June 28, 2007

Tales of a Traveler

Lately I've been reading Washington Irving. His short story, The Adventure of the German Student, was in some ways my introduction to literature -- it was the first story I read in which I had the delicious sensation of discovering new and novel things in a text that was 150 years old. (One of the other joys was a sensation that, although this was a short story written by one of the greatest American writers, I was reading something barely known and obscure, even esoteric--a tribute to Irving's skill.

His description of the unfortunate Wolfgang's reading habits is priceless:

Gottfried Wolfgang was a young man of good family. He had studied for some time at Göttingen, but being of a visionary and enthusiastic character, he had wandered into those wild and speculative doctrines which have so often bewildered German students. His secluded life, his intense application, and the singular nature of his studies, had an effect on both mind and body. His health was impaired; his imagination diseased. He had been indulging in fanciful speculations on spiritual essences, until, like Swedenborg, he had an ideal world of his own around him. He took up a notion, I do not know from what cause, that there was an evil influence hanging over him; an evil genius or spirit seeking to ensnare him and ensure his perdition. Such an idea working on his melancholy temperament produced the most gloomy effects. He became haggard and desponding. His friends discovered the mental malady preying upon him, and determined that the best cure was a change of scene; he was sent, therefore, to finish his studies amidst the splendors and gayeties of Paris.

Wolfgang arrived at Paris at the breaking out of the revolution. The popular delirium at first caught his enthusiastic mind, and he was captivated by the political and philosophical theories of the day: but the scenes of blood which followed shocked his sensitive nature, disgusted him with society and the world, and made him more than ever a recluse. He shut himself up in a solitary apartment in the Pays Latin, the quarter of students. There, in a gloomy street not far from the monastic walls of the Sorbonne, he pursued his favorite speculations. Sometimes he spend hours together in the great libraries of Paris, those catacombs of departed authors, rummaging among their hoards of dusty and obsolete works in quest of food for his unhealthy appetite. He was, in a manner, a literary ghoul, feeding in the charnel-house of decayed literature.

The Adventure of the German Student is just one of the Tales of a Traveler; like Pushkin, Irving provides elaborate frames to tell his stories. Unlike in Pushkin, the frames puzzle and give the stories additional depth; for example, like the opening of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the narrator of the Adventure of the German Student is a man with a haunted head, that is, one who had the side of his head bashed in. Irving never explains the character; all we know is that he met the German student in a madhouse (perhaps that suffices for explanation).

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Posted by Ideofact at June 28, 2007 12:59 AM
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