Of Shadows and Substance

THE title seemed strangely familiar. ``Peter Schlemiel: The Man Who Sold His Shadow.'' It sounded like something I might have read in my college German class. Examining the book more closely, however, I realized that I had never read it before.

First published in 1814 as ``Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte'' (``Peter Schlemiel's Wonderful Story'' or ``History'' - the word Geschichte can mean either or both), this German classic was the work of a French-born aristocrat, Louis Charles Adelaide de Chamisso, who wrote under the adopted name of Adelbert von Chamisso.

Chamisso, as I learned from the introduction to this new English translation, was uprooted from his native France as a nine-year-old when his aristocratic family fled the terrors of the revolution for refuge in Prussia. Young Chamisso attended a Prussian military academy and went on to become an officer in the Prussian Army. This put him in an extremely uncomfortable position when the two countries went to war in 1806, and Napoleon decreed any Frenchman serving in a foreign army liable for execution.

Feeling himself to be neither French nor German, Protestant nor Roman Catholic, democrat nor aristocrat, Chamisso - an intellectual and a dreamer trapped in a military uniform - eventually found a place in the community of Berlin. He went on to become a writer and a naturalist. Of all his works, only ``Peter Schlemiel,'' begun as a fairy tale to amuse a child, enjoyed instant success and endured as a classic.

Since all of this rather fascinating story was news to me, what, I wondered, had made me think I was familiar with ``Peter Schemiel: The Man Who Sold His Shadow''? Was it simply the name Schlemiel that I recognized, a Yiddish word often heard in my family, meaning a bumbling fool. Or was I recalling other stories that also dealt with the selling of an intangible something?

But it wasn't merely the idea of some poor ``Schlemiel'' making a bad bargain that held such resonance. It was also something to do with the image of a man without a shadow. Perhaps I'd encountered it before in some forgotten folk tale. I did, however, remember the existence of a famous woman without a shadow: the eponymous heroine of the opera, ``Die Frau ohne Schatten,'' by composer Richard Strauss and poet-librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, written over a century later. The shadowless lady in question is an empress, half mortal, half spirit, whose deficiency symbolizes her inability to give her husband a child. She arranges to buy a shadow from a mortal woman, but generously reneges when she sees that the bargain is harmful to the mortal. Her nobility is rewarded and she gains the desired shadow (and hence, fertility).

It seemed unlikely, however, that my sense of d vu could be attributed to an opera I had never seen, only read about. It was far more likely I had confused Peter Schlemiel with J. M. Barrie's ``Peter Pan.'' The ``boy who never grew up,'' I recalled, was certainly upset at the loss of his shadow and very relieved when his little friend Wendy sewed it back on for him.

While the shadow in ``Die Frau ohne Schatten'' is clearly symbolic, the striking thing about Peter Pan's shadow is that it is a shadow in the most childlike and literal sense. And there is something of this literal, childlike quality about Peter Schlemiel's shadow as well. Here is what happens just after he has agreed to sell it to the mysterious man-in-gray, in exchange for a magic, never-empty purse:

``He shook my hand and without delay crouched down before me, and I watched as with startling skill he peeled and lifted my shadow from head to foot off the grass, rolled it up and folded it, and stuffed it in his pocket.''

Although a shadow seems utterly insubstantial to most adults, to a child it can seem like an entity. A shadow - a nothing - may look like a something, a fascinating, silent companion who follows you everywhere, running as fast as you do, growing or shrinking, fading or darkening with the changing clouds or the time of day.

When Peter Schlemiel sells his shadow, he assumes that he is selling the least real, least substantial aspect of himself. Yet what he discovers is that this airy nothing is seen by everyone else as the very proof of a person's substantiality. Thanks to the never-empty purse he obtained in exchange for his shadow, Peter Schlemiel can buy anything he wants: a mansion, servants, clothes, jewels, banquets. And he freely distributes his riches among the grateful populace. But, despite his wealth and generosity, no sooner do people discover his lack of a shadow than they turn from him in shock. No woman will consider marrying him - even sweet, lovely Mina, who truly seems to love him for himself and not his money, is quite distraught on learning that he has no shadow. Only one true friend, Bendel, sticks by him.

Could this shadow be a symbol of the soul, I found myself wondering as I began reading the story. Definitely not, I soon realized. Unlike Faust's daring bargain with Mephistopheles, Peter Schlemiel's sale of his shadow to a Mephistophelian man-in-gray seems innocuous, almost absent-minded. Later in the story, the man-in-gray offers to return the shadow - but not for the purse: only in exchange for Peter's soul. This Peter staunchly refuses to do, no matter how tempting it's made to seem, even when he discovers that there are people all around him, wealthy and socially accepted, who have bought back their shadows at the price of their souls.

Peter Schlemiel's loss of his shadow seems in many respects more of a misfortune than a misdeed. As translator Peter Wortsman suggests in his introduction, the hapless Schlemiel has much in common with the exile, the refugee, the man without roots, rejected by locals for lacking those outward trappings of language, custom, and background that would make him seem one of them. The fact that he is decent and kind, and that he has money, is not enough to win him acceptance. It is profoundly ironic that a ``shadow'' - the least real, least consistent aspect of a human being - is regarded by everyone in this story as solid evidence of a man's reliability.

Thinking about Peter Schlemiel's problems triggered one final recollection of a far more ancient parable about shadows and substances: the so-called cave allegory in Plato's ``Republic.'' Imagine a cave with a fire glowing inside, and people living in the cave who never venture out into daylight, but keep their attention fixed on the shadowy images cast by the fire, mistaking those shadows for reality. So, Plato reasons, do most men and women mistake the material world of physical appearance for reality, when in truth, these appearances are merely shadows or reflection of a higher, immaterial reality we do not see. In Plato's terms, the adult who mistakes outward appearance for reality is as childish as the child who believes a shadow has substance.

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