Hidden Stories Are Never Mute

The German Gestält psychologist, proto-phenomenologist and linguist, Karl Bühler coined the phrase ‘abstractive relevance’ to define human perception (and that of non-human organisms as well). Bühler’s idea is that we perceive something by retaining what is relevant for the perception in the given context and, in order to perceive anything at all, we ignore the remaining features of the object. Such features are the hidden dimension of perception, but nevertheless a constitutive part of it.

What we see and what we ignore are part of one and the same process. In this way we may identify an object with a certain meaning in that context and then react to it, store it in our memory, ask questions of it, etc. Bühler’s intention is to understand perception as a pre-cognitive process in such a way that it is more than a stimulus-response type of reception. He wanted to be able to grasp it as the necessary initiation of a meaning-producing process where perception in itself was integrated as an act turning objects or events into signs. Or in the more philosophical German, abstractive relevance is a condition of possibility of meaning.

Therefore, as Bühler claims in his magisterial Sprachtheorie of 1934, perception is not only directed toward physical objects, but applies in the case of imagined objects as well. Or, to express it differently, abstractive relevance is the term for a process involved in the perception of any object whatever its ontological status may be. It is first of all a meaning-producing process. “Es gibt keine sinnfreie Sehung”: There is no seeing without meaning. He could have added the other senses as well–hearing, smelling, touching, etc.–whether they happen in our imagination or in a physical act of perception. Whatever the case might be, perception is never deprived of meaning.

Therefore, he was mostly preoccupied with perception of objects as signs, verbal or non-verbal. In the case of language, he wanted to find out why certain sounds are perceived as linguistic sounds in one context by some people, but in another context or by other people just as an acoustic flow. His explanation is that our capacity to perform abstractive relevance is flexible, determined (1) by the object in question, (2) by the context, and (3) by pre-established knowledge, that is, the memory of the persons involved (Schütz 1955).

Hence, two features characterise signs as such. Firstly, there is always perception involved, perhaps only indirectly related to the signs. Just as perception is never a purely sensory process, signs can never be understood alone on the basis of formal structures as some structuralists will have it (such as Louis Hjelmslev). Or, as Sigmund Freud, Edmund Husserl, Jacques Derrida and many others have insisted, signs are never wholly ideal or autonomous. Secondly, all meaning that can be remembered – consciously or unconsciously – is determined by a dialectic of remembrance and forgetting. In order for something to stand out and be perceived, imaginatively or physically, something in relation to that object must be forgotten. Signs therefore must articulate a relation between remembrance and forgetting, showing and hiding, in order for them to be perceived as entities conveying meaning. The forgotten or hidden dimension is therefore never absolutely mute.

Abstractive relevance concerns more than perceptual psychology and semiotics. Friedrich Nietzsche also pointed to the necessity of forgetting for something to be remembered in his 1874 text on the usefulness of history, Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben. The dialectics of abstractive relevance also embraces stories and other representations of the world of human experience, whether so-called ‘real’ histories or fictional narratives. In what follows, I will focus on two aspects of the hidden stories: one concerned with the occurrence of hidden stories in clusters and the other, dealt with more extensively, concerned with the interactive literary strategies used to show the moving boundary between remembrance and forgetting, hiding and showing.

Lost and Found

As the abstractive relevance is always exercised in a context, the first conclusion is that a hidden story never occurs alone, as a single riddle to be solved as in traditional crime fiction –whodunit? Hidden stories always come in clusters. That’s why we, when focusing on a given meaning of a phenomenon or a story told in the open, also, and maybe unconsciously, must find ways to access the network of hidden stories underpinning the story in order to comprehend it. Let me give you an example: the story of Minik Wallace (Harper 2001).

