2-1 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.crypt.2-1.3 | Behrmann | Dick­son PDF

Despite his con­fi­dence that he could cre­ate a sim­ple and lucid mas­ter­piece of descrip­tive nar­ra­tion, Adal­bert Stifter’s “Tour­ma­line” turned out to be the most obscure and com­plex tale in his sto­ry-col­lec­tion Many-Col­ored Stones (1852). This essay traces the cryp­to­log­i­cal dri­ve under­min­ing the coher­ence and clo­sure the real­ist nar­ra­tor attempts to pro­vide. Stifter’s abun­dant descrip­tion of seem­ing­ly super­flu­ous details, the numer­ous nar­ra­tive gaps and var­i­ous rumors con­fuse any suf­fi­cient account of what real­ly hap­pened. The breaks and leaks in sto­ry­telling can be under­stood as indices lead­ing to a sub­merged work of mourn­ing. The ped­a­gog­i­cal inten­tion orga­niz­ing Stifter’s metic­u­lous sto­ry-telling not only in this sto­ry turns upon itself through the inces­sant sup­ply of these com­mem­o­ra­tive indices or frag­ments. Not only is such ped­a­gogy unable to find an effi­cient nar­ra­tive mode, it also con­sis­tent­ly under­mines the author­i­ty where­by the instruc­tor-nar­ra­tor might come to terms with his own tale.

Mal­gré sa con­fi­ance de pou­voir créer un chef-d’œuvre descrip­tif sim­ple et clair, Adal­bert Stifter fait de son œuvre « Tour­ma­line » le plus obscur et le plus com­plexe con­te de la col­lec­tion Roches mul­ti­col­ores de 1892. Cet arti­cle suit la trace du dynamisme cryp­tographique qui sape la cohérence, ain­si que la pos­si­bil­ité d’une fin fer­mée que l’auteur réal­iste essaye de fournir. La descrip­tion abon­dante des détails apparem­ment super­flus, les nom­breuses lacunes nar­ra­tives, ain­si que les dif­férentes rumeurs com­pliquent le compte-ren­du du vrai inci­dent. On peut expli­quer les inter­rup­tions et les fuites dans le con­te comme des indices de la présence cachée du tra­vail de deuil. L’intention péd­a­gogique qui dirige la façon selon laque­lle Stifter racon­te une his­toire se retourne con­tre lui à tra­vers l’apport inces­sant des signes com­mé­morat­ifs ou des frag­ments com­mé­morat­ifs. Non seule­ment ce type de péd­a­gogie ne peut pas trou­ver un mode nar­ratif effi­cace, mais il sape aus­si la capac­ité de l’instructeur-narrateur d’arriver en accord avec son pro­pre conte.

Nico­la Behrmann | Images: Anders Dickson

Over Your Dead Mother: Rumors and Secrets in Stifter’s “Tourmaline”

 The Dissolution of Reality into a Simple Form

The Dis­so­lu­tion of Real­i­ty into a Sim­ple Form


In 1852, every evening between five and nine after offi­cial hours, school prin­ci­pal Adal­bert Stifter assid­u­ous­ly worked on the com­pi­la­tion of his sto­ry col­lec­tion Bunte Steine (Many-Col­ored Stones). Although almost every sto­ry he pre­pared had been pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished and only need­ed to being tran­scribed, Stifter found him­self caught in a revi­sion com­pul­sion. Unable to com­plete more than three pages in clean copy a day, he con­tin­ued to beg his pub­lish­er Gus­tav Heck­e­nast to allow him time for more thor­ough revi­sions.[1] He advised Heck­e­nast to rec­og­nize the improve­ments he had already made as invalu­able, and think of Goethe’s Iphi­ge­nie, which the mas­ter had tran­scribed five times.[2] Reluc­tant­ly, he sub­mit­ted “Katzen­sil­ber” (“Mus­covite”) and “Bergkristall” (“Rock Crys­tal”), and by the end of July, when he began with the revi­sions of “Der Pfört­ner im Her­ren­hause,” now pub­lished under the title “Tour­ma­line,” Stifter com­plained again that all he need­ed was time in order to turn this sto­ry into a “sim­ple, lucid, and inti­mate mas­ter­piece.”[3] How­ev­er, “Tour­ma­line” not only became the “dark­est” and most obscure piece in Stifter’s pet­ri­fied tales—a sort of hapax legom­e­na that can only cum­brous­ly be called back into its order—it also lacks the very trans­paren­cy, lucid­i­ty, and smooth­ness he tried to achieve in his metic­u­lous ren­der­ing and rasp­ing. We are not being asked to read this text, but to read in it, “as in a let­ter bear­ing sad news” (Stifter 1986). What kind of let­ter does this sto­ry con­tain? What mes­sage is enclosed in the let­ter? To whom is it directed?

One of the intend­ed addressees of Bunte Steine was Stifter’s fos­ter daugh­ter Juliane Mohaupt, the so-called “wild child,” who received a copy of Bunte Steine on her twelfth birth­day. The ded­i­ca­tion, which reit­er­ates father­ly advice giv­en to her in the recent past, indi­cates that the book should be inter­pret­ed as a didac­tic mes­sage.[4] Stifter under­stood the trans­mis­sion of the pater­nal les­son impli­cat­ed in his sto­ries as immac­u­late incep­tion, which shift­ed from oral­i­ty to tex­tu­al­i­ty and is con­sti­tut­ed as a com­mem­o­ra­tive let­ter Juliane was sup­posed to remem­ber when­ev­er she tried to escape the “good.” The obscure ped­a­gogy that is en route in “Tour­ma­line,” how­ev­er, appears to have lost its frame or hold. Dressed up as a let­ter of mourn­ing, the course of the sto­ry is sup­port­ed by trans­fer­en­tial cir­cuits of deliv­ery and return, a cod­ed and encrypt­ed mes­sage that, nev­er­the­less, cen­ters on pedagogy:

