William T. Vollmann and I at his Sacramento studio earlier this afternoon.
I had a scene on the tower of the Stiftskirche in Tübingen, but having been there and nosed around the old tombs I’d added this. No idea yet if it will make the final cut but it was fun to dig into the new stuff I know. We write what we want to know, not what we know…
The remains of the sixteenth and seventeenth century rulers of Württemberg lay in stone tombs in Tübingen’s Stiftskirche. The sarcophagi are ornately carved, fifteen of them in all, with each lid bearing a recumbent statue representing a likeness of whoever’s ashy remains are held within. One will find them arrayed in the room what once held the choir stalls, a room beyond the rood screen, illuminated by five tall stained glass panels that rain faint colored light upon the gray stone.
The oldest of the remains are that of Ludwig I, who perished of the plague just twenty-three days short of his thirty-eighth birthday in the year 1450. The duke’s body, rendered upon the stone lidded crypt that carries his bones, is rendered with an idyllic quality somewhere between realism and stylization. He wears full plate armor, one gauntleted hand upon his waist, the other clutching the stone cloth of his cloak. His face is clear and thin and, unlike many of his dead relatives, cleanly shaven. Sharing a tomb twice as wide as any other is his wife, Mechtild von der Pfalz, who lay beside her husband, hands bare and clutching at the stone cloth of her own gown. Like many of the women, her head is covered by a wimple that winds over her throat and the face framed in that flowing false cloth is perhaps more expressive than any other in the stone crypt. In her eyes one finds a sense of distance, of things seen and not seen, of interest and perhaps even of desire.
A few tombs away one will come upon the resting place of Sabina von Bayern, the duchess of Bavaria and, later, upon her unhappy marriage to Ulrich von Württemberg, the duchess of that region as well. Her marriage to Herzog Ulrich is of legend. Ulrich was a protestant and a war hero, having distinguished himself in the Landshut War of Succession in 1504 and Sabina was promised to him at the age of six by the Emperor Maximilian I, a strategic marriage meant to form an unassailable alliance between the Duchy of Württemberg and the Electorate of Bavaria.
Perhaps the story is always the same. The betrothal lasted until 1511. When they were married—in an elaborate ceremony and reception lasting, in total, fourteen days and including over seven thousand guests—Ulrich had just turned twenty-four and his new bride nineteen. Ulrich was a violent man and he beat his wife and tormented her. She fled first to Stuttgart and then to München where she lived under the protection of her brothers. Her husband used her departure to create a political scandal that plagued her for most of her life.
When he died at last she was fifty-eight years old. Her son Christoph became Duke of Württemberg and she moved to Nürtingen, thirty kilometers downstream from Tübingen on the flow of that same clear river, the waters of which run on to the north, eventually reaching that tangle of rivers in the Catholic Low Countries that empty into the North Sea.
Come now to stand before the tomb, for she has been encased in a sarcophagus close enough her hated husband that she might, had she wished, reached out her hand to touch the cold gray stone of his resting place. But this is not the final insult.
Sabina lay recumbent upon a velvet pillow, dressed in a gown and sash. Her fingertips, hands bare and finely-veined, touch in an attitude of prayer. But what is remarkable here are not her hands but her mouth, for Sabina von Bayern’s mouth is covered in what we might today call a gag. It is pinned to the hood that covers her head completely and appears tight enough that it might have taken some difficulty to remove it, had it been real cloth and not stone. Indeed, the sash that descends her body, falling between her praying hands nearly to her invisible feet, are but the ends of this gag. One will be told that it is meant to indicate her widowhood, and it is true that others here in the crypt are similarly gagged for the crime of outliving their husbands, but this fact does not make the image any less disturbing. She has been dragged back to the side of the man she despised the most and has been gagged by a tradition that reduces her to silence as her bones molder in a black box. Her eyes reveal no emotion whatsoever, not a hint of desire or longing or even disgust. They are blank holes in a gagged face.
Had I the words, I might have saved her from such a fate. But these are the only words there are and so they are the words I use for despite everything, I am unable to reach across stone time, unable to pluck her, full and breathing and alive, from a destiny that led, that leads, inexorably to ruin.
Aschenbach, can you hear me now? Can you hear what I am telling you? Will it be enough or are you already, this moment, upon the tower, ready to feel the first hammer blows of your own twisted destiny as they rain down upon your heart?