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With Wandering Steps and Slow: Schwellenkunst in Adalbert Stifter’s Granit

»With wandering steps and slow«: Schwellenkunst in Adalbert Stifters Granit

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This article explores what Walter Benjamin calls threshold images in Stifter’s tale, concrete objects or events that look both backwards and forwards, are allegorically infused with utopic fantasies, and nonetheless invite an awakening into history and change. The images are read for both their peculiar temporality and their allegorical poetics, and are pursued in their religious, psychological, and political dimensions before focusing on how they allegorize the work’s own aesthetic representational project through a staging of the medium-icity of language itself. The essay follows how Stifter’s language theory establishes the necessarily allegorical nature of realist representation that his aesthetic practice enacts, in ways that both ground and undermine the program of literary realism more generally.


Dieser Aufsatz untersucht »Schwellenbilder« in Stifters Erzählung: laut Walter Benjamin konkrete, aber doch allegorische Gegenstände oder Ereignisse, die sowohl zurück- als auch vorausweisen, mit utopischen Fantasien beladen sind und dennoch zum geschichtlichen Erwachen einladen. Die eigentümliche Temporalität und die allegorische Poetik dieser Bilder werden herausgearbeitet, zunächst in Bezug auf ihre religiösen, psychologischen und politischen Dimensionen; danach in Bezug auf ihre Allegorisierung der im Text verwendeten Darstellungsweise bzw. der Medialität von dessen Sprache. Der Aufsatz verfolgt, wie Stifters Sprachtheorie die notwendigerweise allegorische Beschaffenheit der Darstellungsweise etabliert, die nicht nur die Poetik dieser Erzählung, sondern auch das allgemeine Programm des Realismus sowohl fundiert als auch untergräbt.

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  1. 1.

    Walter Benjamin, »Paris, die Hauptstadt des XIX Jahrhunderts,« Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, Hermann Schweppenhäuser, Frankfurt a. M. 1980, V:1, 45–59, here: 59.

  2. 2.

    Winfried Menninghaus, »Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Myth,« in: Gary Smith (Ed.), On Walter Benjamin: Critical Essays and Recollections, Cambridge MA 1991, 292–328, here: 310. More broadly, see Ibid, Schwellenkunde: Walter Benjamins Passage des Mythos, Frankfurt a. M. 1986.

  3. 3.

    Menninghaus, »Benjamin’s Theory of Myth« (note 2), 310.

  4. 4.

    See Gabriel Trop, »Mythological Indifference in Schelling and Nerval,« The Wordsworth Circle (Winter 2019), 108–126, here: 109.

  5. 5.

    Walter Benjamin, »Karl Kraus,« Gesammelte Schriften (note 1), II:1, 334–367, here: 341. For Stifter’s prose, e.g., Ludwig M. Eichinger, »Beispiele einer Syntax der Langsamkeit: aus Adalbert Stifters Erzählungen,« in: Hartmut Laufhütte, Karl Moseneder (Eds), Adalbert Stifter: Dichter und Maler, Denkmalpfleger und Schulmann. Neue Zugänge zu seinem Werk, Tübingen 1996, 246–260.

  6. 6.

    For allegory in Stifter, including its Benjaminian dimensions, see Martina Wedekind, Wiederholen, Beharren, Auslöschen: Zur Prosa Adalbert Stifters, Heidelberg 2005, 16–28.

  7. 7.

    For Stifter, e.g., Das Haidedorf, Kalkstein; for others, e.g., Jeremias Gotthelf, Die Schwarze Spinne. For the significance of the »Verfallsgeschichte« for Stifter generally, see Christian Begemann, Die Welt der Zeichen: Stifter-Lektüren, Stuttgart 1995, 43. Martin and Erika Swales, Adalbert Stifter: A Critical Study, Cambridge UK 1984, also emphasize the religious dimension to Stifter’s thought, with special stress on its Baroque qualities. See too Hermann Augustin, Adalbert Stifter und das christliche Weltbild, Basel 1959.

  8. 8.

    There is another kind of violence also at stake in the story, in the grandfather’s attempt in the tale or the adult narrator’s through it to control or pause their world: see below.

  9. 9.

    For Stifter, Die Narrenburg, Brigitta; for others, see again Die Schwarze Spinne. For the political allegory to Die Narrenburg, see Joseph Metz, »Austrian Inner Colonialism and the Visibility of Difference in Stifter’s Die NarrenburgPMLA 121/5 (2006), 1475–1492; for Brigitta, Erik Grell, »Homoerotic Travel, Classical Bildung, and Liberal Allegory in Adalbert Stifter’s BrigittaGerman Quarterly 88/4 (2015), 514–535.

  10. 10.

    Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Ithaca NY 1982.

  11. 11.

    Adalbert Stifter, Granit, Werke und Briefe: Historisch-Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. Alfred Doppler, Wolfgang Frühwald, Stuttgart, Berlin 1982, II:2, 21–60. All parenthetical page references in the text are to this work in this volume of this edition. Spelling has been modernized.

  12. 12.

    For Stifter, e.g., the opening descriptions of women in Der Waldbrunnen and, passim, Der Nachsommer. The connection between these elements closely resembles that in the famous image in the »Kunstgespräch« of Georg Büchner’s Lenz (Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, ed. Werner L. Lehmann, Hamburg 1967), wherein the title figure describes watching two girls sitting on a stone and wishing »ein Medusenhaupt [zu] sein, um so eine Gruppe in Stein verwandeln zu können, und den Leuten zurufen« (I, 87). See Robert C. Holub, Reflections of Realism: Paradox, Norm and Ideology in Nineteenth-century German Prose, Detroit 1991, 54 f.

  13. 13.