[It is about a man who] no longer under­stands life, when he aban­dons that inner law which is his stead­fast guide along the right path, when he sur­ren­ders utter­ly to the inten­si­ty of his joys and sor­rows, los­es his foothold, and is lost in regions of expe­ri­ence which for the rest of us are almost whol­ly shroud­ed by mys­tery. (128; empha­sis mine)

What exact­ly could chil­dren learn from a moral les­son that con­cerns a prop­er under­stand­ing of things and at the same time can­not be unrav­eled? What is the rela­tion between the moral les­son, Stifter’s striv­ing for trans­paren­cy and lucid­i­ty, and the obscu­ri­ty and inac­ces­si­bil­i­ty this tale, nev­er­the­less, unfolds?

Accord­ing to many of his crit­ics, Stifter got lost in the metic­u­lous and seem­ing­ly super­flu­ous descrip­tion of objects and fur­ni­ture in “Tour­ma­line.”[5] His first biog­ra­ph­er Alois Raimund Hein found that the sto­ry lacked con­se­quence, poet­ic jus­tice, and com­plete clo­sure (322).[6] Wal­ter Ben­jamin diag­nosed a strange Ver­schwiegen­heit (mute­ness) under the sur­face of abun­dant descrip­tion and called the speech of Stifter’s char­ac­ters an “expo­si­tion of feel­ings and thoughts in an acousti­cal­ly insu­lat­ed space” (112). Stifter him­self once stat­ed that he expe­ri­enced any lack of descrip­tion as painful and was immense­ly con­cerned with the fill­ing, if not the ful­fill­ment, of nar­ra­tive gaps and voids, remain­ders of his Beschrei­bungswut (descrip­tion mania) which had been left unat­tend­ed.[7] Although the nar­ra­tor opens up the apart­ment of the pen­sion­er or Ren­therr in Vien­na and pro­vides a metic­u­lous descrip­tion of its inte­ri­or, we do not gain access into the pro­tag­o­nists’ inner tur­moil or moral con­flicts. The Rentherr’s study, in which he engages in paint­ing, craft­ing, play­ing music, col­lect­ing, archiv­ing, writ­ing, and read­ing, is curi­ous­ly cov­ered with his pri­vate col­lec­tion of poster por­traits of that he terms “famous men,” togeth­er with a num­ber of lad­ders and arm­chairs on wheels that allow an inti­mate view­ing of each of the por­traits. This odd col­lec­tion turns the pri­va­cy and seclu­sion of this room into an epigone’s mir­ror space for nar­cis­sis­tic fan­tasies. The non­sense cat­e­go­ry of “famous men” inevitably induces an end­less col­lect­ing of por­traits that trans­gress­es the spa­tial lim­its of a pri­vate apartment.

The pri­vate room of the Rentherr’s wife that cen­ters on a paint­ing of the Vir­gin and Child receives equal descrip­tive ener­gy. Framed by a cur­tain and again framed by the sculp­ture of an angel hold­ing the cur­tain, the image unfolds a mise en abyme struc­ture of pure fem­i­nin­i­ty. The wife appears to be com­plete­ly immersed in the descrip­tion of the rooms she inhab­its, sub­sumed by the over­bear­ing image of the Vir­gin. What is the inten­tion of this detailed account? Instead of deliv­er­ing the key to the Ren­therr’s psy­che via descrip­tion of his envi­ron­ment, Stifter actu­al­ly locks us out from any fur­ther insight or con­clu­sion. At no point does the nar­ra­tor indi­cate that he has knowl­edge of the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing the char­ac­ters. Not even the prop­er name and back­ground of his main pro­tag­o­nist are dis­closed, but only sub­ject to rumors:

This man was known in the house as der Ren­therr, but hard­ly any­one could say whether he was so called because he lived on a pen­sion or because he was employed in a rev­enue office. The lat­ter, how­ev­er, could not be the case, because if so he would have had to go to his office at fixed times, where­as he was at home at all hours and often for whole days on end, work­ing at the var­i­ous tasks he had set him­self. […] It was clear then that he must have a small pri­vate income enabling him to lead this kind of life. (107)

The metic­u­lous descrip­tion of the apart­ment only adds to the secre­cy and mute­ness of the events that are nar­rat­ed all too hasti­ly. A close friend, the bril­liant actor Dall tears the order of the inti­mate house­hold apart: “Dall began a love affair with his friend’s wife and con­tin­ued it for a while. In her anx­i­ety the wife her­self final­ly told her hus­band what had hap­pened” (112). After she has been all too quick­ly for­giv­en and the old order all too quick­ly restored, the wife dis­ap­pears: “Then, one day, the wife of the Ren­therr dis­ap­peared. She had gone out as she usu­al­ly did, and had not come back” (113). The nar­ra­tor nev­er dis­clos­es, moti­vates, or explains the rea­sons for her dis­ap­pear­ance, or to where she has fled: “[N]ot a sin­gle report was received of the […] wife, not a soul had heard a word of her since the day of her dis­ap­pear­ance, nor indeed has she ever returned” (146).

