Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The storyteller’s debate with Serapion epitomizes the conflict between Romanticism and rationalism. Based largely on the scientific theories of Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and René Descartes, rationalism exalted reason over emotion, and empirical knowledge over faith. Rejecting supernatural explanations, it sought to describe nature as a set of material substances governed by a set of scientific laws revealed by experiments rather than the divine. The new science of psychology was finding its first empirical and experimental bases in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s time. With his methodical cynicism, his advanced degree, and his scholarly inquiries, the storyteller embodies the follies of rationalism, as he soon discovers.

In Serapion the storyteller finds his nemesis. No rational man would claim to be a martyr who died centuries ago, but Serapion does. For him, a firm conviction can make something so because mind controls matter and not the other way around, as some scientists suppose.

Serapion espouses a kind of religious idealism. “If it is the mind only which takes cognizance of events around us,” he argues, “it follows that that which it has taken cognizance of has actually occurred.” Further, he declares that the mental power of men is not their own, but only “lent to them for a time by that Higher Power.” Several times he chides the storyteller for underrating the omnipotence of God. He ridicules the rationalistic concept of a watchmaker-God who wound up...

(The entire section is 609 words.)