"En mand, et ord - H. C. Andersens 'Skyggen'".
This paper has been published in Andersen og Verden, Odense 1993.
A Man, a Word - Hans Christian Andersen's "The Shadow"Hans Henrik Møller
(summary for pages 303-10)
Andersen's "The Shadow" is the story about a learned man and his shadow, his attempt to visualize and fulfil his own writings about Beauty, Truth and Goodness, and it is the story of the act of writing itself: the storyteller's attempt to maintain the potential for Poetry in a reality dominated by appearances.
The learned man is a Romantic and his aspirations for Truth are doomed to fail when confronted with the increasingly persistent reality represented by the shadow; the fact that the shadow originates out of his own longings reduces the learned man, not only to being the servant of the shadow, but even to being a shadow himself of what he might have been. The final irony of the story is merciless: There is no escape from that illusion into which the world has turned, the illusion itself being a perversion of the original Romantic claim for unity in truth.
And yet the story has more to it. The actual narration of the story, the course of events, reveals certain gaps - gaps that challenge our final understanding of the story. Is the death of the learned man a final judgement on Romantic claims as such? Is it identical with the storyteller's intention, not only in presenting us with the story as told but by enclosing it in the very act of telling, or writing?
The narrative gaps produce a certain indecisiveness, a hesitation on the part of the reader as to how to understand the fundamental ambiguity of the text. Why does the learned man simply accept the loss of his old shadow and its replacement by another, thereby producing the initial shift from a more or less realistic to a fantastic narrative? Why cannot the entrance to the house of Poetry be found in the first place, within the realistic setting?
The realistic and the fantastic, the dream turning into a nightmare and the nightmare turning into reality: the basic structural levels of the text point to the narration itself as the place where the nightmare as well as the new, dreamt-of potential are contained. The very act of narration, then, is ambiguous: as the writings of the learned man aim at a re-gained, Romantic unity, so does the act of writing implicate the desire of the storyteller to come to terms with the world as described.
Writing is an attempt to relate an unbearable reality to a new opportunity, but reality itself also produces a further distance from the goal. It reveals its own price.
As for the learned man, the dream turns into a nightmare when he is confronted with the return of his shadow. This return is "unheimlich" (Freud): the shadow comes from a place where the self is not at home, not at ease with itself; the return of the shadow is the return of something formerly suppressed - the subconscious knowledge of the learned man that Beauty and Truth have no place in a world ruled by appearances, his unwillingness to admit the sexual implications of his desire for Poetry personified as a young maiden. The return of the shadow even appears as a bargain with the devil: the shadow presents the learned man with the price of his desire for Poetry, the learned man accepts his debts and agrees to act as a shadow for the shadow. He even promises never to expose the true identity of the shadow; "a man a word", he says, receiving the seemingly obvious but yet elusive reply "a word a shadow". What does this signify?
To the learned man, the return of the shadow is the dream turning into a nightmare. To the storyteller, however, the return of the shadow is the very condition upon which the narration is based: the return of the shadow is the result of the act of writing, it is the emergence of writing as a problem per se. The learned man is "a word", only truly existing in his own writings about, and longings for, Truth, the writings and longings already being incorporated in the story as told. And a word is ''a shadow", itself without real substance, a mere shadow of what might have been. The act of writing establishes its own story: it is a draft of Poetry, based upon the death of Truth.
The act of writing is the attempt of the storyteller to connect himself with what he is telling, to place himself at the centre of the world as described. In Andersen's "The Shadow", as in many other works of European fantastic or "gothic" literature, this attempt is haunted by its own shadow: to re-write the world as a place of regained opportunities is also to expose oneself to the unreal within writing itself.
The search of the learned man for Truth and Beauty reaches its peak in his vision of Poetry as a young maiden. Yet there seems to be no entrance to the house in which she is hiding; only by letting his shadow go astray can he hope for another glimpse. Poetry itself, then, becomes a shadowy experience, only accessible to a writer who has already crossed the borderlines of sanity.