Out of the shadow, into the light

In 1813, Adelbert von Chamisso published a novel that became a major literary success. It was the story of Peter Schlemihl, the man who sold his shadow. He wrote the text during a stay in Kunersdorf, a hamlet 80 km east of Berlin. This is the place where the Chamisso Society held its yearly meeting yesterday within the facilities of the  Kunersdorfer Musenhof, a house hosting a permanent exhibition dedicated to Chamisso.



I realized then how many different ways of looking at Chamisso’s life and work there can be, how many different ways there are to keep the memory of his achievements vivid.


Let me tell you why he became a major protagonist within my project. You could ask the same question to each and every member of the Chamisso Society – or, for that matter, each and every scholar who  has dealt with the Chamisso corpus – and get a different answer. It is the beauty of such rich corpora that they allow to bring together different perspectives and hence to shed several kinds of light on it.

I had no idea that there exists no major edition of Chamisso’s work and manuscripts until I hired Anna Busch and Selma Jahnke. Anna had been working for years on the manuscripts of one of Chamisso’s best friends, Julius Eduard Hitzig, and she knew the early editions and the situation on the manuscripts’ side very good. Her plan when she started working in my group was (and still is, even if the digital edition has postponed the realization of that part to next year) to prepare a (book) edition of Hitzig’s correspondence with his poet friends, among which Chamisso plays a central role. Selma Jahnke came to the group with a dissertation project on Helmina von Chézy (gosh, I have to improve that wikipedia bio!), Chamisso’s lover in the 1810s. As for Helmina, we both knew that her printed work and manuscripts had never been considered as a “work” and treated as such in terms of scholarly edition. Both Helmina and Chamisso were literary active at the crossroads between France and Prussia, interacting with literary and scholarly networks, with publishers on both sides of the Rhine. Their brief love affair is also the story of a literary cooperation.

Both perspectives – the Hitzig one and the Helmina one – lead us to look more closely into the Chamisso manuscripts. There was one additional aspect – not a completely different one as they all are connected, but still another perspective – that seemed interesting to me in the context of my project. I had been working on the French-Prussian intellectual relationships in the late 18th century and was wondering how it would be possible to analyze the evolution with a counterpart in the early 19th century. Chamisso is for sure a representative candidate for that kind of analysis.

The different team member’s work lead to publications: Anna and Selma gave papers at the Chamisso Conference that took place in Paris in June 2011 and will have them published in the corresponding book. Selma’s paper analyzes the common literary work of Chamisso and Helmina in the 1810s; Anna’s paper deals with the Chamisso biography published by Hitzig after his friend’s death. Anna also constituted a corpus for our digital edition composed of 3 literary texts  that were kept together in Hitzig’s papers. One of them is a publisher’s copy of Peter Schlemihl, which she has been encoding lately and we hope to have online at the end of Summer.

At some point, I realized that we had to do with a corpus that was likely to enrich greatly our digital approach, our questions and our method on that level. In fact, the Chamisso papers could possibly allow to see  how letters can shed light on genesis and reception of literary works. At that point, we had to choose which letters to use and which tools to develop. The corpus we are working on now are the letters to Louis de La Foye (no wikipedia bio to this day, I promise to write it soon!), a childhood friend who, contrarily to Chamisso, returned and finally stayed in France. The letters extend to the 30 first years of the 19th century. They deal with politics, literature, natural sciences, French-Prussian intellectual relationships… We are editing this corpus together with a master’s class. My hope is that this corpus will allow us to develop our encoding on the level of linking together literary/scholarly works and letters.

In that project, we are working in close cooperation with the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin, the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-PK, the Deutsches Textarchiv, and René-Marc Pille, a French  Chamisso specialist, who will be visiting this week (his conference has been announced on the Chamisso-Forum). And with all these different light spots, Chamisso will certainly have to come into the light – and then we will see whether it is with a shadow or not.

Thanks to Michael Bienert for the pictures (and for his post on our edition)!

Thinking in categories

We are working on an improvement of the looks of our edition. The uncomfortable question of the corporate design came up again (how could it have been otherwise?), but I still don’t have a satisfying answer. What should we fill the visual memory of the user with: an image associated with the edition or an image associated with the research group?

A new item came up for which I dread just as much the implications of a clear cut: the corpora. For the time being, our “Letters and texts” contain eight of them: Franzosen in Berlin, Freitagsgesellschaft, Boeckhiana, Tieckiana, Chamisso-Briefe, Vorlesungsmitschriften, Romantische Schlüsseltexte. It mainly came to that by combining the corpora we could realistically hope to get edited until the end of the project on the one hand, and the repartition of the expertise of the editorial team on the other hand. I am responsible for 3 corpora, share one with Johanna; Anna is responsible for one corpus and shares one with Sabine; Sabine – well, obviously, shares one with Anna and has a whole other one for herself.

But it is not a very satisfactory structure. Some corpora are named after people, some after the literary genre they contain, some after a theme they deal with. By looking into it more closely, I had to admit those categories reflect mostly the process of the constitution of the edition. First, there were the letters I had been working on for 10-15 years and the letters I had discovered in the last five years. Then there were the things I had discovered in Chicago in 2007/2008 – mainly lecture notes that reactivated my passion for classical philology. Sabine has the material she wants to base her dissertation on; Anna has material she actually based her dissertation on. And then the categories also witness the literary turn we took a year or so ago. At some point, I got scared that letters would take us too far away from the philological approach of texts (we are not historians!). The encoding and the web interface that were initially developped for letters were extended to different kinds of texts. And are still going to evolve as the work on the lecture notes should become more important in a year or so.

Should we keep these categories or change them? Should we have clearer categories (letters, texts, lecture notes would be an option for instance)?

These questions have to do with the way we want to confront the canon. It is easier to hide behind Tieck, Chamisso and Boeckh than to define oneself through an unknown Prussian Ambassador or through some literary society nobody ever heard of (or if it is the case, then it is in reference to another one that carried the same name…). Should the image we brand ourselves with be the persons or should it be the networks? How do you make the networks visible? How can it be made structurally clear that it does not matter in which categories the corpora are distributed, since they are all connected together and the whole point is to retrace, for instance, how Rousseau’s Nouvelle Heloise appears in the first letters in the 1760s and is still present in the last letters in 1848, but changed in the way it is referred to…

So it all comes down to the networks – again. I knew the networks were a tricky concept and that is why I left them out of my project title. In fact, I still do not know how it is possible to assert oneself as a good philologist while operating with networks. Only three more years to find out…