The Golden Narrative


“I have a dream…”

Martin Luther King

Some called him the most boring writer in German literature, others called him the best novelist of the 19th century. Some found him an idealist reactionary, for others he was a visionary and early ecologist and feminist. Strangely, all these judgements have some justification.

The list of his admirers goes from Nietzsche to Thomas Mann and W.H.Auden but his work is as good as unknown outside the German-speaking world. For me, his work was one of the strongest influences on everything I am and do.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of his death. Time to remember a tragic great man: Adalbert Stifter.

There is unfortunately very little biographical information in English available and too little room here to fill you in. Born in 1805 in Bohemia, Adalbert Stifter early lost his father and later the woman who was the love of his life. He was inscribed as law student but only attended lectures in natural science. He was a talended painter and a pre-cursor to impressionism but became famous only as novelist. He was an inspired teacher but became an inspector of schools. He was a firm believer in the classical ideal of self-cultivation but in his own life miserably failed. His excesses in eating and drinking led to chronical diseases. One of these (probably liver cirrhosis) made his later life unbearable and he ended it with a shaving knife.

His major works “Indian Summer” (1857) and “Witiko” (1865-1867) are both utopian. One basically describes an ideal, enlightened group pf people that live in harmony with nature (the first ecological garden in German literature is at length described in “Indian Summer”). The other, “Witiko”, set in 12th century Bohemia provides an anti-nationalist view on history. Written at a time where republican nationalism dawned in both Bohemia (later Czechia) and the German speaking world, it was unpopular already at the time of its publication and has remained solidly so ever since.

As a consequence of the #meto movement there has been lately an intense discussion about whether people who do despicable things can create great works of art. Can the biography of the artist and his work be separated? Now, I think, we (me included) tend to think that a work of art should be somehow reflected in the personality of the artist. Separating artist and work seems like a very hard thing to do. Stifter, as far as we know, didn’t do anything especially bad but he certainly is an extreme example for how biography and work can diverge. Like many great works of art, Stifter’s works are the product of the author’s struggle with his inner demons. World literature and art would be much poorer without this kind of works produced against the artist’s biography. Such works are aspirational not biographical. And this leads me to the first point in my reflections on Stifter: the golden narrative.

Whether we realize it or not: we all are following some kind of narrative about the world. Such narratives, I suspect, developed in earliest human history as a method of social cohesion. By sharing common stories, legends and history social groups formed. There are many such narratives and their influence in guiding our behaviour is incredibly strong. Sometimes they lead to disastrous and appalling results. The worst atrocities in mankind’s history were guided by narratives – about a cause, of fear and the evil other. Actually, no war ever has started without a narrative de-humanizing the enemy. It is said that whoever “owns” a narrative has power over people. And one glance at the news teaches us that we currently fight intensely over narratives in many places in the world.

Among all the narratives there is one about love, kindness, selflessness, justice and equality that mankind has been developing over a long time. A narrative were mankind comes to peace with itself and the world. I call it the golden narrative. It is a dream shared by many and well expressed in Martin Luther King’s  I-have-a-dream-speech. But we know this is not reality. It is an aspiration anchored in the belief that a better world for us all remains a possibility.

In Stifter’s work mankind and landscape are one. They interact, they shape, but not dominate, each other and through this interaction evolves a world where the inner demons are tamed and sublimated into beauty. Up to Stifter’s time the golden narrative had in the West not involved nature and what we now call ecology. Like his contemporary Henry David Thoreau, he added a new color of yarn to the tapestry of the golden narrative.

But there is a problem with narratives and one I mentioned in the last post. Our hunger for stories easily blinds us to things for which we don’t have words. Not all things make or need a good story either – they just are. As Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. While nature contains many stories, in itself it is not a narrative of the human kind. We have to listen to it in a different way – and that is where in my view Stifter’s greatest contribution lies and what he called the gentle law. But that is for one of the following posts.


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