Fantasies of Self-Cannibalism: The Story of the Criminal in Ludwig Tieck’s “Life’s Luxuries”

Ludwig Tieck’s late novella Life’s Luxuries (Des Lebens Überfluß, 1837/39), about one couple’s utopian project to withdraw from society and consume only what they have ready at hand in their small apartment, contains a curious parable very early in the narrative. In the scene Heinrich is reading to his wife Clara from his diary:

Man hat ein Märchen, daß ein wütender Verbrecher, zum Hungertode verdammt, sich selber nach und nach aufspeiset; im Grunde ist das nur die Fabel des Lebens und eines jeden Menschen. Dort blieb am Ende nur der Magen und das Gebiß übrig, bei uns bleibt die Seele, wie sie das Unbegreifliche nennen. Ich aber habe auch, was das Äußerliche betrifft, in ähnlicher Weise mich abgestreift und abgelebt. (7)

There is a fable that a mad criminal, condemned to death by starvation, ate himself bit by bit; after all, that is only a fable for the life of every man. In the first case only the stomach and the teeth remained, in our case the Soul, as the incomprehensible is called. In the same way, as far as outward things go, I also have stripped myself and died. (51)

The novella proceeds to test out this fantasy of autosarcophagy, as the two characters set about surviving the winter by using furniture and eventually the staircase leading up to the apartment as wood for burning. The conflict is about the integration of a fantast trying to preserve his own tired romanticism in a post-romantic world already on the brink of revolution. The last moment of resistance to integration in bourgeois society comes when Heinrich gathers a boot and a pair of staves and insists that they are a canon and guns. The project of self-consumption breaks down along material/ideal lines, and Heinrich presents it in two ways. The first is that where the criminal’s material deprivation is an equivalent for a common human life project of achieving transcendence beyond the material. Cannibalizing oneself leaves only the organs of consumption and digestion behind, the exterior body is reduced to the mechanism that maintains the body, and this image is the equivalent of a more ineffable spiritual process. But then Heinrich presents it as more of a simple mirroring. His process is not strictly some internal affair, but rather an actualization of the internal through an unsustainable consumption of the external, which in the story is not the body, but the things in one’s surroundings.

What interests me about the story is the way that it imagines the relation to the external world, the utopic fantasy of the good life being one of extreme self-sustainability, so that even those parts of the body that depend on the work of the teeth become valuable in being metabolized. The cracks in the fantasy are obvious, as one escapes consumption by consuming everything around oneself, and in the story we learn that the couple still keeps a servant to fetch them food (because of these cracks, students sometimes react to this story with hostility towards the characters). In the end, the couple rejoins society and fits the house with an even nicer staircase than before.

Interesting sidenote: The only English translation I know of to date is from a 1934 collection of German novellas published by Oxford University Press. The translation treats one of Heinrich’s programmatic and most politically dubious speeches in a manner that seems to shy away from the politics. Heinrich begins by claiming that friends and lovers should treat the relationship “schonend,” which they translate as “with consideration,” although the verb is more about preservation. Love for each other should not destroy “die Täuschung der Erscheinung” (41), which is rendered as “the spiritual illusion” (1934 : 89). A more literal translation would be “the illusion of appearance.” We might chalk that up to the vagaries of translation, except that the translation ends there whereas in the German the speech goes on for another page. Heinrich extends his claim about friendship to the relation to church and state, which, while they could stand some improvements, should not be torn of their mythical appearance. “…will man jene heilige Scheu vor Gesetz und Obrigkeit, vor König und Majestät, zu nahe an das Licht einer vorschnellen, oft nur anmaßlichen Vernunft ziehen, so zerstäubt die geheimnisvolle Offenbarung des Staates in ein Nichts, in Willkür.” “…if one draws the holy dread of law and hierarchy, of king and royalty, to the light of a hasty, often pretentious reason, then the entire mysterious revelation of the state falls into dust, into despotism” (42). It seems doubtful that a lengthy, politically loaded speech might have been cut by mistake, especially after the language in the first part has been apparently strategically altered. But for the moment I can only speculate about the reasons that might have motivated the translator or the publisher to make these changes.

 

Tieck, Ludwig. Des Lebens Überfluß. Stuttgart: Reclam Verlag, 1983. Print.

Tieck, Ludwig. “Life’s Luxuries.” German Short Stories. Trans. E.N. Bennett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934. Print. 47-111

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