Karoline von Günderrode, “The Apparition”

Karoline von Günderrode’s “The Apparition” is a ghost story dealing with betrayal and regret, as well as two of Günderrode’s trademark themes: connections between the living and the dead, and the search for knowledge. The piece appeared in Poems and Fantasies: Günderrode’s first, 1804 collection of poetry, short stories, dialogues and Lesedramen (“closet dramas,” or dramas for reading).

It’s ok to use and quote from this translation and my commentary, but please cite me. The original German text for this short story can be found here.

Like other of Günderrode’s pieces, including “Musa,” “Timur” and “The Frank in Egypt” (also published in Poems and Fantasies), “The Apparition” merges real places or historical figures with imaginary characters, and Middle Eastern settings, names or other elements with western and northern European or Ossianic moments. Here, the dark and overwrought language used to describe nature recalls Ossian, as does the description of the character Selima by a singer. The name Selima itself may be a reference to Ossian (i.e., to the location Selma). This Ossianic influence is typical of Günderrode’s early work.

The connection or communication between the dead Astor and the living King of Persia, and the emergence of Astor from the ocean, suggest a dismantling of the boundary between life and death that is typical of Günderrode’s work. For Günderrode, death is not an ending, but a site of recreation prior to the emergence of new forms of life. Life and death are not opposites, but two kinds of episode in a cycle in which the individual beings of the world are repeatedly dissolved, united with each other, and differentiated into new individual forms. As such, there is no firm dividing line between life and death. Günderrode articulates this position clearly in “Idea of the Earth,” “Letters of Two Friends” and “The Manes,” and depicts the same position in a more literary form in, for example, the poems “The Malabarian Widows” and “An Apocalyptic Fragment.” The play “Immortalita” also ends with the collapse of a great wall that divides the living from the dead. 

(For Günderrode’s use of the ocean as a metaphor for the dissolution of the self and the reconstitution of new life forms from the old, see Ezekiel 2016 and Lokke 2002. For discussion of necrophilia and vampirism in Günderrode’s poem “The Bonds of Love,” see Christmann 2005, 129f. and Jones 2020.)

“The Apparition” also touches on the theme of the search for knowledge, especially hidden knowledge (here, the knowledge of how to summon the dead, as well as the secrets held by the dead). This is another frequent topic in Günderrode’s writings, featuring prominently in “The Adept,” “The Wanderer’s Descent,” “The Frank in Egypt” and “Magic and Destiny.” As in many – but not all – of these works, in “The Apparition” Günderrode presents the attainment of this hidden knowledge as incompatible with life (at least as we know it): having learned of his crime from his dead victim, the King throws himself to his death.

In “The Apparition,” the interaction of these two themes – connections between the living and the dead, and the quest for dangerous, hidden knowledge – draws on philosophical concerns at the time Günderrode was writing. As usual, Günderrode puts her own twist on the issue. At the time, the trope of the veiled statue of Isis often served as a metaphor for the impossibility of knowing the secrets of nature: anyone who drew back the veil would be killed or driven insane. Günderrode deploys this trope in her play “Magic and Destiny,” but more often uses different imagery to convey a related point. For example, in “The Wanderer’s Descent,” the Wanderer is told by the Spirits of Earth that knowledge of reality is made impossible by his birth as an individual, and in “The Adept” the initiate cannot live like ordinary people once he sees the truths of the universe. In “The Apparition,” the conjuring of spirits and the knowledge it reveals leads to an unbearable situation for the King, who kills himself.

These metaphors aim to express the difficulties of true knowledge of the world for a self that must perceive objects and events through the filter of its sensory and intellectual capacities (Kant), or that is a knowing individual separated from the rest of existence by the fact of its individuation (Fichte, Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel). Like her contemporaries, Günderrode was interested in the question of whether a form of knowledge was possible that could reach beyond these limits of the mind, the sensory organs, and the individual. This is where Günderrode’s unique view of death – and of what happens to consciousness through death and reincarnation – presents novel possibilities for imagining such forms of knowledge. If, as Günderrode claims, we are not annihilated by death, but continue to subsist with an altered form of awareness (see, e.g., Ezekiel 2014), then, although some forms of knowledge may be impossible for us as individuals, they are nonetheless possible for us as participants in the ever-changing cycle of lifeforms that constitutes the universe.

“The Apparition” works well as an amusing, rather gleeful story of betrayal, regret and longed-for reconciliation. But if we scratch the surface, fitting this piece into the context of other works by Günderrode, a rich conceptual background for this work appears. This extra information changes the meaning of, in particular, the ending of “The Apparition,” raising the question: if death is not ending or annihilation, what happens after the King throws himself into the ocean to be reconciled with Almor?

