Walking by Night —Shedding Light on a Motif as the ´Aftermath´ of Disenchantment

Issue 3 (Summer 2017), pp. 5-34

DOI: 10.6667/interface.3.2017.42


Walking by Night —Shedding Light on a Motif as the ´Aftermath´ of Disenchantment

Jhy-Wey Shieh

Soochow University


Beginning with an etymological approach to the connection between spectre, ghost, unheimlich, heimlich, uncanny, home, night, darkness and the unknown, fear, enlightenment and disenchantment, this paper seeks to establish a literary motif Walking by Night by analyzing a number of concrete examples from German, French, English as well as Taiwanese literature and attempts to come to terms with the question why the fear of spectre, especially in the European literature, just could not be deleted in spite of the quite successful enlightenment. In addition to fear, the combination of fear and enjoyment also plays a significant role in this article. Finally, in order to explore the metaphorical meaning of this motif in different circumstances this paper addresses some aspects of the undertaking of transforming a daily feeling into a motif of Walking by Night in the literature generally.

Keywords: Motif, Disenchantment, Enlightment, Comparative Literature

Helping people conquer their fear of the mysterious and threatening nature by way of casting the cold light of day on it (disenchantment or in German after Max Weber: die Entzauberung der Welt) was one of the most important tasks of the European Enlightenment. Indeed, they have broken the spell of the sacred nature to a great extent, successfully, yet not fully, which, and this is the contention of this treatise, has found expression in the German literature, viz. in the motif Walking by Night —Walking or riding by Night in the forest, in the marsh or on a deserted street in some countryside described for example in Erlkönig of Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832), Ein Knabe im Moor (The little Lad in the Fen) of Annette Droste-Hülshoff (1797-1848), Ein Doppelgänger of Theodor Storm (1817-1888) and in Das Judenauto (A Jew Car) of Franz Fühmann (1922-1984).

According to my observation the German literature concerning with this motif has always been like a chain-letter spreading, transporting and treating the above-mentioned fear which was as a matter of fact somehow tabooed, for it did not comply with the so called Zeitgeist of the Enlightenment completely since the emergence of that very epoch or movement. However, the German literature is not standing alone with this motif, it has also found companion in the literature of its European neighbors such as in the French roman Les Misérables of Victor Hugo (1802-1885) and in the British lyric The Night-Wind of Emily Jane Brontë (1818-1848). We even, just to round it off, found this motif across the Atlantic, namely in the story The Triumph of Night of Edith Wharton (1862-1937). Last but not the least, the western literature has not taken out a patent on this motif for Ch´ing-Wen CHENG (鄭清文, 1932-), an internationally recognized Writer of the contemporary Taiwanese literature, has also made his contribution to this Motif with his novel Autumn Night (秋夜).

Based on the literary works mentioned above I will try to show in the following chapters how this motif can be identified, in which way it is dealt with and under what kind of circumstances it can emerge as a key figure to help the reader understand the text better.

1 A Spectre is haunting Europe

"A spectre is haunting Europe –the spectre of Communism," (Marx & Engels, 1969, p. 98) with these words Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) opened their pamphlet Manifesto of the Communist Party. In the original language, German: “Ein Gespenst geht um in Europa, das Gespenst des Kommunismus” (Marx & Engels, 1848, p. 3). It was published in London 1848. I will leave it open as to whether the publishing house was also a haunted one —accompanied by a close friend with the name ENGELS meaning "Angels" in German, Karl Marx certainly had no reason to be afraid of ghosts – yet the chance could still be estimated as high considering the fact that “England’s capital has the reputation of being the most haunted capital city in the world, with ghosts that span the centuries and often illuminate dark corners of a brutal past.”[1] Actually not only in London, but also, for example, in the Scottish Island Skye, about which the German writer Erich Löst (1992, p. 103) once wrote:

No fog swept the sky of the Island Skye as the direct consequence of the so called British summer of the century /.../, no hunch of fairy and local ghosts would arise, which used to waver there customarily. [2]

This statement about England’s notorious haunting tradition might explain why Thomas Mann arranged at the beginning of his novel Death in Venice Aschenbach’s encounter with the ghost-like, strange and exotic looking person in nowhere else than in the English Garden.

Doubtlessly, Marx and Engels were using both spectre and haunt merely as metaphors, but a judicial judgment of a tribunal in London actually authenticated the existence of ghost as a proven fact when it approved a century later, 1952, the application of the tenants of a house for a rent discount because some unidentified, ghostly noises indicated that the house concerned was undoubtedly haunted.[3]

Obviously the British judge did nothing else but following the opinion a French college three centuries before his times; according to the jurist Pierre Le Loyer and the Council of Higher Regional Court a tenant should be exempted from paying the rent, if his fear of the ghosts haunting the house he lives in is well-founded.[4] The landlord was probably frustrated and would have felt better, had he known the tragic fate of the Landlord of a castle in the ghost story The Beggar Woman of Locarno (Das Bettelweib von Locarno) of Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811):

The Marquis, overcome with horror, and tired of life, had taken a candle and set fire to the wooden paneling on all sides. In vain she (his wife*) sent people in to rescue the wretched man; he had already found his end in the most horrible manner possible; and his white bones, gathered together by his people, still lie in that corner of the room from which he once ordered the beggar-woman of Locarno to rise.[5]

It is a case of a hunting upper nobleman vs. a haunting beggar-woman and ends up with the moral: heaven can wait; hell, too. She dies in the Marquis’s castle, and obviously her spirit had never left there, waylaying the chance to take revenge on her tormentor, sneers then at the burned-out Marquise, muttering to him: “My home is your castle”.

