Messenger with a sealed letter

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The Ghost-Seer.
Der Geisterseher: Aus den Papieren des Grafen von O** und andere Erzählungen
by Friedrich Schiller.
Translation, introduction and notes by Andrew Brown. (2003)
Alma Classics 2018 (1789)

“I am like a messenger who is carrying a sealed letter to the place of its destination. What it contains might well be matter of indifference to the messenger — he is simply out to earn payment for delivery.”

Book Two

Venice, La Serenissima, is the setting for this curious novel by the poet Schiller, but in this work its serene surface conceals a cauldron seething with plots and intrigues, secrets and lies, subterfuge and mysteries. The protagonist is a German prinz who has no prospect of advancing to secular power and so is enjoying a sojourn on the Adriatic, away from his Baltic homeland with its chill climate and cold Protestant theology.

He is accompanied by a Count, the Graf von O***,  who narrates the first half of the story, and then Baron von F***, who a year later writes letters to the now absent Count to appraise him of how matters stand with the Prince. The pair attempt to advise and support the lord as the sojourn proves to be anything but convivial and relaxed.

Beginning during the Venetian carnival the trajectory followed by the initially incognito Prince over a year or so proceeds in unexpected ways, only to be resolved abruptly when, as commenters suggest, the author grew bored with this particular narrative. It’s those unexpected twists and turns that ultimately sustain our interest in Schiller’s novel until the final denouement leaves us with quite a few unanswered questions.

Friedrich Schiller (1791) by Anton Graff

Published in instalments in Schiller’s own periodical Thalia, this novel (the subtitle sometimes given in English as ‘The Apparitionist’) initially concerns apparently supernatural goings-on. As part of the Prince’s entourage the Count, who had served in the army with the Prince, is present when a mysterious masked ‘Armenian’ demonstrates clairvoyance: the stranger reports the death of the Prince’s cousin back in Germany, which is only officially confirmed much later. Matters are then compounded by the Germans having to witness a summary judicial murder; and then another stranger, a Sicilian who claims to be a magician, offers to call up ghosts for the Germans as proof that such entities exist.

Here then is full-blown Gothick writing, with Venice as an international hotbed of conspiracies, heretical thoughts and the constant threat of violence. When the Prince and his companions attend the Sicilian’s séance visions indeed result following the rituals, but there is a sudden interruption from the Armenian, followed by another from the authorities who promptly arrest the Sicilian. The Prince, now in full rationalist mode, proceeds to explain how he thinks the imposter magician managed his apparitions and how the Prince’s party have been hoaxed to believe in other ‘supernatural’ occurrences. Sherlock Holmes himself could not have been a more thorough sleuth; and yet we the readers are left with thinking the hoax far too elaborate for its own credibility and that ghostly occurrences would have been a more satisfying explanation.

Unfortunately the Prince still believes that the existence of the supernatural is a possibility, and that a true magician “who has higher powers at his beck and call will not need any deception, or will hold it in contempt.” Thus in Book Two, set a year later, we discover that the Prince has been tempted away from his Protestant beliefs towards investigating occultism tinged with Catholic mysticism: he

‘had entered this labyrinth as an enthusiast with a deep faith, and he left it a sceptic and, eventually, as an out-and-out freethinker.’

Book Two

The second half of the novel takes us in a very different direction. The Prince gets involved with a secret society, the Bucentauro (named after the ceremonial Venetian vessel) and starts to become unmoored from reasoned thought. The Count’s narrative is replaced by the Baron’s, and new acquaintances enter the picture, among them the Marchese di Civitella whose life the Prince saves. In pursuing ‘metaphysical daydreams’ the Prince wonders whether he ought to gain happiness in whatever way he can:

“When everything ahead of me and behind me sinks to nothing and the past lies behind me in dreary monotony like a kingdom turned to stone; when the future has nothing to offer me and when I see the entire circle of my existence enclosed in the narrow confines of the present — who then can blame me if I take this meagre gift of time, the present moment, ardently and insatiably into my arms, like a friend I am seeing for the last time?”

