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Shame, on the Language of Robert Walser

Author(s): Jan Plug

Source: MLN , Apr., 2005, Vol. 120, No. 3, German Issue (Apr., 2005), pp. 654-684
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

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Shame, On the Language
of Robert Walser

Jan Plug

Walsern ist das Wie der Arbeit so wenig Nebensache, daB ihm
alles, was er zu sagen hat, gegen die Bedeutung des Schreibens
v6llig zurucktritt. Man mochte sagen, daB es beim Schreiben
draufgeht. Das will erklirt sein. Und dabei st6Bt man auf
etwas sehr Schweizerisches an diesem Dichter: die Scham.
Von Arnold B6cklin, seinem Sohn Carlo und Gottfried Keller
erzahlt man diese Geschichte: Sie saBen eines Tages wie de
oftern im Wirtshaus. Ihr Stammtisch war durch die wortkarg
verschlossene Art seiner Zechgenossen seit langem beruhm
Auch diesmal saB die Gesellschaft schweigend beisamen. D
bemerkte, nach Ablauf einer langen Zeit, derjunge B6cklin
"HeiB ist's," und nachdem eine Viertelstunde vergangen war
der altere: "Und windstill." Keller seinerseits wartete eine
Weile; dann erhob er sich mit den Worten: "Unter Schwatzern
will ich nicht trinken."'

As clearly humorous as it is, it is not immediately evident that there is

anything necessarily shameful to be found in Benjamin's anecdote,
which has become the unavoidable point of departure for any con-

This paper was written during an idyllic year spent as an Alexander von Humboldt
Research Fellow at the Institut fur Allgemeine und Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft
at the Johnann Wolfgang Goethe-Universitat. I would like to express my most sincere
gratitude to the Humboldt Foundation for its generous support and to my colleagues
and friends in Frankfurt for intellectual stimulation that was only exceeded by their
hospitality. Gabriela Meyer, Andreas Gelhard, and Edgar Pankow all made me feel
more than welcome in my new home. With Thomas Schestag I hope to have opened an
infinite conversation. My host in Frankfurt, Werner Hamacher, I thank for his many
kindnesses and for his critical example.
Walter Benjamin, "Robert Walser," Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 2.1, ed. Rolf Tiedemann
and Hermann Schweppenhauser (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991) 325-26.

MLN120 (2005): 654-684 ? 2005 by The Johns Hopkins University Press

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M L N 655

sideration of Walser's language. If there is shame here, however, it

would appear to be that of someone breaking with custom and
disturbing the stillness of the air by daring to utter a word. Keller puts
his friends back in their place, returning them to silence, but he doe
so, of course, only to repeat their transgression and thus judge
himself even as he pronounces judgment upon them. For he has to
break the silence in order to call for it. In fact, according to the logi
of this anecdote, not to mention simple arithmetic, Keller himself is
the worst offender, the biggest Schwdtzer. It is no accident that his
sentence is twice as long as those of his friends, for he does not simply
talk, but talks about simply talking. The shame Benjamin writes of
here, then, is not simply that of idle talk in any conventional sense
Talk becomes Schwdtzen, Schweizer Schwdtzer, language shameful, no
only in its idleness, but even more in its inability to talk about that
idleness without repeating and regenerating it.2
To read this language, then, can no longer be understood in the
conventional terms of sifting through what a text has to say. On the
contrary, reading relinquishes any such hermeneutic claims and
registers their very impossibility. For what characterizes Walser's
language as Benjamin understands it is thus the withdrawal of what
he has to say. It is not simply the case that content ("everything he has
to say") is usurped by the formalism of a refined style ("the how of the
work"), as those critics suggest who stress the nothingness of Walser's
content and thus understand at once nothing and everything about
him.3 And though there is, to be sure, a certain duplicity in this

2 A fuller treatment of this phenomenon would have to take into consideration the
treatment of language and silence in Sein und Zeit, where Heidegger writes, for
example, "Nur im echten Reden ist eigentliches Schweigen moglich. Um schweigen zu
k6nnen, muB das Dasein etwas zu sagen haben, das heiBt uber eine eigentliche und
reiche Erschlossenheit seiner selbst verfiigen" (Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 18th
ed. [Tiibingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2001] 165).
3 Benjamin, "Walser" 324-25. Almost every commentary follows Benjamin's lead in
emphasizing this withdrawal, although this often leads to a mere negation of the claims
of meaning that runs counter to what Benjamin formulates here. Agamben and Sebald
offer exemplary considerations of Walser's meaning; see Giorgio Agamben, "Languag
and History: Linguistic and Historical Categories in Benjamin's Thought," Potentialities:
Collected Essays in Philosophy, trans. and ed. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford
UP, 1999); and W. G. Sebald, Logis in einem Landhaus: Uber Gottfried Keller Johann Peter
Hebel, Robert Walser und andere (Munich: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2000). Agamben's
elliptical references to Walser are especially provocative. For example, he quote
Walser precisely about what language says: "In a letter to Max Rychner, Walser speak
of this 'fascination of not uttering something absolutely.' 'Figure'-that is, precisely the
term that expresses in Saint Paul's epistles what passes away in the face of the natur
that does not die-is the name Walser gives to the life that is born in this gap" (60)

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writing, it is not that of bad faith or double talk. For if we at least

provisionally take this sentence at its word as saying what it means,
then it resists any such conception of language insofar as it asserts
that in Walser what language says is not what it means. This meaning is
only reinforced by the fact that Benjamin's sentence is little more
than a paraphrase of Walser:
Ich schreibe iuber alles gleich gern. Mich reizt nicht das Suchen eines
bestimmten Stoffes, sondern das Aussuchen feiner, sch6ner Worte. Ich
kann aus einer Idee zehn, ja hundert Ideen bilden, aber mir fallt keine
Grundidee ein. Was weiB ich, ich schreibe, weil ich es hiibsche finde, so die
Zeilen mit zierlichen Buchstaben auszufullen. Das "Was" ist mir vollstandig

Clearly, then, what Walser writes is of little consequence, except of

course when he writes that what he writes is of little consequence. In
this instance, the "what" that says that what is said is inconsequential
must be taken at its word as of the utmost importance. To say that
everything that is said withdraws and to mean this must mean that this
cannot be what language means. This also implies, however, that
language does indeed have a meaning (and is not simply a "how," all
style, schone Worte), one that it simply does not and cannot say, and
that this meaning takes place in and as the retreat of everything that
is said. If Benjamin's language is not merely communicating a
meaning, that is, if it does not do something other than what he says
language does, then it essentially reiterates the meaning of Walser's
own: language does not (or does not always) mean that it does not say
what it means; in other words, language means, here at least, precisely
what it says although in order to mean this it cannot say so. It should

Walser actually writes something somewhat different to Rychner, however: "Weshalb

steigen aus Shakespeare-Stucken Frauengestalten so eminent-, so leuchtend-lebendig,
lebenswarm herauf? Weil er's versteht, d. h. verstanden hat, oder weil es ihm hinriB,
Manches gar nicht auszusprechen. Aus den Unausgesprochenheiten entwickelt sich
das Gestaltliche" (Robert Walser, Briefe. Das Gesamtwerk, Vol. 12.2, ed. Jochen Greven
[Geneva: Verlag Helmut Kossodo, 1975] 267).
It is not, then, a matter of refusing to say something absolutely so much as it is of
refusing to say something at all, a still more radical calling into question of the limits of
language's ability to say (something) even in the figure of figures. The point here is not
to find fault with Agamben, whose references to Walser, along with Benjamin's essay,
constitute perhaps the most insightful reading of his work, even when, as here,
Agamben ultimately reads Walser rigorously by not reading him.
4 Robert Walser, Fritz Kochers Aufsdtze, ed. Jochen Greven (Frankfurt am Main:
Suhrkamp, 1986) 24.

