This is about a text I found by being in the wrong place. Talking about books can sometimes feel like that: like a succession of empty boxes, or like every room is the wrong room, every discussion one that you’ve walked into at the wrong moment. I can’t, now, actually remember where it was I was supposed to be. But in any case I had got the wrong room number, maybe – or maybe the wrong time – and by the time the handouts had gone round I was too embarrassed, too timid of my German, to admit my error.

The two-hour long seminar I found myself trapped in turned out to be about Adalbert von Chamisso, the author of Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte, or The wonderful History of Peter Schlemihl, an 1814 German fairytale about a man who sells his shadow to the devil.

Peter Schlemihl is at a garden party when he meets the curious Man in Grey who offers him the Fortunati purse, a bottomless bag of money, in exchange for his shadow. Schlemihl acquiesces.

I stretched out my hand.  “Done! the bargain is made; I give you my shadow for your purse.”  He grasped my hand, and knelt down behind me, and with wonderful dexterity I perceived him loosening my shadow from the ground from head to foot;—he lifted it up;—he rolled it together and folded it, and at last put it into his pocket.  He then stood erect, bowed to me again, and returned back to the rose grove.  I thought I heard him laughing softly to himself.

The materialization of the shadow here – ‘he rolled it together and folded it’ – giving us the sense of its having a texture, a mass – is characteristic of Chamisso’s co-option of the supernatural into his realism. The shadow flits, that is, between the registers of the real and the impossible. Strangely, it is a thing and a no-thing at once.

And there turns out to be something terribly amiss in a life without a shadow. Schlemihl is mocked by those around him, then scorned, and finally forced into hermetic exclusion from society. After further encounters with the Man in Grey, and refusing to buy back his shadow – at the price, this time, of his soul – Schlemihl retreats into the solitary life of a botanist. He ends up travelling the world in a pair of seven-league boots, taxonomising plants, cataloguing the phenomena of the natural world.

It’s a story that I’ve found myself, strangely, returning to.

What the shadow does in the story is to keep us hungry for reality. We want it to be a label, a symbol. We cannot help but look for the swiftest exchange, the easiest deal: to swap a thing for a meaning. As we try to figure the story out, we are, like Schlemihl, haunted by the diabolical man in grey, wavering on the cusp of replicating his bad transaction. The shadow – not a usual kind of thing, after all – bears up no obvious symbolic significance. It remains, as Schlemihl puts it, lamenting alone on the heath, ‘alles um einen Schatten!’ – ‘all about a shadow!’

polly dickson

My shadow marks out my enthrallment to the here-and-now. It proves that I am a real body with mass and opacity: proves that I, like any other opaque massy body, am beholden to the world, and subject to the fall of light.

Shadows in literature are traditionally associated with life and mortality. In folklore, shadowlessness is equated to soullessness. In the third canto of Purgatorio in Dante’s Divine Comedy the pilgrim’s master Virgil, who has no shadow, is discovered to be dead – precisely because the mortal body must cast a shadow. J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan accidentally leaves his in the nursery of the Darling children. This episode is characteristic for the strange life Peter leads – uncannily proximate to death, stuck in the land of ‘never’. If Peter’s mischievous shadow has a kind of surplus life, then it’s a sign that his own life is a little less than human.

Yet, whilst my shadow casts me as a physical thing, belonging to the world, I cannot help but invest it with personality. It flits between mind and matter. The shadow inhabits the margin between the body conditioned as thing – beholden to the light, made of matter, made of stuff – and the psychic life.

We speak of the timid as being frightened of their own shadows. Being scared of my shadow is a moment of bumping up against this strange junction, against the limiting walls of my corporeal existence. It reminds me of a footnote in ‘The Uncanny’ where Freud describes being startled by his reflection in a train mirror:

I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment when a more than usually violent jerk of the train swung back the door of the adjoining washing-cabinet, and an elderly gentleman in a dressing- gown and a traveling cap came in […] Jumping up with the intention of putting him right, I at once realized to my dismay that the intruder was nothing but my own reflection in the looking-glass of the open door. I can still recollect that I thoroughly disliked his appearance.

Stories invoking doubles like shadows or reflections involve the recognition of my own projected image – something which is, ‘to my dismay’, me, as well as something alien and separate.

Meaning-making in texts is not a simple trade-off, and shadows are hazy, indistinct figures – they change size and shape in the light; sometimes they appear to disappear. Schlemihl ends inconclusively, almost unsatisfyingly, without fixed symbolic portent. A shadow, Chamisso shows us, isn’t the kind of thing that means something. It invariably refuses us the pay-off we don’t always know we have been looking for. In Schlemihl it refers me back to myself, to my own body and my own vain will for meaning.

Reading is a bodily compromise, although we don’t always think of it that way. It is an act of yielding, of signing something away, something irreducibly but unspecifically corporeal – perhaps a kind of shadow-self. Texts, presenting us with a whole host of ‘other’ selves, want us to escape the thick walls of personality that hem us into life. This is why a narrative claim to reality can be a very uncomfortable thing. I’m talking about both nineteenth-century Realism and the reality hunger of current mainstream narratives. Nothing in modern cinema or modern booklists sells as well as that pithy line ‘based on a true story’. This claim on reality is no more than a spluttering dream, because of course the one thing you can say about any narrative – about fiction – is that it is a fabrication, it isn’t real. Robert Louis Stevenson, writing at the other end of the century to Chamisso, notes in an 1884 essay that the only real way to get closer to truth is to move away from it:

The novel, which is a work of art, exists, not by its resemblances to life, which are forced and material […] but by its immeasurable difference from life, which is designed and significant, and is both the method and the meaning of the work. (‘A Humble Remonstrance’)

To get anywhere close to life, art must distance itself from it. The work of art, then, can be uncanny by its very nature, by its proximity-within-distance, its tendency to dredge together sameness and alterity, like the figure of the double. Mimetic art is characterised by this two-way pull of sameness and difference, of Jekyll and Hyde, of ‘me’ and my shadow.

One legend about the origin of art stages it as a shadow-story. A Corinthian maid sees the image of her departing lover cast on the wall by a lamp, and traces around it, capturing his silhouette. This makes the human shadow a critical player in the act of representation. Art formulates itself in the act of capturing the lover’s shadow, and is therefore always a compensation for life: a loved departed thing.

Reading demands time and space. It can be an effort, even if it is also a pleasure. Inhabiting a text makes us vulnerable: it seems to makes us forget, for a while, about our material existence. And – as we know after reading Schlemihl – we also have to forget about meaning, sometimes, even if it’s what we think we want. Bouncing back from the walls that art hoped us to break through, we let life depart from us and give ourselves up to the play of shadow.

The self-reflexive patterning of a shadow-story brings us up as readers against the uncomfortable fact of the reading compromise. It makes me think of the first time I found out about Schlemihl, in a room I wasn’t supposed to be in: and how reading, and talking about reading, can feel like that – like a displacement, or a matter of being boxed up – in the wrong room, maybe, or maybe at the wrong time.