The Messenger/Tower

The Messenger/Tower

Accord­ing to Lil­iane Weiss­berg, the course of Stifter’s sto­ry­telling is less deter­mined by the pro­tag­o­nists than by the objects they leave behind (264). In “Tour­ma­line,” how­ev­er, these objects seem to lose their own­ers who dis­ap­pear, go away, and leave them behind as dead things. Hav­ing con­vinced him­self that his wife will nev­er return, the Ren­therr also aban­dons the apart­ment and departs togeth­er with his child, the heir to this crypt. When police and civ­il ser­vants break up his aban­doned flat, they find that “under a veil of dust” all the pre­vi­ous­ly described things “lay in mourn­ing” (117). In the wake of exten­sive descrip­tion, the things in “Tour­ma­line” are no longer relat­ed to each oth­er or to the per­sons they belong to and can only be put back in order through the inter­ven­tion of the bureau­cra­cy, the police, and the law. Per­haps nowhere more press­ing and urgent as in this sto­ry does Stifter’s descrip­tion of things entail the cat­a­stroph­ic secret that threat­ens to dis­rupt the nar­ra­tive, and that secret must remain silenced and mute at all costs.


The fort of the moth­er and wife cre­ates a trau­mat­ic blank in the sto­ry, which is nev­er suf­fi­cient­ly dis­closed, moti­vat­ed, and explained. Nei­ther pro­tag­o­nists, nor nar­ra­tors trace the actu­al Bah­nun­gen or Erin­nerungsspuren—the tracks or mem­o­ry traces—that might have led to her dis­ap­pear­ance. Since the course or case of the m/Other has no fate, nei­ther des­tiny nor des­ti­na­tion, the nar­ra­tors are mere­ly trac­ing a con­tin­u­ous and obses­sive series of dis­place­ments. After the sud­den and inex­plic­a­ble with­draw­al of every char­ac­ter who had just been intro­duced, the nar­ra­tion breaks into two dis­tinct parts, the inner con­nec­tion between which remains obscure and in which events are being told—a con­nec­tion that lacks coher­ence and clo­sure. What start­ed out as a causal and lin­ear nar­ra­tive col­laps­es into a col­lec­tion of frag­men­tary reports:

At one time a rumor cir­cu­lat­ed that the Ren­therr was liv­ing some­where in the Bohemi­an For­est in a cave where he kept the child hid­den, going out by day to earn a liv­ing and return­ing to the cave in the evening. But then oth­er things hap­pened in the city, for events fol­low hard upon each oth­er in such places, and there were oth­er nov­el­ties to talk about, and before long the Ren­therr and his sto­ry were for­got­ten. (117-18)

As if exhaust­ed by the dis­sem­i­nat­ed rumors that can be nei­ther ver­i­fied nor dis­missed, the first nar­ra­tor hands the rest of the nar­ra­tion over to a sec­ond, female nar­ra­tor, “a friend,” a kind and warm-heart­ed house­wife from the sub­urbs who lives much clos­er to the events told: “We shall now let her describe the sequel in her own words” (118). The unusu­al intro­duc­tion of anoth­er nar­ra­tor who sup­pos­ed­ly “solves” the case marks a caesura in the text oth­er­wise host­ing rumor and secrets: instead of a fram­ing nar­ra­tive we have a dou­bling of the narrative.

In this moment of trans­fer­ence from one nar­ra­tor to the oth­er, the text seems to send sig­nals about its inher­ent con­sti­tu­tion, reveal­ing that it is unable to ful­fill the task of nar­ra­tion, to cre­ate coher­ence (Zusam­men­hang). Instead, every­thing we learn about the char­ac­ters seems to have its source in rumor and hearsay, in rid­dles and uncer­tain­ties that per­pet­u­al­ly cir­cu­late, all of which bear no ori­gin and no spe­cif­ic des­ti­na­tion and thus tra­verse and con­t­a­m­i­nate the “real­ist” fic­tion. Such obscu­ri­ty con­cerns even the very con­sti­tu­tion of the text, which is—unlike the major­i­ty of Stifter’s stories—based on real events (or rather: actu­al rumors) impart­ed by Stifter’s friend Antonie von Arneth on whom the sec­ond, female first per­son nar­ra­tor is based.[8] Although von Arneth’s orig­i­nal let­ter is not pre­served, her sto­ry must have con­cerned her for­mer men­tor, Joseph Lange (1751-1831), a renowned actor, com­pos­er, and the painter of Mozart’s por­trait, who appears in “Tour­ma­line” as the “bril­liant actor” Dall.[9] As though sus­tain­ing a secret ker­nel, out of which sto­ry­telling itself emerges, the rumors in “Tour­ma­line” appear as counter-text that dis­creet­ly enters the real­ist nar­ra­tive and is—more or less successfully—controlled by a (split) auc­to­r­i­al nar­ra­tor. Rumors are deter­mined by rep­e­ti­tion: “What I learn through rumor,” Blan­chot writes in The Infi­nite Con­ver­sa­tion, “requires no author, no guar­an­tee or ver­i­fi­ca­tion. Rumor is […] a pure rela­tion of no one and noth­ing” (19-20). Rumors pur­port the claim to being true—per­haps truebut with­out foun­da­tion and in an ambigu­ous rela­tion to what we call “real­i­ty” and “truth.” Dis­turb­ing the gen­er­al order of things, whose sta­bil­i­ty they at the same time wish to enforce, rumors enter sto­ry­telling as encrypt­ed and frag­ment­ed pieces of infor­ma­tion, as ghost­ly half-truths, and appear to boy­cott the project of mimet­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tion, in par­tic­u­lar poet­ic realism’s quest for mod­er­a­tion and trans­fig­u­ra­tion. Since rumors’ sources are indef­i­nite, absolute, and fic­tive, they con­tain a rhi­zomat­ic force that can sub­vert, trans­gress, and tear down the house of representation.


