After Tsalal

In Edgar Allan Poe’s novel “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” (1838), an island named Tsalal is the final stop of a sea voyage that is actually a series of disasters. This island, located in the Antarctic Ocean on the edge of the known world, becomes the site of a bloody encounter of cultures: only Pym and his friend Peters survive the gruesome trap laid out by the island’s “savage” inhabitants. After an orgy of mutual annihilation and senseless destruction, they escape by the skin of their teeth in a canoe and end up, the closer they get to Antarctica, in a sphere of paradox and mysterious apparitions. The sea gets increasingly warm, covered in inexplicable plays of color and light, until an enormous cataract appears on the horizon, falling down from a diffuse brightness high up in the sky. Large white birds float above the ocean on its warm streams, and their screams make the last abducted indigenous people petrify in horror. Finally, in the opening of the cataract, the vague contours of an enormous snowwhite figure appear—with this, the report by Gordon Pym suddenly breaks off, and the text ends in a confusion as to who its true author is (Pym or Poe).
      Echo and cut: In his magnum opus “Zettels Traum” [Bottom’s Dream] (1970), the writer Arno Schmidt addresses, in a slightly different aside of the historical context, the possibilities of a translation of Edgar Allan Poe, with whose texts he feels linked in a maelstrom-like affinity. The first volume of the large-format work is entitled “Das Schauerfeld oder die Sprache von Tsalal.” The last page of this volume, parallel to the final events on Tsalal, deals with the destructive consequences of another cultural encounter. The decline of the culture of antiquity is traced back to three reasons: firstly, “the thuggery of the Germanic partisan peoples,” secondly “the rottenness of late Rome,” and thirdly the “intellectual suffocation by Xentum (Christianity).” Schmidt’s account stands in the tradition of a cultural critique based on idealistic currents of thought, which, since Nietzsche, has seen these three factors (summed up polemically by Nietzsche under the terms “slave morality” and “herd resentment”) as a general threat to art and culture in general. On the threshold to modernism, the above-mentioned mix of barbarism (or neo-barbarism), a decadence of late civilization, and an ideology of egalitarianism and the smallest common denominator (from the Christian to the socialist ideal) was recognized as the beginning of the age of the masses, where differences that are, it is maintained, necessary for any artistic and cultural production beyond mere entertainment, are leveled. A work like Arno Schmidt’s “Zettels Traum” sees itself in that sense as a bulwark against the leveling tendencies of the culture industry, insisting unfashionably on the serious status of art, i.e., on a defined gap to the beholder/reader, and thus it stands in the tradition of that seemingly antimodern modernism that renounces popular compatibility—scandalously and without a trace of proletarian correctness. The accent is not on current taste, but on a widely ramified and difficult-to-access network of roots: “Producing art is the heaviest work, to consume it correctly is heavy work.” (Zettel 137)
       Echo and next step: the claim to thematize an irreducible complexity of conditions appropriately opens up the question of what is still communicable beyond the popular. This question leads to the visible/legible part of a context which is still valid after a mutual annihilation of culture (Tsalal, Rome, modernism). For this purpose, the image once again calls up an end scenario, an assembly on the roof of the Villa Malaparte on Capri, from the film “Contempt” by Jean-Luc Godard (1963). Here, unlike in the final sequences by Poe and Schmidt described above, the issue is not the destruction, but rather the reconstruction of a cultural site: for his new film of Homer’s “Odyssey,” an American producer with money and macho manners wants to hire a new scriptwriter, only to immediately start flirting aggressively with his wife. The intrusion of the foreign money and bravado into the sphere of high culture of a weakened, old, and yet venerable Europe (embodied by Fritz Lang, who plays the director of the Odyssey film within the film) becomes the theme of Godard’s contempt (also embodied by Fritz Lang?). The connection of two worlds that do not fit together, a link that is, however, unavoidable for economic reasons, seems to strike at the very substance of the big primal text, but it also leads—as if it were through a bypath of the narrative—to a second proliferation of images and allusions that reflects the original material beyond its twilight, as if the historical horizon had only been inserted into the real through its proven unattainability. The final, silent appearance of Odysseus, the gleaming light on the roof of the Casa Malaparte, in whose exposed state Böcklin’s mythically sinking “Villa by the Sea” seems to unite with futuristic architectural ideas, and not least the echo of the argument between the protagonists Camille and Paul, in whose existentially tinged futility the modern Helen’s or Penelope’s death by accident is already heralded—all this creates an atmospherically condensed visual and textual context that lets the viewer/reader once more submerge himself into an imaginary world after Tsalal. The span between mythical past and cross-faded present, ancient identity and modern de-identification calls up a memory that enriches new material against the internal disintegration of image and text.
       And where does this material come from? Echo and final cut: at the end of the post-Tsalal round trip there is no end scenario, but instead an equally wordless beginning. At the start of Pier Pasolini’s film “Medea” (1969) we see the staging of a human sacrifice, in slow wordless images, the like of which Pasolini used so often to get close to the archaic impenetrability of his material. Medea, as a descendant of the sun god, was considered a magician, and thus in the myth she stood for a pre-Greek, i.e., pre-European, “barbaric” level of civilization, characterized by human sacrifice. Things seem to come full circle after Tsalal again: confrontation has become repression, the unacceptable sacrifice is hidden, the unpredictable mastery of the element is declared magic, and the forgotten superiority in the furor of emotions becomes irrevocable fate in the light of knowledge. This light no longer brings forth a savage daughter, nor a phantom savior in the warm ocean of Antarctica, but a simple shadow that becomes deep and long once the source of light no longer blinds the eye. All the things that become recognizable in this shadow fill many a gap and leak that have emerged in the heat of battle, giving the boat its list.

Halcyon Days, Cologne 2013, p. 164