He was an Inuit boy from the remote North-West Territory, north of Thule in Greenland, a place that around the turn of the last century attracted explorers and adventurers who competed to be the first humans on the North Pole. The American Robert Peary was among the most zealous travellers. Greenland has been part of Denmark since 1380, together with Iceland and the Faroe Islands, when Denmark was the most important empire of Northern Europe. The Orkney and Shetland Islands, Norway and Sweden and present day Northern Germany, and later small colonies elsewhere in the world, became also part of the empire during the next four centuries, only to be lost thereafter. But around 1900, the international status of Greenland was not quite clear. Although Danish, it was mostly nobody’s land where everybody came and went as they pleased and did what they pleased. Peary, too. He claimed to have reached the North Pole before Roald Amundsen, but it has never been finally proven. There’s a hidden story still to be told here.

From his first visit, Peary brought back in 1897 one the world’s largest meteorites, which financed his trip. It was brought to the new Museum of Natural History in New York which also hosted the early anthropologists Frank Boas and Alfred Kroeber. They asked Peary to also bring back some specimens of Eskimos of various ages, if possible of the same family, to be investigated by the new science which then was partly based on a blend of positivism, exoticism, eugenics and social Darwinism. So, in 1897, he took Minik, then about seven, and five of his family members back with him.

They got a room in the basement of the museum, but attracted too much public attention from people peeping through the windows (like other so-called primitive people, exhibited at world’s fairs and in the new zoos around the world before WW1). So they were moved to the third floor. Within about a year the adults died from pneumonia, owing to the humid and, for them, hot climate of New York and a general feeling of being confined.

Now Minik was left alone. He received the name Wallace from an employee at the museum who took care of him and went to school, but could not adapt. He helped in the museum. And one day he saw a new white skeleton put on display carrying his father’s name. He screamed. A few years earlier, he had witnessed his burial according to Inuit customs, but that was a fake funeral. All his dead people had been sent to the conservationist for cleaning together with various animals acquired by the museum and were kept in the storage room of the anthropologists. Minik’s scream was heard. There was a public outcry and the skeleton disappeared immediately. The museum denied that it existed at all. It was just the understandable imagination of the wild boy, now 17, was the official interpretation.

The Danish Consul reported matters to Copenhagen. After all, Minik was a kind of Dane. The Consul was very much in agreement with the interpretation of the museum, so nobody reacted. Minik wanted to return to Greenland, but money did not come his way. But eventually he was put on shore, so to speak, in the south of the island – that Greenland is simply Greenland seems to have been the general conception. But Minik did not speak the language there, 2000 km from his home in the far North-West. Finally, he arrived home, but could not find a place – he had forgotten most of the language and he could not hunt and thus take care of a family. However, with his competence in English, he assisted explorers and anthropologists visiting the North-West, including some of the more famous Danish explorers, Peter Freuchen and Knud Rasmussen. At a certain point he returned to the United States, also homeless there, and ended his days in 1918 as a lumberjack in Vermont and was buried there.

In 1916, Denmark sold its last tropical colonies, the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, to the ‘States and, apart from money, Denmark more importantly obtained international recognition of its sovereignty over the entire Greenland.

Minik was forgotten until anthropologists started to unravel the hidden past of the discipline in the 1980s. The museum still denied everything until the mid-1990s when they admitted the story and returned the bones to North-West Greenland where they were properly buried, and a memorial stone was inaugurated by the Danish queen in 1997, a hundred years after Minik disembarked in New York. Firstly, he was lost and found like a forgotten item in a train. Finally, he was lost and found as a human being.

The Cluster of Hidden Stories

As is clear, a cluster of several hidden stories are at work here in a tight network. If we, in a process of abstractive relevance, focus on one of them and unearth it from its hiding place, others will be ignored. Hidden stories not only come in clusters, but constitute a meaning-producing dynamic in an endless process, where the explication of one story is just a moment in a larger process where what is hidden and what is obvious may change, as we know when we reinterpret history or literature.

But the hiding is more than one thing and so is bringing forth. First of all, there are four intertwined hidden stories which, once brought into the open, can be shown as rather finite and verifiable entities: (1) the hidden story of anthropology, (2) the hidden story of the Museum of Natural History, (3) the hidden story of Danish colonialism, and (4) the hidden story of Minik and his family. These four have already in various ways been brought into the open as part of a post-colonial trend.

