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Die Judenbuche and the "Judens-buch": hermeneutic hindrance and scriptural reading in Droste-Hulshoff's crime novella.

Hermeneutics has been enjoying a resurgence in literary theory, ironically, due to the frequent pronouncements of its decline. As this article will show, research in literary and German studies may renew its interest in hermeneutics not by adhering to it as an interpretive method in the strict sense, but, rather, by investigating hermeneutic models of reading as historical phenomena: as widespread practices whose cultural pertinence resonates in literary texts.

This article focuses on the cultural echoes of a departure from the rhetorical tradition in textual interpretation, (1) a departure founded upon the modern conception of the relationship between authors, readers, and literature as embedded in a gradual process of comprehending texts' original meanings. (2) At the core of my argument is a reading of Annette von Droste-Hulshoff's 1842 "crime novella" Die Judenbuche. The canonical status of this text has been attributed to its original representation of a criminal investigation, which has since become the basis for other texts in the same genre in German literature. (3) The crime that is at the center of the novella--the murder of the Jew Aaron--calls attention to an array of so-called hidden meanings, as the mystery of the murderer's identity is never solved. While the text invites readers to speculate about its secrets, it likewise poses difficulties throughout. The narrative style of Die Judenbuche has long been characterized as fragmented and hard to follow. The features that contribute to this impression include shifts in narrative perspective and breaks in the plot at peak moments, particularly during scenes in which crimes are being committed. (4) The novella's structure thus impedes the hermeneutic task of untangling the murder investigation, the events of which constitute the core of the story.

The plot of Die Judenbuche centers on the gradual disintegration of a village that is losing its ethical codes. The moral chaos in the village manifests itself in a ferocious power struggle over control of the woods, and climaxes in two acts of lethal violence: the manslaughter of the villager Brandis, killed by his business rivals, and the subsequent murder of the Jew Aaron, whose dead body is found underneath the beech tree that gives the novella its name. Though the exact identity of Aaron's murderer remains unknown, a certain degree of closure is offered at the novella's end, when Friedrich Mergel, the main protagonist who fled the village after the crime, returns to it in old age and hangs himself from the beech tree, an act the villagers interpret as a sign of his unbearable guilt for having committed murder.

One major impediment to following Die Judenbuche's plot is presented by the brief appearance of biblical language. Near the middle of the novella, a Hebrew sentence is engraved by members of the village's Jewish community on the beech tree at the scene of the crime; it remains untranslated until the novella's final lines (34). The Hebrew sentence references Jewish liturgy in an act which disrupts the reading of the novella and estranges the hermeneutic process that the deciphering of its mystery has set into motion. Taking this moment of confusion as a starting point, (5) this essay approaches Die Judenbuche as a commentary on the social and cultural stakes of modem hermeneutics. The engraving alerts to the historical backdrop for the rise of literary hermeneutics as a leading interpretive paradigm: the uprooting of textual interpretation from religious practices with the spiritual and moral dispositions that they convey. The appearance of the biblical language epitomizes the failure of hermeneutics by pointing to the general reader's inability to grasp the Bible's language and, by extension, the foundations of moral law.6 Die Judenbuche contains numerous allusions to the Bible, including verses, names, and motifs. The novella thematizes the protagonists' dishonest relationship to scriptures and thereby illustrates their moral deterioration. The loss of the Bible as a juridical and liturgical authority thus occurs simultaneously on two levels: that of the work's plot and that of the reader's interpretation of the text--an endeavor which the novella both sets into motion and, ultimately, challenges.

The beginning of the nineteenth century bore witness to the reframing of the Bible as a collective cultural asset. The rise of modern hermeneutics was a prominent aspect of this new perception of the Bible from the perspective of the Enlightenment. In his study of the shifts in the status of the Bible from the seventeenth century on, Jonathan Sheehan relies extensively on the wave of biblical translation in late eighteenth-century Germany, which he sees as paradigmatic for the ways in which the Bible was refashioned to fit a diverse array of aesthetic, hermeneutic, and Pietistic agendas: "The Reformation made the Protestant Bible the engine of political, religious, and imaginative life, an engine defended and cherished well into the nineteenth century" (1, see also 15-25). The so-called personalization of scriptures yielded new hermeneutic practices for engaging with texts. As Hans Frei shows, the late-Enlightenment Protestant readership in Germany brought about a major transition in the reading of scriptures, in which attention to the Bible's spiritual tenets was replaced by a view of scriptural reading as a process driven by individual readers' sensibilities. According to Frei, this process of interpreting scripture, which came to influence nearly all modes of reading in Germany, relied on the Lutheran view that the Bible holds the keys to its own interpretation (19). Ingrained in the personalization of the reader's relationship to the Bible, the interpretive act no longer demanded prior training (historical, philological, or other) for the successful undertaking of the hermeneutic act (i.e., for the deciphering of a text's unapparent meanings). Dorothea von Mucke similarly demonstrates how practices of producing and interpreting texts, which were constitutive to such salient Enlightenment ideas as the importance of individual judgment to aesthetics, built on a new valorization of religious practices of contemplation as having universal pertinence to the formation of the subject regardless of his or her confessional belonging (87-107 and 178-79).