The course of the sto­ry now breaks into a series of time laps­es, rumor­ous pas­sages, and Merk­male (fea­tures or marks) that repeat­ed­ly force us to start anew, when­ev­er anoth­er indi­ca­tion or a new mark (neues Merk­mal) occurs that seems to be able to cre­ate coher­ence: “A long time had passed since this inci­dent, and I had quite for­got­ten about it” (120)—“After this inci­dent a con­sid­er­able peri­od again elapsed” (122)—“An appre­cia­ble time had again elapsed since this inci­dent, when some­thing else of sig­nif­i­cance took place” (128). The time pass­ing between the Merk­male con­sti­tutes a space of for­get­ting and repress­ing, when things are hap­pen­ing we do not want to see or can­not see. To fill the inter­stices of the nar­ra­tive, to mas­ter uncer­tain­ty and irres­o­lu­tion of the hermeneu­ti­cal­ly obscure pas­sages, and at the same time, to pre­serve the invi­o­lable silence at the core of this tale will now become the task of the nar­ra­tor: How to re-inte­grate those inces­sant­ly described belong­ings of the Ren­therr as cryptonyms, how to recall them, how to put them into a coher­ent order when they start to get out of con­trol, and, final­ly, how to trans­fer them to their Nachkom­men­schaften (descen­dants)?

Duluth’s Plasma Center

Duluth’s Plas­ma

Marred by uncer­tain­ties and rumors, by turns and detours, and by a sto­ry­telling that only makes its way through the text by a series of Merk­male and nar­ra­tive gaps, “Tour­ma­line” devel­ops “with great address” a tex­tu­al move­ment that actu­al­ly repents any dis­clo­sure of the secrets by which it is mobi­lized. Der­ri­da has empha­sized the great address (große Geschick) with which Freud’s grand­son Ernst was throw­ing a wood­en spool away and drag­ging it back in order to com­pen­sate for his mother’s absence. Enact­ing both the trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ence and the tri­umphant mas­tery of a dis­ap­pear­ing moth­er, Ernst man­aged to invent a game in which the plea­sure prin­ci­ple and a rep­e­ti­tion com­pul­sion could con­join and work togeth­er.[10] As Der­ri­da has fur­ther point­ed out in The Post Card, the famous Fort-Da game not only gen­er­ates a cer­tain rhythm that post­pones, sets aside, and defers what might put the plea­sure prin­ci­ple in ques­tion, but the game also deter­mines Freud’s own tex­tu­al move­ment in “Beyond the Plea­sure Prin­ci­ple,” his Zaud­er­rhyth­mus (a rhythm of hes­i­ta­tion), which he “observes every time that some­thing does not suf­fice, that some­thing must be put off until fur­ther on, until lat­er. Then he makes the hypoth­e­sis of the beyond revenir (come back) only to dis­miss it again” (Der­ri­da, Post Card 295). Writ­ing as a way to involve the van­ished or with­drawn love object into a game of absence and pres­ence is enact­ed over and over again in Stifter’s texts: Stu­di­en (Stud­ies), Bunte Steine (Many-Coloured Stones), and Spiel­ereien für junge Herzen (Lit­tle Games for Young Hearts). In the only inci­dent in his brief auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal frag­ment Mein Leben (My Life), both Stifter’s moth­er and grand­moth­er threat­en the with­draw­al of their affec­tion after the son breaks a win­dow­pane. The ter­ri­fied son lin­guis­ti­cal­ly mirac­u­lates up the small and mar­gin­al details of a trau­mat­ic close-up: Mut­ter, da wächst ein Korn­halm.[11]

The Mythology of Past and Present (detail)

The Mythol­o­gy of Past and Present


In her detec­tive-like per­sis­tence to trace the secret ker­nel of the rumors and Merk­male, the sec­ond nar­ra­tor dis­cov­ers the Ren­therr as gate­keep­er in a slow­ly decay­ing manor house, which in con­trast to oth­er hous­es in the city, pre­serves all its mem­o­ry traces as it was nev­er ren­o­vat­ed, torn down, or rebuilt. The Ren­therr has become the Pfört­ner (gate­keep­er) of his daugh­ter, whom he has sealed off in a cryp­tic safe, a fort, where he dic­tates to her a writ­ing pro­gram of aber­rant mourn­ing ded­i­cat­ed to the moth­er. Some of the numer­ous things that the first nar­ra­tor estab­lished in his metic­u­lous descrip­tion of the Rentherr’s apart­ment reap­pear deformed and dis­placed in the descrip­tion of the sparse sub­ter­ranean apart­ment. The iron grille that had closed off the Rentherr’s apart­ment in Vien­na comes back as the “strong iron bars […] cov­ered with dry scat­tered dirt from the street” (123) in front of the win­dows of the base­ment apart­ment he now inhab­its; one of his two flutes is found in the sub­ter­ranean apart­ment; the arm­chair and the rolling step lad­ders reap­pear as a white unlac­quered chair and a wood­en ladder—off of which the father even­tu­al­ly falls and dies. The gild­ed angel (at the bed of the child) turns into a black bird, the daughter’s pro­tec­tor. All these things return, but in a dis­fig­ured and dis­tort­ed way, emp­ty and impov­er­ished. Stifter’s things, which in the begin­ning are embed­ded in the pecu­liar and pre­cise descrip­tion of inte­ri­or spaces and fur­nish­ings, turn into Merk­male, marks or indices, and con­geal in the end into com­mem­o­ra­tive mon­u­ments, memo­ri­als and graves (Denkmale, Grab­male), from which one can learn. Only what is leg­i­ble and does not resist descrip­tion can be over­come. Each of the described Merk­male—the iron grille, the poster por­traits of famous men, the child’s bed with the guardian angel, the flute, the raven, and the big head of the girl—appear as indices that refuse to give account of a causal coher­ence and, instead, func­tion as “hiero­glyphs of the uncan­ny,”[13] as cryptonymic word-things con­tain­ing a secret script. What the “sad let­ter” then com­mu­ni­cates is a dis­closed, veiled account of the inher­i­tance of a crypt, the crypt as lega­cy of a trau­mat­ic neurosis.