As a matter of fact, Gero von Wilpert’s voluminous, over 400 pages, detailed and very informative book Die deutsche Gespenstergeschichte. Motiv. Form. Entwicklung (On the History of the German Ghost Stories. Motif, Form and Development) allows us to claim that the History of the German Literature is teeming with ghosts and swarms with spectres demonstrating an unbroken line from the Middle Ages through the Age of the Enlightenment, the classical period with Goethe and Schiller right into the twentieth century. And Wilhelm Avenarius, editor of the book Rund um die Weisse Frau. Ein Geister-Handbuch (White Lady. A Handbook on Ghosts, 1987) felt compelled to point out that only a small part of all those collected materials could be published. And as regard to the English literature, Davies (1985, p. 1) points out that the literary critic Joseph Addison (1672-1719) wondered in a 1712 published essay on the popularity of ghosts and spirits why ‘we abound with more Stores of this Nature’. (Owen Davies, 1) How much more annoyed would Addison then feel if he, nearly two centuries later, could ever read the words with which a book with the title The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders begins:

Walk into any children’s bookstore and you will note a decidedly Gothic flavor to many of the titles on display. From creepy picture books to Harry Potter to Lemony Snickle to the Spiderwick Chronicles to countless vampire series for young adult readers, fear or pretence of fear has become a dominant mode of enjoyment in literature for young people. (Jackson et al., 2008, p. 1)

The answer to the question why fear and enjoyment can be combined together was examined by Gero von Wilpert, who talks about the supernatural plot as literary fear —die literarische Angst; Wilpert (1994, p. 49)— attempting to determine why the fear is still extant in spite of the far advanced achievements of science follows the thesis of Richard Alewyn and argues:

In this enlightened and thus disenchanted world the room for our fantasy and emotion has been enormously restricted. Consequently, our organs and instincts, which would have developed themselves in the darkness and secret corners, become stunted and shriveled. The human ability to deal with fear then was transferred into desire to experience adventure, danger or risks. Reading ghost stories and watching horror movies thus can be defined as a kind of surrogate for this unsatisfied unconscious need. It is a desire that cannot be deleted with Raison/Vernunft and disenchantment. (Wilpert, 1994, pp. 52-53); translated by me).

All in all, this means: the more enlightened the world, the more strengthened the desire to taste the fear. In this sense supernatural fiction blossomed naturally in England as the birth place of industry and modern technological progress. As Owen Davies (2007, p. 1) noted: “England has long had a reputation for being haunted.”

2 Heimsuchung

Being haunted in the house (Heimsuchung in German) where you live means no possibility to shake off the ghost, such a situation reminds me why the Velco (hook-and-loop fastener) is given the Chinese name 魔鬼氈 (devil-fastener). What was once homely, has now become Un-Heimlich. As a matter of fact, the etymological root of the verb HAUNT can be traced back to the meaning of HOME as the place to frequent and consequently with which we are familiar with.[6] The old English form of HOME is HAM, and this offers a very proper chance to take a quick glance at Shakespeare Tragedy Hamlet.

King Hamlet’s ghost appears before his son and demands Hamlet avenge him. Uncertain of the ghost’s reality as well as the reliability Hamlet vacillates between confrontation and compromise, just like the ghost itself wandering along the boundary between the human domain and the underworld, between reality and imagination, between ‘to be’ and ‘not to be.’ In other words, as an appetizing entrée this apparition implements the main course successfully. With his father murdered and mother married, Prince Hamlet has become actually Prince Homeless, which is a perfect incarnation of Heimsuchung meaning both haunted in the own house and seeking for a home by way of taking revenge. The first step would be killing his stepfather in order to get his mother and home back, in the sense of the German Word: heimzahlen (pay back). The saying ‘My home is my castle’ is changed into ‘My home has been cancelled.’

If Freud had had a good command of the Chinese language, he would not have had to trouble himself so much to prove the extremely bizarre relation between heimlich and unheimlich[7] for, on behalf of ghost, alone the fact that the etymological root of the Chinese concept for ghost ( gui 鬼) originates in the meaning of "return" (gui 歸).[8] The coincidence of Unheimlich and Heimlich occurs when an already deceased member of the family ‘comes’ back after the death. This Janus face is, on the one hand/face, very familiar for the rest of the family left behind. On the other hand/face, an encounter with this person, conscious that he/she (or even better: it) is already dead would mean nothing but an encounter with the death itself. Karl Rosenkranz follows the same line of reasoning in the following passage:

Life shies from death, that is the nature of life. I have treated the topic of death above. If a dead person appears alive again, which is actually very much against the nature of death, then a ghost becomes out of a dead person. The paradox that a dead person should be alive causes the fear of ghost. A deceased life as such does not cause fear of ghost. [Translated by me from Rosenkranz (1990, pp. 271-272)].

For whom can this statement be better applied than for a deceased member of a family? Accordingly it stands to reason why in some literature an encountering flavored with sexual allusion or even action can only take place between the male protagonist and a completely strange woman, who then turns out to be a ghost. This fear, dread and horrifying terror is universal. The Chinese gui finds its counterpart namely in the German word Wiedergänger (the dead that returns to his family) as well as in the French revenant (the dead who comes back home). If the dead is not a member of the family, then he does not return, but appears, for whatever reason. For the latter case a proper concept would be apparition.

Nevertheless, the haunted house is certainly not necessarily the only place where the ghosts or something like that can have an easy win.

forsaken upland valleys, far-off wailing heard at night upon a lonesome sea-shore, transcendental ecstasies in summer meadows, the furtive shifting of a headstone in a city graveyard’. (Cavaliero, 1995, p. vi).

Anyone of these geographical places is capable of acting as a candidate for the stage where supernatural things can take place. But I would concentrate my attention exclusively on places located away from civilization, which means deserted street on the countryside, marsh or fen, wild forest. They have one thing in common: they all represent the exact opposite to a dwelling house and consequently can be marked with UN-HEIMLICH without exception. In this case my understanding of UNHEIMLICH leans not on Freud’s Concept of Unheimlich as a mental state of the absence of feeling oneself at home. Martin Heidegger’s principally pessimistic interpretation of the existence of the human being as a being-in-the-world would rather be capable of understanding the horrible feeling of the threatened protagonists in the outside world or on their way home. For Heidegger the being-in-the-world itself is occupied with negative connotation and thus:

“a mode of the uncanniness of existence, not the opposite.” Fear as the underlying emotion of “being-in-the-world” imparts to existence an Unheimlich (uncanny) feeling; Unheimlichkeit means a “not-being-at-home”. Existence must make out of the original Unheimlichkeit a home in which it is possible to live. (Adolphs, 2013, 26-27.)