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come as no surprise, then, that one of the more ha

doubt inadvertent) effects of Benjamin's paraphras
been that of leading many critics to dispense with any
of "what" Walser says. Critics have done this even t
that they are in fact following precisely "what" both h
say, and even though Schneewittchen, the work Benjam
an exemplary in literary modernity, later exposes t
uncritical assent to foregoing a reading of that "wh
Faced with a language that apparently does not wan
wants to say, one can no doubt understand the fee
shame but also of a certain anxiety.
Die baurische Sprachscham, die hier von einem exzent
getroffen wird, ist Walsers Sache. Kaum hat er di
genommen, bemachtigt sich seiner eine Desperadostimm
ihm verloren, ein Wortschwall bricht aus, in dem jeder Satz nur die
Aufgabe hat, den vorigen vergessen zu machen.6

If Walser gives in to a certain desperation, if language "breaks out"

here, it does so as the fulfillment of its own task (Aufgabe), a task that
for Benjamin, of course, is never far from that of translation, not only

5Perhaps the most common way in which criticism of Schneewittchen avoids "what" the
play "says" is by resolving its difficulties into the question of meta-fiction or interpreting
the meta-fictional as a relatively unproblematized statement of the tenuousness of
reality. While this is of course one of the crucial features of the dramolette, reading it
in these terms has tended to mean foregoing a thorough reading precisely of how the
meta-fictional allows for a fundamental questioning of consciousness, subjectivity,
survival, madness, sense, forgiveness, and judgment, to name just some of the motifs I
try to raise here. Rather than keep a running count of the points at which my reading
coincides with or differs from these, I will merely refer with this general indication to
the nonetheless fine readings by Hubner, "'Das Marchen ja sagt . . .'-Marchen und
Trivialliteratur im Werk von Robert Walser," Robert Walser und die moderne Poetik, ed.
Dieter Borchmeyer (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1999) 167-86; John Pizer, "The
Disenchantment of Snow White: Robert Walser, Donald Barthelme and the Modern/
Postmodern Anti-Fairy Tale," Canadian Review of Comparative Literature/Revue Canadienne
de Literature Comparee 17.3-4 (September-December 1990): 330-45; and Urs Herzog,
"'goldene, ideale Liigen.' Zum Schneewittchen-Dramolett," Uber Robert Walser 2, ed.
Katharina Kerr (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1978) 239-54.
Of the many Walser critics who cite Benjamin's essay, Siegel is one of the few to
undertake an actual reading of it. She comes to a conclusion similar to mine here,
though through a quite different reading strategy, writing, "Wenn der Inhalt zurucktritt,
ja draufgeht, und die Bedeutung des Schreibens hervortritt, dann ist diese Bedeutung
nicht als inhaltliche Bedeutung zu vergessen, sondern als Entdeutung, die im Vergessen
noch geschieht" (Elke Siegel, Auftrige aus dem Bleistiftgebiet: Zur Dichtung Robert Walsers
[Wfirzburg: Konigshausen und Neumann, 2001] 19).
6 Benjamin, "Walser" 326.

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between languages but even into and of language as such. Language

can be said to take place, even to come to itself, not in triumphant
self-affirmation but rather as its own negation: each of Walser's
sentences exists only to make the previous forgotten. Yet language
can enact this forgetting only at the cost of repeating the "original"
shame of language, a shame that will forever call for more language.
Language will only ever be able to assume the task of forgetting and
of recuperating shame by perpetuating it, by at the same time giving
up (aufgeben) that task, signaling and reenacting the shame-that there
is language.
Thus, even a "first" reading of Walser is already the reading of that
which will have been forgotten in advance and of the repression of
language enacted in its shame. If Walser's language has always already
caused its own forgetting, it will also always signal that forgetting,
though not by saying or signifying it. The very fact of language will
always function as the memory-that something has been forgotten. Each
instance of language enacts the forgetting of a previous one only to
recall it by the very fact of its existence and thus functions as the
memory of a forgotten language at the same time that it says that
language into forgetting. It is in fact only through such self-negation
that Walser's language can be said to achieve what Benjamin else-
where says language as such strives toward and what the name
achieves: not saying something but saying only itself, language.7 It can
say itself precisely to the extent that it does not say it, but rather
enacts the forgetting of what was just said.8 Walser's language thus
offers the possibility of its own redemption from forgetting, even the
possibility of the redemption offorgetting. Not by returning language

7 Benjamin, "Uber die Sprache uberhaupt und uber die Sprache des Menschen,"
Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 2.1, 144. There has perhaps been no aspect of Benjamin's
work that has received more critical attention than his thinking on language. See for
instance, Carol Jacobs, In the Language of Walter Benjamin (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
UP, 1999); Werner Hamacher, "The word Wolke-if it is one," Benjamin's Ground: New
Readings of Walter Benjamin, ed. Rainer NSgele (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1988) 147-76;
Gasche, "Saturnine Vision and the Question of Difference: Reflections on Walter
Benjamin's Theory of Language," Benjamin's Ground, 83-104; Winfried Menninghaus,
Schwellenkunde. Walter Benjamins Passage des Mythos (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp,
1986); and Agamben, "Language and History."
8 It is thus that Walser's language can bypass the presuppositional structure of
language as Heller-Roazen describes it: "Only because they always presuppose the fact
that there is language are statements necessarily incapable of saying the event of
language, of naming the word's power to name; only because language, as a discourse,
always presupposes itself as having taken place can language not say itself' (Daniel
Heller-Roazen, "Introduction"; Giorgio Agamben Potentialities 4).

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and forgetting to the fullness and presence of meaning, memory,

consciousness, nor by trying to signify itself as language, but by
marking its passing in the fact of its existence, insofar as it "is" an
says nothing more than (the memory of) language.
Language here assumes a dialectical structure in which it preserv
itself in memory precisely by negating itself in forgetting. But th
dialectic will never allow for complete resolution in consciousness
in absolute spirit; it culminates in the emergence of figures that
function, on the contrary, as signs of the undoing of these, as signs of
a certain madness.

[Walsers Figuren] kommen aus der Nacht, wo sie am schwarzesten ist,

einer venezianischen, wenn man will, von dirftigen Lampions der Hoffnung
erhellten, mit etwas Festglanz im Auge, aber verst6rt und zum Weinen
traurig. Was sie weinen, ist Prosa. Denn das Schluchzen ist die Melodie von
Walsers Geschwatzigkeit. Es verrat uns, woher seine Lieben kommen. Au
dem Wahnsinn nimlich und nirgendher sonst. Es sind Figuren, die den
Wahnsinn hinter sich haben und darum von einer so zerreiBenden, so
ganz unmenschlichen, unbeirrbarren Oberflachlichkeit bleiben. Will man
das Begliickende und Unheimliche, das an ihnen ist, mit einem Worte
nennen, so darf man sagen: sie sind alle geheilt. Den ProzeB dieser Heilung
erfahren wir freilich nie, es sei denn, wir wagen uns an sein "Schneewitt-
chen"-eines der tiefsinnigsten Gebilde der neueren Dichtung-, das
allein hinreichen wiirde, verstandlich zu machen, warum dieser scheinbar
verspielteste aller Dichter ein Lieblingsautor des unerbittlichen Franz
Kafka gewesen ist.9

If we cannot have access to the source of Walser's figures or to the

process of healing, it is not least because shedding the light of day
upon the night or articulating madness would in effect invert them
into their opposites. Walser's figures, however, allow for a glimpse of
the night as such, night where it is at its very darkest, in all of its
impenetrability and inaccessibility to light and to language as
signification. With the gesture of circumscribing the limits of any
knowledge of the process of Heilung (healing, saving, and thus a
certain redemption) Benjamin in effect affirms criticism's knowl-
edge, not so much of healing as of those very limits. He might not be
able to see beyond or even into a certain spot that is even more
obscure than the "cloudy spot" he identifies in Kafka,10 but he knows
that there is night.

