Grant Munroe’s piece at The Rumpus, who in turn relied on this Spanish-language site.  Borges picked “J. H. Obereit’s Visit to the Time-Leeches,” “Cardinal Napellus,” and “The Four Moon Brethren.”  When Munroe wrote his piece none of these stories were available in English, but here they are in the 2010 Dedalus Meyrink Reader.

Borges shared Meyrink’s gnosticism and love of esoteric systems, although the former took it all a lot less literally than the latter.  Or such is my understanding, but perhaps I overstate Meyrink’s credulity.  This outstanding paragraph of “Cardinal Napellus” might have some symbolic relevance:

Giovanni Braccesco tried to strike up a conversation by describing our unusual methods of catching the ancient, moss-grown giant catfish that lived in the permanent darkness of the unfathomable depths of the lake.  They never came up to the light and spurned any natural bait; the only things that could get them to bite were the most bizarre forms anglers could think up: lures of shiny, silvery tin shaped like human hands which made swaying movements as they were pulled through the water, or others like bats made of red glass with cunningly concealed hooks on their wings.  (57)

The main character, a lapsed monk, spends his days on the lake, not fishing but plumbing its depths with “an egg-shaped ball of glittering metal on long, fine silk threads” (55).  His friends believe that this is some form of science, but he corrects them:

The intensity brought red blotches to Radspieller’s face and his voice cracked with the emphasis he put on each word: ‘If I could just have one wish’ – he clenched his fists – ‘it would be to let down my plumbline to the centre of the earth, so that I could shout out to the world, ‘See: here, there, see, nothing but earth!’  (64)

So Radspieler is, however strangely, deliberately avoiding a search for secret knowledge, even denying its existence.  A half page later it catches up with him, though.  The characters of H. P. Lovecraft, Meyrink’s literary cousin, are always destroyed by their quest for hidden truths, while this poor sap is punished for not looking.  He would have been happier learning about C’thulu.

If you click on the Spanish-language link above, you will see the cover of the Borges edition of Meyrink, which features a monk emerging from a blue flower.  That is almost accurate, almost in the story.  The “poisonous blue flower” is monkshood.  Any mention of a blue flower in German literature has been permanently poisoned by Novalis.  In “Cardinal Napellus” the Romantic longing for transcendent meaning leads not to bliss or escape or nirvana but to insanity and horror.

While I am making connections – I mean, Novalis and his blue flower, that one is obvious – in Adalbert Stifter’s Indian Summer the dedicated scientific protagonist makes a detailed multi-year study of the topography of a lake bottom (that does not sound right).  I had so many other unnovelistic parts of that novel to deal with that, when discussing Stifter’s novel recently, I did not even mention the scenes where he plumbs the lake and makes maps, leading to discoveries, I guess, about how the seasonal hydrology changes the lake.

So Novalis’s non-rational blue flower is poisonous and Stifter’s rational empiricism is completely useless.  What is left?  I wonder, to what work of German literature do those fishing lures refer?


  1. You're killing me with all this weirdness from a book-buying temptation perspective. Saw that one of my local bookstores actually has several Meyrink titles, but The Golem & Co. will have to wait for a break in the action (or the next Germ Lit Month). Love the earth-fishing anecdote, by the way. How strange is that? P.S. Other than long, how's Buddenbrooks so far?

  2. Good, Buddenbrooks is good. Full of furniture. Long, detailed descriptions of furniture.

    Also, easy, zippy, comparatively. We'll see if that lasts.

    Meyrink would be a good choice for German Lit Month. Semi-obscure, semi-difficult, obviously not a first-rate writer but easily worth a look or two or three.

    When, inevitably, the strain is too much for me and Wuthering Expectations becomes a science fiction and fantasy book blog, Meyrink will be a frequent subject.

    1. Sudden idea, has no purpose: I wonder if it would be possible to take Mann's descriptions of furniture and Zola's descriptions of food and merge them together so that the tables, chairs, etc, had smells, colours, ripe parts, "soft white flesh," beds "rather like bridal bouquets displayed on giant flower stalls."

    2. Make is strange, it's all about the makin' strange.