There is a pessimistic stigma attached to Heidegger’s understanding of the human Being (Dasein) from the very beginning for he regards ‘Fear’ as “a mode of attunement” (1993, p. 133).[9] Furthermore he argued that:

All modifications of fear’s possibilities of attunement point to the fact that Da-sein as being-in-the-world is “fearful.” This “fearfulness” must not be understood in the ontic sense of a factical, “isolated” tendency, but rather as the existential possibility of the essential attunement of Da-sein in general, which is, of course, not the only one (Heidegger, 1993, pp. 133-134).

Accordingly, for Heidegger threats are everywhere. Whether you are at home or outside in the world does not matter much, whilst the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) has drawn a clear dividing line between the house and the world outside und emphasized the importance of all the positive characteristics of the house as a protecting shelter for the human beings. On the basis of Rimbaud’s short essay Les déserts de l'amour (The Wastelands of Love) he made out of house and snow a sharp contrast.[10] For Bachelard the house is so to speak the ensemble of undisturbed intimacy, it is warm, colorful, safe and thus the unchangeable destination we incessantly wish to reach, while the winter landscape outside simply represents the negation of all these positive characteristics:

In any case, outside the occupied house, the winter cosmos is a simplified cosmos. It is a non-house in the same way that metaphysicians speak of a non-I /…/. Inside the house, everything may be differentiated and multiplied. The house derives reserves and refinements of intimacy from winter; while in the outside world, snow covers all tracks, blurs the road, muffles every sound, conceals all colors. As a result of this universal whiteness, we feel a form of cosmic negation in action. The dreamers of house know and sense this, and because of the diminished entity of the outside world, experience all the qualities of intimacy with increasing intensity. (Bachelard, 1969, p. 40).

What Bachelard means to say corresponds to the Motto in the romanticist Novalis’ fragment

Heinrich von Ofterdingen

: “Where are we going then? Home, we are always going home.”[11] Yet, Heidegger and Bachelard do not contradict each other at all. For they have something in common in their treatment of fear as regard to the human attunement outside the house. And the darker it is, the more fear waylays us.

Before I come to terms with the motif of walking by night in the literature, I would like to fall back on an example first, which Freud cited in his treatise Das Unheimliche:

The notion of something hidden and dangerous, which is expressed in the last paragraph, is still further developed, so that ‘heimlich’ (*meaning free from ghostly influence, familiar, friendly, intimately) comes to have the meaning usually ascribed to ‘unheimlich’).[12] Thus: 'At times I feel like a man who walks in the night and believes in ghosts; every corner is heimlich and full of terrors for him’. (Freud, 1919, p. 377).

Feeling like a man, who walks in the night and believes in ghosts. On closer inspection, it is walking in the night that conditions the fear and not the belief in ghosts. As long as you are still underway, it can always be un-heimlich, according to Heidegger, as mentioned above, not-being-at-home (Heidegger, 1996, p. 176). The only home-work to do is to finish your home-walk safely, and let’s launch out on this journey to a terrain of no return.

This study has tried to deal with a special part of a quite complicated subject fear, to be accurate fear in the literature caused either by encountering a ghost or by suspecting a kind of this encountering particularly while walking by night. Since this sort of passage I’ve come across in the literature abounds, it seems worthwhile for me to research the possibility to name it a motif, a motif of walking by night.

To begin with, the original idea derives from the Chinese saying ‘Yehlu zou duo le, zong hui yu dao gui’ (夜路走多了,總會遇到鬼). It is said to warn someone not to push his luck. I would translate it as follows: ‘Walking by night frequently: You better do not do. You could encounter a ghost eventually –your last rendezvous.’ In the adults world this saying is doubtlessly understood as a metaphorical or figurative common usage to make the description, in this case the warning, more powerful and impressive. Yet for a 7 years old child like me in those days, whose daily walk to school passed through a dilapidated, deserted and desolate graveyard dating back to the end of Qing dynasty in the nineteenth century, always caused a creepy feeling of fear and slight horror in me by hearing a phrase like that, and indeed, I used to have truly frightening dreams in the night if I had to go to school alone that morning, or, even worse, come back home unaccompanied at or after sunset. For a long time no more nightmare was my daydream.

Since the death embodies the most unknown field for the human being, the Greeks settled the graveyard expressly close to the church or in the busiest district of the city so that the women and children could get used to the death and would not be affected by the fear of the dead people.[13] They did it with good reasons. My case certainly is until today no exception at all, a children’s book published 2007 by the award-winning author Veronika Martenova Charles was given the title Do not Walk Alone at Night! How this book is introduced deserves our attention:

Cautionary tales from West Virginia, Africa, and Central Europe are related by each boy until they are certain Mothman, Monster, and Ghost are after them. Are they scared? Not enough to admit it, but they certainly are running for home a little faster than usual. (Kobo, 2012). [14]

Chased on the way home like a prey by an unidentified monster and running both for home and for life, no, it is not talk of Goethe's Erlkönig. It is the fate of the protagonist Dana in one of the horror stories in Walking at Night by the psychological thriller writer Brian J. Jarrett. Only Dana is not that lucky like the boys and girls portrayed by Veronika Martenova Charles. The furious chase along a country road and in a wood had been so terrifying that he even feels relieved when he finally got caught. The last thought going through his mind is as follows:

Darkness began infiltrating his vision. Now, however, it was a good darkness; not like the evil black of night. It was not like the darkness that had tormented him as a boy, making him afraid of his own house, afraid of the woods at night. No, this was a darkness of peace and rest /…/. Then the darkness consumed him (Jarrett, 1996-2011, p. 55).

