A Curious Story of Stefan Lange

by Lyubko Deresh

Translated from the Ukrainian by Patrick John Corness

So, von Liebig was a courteous person. In his lectures, however contentious the issue under debate might be, he always acted with decorum when speaking of his critics, noting their strengths and praising their achievements. This completely won over Stefan Lange, who was at the time a third year student in the languages department of the University of Vienna.

It was at this brilliant, fantastic lecture, which blew his mind, that Lange fi rst heard the name of Sebastian Stuckenheisen. As a name, it did not sound particularly distinctive; it figured in a list of anomalies of modern linguistics. Speaking of cutting edge linguistics, von Liebig, as always, thought in broad, global terms. Subjecting to criticism the study of “pidgin languages” and empirical linguistics, he formulated several provocative topics at the interface of neurolinguistics and artificial intelligence languages. One of the students asked about the theory of innate human talent for languages. It concerned the physiology of the brain and quantum theory, genetics and the theory of universal grammar. Such a combination of disciplines caused Stefan to suffer mild despair in the face of the vast extent of his own ignorance. His summary became less and less coherent, with a growing number of cross-references and exclamation marks.

Finally, the professor touched on marginalized aspects of the discipline that (nevertheless) were able to throw certain fundamental philosophical questions of linguistics into particularly sharp relief. Among other eccentrics, the professor referred to Sebastian Stuckenheisen, a Galician Ukrainian linguist of German descent, originally from Dukla (Łemkowszczyzna, in present-day Poland). Perhaps something in the professor’s tone of voice made Stefan feel elated; so in the summary he underscored this name twice. And that’s all there was to it.

Then, in his fifth year, when the time came to think about a doctoral topic (Stephen intended to become a post-graduate and pursue his research further), he decided that the authority of von Liebig was sufficiently weighty to justify choosing someone he had declared to be a marginal figure in linguistics. Why not consider the problems that have been formulated on the periphery of knowledge, if they still remained unsolved?

The supervisor approved his choice. Professor Celan had not read the work of Stuckenheisen; however he had often seen references to it. Given that the subject was virtually unexplored, both Lange and his professor found the proposed research topic very interesting. Lange began enthusiastically investigating materials on the subject, but then he encountered an unexpected disappointment; apart from a dozen references to works by Stuckenheisen (who was even mentioned by Bart and Lotman) he found no other material about this scholar. The Great Austro-Hungarian Encyclopaedia gave a succinct description, stating that the scholar was born in Galicia in 1903, and that he wrote two works based on 10 languages: Degenerative Grammar and Adam’s apple: the experience of reconstruction. Eight encounters with the truth. In vain he pestered academic libraries in Vienna — no trace of Stuckenheisen.

Instead of becoming discouraged from pursuing the chosen topic, as usually happened with Lange, he felt the excitement of the chase, or pursuit. Entering this rather uncharted territory, he followed in the footsteps of the greats: Chomsky, Ferdinand de Saussure and von Liebig. With his burning desire to discover the personality of Stuckenheisen, he resolved to write a letter to the leading figure who had actually inspired him to undertake this quest. The answer was brief. Von Liebig advised him to go to Lviv and carry out an investigation on the spot.

After receiving a grant for a six-month scholarship in Ukraine, Lange felt incredibly inspired. In his life, everything suddenly seemed to be in favor of this trip: his elder sister moved in with his mother, relieving Lange of his concerns about his mother’s health. His fiancée Andrea finally found a job, so now she was occupied from the morning till the evening. Finally, his supervisor praised his initiative at a meeting of the department, presenting Lange as an example for others. Lange, though he was not particularly ambitious, felt he was on a roll. So, having packed his traveling bag, he found a cheap flight to Lviv and soon afterwards, on one fi ne autumn day, he drew a deep breath of the humid air at Sknyliv airport.

Fortunately for him, the German Department in Lviv gave him assistance. They helped with his accommodation and gave him a brief introduction to the history and geography of Lviv. Lange had studied Russian for three years, and before leaving he had made an effort to learn Ukrainian, so he could cope with the essentials of life on his own.

He found the first days of his research in the Stefanik Library in Lviv inspiring. He realized that he was on the right track. There were many more references to Stuckenheisen here. Amongst his discoveries there was a real gem — a biography of Sebastian Stuckenheisen written by his childhood friend, I. Chyzh-Vyshensky. The biography had been published recently in Lviv in an edition of 300 copies. Lange eagerly pounced on the material he had found, devouring the book in four hours spent in the reading room.

To say that this biography had made Lange a changed man would certainly be an exaggeration. But something had changed in his heart, and apparently changed it forever. Lange sat there, overcome by an inexplicable euphoria, looking now at the glass ceiling of the reading room, now out of the windows, unsure what to do: text Andrea to share his excitement with her, phone his supervisor or re-read Stuckenheisen’s biography. However, there was no reason to write or telephone — actually, there was nothing to share apart from the young researcher’s delight at having come across really interesting material.

So what! He seemed to have stumbled across an undeveloped gold mine. “Wow!” he just kept repeating to himself, as he turned the pages of the biography. “Wow!”

Actually, Stefan Lange had not yet discovered anything extraordinary at all. A first encounter had taken place with the object of his research, and as one would expect of an emotional person like Lange, it had made the impression on him that one would expect.

Photo cover by Michaela Kostkova

Caitlyn Garcia