This new hermeneutic model advanced the eighteenth-century transformation of biblical reading into an egalitarian practice that reflected each individual's mental, cognitive, and affective capacities, leading to the sweeping success of Schleiermacher's interpretative theories. According to Frei, "Hermeneutics [was] clearly on its way toward a notion of explicative interpretation in which a biblical narrative makes sense in accordance with its author's intention and (before long) the culture he exemplifies" (91). Die Judenbuche emerges in the afterlife of the Bible's transformation into a cultural asset separate from the long-established hermeneutic traditions of diverging confessions. This period brought about not only the abstraction of biblical texts but also the dependence of literary hermeneutics on the globalization of scriptural readership.

Moral Corrosion and the Hindrance of Investigation

From its start, the novella presents the village as the ultimate locus of crime and recklessness. It is described as a "Fleck" (stain or spot) on the map, a metaphor that implicates the "stains" on a murder's conscience (3). Isolated from state authority in the provincial backlands, the inhabitants become accustomed to ad hoc juridical norms, abandoning the letter of the law for a volatile legal system that seems more "practical" to their needs. It is this geographic and societal context that defines Friedrich's formative years. To compound matters, he loses his father at an early age and quickly learns from his uncle Simon (his surrogate father) and his other companions the immediate benefits of petty crime.

Friedrich's moral deterioration appears to reach its peak when his involvement is implicated in the murder of a fellow villager, Brandis, an incident that foreshadows the killing of Aaron. The murder of Brandis is the first decisive moment that associates moral chaos with hermeneutic hindrance. The scene is focalized through Friedrich, who witnesses a group of foresters closing in on Brandis, but he does not seem to be fully aware of Brandis's impending murder or of his own agency in allowing it to happen (20). As if to mimic Friedrich's misperception, the narrative too becomes fragmented at this point. The murder is only alluded to without any direct description of the event, while abrupt switches to seemingly unrelated scenes--such as Margreth making tea for Friedrich when he comes home sick (20)--create disruptive gaps. Margreth's blindness to her son's involvement in the crime compounds the ambiguity surrounding Brandis's murder. Fragmentary narration thus parallels the protagonists' epistemic choices, which lead to their inability to conform to basic ethical norms. For both the characters and the readers, moments of incomprehensibility make circumstantial evidence slip away.

Later indications clearly point to uncle Simon's culpability in this first murder, but the hints concerning the identity of Aarons murderer pose larger exegetical enigmas: larger in the sense that they raise doubts not only about the investigation's findings, but also about the very notion of securing knowledge based on evidence. Interpreting the clues of Aaron's murder case is emblematic of the process of reading the novella (i.e., the crime story) as a whole.

Friedrich's suicide offers a plausible solution to the mystery--an impression that is enhanced by the revelation that the Hebrew engraving on the tree references talion law: the conviction that a crime should be avenged through a punishment with equivalent gravity, a principle that is expressed in the Old Testament's dictum "eye for an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." However, the text also provides several indications that a different version of Aaron's murder is plausible. In a crucial moment in their investigation of the incident, the villagers receive a letter written by a local judge, the contents of which provide a promising new lead. The letter states that a Jewish convent dweller in a different region confessed to killing a fellow Jew named Aaron. The fact that the convent dweller committed suicide soon after his confession, however, makes it difficult to pursue this possibility further. The judge accompanies his message with the French expression "Le vrai nest pas toujours vraisemblable" ["The truth is not always what is probable"] (34), which not only makes a very suggestive assertion about the nature of interpretation, but also serves to relativize the closure at the novella's end which reveals that the Hebrew lines read, "When you approach this place, I shall do to you what you have done to me" (34). The elusive letter has led to the view in scholarship that Friedrich should not be regarded as the murderer, precisely because he seems to be the most obvious suspect. (7)

The villagers seem to live in a state of paralysis caused by faulty interpretations. The investigators ignore Friedrich's clear involvement in the murder of Brandis, allowing him to evade interrogation as to what went on in the woods. The ineptitude of officials in the Brandis case is ominous. Their inability to enforce the law results in the two main suspects in Aaron's murder killing themselves before they are investigated appropriately. The villagers also have "bad memory" and are generally imperceptive, which is evident when Friedrich returns to the village and manages to disguise himself as his former companion Johannes, a man completely different from him in character. This misrecognition further establishes the villagers as passive "readers" who cannot or do not want to see the details as they are. They opt for an interpretation geared toward grasping a text's "spirit" over parsing out concrete details. When applied to law, this flexible approach inflects the villagers' blindness to concrete evidence, which is in turn emulated by the novella's confusing storyline, thus translating moral deterioration into hermeneutic hindrance. This confusion makes the readers into incompetent seekers, whose knowledge of the events rarely ever exceeds that of the lead investigators. In other words, the readers are tainted with the same interpretive incompatibility that prevents the villagers from solving the mystery and catching the murderers.