9 Benjamin, "Walser" 326-27.

10 See Hamacher, "The word Wolke."

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In fact, the night, madness, the process of healing, can be gestured

toward only to the extent that Walser's figures are precisely that:
figures. Characterized by a supreme and unforgiving "superficiality"
that denies them all interiority, anything that would allow them to
come to themselves, they and their language can only ever stand as
the figures of themselves. As such, these are the figures of healing in
all senses of the genitive, the figural embodiment of a language
denied the fullness of meaning, but even as such redeemed from the
night and from madness, the madness, Benjamin will go on to say, of
myth: "Diesen kindlichen Adel teilen die Menschen Walsers mit den
Marchenfiguren, dieja auch der Nacht und dem Wahnsinn, dem des
Mythos namlich, enttauchen."1l To be sure, it is not difficult to
conceive of the fairy tale, as Benjamin does both here and in his essay
on Kafka, as a portrayal of the victory over the forces of myth.'2 For if
Snow White, for example, falls prey to the queen, dies for the sin of
her beauty, so too does she ultimately prevail, returning from the
dead, returning as the literalization of a trauma victim who has
survived her own death. In fact more than once the fairy tale's victory
will be circumscribed in precisely the terms of such a narrative of
survival, in Benjamin's words like those of Derrida, of living on.
Yet from the very first words of Walser's most probing, though also
his most threatening, exploration of this narrative, the victory the
fairy tale represents will trouble any model of redemption conceived
as the movement from sickness to health, from death to life, from loss
to its recovery.

Sag', bist du krank?

Ob ich nun krank sei, fragt Ihr mich?

Spott steht so mildem Munde schlecht.
Ja, Mildheit wird zum argen Spott,
wenn sie ohn' Scheu so grausam krankt.
Ich bin nicht krank; ich bin ja tot.
Der gift'ge Apfel tat so weh,

1 Benjamin, "Walser" 327.

12 On the role of myth in Benjamin's essay on Kafka, see Rodolphe Gasche, "Kafka's
Law: In the Field of Forces BetweenJudaism and Hellenism," MLN 117.5 (2002): 971-
1002; for a broader consideration of myth in Benjamin's work, Menninghaus,

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o, o, so weh, und, Mutter, Ihr,

Ihr seid es, die ihn mir gebracht.
Nun, ob ich krank sei, spottet ihr?
Hold Kind, du irrst dich. Du bist krank,
ja ernstlich, wirklich ernstlich krank.13

From the beginning, it is as difficult to say whether or not this is

indeed a survival narrative as it is, in effect, for Show White to say "I."
And yet everything, including Snow White's very survival-whether or
not she has survived, whether or not she will survive-depends upon
nothing less. As an "I" that speaks not only of its own death but of the
pain it occasioned, Snow White offers the promise of representing (to
herself) the totality of life and the knowledge of this totality and of
the articulation of the most rigorous, perhaps the only, discourse
possible on (the) pain of death: capital punishment. Yet to the extent
that she mourns her own death, she re-inscribes that death in life, in
effect exploding that totality and the possibility of knowledge that
would finally answer the question of life. For by definition Snow
White's self-mourning at once pronounces her death and places it in
question. As the figure of all the judges and executioners of capital
punishment, the queen exploits the indeterminacy and undecidability
of Snow White's position, at once denying her death and confirming
the precarious status of her subjectivity. Even if Snow White is
mistaken and is not dead but merely seriously, really seriously ill, the
queen has always already condemned her to a certain death. She
need not give Snow White a lethal injection-hidden in an apple, for
example-since she makes her dead to herself by denying her all self-
knowledge, even the knowledge of whether she is dead or alive, the
fundamental knowledge that would allow her to constitute herself as
a subject in the first place.
For herself the queen claims not to have stepped out of the night of
madness but rather absolute knowledge, even that of such madness.
Glaub' rechtem und nicht linkem Ohr,
ich meine falschem, das dir sagt,
das ich die b6se Mutter sei,
neidisch auf Sch6nheit. Ach, glaub' doch
solch aberwitzigem Marchen nicht,

13Walser, "Schneewittchen," Komodie, ed. Jochen Greven (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp,

1986) 74-115, 74-75. All subsequent references will be cited in the text by page
numbers from this edition.

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das in der Welt begierig Ohr

die Nachricht schiittet, ich sei toll
aus Eifersucht, b6s von Natur,
was alles ein Geschwitz nur ist.

Sch6nheit am eignen Kinde ist

Balsam ffir miide Mutterlust,
nicht Trieb zu so abscheul'cher Tat,
wie Marchen sie zugrunde legt
hier dieser Handlung, diesem Spiel.

No matter how much Walser's dramolette resembles a fairy tale,

indeed because of this resemblance, it repeatedly insists on this: one
would have to be mad to believe in fairy tales. When the queen tells
Snow White to lend them no credence, then, she of course says that
she herself does not believe them, even that she herself would have to
be mad to do so; in other words, she would have to be mad to believe
that she is mad, to believe the wrong ear-the left rather than the
right, the false rather than the true. Her proof of her sanity, but also
the truth of her story (that she did not have Show White killed), is
that she does not believe in her own madness. Conversely, believing
she is sane is itself the sure sign of her sanity. In both instances, the
queen can only ever be sane and tell the truth, for according to this
(psycho-)logic, one can never believe in one's own madness without
that belief itself being mad and thus inverting the madness that is its
object into its opposite.
From the beginning these are the choices with which Walser
presents us, choices seemingly as clear as that between good and evil
in traditional fairy tales: between madness and sanity; between self-
knowledge and its undoing; between life, no matter how marked by
illness, and death; ultimately, then, the choice between the Mdrchen
and another mode of discourse that goes unnamed in the play, what
one might provisionally wish to call truth, perhaps history. And from
the beginning it is just as clear that these choices will prove unten-
able. At any rate, the queen's figuring of Snow White as dead to
herself even in her (after-)life ensures that one will never be able to
distinguish life from death, as does Snow White's own claim to be at
once dead and alive. Similarly, the queen's mad formulation of a
sanity that can be neither affirmed nor denied and that as such
remains ideological through and through ensures that sanity will
always risk bearing the trace of its mad other, ensures that madness

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might not be quite what it appears and will at any rate remain
unknowable as such. In each case, the distinction is of course traced
by incompatible accounts of history and thus by language as either
the guarantee of that history and of the ability to distinguish and
choose between these accounts, or as the disfiguring of that history
and the indetermination of every attempt to make distinctions.
Snow White, however, will threaten to disrupt every such understand-
ing of language and the meaning it promises, every understanding of
language as either safeguarding or disfiguring truth and meaning, in
short, every sense of sense and of its distortion in nonsense.

Prinz (der zum Fenster hinaussieht):

Ach, was ich seh', ist hold und sfuB
dem bloBen Auge, das nur schaut.
Den Sinn ist's heilig, der das Bild
in seine feinen Netze nimmt.

Dem Geist, der das Vergangene weiB,

ist's haBlich wie die schlammige Flut
von trubem Wasser. Ach, 's ist ein
zwiefacher Anblick, sfuB und schlecht,
gedankenvoll und hold. Sieh doch
mit deinen Augen selbst es an.

Nein, sag', was siehst du? Sag' es nur.

Den Lippen dann entnehme ich
die feine Zeichnung solchen Bilds.
Wenn du es malst, so milderst du
gewiB mit weisem, klugem Sinn
des Anblicks Scharfe.


It is perhaps only to be expected that a double, perhaps even

duplicitous (zwiefach), image should throw the prince's mathematical
sense into a state of confusion. The ambiguity of what the Prince sees,
after all, lies in the fact that it is not simply sweet and bad (siii und
schlecht), full of thought and charming (gedankenvoll und hold) at the
same time, thus not only double as he maintains, but rather triple
(dreifach)-at least. The appositive repetition here already doubles
the doubling of the image. This redoubled multiplication of the
double is in turn triangulated by what ultimately necessitates a
rethinking of meaning. As the Prince himself puts it, what the eye that
merely looks sees as charming and sweet (1), sense (Sinn) sees as
sacred (heilig) (2), and this scene, mind or spirit (Geist), which should

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hardly be foreign to the sacred, sees as ugly (hafilich) to the extent

that it places it in a historical trajectory (3). While the prince here
clearly observes the passionate embraces of the queen and the
hunter, it is by no means certain what seeing means here, though it is
certain that such seeing will never again be simple (einfach). By asking
him to relate the scene, she opts for a specific point of view, not the
pure, immediate glance, nor the historicizing work of Geist, but the
sacred transformation that only Sinn makes possible precisely by
translating the image into that meaning offered by language. In other
words this is the translation of image into words, the translation of
one sense of sense, understood as sense or "faculty," into another
sense of sense, understood as meaning.
Yet translation across the threshold of meaning is perhaps not as
simple as looking through a window after all. For when Snow White
asks the prince to relate the image rather than looking directly at it
herself and thus chooses to have Sinn do its sacred work, she articulates
an understanding of language as mediation and the prince, in turn, as
the medium of that mediation and thus as the guarantor of meaning.
Yet if the prince's love for Snow White can transform itself into love for
the evil stepmother who tried to kill her, as indeed happens, then
perhaps neither this love nor the language of love the prince has pro-
claimed to speak can still say what it means or mean what it once said.

