The Euphoria of the Text - on the Market, on Man, and on Melody, i.e.: Poetry
It was an unusual salve, not the kind that you can buy at the pharmacy.
Hans Christian Andersen: "The Travelling Companion". 1835.1
1. The Poetically Interesting
The great oeuvre of Hans Christian Andersen begins and ends and really unfolds where everything is at stake. Where the modern (post-modern?!) conditions cut to the bone and decide the agenda. Where realities present themselves with such force that there is no way back. Where everything may be lost in fatal complications, because the fall is a ruthless reality and because all is now - "a heap of broken images".2
This has consequences.
What is really fascinating are the conditions that create possibilities. It is the interplay and the tensions between these consequences and these conditions which create possibilities that generate an incomparable dynamism.
This is what Hans Christian Andersen is about.
This is the line or the movement which will be in focus here in connection with the reading of three great stories: The Journey on Foot from Holmens Canal to the East Point of Amager, "The Shadow" and "Auntie Toothache". I.e. the first, approximately the middle, and practically the last of his many stories. The years are 1829, 1847, and 1872. The three texts will not be read separately, but backwards and forwards in time, as if they were parts of the Grand Narrative of the market, of man, and of melody, i.e. poetry.
The three texts separately and indeed together point to a three-part rhythm, which on the face of it recalls the three phases of the Bildungsroman: At home. - Away from home. - Home again. Concretely, these phases are synonymous with: The conditions. - Alienation. - The optics. That is to say: The conditions of the market. - Psychological alienation. - The literary optics.
This triad manifests itself inter alia as confrontation, decoding, and message. That is to say, the narrators are faced with the horrors of the universal market, trying to interpret them and their consequences in order to be able to label and describe them. It also means that emphasis is decidedly shifted from content to form. What is decisive is not so much what is made into a theme, but how this is done.
The general theme which these texts have in common is a trivalency consisting of: The poetical. - Poetry. - The poetological.
There are two closely related and complementary themes, which endlessly weave themselves in and out of the texts:
On the one hand - the evil snake.
On the other hand - the good snake.
This - to put it in another way - means:
The demonic misfortunes, insistent demands and ontologically stressing conditions of the world.
The conditions of the literary sleights of hand - which, being ironical, romantic/allegorical and arabesque, cannot but create a surplus.
Together they come to make up the euphoric text, because the poetical dimension more and more wins over, permeates and sees through the terrible phenomenal and psychological mess.
The poetical excess is the 'terrible salvo' which in spite of everything makes it all look interesting:
2. The Poetical Market
The new market is large and cruel and unavoidable. It is strange and estranging. Worth paying heed to. It is governed and characterized by the whims and preferences of fashion, by contingencies and subversive lacunae. It is ubiquitous, permeates everything and yet at the same time is strangely diffuse and immaterial. It is something that everybody has to relate to.
The long journey of the three Andersen texts through the potent market is like an infinite journey through a wilderness of power and possibilities. The new market is injurious and lethal.
At one and the same time it can be characterized and not characterized, because it is a hotchpotch, a tissue or chaos of conflicting forces, as clear as ditchwater. Thus it is not so strange that the explicit narrators of the texts seem to have to include mythological or fairy-tale-like elements, to be able to picture and thus name what is in reality unnameable. Thus, in The Journey on Foot we have Satan himself, in "The Shadow" we meet the shadow and the princess, who is see-sick, and in "Auntie Toothache" we have Satania infernalis. They are employed to explain what is absent or ineffable, that is the cause of or explanation why the market is the way it is. It is almost as if the first reason for the difficulty, the grand prima causa is referred to the mythological and supernatural basis of all that is sick and evil. The Deluge and the Fall and all "the evil lusts", as The Journey on Foot says.
But the mythological and supernatural elements are not there primarily to be myth or fairy-tale, but as spectacular stage decorations or quotations which dramatically underline the whole secularized mess and its pervasive irony. It is all about the fact that a "word" is no longer just a "word", that is, something you can believe just like that, but that on the other hand it has collapsed and thus shaken the usual conventional and universally recognized unambiguousness of the sign.
The new market is a huge and chaotic transformation of norms and values that have been prized highly till now, so that the quickest turnover of the fastest (read: most miserable) products is crucial. With a few more details, these are the conditions of the poetical market: It teems. It shifts. It is scrapped, and ends in the paper barrel.
The whole long journey towards poetry takes its point of departure where the market has been flooded by all sorts of aggressive mobiles, that are fighting among themselves. As the poetic "I" in The Journey on Foot is about to embark on its short but hectic search, it meets with the following vision:
Wherever I looked at this critical moment, all the Roads of Poesie were so filled with travellers that I risked being knocked down and if not breaking my neck, at least an arm or a leg.