A contrast to this interpretive stance is established through the Jewish adherence to a basic notion of morality. (8) The Jewish system of morality is elucidated when, in the aftermath of Aaron's murder, the village's Jews come together to buy the beech tree underneath which his body was found, and engrave it with the cryptic message that hints at an aptitude to avenge Aaron's murder. The script demonstrates the Jewish adherence to biblical law, specifically the law of retaliation ("an eye for an eye"), as manifesting blunt materiality both in its content and means of enforcement.

The novella thus differentiates between Christian and Jewish approaches to scriptures in order to show how the Christians 'personalized interpretation of the Bible, which detaches scriptures from an agreed-upon moral imperative, brings about moral deterioration. In contrast, Jews represent in the novella a primordial obedience to scriptures that is effective, if still primitive, in its adherence to moral law. Judaism's persistent adherence to biblical text as juridical authority is contrasted with Christian scriptural reading, which goes beyond, or abstracts, the written word. The novella shows that this latter objective may "go astray" when instrumentalized for egoistic needs; yet at its best Christian reading may also achieve the sublimation of the letter through an authentic spiritual quest.

Forgetting Biblical Script

Several scenes in Die Judenbuche deal directly with the process of scriptural reading and the interpretation of biblical and liturgical sources. In such scenes, the characters' interactions with scriptures seem to fuel their cognitive and affective relation to reality. From its beginning, the novella unfolds a "reversed" Bildungsroman by following Friedrich as he learns to avoid rules and evident restrictions through the instruction of his mother and, primarily, his uncle. Friedrich's moral corrosion worsens as he learns to emulate Christian figures who tinker with biblical law for personal gain. The egotistical way in which the villagers subsume liturgical texts is already a part of Friedrich's relationship to religion as a child. During the storm that heralds the imminent announcement of his father's death, Friedrich's mother Margreth implores him to turn to faith in moments of crisis. Her request exposes the instrumentality with which she regards religion: the act of asking for forgiveness for one's sins is bluntly correlated with the physical safety of the "believers": (9)
   Der Wind hatte sich gewendet und zischte jezt wie eine Schlange
   durch die Fensterritze an seinem Ohr. Seine Schulter war erstarrt;
   er kroch tief unter's Deckbett und lag aus Furcht ganz still. Nach
   einer Weile bemerkte er, dass die Mutter auch nicht schlief. Er
   horte sie weinen und mitunter:>>Gegrusst seyst du, Maria!<< und
   >>bitte fur uns arme Sunder!<< Die Kugelchen des Rosenkranzes
   glitten an seinem Gesicht hin.--Ein unwillkurlicher Seufzer
   entfuhr ihm.-->>Friedrich, bist du wach?<< ->>Ja, Mutter.<< ->>Kind,
   bete ein wenig--du kannst ja schon das halbe Vaterunser--dass
   Gott uns bewahre vor Wasser- und Feuersnot.<< (7)

Margreth's turn to religion in the interest of Friedrich's and her own safety appears natural, yet the novella illustrates that seeking refuge in religion for fear of one's well-being may derive from an unwillingness to face social sanctions. This notion is demonstrated quite clearly by Simon's misconduct and (mis)education of his nephew. The uncle's disdain for law comes to the fore when he teaches Friedrich--who is about to go to confession, probably in order to cleanse his conscience of guilt for Brandis's death--a "moral" lesson. Simon makes sure to instill in him not only his own interpretation of a key biblical commandment, but also a more general lesson concerning the strategic forgetting of scripture:
   >>Friedrich, wohin?<< flusterte der Alte. -->>Ohm, seyd Ihr's? Ich
   will beichten gehen.<<->>Das dacht'ich mir; geh in Gottes Namen,
   aber beichte wie ein guter Christ.<<-->>Das will ich,<< sagte
   Friedrich.-->>Denk an die zehn Gebote: du sollst kein Zeugniss
   ablegen gegen deinen Nachsten.<<-->>Kein falsches!<<-->>Nein, gar
   keines; du bist schlecht unterrichtet; wer einen andern in der
   Beichte anklagt, der empfangt das Sakrament unwurdig.<< (25).

Simon's bending of biblical law demonstrates the moral deterioration to which personalized interpretation and oral transmission of the Bible's teachings can lead--the corruption of the written word through subjective and self-serving redactions. The oral practice of law and word-of-mouth juridical education allow for the bending of the law according to one's momentary intentions and needs, setting the scene for moral disorder.