Yet there are two more stories, at least, which cannot be rediscovered in the same way: One is the story of Peary and Amundsen heading towards the North Pole. The evidence is simply not there to decide who was the first, but in principle it could have been possible. It is like hidden stories which can only be discovered on the basis of material now destroyed. Their hiding is a practical problem. They are just forgotten.

Finally, we have the story of Minik himself from his point of view – what did he think, what did he feel, what did he dream of, what did he want to say, but never got around to, what could or would he not say? In New York he was taciturn, reclusive; in Greenland, he is reported to have been a local ‘smartarse’, bragging about his life in New York and his proficiency in English. In Vermont, by contrast, he is reported to have been hardworking and content. But who knows? This is not just a forgotten story, but a hidden story in the strictest sense of the term and therefore is impossible to relate without interactive and co-productive engagement from the listener and the reader. The balance between hiding and showing does not only rely on the context of Minik’s meandering life, but also, and inevitably so, on the context of the signs produced to decide the balance. This is the task of literature.

Hidden Stories in Literature

Here is my second point derived from Bühler’s notion of abstractive relevance: There is never a clear-cut distinction between what is hidden and what is not, what can be revealed and what can not. It is an interactive process with the perceiver actively involved, requiring certain literary and other aesthetic strategies.

This is a point which Bühler himself, and Nietzsche as well, forgot to pay attention to. How are signs produced and combined in a perceptible way – to be listened to, watched, read, etc – in such a way that their very emergence, as a result of the exercise of abstractive relevance, can be traced perceptually in the text, the image and other products of signs? This question is crucial to literature, among other phenomenon, and to which we may see its narrative procedures, imaginary language, and other aesthetic devices as an answer. Literature is showing by hiding, and hiding by showing. This is not something ontologically specific for literature, a literary metaphysics as it were, but is just a particular way of performing the abstractive relevance it shares with all other meaning-producing and creative human activities, the arts in particular.

Here we have to make a clearer distinction between forgotten stories and hidden stories than in the previous part of this paper. In contrast to the cluster of forgotten stories around the fate of Minik, hidden stories in literature must not be mistaken for forgotten stories. Hiding may be a conscious act that ultimately may lead to oblivion in places where memory otherwise should prevail, such as the museum hiding the facts about Minik’s family. But hiding may also be taken in a more profound way, as something that has never been subject to a process of hiding. It has simply never been out in the open and could never emerge as such, for example, Minik’s story from his own point of view. It has, as it were, no object we can look for, only the process of discovery itself.

Forgetting, by contrast, is asymmetrical with both remembrance and hiding in that, as Umberto Eco has indicated, it cannot be a conscious act. There is no ars oblivionis, as he says, in his 1988 paper “An ars oblivionis? Forget about it!” What is hidden is not necessarily forgotten, it may be repressed, and what is forgotten is not always hidden, at least not to everyone, it may be just to oneself. As there is no memory without forgetting, meaning a process of abstractive relevance, hiding and forgetting can both play a decisive role for the construction of memory and make it a creative process, not just a recalling of something or an archive of the past.

So, if hiding and forgetting are different but related processes, the phenomena which enter into a state of hiding or forgetting are not quite alike. They both may be hard to find and dig out of their hiding places, but the way they got there, consciously or unconsciously, turn the process of memory into two different forms–the voluntary memory and the involuntary memory, as Walter Benjamin (1939) calls it with reference to Marcel Proust. Now, finally coming to our point: how does this difference shape the stories about forgetting and hiding?

Literature may tell all such stories, such as crime fiction with the hidden motif, the forgotten key, the forgotten feelings, the hidden treasure, etc.–and has techniques to do so. But the energy that literature takes from hiding and exploits to shape all other types of willful or unwilling hiding, or things forgotten, have their origin in the hidden that cannot be brought forward. It requires indirect presentation in narrative structure, narrator’s positions and imaginary language. The other types of forgetting and hiding, and the other types of object, are reshaped by the strategies of the hiding that is impossible to abolish.