Sturm witet uber alles weg,

was Liebe hieB, noch heiBen m6cht',
doch nicht mehr heiBt. Geh alles fort.


Like a single image whose duplicity lies in the fact that it is always
more than double, a storm threatens to distort the very language and
meaning of love. Indeed the difficulty is not merely the most obvious
one of a trans-historical disturbance of what once was, could still be,
and yet no longer is called love ("was liebe hieB ... doch nicht mehr
heiBt"). If love can be placed into question, it is because of a more
fundamental, and fundamentally linguistic, disturbance at play in
every distinction between what love might mean ("was Liebe . ..
heiBen mocht"') and what might be called love ("was Liebe ... heiBen
m6cht'"). The appearance of an identity between language as nam-
ing (heifien) and meaning (heif3en) disguises a difference that alone
makes it possible for meaning to change, for love no longer to mean
what it once meant, and for the prince's love to wander from Snow
White to the queen. If language and meaning were identical, if hei3fen

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always meant heifien (meaning) rather than heifien (calling, naming),

then love would always mean love, and, one might speculate, princes
would no longer be unfaithful to their lovers. Infidelity here emerges
as a linguistic predicament opened up by the indistinction at the
heart of love, meaning, and calling.
Throughout the play this is the distinction Snow White seeks to
make whether she realizes it or not. It is the language of love that she
seeks to decipher in her attempt to understand how the prince can
love her one moment and the queen the next and when she
questions the hunter about his attempt to kill her. It is this same
language that she seeks to understand when, in the opening scenes,
she is confronted with the disparity between the queen's proclaimed
love for her and the (intended) murder that speaks of something
radically and violently different. Most of all, perhaps, it is what she
seeks to understand when she herself seems to turn on her word, to
negate everything she has said to this point, reconciling herself with
the queen.
For what can it mean when the queen's story changes dramatically
from the denial that she sought Snow White's death in the early
scenes to her confession to the contrary in the scene to come? What
can it mean that Snow White herself accuses and condemns the

queen precisely when she maintains her innocence but asks f

forgiveness once the prince turns his affections from Snow W
the queen? How, finally, are we to understand any of this, o
understand a text in which we can never know if its characte
what they mean, if what is called love means love, or indeed
means anything at all? How, in Snow White's own words, are
make sense of what would seem to be nonsense?


ein Schurke bin [ich],

der weg von dir zur andern lauft,
die seinen Sinn nun h6her reizt.

Ei, welcher Unsinn ist im Sinn.

Welch eine Meute Hunde reizt
dir so den Sinn, daB wie das Reh
erschrocken du dem Feinde fliehst,
der dich verfolgt.

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Clearly, the prince should be suspicious of such talk, though perhaps

not for the reason he himself could name. Snow White of course
upbraids him for having let his senses get the better of him, in a sense
for having lost his sense of direction by allowing himself to b
seduced by his image of the queen. What is more, though it is perhaps
difficult to locate, there is another sense of sense at work here as well.
For to maintain that Sinn is at least in part Unsinn does not reduce the
sense of sense, and certainly not merely to the sense of the sensua
Rather, Snow White herself goes on to show in a different but no less
profound sense, one that is at work in these very lines, that Unsinn is
the necessary condition for anything like Sinn in the first place. Pure
Sinn devoid of all Unsinn would make no sense. That is, without the
haunting of Unsinn, Sinn would be Unsinn. This is the case of Sinn as
"faculty": to be, or try to be, or want to be, or want to try to be
absolutely sane without a trace of Wahnsinn would itself be madness.
This is why the history of redemption from madness that Benjamin
sees traced by Snow White does not simply put madness in the past
but rather can never end. One must continue endlessly to free
oneself from madness and meaninglessness because doing so con-
tinually re-inscribes both in sanity and in the meaningful. And this
holds true for what amounts to a theory of language as well. A
language free of Unsinn-the non-meaningful, the meaningless, even
nonsense-that is, a language all meaning, would no longer be
language. Such a language would have to free itself of all materiality,
the merely stylistic, or the beautiful letters that so fascinate Walser's
Fritz Kocher for instance, and which as such have no meaning, just as
it would have to free itself of figure, which can never be reduced to
meaning without a remainder. This begins to explain what makes
Snow White's-and Snow White's-language so difficult to read and
make sense of. Whatever sense it might have cannot be read simply in
meaning, but in modes of language and madness that resist the very
movement toward that meaning.
To make sense of this language, to follow the history of Snow
White's madness, is thus to come to terms with the meaninglessness
that would seem to preside over what is perhaps Snow White's most
pointed, but also most perplexing, reformulation of the very terms of
guilt, reason, feeling, consciousness, judgment, and with them, the
possibility of forgiveness.

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Verlegene Entschuld'gung fleht

so bange um Verzeihung nicht,
wie ich Euch hier. VergeBt, verzeiht.
Seid meine gnadige Mutter doch.
LaBt Eurer Gute Kind mich sein,
das bang an Euren Leib sich schmiegt.
O sfile Hand, ich dacht' von dir,
du stelltest meinem Leben nach,
botst mir den Apfel: 's ist nicht wahr.
Sfind' ist so fein erfunden nur
von der Gedanken Vielerlei.

Das Denken ist die einz'ge Sfind',

die es hier gibt. O sprecht mich frei
vom Argwohn, der Euch so verletzt.
Ich will nur lieben, lieben Euch.
Wie? Schickt' ich dir den Jiger nicht?
Trieb ich mit Kiissen ihn nicht an,
zu tun die groBe, groBe Sfind'?
Bedenk, daB du nicht richtig denkst.
Ich fiihle nur!


Perhaps the strange "logic" and language of Sinn can only lead to such
apparent Unsinn. Perhaps the assertion of a radical and constitutive
madness and non-meaning at the very heart of sense and meaning
cannot but lead Snow White to refigure thinking itself and with it the
possibility of an ultimate reconciliation. One can hardly blame the
queen for being rather perplexed at this point. Snow White has
reversed course, asking for forgiveness where she once accused, feeling
where she once thought. What is more, her attempt to reconcile
herself with the queen flies in the face of not only her own memory
and experience of her death and its pains but, as the queen's
confession here would seem to make clear, of historical events.
It is not simply that Snow White has seen the mistake of her
previous suspicion, not that she throws off one now belied truth in
favor of another more certain truth. In fact, the ease with which she
accepts the queen's confession without it forcing her to reconsider
seeking forgiveness from her would seem to suggest that her apparent
change of heart was never really based on any given truth in the first

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place. This would suggest, moreover, that by seeking forgiveness Snow

White has herself already forgiven the queen of her crimes. That she
goes on to do just that, that the forgiveness she seeks is inverted in a
sense to become her forgiveness of the queen, not only bears this out
but means that forgiveness here refuses all grounding in any truth,
historical or other. Snow White's gesture is that of a forgiveness that
merits the name to the extent that it foregoes all good conscience-
either hers or the queen's-a forgiveness without condition.
The condemnation of thinking as sin, like the renunciation of
thinking in favor of feeling ("Ich fiihle nur"), is not a cliched proto-
Romantic turn from ratiocination, enlightenment, and so forth, to a
spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling. To be sure, thinking, when
understood as Sinn free of Unsinn, as Denken purified of feeling, as
good conscience (or bad, for that matter), can never live up to the
task of a forgiveness that neither seeks nor accepts justifications or
excuses, that bases itself neither in historical contextualization nor in
the promise of a future. In fact, Snow White "thinks" a relation to the
other that is even more radical than forgiveness precisely to the
extent that it takes acquitting the guilty or sinful literally as a
freisprechen that is not only a speaking-free and freely (frei-sprechen) but
the unconditional freeing of language.
Ich ffihle nur! Gefuhl denkt scharf.

