Deviant Desires: The Queerness of the Fetish in Adalbert Stifter’s Kalkstein

by Samantha Michele Riley

May 18, 2011


Reading Adalbert Stifter’s Kalkstein through the lens of psychoanalysis and markedly, yet cautiously alongside Freud’s essay on “Fetishism,” there is an uncanniness that resides in our recognition of the multiplicity of gestures towards queer and polymorphous perversities, sexual identities, pleasures, and desires available in the fetish. Such an analysis reveals that Kalkstein is a narrative of a man struggling with a bisexual, or more appropriately homosexual nature, which remains an irreconcilable identity within the barren, religious and asexual world the protagonist builds for himself. Critics have grappled with the uncanny flavor of Stifter’s novella; but none has flushed out the queer context in Kalkstein, which arguably broadens and enriches the interpretative framework of Stifter’s opus. At the same time, the readings we glean from such a queer reading do not have to be homophobic, but instead provocative and indicative of the multiplicity of interpretations the text allows.




Adalbert Stifter’s critics have praised his embrace of the everyday in seeming contradictory ways, latching on almost intermittently to the trivial, pedantic, moralistic, and perverse in his writings. Thomas Mann recognized this quagmire, calling it Stifter’s “Sensationellwerden der Langweile” (Briefe 1937-1947 458). Gesturing towards the Austrian writer’s gift in transforming the mundane into something extraordinary, he characterized Stifter as “einen der größten und ermutigendsten Ehrenretter der Langeweile,” and at the same time “einer der merkwürdigsten, hintergründigsten, heimlich kühnsten und wunderlich packendsten Erzähler der Weltliteratur” (Briefe 1937-1947 458, Zeit und Werk 271). We can explore the complexities of this seeming paradox through Kalkstein, one of the six short stories in Stifter’s well-known 1853 collection Bunte Steine.


Stifter’s Kalkstein can be read on one level as a prosaic eulogy: A priest lives a lonely life full of setbacks and passes away uneventfully. During his lifetime, he builds a casual friendship with a visiting surveyor, to whom he leaves all his earthly belongings.[1] In a way, even the narrator promises the reader a story of little substance, announcing at the start that “nichts Ungewöhnliches vorkömmt” (63). Some scholars are convinced by this gesture. Friedrich Hebbel for example denounced Stifter as a poet with a pastime preoccupation with beetles and buttercups (127). More scholars however have bracketed the tale as one representing a religious and moral martyrdom (Blackall, Gump, Hebbel, Johnston, Marcus, and Sebald). For example, one Austrian historian praises Stifter as such: “Austrian writers had never depicted the clergy with sympathy. One of very few attractive priests adorns Adalbert Stifter’s novella Kalkstein […]. Stifter depicted the pastor of Kar as a little man who in a spirit of Bohemian Josephinism deprives himself for the good of the community” (Johnston 59).

In his introduction to Bunte Steine, Stifter establishes his investment in the so-called gentle law of nature that obeys the rules of a higher and presumably celestial order, a law that guides the human race (Stifter Limestone 23). Known more popularly as his “sanfte Gesetz,” Stifter grounds this theory in his collection of stories, a set that constitutes a treasure trove of earthly tokens, or more specifically Bunte Steine – shiny and colorful natural stones. Each story bears accordingly the name of a type of natural stone: Granit, Kalkstein, Turmalin, Bergkristall, Katzensilber, and Bergmilch. For our purposes, it is important to know that limestone is a sedimentary rock made up of the skeletal remains of marine animals, and is the most fragile stone in the list above, the one most easily subject to the elements and erosion. If we extend this metaphor, Kalkstein is the most volatile and multilayered story in the assemblage, composed of skeletons and layers of secrets to be unearthed, and at the same time, what appears to be an easily penetrable surface is not.

Stifter’s readership, which consisted largely of educated, conservative German Bürger at the later end of the last century, produced predictably religious translations of his “sanfte Gesetz.” Stifter’s own biography played a larger role in such interpretations and in particular in relation to Kalkstein. Some claim that the main protagonist’s character was for example based in part on Stifter’s former schoolteacher, who was later employed as a country pastor (Blackall 52).

Many critics, including well-known German philosophers such as Adorno, Benjamin, Handke, and Sebald, distrusted such readings. Other contemporary German thinkers ignored Stifter’s work almost entirely, remaining distinctly “indifferent or hostile” to what they considered to be his pedantic musings (Marcus 216). But those like Adorno sought “to rescue Stifter’s work from conservative admirers who [found] their own ideology confirmed in the message of the novels” (Marcus 216). Skeptical of Stifter’s supposedly well-tuned moral compass, and invested in the narrative’s sophisticated subtly, they perceived something queer beneath the surface of the story. Benjamin warned that that the author’s “inconspicuous exterior and apparent harmlessness conceals a great moral as well as a great aesthetic problem” (109). Referencing Kalkstein in particular, Benjamin labeled Stifter’s work “demonic,” in so far as the object of his writing is “mute” in an uncanny way (112). Benjamin explains:

The speech of Stifter’s characters is ostensive. It is the exposition of feelings and thoughts in an acoustically insulated space. He completely lacks the ability to depict any deeper emotion or “shock,” for example, which must primarily be expressed in speech. The demonic aspect that characterizes [Stifter’s] writings to a greater or lesser degree is based on this inability, and is most clearly manifest where he chooses a surreptitious line of advance because he is unable to discover the liberating utterance that lies near at hand and would assure his salvation. He is spiritually mute—that is to say, he lacks that contact with the essence of the world, with language, from which speech arises. (112)

In this respect, Benjamin rejects the more popular, pious readings of Bunte Steine. Instead, he puts his finger on something more alluring in the text, that which we might in fact characterize as pre-linguistic – a presence even Benjamin (like Stifter) cannot capture in words.

