Two-legged beasts and Thinking Reeds: Definitions of Humanity in Daniel Kehlmann’s “Rosalie geht sterben”
Throughout history, there have been many ways of understanding the nature of mankind. The Greek mythological story of Oedipus and the Sphinx identifies man with his physical progression from four legs to two legs to three. Blaise Pascal’s understanding of man as “thinking reed,” on the other hand, emphasizes both man’s unique mental gifts and his frailty in the face of a n immense and uncomprehending universe. Daniel Kehlmann’s short story, “Rosalie geht Sterben,” which follows an old woman traveling from her native Germany to an assisted-suicide center in Switzerland, engages with both of these metaphors for humanity in its own attempts to understand human identity. Along the way, an enigmatic stranger who helps Rosalie toward her destination quotes the Sphinx, echoing the story’s themes of age and the inevitability of decline and death. Then, as if to show preference for Pascal’s metaphor, he proclaims, “a thinking reed, what is man else?” But although Kehlmann, like Pascal, understands man primarily as a mental being, his interest in death and decline mirrors the Sphinx's metaphor, and the action of the story fundamentally changes Pascal's metaphor of the reed as well. In Kehlmann's tale, Rosalie begs her creator, the author, to spare her life, and although the author initially rebuffs her with insistences that because she is merely made of his words and thoughts, she doesn't exist, he dialogues with and eventually even agrees to save her. Further complicating matters, this author is, himself, a fictional character from another of Kehlmann’s stories. Thus, even if a man is understood as a thinking being, the thinking is far more certain than the being. Reeds are hollow, inert, and only capable of producing sound or moving when acted upon by outside forces. Whether man is something different remains unclear.