Gardens and Invisible Bird Cages: Stifter on Making Nature Natural

My last postAnthonis_Leemans_-_Hunting_gear,_Still_Life_-_Google_Art_Project looked at a moment in Stifter’s novel Indian Summer in which the protagonist Heinrich Drendorf is thinking about the relative insignificance of humans and human production relative to geological time. I raised the possibility that this might even be an especially ecocentric moment in the novel.

But let’s not be too hasty. One need not look far in his stories to find that he is hardly “ecocentric” by most understandings of the term. From the early Studies to later stories such as Nachkommenschaften (Descendants) nature is caught up again and again in a transition from natura naturans to natura naturata: nature doing its own thing, that is, “nature naturing” to ordering nature. The clearing of forests, draining of swamps, and the extermination of undesired fauna elicit are featured prominently without any particular concern on the narrator’s part.

One might chalk this up to Stifter’s own historical circumstances, that it is only with the benefit of experience that we in 2014 know how disastrous such “conquests of nature” can be. But that does not mean that Stifter lacks any concern for the integrity of the nature he so meticulously represents. We need only look back at Indian Summer, at the chapter “The Departure,” where Freiherr von Risach delivers a delightfully endless and sublimely boring monologue on his garden. He has a particular fondness for birdsong, and comes to the problem of getting a bird to sing naturally:

If [the bird] is caught young or even old, he forgets himself and his misery, becomes a creature that hops back and forth in a small space when he otherwise needed a large one, and sings his song; but this song is one of habit, not of joy. Our grounds are actually a colossal cage without wire, bars or doors where the birds sing from an extraordinary joy that comes to them so readily, where we hear a medley of many voices which would only be a discordant scream in a room together, and where we can observe the birds’ housekeeping and behavior which is so different and can often make us smile even when things are gloomiest. … People want to enjoy them; they want to enjoy them from up close, and since they are incapable of making a cage with invisible wire and bars where they could observe the true nature of the birds, they make a visible cage in which the bird is locked and sings until his premature death. (95-96)

Risach’s garden is the utopia of ordered nature: he has found a way to get the flora and the fauna to do as he would have them by manipulating their beings. His garden is an invisible birdcage because he creates conditions under which the birds would not wish to be anywhere else. That is one reason why nature is made more natural through Risach’s intervention, he is able to produce a space of harmony. Reading Stifter’s criticisms of the 1848 revolution makes it clear that this harmony is not incongruous with his notion of freedom. On the other hand, we are left with the question of the conditions of freedom in a cage in which a being is invisible, stays voluntarily, regards himself as free, and acts authentically as if he had authentic freedom?

Ultimately what’s at stake for Stifter is a kind of Platonic absolute, what Stifter will come to call the “sanftes Gesetz” or “soft law.” According to this, the absolute, which is both the guarantor of the sensible world and the source of moral reason, can only ever be known for its manifestations in the small and particular. “Nature” is not valuable as the given, but is a projection of the higher instance that anchors our immediate reality. To order nature is to make nature more natural by bringing out the general in the particular. But as any good Stifter reader knows, he just can’t help himself, there’s always some detail or circumstance that exposes the whole order as essentially a house of cards. And that’s what constitutes the singular pleasure of reading Stifter.

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