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The Magnetic Shiver

Isabel Fargo Cole (2019)

Adalbert Stifter in the Anthropocene


The wafting of the air the trickling of the water the growing of the grain the surging of the sea the budding of the earth the shining of the sky the glimmering of the stars is what I deem great; the thunderstorm that looms in splendor, the lightning that cleaves houses, the storm that drives the breakers, the fire-spewing mountain, the earthquake that buries whole lands, these I do not deem greater than those first phenomena, indeed I deem them smaller, for they are the mere effects of much higher laws. 

(Adalbert Stifter, Preface, Motley Stones)


We seek to glimpse the gentle law that guides the human race, Adalbert Stifter concludes, both modestly and grandly. His “gentle law” reflects the aspirations of the Biedermeier period in which he came of age. Coming between the Napoleonic Wars and the Revolutions of 1848, the Biedermeier brought peace and prosperity at the price of a stifling conservatism; today, Biedermeier is a scornful byword for bourgeois piety and timidity, the retreat into private idylls and sentimental fantasies. Stifter is often regarded as the “paradigmatic writer” of the period and popularly misunderstood as a stodgy sentimentalist. But for Kafka he was “my fat brother,” and Thomas Mann called him “one of the most peculiar, enigmatic, secretly audacious and strangely gripping storytellers in world literature.” With a sensibility and technique too idiosyncratic for his contemporaries to grasp, Stifter explored the abyss in the idyll. 

Born in 1805 in the village of Oberplan, Bohemia to a weaver and yarn trader, Stifter rose from his humble beginnings to become a tutor to Vienna’s aristocracy – including the son of Austria’s chancellor Prince Metternich, embodiment of the conservative backlash and architect of a crushing system of surveillance and censorship. Later, Stifter worked in Austria’s school system as a reform-minded administrator and pedagogue. Politically liberal, he supported the Revolution of 1848 – then, horrified by its violence and chaos, turned his back on the movement. 

Harmony and moderation are a constant theme in his writings, appearing in hindsight as the unattainable ideals of a man whose lifelong struggle with depression led to alcoholism and, ultimately, suicide. But his liberal contemporaries, unaware of the turmoil behind his staid facade, saw his worship of moderation as a retreat into political complacency. In 1849 Friedrich Hebbel, whose writing grappled dramatically with social issues, wrote a poem satirizing the “new nature writers” such as Stifter who rhapsodize about “small things” like beetles and buttercups while ignoring the larger world and the depths of the human heart. Stifter’s preface to Motley Stones was a direct response to Hebbel, an apologia for small things that unfolds into a vision of humanism and natural harmony.   

His critics, unpersuaded by the calm, majestic sweep of his language, ferreted out the inconsistencies of his arguments. Here correct and incorrect views are entwined in an inextricable knot, chided the literary critic Emil Kuh in a biographical essay on Adalbert Stifter from 1868. Why claim that the great is smaller than the small? Why claim that the higher laws are revealed in the small rather than the great? Stifter sets forth the paradox without resolving it. He proceeds arbitrarily, Kuh argues. He has belittled great things in favor of small things because in small things he can more easily control the law that governs both. This, claims Kuh, is the cheap optimism of the writer who feels he has closed up the abysses by closing his eyes.

These words were written in 1868, the year of Stifter’s death, but evidently in ignorance of his suicide. Kuh astutely notes the mania for control that creates such tension in Stifter’s work, but closes his own eyes to its abysses. Correct and incorrect – Kuh’s very words express the need for the sort of controllable clarity that Stifter ultimately subverts. 

Stifter illustrates his theory of small things with what at first seems a staid, typically Biedermeier example: a humble scientist, perhaps an amateur naturalist, spends years recording the tiny deviations of a magnetic needle. [A]n uninformed person would surely regard this endeavor as a small thing and a mere game; but what awe is inspired by this small thing, and what enthusiasm by this game, when we learn that these observations are in fact made across the earth’s entire surface, and the charts compiled from them show that certain small shifts in the magnetic needle often occur simultaneously and to the same degree in all parts of the world; that, then, a magnetic storm is passing over all the earth, that all the earth’s surface at once is sensing a sort of magnetic shiver.

Reading these words, I feel the shiver, as though my skin had merged with the surface of the earth. Here Stifter seems to record a tremor whose import he could not yet grasp, a shock dealt to the old image of the earth, a shift toward a vision of the globe described by contemporary ecological thinkers as “touchy,” even “ticklish,” an active subject that feels, reacts, and acts. Drawing on the theories of scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, thinkers such as Bruno Latour have invoked the name of the Greek goddess Gaia to conceptualize the earth as an agent. In response to the explosion of human activity encapsulated in the term “Anthropocene,” Gaia emerges as a powerful, unpredictable being in its own right, fixing us with its inscrutable gaze and challenging us to see it.

If, just as we have eyes for light, we had a sense organ for electricity and the magnetism arising from it, what a great world what a wealth of immeasurable phenomena would open up before us.

In Stifter’s writing, I seem to feel these new sense organs budding. His striving for control leads into the depths of the uncontrollable; the magnetic shiver is an anthropomorphic metaphor that dissolves the boundary between earth and observer. It is as though the surface of the earth were trembling before my gaze – in quantum theory the act of observation alters its object – and as though the earth, observing me in turn, gave the shiver back. 

Face to face with the earth – Stifter arrives at this vertiginous perspective precisely because his sense of scale is so slippery. Kuh spoke of Stifter’s world-pleasure… that clings to small things, but this pleasure has dark undercurrents that undermine the boundaries between great and small things, the self and the world. Searching everywhere for a “gentle law” to allay existential fears, Stifter carries his fears wherever he goes, suffusing everything with a terrible grandeur. Even the smallest things are engulfed in the magnetic storm, and the pot boiling over with milk is the same as the fire-spewing mountain. 