Es weiB von dieser Sach' genau

die Punkte alle. Doch, verzeiht,
weit edler als Gedanken denkt
Gefuhl sich eine Sache aus.
Sein Urteil, allen Urteils bar,
urteilt viel scharfer, schlichter auch.
So mag ich von dem Denken nichts.
Es grfibelt nur so hin und her,
hochwicht'ger Mien' und Meinung voll,
sagt, dies ging so zu, und besteht
auf kleinlichem Verdammungsspruch.
Weg mit dem Richter, der nur denkt!
Ffihlt er nicht, denkt er winzig klein.
Sein Urteil hat das Magenweh,
ist blaB und macht den Klager toll,
spricht erst recht von der Sfinde frei
den Sunder, hebt die Klage auf
in einem Atem. Holt hierbei

mirjenen andern Richter, das

siile, nichtswissende Geffihl,

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MLN 669

h6rt, was es sagt. 0, es sagt nichts.

Es lachelt, kiiBt die Sfinde tot,
liebkost als seine Schwester sie,
erwfirgt sie kussend. Mein Gefiihl
spricht Euch von aller Sfinde frei,
liegt auf den flehnden Knien vor Euch
und bittet, nennt mich Sfinderin,
mich, die so bang Verzeihung fleht.

How is one to think a feeling that thinks more a

nobly than all thoughts, than any thinking? To r
doubt become a worn-out question: Was heif3t Denken
Snow White, at least, can condemn thinking and
opinions ofjudges who insist precisely upon condem
a position that refuses the conventional terms of
judgment. Rather than only thinking, and thus co
feels and thus can acquit the queen, speak her fr
(perhaps thereby) ask for forgiveness. Yet only fe
feeling, for feeling thinks, thinks more acutely t
from the call for a return of compassion to an ov
judgment that it might at first seem, the discours
to a thinking and judgment that would be worthy
the first time to the extent that they escape the
righteousness and injustice of condemnation. The
nothing (das nichtswissende Gefiihl) but is noneth
just precisely to the extent that it does not take refuge
this double bind.14 If judgment it is more effectiv
a radically performative sense, it is because it for
representation and removes the sin that it would jud
it dead (kiilt die Sinde tot). Literally speaking, th
another, a new version of capital punishment, not
rather for what is here called "sin," such that the
effect no longer (need to) be judged, for the ver
would no longer hold.

14 "[R] esponsibility is not a moment of security or of cognitiv

contrary: the only responsibility worthy of the name com
grounds, the withdrawal of the rules or the knowledge on which
our decisions for us. No grounds means no alibis, no elsewhere t
the instance of our decision" (Thomas Keenan, Fables of Respons
Predicaments in Ethics and Politics [Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997

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To listen to this (non-) judgment is to hear nothing, for it says just

that. Yet by foregoing language as articulation, Snow White's feeling,
she says, says what her saying cannot: it acquits the queen, frees her
linguistically, it literally speaks her free: "Mein Gefiihl / spricht euch
von aller Sunde frei." A performative in the most rigorous sense,
speech here is not only an act at the same time that it is language but
rather cancels or sublates itself as language to become pure act.
Language not only frees (someone or something): it frees itself of
itself. Once the feeling associated with forgiveness is conceived as a
Freisprechen that removes guilt without condition, once it no longer
responds to the demands of history, of consciousness, of thinking in
the reductive sense that Snow White rethinks, once it can no longer
correspond even to a given model of forgiveness,15 then judgment, as
that feeling that thinks, also demands a reciprocal act from the object
of this feeling, here the queen. The queen's inability to understand
and accept Snow White's judgment, therefore her inability to forgive
her, is registered in her repeated insistence upon her own guilt and
upon an accurate representation of the past-her repeated narrative
of sending the hunter to kill Snow White (92, 93, 94). This instability
is likewise registered in her insistence on an understanding of
language as either the bearer or distortion of truth when she accuses
Snow White of trying to deceive not only the queen but also herself by
telling fairy tales: "Du liigst dir selbst / ein Marchen vor.... / Nicht
wahr, du flehst zum Spotte nur / mich um Vergebung" (92-93).
No such language of suspicion and consciousness can ever respond
to a feeling and ajudgment grounded in a love without borders, that
is, in a love and in a forgiveness without grounds.

WuBt Liebe bessre Worte, sprach'

sie vielleicht weniger ungeschickt.
Daffir ist Liebe grenzenlos,
weiB nicht zu sprechen, da sie ganz
in Eurem Sinn versunken ist.

15 That I read Derrida's magnificent essay on forgiveness (Jacques Derrida, "On

Forgiveness," On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness [New York: Routledge, 2001]) only
after writing this piece is perhaps not utterly irrelevant, not so much because this would
allow me some feeble claim to originality, nor because it would claim that Walser was
thinking forgiveness "deconstructively," as it were, before Derrida, but rather because it
allows us to consider the possibility of the asymmetry, the incommensurability, the non-
correspondence, of forgiveness as such. This asymmetry can equally be found not only
between the context and style of Derrida's treatment and my own, no doubt, but also
in the conception of forgiveness.

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M LN 671

HaBt mich, damit ich lieben kann

nur um so kind'scher, um so mehr
der Innigkeit allein zu lieb,
aus keinem andern Grunde als
weil Lieben sfiB und k6stlich ist.


Where earlier Snow White asked for the queen's forgiveness, here she
invokes her hatred for precisely the same reason: to remove all
grounds for love, which otherwise would be conditioned, limited,
bordered, and thus not worthy of the name. A love without condition
and grounding "outside" itself does not simply assert itself in the face
of the hatred that bears witness to it as such. It necessarily hates itself
for not loving more ("Liebe haBt / sich selbst, daB sie nicht heft'ger
liebt" [95]), for it is its own infinite task, one that by definition can
never be fulfilled. Yet the impossibility of a love that would fulfill this
infinite task is the necessary precondition for any determinate, particu-
lar act of love in the first place, since only the hatred of itself in its
failure to love more allows love to love in the first place and to
continue loving. It is precisely in not only constituting a simple relation
to another but also, and at the same time, in infinitely striving for itself
that love can love in the first place, that it can relate to another.
Yet it is by no means certain that the queen comes to accept the
thinking of Snow White's feeling. She calls for a reenactment of the
hunter's attempt to kill Snow White, a reenactment, that is, of the
scene of her own guilt, as though to verify the accuracy of Snow
White's, or even of her own, representation. The queen had previ-
ously insisted upon the efficacy of a narrative of the past, upon a
language that could prove one's guilt or innocence. Here, however,
the history is not simply represented, but rather performed in a
present whose difference from that past remains suspended and that
therefore throws its status as such into question. Just as the hunter's
role as hunter fits him like his own clothing ("sie steht ihm an / so
knapp wie seine Jagertracht" [98]), just as the prince only seemingly
simple-mindedly asserts, the entire scene plays its role precisely: it
cannot be distinguished from the past it repeats, with the exception
of course that this scene is witnessed and can be interrupted in the
service of another history.


Bist du der Tod, o harter Mann!

Nicht glaub' ich's; du blickst mild und gut,

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auf deinen Brau'n wohnt sanfter Sinn.

Du t6test Tiere, Menschen nicht,
die deine offnen Feind' nicht sind.

Ich seh' es ja, Mitleid macht dich

die Waffe senken. Dank, o Dank!
Hatt' deinen Sinn die K6nigin.
So? Wirklich? Ist dir heiliger Ernst,
vergiBt du dich und red'st du wahr?-
Dann, Jager, bitte, falle aus
der Roll', die solchem Mann nicht ziemt.
Renn auf die b6se Dime ein,
die heut den ganzen Nachmittag
mit hinterlist'gem Schwatzen mich
beangstigte. 0, t6te sie
und bring ihr falsches Herz hierher,
leg's deiner K6nigin zu FuB.