A work of German Realism, Die Judenbuche represents and negotiates the social ramifications of the "cultural Bible" (Sheehan 224) in Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century. Taking a reflective and at times reactionary stance vis-a-vis the art of hermeneutic reading, the novella contrasts the village's moral paralysis with the conduct of the Jewish villagers. The Jewish presence alerts readers to the circulation of the Bible in traditional religious contexts. The rigor with which the Jews adhere to scriptural language opens up a larger perspective on interpretation in general, highlighting the contingency of hermeneutic practices on religious belonging. The appearance of Hebrew script thus signals a move from the Buche to the Buck the Jews' steady connection to the law, shown through the emblem of the Hebrew writing, is unique in a world dominated by egoistic performances of subjective interpretation.

The novella draws a clear distinction between the Bible's two parts: the Old Testament of the Jews and the New Testament of Christians. Highlighting this partition, the novella generally presents the Jewish juridical system as a primitive system of cruel retribution. Following Aaron's murder, two different verses, from the New Testament and the Old Testament, reflect the respective affiliations:
   Der Gutsherr stand am Fenster und sah besorgt in's Dunkle
   [...]>>Gretchen, sieh noch einmal nach, giess es lieber ganz
   aus!--Kommt, wir wollen das Evangelium Johannis beten.<< Alles
   kniete nieder und die Hausfrau begann:>>Im Anfang war das Wort und
   das Wort war bei Gott und Gott war das Wort.<< Ein furchtbarer
   Donnerschlag. Alle fuhren zusammen; dann furchtbares Geschrei und
   Getummel die Treppe heran.-->>Um Gottes willen! Brennt es?<< rief
   Frau von S. und sank mit dem Gesichte auf den Stuhl. Die Thure ward
   aufgerissen und herein sturzte die Frau des Juden Aaron, bleich
   wie der Tod, das Haar wild um den Kopf, von Regen triefend. Sie
   warf sich vor dem Gutsherrn auf die Knie.>>Gerechtigkeit!<< rief
   sie,>>Gerechtigkeit! Mein Mann ist erschlagen!<< und sank
   ohnmachtig zusammen. (30)

This scene depicts a transition from the New Testament, in which God is elevated and merciful as he is described in the Gospel of John, to the Old Testament, in which God appears, according to the novella, vengeful and wrathful. The allusion to the Christian credo is, importantly, a statement about the sublime nature of God's word and the supreme and privileged status of the scriptures. This Christian reverence for the word is contrasted with the Jewish womans frantic call for action. Aarons wife represents the Jewish attitude toward the Bible in her plea for Old Testament justice. Punishment is not left up to God alone but is dictated by a bloodthirsty, and yet, effective, adherence to the law--the "eye for an eye" principle: "[I]hre ubergrosse Spannung hatte nachgelassen und sie schien jetzt halb verwirrt oder vielmehr stumpfsinnig.-->>Aug um Auge, Zahn um Zahn!<< diess waren die einzigen Worte, die sie zuweilen hervorstiess" (31). This concept of justice aligns with the text's characterization of Jewish materialism, whose emblem is talion law. By and large, the Jews in the novella are merchants, and most of them make a living from the much-despised practice of money lending. As such, they seem to have inside knowledge of "exchange value" and of how to scale punishment appropriately.

Though the Jewish juridical norm of retribution is depicted as morally inferior, it is better suited to the violent environment of the village. In a world that corrupts the word of the law, where law is subject to individual impulses, the Jews are able to sustain their communal justice system through the primitive observance of a written code. The tree motif conveys the differences between the Jewish and the Christian juridical systems. The Jews--who are corporally hurt, the same way that trees are damaged throughout the text--avenge their assault by casting a spell on the beech tree.

Earlier representations of divine justice in Christianity may help to contextualize the novella's depiction of Christian morality as going astray in an age of excessive and personalized textual interpretation. Konrad Schaum argues that Friedrich's suicide is an act of self-sacrifice of the alleged sinner that embodies Dante's principle of the contrapasso (108), which advances the belief that sinners shall be punished "by a process either resembling or contrasting with the sin itself" (Musa 94). The contrapasso principle is complicated in the novella by the motif of wood, which is associated with this idea of moral punishment. (10) In the seventh canto of the Inferno, the narrator encounters the souls of those who died by suicide, only to find that they have been turned into trees and can only utter their thoughts by breaking their branches. As dictated by contrapasso, these sinners have been punished in accordance with their sin of violence against the self. Because they separated the soul and the body that God had put together, their punishment deprives them of their human body and turns them into static objects. Violence toward the trees via the breaking of branches further injures the suicides' deformed bodies while granting their souls within a certain relief by providing them a way to externalize their pain. This imagery has often been associated with a well-known religious figure, Judas Iscariot, whose guilt led him to commit suicide by hanging himself from a tree. The description of the suicidal souls as "hung" on the tree forever appears to be the basis for such an interpretation.

