, , ,

“Death is imposed only on creatures, not their creations, and has therefore always appeared in art in a broken form: as allegory” – Theodor W. Adorno


Okay, we know there’s one in there.

The problem with being a famous fabulist is nobody takes you seriously, except maybe in an allegorical sense.  In its positive sense, a fabulist is just a guy who composes cool fables, while in its far more common pejorative sense he’s an inventor of elaborate, dishonest stories.  So these days, if someone calls you a fabulist in the street, those are fighting words.  Not so much in 18th Century Germany.  Take French-German writer, poet, translator, and yes, fabulist, Gottlieb Konrad Pfeffel (1736-1809 A.D.).  You haven’t heard of him, you cultural savage?  Ludwig van Beethoven put Pfeffel’s poem Der freie Mann to music.  Joseph Haydn used his Philemon und Baucis: Ein Schauspiel in Versen von einem Aufzuge, a play in verse, for a marionette theater Singspiel.  Schubert used his Der Vatermörder for a song set to classical music.  While neither you nor I have probably heard of Pfeffel before now (my apologies to those with a slightly better classical education, bear with us, we try), let’s just say he was pretty well regarded by many luminary artists who were his contemporaries.  Needless to say, I’m exceptionally jealous and hate him already.

Except, it’s really kind of hard to hate the esteemed Mr. Pfeffel.  He was born in Colmar (a little region in the Alsace that kept changing hands between France and Germany) to a gentleman who was mayor of Colmar and a legal consultant to the French king.  Sadly, his father died when he was two and his older brother Christian Friedrich Pfeffel raised him.  The young Gottlieb had aspirations to become a diplomat, so he went to the University of Halle in 1751 to study law and philosophy.  He showed great intellectual acuity, notably translating Johann Joachim Spalding’s Gedanken über den Werth der Gefühle in dem Christenthum in French, but it also became apparent that he had a serious eye condition.  He went to Dresden in 1754 for treatment, and by 1758, after an unsuccessful operation he became completely blind and had to abandon his formal studies.  While that absolutely freaking sucked, Pfeffel wasn’t about to let that substantially slow him down.

In 1759 he married the charming Margaretha Cleophe Divoux, with whom he had 13 children (six of which survived childhood – the 18th Century still blew when it came to life expectancy, while a slight improvement over the 17th century).  He hired some assistants and churned out a few notable translations of various important works.  Like many folks in 18th Century Europe, his fortunes ebbed and flowed.  He opened a respected military academy for aristocratic Protestants in 1773, but after the French Revolution he lost his academy and his fortune (luckily, kept his head), but since he was clearly talented, Napoleon I even granted him an annual pension in 1806.  Even Voltaire thought he was pretty cool.  After he lost his military academy, he puttered around the family estate writing and working for the local board of education.  He didn’t let his blindness substantially slow him down, rather hired a trustworthy “amanuensis”, which is just a fancy way of saying he found somebody good at taking dictation.  In this case, said amanuensis was an eighteen-year old candidate for religious orders named Billing, who became Pfeffel’s close companion at all times, often taking a break from Pfeffel’s prodigious literary endeavors to indulge in strolls together in the expansive gardens of the estate.  According to Herr Ehrman of Strasburg, Pfeffel’s son-in-law, it was during one of these meanders, a curious phenomenon occurred, one certainly worthy of a famed fabulist.

Pfeffel, being blind, was accustomed to take the arm of this young man, and they walked thus together in Pfeffel’s garden, near Colmar.  At one spot in the garden, Pfeffel remarked that his companion’s arm gave a sudden start, as if he had received an electric shock. Being asked what was the matter, Billing replied, “Nothing.” But on their going over the same spot again, the same effect recurred. The young man being pressed to explain the cause of his disturbance, avowed that it arose from a peculiar sensation which he always experienced when in the vicinity of human remains; that it was his impression a human body must be interred there; but that, if Pfeffel would return with him at night, he should be able to speak with greater confidence (Mayo, 1852, p67-68).

Now, Pfeffel was no slouch at telling fanciful tales, but as he appreciated the earnestness of Billing as well as his obvious reluctance to communicate what was disturbing him, quite agreeably decided that it was worthwhile to return to the same spot in the garden that night.

Pfeffel, with the view of curing the youth of what he looked on as fancy, went that night with him to the garden. As they approached the spot in the dark, Billing perceived a feeble light, and when still nearer, he saw a luminous ghostlike figure floating over the spot. This he described as a female form, with one arm laid across the body, the other hanging down, floating in the upright posture, but tranquil, the feet only a hand-breadth or two above the soil. Pfeffel went alone, as the young man declined to follow him, up to the place where the figure was said to be, and struck about in all directions with his stick, besides running actually through the shadow; but the figure was not more affected than a flame would have been; the luminous form, according to Billing always returned to its original position after these experiments. Many things were tried during several months, and numerous companies of people were brought to the spot, but the matter remained the same, and the ghost-seer adhered to his serious assertion, and to the opinion founded on it, that some individual lay buried there (Crowe, 1868, p105-106).