Contemporary critic Eve Mason, much along the lines of Benjamin, argues that “No tale in Bunte Steine asks so much from the reader as Kalkstein. No other invites him and indeed forces him, to travel further into unfamiliar regions of the spirit than this. […] Stifter never came nearer to exhibiting the real mystery of human nature and what constitutes its grandeur than when he chose to celebrate man in a person who in most people’s eyes would be branded a failure or a neurotic or even a damned soul” (43). “Neurotic” is the key word here; for within the last fifty years, the scope of critical reception to Kalkstein has narrowed almost exclusively to psychoanalytic readings. In most cases, one interprets the source of the uncanny in the text as evidence of the priest’s repressed and disavowed heterosexual desires, qualified, although not always explicitly, in terms of the Freudian fetish (Enklaar, Irmscher, Luke, Mason, Ragg-Kirkby, Reddick, and Martin and Erika Swales). This testifies to our culture’s continued investment in theories of psychoanalysis, however problematic that might be. Granted, such readings can promote and confirm hegemonic and heteronormatively-configured gendered subject roles. But instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and having done with psychoanalysis altogether, we can use this knowledge in productive ways. Simply put, we can strive to actively resist making heterosexist claims in our own critiques. Instead, scholars, apprised of the limitations of classical psychoanalysis, may still today both utilize and challenge psychoanalysis, while providing new and insightful literary interpretations of texts.

Following recent scholarship, psychoanalysis lends itself not only to Kalkstein, but also to much of Stifter’s writings, and not just in terms of narrative substance, but also with regards to Stifter’s affinity to his own work. Although Stifter published Bunte Steine before Freud developed his own theory of the fetish, some claim that Stifter partook consciously or not in what one could call a kind of psychoanalytic confession. For example, Wolfgang Matz has called Stifter’s autobiographical work in general “[einen] Ansatz zur Selbst-Therapie in extremis […] zumindest als Versuch der Selbst-Analyse” (11, emphasis in original). According to Thomas Mann, “Seltener ist beobachtet worden, hinter der stillen, innigen Genauigkeit gerade [Stifters] Naturbetrachtung eine Neigung zum Exzessiven, Elementar-Katastrophalen, Pathologischen wirksam ist [...]” (Entstehung 124). In this vein, the claim that Stifter was Freudian before Freud seems anachronistic. However, the mode of thinking we associate with Freud had been developing arguably even before Freud’s emergence, already in the mid 19th century. We see this reflected in Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859) and Marx’s Communist Manifesto (1848). Such literature supported their contemporary “prevailing sense that the world [could] be fathomed and ordered, named and controlled” (Adalbert Ragg-Kirkby 9). One of the most eminent Stifter scholars, Helena Ragg-Kirkby reads the stories in Bunte Steine along these lines; and it is off of her reading of Kalkstein I most solidly build my own. She, like others, acknowledges the sexual tension pervading the text. In this strain, Kalkstein is a world “governed by [the Priest’s] bottled up sexual desires” (Adalbert 31). “Stifter’s emphatic avoidance of passion could be derived only from an excess of it” (Adalbert 5). Ragg-Kirkby’s engagement with Kalkstein is however significantly narrow; and on this point my analysis departs from hers. She ignores what I would argue is in fact the smoking gun in Kalkstein, and something that has almost entirely been ignored by scholars. Her analysis admits no room for homosexual desire.

Reading Kalkstein through the lens of psychoanalysis and markedly, yet cautiously alongside Freud’s essay on “Fetishism,” there is an uncanniness that resides in our recognition of the multiplicity of gestures towards queer and polymorphous perversities, sexual identities, pleasures, and desires available in the fetish. Such an analysis reveals that Kalkstein is a narrative of a man struggling with a bisexual, or more appropriately homosexual nature, which remains an irreconcilable identity within the barren, religious and asexual world the protagonist builds for himself. Most certainly, many scholars would scoff at the idea of Stifter having written a queer text or a narrative about a queer character; in so far as queerness by definition – as that which is not heterosexual or that which resists patriarchy and cultural hegemony – is entirely at odds with the iconography of Adalbert Stifter. In other words, Stifter is known to be the quintessential representative of the Biedermeier age, which provides the backdrop for Stifter’s writing with its “classic values of stability, self-control, solid order, and mastery over nature” (Ragg-Kirkby 15). In line with this logic, scholars have in fact criticized Stifter’s writing for its “absence or minimization of the erotic… (he could never have written the Roman Elegies) and his total avoidance of irony and cynicism (he could never have created Mephistopheles)” (Stifter Limestone 5). This is not to say that these critics do not grapple with the “different and more mysterious flavor” in Stifter (Stifter Limestone 6). They too recognize a kind of unexplainable suffering, isolation, and sadness in his stories. But for them, Stifter’s characters are best understood as the Sonderling or the “little man,” the suffering, lonely, eccentric, unmarried (or unhappily married), celibate, middle-aged male citizen (Stifter Limestone 12). Martyred as a “folk hero” upon his death, the “little man” epitomizes the “resignation that citizens felt toward bureaucracy and aristocracy, the ‘little man’ demonstrates how the lowly could rejoice in God’s Creation by obeying His laws” (Johnston 21). In this dialectic, we discover naturally a degree of eccentricity, but not of the kind that explicitly demonstrates sentiments of homosexual desire, or at least not as much as to persuade more conservative critics to admit such reading.