If the queen insists upon a performance of the past, it is no doubt

because a narrative account could never adequately represent it. This
more literal representation of history allows her not only to confirm
the past but to intervene in it precisely by halting its repetition in the
present, changing the history of history by having the hunter kill
Snow White.

Yet this is not quite what happens either. This time it is the queen
who intercedes, who stays the hunter's hand declaring that it was all
play, a mere game: "Es istja alles nur ein Spiel" (99). But what? What is
a game? Playing parts in a representation of the past? Or falling out of
those parts to reassume what should be one's "real," present character
only to have this play interrupted in turn and declared a mere game?
While the purpose of the play seems to have been to allow the queen to
verify the past and Snow White's representation of it by having a scene
played out before her to which she was not witness, in effect it also
allows her to take on the role that Snow White had wished she would

assume. Having that scene played out, calling for Snow White's murder
once again, the queen can then show the compassion Snow White
seeks and can spare her life. In other words, the queen is able to
redeem her past in a present that is its repetition and interruption.
What this ultimately entails is a kind of rewriting of that past as it never
was, a re-inscription of the present interruption of the past in the past.

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If we, and even Snow White, cannot tell the difference between now
and then, this is just the point. Just when we might believe we ha
arrived at the point of reconciliation, when Snow White has rethought
forgiveness and judgment as a speaking-free from all convention
notions of guilt, and when she has spoken of a groundless love, b
also when we believe we know what these are despite history and th
we in fact know what history was, this scene changes all that. It
intervenes to unsettle the final ground, the historical object (Gegenstand
that as such gives love and forgiveness something against which
stand (Gegen-stand). In a very real sense, then, we are back where w
began. At least this is what the change of scene would seem to indicate
("Garten wie in der ersten Szene" [100]). We can no longer tell precisely
what has and what has not taken place: Snow White has fallen bac
into a distrust from which she is unable to purify herself, as she puts
There have been so many turns, so many inversions (from Snow White
distrusting the queen to forgiving her, from forgiveness to suspicion,
and now . ..) that one has difficulty locating oneself, not to menti
Walser's figures. Nothing, it would seem, is quite what it seems.
[D]ie Mutter ist die Mutter nicht.
Die Welt ist nicht die suife Welt.
Lieb' ist argw6hn'scher, stummer HaB.
Prinz ist ein Jager, Leben Tod.

There appears to be no way out of this endgame of an utter lack

differentiation, a difference the play promised to mark in the process
healing, redemption, reconciliation. If Snow White is to cry the queen's
guilt to the winds and thus draw all towards her, then the blood of the
victim, as she puts it, will flow anew and there will never be healing.

Nun blutet sie [die Wunde]

frisch wieder und wird nimmer heil.

Wenn Ihr verzeihtet, K6nigin.

Zur H6lle mit Verzeihn und mit
Geduld, Scham, Milde.

The queen's brutal and unequivocal condemnation makes at least

this absolutely clear: if there is to be any possibility of interrupting the
eternal return of the same-here in the strong, historical sense-it

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will be without forgiveness and everything that goes along with it.
That is, it will have to be formulated in terms other than those that
imply guilt and by extension the power to absolve it, to acquit or
speak free. It will have to be formulated in terms other than even
those that still rule over Snow White's language to this point; or
perhaps better, that very language will have to be radicalized.

Erklaren muB ich dieses Spiel,
sonst nennt sie's roh, die es betrifft.
Sprich du, statt meiner. Sage doch
dem t6richten, traurigen Madchen hier,
wie ich sie hasse, liebe auch.
Zuck' deinen Dolch. Doch, Lieber, nein!
LaB ihn nur in der Scheide ruhn.

Nur sprechen sollst du, tr6sten sie,

ihr sagen, was sie glauben kann,
und mich beruhigen, alles hier
zum Schweigen bringen, wie es war,
eh' dieses lockre Spiel begann.
Wohlan, und sei auf deiner Hut.
Sag' nicht zuwenig, daB zuviel
nicht deine karge Rede sagt.

This, it would seem, is the ultimate statement of the shame of

language. For why this game if we are merely to be returned to
silence? If it was all merely a mistake that must now be recovered,
then this will be through the intervention of the hunter, from outside
the dialectical relation of the queen and Snow White, and it will take
place not in another game enacted in drawing the dagger again, but
only in speaking, though in a speaking that will resolve itself into its
other. This language has to be adequate, though no longer to a
historical event or even the exigencies of forgiveness. Its adequacy
responds, rather, to a perhaps impossible economy: an equilibrium.
For a language that says too little will say too much, at least apparently
because its connotation outstrips its denotation, so that a lack, too
little language, is itself excessive. The measure of measured language
is therefore that it is adequate to itself: the equilibrium not merely of
two modes of meaning (denotation and connotation) but of what this
measure as such says. And no matter what such language says, if it
meets the measure it in effect resolves itself into silence ("alles hier /
zum Schweigen bringen").

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M LN 675

But in keeping with the questioning of Sinn to this point, wh

language says does not rely upon a meaning that would asser
reason. It is measured, rather, to the extent that it can be believed,
though this belief in turn does not respond to the traditional
imperatives of probability, or of logical consistency.
Du glaubst, daB ich dich t6ten wollt'?

Ja und doch nein. Erwuirg' ichja,

sagt nein mir wieder hurtigja.
Sag', daB ich glaube. Sag' es so,
daB ja dir immer glauben muB.
Nein bin ich mfide. Ja ist hold.
Ich glaube dir, was du auch sagst.
Ich sag' so gerne: Ja, ich glaub'.
Nein ist schon langst zuwider mir.
Also jaja, ich glaube dir.

What exactly has Snow White said yes to here? Yes, she believes that
the hunter wanted to kill her. But she agrees to believe, it would seem,
because she has grown tired of saying no. Even negation responds to
her in the affirmative. She says, in the end, not so much that she
believes that the hunter wanted to kill her as that she believes him.

More accurately, she says, "say I believe you," although it takes her
while actually to say this, to say "I believe you." What she ultimately
ends up saying yes to, then, is not so much a given representation a
assent itself. Saying "yes" to say "yes," Snow White agrees to be duped;
thus she agrees to the possibility of her own subjugation, nothing
short of ideology.
The hunter seemingly entraps Snow White in her own assent by
asserting that she is not herself when she is suspicious ("Im Argwoh
ist sie nicht sie selbst" [105]), to which Snow White can only respon
by affirming whatever he says. For according to the hunter's uncom
promisingly compromising logic, to be distrustful would be for her to
leave herself and thus would be invalid, while assenting in effect
subjects her to the will and representation of another, but most of a
to the very logic that gives her no other choice. Asked if she believe
the hunter when he says that her suspicions are false, what can she say
other than "yes"?

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Ja, und wie gern. 0 ja, warum

nichtja zu allem, was du sagst.
Ja sagen tut so wohl, ist so
unendlich suB. Ich glaube dir's.
Ja, wenn du logest, himmelhoch
die Marchen bautest, Liigen mir,
zum Greifen roh und tolpelhaft,
darstelltest, immer glaub' ich dir.
Ja muB ich sagen, immerja.
Nie schwoll so holder Glaube mir

alsjetzt, undja, nie war so sfiB

noch ein Bekennen, als dies ja.
Sag', was du willst, ich glaube dir.

