Issue of spiritual nourishment and physical education in Austrian fiction of mid-19th century


Dr.Sc.Philol., Associate Professor G.A. Loshakova1
PhD, Associate Professor Y.A. Lobina1
PhD, Associate Professor S.I. Gnedash1
Ulyanovsk State Pedagogical University named after V.I. Ulyanov, Ulyanovsk

Keywords: mainstream Austrian fiction, spiritual nourishment, physical education, ethical and physical perfection.

Background. It was traditional for the 19thth century to apply the notion of ‘soul nourishment’ with reference to the spiritual health maintenance means and process. However, the term ‘dietetics’ was the first to come in the common use with reference both to the body and spirit. Thus, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in his essay “Conflict of the Faculties” (1798) analyzed the ability of the human spirit to cope with painful sentiments by the right intention only [1, p. 224] and formulated the core dietetics mission as he viewed it. A human being, in his opinion, shall in no case indulge in “softness” with its physical inactivity and self-pampering behaviors, but give a due priority to the body tempering practices. “Stoicism viewed as one of the tenets of dietetics is a part of practical philosophy and represents both the science of virtue and the healing science” [1, p. 232]. Kant gives a few practical recommendations to the readers, for instance: “Head and feet shall not be kept warm… for the Russians keep chest in cold to stay healthy” [1, p. 234]. In case of coughing or running nose, he recommends to breathe through the nose with lips pressed tight together [1, p. 254]. The philosopher recommends that the people of senior age shall not think much of their own health but instead keep busy with something practical like feeding birds, spinning etc. [1, p. 238]. He harshly criticizes the people nursing their imaginary diseases to indulge into morbid depression [1, p. 240] and recommends being modest (die Mässigkeit) in everything including eating and sleeping.

Objective of the study was to analyze the issues of ethical and physical progress addressed in the Austrian mainstream “biedermeier” fiction of the mid-19thth century.

Study results and discussion. The Kant’s ideas were shared by many other German thinkers and writers at that time. Of special interest in this context is the book “Dietetics of the Soul” (“Zur Diätetik der Seele”, 1838) by Ernst Freiherr von Feuchtersleben ([5], 1806-1849), a poet, philosopher and physician who developed the basics for modern psychotherapy. In his search of spiritual pillars, Ernst von Feuchtersleben referred to the heritage of I. Goethe whom he appreciated as a kind of personified spiritual and physical health standard. It should be noted that Ernst von Feuchtersleben and many other authors of his time formed what is now viewed as the pool of founders of the independent and specific Austrian literature, with the relevant period referred to by the German-speaking nations as the ‘literary biedermeier’. Fiction of the purely Austrian artistic world of that time is represented by many renowned names including J. Schreyvogel (1768-1832), Charles Sealsfield/ Karl Postl (1793-1864), Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868) and Moritz Gottlieb Saphir (1795-1858) [3]. Term “biedermeier” largely originates from the lyrical parodies by Ludwig Eichrodt (1827-1829), with Meier being the most common German last name and bieder meaning open-minded, easy-going and honest. Humoristic characters of such parodies often “symbolized philistinism, inactivity, self-assurance and coolness” [4, p. 82], with the term being commonly used with reference to the “culture of the Restoration epoch in Germany and Austria to underline its largely conservative spirit” [3, p. 26].

Ernst von Feuchtersleben was guided by the I. Kant’s experience in developing his own concept of dietetics. He underlined that fact that Kant gave a high priority to an individual spiritual power with the ability to keep in check own “painful feelings”. “We go further to restrain both the feelings and the disease wherever and whenever possible” [6]. Furthermore he underlines that spirit manifests itself in the bodily expressions and “this is what we call the soul” [6]; and this is the reason why we should consider the soul and body in their unity.

As provided by Ernst von Feuchtersleben, any education only caters for the human genuine self-discovery process and this is its main outcome, with every human being acting within the certain God-given individual frame and balance of powers manifesting themselves within some measure. “This measure (Das Mass) is never too little or too high since it is the consolidated abilities that determine the individual health… The highest wisdom is required to determine this individual measure. The one who is capable of this measure of individual existence being filled in with right education… will retain his health and life” [6].

Ernst von Feuchtersleben criticizes the people susceptible to morbid depression indirectly arguing with the romantic European literature of that time that favoured an egoistic hero coming in conflict with the world. “He (hypochondriac) lives and thinks only to cater for his own little Self turning a blind eye to all the beautiful and great things perceivable by an open heart; he is immune to the joys and, even worse, to the pains of his brethren as he is focused on the slightest impressions inside his own cowardly Self – and suffers all his life to his death. What is the meaning of nature, mankind and education for him?” [6]. Ernst von Feuchtersleben believes that an individual is healed by the mentally balanced and virtuous perception of nature and world (Wahrheit und Natur). Being the Goethe’s admirer, the Austrian poet believes that a modern individual shall beware of self-deceptions and be highly attentive in watching and studying the nature to avoid wrong ideas and to focus his individual resource on the self-perfection goals assisted by good education.

The creative heritage of Adalbert Stifter is dominated by the heroes whose souls are shadowed by egoism in need of spiritual enlightenment. In his novel “Fools’ castle” (“Die Narrenburg”, 1841) the writer rethinks the romantic pattern of faith and, acting accordingly to his favorite “gentle” life logics, warns against the dark instincts and passions running counter to the natural harmony of existence. Adalbert Stifter highlights the vague intentions and distractions driven by egoism and passion rather than actual actions of his heroes – qualifying them as sins and offences. It is the jealousy and malicious intentions of Count Jodok that his own future family disasters were due to, including the Heliona’s and his son deaths. Having lost his wife, Count Jodok burns his house to move to a cabin and soon leaves this world himself broken by the burden of his guilt. The “Fools’ castle” epilogue underlines the tragedy of the people who violated the ethical law by conceding to their egoistic instincts. Narratives with similar conflicts are found not only in the “Fools’ castle” but also in his larger works including “My Great Grandfather Portfolio” (“Die Mappe meines Urgrossvaters”, 1842) and “Indian summer” (“Der Nachsommer”, 1857).