Instead, read more traditionally, the persona of Stifter’s characters appears to fall safely within the dipole of the Biedermeier tradition, whereby “[on one hand,] the tragicomic eccentric [is equated with the Good Life, and on] the other the apotheosis of normality and regularity and tradition” (Stifter Limestone 14). I would argue that within this spectrum lies room for great emotional, sexual, and even queer depths, however acutely repressed. Yet, scholars seem not to expect and therefore neglect such complexities. For example, Luke writes: “It was characteristic of Stifter in general to refrain from probing into psychological depths: he merely hints at them. […] Stifter preferred to write about innocence, about nature near to grace, rather than about dramatic destructive passions. This of course is why many readers find his work dull” (Stifter Kalkstein 18).  If at all, some scholars have acknowledged the protagonist’s special relationship with the Surveyor; and still, they fail to develop more complicated and provocative readings of this breed of intimacy. With regards to Kalkstein specifically, Luke notices the “implied mysterious affinity or ‘correspondence’” between the Priest and his friend the Surveyor, the complexities of which he shrugs off as a depiction of a kind of moralistic idealism or the perfect friendship (Stifter Kalkstein 20). Similarly, Eve Mason keenly assesses how the narrative is presented to us through the Surveyor’s eyes, and how this “gives Stifter all the freedom he wishes to offer or withhold at will insights into the priest’s nature, thus all the time force the reader to compare his own responses with the surveyor’s” (45). All the while acknowledging their close relationship, Mason cannot or perhaps dares not think about the Priest vis-à-vis the Surveyor in queerer terms.

To demonstrate that Stifter might have developed a queer character, again, intentionally or not, would appear to rock the foundation of more traditional scholarship. In all actuality however, a queer interpretation may simply be gauged as the furthest and most logical conclusion in both religious and Freudian psychoanalytical interpretations. As Michel Foucault made clear in his History of Sexuality, vol. 1, homosexuality has always played a pivotal role in the maintenance of the (Christian) religion, patriarchy, and is also a central component of heterosexual identity, as Freud theorized as well. To flush out the queer context in Kalkstein is necessary, in so far as it broadens and enriches the interpretative framework of Stifter’s opus. At the same time, the readings we glean from such a queer reading do not have to be homophobic, but instead provocative and indicative of the multiplicity of interpretations the text allows.

We must begin where scholars have left off in demonstrating how a reading of Kalkstein as a castration narrative is the natural starting point for a queer interpretation. That is not to say that a Freudian analysis is the only way to richly interpret this narrative. Instead, what I am arguing is that what critics have written in this vein in terms of psychoanalysis specifically has not been developed as fully as it might; and this is what I intend to do.

Why scholars have imposed a Freudian analysis onto Kalkstein is at once apparent, given the narrative of the Priest’s childhood. We are immediately led to believe that there was something dysfunctional, if not abnormal in the Protagonists’ relationship to women, i.e., via his mother’s death in childbirth, but also and perhaps more importantly, to men, i.e., his distant father, and his absent twin brother. Psychoanalytic theory allows for many explanations for the instantiation of homosexuality, including the fact that the Priest might have blamed himself for his mother’s death at his (and his twin brother’s) birth, which might have caused him to be estranged from women, and thus prefer men. The Priest also must suffer the consequences of growing up within this bankrupt familial structure, whereby his maturity stagnates, and he becomes psychically, socially, and sexually repressed.

For instance, according to more recent psychoanalytic theory, a child, having lost its mother, may look to another female to take her place, and even more complexly, another female can come to stand for the Phallic Mother – the woman with breasts and a penis, who occupies the symbolic center of the castration complex and the fetish. As Marcia Ian writes:

[The Phallic Mother is the] archetypal object of desire, every psyche’s ‘wet dream.’ [She is] the ‘ubiquitous fantasy,’ the ‘main position,’ in all the perversions. And, insofar as ‘perversion’ characterizes every psyche according to psychoanalysis, we must assume [this] statement is meant to apply to each of us. (1, emphasis in original)

The Phallic Mother stands symbolically in place of the mother’s lack and is essentially the fetish itself.  In the case of the Priest, he chooses a neighboring, widowed laundress to take her place. First, in an act of voyeurism, the Priest ritualistically watches the woman hang up clothes in the neighboring yard. This activity of the Priest watching the mother can be juxtaposed to another – that which the Priest should be doing, as in helping out his father and his brother in the family business. Yet, the Priest remains focused on the mother, neglecting his duties; or rather, the laundry becomes his focal point, which is meant to cover up or hide the mother’s own (psychological) castration and by extension his own. Understanding that this new mother is however in fact castrated, the protagonist allows the linen to become his fetish, which had hitherto stood between his gaze and her lack.

In choosing the linen as his love object and notably not another female – the woman’s daughter for example —the Priest becomes symbolically castrated. [2] As the castrated man, he can neither carry on the family business, nor the familial line. He takes on no lovers and no intimate relationships. Later in life, the Priest yearns for neither wife, nor child; but instead, he remains happily non-reproductive and develops more intimate non-sexual relationships with men, and most significantly with the Surveyor.[3] Freud writes specifically on the linen fetish in his work on “Fetishism,” which not coincidentally allegorizes the instantiation of sexual object relations, explaining in part the development of one’s supposed healthy, heterosexual nature versus, of course, the characteristically abnormal homosexual one. He writes: “The underlinen so often adopted as a fetish reproduces the scene of undressing, the last moment in which the woman could still be regarded as phallic” (207). “[The] analysis showed that [the fetish of linen] could mean that a woman is castrated, or that she is not castrated, and it even allows of a supposition that a man may be castrated, for all these possibilities could be equally well hidden beneath […]” (208). We turn back to the text for a mirroring of Freud’s theory; and at first glance, we find a doubling of what first appears to be Freud’s linen allegory. According to Freudian psychoanalysis, one may draw parallels between a scenario of voyeurism and that of the primal trauma scene, in which, in case of the Priest, he watches the neighboring mother and daughter hang up wet laundry.

Alternately, the text also suggests that the Priest’s so-called absentee father, in psychoanalytic terms, led the Priest to develop in a sexually abnormal way. His father is described as having taken an inactive role in the Priest’s life. Alternately, as his tale reveals, his father forced the Priest and his brother to sleep in the quarters of his father’s workmen in order to supposedly glean ethical training, to learn right from wrong: “Der Vater sagte, wer leben soll, muß das Leben kennen, das Gute und das Böse davon, muß aber von dem Lezteren nicht angegriffen sondern gestärkt werden” (106). What would be evil about sleeping in the same quarters with the workmen, unless the father is implying that the men will harm or rape the children? The Priest also relates how he and his brother had to sleep near the bedroom of their schoolteacher, who notably always kept his door open – another allusion to sexual molestation. The Priest’s intimacy with his schoolteacher is also made concrete, when years later, the Priest still covets his old schoolteacher’s book, thereby instilling its presence with a kind of erotic value.

