Friday, June 20, 2008

On Michael Ende's "Zettelkasten" - a Pet Peeve

This is a post about the usage of the word "Zettelkasten" in German. So it is of limited interest to those who do not speak German. "Zettelkasten" is the equivalent of "card index," "index card file," "slip box," etc. Literally translated it is a box of small pieces of papers (of uniform size). No one would be tempted to employ these terms to a collection of loose pages, arranged in folders or files. But in German, there is a tendency to do just that. So, people have a tendency to speak of Hegel's Zettelkasten, even though his collection of had nothing to do with "Kästen" or "Zettel."

Frederieke Mayröcker's so-called "Zettelkasten", on the other hand, seems to be nothing more than a messy room full of papers. Even though this does seem to include shoe boxes and smaller pieces of paper, but it's not the kind of thing you would think of when you talk about a "Zettelkasten." A card file does suggest at least a semblance of order. While a Zettelkasten may indeed involve "Unordnung" or disorder, it is one with a "nichtbeliege Struktur" (non-arbitrary structure).

But the misuse of this term that bothers me most is that of a book containing the posthumous notes of Michael Ende (of the Never-ending Story fame). Endes was a thoughtful author children's stories that are also of some interest to adults who have remained children at heart.

Michael Endes Zettelkasten. Skizzen und Notizen (Stuttgart: Weitbrecht Verlag, 1994) has nothing to do with a card index either. It is just a collection of manuscript material: "In seinem Archiv hat Michael Ende über viele Jahrzehnte seiner schriftstellerischen Arbeit hinweg stapelweise beschriebene Zettel, Blätter, aber auch ausgefalleneres Schreibmaterial wie zum Beispiel Theaterkarten und Rechnungen angesammelt. Auf ihnen sind, teils handschriftlich, teils mit Schreibmaschine geschrieben, irgendwelche Romanfänge, einfälle jeglicher Art, einzelne Szenen aus aus Theaterstücken wie auch zahlreiche Entwürfe ... auch Gedanken und Überlegungen ..., die ihn irgendwann einmal beschäftigt oder bewegt haben: selbst längere Abhandlungen über die unterschiedlichsten Themen ...

Some of this is interesting, but it fails to constitute a Zettelkasten in any interesting way. To call it by this name is arbitrary and not very useful either.

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