for my novel class
Jean Paul Richter’s Maria Wuz: Inversions of Time, Nooks, Exceptions to the Rule, Interpolations and a Room for Man Cut out of, or Built into, the Universe
Proceeding according to no a priori principle, but seeking rather to treat of Jean Paul’s “Life of Maria Wuz, Merry Dominie of Auenthal” without wronging its delightfully angled discourse and graceful disarray with too heavy handed a scheme, I will propose several of what I take to be themes of the novella, hoping thus to shed some light on the eccentricity of our Wuz, of whom we might say what Dostoevsky said of another hero of the novel: “it sometimes happens that it is precisely he [the eccentric], perhaps, who bears within himself the heart of the whole, while the other people of his epoch have all for some reason been torn away from it for a time by some kind of flooding wind.”
Inversions of Time
“The mild heaven of a Martinmas summer spread over thy life no clouds, but a gentle haze. Thy climacterics were the tremors; and thy death the decline of a lily.” Martinmas summer (our Indian summer) is a season out of season that intensifies the experience of its summer (present and recollected) because it is full of the anticipation of its winter. It also refers to a liturgical calender interpolated into the course of life, giving alternate viewpoints and angles on human existence from the perspective of ultimate realities. And “no souls of this century have so grand an idea of Sunday as those that dwell in school-masters and organists.” Thus, whether imagining the prospect of his warm bed in a rainstorm, recollecting one day of his childhood in each evening of his old age, luxuriating in the passing days and minutes before his wedding, or going to sleep in happy anticipation of the coming morning’s pages of Robinson Crusoe, Wuz finds a way to transpose in an hour the logic of the six-day week.
Jean Paul invites us come close to the fire to hear his story, draw the curtains, nestle in an old arm chair, “put on your slippers,” and “never fear if you lean upon me now and again – it will not put me out.” He draws us into a quiet and intimate nook, a place in which one is at home, unguarded, and peculiarly open to the marvelous, the imaginary; in which we sense the world become wider, deeper, pregnant with possibility. Wuz has an affinity for these very sorts of spaces; he is a great lover of his bed “in which he cuddled himself up with his knees touching his chin”; he builds a nest for himself and his sister in a hay-stack; and he recollects with quiet delight his childhood home, the “narrow room, cut out of, or built into, the infinite vault of the universe.” The novella is also continually reminding us of each man’s final nook in the cosmos – the grave, and yet Wuz’s is “a play-ground for burrowing worms, crawling snails, teeming ants, and gnawing caterpillars . . . happy thou art, that I can still say of thee!”
Exceptions to the Rule
As a schoolboy, we are told, Wuz could rattle off “the list of exceptions beginning thorax caudex pulexque – it was only the rule he did not know.” The presence of the rule, whether school formulae, daily routine, or the progress and decline of man in seven stages, represents a schematization of life that must be confronted, somehow opposed or transformed. In the age of encyclopedias and Kants, the knowledge of even the most distant and exotic lands are circumscribed by “the solitary confinement” of the knowers “in their petrified pineal glands.” Wuz’s life continually springs up from the crannies where the rule seems irrelevant. At other times, whether when writing his library, making paper potentates, or performing geometry on his gingerbread, he misapplies or amplifies the rule to the point of absurdity, giving it all the idiosyncrasy of his character. On a deeper level, he reveals the need, in a constricted world for a place for “all those emotions that require a good deal of space – self-sacrifice, courage, and also love. Verily, in the stifling closeness of counting houses and public offices, our hearts lie on so many drying-floors and malt-kilns and shrivel up.”
Wuz takes an after-dinner opportunity to lecture his father by reading him a personalized version of Kober’s “Family Preacher,” bringing its text into the world of life “as if Herr Kober were addressing his father.” He uses the same technique on “a sleepy congregation” to salubrious effect. We sense here the desire to bring the written word into its living context, into dialogue, community, to undermine the false dichotomy of Lebenswelt and letter – a dichotomy which threatens us with sermons deadly dull, or, on the other hand, an unchallenged tyranny of written ideas. Along a intersecting, if not parallel line, Jean Paul writes our story as though extrapolated from Wuz’s interpolations of his life into his imposing library of “instant classics”; he works its unmistakable texture into the corners and margins of all conemporary works, and “The Critique of Pure Reason,” the intentionally obscure hexameters of “Messiah”, “The Sorrows of Werther” and his “Joys” all contain a healthy dose of Maria Wuz.
Room for Man
Wuz exhibits the buoyancy of spirit to somehow preserve his liberty of mind and generosity of heart within the crannied limitations of time, place, and condition. In this novella, Jean Paul suggests that the integrating and vital imagination by which the child conceives his sense of being at home can persist, as it does for Wuz, and continue to find such nooks and crannies within the circumscription of the modern mind, nooks where love and death may enter the fabric of one’s dreams and infuse every aspect of one’s life. “Verily, thou, dear Wuz, mayest write the Joys of Werther, for thy outer and inner world are always soldered together like two halves of a shell, and enclose thee as their oyster.”