Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2092
E. T. A. Hoffmann’s fiction moves on two levels: a fantastic, imaginary level and an everyday, realistic one. The basic worldview underlying Hoffmann’s “higher realm,” the “marvellous magical world” beyond ordinary earthly reality, is German Classical Idealism in its late Romantic form as developed by thinkers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Schelling, and Johann Fichte, who saw external nature as a complex, contingent manifestation of the absolute spirit world. Literarily, this idea took the form of interpreting nature, especially its strangest or most symbolic phenomena (hypnosis, the occult, somnambulism, mental telepathy, insanity, dreams, mythology, music, religion) as hieroglyphics and evidences of the deeper strata of being, which could be “higher,” as in the aesthetic and religious sublimity intimated in the great music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, or could open mysterious abysses of darkness as in Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert’s book on the “dark side of nature.” In the words of critic Kenneth Negus, Hoffmann’s myths “pictorialize invisible truths of nature.”
The principle governing the depiction of this mythical, transcendental level in Hoffmann’s stories is described in the framework story of The Serapion Brethren.
“The Story of Serapion”
In “The Story of Serapion,” an insane man living in the woods in southern Germany in modern times believes himself to be the hermit Serapion who suffered martyrdom in Alexandria under the Emperor Decius. He is perfectly rational apart from this “idée fixe” with its aftermath that, having passed through martyrdom, by God’s omnipotence he now lives on for centuries in great serenity “in the Theban desert” and receives visits from great men of history: Ariosto, Dante, Petrarch. When the realistic narrator challenges him that these interesting events really happen only in his mind, he answers, in accord with the subjectivistic philosophy of the time, that “if it is the mind only which takes cognizance of events around us, it follows that what it has taken cognizance of has actually occurred.” The Serapion Brothers, a group of writers, including the narrator—who meet regularly to read to one another the stories that constitute the book—adopt Serapion’s name and creative fantasy as their ideal, stressing both concrete vividness and Romantic sovereignty over the artistic material. A counterpointed realistic principle stated more than once later in the framework is that “the foot of the heavenly ladder, which we have got to mount in order to reach the higher regions, has got to be fixed firmly in every-day life,” for “it is the outer world which causes the spirit to exercise those functions which take cognizance.” The charm of “The Story of Serapion” consists in the interplay of attitudes between the totally subjective title figure and the realistic narrator. The very first story Hoffmann wrote, “Ritter Gluck,” is much like “The Story of Serapion” in describing a genial delusionary who masterfully plays the famous composer’s music from blank pages and at the end identifies himself with the words, “I am Ritter Gluck.”
Far from being all of one type, the greatness of Hoffmann’s works resides precisely in his awareness of point of view, in his expert modulation of perspective and narrative texture, thus creating a great number of styles and genres, depending on the narrator stance within the realism-Romanticism spectrum. In some stories, such as the famous The Golden Flower Pot (1814) and “The Mines of Falun,” the balance shifts away from normal reality to the fantastic and mythical, while in others, such as “Councillor Krespel,” “A Fragment of the Lives of Three Friends,” and “Automatons,” the marvelous and imaginary does not shatter the stance of an urbane, rational narrator.
The Golden Flower Pot
The Golden Flower Pot, a fantastic Märchen, sharply contrasts the two conflicting strata and focuses mainly on the spirit realm. The student Anselmus struggles between the two perspectives represented by his love for Serpentina, a blue-eyed little green snake, daughter of Archivist Lindhorst, a powerful age-old Salamander (spiritprince) of the paradisaic Atlantis Kingdom, and his love for Veronica, whose aspirations are purely prosaic and conventional. In the end, the imaginary realm wins out; Anselmus marries Serpentina and vanishes from the earth, and the beautiful Xanadu-like dream realm is given an allegorical explanation as “life in poetry,” which reveals “the sacred harmony of all begins, the deepest secret of nature.” The story’s fame stems from the scintillating descriptions of the Romantic realm, such as the Fairyland Atlantis and the Archivist’s fabled chambers with their strange unearthly trees and flowers, birds and insects, as well as from the ironic effects produced by the clash of perspectives.
“The Mines of Falun”
“The Mines of Falun” strikes a more somber tone. Based on a true incident depicted in Schubert’s book, the basic plot was already narrated with beautiful simplicity by J. P. Hebel in his anecdote “Unexpected Return”: A young miner dies when a mine shaft caves in; fifty years later his body is discovered perfectly conserved by the metallic water of the mine; and his bride, now a wrinkled old woman, embraces her youthful fiancé and (in Hoffmann’s version) dies as the corpse begins to disintegrate from contact with the air. In elaborate arabesques of Romantic imagination, Hoffmann relegates this core plot to the end and places the focus mainly on symbolic forces of the underworld (the Queen of Metals, a ghostly miner, metallic hieroglyphics, and the visionary mother lode) which lure the main character to his doom. The traumatic impact of his mother’s death at the very beginning suggests a possible psychological interpretation of the beautiful, eerie sequences. The vast dark mine shaft of Falun, with its lifeless, weird-shaped rock masses “like gigantic petrified animals,” sulfurous vapors, and dark-burned miners crawling out like insects, is heightened to a visible symbol of the gaping abyss of hell itself.
“Mademoiselle de Scudéry”
Written in a similar somber tone is “Mademoiselle de Scudéry,” the first detective story (1820, thus antedating Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin stories). Many of its scenes take place at night, and it depicts the “night side” of the human psyche. The master goldsmith Cardillac cannot bear to part with his creations, so in the night he murders his customers to steal back their jewelry; he is so thorough in his crimes that the baffled Paris police think an entire gang of hoodlums is at work. Contrasting with this mad Jekyll-Hyde figure, the refined, humane author Mademoiselle de Scudéry clears an innocent suspect and solves the case. At the end, in the manner of late-Romantic and Biedermeier stories about weird events as well as of the modern detective story, all mysterious occurrences are given a natural explanation.