The connection between trees, wood, and violence in Dante's version of hell also finds expression in Die Judenbuche, and the resonances of the suicide forest are particularly germane. In both works, trees embody retribution for violence, while at the same time also inciting it (the breaking of twigs in Dante or the stealing of wood that leads to further murders in Die Judenbuche). Both texts also depict the ultimate union of man and tree through suicide, which itself has a biblical origin in Judas Iscariot. Several readers of Die Judenbuche describe Friedrich as Simon's metaphorical son, and suggest that Friedrich resembles the son of Simon in the Bible, namely Judas. (11) These Christian connotations are juxtaposed to the Jewish relationship to justice, language, and trees. The Jewish presence--embodied in the Hebrew writing engraved in the beech tree--is a reminder of the corporality that follows from an adherence to the Bible's word in its basic and literal sense. Theirs is a corporal connection to law that the Christian characters have lost. Thus, the appearance of the Hebrew script in the novella echoes the symbolic function of the Bible in the constitution of literary hermeneutics. Following the interpretive fallacies of the villagers would suggest that the novella's allusions to interpretation tell the story of the dependence of modern hermeneutics on a skewed perception of the Bible. Commenting on the Bible's moral status as forgotten, and on textual interpretation as inconclusive, the novella interferes with religious presumptions conceived of as universal in the nineteenth century, and destabilizes the reading practices that underlie them.

Forms of Reading

Written in 1798-1799, Hegel's Der Geist des Christentums associates Christianity with the highest moral order, contrasting it with Judaism's less-developed talion law. According to Hegel, humanity has overcome Jewish morality with the teachings of Christ:
   Aug um Auge, Zahn um Zahn, sagen die Gesetze; die Wiedervergeltung
   und die Gleichheit derselben ist das heilige Prinzip alter
   Gerechtigkeit, das Prinzip, auf dem jede Staatsverfassung ruhen
   muss. Aber Jesus fordert im allgemeinen Aufgebung des Rechts,
   Erhebung liber die ganze Sphare der Gerechtigkeit oder
   Ungerechtigkeit durch Liebe, in welcher, mit dem Rechte, auch dies
   Gefuhl der Ungleichheit und das Soil dieses Gefuhls, das Gleichheit
   fordert, d. i. der Hass gegen Feinde verschwindet. (32) (12)

Hegel's famous account juxtaposes the Jewish primitive adherence to law to the Christian transcendence of legal dictates through the notion of love (Yovel 59). In characterizing Jewish reading of the law as less advanced, Hegel reinforces the theological paradigm shift behind the emergence of Schleiermacher's systematized hermeneutics: the transition from the Old Testament to the NewTestament as the model for textual interpretation. The primary concern of this shift is the move from biblical Hebrew to ancient Greek. Presenting the former as reflecting the spirit of primitive Jewish culture, Hegel singles out the departure of Christianity from its Hebrew roots as the most urgent task facing its members, for only in so doing will they be able to overcome the materiality of law (58).

The theological turn of the late eighteenth century originated in certain prevalent Protestant reading techniques. Protestant ideology construed the hermeneutic tradition as a coherent lineage based on a set of interconnected interpretive principles: the primacy of holistic understanding, the importance of capturing the "spirit" of a text, and the belief that each text contains the keys to its own interpretation. Schleiermacher's depiction of Judaism in his Uber die Religion resonates with Hegel's view of Judaism as embodying a stagnant existence. As Schleiermacher writes, "[D]er Judaismus ist schon lange eine todte Religion, und diejenigen, welche jetzt noch seine Farbe tragen, sitzen eigentlich klagend bei der unverweslichen Mumie, und weinen uber sein Hinscheiden und seine traurige Verlassenschaft" (237). Judaism "commemorates" the divine message but fails to engage in scriptural reading as a dynamic and revelatory process.

In contrast to this "dead religion," Schleiermacher's paradigm of textual interpretation advances the idea that penetrating the authors innermost intentions is a universal ability ingrained in the apparatus of each human being. (13) His theory of interpretation emphasizes the importance of understanding utterances in the context of their conception: "Jede Rede oder Schrift ist nur in einem grossern Zusammenhange zu verstehen" (Vorlesungen zur Hermeneutik und Kritik, 77). Schleiermacher's writings thus signify the transition from philological to psychological hermeneutics, while insisting on the achievement encompassed in the transition from the Old to the NewTestament, from Hebrew to Greek, and from talion law to Christian grace. (14)

The notion that every reader could engage in hermeneutic practices dictated a radical change in the status of the Bible, a process that culminated in the "forgetting" of biblical script and the elimination of the Bible as a material object. By way of analogy to linguistic utterances, which can only be understood within the context of the underlying linguistic system, Schleiermacher proposes that texts should be thought of as utterances in the context of the author's biography (Szondi 172-75). This new interpretive agenda brought on by the universalization of biblical reading thus shifts from language per se to language as an analogy for psychological understanding. According to Richard Palmer, "Hermeneutics becomes psychological, the art of determining or reconstructing a mental process, a process which is no longer seen as essentially linguistic at all" (94). This transition in German thought, which reached its peak with Schleiermacher, found its origins in late eighteenth-century aesthetic discourse as a turn to semiotics: a new movement that called attention to the imperceptible roles of signs in forming new interpretative methods (Wellbery 44-55). Political, social, and cultural changes in the status of the Bible were underscored by the emergence of Protestant hermeneutics as the conceptual pillar supporting a new paradigm of textual interpretation.

