Deviant Desires: The Queerness of the Fetish in Adalbert Stifter's Kalkstein

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Reading Adalbert Stifter's Kalkstein through the lens of psychoanalysis and markedly, yet cautiously alongside Freud's essay on "Fetishism," there is an uncanniness that resides in our recognition of the multiplicity of gestures towards queer and polymorphous perversities, sexual identities, pleasures, and desires available in the fetish. Such an analysis reveals that Kalkstein is a narrative of a man struggling with a bisexual, or more appropriately homosexual nature, which remains an irreconcilable identity within the barren, religious and asexual world the protagonist builds for himself. Critics have grappled with the uncanny flavor of Stifter's novella; but none has flushed out the queer context in Kalkstein, which arguably broadens and enriches the interpretative framework of Stifter's opus. At the same time, the readings we glean from such a queer reading do not have to be homophobic, but instead provocative and indicative of the multiplicity of interpretations the text allows.

Adalbert Stifter's critics have praised his embrace of the everyday in seeming contradictory ways, latching on almost intermittently to the trivial, pedantic, moralistic, and perverse in his writings. Thomas Mann recognized this quagmire, calling it Stifter's "Sensationellwerden der Langweile" (Briefe 1937-1947 458). Gesturing towards the Austrian writer's gift in transforming the mundane into something extraordinary, he characterized Stifter as "einen der größten und ermutigendsten Ehrenretter der Langeweile," and at the same time "einer der merkwürdigsten, hintergründigsten, heimlich kühnsten und wunderlich packendsten Erzähler der Weltliteratur" (Briefe 1937-1947 458, Zeit und Werk 271). We can explore the complexities of this seeming paradox through Kalkstein, one of the six short stories in Stifter's well-known 1853 collection Bunte Steine.

Stifter's Kalkstein can be read on one level as a prosaic eulogy: A priest lives a lonely life full of setbacks and passes away uneventfully. During his lifetime, he builds a casual friendship with a visiting surveyor, to whom he leaves all his earthly belongings.[1] In a way, even the narrator promises the reader a story of little substance, announcing at the start that "nichts Ungewöhnliches vorkömmt" (63). Some scholars are convinced by this gesture. Friedrich Hebbel for example denounced Stifter as a poet with a pastime preoccupation with beetles and buttercups (127). More scholars however have bracketed the tale as one representing a religious and moral martyrdom (Blackall, Gump, Hebbel, Johnston, Marcus, and Sebald). For example, one Austrian historian praises Stifter as such: "Austrian writers had never depicted the clergy with sympathy. One of very few attractive priests adorns Adalbert Stifter's novella Kalkstein [...]. Stifter depicted the pastor of Kar as a little man who in a spirit of Bohemian Josephinism deprives himself for the good of the community" (Johnston 59).

In his introduction to Bunte Steine, Stifter establishes his investment in the so-called gentle law of nature that obeys the rules of a higher and presumably celestial order, a law that guides the human race (Stifter Limestone 23). Known more popularly as his "sanfte Gesetz," Stifter grounds this theory in his collection of stories, a set that constitutes a treasure trove of earthly tokens, or more specifically Bunte Steine - shiny and colorful natural stones. Each story bears accordingly the name of a type of natural stone: Granit, Kalkstein, Turmalin, Bergkristall, Katzensilber, and Bergmilch. For our purposes, it is important to know that limestone is a sedimentary rock made up of the skeletal remains of marine animals, and is the most fragile stone in the list above, the one most easily subject to the elements and erosion. If we extend this metaphor, Kalkstein is the most volatile and multilayered story in the assemblage, composed of skeletons and layers of secrets to be unearthed, and at the same time, what appears to be an easily penetrable surface is not. …