The poetical traffic is so universal and unruly that being a poetic traveller means risking your life or at least your limbs. The general laws of traffic and the concrete and local traffic regulations are decided by the whims of the market at any given moment and by the trends of fashion. Thus the demands of the law are formulated as follows - which is very telling - by Aunt Mille in "Auntie Toothache". She says:
"You draw as you talk. I can see the house in front of me. I shudder! You must begin to write. Just put some living creatures in that picture: human beings - lovely people, but preferably unhappy ones; "
Seen in isolation, this recipe may not point clearly in one direction. But read for what it is, i.e. the concrete recipe of Aunt Mille in the concrete context, it must be said to be very clear. It is almost a definition of the trivial or popular literature of mass culture. This literature must be light, straightforward, and depict reality. It must be exciting and moving. Thus what is demanded is realism, titilation and sensitivity. Those are the standard tales of Biedermeier, "hverdagshistorier".
When the trend of the moment is: lovely excitement and a tragic fate, it goes without saying that other tendencies will have a very hard time of it. That is what Andersen's poetic "I"-instances feel in The Journey on Foot, "The Shadow" and "Auntie Toothache". They are caught up in this poetic and trafically confusing maelstrom and are remarkably marked by it.
Thus, what is most horrifying is the massive and radical shift which has moved the main emphasis from "the exalted" to "the low", so that now it is mass or popular literature which tries to occupy everybody and everything, every inch and every psyche. Of course this confuses and stresses Andersen's poetical wanderers, who have to continue their journey endlessly in order to be able at every moment to reconsider the relationship between telling and showing, the explicit and the implicit or, in other words, what is told and what is being narrated.
The general crisis of all values and the critical fragmentation or deconstruction of prevailing norms split the entire poetical market up into at least three separate, yet related, parts:
First there is the massive official and recognized market with its heavily intensified canvassing and buying and selling. With its incredibly massive circulation and resolute marginalization of everything which does not measure up or is different. It is relegated to the paper barrel, the niche or the underground.
It is the grinding mill of merits and damnation.
Secondly there is the black market, which is illegal and not recognized, but yet closely connected with the public and legal market. This is the market which in "The Shadow" is the domain of the shadow. It is a market that knows how to put a price on its scheming stories and how to use them to maximum effect. As the shadow itself puts it in "The Shadow":
"And I saw what no one ever sees, what no one ever should see! I saw things that ought to be unthinkable; and these were not only done by husbands and wives, but by parents and the sweet, innocent children! I saw everything that man must not know, but that he most ardently wishes to know - his neighbour's evil! If I had written a newspaper, everyone would have read it; but instead I wrote directly to the persons themselves ..."
On the black market, the fantastic power of the stories is exchanged for the moon and stars, "diamond rings", and regular cash advantages.
This is the story as exploitation and suppression.
In the third place, there is the third market, which both is and is not part of the complete market. It is the domain of poetical poets. It is on the periphery, partly because it is marginalized and pushed away, partly because it keeps its distance from the whole hurlyburly in order to see better, or rather to be able to really see.
This market belongs to the night and to hidden forces, and it takes its own course. In all three Andersen texts mentioned here, the strange world of the night is penetrated on foot by thought and by writing.
This market underlines that the most important poetological question is a question of the relation between what and how, that the shaping imagination itself is the core of poetry, that you simply cannot buy admittance to it, and that the poetical creative process can only run absolutely smoothly, if the poetical subject really takes the risk of investing himself in it.
It is at one and the same time heaven and hell, or hell and heaven.
The place of utopias and euphorias.
3. The Poetical Subject
The explicit and implicit narrators of the three Andersen texts are all to be found in or circle around the decisive threshold situation, which really means something and inevitably will prove to make a difference - even all the difference:
The poetical subject - and this is true whether it is narrated or narrating - has been launched or has launched itself into an obsessive confrontation with conditions and possibilities. Come hell or high water, the attempt must be made. "I want it!" as the little mermaid says in "The Little Mermaid".
