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Thursday, July 24, 2008

lest that thy heart's blood run cold...

Max Lüthi, in his The European Folktale: Form and Nature, systematically contrasts the folktale (Märchen) with the legend (Sagen). Legend, for Lüthi, is something like the Saint’s tale, or the Arthurian tales, which – he claims – endow characters and objects with a “greater three-dimensionality” than folktales. According to Lüthi, folktales are characterized, stylistically, by depthlessness – the other world, the Aber-world, of the supernatural is accepted by the folk tale hero without a blink.

“In the Grimms’ folktale of the Seven Ravens, we are told of the little sister who arrives at the glass mountain: ‘What was she to do now? She wanted to save her brothers and had no key to the glass mountain. The good little sister took a knife, cut off one of her little fingers, pit it into the gate, and thus managed to open it. Once she had made her way in, a little dwarf came to meet her” – and so on, without the slightest indication of physical or psychological distress.” (13)

Lüthi’s examples can be infinitely multiplied. Red Riding Hood shows no surprise that the wolf talks to her; Rosanie accepts Ricdin-Ricdon’s magic wand without any question about how it works, or why, if it possesses the magical qualities Ricdin-Ricdon claims, he hasn’t made better use of it. In Dumb Hans, a hunchback who impregnates a princess simply by wishing is also able, by wishing, to build her a castle and cast off his hump – why, then, did he spend his youth being mocked and tormented for being an ugly hunchback? The superimposition of a violent, sexually active, hierarchical world over a “once upon a time, when wishes were still of use” does not take the questions that arise in that hierarchical world and apply them to the new, hybrid world – instead, there is a sort of automatic assumption that the rules have changed, now. But have changed capriciously, as it were, by themselves.

That general attitude of depthlessness, in the world of folktales, seems to translate an aspect of the culture which, according to an increasingly powerful consensus among the elite in the seventeenth century, was riddled by superstition. The struggle against superstition does not begin in the seventeenth century – Plutarch wrote against superstition. It became one of the commonplaces of Christian preaching. In On Godly Fear, a sermon by Jeremy Taylor, the great Anglican preacher, superstition is analyzed as a misplaced fear, and put among the pagan and Romish practices. It is at the base of idolatry.

“The Latins, according to their custom, imitating the Greeks in all their learned notices of things, had also the same concepiton of this, and by their word superstitio understood “the worship of demons,” or separate spirits; by which they meant, either their minores deos, or else their zoas apotheothentas, “their braver personages, whose souls were suppose to live after death;” the fault of this was the object of their religion; they gave a worship or a fear to whom it was not due: for whenever they worshipped the great God of heaven and earth, they never called that superstition in an evil sense, except the Adeoi, “they that believed there was no God at all.” Hence came the etymology of superstition: it was the worshipping or fearing the spirits of their dead heroes, “quos superstites credebant,” “whom they thought to be alive” after their apotheiosis, or deification, “quos superstantes credebant”, “standing in places and thrones above us;” and it alludes to that admirable description of old age, which Solomon made beyond all the rhetoric of the Greeks and Romans; “Also they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way;” intimating the weakness of old persons, who, if ever they have been religious, are apt to be abused into superstition; they are “afraid of that which is high;” that is, of spirits, and separate souls of those excellent beings, which dwell in the regions above us...” (Sermons, 1874:66)

This long notion of a misplaced fear, a double of the expected and demanded fear before those who are actually on high, migrates from the Stoics to the Church fathers to the natural scientists. It still constitutes the critical attitude that is taken to superstition and the understanding of folk practices. Yet, there’s an odd break between the ability to go between this world and the other world in the folktales and this picture of the culture of superstition. As always, when folktales pose a hermeneutic problem, they usually produce a folktale about that problem. So, the problem of the wish generates the folktale of the Fisherman’s wife that is about the very nature of wishing; and the problem of fear and its lack becomes “A Tale About the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was.”

To which we will return... Our point, however, is that the struggle against superstition was defined differently at the end of the seventeenth century than at the beginning – that is, for the elite culture. The court position of the astrologer is a good marker of this change. Jean Baptiste Morin, whose book on French astrology (an apparently endless book, having a million volumes, which were employed to build the great wall of France – a little known structure which can be seen from one of our moons) has been partly translated by the American federation of astrologers, was still able to write horoscopes for King Louis XIII and give astrological advice to Richelieu, but even then, he was engaged in a bitter rearguard battle with Gassendi about the truth of astrology. Hervé Drévillon in Lire et ecrire l’avenir notes that the laws against astrology changed during the seventeenth century. In 1628, decrees were made against prophecies that predicted the fates of individuals, princes and states – “It was a matter then of containing astrology in certain limits, without contesting a certain legitimacy and pertinence belonging to it.” However, in “1682, the strategy of monarchic power in regard to astrology changed. From this time forth, it was no longer a matter of containing a discourse in the limits of what was judged politically tolerable, but of eradicating a belief whose effects were considered pernicious for the morality and order of the public.” [226] The members of the erudite elite who were willing to defend astrology dwindled. Perrault, Drévillon notes, in his death notice of the blind military strategist, Blaise de Pagan, attributed Pagan’s book on natural astrology to his “faiblesse.”


Anonymous said...

LI, I haven't really been able to keep up with your recent posts, though I might have left a couple of quick comments that don't do them justice. This one, I fear, is not going to be any different. Tangential at best.

The post somehow reminds me of passages from Walter Benjamin's truly great text re Goethe's Elective Affinities, that I've been obsessing about recently.
You will recall how Benjamin at the beginning of the text brings up Kant and materiality. And marriage. (BTW, you are right, Kant's Orientation text is well worth chewing over.)
So here is WB quoting Kant:
Sexual commerce (commercium sexuale) is the reciprocal use that one human being makes of the sexual organs and sexual capacities of another (usus membrorum et facultatum sexualium alterius.) This is either a natural use (by which procreation of a being of the same kind is possible) or an unnatural use, and this unnatural use takes place either with a person of the same sex or with an animal of a nonhuman species.

WB continues: Thus Kant. If Mozart's The Magic Flute is put alongside this passage from the Metaphysics of Morals...


So, here are the passages I've been thinking about. The first is when WB incredibly describes the phrase in Elective Affinities that accompanies the lovers embrace in terms of Hölderlin's caesura of the work itself .

That phrase, which to speak with Hölderlin contains the caesura of the work and in which, while the lovers seal their fate, everything pauses, reads: "Hope shot across the sky above their heads like a falling star." [Die Hoffnung fuhr wie ein Stern, der vom Himmel fällt, über ihre Häupter weg.]


Come to think of it, I'll leave it at that.


roger said...

Amie, funny, I am headed towards a passage in Goethe's correspondence with Schiller about astrology. That line from Holderlin is fuckin' brilliant.

You know, when I was a grad school philosophy pup, that passage in Kant gave me and my fellow pups, mostly males, the giggles. But you know, reading it in your comment, it occurs to me that once again, the old man might have been more ironic, have given voice to a certain irony ( a compound of Voltaire and Rumpelstiltskin) than he is given credit for. Is that passage the voice of a celibate's insensitivity, or is it de-mystification?

northanger said...


roger said...

North, doesn't the ruling class rule? Words to live by!

northanger said...

yes, they rock!