Running for home’ or ‘staying at home’ stands in this case in a sharp contrast to ‘walking by night’. This seems to be a timeless, universal phenomenon, and what a mother says to her little child on July 15 of the Lunar Calendar in Juliet Bredon’s book about the Chinese Ghost Festival almost a century ago (1927) is noteworthy as well as available even today: “To-day”, says the mother softly to her son, “all the dead leave their tombs and come back to us. The sky is thronged with an invisible procession.”[Juliet Bredon and Igor Mitrophanow, The Moon Year: A Record of Chinese Customs and Festivals, as quoted in Taiser, (1996, p. 13).] Thus, ‘naughty spirits are also abroad these days, ready to harm little boys and girls who, for this reason, are forbidden to go out after nightfall during this festival,’ as we all know, not only during this festival. Being underway in the night nearly equals being waylaid by horrifying things, ghosts for example. ‘Going out’ means ‘away from home’ and the ‘fear of night’ is "the reaction to anything unknown, impalpable and unsure, the vivid and graphical expression of which is then darkness. In this darkness fear of night thrives as well as fear of ghost."[15] This explains why the English equivalent to the German word unheimlich should be uncanny; unheimlich (literarily un-homely) seems to meet exactly the core of the thing and ‘belongs to all that is terrible – to all that arouses dread and creeping horror’ (Freud, 368). Freud points out moreover that:

the German word unheimlich is obviously the opposite of heimlich, heimish, meaning ‘familiar’; ‘native’, ‘belonging to the home’; and we are attempted to conclude that what is ‘uncanny’ is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar (Freud, 1925, p. 370).

A glance at the etymological root of the word un-canny explains what qualifies it for the equivalent of unheimlich, though not literarily. Let us trace the meaning of un-canny back to its origin and this is what we find: “1630s, Scottish and northern English formation from can (v.1) in its sense of ‘know how to,’ + -y (2). ‘knowing,’ hence, ‘careful’”. (Online Etymology Dictionary). We will then be told the following if we move further in the given direction to can: Old English 1st& 3rd person singular present indicative of cunnan “know” /…/, from Proto-German kunnan /…/. Old Norse kenna “to know, make known,” Old Frisian kanna “to recognize.” The suggested conclusion goes hence from ‘canny’ through ‘can’ via ‘know’ and finally to the end station ‘recognize,’ which explains why we say ‘I see’ in the meaning of ‘I know.’ This corresponds exactly with what H. P. Lovecraft (1973, p. 1): “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” (my emphasis)

Based on Richard Alywen’s (1982) very outstanding and impressive treatise, Gero von Wilpert referred us to his viewpoint that “the surroundings and the figures around are not recognizable in the darkness, one has to speculate about whether they are present or not. The fear of darkness is the fear of the unrecognizable, which could be very possibly present”.[16] In this connection the German writer Erich Löst cut right to the chase of the matter with the following words:

In jenem Sommer hatten die Gespenster von Skye eine schwere Zeit. Ihr Lebenselixier ist der Nebel, aus sprühenden Regenvorhängen weben sie ihre Gewänder /.../.Es spukt sich miserable, wenn die Sonne knallt, Trockenheit den Moorflämmchen den Sumpfgashahn abdreht (Löst, 1992, p. 108).

Alywen has hunted for references in books to underpin his contention that our/their forefathers’ anxiety about the night is most essentially to be traced back to their fruitless attempt to rationalize all those unfounded, yet deeply felt threats of “empty or pure imagination, ghosts, fear and sorcery or witchcraft…in front of which the human beings were helpless”.[17] One example Alywen gives is a song written by Christian Gryphius (1649-1706):

Fright, o creepy midnight / With ghosts,
/ I am free, [*meaning safe]
/ ‘Cause Jesus is guarding / At the windows
/ And throw a diamond's chain over my bed[18]

Another even more persuasive example he cited originates from the Zedlers Universal-Lexicon, the Brockhouse Encyclopedia of the 18th century: “The night waylays the people with fear and terror”.[19] On top of it, Alywen illustrated on the basis of a very convincing example why the enlightenment, which did certainly help the people realize that the existence of ghost is nothing but the product of our imagination, failed nevertheless to stop them from feeling themselves threatened by ghost: “Asked, if she believes in the existence of ghost, Marquise du Deffand gave the most memorable answer: ‘I don’t believe it, but I’m afraid of it’” (Je n’y crois pas, mais j’en ai peur).[20] Marquise du Deffand was a friend of Voltaire and enlightened enough to be convinced that everything in the world can be explained or even calculated; how can Marquise du Deffand’s fear of ghosts then be explained in a logical way? Alywen knows the answer:

The enlightenment has waged a crusade against anything believed to be unexplainable and incalculable in every area not only of the mind, but also of the life itself. This meant for the civilian world an extremely functioning curb on coincidence and arbitrariness, the dethronement of Fortuna, which had acted as an undistracted ruler of world’s course.[21]

In short, this movement of enlightenment has seen to expand the room of the explainable and calculable so successfully that the business and life of the civilian world could be secured increasingly by law and police against any possible danger, (see Alywen, 1982, p. 316) and all this happened in the same way in the human spiritual world: “scheduled expansion of the front of the familiar and explainable toward the unidentified, unrecognized and unexplorable”.[22] Alywen continued with his viewpoint and stated that

the primitive people were encircled by all kinds of demonic power, gods, monsters and ghosts und experienced the world as nothing but a chaos with all sorts of impalpable and unexplainable dangers, which they could only scantly ward off with the help of magic means.[23]

By writing this he certainly had Max Weber (1864-1920) in mind, who pointed out in his speech Wissenschaft als Beruf (Science as Vocation):

[rationalization] means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service.[24]

But Alywen was aiming at something else, because he then made a very significant conclusion referring to the fear:

The civilization was uninterruptedly on the march and snatched painstakingly the relatively disenchanted, hence anxiety-free domain out of this wild world step by step. Gradually, this fear-free domain was finally so expanded and widened that there were - at least it is the case in the occidental world - opposite to what it once had been, only few remote places left for fear.[25]

As a result of this process of enlightenment, Alywen concludes, “repulsion turns into attraction and fear into pleasure”.[26]

Alywen's conclusion is verified when the author of an brilliant book with the title On Monsters illustrates how his three-year-old son refused to avoid a hydrocephalic beggar on his way to school although he was clearly frightened by the sight of the lady’s swollen head, as big as “a large beach ball, perhaps three times normal size,” which she rested “sideways on her shoulder, while sitting on the sidewalk,” (Asma, 2009, p. 6) and notes that this an example of “what we’ve all experienced at some time or other: the simultaneous lure and repulsion of the abnormal or extremely being. This duality is an important aspect of our notion of monsters too” (Asma, 2009, p. 6).[27] For Alywen precondition for this duality of lure and repulsion can be expressed in the phrase “Angst/fear without risk,” (Alywen, 1982, p. 316) with which he explains the unbroken booming tradition of literature dealing with ghosts. Yet, for Alywen, fear in literature after the movement of enlightenment is no more fear, but a surrogate of fear, Wilpert {1994, p. 52) argued. Moreover, since the rationalism and enlightenment have aimed to disenchant the world the Romantiker turned the tables on the rationalism and made out their Todessehnsucht the thread of the night and darkness.