In his conversations with the Surveyor, the Priest privileges us with details of the development of those behaviors typically associated with a fetish, including obsessive-compulsive, ritualized activities; e.g., self-control and self-mortification/renunciation, scopophilia (voyeurism) and exhibitionism. In terms of the former, we can read self-abasement in the text in a number of more general and specific ways. First, on a more general level, as Ragg-Kirkby describes: “In Kalkstein the barren, arid Steinkar is used, again morally, as a symbol indirectly exalting the priest’s renunciation and self-control” (“So Ward” 207-8). Uwe Steiner argues similarly that the Priest’s particularly melancholic disposition might be explained as either an effect of his socially produced isolation, or perhaps an isolation that is in part self-imposed (641). More specifically, the Priest mortifies his body by wearing the same set of disheveled clothing, presumably throughout the duration of his adult life. Furthermore, he takes meager meals, sleeps on a hard bench with only a bible for a pillow, and refuses to take medication when he is sick. He also gives away all his worldly possessions, except for his linen (fetish), when his family goes bankrupt. He devotes all of his adult life to the church, his job, and finally, all of his money to the children after his death. His sacrifices are not only those of self-mortification, but also self-annihilation.

In cursory reading, unexplored or uninitiated heterosexual desire(s) appears to explain away the compulsion behind these behaviors; a more intimate look supports in fact the opposite argument. For example, critics like Ragg-Kirkby have read the linen as a metaphor for the Priest’s projected soul, one carrying traces of the original sin, which the Priest obsessively tries to clean. This act of purification carries more simply “implications of spiritual purity as well as physical untouchedness and untouchability” (Adalbert 19). Ragg-Kirkby also reveals that “the significance of the linen has already been expounded in detail […], but […] it suffices to suggest that the crucial issue is one of filth and purity” (37). Here, Ragg-Kirkby is referring to human sexuality; and yet her notion, like that of other critics is again essentially heterosexual or arguably even heterosexist. Are we to assume that the Priest is isolating himself from women who might lead him into temptation? Or, can we read something more into the way in which the Priest acts obsessive-compulsively and shamefully around other men? If women are the problem, and yet the Priest encounters practically no women in his daily routine, why does he still feel a sense of overwhelming shame in the presence of other men? It is sufficient to say that we should rethink our assumptions about the nature or rather the object of the Priest’s desire. In other words, could it be that he desires men (as well)?

Upon second look, readers should realize that the nature of the protagonist’s interactions with women is not as normal in the Freudian sense as they first appeared. In fact, they are downright queer. For instance when the Priest does not receive the attentions of the laundress, he refocuses his attention by projecting his desire for the mother onto the daughter; and it is at this time that his fetish begins to manifest. He starts collecting silverware (a fetish which he later abandons) and fine linen. At first, the Priest spies on the neighbor’s daughter, Johanna, whom he describes pedophilically as a child: “Diese Frau hatte auch ein Töchterlein, ein Kind, nein es war doch kein Kind mehr – ich wußte eigentlich damals nicht, ob es noch ein Kind sei oder nicht” (113). In so far as we learn that Johanna marries shortly after this encounter, we can infer that the girl must be however in her mid-teens at the time of their encounter. In other words, the Priest projects an alternate fantasy onto the body of the girl. He only engages with that fantasy and not with the Real. More specifically, the Priest desexualizes Johanna, referring to her as Töchterlein and Kind, both of which words are grammatically neuter in German. Symbolically or linguistically speaking, the Priest transforms Johanna into the neutered grammatical indefinite article “es”. In this way, the Priest reduces Johanna into something sexually less potent or even impotent or asexual, an act that might be construed alternately as sexually immature, misogynist or homosexual in nature. He neutralizes the woman’s sexuality, disarming the (hetero)sexual threat at hand, the one that he may not or cannot consummate, come to terms with, or put into words.

As the scenario develops, the Priest begins to follow or rather stalk Johanna, peeking at her from behind bushes as she walks past him with her laundry basket. At times, he even purposely obstructs his gaze, and instead only allows himself to imagine what she might be holding in her basket. Hidden in her basket lies his fetish object, the “spotless white underwear” (Ragg-Kirkby, “Warum” 29). Here, the basket represents the maternal, his inevitable castration, and death. When the mother sees her daughter and him together, the protagonist admits that his behavior is, in fact, shameful. “Einmal, da wir so bei einander standen, kam die Mutter in der Nähe vorüber, und rief: ‘Johanna, schäme dich.’ Wir schämten uns wirklich, und liefen auseinander. Mir brannten die Wangen vor Scham” (115). Here, the Priest and Johanna would only be really or wirklich ashamed, because they feel they have done something wrong, and yet the narrative indicates that no physical interaction has taken place. Their meetings must consequently come to an end; and yet thereafter, the Priest harbors a linen fetish. What did take place between the two to cause this fetish to manifest? Or, we should ask instead why something did not happen sexually and why that fact is so shameful. In other words, in more traditional readings of Kalkstein, this encounter signals the Priest and Johanna’s mutual attraction. Burning cheeks are an indication for Freud of the body betraying one’s emotions in face of the Other. Yet, what emotions were at play, shame and guilt, but for what reasons? More importantly, why did the relationship between the Priest and Johanna not work out? The Priest, who came from a well-to-do family with their own business, would have been a good choice of suitor for a lower-class daughter of a widow. Why did the mother not approve of this match? An alternate queer reading of this scene may shed light on this seeming paradox.