Protestant principles accelerated the shift from philological hermeneutics and the analysis of rhetoric, with its demand for a prior training of the reader, to interpretation in its abstract form, as an attempt to decipher not the literal meaning of a text, but rather its spirit. (15) In Schleiermacher's lectures on hermeneutics, language as a system of referents becomes subject to idealization and abstraction. As noted by Leventhal: "The object of interpretation was [...] not so much the book or discourse itself, but the ideas behind the discourse, or material that subtends the signs, the mental content behind the semiotic realization" (145). The Bible as a material object--with its ritual purposes and usages--gave way to its new abstract image which served its role as a model for the reading of all texts.

Interpretative Fallacies

Several of the Die Judenbuche's narratological features contribute to the impression that the text is "obscure" or indecipherable. The novella is narrated throughout by an intra-diegetic narrator, who appears present during the various events, but whose characteristic unreliability casts a shadow of doubt over the veracity of reported events. This feeling derives from the impersonalization of the narrator, who is neither identified by name nor presented as one of the characters. Yet the act of narration does not seem to align with a major characteristic of such a storyteller: the narrator's omnipresence is called into question by the suspicion that the speaker's knowledge of the occurrences, the willingness to share it, or both, are lacking. Events in the story only supposedly take place, as exemplified by the narrator's use of expressions such as "heifit es," "man meinte," "es soli, dass" etc. The narration is based on rumors, or half-truths, instead of on concrete evidence. The use of the subjunctive form "sei" further supports this notion.

The novella thus suggests that the riddle of the murders may be solved by offering multiple "clues" regarding the investigation, while at the same time provoking the opposite impression--that the truth may never be uncovered. When a murder is about to take place the narration becomes fragmented and inconclusive; yet it is suggested in both cases--that of Brandis and that of Aaron--that Friedrich was somehow involved. Accordingly, the resolution of the first murder does not come about through the description of the act as it happened. Rather, the mystery is unraveled upon the uncovering of a single significant detail: that Friedrich's uncle Simon was involved in the crime. Exemplary of the novella's structure, this form of narration highlights the fact that descriptions of reality are often flawed. Die Judenbuche thus dispels the expectations raised both by its appearance as a realistic account and by the generic conventions of crime literature, which dictate that the case should be solved and social order should be reinstated.

Several readings of the novella have focused on the question of whether the interpretative enigma at its core can be resolved. Donahue categorizes two schools of thought in this regard: "One school holds that 'undecidability'is itself the point; another is bent on teaching us how to read the novella so that we recognize Friedrich as the perpetrator hanging in the beech tree at the story's conclusion" (44). Understanding the novella as a statement on the mechanics of hermeneutics as well as on the cultural backdrop for this practice highlights the indeterminacy emerging in the course of its interpretation. However, instead of enforcing the choice between seeing the reader as capable of deciphering the "mystery" and cautioning against the reader's hazardous "epistemological hubris" (Donahue 66), such an analysis demonstrates that the novella's "undecidability" lies in the difficulty of determining whether any given interpretation is right or wrong; readers will never see their reading confirmed or refuted. The reading that I propose shows the novella as signaling that the keys to its interpretation cannot be found within the text itself. Consequently, the unresolvable crime at its core highlights the dangers of making individual interpretation a pillar of communal law.

Already in its opening lines the novella frames interpretation as an act with acute social ramifications. The reader is led to this view by the poem that functions as a preface to the main text: "Wo ist die Hand so zart, dass ohne Irren / Sie sondern mag beschrankten Hirnes Wirren, / So fest, dass ohne Zittern sie den Stein / Mag schleudern auf ein arm verkummert Seyn? [...] Lass ruhn den Stein --er trifft dein eignes Haupt!" (3). This motto restates the New Testament conviction according to which humans, as inherently sinful beings, are not entitled to render judgment on others. The poem conveys the problem of enforcing moral imperatives as inherent to the Christian system of justice. The effectiveness of moral judgment depends on individual pretensions and motivations with regards to the social order--a dependence dramatically enhanced by modernity's disjunction of epistemic choices and religious institutions. By pointing out how the epistemological and the moral blend together in the act of judging, the verses at the beginning of Die Judenbuche frame the task of punishment as unmanageable since it requires moral flawlessness. The poem signals the novella's presentation of hermeneutic practices as grounded in ethical and spiritual dispositions and as cultivated in confessional contexts.

