Friday, March 1, 2013

We are living in happiness and with a sense of constancy as if in an Indian Summer - Stifter, cultural prophet

I packed my crates, put all my tools and notes that had to do with my work into their cases and trunks, dismissed almost all my people, put the addresses on the crates, arranged for them to be shipped, and then went to the Lauter Valley.  (302)

Not exactly the most sparkling Stifter sentence, and Indian Summer contains numerous variants of it.  The narrator and Stifter insist that I understand the process of Heinrich’s growth, his Bildung.  Here he is winding up his summer research in the mountains.  Heinrich obviously spends a great deal of money on his research, just as his father and patron spend a great deal of money on their collections and restoration projects.  Heinrich himself, in his twenties, commissions a number of works of art – a marble fountain, inlaid zithers, jewelry.

Whatever example Stifter is presenting is based, even in these trivial details, on great wealth.  Money and time are devoted to art and science.  One generation had to create the foundation and can now enjoy it – this is the host, the Baron speaking:

“Thus, we are living in happiness and with a sense of constancy as if in an Indian Summer without the preceding summer.  My collections are getting more complete, the building projects are increasingly receiving their finishing touches, I have drawn people to me, I have learned more here than I have in my whole life, my hobbies are taking their course, and I am also a bit useful for something.”  (445)

The next generation, carefully cultivated, carefully developed to experience growth without hardship, what does it do?  Simply maintain the achievement of their parents?  Or do they continue to expand their knowledge and tasks into realms Stifter does not want to specify?  Heinrich never does really find a vocation.  Or is preservation his vocation?

Stifter is writing in an Idealist tradition, but in the carefully cultivated garden of Indian Summer he often sounds like he has taken the next step into Utopian fantasy.  At the very least, it sounds like a rarefied retreat from the cares of the world available to an enlightened few, although I should not use that word since the Enlightenment is clearly seen as an enemy of art, although given that modern science, of which Stifter approves, is so clearly the product of the Enlightenment – well, I do not understand the host’s or Stifter’s argument here.  He always sounds more like a Deist than a Catholic, and wears clothes that – no, I will figure this out the next time I read the novel.  The host is clear that he believes he is protecting what is valuable from the current violent and “[c]oarse times” which “had lost the concept of beauty” (357) but that “a new era will dawn, the like of which the world has never seen” (301).

The strange thing is that Stifter was only off on the timing.  The new era dawned in Vienna circa 1860, with the demolition of the medieval city walls and the construction of the new Ringstrasse.  It lasted until about 1890.  The citizens rapidly developed a culture that emphasized Bildung above all else, that devoted itself to science and art, with bourgeois parents who deliberately raised their children to be not just doctors and scientists but  poets and painters and book bloggers.

Stifter was not a Utopian.  He was a prophet. Much of what has attracted and perplexed me about Austrian art and literature comes directly out of this period, and thus, strangely, out of Stifter’s novel.

I want to spend next week figuring out what happened and what it means.  To me, this sounds wonderful.  The Indian Summer, though brief, is my favorite part of the year.  Herman Broch grew up in it, and has a different opinion.  Boy does he ever.  That’ll be a highlight of next week.


  1. What's on the agenda from Herman Broch? Maybe I can read along for once. I just couldn't bring myself to read Indian Summer. At least not yet.

  2. Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time! I used an exclamation point because it is such a good book. That's the Broch, the only Broch I have read. Short, dense, intense. It is about one-third Hofmannsthal and two-thirds His Time.

  3. I don't have that one! And I live in a state that doesn't believe in public libraries. :(

  4. I would be sunk without libraries. No, I would adapt, but it would be hard.

  5. I could not possibly adapt, not for things that are new to me. I would say perhaps 97% of what I read comes from libraries; I have not got the space nor the budget to adapt. I would have to start re-reading. Which, I suppose, is a project of a different sort. But aieee!

  6. It's like an apocalyptic fantasy scenario, isn't it?

    My great adaptation would be learning to read longer texts on my computer.

    This Herman Broch book, as you might guess, is esoteric enough that I needed a public university library.

  7. Yes, it's exactly like The Road, inside my comfortable middle-class house.

    I hadn't thought of the computer; I've got my e-reader with me here in France and there's a lifetime of (free, out-of-copyright) books on it. I could go that direction as well.

  8. The last couple of Kipling collections I read were from Google books, so I am trying. They had the old illustrations, which was very nice. Still, I was (merely) reading short stories on the computer. A novel would be a challenge - new habits, new strategies.