The Apparition

Victorious, the Persian host withdrew through the southern provinces towards Isfahan. At the entrance to the Bay of Hormuz, in a pleasant valley, a pleasure camp was erected, so that the King might amuse himself there while the capital prepared to receive the victor with asiatic pomp.

It was evening. Music, singing and joy were in all parts of the camp; only the King sat alone under a palm tree and heard nothing but the impetuous booming of the sea on the cliffs of Hormuz, for his soul was sealed to joy. Then Nadira came to him. Nadira! the singer of sweet melancholy. Dark locks flowed around the girl’s forehead like thoughts of mourning, the fire of her eyes extinguished in glittering tears. Lightly her voice hovered around the trembling chords; lightly, like the breezes of spring hover around scented flowers, and she sang:

“The sun has sunk in purple floods, the midday winds cool their hot wings in the scents of the night, and the friendly stars ascend and awaken to life and joy. But oh, you stars! and you, sun of the night! silver moon! why do you not awaken joy in Selima’s bosom? Selima was beautiful, like an angel of mercy, but now she is pale, wild waves her hair, her lips do not smile, her eyes are fixed, for Astor is lost! he will never be found, the beautiful Astor!”

Astor! Astor!” cried the King: “Oh singer! why have you given this name to my sorrow?”

He picked himself up wildly and hurried forth through the night. Wringing his hands, he paced up and down on the shore, and still he cried: “Astor! Astor! you will never be found!” 

Dismayed, Ebn-Allar followed his King, and spoke to him thus:

“Why, oh radiant youth! darling of the deity! why do you pass the springtime of your life in mourning? Glory and love smile upon you, and you grieve? Come, leave this bleak habitation, the sky runs heavy and threatening over the sea, come! leave this place.” 

King. Gloomier than this place is my soul; bloody angels of death beat their black wings around my head. Oh Astor! a baleful spirit ascends vengefully from your spilled blood. – Unfortunate act! if he was the traitor, why did I have to be the murderer?

Ebn-Allar. Forget the dead, and remember the living. He broke your trust; his death was justice.

King. If you were ever my friend, Ebn-Allar, then give me the only comfort of which I am capable. You boast of the knowledge to call the dead from their graves and to open their sealed lips. If you can, then call to me now the spirit of Astor.

Ebn-Allar obeyed, murmuring incantations, and threw himself down reverently, ecstatically, on the beach.

The waves broke, groaning, on the shore, the night winds roared with wild impetuousness, and over the gate of the dead flew rasping night birds. With shuddering expectation the King stared out into the night. Then he heard a light trickle from the tides, and from the water rose slowly a pale youth with bloody locks. A pallid moonshine shone around him, and his view lingered sadly on the King.

Spirit. Why do you call me up? King of Persia!

King. Astor! Are you innocent? or did you strive for my crown and my life?

Spirit. The blood that clings to your dagger is innocent. In my last death rattle I forgave you, but you did not hear it.

Ever deeper down into the waves sank the pale figure; the water rippled and finally swept over the bloody locks.            

“Forgive me! Forgive me! I come to be reconciled with you!” cried the King, and stretched his hands out after the vanishing figure, as if he would grasp the bloody locks, or the shroud. Then the ocean opened its broad womb, the King plunged down, and the young man was engulfed by the flood, in the bloom of youth, in the radiance of glory.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING

Christmann, Ruth. Zwischen Identitätsgewinn und Bewußtseinsverlust. Das philosophisch-literarische Werk der Karoline von Günderrode (1780–1806). Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 2005. 126f.

Ezekiel, Anna. Introduction to “Piedro,” “The Pilgrims” and “The Kiss in the Dream.” In Poetic Fragments. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2016.

Ezekiel, Anna. “Metamorphosis, Personhood, and Power in Karoline von Günderrode.” European Romantic Review 25.6 (2014): 773–91.

Jones, Amy. “Vampirism Inverted: Pathology, Gender, and Authorship in Karoline von Günderrode’s ‘Die Bande der Liebe.’” In Writing the Self, Creating Community: German Women Authors and the Literary Sphere 1750–1850. Ed. Elisabeth Krimmer and Lauren Nossett, 149–62. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2020.

Lazarowicz, Margarete. Karoline von Günderrode. Porträt einer Fremden. Europäische Hochschulschriften I.923. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1986. 116f.

Lokke, Kari. “Poetry as Self-Consumption: Women Writers and Their Audiences in British and German Romanticism.” In Romantic Poetry. Vol. 7. Ed. Angela Esterhammer, 91–111. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2002.

Victorious, the Persian host withdrew through the southern provinces towards Isfahan. At the entrance to the Bay of Hormuz, in a pleasant valley, a pleasure camp was erected, so that the King might amuse himself there, while the capital prepared to receive the victor with asiatic pomp…

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