The word-things resist full dis­clo­sure while giv­ing a sig­nal that they resist nar­ra­tion, as it is not yet decid­ed what they actu­al­ly mean. The notion of a cryptonymy, as elab­o­rat­ed by Maria Torok and Nico­las Abra­ham in The Wolf Man’s Mag­ic Word, is a “false or arti­fi­cial uncon­scious” set­tling in the uncon­scious and fol­low­ing the process of incor­po­ra­tion of the lost beloved object.[14] The crypt is a fort [F-O-R-T] in the uncon­scious, or a safe, “a secret place, in order to keep itself safe some­where in a self.”[15] The crypt forms “the vault of a desire” (Der­ri­da, “Fors” xvii), and erects a tomb or mon­u­ment for the lost object. The crypt does not com­mem­o­rate the lost object itself, but its exclu­sion, the exclu­sion of a spe­cif­ic desire from the intro­jec­tion process of a “healthy mourn­ing.” The sub­ject “knows” that the beloved object is “fort,” but does not accept this, and does not mas­ter or over­come the expe­ri­ence of loss in the sense of remem­ber­ing, rep­e­ti­tion, and work­ing through: “The topog­ra­phy of the crypt,” Der­ri­da points out, “fol­lows the line of a frac­ture that goes from this no-place, or this beyond place, toward the oth­er place; the place where the ‘pleasure’s death’ still silent­ly marks the sin­gu­lar plea­sure: safe” (Der­ri­da, “Fors” xxi).

How­ev­er, a crypt’s par­ti­tions are nev­er com­plete­ly sealed; there is per­me­ation from with­in or from with­out, pass­ing from one part of the divid­ed self to the oth­er (Der­ri­da, “Fors” xv). The Ren­therr’s night­ly flute play which can be heard in the neigh­bor­hood, the girl’s dis­turb­ing big head which attracts the atten­tion of every­one who sees her, and the girl’s raven appar­ent­ly exit­ing and enter­ing the base­ment apart­ment through the kotig (filthy) win­dow, can be con­sid­ered as actu­al effects of the crypt that demon­strate such a per­me­ation. Even the unsta­ble attri­bu­tion of either Rabe (raven) or Dohle (jack­daw) to the pitch-black bird under­scores the crea­ture as one of the most pre­em­i­nent ciphers of the crypt-nest in “Tour­ma­line.” The black bird, which is first dis­cov­ered by Alfred, the son of the female nar­ra­tor, not only pro­vides an essen­tial Merk­mal that leads to the dis­clo­sure of the Ren­therr’s exis­tence, but the bird also appears as dan­ger­ous cryptonym that must not be touched. When Alfred tries to touch the black bird, he is ter­ri­fied by the scream of the girl in the sub­ter­ranean dwelling and then by her mon­strous appear­ance.[16] The daugh­ter seems to mas­ter the absence of her moth­er per­fect­ly, as she can­not remem­ber any­thing of her past and tells the female nar­ra­tor “only things con­cern­ing the base­ment room” (158). But she appears as severe­ly threat­ened when she sees the encrypt­ed moth­er as Rabe/Dohle about to be tak­en away by another.

In both ver­sions of “Tour­ma­line, the bird is at first described as a raven and then cor­rect­ed (removed and cov­ered up) as jack­daw: “On a screen in front of anoth­er bed which I took to be the daughter’s was the Dohle, jackdaw—the bird which Alfred had tried to catch had not been a raven at all” (150). This shift from Rabe to Dohle expli­cat­ed by the vir­tu­ous female nar­ra­tor and care­tak­er can be ana­gram­mat­i­cal­ly read as a trans­for­ma­tion from Raben­mut­ter into a holde Mut­ter (a fair moth­er), thus enact­ing the sub­or­di­na­tion of the for­mer under the law of a gen­tle moth­er whose posi­tion is being tak­en up by the sec­ond nar­ra­tor her­self. The raven holds the place of the dead/absent moth­er who has aban­doned hus­band and child. Evok­ing a Raben­mut­ter, the word “raven” points to the ambiva­lence in which this moth­er is per­ceived. The ambiva­lence of Rabe/Dohle works as a cipher in the text, refer­ring to the cir­cum­stances in which a par­tic­u­lar desire was barred from intro­jec­tion and turned into incor­po­ra­tion, which is always secret and cryp­tic. Unlike the split­ting between a good, but usu­al­ly dead, moth­er and an evil step­moth­er (com­mon in fairy tales), Stifter takes great pain to pre­serve both dead moth­er and fos­ter moth­er as “good” and thus, to pre­vent con­tra­dic­to­ry feel­ings. The Raben­mut­ter, who van­ished with­out a trace, is with­out a des­tiny or desire of her own. Her emp­ty place, as that of the holde Mut­ter, is rep­re­sent­ed by the female care­tak­er who also takes charge of the course of the nar­ra­tive. Such replace­ment is clos­er to dis­place­ment and does not admit or pre­serve the mem­o­ry of the actu­al moth­er as good or bad.

