“Once upon a Time”: Preserving the Past in a Presence Open to the FutureFerdinand Ulrich
1. Breaking through dated time into the opening of qualitative life-time
When we listen carefully to the beginning of the fairy tale and linger with this beginning, then it draws us out of the present moment in which the narrative is being spoken into a distant past1. “Once upon a time in Switzerland there lived an old count.” No precise period of time has been specified. The time in which the story unfolds does not clearly date back, say, to fifty or one hundred years ago. As far as historical accuracy is concerned, it is remarkably shapeless and open-ended. It cannot be exactly situated and therefore easily tempts one to the opinion that it is quite arbitrary and, in a negative sense, indeterminate. One thinks this time can be passed over without question, that it does not signify anything special for the narrative. What happened in the story occurred “back then,” “once upon a time,” “long ago.” What quality of concealment belongs to such a sense of time?
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1. This text published in translation here is the beginning of a meditation on the Grimms’ fairy tale “The Three Languages,” which comes from a lecture course Ulrich gave on narrative meaning.