3. Walking by Night as a Motif

Provided now, the ghost in literature is no more perceived as a physical phenomenon, then what kind of task has it been given to? The ballad Elvenking (Erlkönig, 1782) of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe would be a very suitable example to start with, yet since it is so well-known that I feel deeply obliged to add a bit of spice to reduce the unfortunately unavoidable banality of the meaning of this wonderful poem by means of reading it together with the ballad The Little Lad in the Fen (Der Knabe im Moor, 1842) of Annette Droste-Hülshoff. In Elvenking a father rides with his young boy through night, wind, meadow and forest, heading for home (in this case: der Hof). In the darkness and the breath of the wind the boy sees, hears and feels the Elvenking, who tries with promises to seduce him away from his father to join him and his daughters. The father, representing the Enlightenment, is never at a loss for a reasonable explanation for his son. The ride in the night ends in tragedy:

I love you! Your beauty is stirring my lust.
And if you're unwilling, I'll take as I must!
"O father! My father! He won't let me go!
Elvenking's holding me, hurting me so!"

The old gray wayside willow trees sway."
The father shudders. He spurs his horse on.
His arm is clasping his moaning son.
Back home under strain and stress he sped,
And there in his arms his son was dead.[28]

We can read this ballad as the struggle between REASON and the SUPERNATURAL as Goethe’s warning toward a disenchanted tendency in the nature sciences, which marched over the dead body of the instincts and feelings without batting an eyelid. In comparison with the fate of the child in Elvenking the terrified school boy in Droste-Hülshoff‘s ballad The Little Lad in the Fen[29] survives his walking by night through all kinds of horrible noises and phantoms, just because no one has been there to ‘enlighten’ him. In spite of the school book in his hand as a symbol of enlightenment the little boy ducks down fearfully as a sign of humility and modesty in front of the unknown nature:

The shivering child holds on to his school book
And runs as if being hunted.
The wind blusters hollow across the flat land.
What’s rattling over there in the hedge?
That is the ghostly peat cutter
Who drinks away his master’s best peat blocks
Whoo, whoo sounds forth, like an insane cow!
The little boy ducks down fearfully.

At the end of this lesson the school boy is lucky enough to be able to sight his home, obviously trembling all over his body:

Gradually now, the ground becomes firm And over there, next to the willow,
So homely twinkles the lamp. The boy stands at the edge;
He draws a deep breath and takes one more nervous look at the fen.
Indeed, in the reeds it was dreadful; How creepy it was in the fen!

But not for this creepy fear or at least this humble attitude in awe toward nature the little school boy would not have made it home in one piece; Droste-Hülshoff was giving a sign to her contemporaries as well as the generations after her to keep a tight rein on their ambition, which has become so conceited that they are no longer able to show respect for God or ghost. She was very skeptical about the technical progresses, of which most of the European at that time thought very highly. “The time flies so quickly and throws everything in a mess. The railway is to blame for that chaos, people live more and more apart, physically as well as mentally,”[30] as she wrote in a letter. Indeed, she foresaw that the technological progress would develop a mighty power capable of destroying everything (see Nigg, 1966, p. 101). The once so tiny and timid school boy could develop himself into a modern Prometheus, that’s what Droste-Hülshoff was afraid of.

As a matter of fact Droste-Hülshoff’s worry was a very well-founded suspicion, only she was preempted by Mary Shelley, who published her world-famous Gothic novel Frankenstein. Let’s put the young Victor Frankenstein right beside the school boy of Droste-Hülshoff. On the one hand, we have the frightened little boy, on the other hand, Mary Shelley’s reader are confronted with a scholar, who claims the following:

In my education my father had taken the greatest precautions that my mind should be impressed with no supernatural horrors. I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition or to have feared the apparition of a spirit. Darkness had no effect upon my fancy, and a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm (Shelley, 1965, p. 50).[31]

Yet, after the monstrous creature had run away and the state of feeling satisfied in Victors mind vanished immediately, he walked around in the street, and his “heart palpitated in the sickness of fear,” (Shelley, 1965, p. 58) daring not to look around him. All of a sudden, Mary Shelley comes up with a motif of walking by night with a verse out of Coleridge’s The Rime of an Ancient Mariner:

Like one who, on a lonely road,
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And, having once turned round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread (Shelley, 1965, p. 58).

Like the ancient mariner, who shot the albatross, Victor is now cursed to be followed by the monstrous ghost-like creature. Victor is blessed with no victory, none of his deeply beloved family members stays alive at the end of the novel, not his wife, his best friend and he himself. The fact that the motif of walking by night is employed to criticize the human being’s invasion of the sacred domain of the nature/God can not escape our notice.