We might instead read the couple’s inability to consummate their attraction for a different reason. Although the Priest is initially attracted to the young woman, perhaps he is simply projecting his attraction for the mother, as in his wanting of a mother because he lacks one, onto her daughter Johanna. He cannot get into close proximity of the mother in the garden. But he does encounter Johanna time and again, whom he sees leaving the garden regularly with the basket of clothes. In terms of his interactions with the daughter, the Priest is ashamed however, upon realizing that he cannot close the deal with Johanna, emotionally (or sexually), as she might have anticipated. He cannot have a normal, heterosexual relationship with a woman, which is something he might write off as, or attribute to his socially awkward nature. We might easily read this social impotence as his latent homosexuality. At the same time, Johanna is ashamed because she is caught up in something queer, which neither she nor her mother can identify; and yet, they like us are keenly aware that something in the Priest’s attention toward the daughter is amiss.

The narrative is marked by a separate, significant occasion in which the Priest interacts with children in a seemingly inexplicable way, which mirrors in part the way in which the Priest played voyeur to Johanna in his childhood. A number of scholars have written about this scene, and the way the Priest’s body acts or rather is acted upon by the elements of nature in an inexplicable way, i.e., he propels himself into the raging waters of a stream. To be exact, we learn from the Surveyor that the Priest enjoys helping the local children bridge a dangerous river crossing on the way to school – an activity that requires the children to undress. In a strict Freudian sense, one would read the floodwaters as the deadly amniotic fluid of his dying mother from which the Priest (and his brother) narrowly escapes. In other words, this event is an allusion to his primal traumatic event, in which the Priest’s mother dies at his birth.[4] Eve Mason has interpreted this scene similarly as a kind of baptism, which is too simple an explanation for a scenario so complex (51). In this situation, the Priest (as an adult) inspects the children’s bodies for signs of wetness, and directs them to undress. He watches them voyeuristically, as they remove their socks, shoes, and wet clothing; and later, when they sunbathe:

[Der Pfarrer] sagte endlich, sie sollten jetzt die nassen Rökchen auswinden, das Wasser aus allen Kleidern drüken, oder abstreifen, und wer Schuhe und Strümpfe habe, sollte sie anziehen, dann sollen sie gehen, daß sie sich nicht erkühlen, sie sollen sich in die Sonne stellen, daß sie eher troken würden […]. (92)

This scenario can be read instead in a queer way as a pedophilic fantasy, in which the Priest covets the children’s naked bodies sexually. Alternately, following John Reddick’s reading, we may assess this dynamic as a transsexual fantasy, in which the Priest performs the role of the maternal protector.[5] Reddick is perhaps the only scholar that has ever examined Kalkstein in a queer light, having theorized that the Priest could be considered a transvestite, noting that that priests wear dresses, or rather more specifically, he points out that all priests wear robes.[6] Reddick’s theory offers us the possibility of reading the Priest’s vocational choice as his wish to take his mother’s place. Put another way, the Priest is perhaps trying to become his mother; and in so far as he identifies as a woman, he must consequently choose a man as his love object.

Readers may also make a connection between the Priest’s clothing fetish and his attention to the children’s clothing. Scholars, like Ragg-Kirkby, point out that the Surveyor confirms our suspicions by drawing attention to the Priest’s own wardrobe – his clothing is notably soaked up to the neckline, whereby the children’s clothing is only wet up to the waist. The fact that the Priest would be taller than the children, and yet his clothing is more soiled than the children’s, leads the reader to interpret the Priest’s wetness as something excessive and inappropriate. However, Ragg-Kirkby does not speculate further into the queerer nature of that which might be obtuse in this context. Of course, we may guess that she is alluding to the Priest’s possible wish to have sex with the children or at least his possible sexual arousal when watching the children undress. According to Freudian psychoanalysis, the Priest’s wet clothing could, of course, be associated with the act of sexual regression – a child wetting his pants or a sexual and involuntary or even voluntary ejaculation. In this same scenario, the Surveyor begins to understand, as the reader does, that the Priest is willing to humiliate or even sacrifice himself for the children, to wade out into the dangerous depths of the water to save them from falling into unseen holes or ditches. The river and its watery graves could symbolize the disappointments of the Priest’s own childhood. Such lacunas could also represent the dangers of the maternal, the vagina, and womb as the impending and unavoidable point of danger, failure, and ultimately death and even the possibility of hell. Ragg-Kirkby writes: “[Hidden] beneath this beautiful surface [of the river] lie[s] dangerous depths and pitfalls, invisible through the murky water…indeed, the ‘filthiness’ beneath the shimmering surface makes the floodwaters potentially fatal” (“Warum” 8). The Priest wants to save the children from his own fate and the creation of an unconscious like his own, which is over-flooded with guilt, but for what reason? In an act of total sacrifice, the Priest is prepared to die for the children to spare them. The bodily sensation of this pedophilic act is worth more to the Priest than his life. As the French say, this act entails (potentially) la petite mort. The Priest seeks self-destruction and the death drive it harbors within. At the same time, he may be enacting a masturbatory fantasy.

Of course, one may draw lines, however cautiously, between the ways in which priests are always already suspected of being pedophiles and/or homosexuals. In terms of queer theory, which goes in hand with queer politics, to further propel this stereotype is problematic; and yet the subject needs to be addressed. One way or another, the creed of emotional and physical celibacy demanded or at least expected of priests and even pastors necessarily requires individuals to repress their desires, heterosexual, homosexual, pedophilic, or otherwise. In Kalkstein, the Priest is Catholic and therefore would not have been allowed to marry, even if he wanted to do so. The possibility that the Priest in the story fulfills both of these stereotypes cannot be dismissed; and in fact, are substantiated through the text’s doubling of scenarios in which the Priest is caught acting in inexplicable way towards the Surveyor and children, actions can be justified or at least elucidated as homosexual and pedophilic acts at the same time. The fact that the pedophilic acts of desire appear to be unbiased in terms of the gender of the child in this scenario, only further supports the notion that the Priest harbors at the very least (bi-)sexual desire for children.