Saying neither too much nor too little, the hunter has fulfilled th
imperative of a perfectly measured language. He has said just
enough-to be believed. This is the case, however, because Snow
White has agreed to agree to whatever he says regardless of its content
or "truth." The hunter cannot but speak a fully adequate language
one whose meaning is perfectly commensurate with the measure o
language because that meaning has in effect been denied, or better
sublated in absolute belief. Rendered indifferent, meaning loses it
meaning and language becomes adequate, always just enough, inso-
far as what it says is the absolutely believable or nothing at all, which
amounts to the same thing.
The measure of this language does not arise from itself, then, bu
rather is lent to it by another and by another word. Snow White's yes
ensures that whatever-or rather how much-the hunter says mea-
sures up perfectly to what this saying says. The word yes stands a
guarantee of the hunter's account, which means that this account ca
never guarantee its own status as believable and thus in effect remains
inadequate to itself without intervention from some "outside," in th
instance from another language. Yes stands as a guarantee insofar as it
does not bear witness to this or that content, to any given account that
could always be shown to be disproportionate. To the contrary, Snow
White's yes agrees only to say yes to any account whatsoever. As such, i
is the fulfillment of the discourse that would renounce the claims of

history and consciousness.

That Snow White is a radically political text despite its lack of
historical determinacy, even because of this, can no longer be in
question, for its turn to a questioning of belief is also its turn to the

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M L N 677

ideological aberrations of this belief. After all, Snow White's asse

any account whatsoever would seem to subject her to having hist
her own not least-retold according to the dictates of those who
victimized her, the hunter and the queen. But this is also
necessary condition for her own language and the hunter's t
adequate. Saying yes to yes, Snow White's affirmation says only itsel
says precisely what it says, nothing more and nothing less. And
doing, it does not give credence to what the hunter says so much
says that it will say that whatever he says is believable. In other wor
yes says that the hunter's account is said to be believable, which is to
that it does not necessarily submit to any account whatsoever,
rather says that it knows that a tale is being told. By saying yes to its
Snow White's yes withdraws its assent from an account that co
always be shown to be "inaccurate," "disproportionate," "ideologi
and in effect says that every account will always be this.
Snow White is not simply subject to the hunter's tale, then. Sa
yes to whatever he says keeps a critical no in reserve.
Wie leicht du doch die Sache mir,
dir und der lieben K6nigin machst.
Hab' dafiir Dank. Doch, Madchen, glaub',
ich ligeja dich frech nur an.
Zugunsten dort der Herrin mir
zahl' ich dir eitle Marchen auf.

Nein, nein, belig dich selber nicht.

Ich weiB, daB deine Seele spricht.
Ich traue dir. 0, solch Vertraun
geht sicher, hat nie falsch getraut.
Sprich Liigen, mein Vertrauen macht
zur silberreinen Wahrheit sie.

Zu allem sag' ich ja im voraus.

Was du auch denkst und sprichst, dies ja
zwingt deiner Rede Wahrheit auf.

One could, of course, always read this scene in terms of Snow White's
fatigue and of her desire finally to be done with equivocation,
ambiguities, and lies, even if this means lending them credence. One
could always read it as an affirmation of the inadequacy of a language
that does not-and perhaps cannot-say what the soul alone can say.
One could read it, finally, as the hunter's last test of Snow White. But

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there is another logic at work here, one that is perhaps more

troubling but no less consistent for being so. Despite, or even because
of, her insistence upon saying yes to whatever the hunter says, Snow
White here says no. In fact, in order to be able to say yes to whatever he
says, she must say no to anything that would belie this yes. To assent to
the statement "I am lying" would be to contradict the rule of non-self-
contradiction and thus the universality of the yes. This is no simple
contradiction. Nor does no simply mean yes here. Rather, the categori-
cal yes has as the condition of its possibility a no that guarantees its
very status as categorical. To be categorical is to be subject to a case
that at once belies or negates the claim to universality and makes that
claim possible in the first place.16
It is no accident, then, that Snow White's no does not simply say
that the hunter is not lying but assumes the form of an imperative:
"No, no don't lie," she says, or better yet, "Don't lie to yourself'
("Nein, nein, belug dich selber nicht"). Snow White thus at once
demands the truth, in effect imposing the truth upon lies, as she
herself puts it, and says that the hunter is telling or has told the truth.
The remainder of the play unfolds according to this truth. Even if it
means that Snow White is agreeing to be deceived, she imposes the
truth in the sense that neither the truth nor lies can be verified and

that both are thus subjective states that she dictates. This might wel
be to accept, if not Unsinn, then any Wahnsinn and to pass it off as
truth. But one of the senses of this scene is that it becomes impossible
to distinguish between truth and its distortion, between sense and
nonsense. Better yet, this scene is the dramatization of that earlier
scene in which the Sinn of language depends upon a constitutive
Unsinn. In a very real sense, then, the truth is whatever Snow White
says yes to, and not only because she is a (meta-) fictional figure.
Finally saying yes, she seems to have understood, holds the power of
reconciliation and forgiveness, which doubt will never offer.
The apparent impossibility of deciding when a game or play is
merely that and when it is something else is resolved here only by an
appeal to the soul and its language, as well as to something like
special faculty of reading or hearing that Snow White alone possesses
and that therefore can never be confirmed. We can never know-nor,
perhaps, can Snow White-whether she is simply succumbing to
something like ideology or whether she alone has access to the truth.
It is this radical undecidability that defines the ideological as such,

16 See Jean-Luc Nancy, L'impratif categorique (Paris: Galilee, 1983).

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since to know that one is subject to it is already to interrupt its claims

What Snow White's no manages, however, is to question the status
that truth-in particular the truth of fictions-that, while it migh
never determine whether or not she is subjected, will always hav
worked to unsettle subjection in the first place. For Snow White's
also means no in another sense: "No, don't lie to yourself," when
refers to the statement "I am lying," actually says, "yes, I believe you,
you are lying when you say that you are lying." Here too the truth
imposed, though this does not suppose any special faculty for Sn
White. To say, "no, don't lie to yourself by saying that you are lyin
telling me a fairy tale when you tell me a fairy tale," is not simply to
agree to be duped or to believe anything the hunter says. It is, in fact,
to recognize the truth of both.
The remainder of the play can be seen to unfold according to th
truth of fairy tales as well. As the figure of the thinking of this truth
whether or not she actually knows it in the play-Snow White can s
that she believes the hunter insofar as this now means that she
believes not that what he says is necessarily true, but that it is true th
it is a fiction whose very truth must forever remain in question. Snow
White's all-affirming yes therefore demands that we hold two see
ingly incompatible positions together: on the one hand, that she
potentially being duped, succumbing to fiction and ideology,
asserting a merely subject truth; and on the other hand, that she
the figure of a feeling and thinking that would undo this se
deception and forever put ideology into question to the extent t
they recognize the fictionality of this ideology. Holding these tw
possibilities together and refusing to choose between them, Snow
White's categorical yes, like the text as a whole, does not allow t
subject or ideology to go unquestioned and at the same time refus
to allow the "knowledge" of that fictionality to take itself for a
incontrovertible truth that as such forgets its figurative status.
Thus, while Walser's reworking of traditional fairy tales represen
the culmination and literalization of the tendency of much of h
work towards the Mdrchen or at least the Mdrchenhafte,'7 this can no
longer be understood in unproblematic terms, for example as a ki
of idealization if not an escape from the most troubling of the world's
realities. Repeatedly calling into question the status of the fairy ta

17 A full consideration of the Mirchen in Walser would have to consider other gen
as well. InJakob von Gunten, to restrict ourselves to his most widely recognized work,
word occurs a number of times and cannot be reduced to a simple idealization.

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representing it, in fact, as nothing short of a distortion and a lie, Snow

White insists in the strongest possible terms that it is no fairy tale. The
ultimate fulfillment of the fairy tale, that is, is no fairy tale. Following
Benjamin, we might shift this slightly and say that the fairy tale is not
a myth.