In the following I would like to examine the novel Ein Doppelgänger by Theodor Storm, Les Misérables by Victor Hugo and a short story, The Jewish Car by Franz Fühmann, to see if the motif of Walking by night do fulfill a function of social critique. In Ein Doppelgänger the protagonist tried to steal or collect some potato outside in a deserted field in an icy cold night in order to take the edge off the hunger of his starving daughter. Unfortunately he falls into a deep, dried well and screamed fruitless to death for help. His daughter never found out what happened to his father, until around 30 years later or more, a visitor from her hometown recalls after a long conversation with her that Christian, a friend of him, rushed into the house with scared face pale with fright at one evening and shouted that he had been chased and followed by a ghost:

There was a ghost! Don’t laugh! I mean it! There, between the potato fields beside the knacker’s well. I had gone there to catch some death’s-head hawk moths, which should abound by twine light. Then I heard my name Christian called right from the cornfield some distance behind me. And since I fled headlong, the ghost chased after me and he very nearly got me.[32]

This motif of walking by night is employed to exercise a social critique. The poor, pitiful John Glückstadt is actually the one who was haunted and hunted by hunger and poverty, not the Christian, who thought the call was aimed at him. It was the desperate scream after his little beloved daughter Christine! The name Christian should doubtless be understood as a sheer mockery of CHARITY.

A similar function fulfills the motif of walking by night in Franz Fühmann’s story The Jewish Car. In this story there is a rumor going around in a middle school class that a yellow car with four Jews waylays solitary young German girls and tears their legs and hands off. As a girl whom the protagonist likes very much tells the whole class that invented story about the Jewish Car again, he verifies this rumor. He then falls into a daydream and imagines that he has freed her from the clutches of those Jewish people. While he’s getting drunk in the daydream, imagining acting as a hero, who saves the very girl calling his name out of appreciation, he is waked up by the teacher. As a result of sleeping in the class, he is fined to stay two hours longer after the class and consequently destined to go home late. Excusing his late arrival, he faked a story about checking around about the brown Jewish car. In the twin light he really sees a yellow, or maybe brown car in some distance in the cornfield, respectively he imagines he sees it. Then he believes that the four Jewish men were determined to follow him. Nearly scared to death he pretends not to have seen or heard them speaking to him out of their car. Then all of a sudden he starts to run for his life till he reaches the street of his village. He turns back to make sure that the car is no longer there. On the next day he tells the whole class with details and a sort of unsuppressed pride what had happened the day before. But before he can enjoy the attention of the whole class fully the girl he likes interrupts him and starts to tell the whole class that her uncle had come to visit her family in car with two friends and lost their way in the cornfield outside there. When he saw a young man walking in the cornfield and asked him out of the window of his car how he could find the right way to the address he was heading for. Instead of giving him an answer, she says, the young man started to run like a lunatic. And that young man was wearing exact the trousers the protagonist now wears.

Everyone laughs loudly at the protagonist. And ashamed he tries to convince himself that he really had seen that yellow car with four Jewish people. At the end of the story, the protagonist screams: “It was all their fault, this Jewish people! Jews! Jews! Jews! I clench my fist. Jews! Jews! Jews! Jews! It’s all their fault! I hated them.”[33] This motif of walking by night or by twin light indicates again the fate of the Jewish people during the 12 years of the Nazi-regime from 1933 till 1945, Haunted and hunted in all the German-controlled countries in Europe.

Before I turn my attention to Autumn Night (秋夜) by the award-winning Taiwanese Writer Ch´ing-Wen CHENG (鄭清文, 1932-), I will look at the motif of walking by night in the world famous novel of the French writer Victor Hugo Les Misérables (1862). In volume two, Cosette, Book III, the poor little girl Cosette has a demand from her malevolent foster mother Madame Thenardiess to go into the wood to draw water for the guests in the chop-house. She has to pass through a long, deserted street. At the end of this street, she hesitates and stops:

It was the open country; dark and deserted space was before her. She looked with despair into this darkness where nobody was, where there were beasts, where there were perhaps, ghosts. She looked intensely, and she heard the animals walking in the grass, and she distinctly saw the ghosts moving in the trees. (Hugo, 1950, p. 365).

She is so scared that she decides to come up with a lie: “I will tell her there isn’t any more water!” (Hugo, 1950, p. 365) Then she really makes herself on the way back to the chop-house. But around 100 meter later she stops again and begins to scratch her head, because, now, “it was the Thenardiess that appeared to her, the hideous Thenardiess, with her hyena mouth, and wrath from her eyes” (Hugo, 1950, p. 365). At this moment, Cosette compares the ghost in the woods and Madame Thenardiess:

The child cast a pitiful glance before her, and behind her. What could she do? What would become of her? Where should she go? Before her, the specter of the Thenardiess; behind her all the phantoms of night and of the forest. It was at the Thenardiess that she recoiled. She took the road to the spring again and began to run (Hugo, 1950, pp. 365-366).

The fear of her foster mother is so strong that it yields to the fear of a ghost! Hugo emphasizes this incredible phenomenon again as if he wanted to make sure that his reader does not miss this significant message. A couple of lines later, we read the following passage:

Darkness makes the brain giddy. Man needs light. Whoever plunges into the opposite of day feels his heart chilled. When the eye sees blackness the mind sees trouble. In an eclipse, in night, in the sooty darkness, there is anxiety even to the strongest (Hugo, 1950, p. 367).

And now in the next lines one reads actually the most essential part of what we wrote before about the motif of walking by night:

Nobody walks alone at night in the forest without trembling. /…/ the inconceivable outlines itself a few steps from you with a spectral clearness /…/. The hollowness of night /…/, the gloom reflected in the funeral /…/, the possible unknown being /…/, against all this you have no defense. /…/ you feel something hideous, as if the soul were amalgamating with the shadow. This penetration of the darkness is inexpressibly dismal for a child. (Hugo, 1950, p. 367)

It’s clear, the motif of walking by night alongside a deserted street into a forest in this novel aims exclusively to stress how hideous the foster mother Thenardiess is.

I’ll devote the last, but not the least significant part of this paper, to the only Taiwanese story treated in this study. Western literature has not taken out a patent on this motif of walking by night for Ch´ing-Wen CHENG (鄭清文), an internationally recognized contemporary Taiwanese writer, has also made his contribution to this Motif with his novel Autumn Night(秋夜). The female protagonist Auntie is separated from her husband by her mother in law whose husband had passed away when she was thirty-eight years old. The other two sisters-in-law live with them. Therefore, all three daughters in law are asked to sleep alone. Auntie´s husband works in another village. She wishes very much to move to him, yet her mother-in-law just does not approve. One night, Auntie goes out to the outhouse to relieve herself. From there, she then makes the decision to go to her husband, around two hours distant. At first she goes along a canal. Then she passes through a deserted mountain road, almost steps on a snake, enters the woods and

She remembered about ten years ago, when a village woman had hanged herself in the woods. Actually, there had been several incidents like that. The ghosts of these women were often said to appear, and, it was true, the souls of those who hanged themselves did linger, looking for other bodies to inhabit (Cheng, 1999, p. 128).