“Councillor Krespel,” one of the stories that uses an urbane modern narrator to observe strange persons or events, tells of an eccentric who buys expensive old violins, plays them once, then dismantles them to find the secret hidden in their inner structure. The tragic ending, anticipating Thomas Mann’s Tristan (1903), is the death of his daughter Antonie, whose great singing talent is inseparable from a fatal illness. The story is narrated as a true experience by Theodor, one of the Serapion Brothers, rather than read as a piece of creative fiction, and it is meant as a transition “from pure insanity (Serapion), via eccentricity (Krespel), to the realms of everyday rationality” (“A Fragment of the Lives of Three Friends,” “Automatons”). It is perhaps Hoffmann’s most tragic tale.
Themes and Style
“A Fragment of the Lives of Three Friends,” combining a ghost story with that of three young men’s love for the same girl, has bidirectional irony between the rational perspective and the preternatural phenomena. “Automatons” explores the eeriness of various mechanical oddities, especially “The Talking Turk,” from an inquisitive but cool and empirical standpoint. “The Sandman,” in which a traumatic childhood “experience” leads to madness, attempted murder, and suicide, features Olimpia, the scientist’s automaton “daughter,” who is familiar from Offenbach’s opera. In “A New Year’s Eve Adventure,” which recounts Hoffmann’s frustrated love for Julia Marc, who is depicted as a sirenlike enhantress luring the protagonist to his doom, Chamisso’s shadowless Peter Schlemihl and Erasmus Spickher, who lost his mirror reflection to the seductive Giulietta, are mythical figures. Other characters seem to have been suggested by a New Year’s candy display—for example, the chancellor “was a splendid gumdrop with a coat made of pleated notepaper. ” All these stories maintain the tone of a suave and cultivated narrator.
Artists play a considerable role in Hoffmann’s tales; indeed, some stories were suggested by paintings. “Doge and Dogaressa” is based on a painting by Wilhelm Kolbe exhibited in Berlin in 1814, depicting an eighty-year-old Doge marrying a beautiful eighteen-year-old girl before a background of Venice. Hoffmann develops this into a love-triangle story. The tragicomic “An Interrupted Cadence” begins with the description of a painting by J. F. Hummel from the same Berlin exhibition: two young women singing under the direction of a man in a cassock. In the story, the narrator Theodore falls in love with two Italian singers and goes with them as their composer and accompanist. Once, on a capricious impulse, Theodore strikes the final chord too early and interrupts the older sister’s artificial coloratura. Hearing the two women discuss him pejoratively, he breaks up the friendship. Years later, himself an accomplished musician, he meets them again in scene exactly like the painting. Time has not been very kind to his former friends; he has a sense of relief that he has not remained associated with them—for that would have meant artistic stagnation—mingled with a reminiscent sadness at the “interrupted cadence” not only of Lauretta’s coloratura but also of their friendship itself.
The collection Princess Brambilla is based on eight fantastic caricatures by Jacob Callot. One artist-story not based on a painting but in which paintings play a prominent part, the hilariously comical novella Signor Formica (1819), in which the famous Italian artist Salvator Rosa through clever machinations removes the obstacles to the marriage of two young friends, abounds with side-splitting humor about the medical profession, miserliness, and artistic jealousy.
In conclusion, a few peculiarities of Hoffmann’s style are as follows. First, in dialogues, he often repeats a phrase before and after the identification of the speaker: “‘I still,’ cried the prince in supreme annoyance, ‘I still don’t understand you, incomprehensible man.’” Second, E. T. A. Hoffmann appears in his works in many ways as a narrator (indeed, in the Serapion framework, three of the narrators are alter egos of Hoffmann) or as a character (for example, the frustrated lover in “A New Year’s Eve Adventure”), but one oft-repeated striking self-caricature is a physical trait of his various magicians, master artists, or scientists (such as Coppelius, Dr. Dapertutto, Professor X., Archivist Lindhorst, Godpapa Drosselmeier, and Cardillac): They have a hooked Roman nose and a contorted sarcastic sneer, interpreted by Hoffmann as resulting from the perception of the dichotomy that exists between the “other realm” and the outer world of reality. Third, as shown above, amid the many genres and styles one certain mythical structure animates all his works and is well summed up in a quotation from the Serapion framework about the gothic cathedral of Strasburg: the beholder gazes with a strange inward disquiet upon the Strasburg Minster, as it soars aloft in the most daring curves, and the most wondrous interlacings of varied, fantastic forms and ornamentation. And this very unrest awakens a sense of the Unknown, the Marvellous; and the spirit readily yields itself to this dream, in which it seems to recognize the Super-earthly, the Unending. Now this is exactly the effect of that purely romantic element which pervades Mozart and Haydn’s compositions.
This also is the quintessence of Hoffmann’s aesthetic endeavor.
Finally, however arabesque the “interlacings” and “fantastic forms” of Hoffmann’s works may be, they are not the result of purely subjective arbitrariness; whatever subject he wrote about was well researched. The works and frameworks themselves often cite historical sources or books on psychology, parapsychology, and occult and preternatural phenomena which he had consulted. Although he wrote so long before the greatest advances in psychology, psychologists who have studied his works confirm the accuracy of his treatment, and a Prussian general praised Nutcracker’s deployment of troops in his war against the mice. Hoffmann’s castle in the clouds has a foundation built on the solid rock of reality.
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