Broken Chords (detail)

Bro­ken Chords (detail)

The cryptonym Rabe/Dohle is not the only word-thing the daugh­ter inher­its. When­ev­er he is absent, she erects as per her father’s instruc­tions, a com­mem­o­ra­tive mon­u­ment. The father has intro­duced an inter­nal postal sys­tem of dead let­ters that have no addressee and cir­cu­late exclu­sive­ly in the sub­ter­ranean apart­ment. Trapped in her father’s rep­e­ti­tion com­pul­sion, she must repeat the trau­mat­ic instant. “When­ev­er I asked him what I should do when he was away,” the daugh­ter tells the female nar­ra­tor, he would say:

Describe the moment when I lie dead upon the bier and they bury me.” Then, when­ev­er I said: “Father, I have done that so many times,” he would reply: “Then describe how your moth­er is wan­der­ing through the world with a bro­ken heart, how she is afraid to come back and, in despair, takes her own life.” And when­ev­er I said, “Father, I have done that so many times,” he would reply: “Then describe it again.” (158)

It is the father who dic­tates to his child his own let­ters, which he alone will receive. Asked where she kept the home­work assign­ments, the girl “replied her father had saved them and that they had been put aside some­where” (158). While any oth­er inher­i­tance of the girl has to be con­sid­ered as lost—not the tini­est scrap of paper remains to doc­u­ment her descent—the father keeps the daughter’s assigned notes deliv­er­ing sad news. Togeth­er with the cryptonym Rabe/Dohle the let­ters will con­sti­tute the daughter’s only inher­i­tance. The père-ver­sion of her father’s dai­ly writ­ing task, send­ing off hid­den mes­sages in a text, as inces­sant trans­fer­ence of a secret that man­i­fest­ed itself as mere “rumors” on a tex­tu­al level—the dis­ap­pear­ance of wife/mother that marks the silenced quilt­ing point of the sto­ry and its collapse.

As a tem­po­ral loop, the writ­ing task falls into a rep­e­ti­tion com­pul­sion that can­not be resolved by “sto­ry-telling.” The loss of wife/mother is always too close to be buried, mourned, and for­got­ten. Writ­ing fights for­get­ting as much as for­get­ting haunts it. Once it is writ­ten down, an event can be trans­ferred to the next gen­er­a­tion. His “dic­ta­tions” are only exer­cised dur­ing the absence—the fort—of the father. The let­ter writ­ing that con­sti­tutes “Tour­ma­line” might even be anoth­er spool or reel for mas­ter­ing absence. The daugh­ter does not “know” what she describes, for she has learned and devel­oped a lan­guage with­out ref­er­en­tial­i­ty. She only repeats, trained in rep­e­ti­tion com­pul­sion, which bears Worthörigkeit (obe­di­ence to the word) with­out pos­si­ble ref­er­ence. She has no under­stand­ing of death, loss, and mourn­ing, just as the father was “unable to under­stand things” (128). In this light, the daugh­ter is indeed buried alive by a dead past and a dead future inside the sub­ter­ranean pater­nal crypt. She appears to under­stand that her father is dead, but when the friend­ly caretaker/virtuous nar­ra­tor adds that he has been interred in the earth as is the cus­tom with the dead and where he shall remain, she bursts into tears (160). She was well acquaint­ed with death, but only as some­thing that time and again could be rean­i­mat­ed. In her world, only the dead are alive. Dwelling in the time­less space of melan­cholic incar­cer­a­tion, the (abject­ed) daugh­ter is equal­ly present and absent, fort and da—saved and buried alive.[17] She does not know the dif­fer­ence between sig­ni­fiers and the sig­ni­fied; she believes what­ev­er one tells her. The task of the female nar­ra­tor (“Antonie von Arneth”), who becomes the care­tak­er of the daugh­ter as much as she pro­vides a suf­fi­cient clo­sure to the text, will be to “impart on her an under­stand­ing of the things of the world” (162). When the female nar­ra­tor pro­vides the girl with a new home and a healthy envi­ron­ment, her abnor­mal­ly large head mirac­u­lous­ly shrinks back to a nor­mal size. Only those parts of the sto­ry appear in the nar­ra­tive that we are able to bear, to over­come, restore, or heal. This might be the rea­son why so much atten­tion is paid to the bureau­crat­ic inter­ven­tions, to the resti­tu­tion of prop­er­ty rights, and ques­tions of inher­i­tance through which some sort of order can be reestab­lished in the end. The rest is “won­der-ful” ped­a­gogy, or rather, learn­ing through lit­er­a­ture. Ped­a­gogy is a main concern—always in Stifter but in par­tic­u­lar in “Tourmaline”—for it teach­es an under­stand­ing of the things of the world, cleans the house of nar­ra­tion, puts up a new order, and teach­es a read­ing and writ­ing that implies ref­er­ence, reli­a­bil­i­ty, and con­text. The sym­bi­ot­ic dyad of moth­er and child that has pro­vid­ed an inter­nal image and a frame of the tex­tu­al space has been removed from nar­ra­tion, retrieved in an assid­u­ous and mirac­u­lous way, and final­ly will be restored in the sub­sti­tu­tion of an ambiva­lent Raben­mut­ter/holde Mut­ter by a fos­ter moth­er who dress­es up and instructs the mon­strous heir of a crypt and turns her into a human being.

Not with­out rea­son, the daugh­ter ends up in the same posi­tion, from which her own moth­er removed her­self: she makes “rugs, blan­kets, and the likes for sales, from the pro­ceeds of which, togeth­er with the inter­est from her small inher­i­tance, she was able to live” (162). Weav­ing, as Wal­ter Ben­jamin reminds us, is close­ly relat­ed to sto­ry­telling. On a tex­tu­al lev­el the female friend of the narrator—a good house­wife, moth­er, and educator—fulfills the desire of this “dark” text to find its way back to “real­ism,” giv­ing a com­pre­hen­si­ble, coher­ent account, and pro­duc­ing a text under the aegis of that gen­tle law that match­es its promise of meaning.