Then she almost bumps into a dog, which had not barked, so that she tells herself to be careful. Later on she passes a graveyard and is scared by a man who tries to harass her sexually or at least to seduce her. Yet she stands firm and holds her ground successfully. Finally she reaches her husband’s dwelling in the other village. Walking by night, she has managed to overcome every obstacle that has been placed in the path to her husband. And the biggest obstacle has been the will to disobey her mother-in-law. Her mother-in-law, like the women who had hanged themselves in the woods and are looking for other bodies to inhabit, is going exactly the opposite way by means of stopping all her three daughters-in-law from being inhabited by their husband as well as other men. Her invincible will to rejoin her husband has finally overcome the fear of her mother-in-law. Both Cosette’s foster mother and Auntie’s mother-in-law would have felt a creepy, chilling horror up their back if they could realize what role they are playing in the motif of walking by night. And, at the end of my treatise, I start to wonder how the ‘so much feared’ ghosts would react by encountering people like Cosett’s foster mother or Auntie’s mother-in-law in the night.

4 Conclusion: free of fear and awe-inspiring

As I pointed out at the beginning of this treatise, the motif of walking by night has its origin in the belief that people in and after the epoch of Enlightenment should no longer have fear of a supernatural NATURE. Yet this belief was unable to suppress the inner demand for the/a so called ‘awe-inspiring’ divinity or, when this divinity is not available, a demoniac something in the nature as the surrogate of the divinity. And when both of them are declared null and void, then the ghosts shall step into the breach, - alone the boom of the zombie-films two centuries later proves this incontrovertibly.

Finally, as a matter of fact, what I have tried to depict with the literature can also be applied to the paintings. A comparison between the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich’s oil painting The Sea of Ice (or: The Wreck of Hope) of the year 1823/24 and the British Romantic artist J. M. W. Turners oil painting Rain, Steam and Speed –The Great Western Railway of the year 1848 shows the paradigm shift from the NATURE to MACHINE: In the middle of a broken ice-sheet we see a shipwreck with the name Hope (German: Hoffnung), and the ice pieces appear like sharp edged tombs pointing to sky, while the idea of an awe-inspiring or extremely frightening something is clearly represented through the NATURE, the Sea of Ice in this case. Yet that something is replaced by the locomotive in Turners painting with a panicked hare running for its life in front of the fire spraying machine:

The notion of the sublime was no longer confined to natural phenomena (as it had been for artists for the past century), but incarnated in machines created by a humanity with god-like aspirations, whose new power it served to magnify. (Meslay, 2005, p. 107)

The feeling of that poor little hare can certainly be unrestrictedly compared with that of the little school boy in the ballad of Annette Droste-Hülshoff. Old motifs never die, they do not even fade away, they just find themselves another way.


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[1] ‘Welcome to haunted London. A Celebration of Ghosts and Legends of London’. Retrieved from http://www.haunted-london.com/ September 9, 2013.

[2] Translated by me from the original text: "Der britische Jahrhundertsommer brachte es mit sich, daß über der Insel Skye keine Nebel wallten /.../, keine Ahnung erstand von Feen und anderen ortsüblichen Gespenstern, die sonst dort wabern".

[3] See Avenarius (1987, p. 246): “Sogar die Rechtspflege sah sich zur Anerkennung des Spukes veranlaßt: ein Londoner Tribunal bewilligte 1952 den Bewohnern eines Hauses, das von unerklärlichen spukhaften Schlägen heimgesuchte wurden (sic!), eine Mietherabsetzung.”

[4] For details see Delumeau (1985, p. 111).

[5] Translation by E.K. Bennett, © 1994-1999 Robert Godwin-Jones Virginia Commonwealth University, http://germanstories.vcu.edu/kleist/bettelweib_e.html.

[6] “So the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology under “haunt” states: “originally, of a spirit coming back to the house he had lived in. Probably from Old Icelandic heimta bring home, from Proto-Germanic *Haimatjanan, from *Heimaz HOME”.

[7] Freud goes through numerous examples in the dictionaries as well as works of some other writers, E. T. A. Hoffmann especially, and argues that “heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops toward an ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich. Unheimlich is in some way or other a sub-species of heimlich.” (Freud, 1925, p. 377).

[8] In this case, the word ghoul (gül) deserves our attention: horrible demon believed to feed on corpse; borrowed, in a translation of Beckford’s Oriental romance Vathek, from Arabic ghul, an evil spirit that in Muslim countries is believed to rob graves and feed on corpses, from ghala he seized. (Chambers, under “ghoul”). Could there be any etymological link between this ghoul and the Chinese gui (鬼)?

[9] In the German original: “Furcht ist ein Modus der Befindlichkeit” (Heidegger, 1986, p. 141).

[10] Rimbeau himself said: “C'était comme une nuit d'hiver, avec une neige pour étouffer le monde décidément. (it was like a winter’s night, with snow to stifle the world for certain. See Bachelard, 1969, p. 40).

[11] In German: “Wo gehen wir den hin? Immer nach Hause”, says Mathilde to the protagonist who had dreamed of her as a blue flower long before he met her. (Novalis, 1802, loc. 1969).

[12] ‘*’ means in this article ‘inserted or stressed by the author of this article’. Freud cited this out of Grimm’s Dictionary: Jakob und Wilhelm Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch, Leipzig, 1877, IV./2, p. 874 et seg. Freud, 376, footnote 1.

[13] See Michel de Montaigne, Philosophieren heißt sterben lernen. Ders. Die Essais as cited in Benthien and Wulf (2001, p. 414).