Stifter’s homage to small and gentle things in the preface to Motley Stones is additionally subverted by the very events the tales depict – if anything, they seem to illustrate a law of catastrophe. Four of the six novellas revolve around the very cataclysms he “belittles”: plagues, storms, floods, fires, unprecedented blizzards and hailstorms. Here, too, Stifter’s work resonates with contemporary preoccupations.

In his 2016 essay The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh explores his ongoing failure to make literary use of an extraordinary natural event he experienced in 1978 – the first tornado to hit Delhi… in recorded meteorological history. As the eye of the storm passed over him, he had the sense of beholding and being beheld. Haunted by his encounter with this “non-human presence,” over the decades he tried repeatedly to use it in a novel, but failed each time, fearing the incident would strike readers as an outlandish “contrivance”, too improbable to function as fiction. “[T]he calculus of probability that is deployed within the imaginary world of a novel is not the same as that which obtains outside it; this is why it is commonly said, ‘If this were in a novel, no one would believe it.’” By interrogating this discrepancy in current notions of probability, The Great Derangement offers a way of understanding the impotence of modern “realist” literature in the face of a destabilized environment.  

Probability and the modern novel are in fact twins […] vessels for the containment of the same kind of experience. Before the birth of the modern novel, wherever stories were told, fiction delighted in the unheard-of and the unlikely. Narratives like those of The Arabian Nights […] proceed by leaping blithely from one exceptional event to another.

Ghosh suggests that traditional narratives, which bridge the centuries, condensing and conveying a vast trove of experience, operate with a scale that can accommodate rare and catastrophic events. For instance, knowledge about hurricanes or tsunamis that recur at long intervals is passed down in the form of myths. In his view, the concept of reality cultivated by the modern period, favoring the controllable “everyday”, is a paradoxical derangement. This “realism” takes as its yardstick an everyday life that is a historical anomaly, while sidelining the “abnormal” and improbable developments which, ironically, our everyday comforts make increasingly probable. 

Ghosh’s arguments seem to echo the criticisms raised against Stifter. Stifter, after all, seeks his gentle law in people’s ordinary everyday infinitely recurring actions […], for these actions are the lasting the founding ones, like the millions of fibrils of the tree of life.

Indeed, the small routines of daily life are an obsessive, almost ritual presence in Stifter’s work. But by so explicitly championing the everyday, by illustrating in unsparing detail the efforts needed to maintain it, he only underscores its precarity, hinting at a greater inscrutable reality pregnant with cataclysms that, however improbable, can happen at any moment. 

Stifter’s characters are constantly talking about the weather. They face a natural world whose signs need to be interpreted obsessively. A number of his narratives hinge on thunderstorms, and on the contested ability to predict them correctly. The surveyor in Limestone, a modern scientific type with the latest equipment, denies the powerful storm that the modest village pastor prophecies. The blizzard in Rock Crystal, the hailstorm in Cat-Silver that shatters all that is solid – these are anomalous phenomena that defy traditional weather lore. Even the grandmothers fail to see them coming. 

And yet these catastrophes are so meticulously described, with such implacably meteorological lyricism, that they never seem like literary contrivances. These are not the symbolic tempests of Gothic literature that project the protagonists’ inner dramas onto the outside world. The storms themselves are the dramas, the crucial narrative conflicts that define the human characters. However improbable, they seem natural and inevitable, as though following a greater external logic that would be apparent if only one found the right point of view. In his preface Stifter strives for this perspective – one from which the earthquake that buries whole lands would appear as a small thing. From up high, devastating storms can be conceived as mere ripples of the electric force that is gently and ceaselessly altering shaping and life-giving, embedded in a great natural cycle. In the dizzyingly vast nexuses in which Stifter hunts for his gentle law, its gentleness shades into diffuse horror. At best into the tender indifference of the world. The calm after the storm, with its vibrant colors and cleansed air, the vigor with which the maimed trees send forth their new shoots in the spring – these things may indeed bespeak a greater force than the violence of the storm itself, but also a greater inexorability. A cycle that ceaselessly turns might give life and sustain it, but chance alone determines which life is sustained and which is shattered.

And so elevated a vantage point, spanning such vast time frames, reveals how the cycle itself can eventually tip out of kilter and settle into a new rhythm. In his “Christmas story” Rock Crystal, in which two children stray among the glaciers’ abysses with the fortitude of ignorance, Stifter begins with a scientifically precise illustration of the mountain’s yearly chronicle, describing how the snow accumulates in the heights, then vanishes from the lower slopes in summer, how the ice fields grow and shrink with the seasons. So it unfolds, year after year […] and will continue to unfold so long as nature remains as it is, and snow is on the mountains and people in the valleys.

So long as snow is on the mountains – the fairytale formula fails to reassure me. At its bottom lies the image of the mountains without snow, the bare bedrock that our warmer years bring to light. So long as… these words speak of things that can come to an end. So it unfolds.

Stifter, a profoundly insecure man, sets out to seek firm ground – but wherever he looks, his gaze undermines it. In startling fashion, he anticipates the derangement described by Ghosh. His language seems at first to flow like a calm river; up close, it is a tide of ice grinding its way onward, blasted and clefted by powerful tensions.

In the prodigious stillness that prevailed, the stillness in which not the least little crest of snow seemed to stir, the children heard, three times, the cracking of the ice. The sounds were made by the glacier, that thing that seems most unyielding, and yet is most astir and alive.

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