[1] “Don’t let me fin­ish this thing only half-way through,” Stifter wrote to Heck­e­nast: “Help me to keep a cheer­ful, uplift­ed mood, for this is for the plant like soil, air, and sun, as much as vex­a­tion is like mildew and poi­son for it.” – “[L]assen Sie mich das Ding nicht halb vol­len­den, helfen Sie mir, eine heit­ere, gehobene Stim­mung zu erhal­ten; denn diese ist für das Gewächs Boden, Luft und Sonne, so wie Ver­druß Mehltau und Gift dafür.” Adal­bert Stifter, let­ter to Gus­tav Heck­e­nast, Feb­ru­ary 7, 1852 (XVIII: 107).

[2] “You will real­ize the improve­ment, and the amount of work. Even Goethe tran­scribed his Iphi­ge­nie five times. […] Think of the litharge, the trans­paren­cy, and the fil­ing!” – “Sie wer­den die Verbesserung erken­nen, und wer­den die Menge an Arbeit erken­nen. Hat doch Göthe seine Iphi­ge­nie fünf­mal abgeschrieben. […] Welche Glätte, welche Durch­sichtigkeit, welche Feile!” (Stifter, XVIII: 107)

[3] “My only pain is, that I won’t be able to put this sto­ry away for a year in order to revise it. I imag­ine, it would turn into a clear and inti­mate mas­ter­piece.” – “Mein Schmerz ist nur der, daß ich jezt diese Erzäh­lung nicht ein Jahr kann liegen lassen, um an eine Umar­beitung zu gehen. Ich bilde mir ein, sie würde ein ein­fach­es klares inniges Meis­ter­w­erk wer­den.” Stifter, let­ter to Gus­tav Heck­e­nast, July 27, 1852 (Stifter, XVIII: 120).

[4] “Receive here­with for the first time a book that your father has writ­ten, read his words for the first time in print, which until now you only have heard from his lips. Be good as the chil­dren in this book, keep it as a mem­o­ry. If you are once about to aban­don good, let these pages ask you not to go there.” – “Emp­fange hier zum ersten Mal ein Buch, das Dein Vater ver­faßt hat, lese zum ersten Male seine Worte im Druke [sic], die Du son­st nur von seinen Lip­pen gehört hast, sei gut, wie die Kinder in diesem Buche; behalte es als Andenken; wenn Du einst von dem Guten weichen woll­test, so lasse Dich durch diese Blät­ter bit­ten, es nicht zu tun” (Hein 574). Albrecht Koschorke calls this ded­i­ca­tion a “lit­er­arische Adop­tion­surkunde” ("lit­er­ary cer­tifi­cate of adop­tion," Koschorke 323). Juliane Mohaupt attempt­ed to run away from home sev­er­al times; and in 1857 she drowned her­self in the Danube.

[5] His biog­ra­ph­er Theodor Klaiber crit­i­cized that Stifter was get­ting lost in the wide depic­tion of exte­ri­or things and fur­ni­ture (Klaiber 79).

[6] Hein: "[D]ie strenge Fol­gerichtigkeit, die poet­is­che Gerechtigkeit und die voll­ständi­ge Geschlossen­heit" (322).

[7] Eva Geulen (1992) attrib­uted his man­ic and abun­dant descrip­tions to his depen­dence on words (“Worthörigkeit”), his desire to fill any pos­si­ble inter­val or gap that might pro­duce a dis­turbed coherence.

[8] Antonie von Arneth née Adamberg­er (1790-1867) had been a suc­cess­ful actress in her youth and lat­er a benev­o­lent care­tak­er; she even helped Stifter find­ing a new home for his fos­ter child Josepha Mohaupt. She had been Theodor Körner’s fiancée and was lat­er mar­ried to Joseph von Arneth (1791-1863) with whom she had one son, Alfred (1819-1897) who is also men­tioned in “Tour­ma­line.” In ear­ly 1853 Antonie von Arneth thanks Stifter in a let­ter for intro­duc­ing her in “Tour­ma­line” as the female “friend” and adds: “How proud I am that you found my lit­tle sketch worth con­sid­er­ing. How­ev­er, I know very well that it is the frame that turned it into what it is, and if it is a tour­ma­line, it is bead­ed with pearls.” – “Wie stolz bin ich, daß Sie meine kleine Skizze ein­er Beach­tung werth gehal­ten haben. Freilich weiß ich wohl, das, was es ist, hat der Rah­men dazu geth­an, und ist’s ein Tur­ma­lin, so ist er in Perlen gefaßt.“ (Stifter, 2.3: 412-13).

[9] Lange’s sec­ond wife, Luise Maria Anto­nia Weber was Mozart’s sis­ter-in-law and also a well-known actress. In 1798, she left Lange for an engage­ment in Ams­ter­dam and nev­er returned to him.

[10] Lau­rence A. Rick­els con­nects Stifter’s trau­mat­ic child­hood mem­o­ry with the only inci­dent Goethe rec­ol­lects from his child­hood in Dich­tung und Wahrheit when he threw “with great plea­sure” his par­ents’ pots onto the street (Rick­els, Abber­a­tions 235). Both Goethe’s and Stifter’s auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal anec­dotes fol­low the move­ment of “fort” and “da.”

[11] Lit­er­al­ly trans­lat­able as: “Moth­er, a stalk of grain is grow­ing there.” For an insight­ful read­ing of the rela­tion between the encrypt­ed code of Korn­halm and oth­er Merk­male see: Rick­els “Stifter’s Nachkommenschaften.”