“My lord, you must still surely believe in a more permanent good—“

The Prince’s ennui has led him to seek a somewhat lukewarm hedonism, but his funds are running out: robbed of his anonymity by the notoriety of the séance he borrows money to entertain lavishly and then to gamble recklessly. And now he has a new focus, a mysterious beauty he observes in the Church of Il Redentore on Giudecca and who has induced in him — in anticipation of a form of Stendhal syndrome — an ‘excitable state of mind’: infatuated by his vision of the woman he must found out as much about her as he can.

Book One seemed to indicate that there was a conspiracy to somehow set up the Prince with the fake séance and other supernatural incidents, perhaps with the intention of gaining political leverage through him back in his home state. When in Book Two he is seen to show interest in occultism we are tempted to see his encounter with the mystery woman in the church as another set-up — but for what purpose? Will we ever know? Did Schiller himself ever decide? For the end is sudden and shocking: we fear that the initial meeting in the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer may not eventually end in any kind of redemption.

I don’t know if Schiller ever visited the city but he may have heard much about it from his friend Goethe who’d returned from a two-year Grand Tour in 1788. As with Venice itself and its association with masks, with cloak and dagger and with smoke and mirrors The Ghost-Seer dissembles to deceive. It plays with the conflict between Protestant piety and Catholic mysticism and with all the attendant political overtones; it indicates the dangers an entitled but weak-willed individual can get themselves into unwittingly; and it reveals how Venice is forever a city of dreams for the creative mind.

As a Gothick novel The Ghost-Seer is frustrating in its episodic and convoluted nature, however atmospheric it undeniably is. Here’s what I take from it, however. In Schiller’s Prince, as described by those who pay court to him, I see a representative of the idle rich. Unlike ordinary individuals he gained privilege from his princely status and his assumed wealth; he was able to claim credit from friends and usurers on the basis of promissory notes, leaving him free to indulge himself in entertaining, gambling and other dilettante pursuits. It’s possible Schiller’s republican sympathies led him to see such entitled but ultimately vacuous men as a drain on society and good governance if, like the Prince, they saw themselves as merely bearers of sealed letters, there for the reward of self-indulgence and not for the message the letters contained.

Andrew Brown’s translation and introduction try to render Schiller’s philosophical fiction in a comprehensible form, but I get the impression that the original German text isn’t always easy to convey unambiguously. He does however get to the nub of what what the reader can draw from the narrative: ‘Repeatedly, Schiller’s story shows how something apparently real turns out to be “just” an image — a picture, copy or counterfeit; and yet he sets his story in a country, and a city, which contains some of the most powerful images ever made.’ In such images, Brown suggests, we may effectually be granted intimations of another dimension.


Read for Readers Imbibing Peril, #RIPXVI and for the European Reading Challenge 2021

8 thoughts on “Messenger with a sealed letter

    1. And thank you in return! I have to admit I didn’t find it an easy read, I even paused for a few weeks after Book One, but I’m glad I got through it with insights and, yes, some enjoyment!

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  1. Glad you were able to take away something from this despite how convoluted it was; somehow reading about the Prince’s experience with the supernatural, I was reminded of Arthur Conan Doyle’s dabblings with the occult in his later life. Something I meant to read about more but of course, haven’t yet done

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    1. Yes, Conan Doyle supported the infamous Cottingley Fairies photographs, didn’t he, and I think he was also a Spiritualist, at least in later life.

      Meanwhile, Schiller’s story of the Prince takes more shape the more distance I take from it: he dabbles in the occult as if to convince himself there’s nothing in it while emotionally wanting to believe; and his infatuation with the unknown woman (is she Greek? Certainly not Italian. English? German?) allows him to be manipulated in a way that discredits him, in terms of both status and personal finance.

      It’s hard not to feel sorry for him: I know I looked at New Age stuff in the late 60s as a sceptic but hoped there might be a grain of truth in some of it (there never was), so I can understand the Prince — who sounds to have been around Schiller’s own age, the mid to late twenties — getting absorbed in it all. Oh, and the infatuation too… 😁

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    1. I was bemused by the first half and tried to take stock, but without much success; I thought the second half would elucidate matters but it didn’t, making me even more bemused. Still, I’m glad I gave it the time of day, even if I spread it out over a few months! Patience, me?! Possibly, but more likely irritation made me finish it.

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        1. This title was as convoluted as, say, Frankenstein and took as much effort to read but even if considerably less celebrated than Shelley’s work it delivered a similar reward, so I’m glad I persisted.

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