By linking the process of reading texts with the navigation of epistemic choices, Die Judenbuche portrays acts of hermeneutics as codependent on the adherence to metaphysical and moral dispositions, which are perpetuated and pursued in the dynamic process of interpreting a text. Die Judenbuche thus points out how preferences and bias inflect individual conceptions of reality, making hermeneutics a volatile epicenter of society in an era that opted to neutralize the religious context of hermeneutics by detaching it from confessional affiliation and by basing textual interpretation on the theological principle of a personalized connection to the scripture.

The Return of the Repressed Bible

The presence of the beech tree draws attention to the threatening return of biblical language to a world that has forgotten the concrete relation between scripture and written law. The moment when biblical law is revealed in its corporality, alongside Jewish ritual, is the moment when hermeneutics comes to a halt, and readers can proceed no further. The Hebrew letter subverts an approach to literary texts which privileges individual interpretation, conceives it as an all-human capacity, and uses it as a token for the construction of a global community of interpreters.

One can take, I have suggested, the ambiguous manner in which the novella is narrated as an illustration of the metaphysical confusion in modernity, an epoch in which epistemological judgment was detached from the supervision of religious authorities and, thus, from the restriction imposed by traditional training. The paradigmatic hermeneutics of early nineteenth-century German created a precedent for the detachment of spiritual practices from their grounding in a specific confession. The dominant Protestant principles of biblical interpretation based acts of reading on the capacity of all readers to engage with the Bible as a universal imperative. This view of biblical reading as a global practice elicited a new reading culture, causing Protestant hermeneutic principles to be applied to and perpetuated in the reading of secular texts. Die Judenbuche's multiple thematic allusions to the Bible merge with its narrative form to illustrate the novella's stance toward the role of interpretation in a culture faced with moral disorder and the loss of punitive conventions.

The abstraction of biblical language was a precondition for the emergence of modern hermeneutics as a collective practice in Germany's republic of letters, since this practice established the principles behind the production and interpretation of texts. The conception of the Bible as a ritual object, whose "word" marks the beginning of moral thought and cannot be amended, represents in the novella the alternative to subjective interpretation.

The fact that the Jewish characters who engrave the beech tree with Hebrew writing have mastered the ability to use the Bible to address present-day affairs is an alarming realization for the general reader who is imagined and addressed by the text. The use of scriptural passages as pieces of living language recalls the Bible's eminent and primordial role in traditional reading cultures. This subverts the notion of interpretation as a global practice by signaling that cultural approaches to reading are dependent on the religious and ethical codes underlying them: reading cultures are exposed as pending on religious conduct and ethical codes. The writing on the beech disclosures the reliance of literary hermeneutics upon a Protestant model of biblical reading in a moment that "brings back" the materiality of the Bible. The unsettling feelings with which one is left at the end of the novella therefore derive their threatening character from the anomaly of the Jewish figures. Jews do not interpret biblical law and, accordingly, they abstain from amending texts in accordance with individual epistemic choices and personal needs. As such, they are the last resort for biblical law in a phantasmagoric, deteriorating society of self-seeking interpreters.


Zentrum fur Literatur- und Kulturforschung, Berlin

* I wish to thank Winfried Kudszus, Niklaus Largier, Sven-Erik Rose, Caroline Sauter Jonathan Sheehan, Chenxi Tang, Joseph Vogl, Daniel Weidner, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on previous versions of this essay.


(1) Rudiger Campe describes the first half of the eighteenth century as a transition period between rhetorical and hermeneutic cultures (3-4).

(2) Peter Szondi has shown that the emergence of literary hermeneutics was ingrained in late-Enlightenment theories of understanding (Verstehen), which focused on explicating the experience of literary interpretation through regulative rules. Beginning in the early eighteenth century, this trend reached a climax with Schleiermacher's view that speech exists in two parallel realms: spoken language which makes the utterance intelligible and the author's thought which construes the utterance through his or her life circumstances (172-91).

(3) On the structure of the novella and its formation of an original "crime narrative" through the reader's hermeneutic involvement in "piecing events together," see Huge. For a similar account that views the novella's unique "employment" of the reader as its prominent feature see Wells, who argues that interpreting the novella requires the reader to refute both the social norms of contemporary Westphalian society and the poem at the text's outset, which, according to Wells, warns the reader against his or her own distorted moral judgment (488).

(4) In scholarship, the work of Heinrich Henel has been particularly significant in calling attention to the lack of evidence offered to the reader concerning the murder mystery at the novella's core. Other interpretations of the work's perplexing narratology suggest that Aaron may have been killed by somebody other than Friedrich. One proponent of this view, Norbert Mecklenburg, has asserted that he can prove Johannes as the killer.

(5) I agree with Doerr's observation that the presence of Hebrew script is meant to create suspense among its readers, who are assumed to not know Hebrew (457).This narratological use of Hebrew demonstrates that the novella does not count observant Jews amongst its potential audience.