[12] In Ger­man the expres­sion “Raben­mut­ter” (raven-moth­er) indi­cates a neg­li­gent moth­er and/or a moth­er who aban­dons her child(ren).

[13] “Hiero­glyphen des Unheim­lichen” (Macho 741).

[14] “This crypt no longer ral­lies the easy metaphors of the Uncon­scious (hid­den, secret, under­ground, latent, oth­er, etc.) […]. Instead, using that first object as a back­ground, it is a kind of “false uncon­scious,” an “arti­fi­cial” uncon­scious lodged like a proth­e­sis, a graft in the heart of an organ, with­in the divid­ed self” (Der­ri­da, “Fors” xiii).

[15] The French fort (inte­ri­or) and the implied Latin foris (exte­ri­or) must be read in con­junc­tion with the Ger­man FORT.

[16] The young boy, try­ing to grasp the (for­bid­den) raven, reminds of the boy in “Gran­ite,” who allows a vagabond to paint his feet with pitch and will be penal­ized by moth­er and grand­moth­er with a with­draw­al of love. The pan­ic of the boy in “Tour­ma­line,” who did not do any­thing wrong but abhors the penal­ty of his moth­er finds such penal­ty antic­i­pates in the reac­tion of the mon­strous fig­ure with the over-dimen­sion­al head who appears in the window.

[17] Eva Geulen (1993) point­ed out that the tale of the girl with the big head could be read as a vari­a­tion of the case of Kas­par Hauser, a young man who appeared in 1828 in the streets of Nurem­berg claim­ing that he has been raised in total iso­la­tion of a dark­ened cell. Part of the enthrall­ment in regard to Kas­par Hauser, who claimed to have been exposed to sun­light after being released from his prison for the first time, was his unaware­ness of the defor­ma­tions of his body and of the injus­tice he had suf­fered from. In a sim­i­lar way the deformed daugh­ter of the Ren­therr is nei­ther hap­py nor unhap­py, and rather will­ing than reluctant.

Works Cited

Ben­jamin, Wal­ter. “Stifter.” Wal­ter Ben­jamin: Select­ed Writ­ings 1913-1926. Ed. Mar­cus Bul­lock, Michael Jen­nings et al. Cam­bridge, MA: Belk­nap Press of Har­vard UP, 1996. 111-113. Print.

Blan­chot, Mau­rice. The Infi­nite Con­ver­sa­tion. Trans. Susan Han­son. Min­neapo­lis: U of Min­neso­ta P, 1969. Print.

Der­ri­da, Jacques. “Fors: The Anglish Words of Nico­las Abra­ham and Maria Torok.” Trans. Bar­bara John­son. The Wolfman’s Mag­ic Word: A Cryptonymy. Eds. Nico­las Abra­ham and Maria Torok. Min­neapo­lis: U of Min­neso­ta P, 1986. xi-l. Print.

---. The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans. Alan Bass. Chica­go: U of Chica­go P, 1987. Print.

Geulen, Eva. Worthörig wider Willen: Darstel­lung­sprob­lematik und Sprachre­flex­ion in der Prosa Adal­bert Stifters. Munich: iudi­ci­um, 1992. Print.

Geulen, Eva. “Adal­bert Stifters Kinder-Kun­st. Drei Fall­stu­di­en.” Deutsche Viertel­jahress­chrift 67 (1993): 648-68. Print.

Hein, Alois Raimund. Adal­bert Stifter: Sein Leben und seine Werke. Vol. 2. Wien/Bad Bocklet/Zürich: Wal­ter Krieg Ver­lag, 1952. Print.

Klaiber, Theodor. Adal­bert Stifter. Stuttgart: Ver­lag von Streck­er und Schröder, 1905. Print.

Koschorke, Albrecht. “Erziehung zum Fre­itod. Adal­bert Stifter’s päd­a­gogis­ch­er Real­is­mus.” Die Dinge und die Zeichen: Dimen­sio­nen des Real­is­tis­chen in der Erzäh­llit­er­atur des 19. Jahrhun­derts. Eds. Sabine Schneider/Barbara Hun­feld. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neu­mann, 2008. 319-32. Print.

Macho, Thomas. “Stifters Dinge.” Merkur 676 (August 2005): 735-41. Print.

Rick­els, Lau­rence A. Aber­ra­tions of Mourn­ing: Writ­ing on Ger­man Crypts. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1988. Print.

---. “Stifter’s Nachkom­men­schaften: The Prob­lem Of the Sur­name, the Prob­lem Of Paint­ing,” MLN 100.3 (1985): 577-98. Print.

Stifter, Adal­bert. “Tour­ma­line.” Lime­stone and Oth­er Sto­ries. Trans. David Luke. New York: Har­court, Brace & World, 1968. 103-147. Print.

---. Sämtliche Werke. Ed. Gus­tav Wil­helm. Vol. XVIII: Briefwech­sel 2. Hildesheim: A. H. Ger­sten­berg Ver­lag, 1972. Print.

---. Werke und Briefe: His­torisch-Kri­tis­che Gesam­taus­gabe. Vol. 2.3. Ed. Her­mann Kunisch. Stuttgart: Kohlham­mer Ver­lag, 1995. Print.

Weiss­berg, Lil­iane. “Tak­ing Steps: Writ­ing Traces in Adal­bert Stifter.” The­mat­ics Recon­sid­ered: Essays in Hon­or of Horst S. Daemm­rich. Ed. Frank Tromm­ler, Amsterdam/Atlanta: Rodopi, 1995. 253-274. Print.

This arti­cle is licensed under a  Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.