The poetical subject, entirely on its own, must find its bearings itself and fight its own fight. It stands alone - is unique. This is true, for example, about the first-person narrators of The Journey on Foot and "Auntie Toothache". But at the same time, they are more than this. They are double or rather bi-valent. The first-person narrator of The Journey on Foot is both a would-be poet and a real poet, for indeed it is he who narrates or makes the whole thing up. The same thing is true about "Auntie Toothache", where it might look as if there are two narrators (a narrator of the frame story and a fragment narrator). But in reality they are one and the same person, and it is only pretence, but of course most meaningful, that this person splits himself into two.3
Metaphorically speaking, the situation consists of New Year's Eve (The Journey on Foot), emerging from sleep and standing behind the curtain ("The Shadow"), and in being "a living rescue institution" ("Auntie Toothache"). Together this means that the old is becoming the new, that there is hesitation because something new is about to occur, and that saving literature is the same as saving oneself.
But to continue:
The situation is that the poetical subject is standing at a crossroad, where he can either perish or go his own way.
The threats to the poetical activity are in a way clear enough. If literature too anxiously and literally adapts to prevailing liberal market conditions, it will in the end perish in sentimentality and convention, superficiality and simple entertainment. Even serious literature may get into difficulties, if it is not carried by an engagement which renews it. This is what happens to "the scholar" in "The Shadow", even if he does not manage to recognize it, because he has definitively been put out of play.
The almost amorphous market conditions have annihilating limitations and represent a free play of forces, if only limitation norms are respected. Force and freedom, freedom and force. Both on the one hand, and on the other hand.
This means that there are possibilities, indeed a possibility to burst the fetters of the whole cosy Biedermeier-idyll, as it is so aptly described in the conclusion of "Auntie Toothache":
"The fire was burning in the stove. The samovar was on the table. My room appeared quite cosy, although not as cosy as Auntie's, which in the winter has heavy curtains in front of all doors and windows and double carpets on the floor, with three layers of newspapers underneath. At Auntie's, one feels as if one were inside a properly corked bottle filled with hot air. But, as I said, even my poor room grew cosy, while the wind blew outside."
It is possible to get out of the isolation and move beyond the teatable, exploring all topographical and geographical, meteorological and psychological - and tropological differences and ressources which might help to shape new stories. It is tricky and edgy and more easily said than done, but in a way it is only in meeting with what is contingent that sparks begin to flow and the situation becomes poetically interesting. It is only by going beyond the usual limitations, challenging generally accepted opinions, that it becomes possible to see through the whole mess.
Exploiting these possibilities requires adequate luggage, which must be both constructive and subversive enough. The poet narrator of The Journey on Foot has thus equipped himself for his journey by putting E. T. A. Hoffmann's great novel, Die Elixiere des Teufels (1815-16) into his pocket, "in order to have a little fantasy left over, if my own was not sufficient".
"The Shadow", then, rests on the ability to name things and "stamp" them, to be able to identify and shape them.
"Auntie Toothache" rests on rhetoric and the text as play, and in play. "Rhetoric", Barbara Johnson has said, "clearly, has everything to do with covert operations".4
It is the play and tension between the obvious and the hidden which is decisive, or, as Wolfgang Iser puts it: "The Play of the Text".5
4. The Poetical Optics
The hunt for poetry and the poetical always focuses on two phenomena, which are both separate and inter-related, i.e. matter and form, content and expression.
At a first reading, it is always the matter which matters, because readers are "Reading for the Plot".6 All attention is concentrated on the spectacular and terribly funny or horribly dramatical life and final happiness or unhappiness of the colourful characters:
What will happen to the elated first-person narrator of The Journey on Foot during his lonely wanderings through the Copenhagen and Amager New Year's night? What will his poetical search lead to? Will he fall? Will he adapt? Or will he suffer a contusion of his ambitions and never budge?
What will the scholar of "The Shadow" do with himself and his shadow, once it has torn itself away and chosen its own way in the world? Will he renew himself? Will he see the wretchedness for what it is? Or will he keep plodding around the same Biedermeier-romantic clichés about poetry as "the lovely wood", "a holy church" and "the starry night"?
What will the double first-person narrator of "Auntie Toothache" do with the marginalization of the merciless mechanisms of the market and the maculation of all sorts of texts? Will he give up the ghost and hire a ghostwriter? Will he go for a draw or withdraw? Or will he meet the challenge and find a suitable form?
And so on.
But when rereading and reinterpreting the texts, attention gradually shifts from the criminal, psychologically and ontologically oriented questions to the question as to what on earth it is all about. I.e.: what literary, rhetorical and formal tricks are played? What do the answers look like?
The three texts by Andersen analysed here all answer by shuffling the cards to a greater or lesser extent:
The Journey on Foot looks like a hybrid novel, mixing the epical and the lyrical, the novel and the arabesque, the fantastic tale and the fragment. This means that The Journey on Foot is neither flesh nor fowl nor good red herring, but a poetical system in itself. What holds it all together is what one could call its hyperactive circling around the use of and concern with bits and pieces of all that has to do with the literary phenomenon. Subject-matter and poetics, tradition and mediation, circulation and criticism, and God knows what other frills and flourishes.
