“He who puts on a hundred pairs of glasses no longer sees the world.” The above was written in a letter that Adalbert Stifter sent from Linz to his publisher Gustav Heckenast in Budapest on 5 February 1853. It is no accident that I begin this literary journey with a quotation from a letter. The statement holds true for Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868) to an extraordinary degree. His work and his life was expressed in his letters. After all, for people of that time, and primarily for an emotional person like Stifter, letters were the best way to directly express their emotions and their rich feelings. It is like ‘social media’ in its most time-consuming, reduced and thus purest form.
The starting point for my reading is nevertheless one of Stifter’s works, one that is both frequently cited and little read. Indian Summer, published in 1857, is both glorified and scorned, reviled and revered. Indian Summer (Der Nachsommer) is a utopia, if not the absolute utopia. In this book, people and the world have never been as beautiful and ideal as they are described here in over 700 pages, and they never will be. No one knows this better than Adalbert Stifter. He lost his father at the age of twelve and, as a gifted child, completed his schooling at the Kremsmünster Abbey, far from his native village of Oberplan in the Bohemian Forest, in what is now the Czech Republic. After completing his secondary schooling with distinction, Stifter went on to study law in Vienna. After a short time there, however, he completely lost his bearings and orientation in life. His first great love was a disappointment, he failed to complete his studies, and he made a meagre living by giving private lessons in posh homes.
Should he become a painter or a professor, a lawyer or a poet? The things he dreamt up are great, but the things he put into practice are only half measures. Often, he failed to reach even that. In Indian Summer, he is able to ingeniously express this brokenness. Beautiful, highly gifted, super-skilled savants, scholars, researchers, and craftsmen create an idyll, a world of art and rose petals. “For me, art is the greatest of earthly sanctuaries …”, he states in a letter to the publisher Heckenast at the time of writing Indian Summer. Thus, Stifter was able to construct a temple, a cathedral, for this religion. Even though nature plays a major role, in addition to world history and geography in the broadest sense, Stifter is always concerned with people.
With my reading, I have thus finally arrived back in the Bregenzerwald. After all, the Bregenzerwald is the region of the world that I connect most with its people. This region is home to men and women who have shaped my conception of humanity, probably more than I realise. These are people, both in Stifter’s case and in the Bregenzerwald, who go their own way, unflinchingly, attentively, devoutly and humbly, and not, on the contrary, blindly or thoughtlessly. They are people who do not bow to the dictates of fashion or politics or the spirit of the times: “The power to refrain from every mannerism is all the rarer in our days, not only because mere mannerisms have become fashionable, but also because it is difficult in general to be so inwardly grand …”, wrote Stifter in August 1847 to Aurelius Buddeus of the Augsburger Zeitung. When it comes to maintaining one’s independence, not flaunting one’s strength, but doing justice to life, it is a question of measure, of moderation.
I have often marvelled at the certainty of the measure with which a farmer estimates how much hay is left to load onto the cart, how powerful the blow must be that drives the fence post into the ground, when it is time to do this or that task. This is not because it reflects calculation or sophistication, frugality or even stinginess. No, it is something I would prefer to call economy, economy beyond money and profit. This is economy that is about a matter much more fundamental than being human: “I am a man of measure and freedom …”, as Stifter again wrote to his publisher Gustav Heckenast in May 1848. If nothing else, the publisher represented the author’s guilty conscience, the proponent of a world of expedience, of cost-benefit calculations, from which Stifter, who was a man of the heart, was ineffably far removed throughout his life.
“Moderation should be the most difficult yet surest characteristic of the true artist,” wrote Stifter on 8 February 1854 to Ottilie Wildermuth, a Swabian poet. For an artist of life, for whom life is a work of art, one succeeds as but one amongst hundreds of thousands. Amongst Stifter’s works, Indian Summer, in particular, is a very special read. He is out of time in a very unique and contemporary way, particularly in the 21st century. This includes Stifter’s view of the nature of Upper Austria, the Salzkammergut, the Alps, the Danube valley, but also of history and of the present in political and social terms; and again and again, and above all, as it concerns the human, very personal, subjective, and individual. Stifter’s perspective, fed by longings, expectations, ideals, disappointments, emotional and physical pain, penetrates deep into the depths, soars high into the heavens, and reaches into the infinite.
Apart from all the artistry, verbosity and genuine affection of the heart, the Indian Summer, in spite of the thousands of roses that are cherished and cared for and admired and loved there, is the blunt result of a different quality, ability or achievement – as the case may be: namely courage. Stifter was a courageous human being right up to the tragic end of his life, until the moment his neck was cut with a razor. This was certainly no accident and led to the death of the 62-year-old after two days. Weakened by manifold sufferings and strokes of fate, he was a man who took on the task of being human in his place and time. Only once did he see the ocean. That would have to be enough. I see the courage of Stifter at work in the Bregenzerwald, amongst the business people, the tourism professionals, the traffic and spatial planners and cultural figures. And amongst the everyday men, women and children.
Author: Peter Natter
Issue: Bregenzerwald Travel Magazine – Summer 2023