Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Nothing, for here nothing was being heralded - Adalbert Stifter's Rock Crystal

OK, here's a real Christmas story.

Two children are trapped on a mountainside during a blizzard on Christmas Eve. They are saved by a miracle, or by chance, or perhaps the series of coincidences that allow them to survive are themselves the miracle.

This is Adalbert Stifter's sweet, mysterious Rock Crystal (1853). It's a real Stifter story - the landscape of two imaginary but perfectly credible mountain valleys and the pass between them is described in possibly tedious detail. Much of the story is really about the landscape, and the childrens' direct experience with it as they wander off the path and somehow make their way up the mountain. The story is a genuine example of the sublime - unmediated nature is beautiful and thrilling but also threatening, deadly. A truly Burkean sample, where the human bells are the Beautiful and Nature's silence is the Sublime:

"At this very moment all the bells were ringing, the bells in Millsdorf, the bells in Gschaid, and on the farther side of the mountain there was still another little church whose three clear-chiming bells were ringing out. In remote places beyond the valley there were innumerable churches with bells all ringing at this very hour; from village to village, the waves of sound were floating, and in one village you could at times hear through the leafless branches the chiming of the bells in another. Away up by the ice, however, not a sound reached the children; nothing, for here nothing was being heralded. Along the winding paths of the mountainslopes lantern lights were moving; and on many a farmstead the great bell was rousing the farm-hands,- unseen here, and unheard. Only the stars twinkled and shone steadily down."

Many of Stifter's stories seem to occur in a great hush. This passage is strangely both silent and noisy, with the web of sound connecting the villages below the children. Those final bells, the ones rousing the farm-hands, are, like the lantern-lights, part of the miracle, the search parties already on the childrens' path.

And something, it turns out, is being heralded, even in the void. Something happens immediately afterward, in the stillness of the ice, that I will leave to the reader. Rock Crystal is definitely a Christian Christmas story.

I read the original 1945 edition of the translation NYRB has republished, so I didn't benefit from the wisdom of W. H. Auden's introduction, although I get to see a dozen primitive, useless illustrations that I pray NYRB omitted.

Have a good holiday. Wuthering Expectations will be on vacation for a while.


  1. You're in luck, the NYRB edition does not include the original illustrations. I have to admit that I like a few of them. And I definitely like the original hardcover's blue and silver (or gold?) binding. Can't have everything, though!

  2. I may have over-emphasized the hideousness of the illustrations. Three or four of them were not bad and served the story.

    I am actually very fond of illustrations - Thackeray's Vanity Fair illustrations, for example, were excellent. But I have some standards.

  3. Nice passage for Christmas, especially given that it's not the usual fare. I'm really happy to have found this blog. We share a love of 19th century literature. And I truly appreciate your lack of formal expertise, so to speak. Literature wasn't written for people with PhD's to interpret for the otherwise ignorant reader, and I'll confess, that comes from someone with a PhD.

  4. Thanks, David, for stopping by. There are some limits to Amateur Reading - I run into them all the time - but that shouldn't stop anyone. Some literature actually was written for lit profs to interpret, but not in the 19th century!

  5. Yeah, I think you're right about some literature, although "interpret" is a dangerous word. Helping others to understand the author's intention is what a good scholar does. A lot of scholars think they know better than the authors themselves what a work of literature is saying.

  6. Well, I actually think that good scholars can do a lot more than highlight intent, and I don't always trust authors, although I'll indulge in the intentional fallacy with glee and abandon. Gogol's retrospective interpretation of his own books as religious allegories is the extreme case.

    Criticism and scholarship can be creative acts themselves. So I don't mind if the profs run a little wild. Who knows what they'll come up with?

  7. Just exploring your Stifter archive, Tom. This has been on my wishlist ever since I read the Vienna Tales anthology last year. It sounds wonderful - I love the juxtaposition of the bells and the silence in that quote.

    Even though I'd be happy to read it any time, I think I'll try to save it for the end of the year, possibly as a tie-in with German Lit Month.

  8. As cute and cuddly as Stifter gets. Which is not very, really.