[14] In every story of this book the child as the protagonist is warned by the adult: “Don’t walk alone at night!” because “It’s dark outside” (Charles, 2007, loc 167. Indeed, in the story Emma and the Ghost the grandmother was right as she suggested Emma to wait till the next morning to go to the cemetery to find her ring which she obviously lost while cleaning the grave of her grandfather. Emma did not listen to her and realized that her grandmother was right as she walked into the cemetery to find that “the graveyard looked different at night. It was deserted and full of shadows” (Charles, 2007, Loc. 67-68).

[15] My translation from the original: "Angst ist die Reaktion auf das Unbekannte, Ungreifbare, Ungewisse, dessen bildhafter Ausdruck das Dunkel ist. In ihm gedeihen Nachtangst und Gespensterfurcht." (Wilpert, 1994, p. 50).

[16] My translation from the original: ‘Im Dunkeln sind die Umwelt und ihre Gestalten unsichtbar, ihre Anwesenheit ist Sache der Vermutung. Die Furcht vor dem Dunkel ist die Furcht vor dem nicht Erkennbaren, das möglicherweise anwesend ist‘. (Wilpert, 1994, p. 51).

[17] Translated by me from the original: ‚Diese Besorgnisse sind doch nur sekundäre Rationalisierungen von vernünftig nicht begründbaren Bedrohungen, die oft unverhohlen beim Namen genannt werden und denen gegenüber Menschenkraft ohnmächtig ist‘. (Alywen, 1982, p. 309)

[18] Translated by me from the original: “Schreck, o grause Mitternacht / Mit Gespenstern, / Ich bin frei, /Denn Jesus wacht / An den Fenstern / Und schleusst eine Demantkette / Um mein Bett“. (Alywen, 1982, p. 309)

[19] Translated by from the original: “Die Nacht überfällt die Menschen mit Furcht und Schreck“. (Alywen, 1982, p. 309).

[20] Translated by the author: ‘Ich glaube nicht daran, aber ich fürchte mich davor‘. Alywen, 1982, p. 316).

[21] Translated by me from the original: “Die Aufklärung hatte ‘ihren Feldzug gegen das Unberechenbare und das Unerklärliche auf allen Gebieten nicht nur des Denkens, sondern auch des Lebens. Das bedeutet im bürgerlichen Leben die planmäßige Eindämmung von Zufall und Willkür, die Entthronung von Fortuna, die bisher als unumschränkte Herrin des Weltlaufs gegolten hat“. (Alywen, 1982, 316).

[22] Translated by me from the original: “Das bedeutet in der geistigen Welt die ebenso planmäßige Erweiterung der Front des Bekannten und erklärten gegenüber dem Unerkannten und Unerforschlichen“. (Alywen, 1982, p. 316).

[23] Translated by me from the original: “Der primitive Mensch, umzingelt von dämonischen Mächten, Göttern, Ungeheuern und Gespenstern, erfährt die Welt als ein Chaos von ungreifbaren und unerklärbaren Gefahren, deren er sich allenfalls durch magische Mittel notdürftig zu erwehren vermag“. (Alywen, 1982, p. 312).

[24] Quoted from http://www.wisdom.weizmann.ac.il/~oded/X/WeberScienceVocation.pdf. Original text in German: “Die zunehmende Intellektualisierung und Rationalisierung bedeutet /.../, daß es also prinzipiell keine geheimnisvollen unberechenbare Mächte gebe, die da hineinspielen, daß man vielmehr alle Dinge – im Prinzip – durch Berechnen beherrschen könne. Das aber bedeutet: die Entzauberung der Welt. Nicht mehr, wie der Wilde, für den es solche Mächte gab, muß man zu magischen Mitteln greifen, um die Geister zu beherrschen oder zu erbitten. Sondern technische Mittel und Berechnung leisten das. Dies vor allem bedeutet die Intellektualisierung als solche.” (Weber, 1917, p.16).

[25] Translated by me from the original: “Erst die fortschreitende Zivilisation entreißt der Wildnis langsam und mühsam relativ entzauberte und damit angstfreie Reviere, die sich allmählich ausdehnen, bis umgekehrt, zum mindesten in der abendländischen Welt, der Raum der Angst auf wenige entlegene Nester geschrumpft ist.“ (Alywen, 1982, p. 312)

[26] Translated by me from the original: “Abstoßung schlägt um in Anziehung, die Angst in Lust.“ (Alywen, 1982, p. 313)

[27] However, Asma makes reference to Kant and suggests that sometimes “we have an aesthetic experience that is both painful and pleasurable, and Kant calls this sublime,” (Asma, 2009, p. 186)

[28] Translated by Alexander Foreman, http://poemsintranslation.blogspot.tw/2010/04/goethe-elvenking-from-german.html.

[29] The translations of this poem in my paper are from: https://www.lwl.org/droste-download/texte/Web-Text-Der-Knabe-im-Moor-Swan-LV.pdf. Translator unknown.

[30] Die Briefe der Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, ed. V. Karl Schulte Kemminghausen, 1944, Bd. II, p. 535, as cited by Nigg (1966, p. 101).

[31] In regard to these words Varnado (1987, p. 51) points out that Frankenstein’s “conception of life and death is purely scientific and rational”, “since all feeling for the numinous and the sacred was deliberately omitted from his childhood experience.”

[32] Translated by me from the original: “Es hat gespukt!” /…/ Zwischen den Kartoffeln auf dem Acker neben dem Schinderbrunnen war er gewesen, um sich den Totenkopf zu fangen, der in der Dämmerung dort fliegen sollte, da hatte es unweit von ihm aus dem Kornfeld seinen Namen „Christian“ gerufen, /.../ und da er entsetzt davon gelaufen, sei es noch einmal hinter ihm hergekommen, als ob’s ihn habe greifen wollen.“ (Storm, 1962, p .626).

[33] Translated by me from the original: “Juden, sie waren schuld. Juden. Ich würgte und ballte die Fäuste. Juden. Juden Juden Juden Juden. Sie waren allein schuld. Ich haßte sie“. (Fühmann, 2003, p. 270)

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