Adalbert Stifter applies a softer and comic form to praise the self-control skills and physical progress in his novel “Forest path” (“Der Waldsteig”, 1844) with the hero obsessed by morbid depression. He thinks about himself as being incurably sick and wastes his life hanging around at home like a shadow in his dressing gown and slippers with his dog Tibirius, his only friend. It is only in his trip to an Alpine highland resort that he discovers a forest, nature and path going deep into hills for the first time. Lost in the forest and scared, he runs and gets tired, and meets a country girls to discover the beauty of nature on the whole and woman in particular. Epilogue of the novel is styled in the “biedermeier” colors. He finds that his dog Tibirius, unlike him, lives a physically healthy life, appreciates fresh air and movement and sleeps on a stray mattress, plus happily married. Adalbert Stifter believes that any human being may be in good physical and spiritual health if keeps him/herself under control and fully uses every opportunity for own progress.

The novels by Adalbert Stifter and his contemporaries including Charles Sealsfield give a high priority to a few key values including physical activity, travels, healthy agendas and private house viewed as a basis for the family. The Adalbert Stifter’s heroes are dominated by wanderers who watch nature and world with no other practical goal whatsoever (Genrich, Sharnasty in the “Fools’ castle”; Otto Falkhaus in the “Two sisters”; Gregor in the “Highland forest”; and the hero of the “Indian summer”). In his sketches “Vienna and its residents” (“Wien und die Wiener”, 1841-1843) his narrator is a sort of sightseer rather than wanderer walking across the Vienna suburbs with the only intention to enjoy sightseeing and meditation. He may also be described as a tourist making “trips outside the city… to folk festivals, to have a breath of fresh air, light, food, drinks and fun” [8, p. 440]. Furthermore, the narrator acts as a discoverer striving for adventures and physical activity, to make the reader see Vienna and its outskirts through his eyes in every detail that may not always be catching and pleasant.

The Charles Sealsfield’s literary heritage may be described as the so-called adventure literature (die Reiseliteratur), with the heroes of his novels acting as either victims or winners in the historical conflicts on the American continent (the writer emigrated to the US in 1826). One of such heroes is Nathan-squatter from the same-name novel (“Nathan, der Squatter-Regulator, oder der erste Amerikaner in Texas”, 1837) who acts as a founder, pioneer and builder of his own house and state. He lives a physically active life and teaches his children work hard and physically train every day to fulfill the genuine human mission that is to build the house and better world. Nathan and Aza, migrants from Kentucky, have to defend their emerging small colony from the local community unhappy with the newcomers. That is why the log cabin they make symbolizes the human need for protection and safety in face of hazards from the outside world – and at the same time hard labour and victory in the battle with the opposing natural forces. Furthermore, the Charles Sealsfield’s story features the Noath’s Ark image symbolizing both the house for many leaving creatures and the eternal movement, progress of the mankind. “We arrived in our ark to the Red River mouth… and the men and women were staying with their knees in water, and the children were weeping hard and sorrowful” [7, p. 18]. The solemn speech of Nathan upon completion of the new house turns the reader to the Biblical reminiscences. Strong and determined human being, he naturally turns the reader to the relevant Biblical connotations reminding him about Moses who leaded the Jews in the desert seeking for the new ways for the progress of the mankind. Moreover, the hero’s mission is likened to the God’s grace and kindness to people. “You have built up the house and cleaned up thirty acres of land to sow and plant it… You have started all up…” [7, p. 77].

Conclusion. Physical health and dietetics were in high priority in the Austrian mainstream (“biedermeier”) literature of the mid-19thth century on the eve and after the revolution of 1848, with the narrators striving to rethink its process and outcomes and to demonstrate the reader that progress may be secured not only by coups and sufferings; since progress is largely driven by the natural human lust for self-perfection and changes in own nature, with the soul dietetics and physical excellence playing a leading role in such a progress.


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The mainstream (“biedermeier”) Austrian fiction of the mid-19thth century gave much attention to the matters of spiritual nourishment and physical education. I. Kant was one of the first in the German cultural world to formulate the core developmental goal that is to give a high priority to persistent physical training and body tempering practices and never indulge into physical inactivity and self-pampering behaviour. E. Feightersleben, a prominent Austrian physician and poet, offered his own body and soul nourishment theory based on the Kant’s concepts. He believed in genuine unity of the human soul and body that both need to be perfected and kept in harmony. One of the A. Shifter’s (classic of the Austrian literature) characters lives a healthy and physically intense life, appreciates fresh air and physical activity and sleeps on a straw-stuffed mattress. Furthermore, many novels by A. Shifter and his contemporaries including Charles Sealsfield promote a variety of healthy lifestyles dominated by physical activity, adventures and health improvement practices. Key characters and narrators in the novels of that time often act as pioneers, travelers and enthusiasts of physical practices (e.g. A. Shifter “Vienna and its residents in life pictures”). Hero of the Sealsfield’s novel “Nathan-squatter” is a highly active and physically strong individual that masters and develops the American soil and makes his children work hard and be physically active. On the eve and after the revolution of 1848, the Austrian novelists strived to prove that the social reality may be reformed by ethical and physical self-perfection rather than social unrests and overturns.