(6) Andreas Kilcher interprets the Hebrew sentence as a reference to "black magic," which exceeds the Christian juridical order while simultaneously alluding to the notion of "natural magic," whose cultural appearances ascribe to the Jews the ability to recuperate the world's moral order. Kilcher thus concludes that the appearance of the sentence incorporates both connotations: "Das magische Gesetz der hebraischen Sprache, das in der Judenbuche' waltet, ist ein naturliches. Es beschreibt eine kosmologische Ordnung, die--jenseits der konventionellen Begriffe von Recht und Unrecht, jenseits von Meinungen und Gewohnheitsrecht, jenseits der positiven, landesrechtlichen Satzungen und Instanzen und jenseits christlich-theologischer Vorgaben--auf magische Weise sich durch--und umsetzt" (265). For a reading that takes Jewish ritual to hold an unfulfilled promise of pregnant mystery see Brown.

(7) Mecklenburg thus argues that Mergel's suicide is the novella's foremost dramatic moment, not because it solves the enigma of Aaron's murder, but due to its cryptic nature: reading the end of the novella as a resolution presents the Jewish community as capable of avenging the death of one of its members. As Mecklenburg demonstrates, this promise is not realized.

(8) William Donahue shows that the novella propagates its moral lesson by contrasting two justice systems grounded in Judaism and in Christianity and manifested, respectively, in the Old and the New Testaments. According to Donahue, the juxtaposition of these systems of morality is embodied in the beech tree: "[T]his ideologically charged symbol identifying Judaism with the lex talionis serves to reinscribe well-worn cultural prejudices about a worldly, material, and 'exterior'Judaism superseded by a superior, inward Christianity" (57). The novella also supplies a few hints for another confessional differentiation--namely between Protestant and Catholics. This distinction, however, is not described as explicitly in the text as is the exceptionality of Jews, who are characterized in Die Judenbuche through their religious belonging (and whose distinct presence gives the novella its title). Following Donahue, my essay claims that the contrast between Jews and an unmarked group of individuals construed as Christians forms the novella's thematic center. Several readers, including Chase, Immerwahr and Wells, have argued that stereotypical conceptions of Jews are joined together in the process of attempting to make sense of the convoluted narrative. Critics who ask in what way the novella is an expression of anti-Semitism thus inquire what impressions stay with the readers upon its reading (Palmieri 9). In their respective interpretations of the text, Doerr and Heifer argue that anti-Semitic sentiments grow stronger as the text progresses. Focusing her examination on what she sees as the text's "latent anti-Semitism" (81), Heifer takes the novella to associate moral fault with Jewish attributes, concluding her examination with the claim that Friedrich himself is a symbolic Jew of sorts (110-11). My own analysis focuses on confessional difference as seminal to the novella's religious ideology; I am nonetheless closer to Donahue in viewing the novella's juxtaposition of Jews and Christians as indicative of the ethical deterioration of the latter.

(9) With the mentioning of the rosary, the scene signals the distinctiveness of Catholic liturgy. Droste-Hulshoff's spiritual commitment as a member of the Catholic Church, and as an author who uses her writings, and especially her confessional poetry, as a platform for expressing her faith is well known. See, for example, Weldemann for an account which endorses Droste-Hulshoff as a leading voice in making Catholic convictions present in nineteenth-century literature. My analysis of the novella shies away from a biographical study; I read Die Judenbuche as an expression of a Zeitgeist manifested in the rise of modern hermeneutics, a movement which emerged in Germany largely under the influence of Protestant principles and the impact of which did certainly also affect those who were not Protestant.

(10) Dania Huckmann reads Die Judenbuche in connection with Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered and Virgil's TheAeneid in order to demonstrate the cultural history that makes the tree an especially suitable site for the performance of talion law on account of its ability to give the dead a voice. She writes, "trees serve as containers for the dead in a double sense: first as places where the dead retain a material form, and second as places where their voices are preserved and address us" (175). My own reading also shows the novella as a link in the linage of Christian representations of talion law; yet I argue that the text ultimately shows modern society to deviate from the system of justice construed in former representations of morality.

(11) See Gray, who cites Rolleke and Fricke on this matter (531).

(12) Hegel's text was not published until 1907 when it was printed due to Dilthey's appreciation of Hegel's inquiries into the origins of civilization.

(13) See Dilthey's account of Schleiermacher's transformative interventions into textual interpretation.

(14) As James Duke writes, "Schleiermacher was convinced that Christianity brought forth a distinctive language and content. Christianity was, and remains, a language-producing power. With Jesus Christ there came a new message or 'idea' to be experienced and proclaimed. In communicating this message the authors of the New Testament thought and wrote in terms of the linguistic, religious, and intellectual milieux in which they lived. Their own understandings and expressions of their faith were conditioned by their heritage and environment. Yet at the same time they reshaped or transformed, and at times even created, patterns of thought and ways of speaking in accord with their new faith" (7-8).

(15) On the role of Protestantism, and specifically Luther's translation of the Bible, in imbuing print culture with its new nationalistic resonances, see Anderson 41.

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Author:Almog, Yael
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Date:Jun 22, 2016
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