Love spell

Carlos Fajardo (Reviews Journal)


Commentary on the book by Ludwig Tieck, one of the exponents of German Romanticism

Ludwig Tieck (1773–1855) was a leading figure of early German Romanticism, a friend of the brothers Schlegel, Novalis, Schelling and Fichte, a translator of Cervantes and Shakespeare. Responsible for the improvement of a peculiar literary genre, the Story (fairy tale), whose audience is not made up of children, but of adults. A type of literature inspired by popular tradition and whose most significant representatives are the works of Tieck and Novalis.

The “wonderful” is precisely what is missing in the narrative of The Learning Years of Wilhelm Meister by Goethe. According to Novalis, Goethe's book is too prosaic, as Lukács recalls in his romance theory. As Maria Aparecida Barbosa observes in the “Introduction”, “Tieck resorted to the popular tale in order to achieve his political-literary program, which consisted of denouncing the banality of entertainment literature [...] to ordinary”.

An illustrative passage of this “romanticization of the ordinary” is the delirious escape of the girl Berta, in the short story, “The blond Eckbert” – which opens the collection –, through the almost animated forest, passing through amazing cliffs. An unusual talent capable of transforming the natural into the supernatural and giving vent to fluid and disturbing feelings. Certainly, this “political-literary program” will be at the base of the heated polemic that both Goethe and, above all, Hegel in his Aesthetics and also later Heinrich Heine, among others, will carry out against the first German romanticism.

(Endless) polemic of crucial significance to understand the theoretical bases of what we could call aesthetic modernity. The way in which Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin interpret Tieck's short stories is a significant example. They detect in them, through the macabre, the fear, the mysterious, the starting point of a type of literature that became an enormous success with the public, the detective novel, and continues to be the predominant genre in the film industry.

In an essay called “Bilder de Déjà vu” (images already seen), Bloch recounts a curious conversation he had with Walter Benjamin late into the night that lasted until dawn in a bar by the sea, washed down with gin on the island of Capri. Topic of conversation: the short story “Blonde Eckbert”, which I try to summarize.

In the countryside, somewhere in Germany, lived on a farm, Eckbert and his wife, Berta. They led a quiet life, with few friends. Everything was very peaceful and they were almost happy even though they didn't have children. A neighbor named Philipp Walter, who actually lived in Franconia and who had been in the region for the last few months sorting herbs and pebbles, was one of the few friends who occasionally visited the couple. One autumn night, Walter, visiting them, was invited to stay the night because of the bad weather. It was almost midnight when Berta decided to tell her story to her guest.

She lived in a citadel and her father was a poor shepherd. They led a humble life and Berta was treated very badly, they told her that she was incapable of doing anything right and that she didn't learn anything; her father was always annoyed with her. One day she decided to run away from home. She was only eight years old. She wandered for several days without threshing floor or brink. Finally, dead from fatigue, hunger, thirst and full of fears, she found herself in front of a hut, where an old woman lived who lived in the company of a little dog and a wonderful bird.

The old woman was hospitable and asked Berta to stay there to help her take care of the dog and the bird in her absence, as she traveled periodically. The bird always sang a song, which said: "Sweet solitude of the forest, what joy day after day". And, more than that, in addition to singing, she daily laid an egg containing a pearl and a precious stone that the old woman stored in a mysterious vase. So a few years passed, until one day, in the long absence of the old woman, Berta decided to run away. She locked the puppy in the shed, took the bird, the mysterious vase and left. On the way, the bird began to sing repeatedly: “Sweet solitude of the woods… Remorse begins”.

Berta was disturbed and decided to strangle the bird. After much wandering, she settled in a village where she met her future husband, Eckbert.

They got married and settled in the place where they still live. The guest, impassive, listened to Berta's narrative and calmly commented: “Noble lady, I can very well imagine you with the strange bird and taking care of the little dog” – pronouncing her name – “strohmian!”. Berta was very upset, she couldn't sleep and asked her husband how that stranger could pronounce the dog's name – forgotten. This disturbance became a fatal illness, leaving Eckbert even more lonely.

One day Eckbert went hunting with his friend Walter. A strange feeling of hatred came over him – as if his friend was responsible for his wife's death. He resolved to kill him. He spent some more time completely isolated until he met another neighbor named Hugo. He was happy with this new friendship. One day, the two went out hunting, there was a lot of fog. Eckbert, suddenly saw in Hugo's face the face of Walter - who was talking to the old woman -, he became desperate and began to flee and, at the same time, heard the barking of the dog and the song of the bird: "Sweet solitude of the forest, again what a joy, I am always sane…”

In the midst of despair, he came across the old woman who asked him: “Are you bringing my bird to me? My pearls? My dog?…” Eckbert realized that both Walter and Hugo and the old woman were the same person. “God in heaven!” he exclaimed, "In what dark solitude did I spend my life then?" The old woman retorted and said: “Berta was your sister!” Eckbert, on learning that he was living incestuously with his dear Berta, fainted. Upon awakening, the old woman told him that Berta was the daughter of her father's first marriage and had been raised by another family. Eckbert suddenly went mad and began to hear the dog barking and the bird singing again.

For Bloch, the story's twilight ends with a shock. Walter's phrase when pronouncing the dog's name, strohmian!, is what he calls the “Déjà vu de Anderen” (The already seen of the other). The dog's name sounds like a criminal word. In the way the story unfolds, according to Bloch, Tieck anticipates the narratives of what was later called a detective novel. There is a moral background in the tale and, more than that, guilt: the theft of the bird and the jewels, the murder of the friend and his incestuous affective life. Guilt underlies long-lasting I-don't-know-what forgetfulness. A return to the past, as the story ends as it begins, with the dog barking and the bird singing, it has the effect of a shock that manifests itself bodily as if it were a chill, a return of something that had already been seen previously – one déjà vu.

*Carlos Eduardo Jordan Machado (1954-2018) was professor of philosophy at Unesp. Author, among other books, of Forms and life: Aesthetics and ethics in the young Lukács (1910-1918).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews no. 7, November 2009.


Ludwig Tieck. Love Spell and Other Tales. Translation: Maria Aparecida Barbosa and Karin Volobuef. São Paulo, Hedra, 220 p.



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