Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Haunting Primacy of a Ghost Story: Secondary Thoughts on the Hermeneutical Challenge of Kleist's "Das Bettelweib Von Locarno"

Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Haunting Primacy of a Ghost Story: Secondary Thoughts on the Hermeneutical Challenge of Kleist's "Das Bettelweib Von Locarno"

Article excerpt

Kleist's "Das Bettelweib von locarno" is truly a haunting story. at first glance, it appears strikingly simple: a castle is being haunted by an invisible apparition. But while some, such as e.t.a. Hoffmann's character lothar, have spoken of its ingenuity in glowing terms, other readers of the text have decried its lack of real profundity. ludwig tieck, for instance, in the preface to his edition of kleist's work, summarizes the story in a few words as "eine kurze, gespenstische anekdote," and then adds the scathing remark that "Manche freunde des Verfassers haben wol diese kleinigkeit zu hoch gestellt" (liv). in the same vein, the eminent scholar emil staiger declared kleist's text devoid of any deeper meaning, concluding in his by now canonical analysis that "Das Bettelweib von locarno" is nothing but a conventional, unoriginal ghost story (16). it is fascinating to see that this seemingly inconspicuous tale of a haunted castle has nevertheless spawned a tremendous amount of research, although only more recently has a book-length study been devoted to it (Niehaus, Erschöpfendes Interpretieren). the abundance of scholarly writings on kleist's ghost story appears almost disproportionate if we take into consideration that the text itself is barely a thousand words long, consisting of nothing more than twenty sentences. Despite the sweeping dismissals of tieck, staiger, and many others, it is clear that "Das Bettelweib von locarno" continues to haunt literary scholars.

Constituting in itself yet another addition to the body of scholarship surrounding this text, the present article will address the principal reasons underlying the ongoing scholarly obsession with kleist's ghost story, as well as why literary scholars should rightly be interested in studying it. "Das Bettelweib von locarno" is not just an overrated "kleinigkeit" lacking any deeper significance, but on the contrary represents a highly concentrated and therefore particularly profitable specimen for analyzing the concrete workings of literary texts. as such it provides not only substance for future research, but may even offer innovative contributions to the study of literature in general. My aim is to demonstrate and discuss the hermeneutical challenges that kleist's text poses, particularly when a more-or-less intuitive understanding of the story is contrasted against a critical and focused analysis. i will begin by engaging in a close reading of the text, making note of the shortcomings of this approach as they arise. Principal among these is the fact that any detail-oriented analysis of "Das Bettelweib von locarno" will fail to account for the text 's unique reading experience. Drawing inspiration from Derrida's idea of hauntology, this article probes deeper into the "spectral quality" of kleist's text and seeks to shed some light on what Hoffmann's lothar has called the "wunderbare färbung des Ganzen," that is, the story's ability to evoke the uncanny in a way that has, as of yet, eluded definitive scholarly interpretation.

I. The Ghost in Kleist's "Das Bettelweib von Locarno"

As a starting point, it is worth considering the precise nature of the strange phenomena, the uncanny occurrences-in a word, the spook1-that take place in the Marchese's castle. first of all, the spook is not even once explicitly referred to as a ghost or specter, neither by the characters nor by the narrator. it is, however, consistently described as an "etwas" or "jemand," as a somehow sensual or otherwise apprehensible appearance that rises and moves, but that, strangely enough, has no concrete, apparent corporeality. it is an "etwas, dem Blick unsichtbar" (196), and a "jemand, den kein Mensch mit augen sehen kann" (198). in fact, aside from the uncanny feeling of its presence, the characters come to experience the spook entirely through its soundscape. in the end, as Hilliard has so aptly observed, the ghost is nothing more than "a set of sounds" (284).

Analyzed from a strictly rational point of view, the manner in which the Marchese deals with the unusual soundscape in his guest room is rather peculiar. …

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