Several of Pfeffel’s relatives were similarly conducted to the curious spot in the garden, but nobody else reported any strange sensations or saw any apparitions.  Not wishing to further disturb Billing, who was known to be rather excitable and high-strung, as only an eighteen year old evangelical clergyman could be, Pfeffel decided to quietly investigate what lay beneath the spot in the garden while Billing was away for a few days.

At last Pfeffel had the place dug up. At a considerable depth, they came to a firm layer of white lime, about as long and as broad as a grave, tolerably thick; and on breaking through  this, the bones of a human being were discovered. It was thus ascertained that someone had been buried there, and covered with a thick layer of lime, as is usually done in times of pestilence, earthquakes, and similar calamities. The bones were taken out, the grave filled up, the lime mixed up with earth and scattered abroad, and the surface levelled (Maitland, 1855, p8-9).

It’s always tough to go ghost hunting in any reputable fashion when there isn’t a good backstory to explain what you might find, but “no tradition existed in the place to explain this burial, whether it had been a case of murder, or that the human being here buried had died of pestilence, none could tell—but it was abundantly clear that the burial had taken place at some considerable anterior period” (Baring-Gould, 1928, p27-29).  It is of course a tad disturbing to find a corpse buried in your backyard without explanation.  While Pfeffel may have been a fabulist extraordinaire, he also was possessed of a keenly logical mind, and resolved to conduct an experiment.  Billing, although confident a body was buried in the spot in question, had not been made aware of the discovery of an actual corpse.  The location had been scrupulously returned to its natural state after the removal of the body, and thus to it Billing was conducted.

After Billing’s return the poet took him once more into the garden, and this time the young man walked over the fatal spot without experiencing the slightest sensation (Schele de Vere , 1873, p251-252).

Enter Baron Carl Ludwig von Reichenbach (1788-1869), a notable chemist, geologist, metallurgist, naturalist, industrialist and philosopher, who in the grand tradition of skepticism offered his scientific take on explaining the absolute mundanity of the event, and furthermore offers us a hypothetical, Rube Goldberg-esque sequence of chemical reactions to prove his thesis.

It is hardly necessary to point out to the reader what I think of this story, which caused much discussion in Germany, because it came to us on the authority of the most trustworthy man alive, and received from theologians and psychologists a thousand frightful interpretations. To my eyes, it belonged entirely to the domain of chemistry, and admitted of a simple and clear scientific explanation. A human corpse is a rich field for chemical changes, for fermentation, putrefaction, gasification, and the play of all manner of affinities. A layer of dry quick lime, compressed into a deep pit, adds its own powerful affinities to organic matters, and lays the foundation of a long and slow action of these affinities. Rain water from above is added; the lime first falls to a mealy powder, and afterwards is converted, by the water which trickles down to it, into a tallow-like external mass, through which the external air penetrates but slowly. Such masses of lime have been found buried in old ruined castles, where they had lain for centuries; and yet the lime has been so fresh, that it has been used for the mortar of new buildings. The carbonic acid of the air, indeed, penetrates to the lime, but so slowly, that in such a place a chemical process occurs which may last for many years. The occurrence in Pfeffel’s garden was therefore quite according to natural laws; and since we know that a continual emanation of the flames of the crystalline force accompanies such processes, the fiery appearance is thus explained. It must have continued until the affinities of the lime for carbonic acid, and for the remains of organic matter in the bones, were satisfied, and finally brought into equilibrium (Reichenbach , 1850, p125).

The primary problem of course, is that the only person who seems to have been able to detect the presence of the buried corpse, either through bizarre sensations or the viewing of an apparition was Billing.  Dude just sensed a disturbance in “the Force”. Nobody else saw or felt anything, nor did anyone have even the slightest idea what the body was doing in Pfeffel’s garden in the first place.  We could of course imagine a scenario where this was Pfeffel’s last fable, offered posthumously as proof of his genius, but I’m not really seeing a moral lesson to be learned.  Maybe, stay away from quicklime?  Nasty stuff.  At any rate, discerning fact vs. fable when it comes to historical strange phenomena is often an exercise in your own preferred epistemology, for as G.K. Chesterton once said, “Fable is more historical than fact, because fact tells us about one man and fable tells us about a million men”.

Baring-Gould, S. 1834-1924. A Book of Folklore. London: Collins’ clear-type Press, 1928.
Crowe, Catherine, 1790-1876. The Night-side of Nature, or, Ghosts and Ghost Seers. New York: Widdleton, 1868.
Maitland, Samuel Roffey, 1792-1866. Superstition and Science: an Essay. London: Rivingtons, 1855.
Mayo, Herbert, 1796-1852. Popular Superstitions and the Truths Contained Therein: With an Account of Mesmerism. Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1852.
Reichenbach, Karl, Freiherr von, 1788-1869. Researches On Magnetism, Electricity, Heat, Light, Crystallization, And Chemical Attraction: In Their Relations to the Vital Force. London: Taylor, Walton and Maberly, 1850.
Schele de Vere, M. 1820-1898. Modern Magic. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1873.
Tuttle, Hudson, 1836-1910. Arcana of Spiritualism: a Manual of Spiritual Science And Philosophy. Boston: Adams & Co., 1871.