Art is a particular type of remembering what is hidden and also perhaps forgotten. It is the process of unraveling that never stops and therefore feeds on the hidden that must remain so and therefore emerge in infinite protean ways. Art never simply discloses it, but shows it as hidden in such a way that the creativity of art is transferred to the process of reading or watching the traces of the hidden. Thus we experience how the individual and collective memories that create personal and cultural identities depend on the parallel and possibly painful processes of both deliberate hiding and accidental forgetting.

Obviously, writings on genocide constitute a prime example of this constellation, but here I will avoid this well studied and important field. With three examples I will instead point to the general complexity of hiding and disclosing, each of them exemplifying a basic literary device for practising abstractive relevance. Amitav Ghosh: In an Antique Land (1992), Multatuli: Max Havelaar (1860) and Hans Christian Andersen: The Shadow (1847).

Anonymity Recognized

Ghosh’s novel unfolds in Egypt around 1990, in the period leading up to the current Gulf War. It also integrates various locations across the globe and across historical epochs since the Middle Ages. The young Indian anthropologist Amitab lives in a small village in Egypt while he is pursuing his studies of some old documents. They are located in Cairo and in the United States after having been found in a hiding place, dispersed partly by the Germans during World War Two but thoroughly studied by a non-Jewish German philologist in the 1930s during the Nazi regime.

The documents contain a story about medieval commercial relations between Cairo, Aden and Mangalore, involving merchants of Jewish, Arab and Indian descent who interact harmoniously across the geographical and cultural boundaries. This story gradually emerges out of the documents and is discretely presented as a contrast to our contemporary world of persistent conflicts in the same region. A both hidden and forgotten story formulated to teach belligerent people of today a lesson.

Actually, the story of the merchants is not a complex intertwining of forgetting, hiding and remembrance. It is just brought forward, like the meandering story of the documents themselves. But there is another story, too. It also turns out that the young and somewhat naïve Amitab only knows very little about the people he is living with in Egypt, and they know even less of his background. They are each others’ hidden stories which produce an abundance of tragi-comical misunderstandings and heated arguments, as is the case with many cross-cultural encounters. They are hidden because of ideological and religious strategies developed since the merchants travelled the region.

The three hidden stories just mentioned–the mediaeval story of commerce, the routes of the documents, and the mutually hidden cultural contexts–unfold in a structure of parallel and intertwined unfinished narratives. This continues when Amitab leaves for his research in the ‘States. However, the driving force behind Amitab’s research is another and more complex hidden story than these three. He is struck by the recurring name of a slave in the documents, Bomma, always present, but on margins of both events and narrative. Amitab speculates repeatedly about his role and his fate which is never made precise. Yet the slave is always there and is obviously given responsible financial and communicative duties in the networks of the merchants, especially when they at a certain point have a quarrel over money and are disturbed by some mutual distrust. Even if not been the invisible glue of the story, Bomma at least has always been with the merchants, has known their stories, has had access to confidential matters, has acted as a go-between, perhaps at times with a better overview over the situation than the merchants themselves.

Having no details of Bomma, Amitab instead – as a sideline to his academic preoccupation with mediaeval trade routes – explores the name of the slave. It turns out that the name Bomma has Indian roots, from around Mangalore, Amitab’s own homeplace. This is the only story he can construct which is hardly an independent narrative, but still the driving force for him. At that point he sums up: ‘It was as if Bomma finally came of age and was ready at last to become a protagonist in his own story’ (254).

This is, of course, the hidden story of Amitab himself – the peripheral stranger in Egypt, in India and in the research field he is engaged with. While he is still living where the core events of the mediaeval period took place, the Gulf War launched, and the rare documents actually kept, he continues to contact his friends, calling them from the village when they are at war or live as migrant workers in Baghdad. But he never really shapes one story out of it all. The final words of the novel relate to Nabeel from the village, now lost in Bagdad, words which are also valid for Bomma and Amitab himself, ‘Nabeel had vanished into the anonymity of History’ (353).