The entire poetical walk of the hopeful first-person narrator through the space of the town and of literature bears one clear imprint, i.e. that of irony. It is directed both against himself and the world around him.
"The Shadow" appears as a short story and fantastic tale and is the least hybrid of the three texts. It, too, has its two major motor systems, i.e. explicit irony and implicit irony. In other words, irony en route and irony déroute.
"Auntie Toothache" appears as a frame story, i.e. a framework with an embedded story, which finally appears to be just one story. But it is also both a fragment and an arabesque. The stamp here, too, is that of irony.
In other words, there are three ways of reading or perhaps three stages of reading:
There is a first reading, which is very much a literal reading.
There are, secondly, later readings and interpretations, which increasingly see what is implicit and go behind the literal, by focusing on the narrative.
Thirdly, there is the reading which tries to include it all and moves from one way of reading to another in such a way that the whole special literary arrangement and optics become the centre of the analysis.
This reading sees the rhetorical and ironical alternative melody, in other words, all the supplementary addition which goes beyond the boundaries of what is narrated and metamorphoses the stories into subversively euphoric texts.
Thus The Journey on Foot does not end with its ending. It refuses to end. The conclusion is an anti-closure, which does not close, but opens. The last, fourteenth chapter is distinguished from the preceding thirteen by not containing one word except for the parenthetical subtitle, which also explains what the chapter is about. It is: "(Contains nothing)". I.e.: ironically speaking this is not quite true, because there are lots of empty spaces ("Leerstellen") and a whole series of punctuation marks.
The fourteenth chapter is a very special addition, which refers back to the explanation given in the clearly marked parenthetical addition to the thirteenth chapter.
This explanation runs as follows - quoted in full:
(Unfortunately it is only now that I see that my book has 13 chapters; as it is too late to make changes, I shall add yet another chapter, the fourteenth, lest one of the others should die, i.e. be skipped; this chapter does not contain anything, it is true, but the reader is used to that from many other books; in this I will only put the punctuation marks, so that readers may have fun putting them where they please.)
That is irony with a vengeance. And self-irony. Here the narrator concludes by exorting anybody to go on writing ad infinitum, even if he started the whole thing by bemoaning the number of poets that are found everywhere - but that is just one of those things?!
In "The Shadow" there is an unknown x, which the two main characters (the scholar and the shadow) cannot come to grips with.
This x of course lives at the other side of the street and never gets in sight. This x is poetry, and remains an unknown entity throughout the text. Neither of the two gentlemen in "The Shadow" get close to her, which is not the same as to say that they have nothing to say about her, in trying to exploit her.
But as Villy Sørensen once remarked:
Neither the shadow, nor the scholar has access to the true poetry; that is to be found in the story about them.7
What Sørensen talks about is what has here been called the rhetorical dimension. What the narrated persons cannot find or find out is found in the story about them. The story is the ironical voice which unmasks both the scholar and the shadow by articulating it all with an energy which delights and which makes the final discarding of masks look like what Blake has called "Eternal Delight":
"Energy is Eternal Delight."
It is this poetical energy which is the main concern of "Auntie Toothache". In a way it is neither the narrator nor the aunt who is the main character of the text: it is the text itself. This is true both about what is told and about the way it is told. All the time the main concern is the relationship between what is told and the way it is told, matter and manner. The final rhetorical trick, which shows that there are not two first-person narrators, but only one, at the same time shows that it is very important how the story is told.
The narrator is a joker. The text is a joker, for the final blast to the effect that: "everything goes into the paper barrel", i.e. the dustbin, indeed has already been retracted by the story itself. It may be that everything goes into the paper barrel, but at the same time it is out of this paper barrel that it comes or comes back:
-Where did we get this story from?
-From the text itself, for as it is said in the beginning of "Auntie Toothache":
Where did we get this story from?
Would you like to know?
We got it from the grocer's paper barrel.
I got the story straight out of the alderman's newspaper and that cannot be trusted!8
3. Cf. Finn Barlby: "Den befriende forførelse. Om H. C. Andersen og 'Tante Tandpine' fra 1872". In: BUM/Børne- og ungdoms-litteratur magasinet, no. 1-2, 1997, pp. 43-50. And in Finn Barlby: Det hemmelige liv - om romantikken og "det Interessante". Dråben, 1997. Pp. 93-111. back