We must also turn our attention toward the Surveyor in Kalkstein, who, on the surface may seem like a simple bystander of the Priest’s unusual behavior and fetishes. But in fact, we can interpret his interactions with the Priest as a mutual, homosexual or at least homosocial act, despite the fact that the two men never actually physically touch each other. The Surveyor is not only a voyeur, but also the narrator of the Priest’s life. The protagonist also finds an accomplice in the Surveyor. The Surveyor or Der Landvermesser, as his namesake would tell, is not only a surveyor of land, physically and vocationally, but also a surveyor of people, psychologically, and in particular of the Priest. He is proud of his abilities to “see.” “Mein Beruf bringt es mit sich […], daß ich mit vielen Menschen verkehre, und sie mir merke […]” (69). This passage also implies that the Surveyor “remembers” other people. Pushed to its furthest conclusion, the Surveyor takes on the characteristics of those he watches. Put another way, he doubles or mirrors their behaviors and even their desires, in the case of the Priest. For example, the Surveyor comes to the Priest’s town of Steinkar to survey its land, and later, to get to know the Priest. He wants to size up and better assess this oddly behaving Priest, after having met him at the dinner party, during which time the Surveyor first begins to watch the Priest voyeuristically in public and later in private, noting and later copying his conventions. The Surveyor does not, however ironically, always appraise his environment and those around him accurately, as Peter Fenves writes:

Der Landvermesser glaubt, daß er nicht nur das Land, sondern auch die Menschen, und deshalb das ganze Gebiet der Sitten und Sittengeschichte auslegen kann. In diesem Glauben liegt natürlich seine Vermessenheit: in einem entscheidenen Fall erweist er sich als unfähig, nicht nur das Gebaren und den Charakter eines einzigen Menschen zu deuten, sondern auch, die Gegend dieses Menschen, das Steinkar nämlich, auszulegen. (102)

As Ragg-Kirkby writes, “Such misinterpretation of a situation is one of Stifter’s recurrent themes; in fact, it could be said to govern much of the action of the texts” (“Warum” 32). We might even be able to argue that Stifter is playing the same game with the reader, at least in so far as critics converge their attention on certain details at the exclusion of others.

For instance, the Priest notices that the Surveyor enjoys watching the children just as much as he does. While both men write off their interest to duty and good will, the reader perceives that this scene is somehow erotic. Clearly, we cannot reduce this eroticism to something purely heterosexual. The two men connect sexually, at least symbolically, through their interactions when helping the children and in other situations as well.

When the men meet for the first time, for instance, we already sense the Surveyor’s almost inexplicable interest in the Priest. They are introduced at a party, during which time the Surveyor begins to literally survey the Priest. In particular, he focuses on how the Priest is wearing fine linen underneath his disheveled clothing. In an act of exhibitionism, the Priest lets his linen underwear peak out from underneath the rough sleeves of his clothing in public. “Bei den Ärmeln gingen, wie er so saß, manchmal ein ganz klein wenig eine Art Handkrausen hervor, die er immer bemüht war wieder heimlich zurückzuschieben. Vielleicht waren sie in einem Zustande, daß er sich ihrer ein wenig hätte schämen müssen”(103). The Surveyor is captivated by this new man, who might otherwise have gone unnoticed clothed plainly as a Priest would be typically. Yet, the barely perceptible piece of silk, peeking out from under the Priest’s sleeve, catches the Surveyor’s attention enough that he recalls this particularity as the most and really only memorable moment of that evening.  

To further reinforce the fact that this contrast between his rough outer and delicate inner attire is important, the first piece of information we receive from the Surveyor, when he spots the Priest again for the first time, is about his clothing. The Surveyor encounters the Priest during the day, at which time he wears rough, grubby clothing; although, as we suspect that he is sporting his fine linen underneath – again a provocative contrast. Surprisingly perhaps, the Priest appears to deliberately soil his outerwear by ritualistically covering himself up in sand. “[Ich sah meinen armen Pfarrer] auf einem Sandhaufen; er hatte die großen Schuhe beinahe in den Sand eingegraben und die Schöße des Rockes wurden von demselben staubig (64). The Surveyor watches all this from afar, and is intrigued enough to approach the Priest. But why? Would not the Surveyor find such behavior bizarre or even mad? Instead, the Surveyor must be attracted by something other than the clothing alone. What I am referring to is the hint of the warm and hard, masculine body beneath the Priest’s rough exterior. Read this way, the act of voyeurism on the Surveyor’s part and at the same time, act of exhibition on the Priest’s part, could be read in a Freudian sense as an act of masturbation. Here, the Priest’s inner attire rubs up against his naked body against his outer clothing; and both the Surveyor and Priest participate in this reciprocal and emotional, albeit not physical, homosexual act.

A Freudian analysis would also view the Priest’s obsessive-compulsive predilection to cleanliness as an act of physical and emotional self-mortification – a projected self-cleansing of the Priest’s shame for his queer sexuality. Scholars have skirted again around such sexual interpretations. For instance, Ragg-Kirkby describes the Priest’s compulsion as follows: “[The Priest] takes his pursuit of cleanliness far beyond the call of duty, to the point that the narrator describes him as ‘beinahe ängstlich reinlich’, plainly suggesting that his behavior may be driven by neurosis” (“Warum” 36). Peter Fenves has written specifically on Stifter’s own sense of shame. He writes:

Ein Gespenst geht durch Stifters Schreiben, das Gespenst nämlich der Ununterscheidbarkeit, der Unentscheidbarkeit nicht nur von Reinheit und Unreinheit, sondern auch – als unerbittliche Folge – von Leben und Tod. Unentscheidbarkeit ist aber nur ein anderer Name für die Verletzung der Reinheit und den gleichzeitigen Ausbruch des Schamgefühls als Mortifikation. (93, emphasis in original)

The Priest’s predilection to outward cleanliness at home contrasts strongly with his own dilapidated physical appearance and personal hygiene. In not being able to figuratively or literally “clean” himself, he psychologically overcompensates by sanitizing, and at that, his surrounding environment.