The hidden story surfaces when somebody focuses on it, practising abstractive relevance on it, as it were. The same goes for our own life. And when neither we nor others keep the focus anymore, as will eventually be the case, it becomes one with anonymity. To be re-focused requires that somebody invests his or her own life and engage in bringing the story forth. The story is then just as much about this engagement as about the story itself more or less made visible. Ghosh’s strategy using parallel stories in open networks is to produce a writer’s participation in the process of telling through identification with the hidden. Without this participation, the hidden story cannot be told, therefore the story cannot be fully told. The subjective filter, open to interpretations, will always remain a part of the hidden story.

A Cup of Coffee

With Max Havelaar we move back to the mid-nineteenth century with a post-colonial view of Dutch colonial history in the province of Lebak, just west of Jakarta. Here, the Dutch colonial coffee trade was practiced with a more than firm hand for the benefit of the Dutch merchants in Amsterdam, not knowing – and not interested in knowing – how the coffee they earned millions on was actually produced. In 1860, there was a public outcry when the book, written by the frustrated former colonial civil servant Edouard Dekker, was published under the penname of Multatuli – meaning in Latin ‘I have suffered much’. It was edited by the publisher without the author’s consent, and the story of the disappearance and reappearance of the manuscript and the subsequent editions and revisions is a hidden story in itself, not unlike the documents in Ghosh’s novel. Nevertheless, political measures were taken after the book came out to make life easier in the colonies for the local population.

This hidden story, as we know from numerous colonial and post-colonial accounts, may not be of prime interest nowadays. The reason why the book is still enticing has to do with the fact that the hiding and forgetting never get out of their mutual entanglement.

The dry and hypercorrect coffee merchant Droogstoppel receives a huge box with mixed and unedited documents from the former colonial civil servant Max Havelaar. Havelaar received it from an earlier acquaintance whom Droogstoppel condescendingly calls Sjaalman, the man with the shawl, meaning a poor and unreliable person who cannot even afford a decent coat. The content of the box is a mess, but Droogstoppel starts making a list of the papers with a brief heading for each. On reading some of them, it dawns on him that the colonial reality from which he earns his honest money is a moral cesspool. This cannot, however, be told straightforwardly. If it is to be believed, he has to write a novel, reluctantly, though as he hates and profoundly distrusts fiction and poetry. With the help of a young German apprentice, Stern, his son Frits, and his daughter – and in part also Sjaalman because of documents being in the local language – the writing starts.

Here, the reader begins to get worried. A hidden story from the colonies on the life of the honest and therefore dismissed Havelaar cannot be separated from the writing process with all its fragmentary, subjective and arbitrary unreliability. The primary writing in Dutch is carried out by Stern, not even a Dutch citizen, as Droogstoppel hesitantly admits. We never know which papers from Sjaalman’s box are taken into account and which not, as we never know if Stern and Frits just invent everything because they like to indulge in imaginary writing, not least to impress various girls when they read aloud from their work. Droogstoppel tries to keep them on track, but the reader is never sure whether he actually succeeds. And the young people care less. Droogstoppel even calls on a priest to sermonise on decency, reliability and strict morals to counter the amorous motivations for the writing.

So, the closer we come to the core of hidden story, the unjust Dutch behaviour in Indonesia, the more we doubt. Has the story been told from the right documents? Did the young blood invent half of it? Are the translations from local languages correct? Here, not the writer, but the reader must make his or her own decisions concerning the hidden story and, just like Droogstoppel with his nose in the box of papers, must practice abstractive relevance.

At a certain point it is said about Havelaar’s poetic power that it makes him trustworthy:

One cannot but acknowledge that Havelaar was a true poet. One cannot but feel that, when he spoke of the rice fields on the mountains, he raised his eyes to them through the open side of the ’hall’ and really saw those fields. […] He invented nothing: he heard the tree speak (119).