[Den] kindlichen Adel teilen die Menschen Walsers mit den Marchen-
figuren, die ja auch der Nacht und dem Wahnsinn, dem des Mythos
namlich, enttauchen. Man meint gew6hnlich, es habe sich dies Erwachen
in den positiven Religionen vollzogen. Wenn das der Fall ist, dann
jedenfalls in keiner sehr einfachen und eindeutigen Form. Die hat man in
der groBen profanen Auseinandersetzung mit dem Mythos zu suchen, die
das Marchen darstellt. Natiirlich haben seine Figuren nicht einfach
Ahnlichkeit mit den Walserschen. Sie kampfen noch, sich von dem Leiden
zu befreien. Walser setzt ein, wo die Marchen aufh6ren. "Und wenn sie
nicht gestorben sind, dann leben sie heute noch." Walser zeigt, wie sie

In his essay on Kafka, Benjamin speaks even more forcefully of the

fairy tale's victory over the forces of myth. There, he turns to Ulysses,
who promises to bring "a difference to bear on the immediacy and
oppressive proximity that everything has to everything else in the
mythic world"'9 and to do so through an insistence upon cunning and
reason that reasserts the guiltless hero's entitlement to reality. Part of
the power-and also the threat-of Walser's play, however, is that it
would be impossible to say with any certainty whether or not Snow
White uses cunning or even whether she is herself subject to the
cunning of others. To speak of the claims of reason here would seem
even more unreasonable given Snow White's insistence upon feeling
as the source of any judgment worthy of the name. What is more,
Snow White has done nothing, as we have seen, if not rethink the very
possibility of innocence and guilt and of good and bad conscience.
This is not to say, however, that there is no Auseinandersetzung with
myth in what, following Benjamin's characterization, we would have
to call Walser's post-fairy tale fairy tales. In the end, the double bind
of the queen's earlier affirmation of her own sanity (one can never
know one's own madness without that knowledge at the same time
being mad) anticipates the fundamental condition of the fairy tale as
Walser presents it. For even as Walser's Snow White in a sense offers

18 Benjamin, "Walser" 327-28.

19 Gasche, "Kafka's Law" 993.

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itself as the truth of the fairy tale, this necessarily means belying t
fairy tale's (historical) pretensions to truth.
Walser's dramolette thus rewrites the traditional tale, ostensi
setting itself in its place. Yet this logic implicates Walser's tale i
own Auseinandersetzung in that the truth that it claims to expose is
truth of the fairy tale's fictionality. Consequently, Snow White hers
is not only the figure of Heilung but the realization or literalization
figure-of Heilung and survival, to be sure, but this would also
for the fairy tale itself. This is even more clearly the case, it is
more literally true, one might say, in Walser's Cinderella, whe
figure named nothing other than Mdrchen appears.
Die Szene muB
nun lebhaft wechseln. Staunen soil

erschrecken, and das Marchen geht

dem Ende, seiner Heimat zu.20

This speech of ending, of the fairy tale going toward its homelan
however, appears more or less at the play's midpoint. What ends,
then, is not so much the literary form as the figure Marchen, who now
disappears from the play, while the "fairy tale" that is Walser's text ha
not yet reached its homeland. However, insofar as Marchen, t
figure in the dramolette, embodies the literary form of the Mirche
this means that the fairy tale disappears and yet continues beyond
disappearance. The fairy tale only approaches its homeland b
continuing on beyond it, beyond its own "end" or destination. In
Benjamin's terms, these tales therefore introduce a difference and
distance that is denied in myth precisely to the extent that they pi
up where the traditional fairy tale leaves off. This is to say that th
come after the fairy tale, as the "consciousness" of its status as suc
but also always as its repetition and re-inscription.21 The fairy t
asserts its difference from myth by asserting its difference from itse

20 Walser, "Aschenbr6del," Komodie 53.

21 Given the way the fairy tale carries on only by re-inscribing itself, one shou
perhaps exercise some caution in characterizing Schneewittchen as an anti-fairy tale,
Pizer does. Nor can the play be reduced to the parodic. Pizer's consideration
nonetheless at times in agreement with the reading offered here, especially in it
formulation of how Walser's text questions "the very transmissibility of an order
traditional system of values" (Pizer, "The Disenchantment of Snow White" 33
although it seems to go back on this assertion with a rather different view of Walser
"confidence in the possibility of an ultimate semiotic plenitude" (331) and of a "rea
of ultimate truth and metanarrative plenitude" (343). Indeed, the constant shifts,
the very end of the play, make it difficult to read it as a "conciliatory fairy tale" (340

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which also means suspending its own claims to redemption, claims

that myth, on the contrary, will insist upon.22 What makes Walser's
Snow White like his Cinderella something other than a fairy tale, then,
is precisely that it knows that it is nothing more-and nothing less-
than a fairy tale.
It is perhaps inevitable that such a tale could only ever end by re-
citing itself, that is, by re-inscribing its own end. For as the repeated
insistence upon the fictionality of the fairy tale in Walser's Snow White
will not allow us to forget, (re-)iteration does not simply repeat an
original but puts its status as such into question: it does not simply re-
iterate, but in so doing places itself in quotation marks.

Dann wird er sicher noch dein Schatz.

Und dann-dann sag' ich, muB ja wohl

daran erinnert werden, sag'-
Was sage ich? Ach ja, sag' dann,
so wie der Zufall etwa sagt:
"Du feuertest mit Kiissen ihn
zu dem"

Schweigt doch, o schweigt. Das Marchen nur

sagt so, nicht Ihr und niemals ich.
Ich sagte einmal, einmal so-
das ist voruber. Vater kommt.

Begleitet alle uns hinein.

Alle gehen gegen das Schlofi.

While the queen attempts to reassure Snow White that she will be
reconciled with the prince, who is quite understandably uncertain,
even skeptical, about what has happened to bring everyone together
and has left the scene, what she actually says would suggest something
rather different. It is no accident that she cannot remember what she

was on the verge of saying. Nor is it by chance that she claims to speak
merely what chance would speak. For she repeats Snow White's
accusation against her (that she seduced the hunter into trying to kill
her) with some precision. Using a structure we know well from

22 "It is precisely at the acme of myth's power over the human creature, that is, at the
moment that it promises redemption, that reason and cunning-Greek empowerments,
par excellence-cut through the mythic legal web, and reassert the innocent creature's
right to reality" (Gasche, "Kafka's Law" 993).

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Blanchot and Derrida's reading of it, the play quotes itself and thus
sets itself in motion once again, folding its outer edge back within it
Derrida's description of this structure as a survivre, a living on and
crossing of borderlines, is of course entirely in keeping with Benjamin's
reading of Snow White.23 If, as Benjamin claims, Walser shows how the
characters live on, it is not in a simple linear continuation of the
traditional fairy tale. Picking up where the fairy tale leaves off, a
Benjamin would have it, must now imply the tale's turn back upon

To live on, to survive, to be healed or saved, then, can no longer be

conceived as a movement always straight ahead into the future, a
teleology even if without telos. It would, rather, describe that crossing
of borders, for instance, in which death can be folded back upon
itself and become a certain life that is also death, in which it is at once
alive and dead as is Snow White. For a figure to survive whose name
is indistinguishable from perhaps the best known of all fairy tales
would not be to write what amounts to a sequel, which would in fac
only confirm the death of the original. It would, rather, be to bring
the very form of the fairy tale in the figure of its titular hero "back" to
life by presenting her as always already having been healed, by
showing the fairy tale never to have been completed but instead to
have re-iterated itself in its ostensible end. Only in this manner, as the
repetition of the traditional tale and its figures, which is also to say as
the repetition of itself but a repetition inscribed within itself, can Snow
White and Snow White be said to trace a Heilung that as such can never
be closed off or completed.
If this seems somewhat too satisfactory for a play as utterly
threatening as Snow White, this too is not by accident. The structure of
a self-citation does not, properly speaking, pertain here. The word
the queen quotes are in fact a mere approximation and do not quot
anything that is actually said in the play, at least not in these words
Even after all the reversals, the seeming redemption first of the queen
and then of Snow White, the repetition of a yes that would settle all
disputes, there is nothing in Snow White to suggest that the queen's
near quotation could not restart the entire story, enacting yet another
reversal in which she, now, utters Snow White's words.
This is the ultimate threat of Walser's figures, in the fullest and
most rigorous sense of the word. Snow White has to intervene in

23 See Jacques Derrida, "Living On: Border Lines," Deconstruction and Criticism, ed
Geoffrey Hartman (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979) 75-176.

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order to call an end to

contingent, a mere Zuf
been at any number of
the contingency says is
earlier scenes in the d
upon which the drama
a difference. What is con
it is refuses make an e
University of Western Ontario

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