Another act of voyeurism, which might be explained through homosexual desire, occurs when the Surveyor is forced to spend the night at the Priest’s house, stranded due to a storm. At bedtime, the Priest makes up the Surveyor’s bed with fine linen. When the Priest presents the bed to the Surveyor, the Priest acts as if the linen where something he should have kept hidden, something secret, provocative or sinful. “Als ich bei dem schwachen Scheine der Kerze die ungemeine Trefflichkeit des Linnenstückes gesehen, und dann unwillkürlich meine Augen auf ihn gewendet hatte, erröthete er in seinem Angesichte” (81). While the Surveyor knows the Priest’s linen (and behavior) appear to him socially inappropriate, he is not able to pinpoint the nature of the deviancy; and yet, we recognize that the linen is the locus. We are drawn toward the image of the linen, as is the Surveyor. While the light of the candle is weak, the Surveyor can still see the “unbelievable beauty” or “ungemeine Trefflichkeit” of the object. The fabric must truly be magnificent if Surveyor can focus on it in the dim light in an otherwise dark house. It is almost as if the linen produces its own glow or a halo-effect, which beckons the Surveyor’s gaze as if from a higher, sexual power. He is memorized by his desire to watch the Priest’s gaze toward the fabric and his desire is inexplicable, “unwillkürlich.” The Priest acts somehow perversely vis-à-vis the linen; and he is ashamed – his cheeks redden again, mirroring his defunct rendezvous with Johanna. Although, he does not seem to grasp the reason – at least, the novella does not privilege us with an inner monolog or discussion about this between the two men, the text’s silence implies the way in which the Priest seems to disavow or repress the realities of this situation. We might read this again an indication of the Priest’s possible homosexual inclinations. Notably, the Surveyor does not respond by blushing. Apparently, he feels no shame for his scopophilic actions. This scene concludes with the two men settling into their respective beds, whereby the Surveyor cannot help but continue to think about the Priest’s linen and the way it feels on his body. “Ich dachte noch eine Zeit lang an die Sache, und konnte nicht umhin, die äußerste Feinheit des Linnens des Pfarrers sehr wohltätig an meinem Körper zu empfinden” (83). Possibly sexually aroused, the text implies that the Surveyor may end his night with masturbation. 

A third scene colored by shades of seemingly inexplicable voyeuristic and exhibitionist intimacy include one in which the Priest situates himself ritualistically before the window of his home to experience a coming storm. Here, the storm appears to act in part as a natural cathartic scene of absolution, one that he shares notably with the Surveyor. The connection between the Priest and the storm-flood, for example, has been noted by a number of scholars, but only as far as the symbolic connection is read as something natural or spiritual as a “ritual, a kind of prayer” (Stifter Limestone 25). According to Mason, Stifter (even) rewrote this section of the story, adding more details to his description of the storm and supposedly “emphasized the attitude of concentrated listening in the two men” (Mason 49). For what reason, we know not. Yet, even Mason interprets these new details as Stifter trying to configure an even more powerful, religious metaphor. “While the surveyor listens with awe-inspired admiration, the priest shows the attitude of someone who accepts the violent forces, calmly submitting to them, but relieved when they pass, as his simple words ‘Es ist vorüber’, echoing the ‘missa est’ of the mass, indicate” (49). In fact, her reading turns the surveyor’s role on its head, making him out to be, and rather oddly, a brute of sorts. Mason considers the Suveryor’s behavior as “unthinking and crude behavior,” which makes the priest blush in turn (50). She implies that the Surveyor should have looked away when the Priest was watching the storm. But if the Priest is acting religiously or spiritually, what is shameful or embarrassing? If we are to follow Mason, than the Priest is in fact conducting some sort of mass, which is usually an act performed collectively in front of a congregation. In other words, while Mason realizes that the Surveyor should look away, she cannot guess the reason why.

We can of course read this scene psychoanalytically. Freud argued for example that we watch violent events, like that a storm or a display of intense emotion, as an effective form of catharsis (Campbell 8). Put another way, according to Freud, we seek catharsis to overcome the guilt we have for harboring a dirty fetish and sinful desires. While observing the storm, the Priest and his fetish are washed metaphorically, as his linens would be physically. The white limestone, the Kalkstein, again as a symbol of the narration itself, is washed as well by the sublime beauty of rain and nature. The text stresses the fact that the rainstorm is something powerful and erotic, a metaphor perhaps for a sexual act bringing a cathartic release. The hitherto “nackte[r] graue[r] Kalkstein” transforms into a rainbow of colors, and a clean and polished white, “die Kalksteinhügel glatt gewaschen, und sie standen weiß und glänzend” (67, 85). The narrator also uses erotic words to implicate the storm in a sexual act, which further support this thesis: 

Endlich schlugen die ersten Tropfen an die Fenster. Sie schlugen stark und einzeln gegen das Glas, aber bald kamen Genossen, und in kurzem strömte der Regen in Fülle herunter. Er wuchs schnell gleichsam rauschend und jagend, und wurde endlich dergestalt, dass man meinte, ganze zusammenhängende Wassermengen fielen auf das Haus hernieder, das Haus dröhne unter dem Gewichte, und man empfinde das Dröhnen und Ächzen herein. (77-8; my emphasis).

The narrator also describes the scene as one might a (penile) ejaculation:  

Zuletzt geschah ein Schlag, als ob er das ganze Hause aus seinen Fugen heben, und niederstürzen wollte, und gleich darauf wieder einer,” […] Als endlich das Regnen nur ein einfaches Niederrinnen war […] stand der Pfarrer auf, und sagte: ‘Es ist vorüber.’ (77-78) 

We can read this metaphor rather easily in a Freudian sense. When the linens are clean and stain-free, the Priest is void of shame; when they are dirty, the Priest feels shameful and sinful.