Said by Stern, probably. And then we confront Droogstoppel’s opposite view:

Mind you, I’ve no objection to verses in themselves. If you want words to form fours, it’s all right with me! But don’t say anything that isn’t true. […] And it is not only verses that tempt young people into untruthfulness. Just go to the theatre, and listen to all the lies that are served up there (21).

So Droogstoppel spreads doubt about the reliability of his own projects and his helpers’ capacity to reveal the hidden story truthfully. The two positions are never reconciled.

The unresolvable balance between conscious hiding, accidental forgetting and disclosing is told in such a way that the very conditions for the reliability of the narrative process inevitably become an integral part of the story itself. This places the reader on the threshold of hiding and revealing, thus pointing to the reader’s interpretative responsibility by identifying him- or herself with those who produce the unreliable but engaging story. It practises a strategy for the reader’s participation by placing the responsibility on him or her.

Hidden in the Shadow

One of Hans Christian Andersen’s more complex tales is ‘The Shadow’. Shortly after his first volume of fairy tales came out in 1835, he realised that the genre offered more possibilities than pointing to a hidden and fantastic reality behind the realm of the senses and everyday experiences. They also could become complex, but still short, stories about the conditions of writing hidden stories. They became self-reflexive meta-stories about the creative process itself hidden behind the surface of the story and its events, characters and narrative flow. One such story is ‘The Shadow’.

A learned man from the cold north has settled in the warm south. From his balcony he can see both his shadow on the wall of the house opposite the balcony and a young maiden inside the house. The shadow separates himself from the man, enters the maiden’s apartment and disappears, while the man continues to write ‘books about what was true in the world, and about what was good and what was beautiful’ – stories which nobody seems to care about. One day, the shadow returns, now a fine man of world, rich, successful and powerful. ‘I just want to see you before you die’, he condescendingly tells the now old learned man.

It now turns out that in the house opposite the learned man’s apartment lived Poesy. The man who had written poetry all his life did not even recognise it when he saw it. But the shadow came to know everything simply from being in the antechamber of the other house, and he used this advantage to climb his way upwards in society. And the man, who had thought he wrote about everything true, now became thinner and thinner, actually more and more shadowlike, and finally turned into the shadow of his own shadow before he eventually died. He vainly tried to resist: ‘I am the man, and thou art a shadow – thou are only dressed up!’ ‘There is no one who will believe it!’, the shadow replied, ‘Be reasonable, or I will call the guard’. The man, now a shadow, fades away, while a princess infatuated with the shadow marries him.

Poesy without life, as in the shadow, has a hidden power to manipulate the world or to kill its author. Here art and life stay external to each other. The hidden story tells that they are two sides of the same coin. Their mutual interdependence becomes the hidden story.

The ontological problem of literature and other arts – where is the boundary between fiction and reality? – is for ever hidden because when we tell the story the boundary is always set in motion. The questioning of the boundary always propels a process of repetition and produces an ontological doubt, precisely by addressing the issue. In art, ontological doubt is continuously reproduced, thus pointing to this doubt as a fundamental part our experience and knowledge.

Hiding and Disclosing in Literature

The three texts have focused on the hidden story of the writer’s participation, of the reader’s participation and of the ontological as a constitutive hidden aspect of art. They have done so with different means: parallel narratives in Ghosh, fragmented narratives in Multatuli and meta-fiction in Andersen. All three are but three dimensions of the same creative process. The use of the hidden dimension of stories is a way of creating a reader responsibility in the production of textual meaning – and to secure that the hidden dimension of all meaning production is not forgotten.

My introductory comments on Bühler’s abstractive relevance also act as a hidden claim, namely, that what goes on in literature is not an isolated or autonomous process, but an integral part of the fundamental way in which we, as humans, orient ourselves creatively in the world around us. The hidden dimensions of our existence are an essential driving force for this interaction.


Andersen, Hans Christian (2009/1847). The Shadow
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