    This is also an aspect of Büchner’s exemplum, as Lenz next describes the girls clambering down the rocks, creating moving images; and is similarly so paired in one or two other Stifter texts (Der Hochwald, Der Waldgänger). But its inclusion in realism’s self-representation does seem more seldom and is all but overlooked in Holub. For Der Hochwald, see Eric Downing, Double Exposures: Repetition and Realism in Nineteenth-Century German Fiction, Stanford 2000, 52 f.

  14. 14.

    Martin and Erika Swales (note 5), 150. Eva Geulen, »Stifter-Gänge,« in: Axel Gellhaus, Christian Moser, Helmut Schneider (Eds), Kopflandschaften-Landschaftsgänge: Kulturgeschichte und Poetik des Spaziergangs, Köln, Weimar, Wien 2007, 221–237.

  15. 15.

    Georg Lukacs, »Erzählen oder Beschreiben?«, Werke IV: Probleme des Realismus I. Essays über Realismus, Neuwied, Berlin 1971, 197–243. See Eva Geulen, »Depicting Description: Lukacs and Stifter,« The Germanic Review 73/3 (1998), 267–279.

  16. 16.

    Jason Groves, »Many Stranded Stones: Stifter’s Spectral Landscapes,« in: Ibid, The Geological Unconscious: German Literature and the Mineral Imaginary (New York 2019). Groves’ subject is actually the Journalfassung of the story, Die Pechbrenner, which except for this point is thematically quite remote from the aspect of Granit here explored.

  17. 17.

    While there may not be an Eva behind the expulsion in the story, there is one behind the line of inquiry in this essay. My gratitude to Eva Geulen for opening the way.

  18. 18.

    For us, perhaps the most important aspect of this double coding – of both the natural world and, more directly, the religious references – will come in how it similarly doubles up the role of both time and »Geschichte« in the tale: as that which occasions the transgression (time, »fortgehen«) and constitutes its punishment (the fall into »Geschichte« as both history and language); and that which will heal (»Lasse nur Zeit«) and restore (»Geschichte« in both senses).

  19. 19.

    There is a similar attempt to escape history by retreating into supposedly Edenic woods in Der Hochwald, and a similar failure to that attempt. See Downing (note 13). The two stories are linked in Granit by way of reference to the ruins of the Wittinghaus castle pointed out by the grandfather.

  20. 20.

    Cf Das Haidedorf, Kalkstein, and Der Hagestolz, all of which similarly thematize the problematics of the return to the Edenic. In Granit, the breaking of the bowl mentioned with the boy’s and grandfather’s return serves as evidence of the lost circularity to their homecoming.

  21. 21.

    Zachary Sng, »Not Forgotten: On Stifter and Peirce,« MLN 121 (2006), 631–646; Geulen (note 14).

  22. 22.

    For »Flüssigkeit« qua modernity, see also Christian Begemann (note 7), 15 f.

  23. 23.

    Geulen (note 14). Her own most viable translation.

  24. 24.

    The semiotic focus that follows is necessarily influenced by the foundational work of Begemann (note 7): see also his highly compressed contribution, with rich bibliography, in the Stifter Handbuch: Leben-Werk-Wirkung, ed. Christian Begemann, Davide Giuriato, Stuttgart 2017, 75–80.

  25. 25.

    Stifter also thematizes erosion (and sand) in Kalkstein: sand also figures in the »Vorrede.«.

  26. 26.

    In more contemporary terms, we would refer to this as the performative function of language.

  27. 27.

    Walter Benjamin, »Über die Sprache des Menschen und die Sprache Überhaupt,« Gesammelte Schriften (note 1), II:1, 140–157, here: 155.

  28. 28.

    Albrecht Koschorke, »Das buchstabierte Panorama: Zu einer Passage in Stifters Erzählung GranitVASILO 38 (1989), 3–13, writes, »Der Blickhorizont ist nur für das Auge eine unüberwindliche Schwelle« (4).

  29. 29.

    See Downing (note 13), 30 f.

  30. 30.

    Samuel Frederick, Narratives Unsettled: Digression in Robert Walser, Thomas Bernhard and Adalbert Stifter, Evanston 2012, explores the role of counterfactuals in Stifter’s writings. The »falling apart« of language and world is explored in relation to Stifter’s Turmalin in Erica Weitzman, »Despite Language: Adalbert Stifter’s Revenge Fantasies,« Monatshefte 111/3 (2019). Martha Helfer points out to me the importance of Granit as the first tale in Bunte Steine for establishing the language theory behind those that follow.

  31. 31.

    This motivates as well the extension of the motif of language as vision into narrative proper, as during his story-telling the grandfather repeatedly directs the boy, »Siehe.« Seeing becomes memory qua repetition and repetition a means of continually forwarding the threshold of language, transforming the »Würfel« into a »Stein,« so that the »Stein« can become a »Würfel,« thrown forth in time in all its petrification. The mode of repetition and memory at stake here closely resembles Benjamin’s notion of »Eingedenken« in both its commemorative and ritualistic character. See Benjamin, »Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire,« Gesammelte Schriften (note 1), I:2, 607–653, here: 611.

  32. 32.

    See Geulen (note 14).

  33. 33.

    In this respect, note the equivalence between the »Pestsäule« and the »Rauchsäulen.«.

  34. 34.

    Marcus Twellmann, »Bleibende Stelle: Zu Stifters ›Granit‹,« Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie (2007), 226–243.

  35. 35.

    Geulen (note 14) analyzes a similar thematic in Der Waldgänger.

  36. 36.

    We might also include the stories of the grandmother in Katzensilber.

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Correspondence to Eric Downing.

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Downing, E. With Wandering Steps and Slow: Schwellenkunst in Adalbert Stifter’s Granit. Dtsch Vierteljahrsschr Literaturwiss Geistesgesch (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41245-020-00097-0

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