The Priest’s proclivity to nature seems, however, also at odds with his own religious faith and his life as a priest. For him, nature does not equate godliness. Most scholars have ignored this particular interpretation. For the Priest chooses not to believe that faith will absolve him of his sins upon his death; but instead, he only accepts nature as a possible agent of salvation. He lets the rain wash his dirty laundry, and accepts nature’s purging as effective, even when this activity must occur time and time again, including after his death.  Peter Fenves writes: “An der Wäsche des Pfarrers aber, die nach dessen Tod der Landvermesser […] empfängt, bleibt ein Rest wegzuwaschen, ein Wegwaschen, das zu keinem Ende kommen kann, ein endloses, unsterbliches oder, genauer, gespenstisches Wegwaschen” (106). Fenves does not specify however what exactly the Priest is trying to wash away, although he implies that the Priest is washing away the sins of man. Can we complicate this reading? Could the Priest be trying to sort out the emotional wreckage that ensued as a result of him not accepting his true (homo)sexual nature?  

Similarly, might we admit the Priest’s absolution upon his death, comes not from the church or from nature, but instead from the Surveyor himself, who comes to claim the Priest’s laundry posthumously, thereby inheriting his fetish, a homosexual legacy? The Surveyor, representing the analyst, hears the Priest’s narration, and is implicated in the process. He is told the secret story; he shares the experiences of the Priest - riding the storm with him metaphorically speaking, observing the children in a pedophilic way, viewing the Priest’s private quarters, seeing the Priest in his fine linen, sharing a meal, later exchanging letters, and ultimately, building a friendship of trust, as a result of which the Surveyor is made trustee of the Priest’s will. In essence, the Surveyor comes to Steinkar to survey the Priest’s town and ends up surveying the Priest’s unconscious mind instead, and becomes his intimate partner or soul mate. He learns to appreciate the landscape of both, which he had hitherto found boring, “fürchterlich” and “abscheulich” (67). By the end of the tale, the Surveyor learns the moral of the tale of Kalkstein. Fenves describes this: “[Die] Geschichte vom Unterricht, der lehrt, die Buntheit der Steine in der rechten Weise anzuschauen” (100-01).  Fenves is not referring to homosexuality here, but instead speaks of an ethics of seeing correctly or clearly. We know however, that the Surveyor senses something beyond the scope of the ethical. He learns the Priest’s darker desires and then takes on his fetish, an act consummated through the reading of the will. The Surveyor may thereafter covet the laundry as his own, and wash it regularly of his own shame time and again, a continuation of “das gespenstische Wegwaschen,” of the stain which never fades, of the fetish that fills up again with meaning, only to be emptied again in the name of catharsis. Might this be a fleeting moment of relief for both, perchance to cure such an aliment of the queer soul?

In the 19th-century, and in particular with the introduction of psychoanalysis, the confession became an integral part of Freud’s “talking cure.” Foucault called the fetish specifically “the explanation for everything, our master key [as] the model perversion, [which] served as the guiding thread for analyzing all the other deviations” (153-54). At the time when Stifter wrote Kalkstein, Freud had not yet been born. Still, according to Foucault, by the beginning of the 19th-century, “an entire machinery for producing true discourses concerning [sex]” had emerged into our Western, bourgeois, capitalist, industrial society (69). The psychoanalytic confession had simply taken the place of the religious confession. However, beyond the clinic, artists did have recourse to confess their sexual thoughts in the socially acceptable form of fictional literature. In the case of Kalkstein, Adalbert Stifter may have sought recourse in writing a quaint little story about a good-willed, God-fearing priest with a particular fondness for fine linen. Scholars can take this interpretation as they will, but such a narrow interpretation clearly does no justice to the complexities of Stifter’s seemingly innocuous, yet very queer short story.  


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[1] There is an intriguing connection to be made between Stifter’s undertakings as a landscape artist and the profession of the surveyor, as both vocations demand the translation of certain aspects of nature onto paper.

[2] Another biographical note of importance - Stifter’s father was a linen weaver, who died when Stifter was only ten years old.

[3] In terms of biography, Stifter had a few failed relationships with women that were, according to scholars, void of sexual appetite on Stifter’s part. In fact, one scholar writes how Stifter was disgusted by sexuality (Ragg-Kirkby, Late Prose 2).

[4] It is of relevance to mention Stifter’s recount of his own primal trauma, in which as a child he hurts himself after breaking a window. His mother, bandaging him up, refused to speak with “a boy who breaks windows” (Stifter „Nachgelassenes Blatt“, 585).

[5] Here, we have perhaps an autobiographical reference as well. During the time he would have written Kalkstein, Stifter worked as the inspector of primary and secondary schools in Austria in 1850. He was later fired in 1856 due to his radical reformation ideology, which he tried to implement to better protect children from certain dangers.

[6] Pushing this reading further, Ragg-Kirkby writes how Stifter, in giving the Priest a linen fetish, in a way allows him to take the place and become the wash-girl from his childhood (“Warum” 34, fn. 30). One can also read the little girl, Johanna, as a stand-in for Stifter’s unsuccessfully betrothed childhood love, Fanny Greipl. Another scholar, Cornelia Blasberg, writes how love objects in Stifter’s writing, such as Johanna, could be representations of Fanny, or even the narration as one for their love scenario. She writes, “Aus psychoanalytischer Sicht ließe sich ein schnelles Urteil über Stifters unendliche Werktextur und Kierkegaards Wiederholungs-Schrift fällen. Schließlich kann man […] Stifters Erzählungen als Ersatzphantasien und als poetische ‘Wieder-Holung’ der Jugendliebe zu Fanni Greipl interpretieren” (79, emphasis in original). 


To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Samantha Michele Riley "Deviant Desires: The Queerness of the Fetish in Adalbert Stifter’s Kalkstein". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. December 15, 2009. Available May 18, 2011 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: May 1, 2011, Published: May 18, 2011. Copyright © 2011 Samantha Michele Riley