Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2109
E. T. A. Hoffmann’s literary work constitutes a compelling and insightful expression of the prevailing anxieties of a deeply unsettled age. The rational improvement of the private self and the enforced stability of the social self were severely shaken by the upheavals of the French Revolution and the rise of...
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- Critical Essays
E. T. A. Hoffmann’s literary work constitutes a compelling and insightful expression of the prevailing anxieties of a deeply unsettled age. The rational improvement of the private self and the enforced stability of the social self were severely shaken by the upheavals of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon I’s will to power. The heroes of this restless time revealed to the perceptive observer unexpectedly atavistic passions compared to which all existing social and ethical norms proved exceedingly insubstantial. People came to the realization that they had hardly known themselves to that point and that it was critical for them to learn more about what was asserting itself so menacingly in their lives. Interest in marginal, even pathological, states of the mind—in hypnosis, telepathy, magnetism, somnambulism, dreams, and trances—became a widespread obsession. In the wake of this trend, there arose the specter of a human existence threatened from within by chaotic instincts and threatened from without by capricious turns of events.
Probably more than any other writer of his time, Hoffmann delved into the vicissitudes that the defenseless psyche undergoes as it finds itself in the grip of conflicting demands that it can neither adjudicate nor deny. To introduce the reader to the torture chambers of the mind, Hoffmann employed an arsenal of literary devices that his audience knew well from gothic horror stories. Madness, witchery, cloak-and-dagger intrigues, secret passageways, mysterious doubles, incest, rape, and human sacrifice follow one another with baffling speed in mystifying plots that disorient readers until they can no longer tell what is real and what is imagined, what is mere wish and what is accomplished fact.
The Devil’s Elixirs
In The Devil’s Elixirs, the plot of which was clearly inspired by Matthew Gregory Lewis’s gothic novel The Monk: A Romance (1796; also known as Ambrosio: Or, The Monk), the Capuchin friar Medardus recounts the story of his rebellious flight from the monastery and his repentant return to it. Medardus is born within the precincts of a monastery, grows up in the vicinity of a nunnery, and promptly resolves to live a religious life himself. After having become an extraordinarily successful preacher at his monastery, he suddenly experiences a breakdown of his rhetorical abilities and is desperate for a cure from the mysterious ailment. He knows that among the monastery’s sacred relics is preserved a flask filled with a potent elixir that the Devil had once offered to the hermit Saint Anthony during his temptations in the desert. Medardus takes a drink from the flask and finds his powers restored, but he also senses new and ominous passions rushing through his veins. Medardus’s superior, concerned about the peace of the monastic community, soon finds himself forced to send the agitated and arrogant monk on a mission to Rome.
From the moment Medardus leaves the monastery, the reader is hard put to assess the actual nature of the monk’s frenzied adventures. Torn between contradictory desires, Medardus’s personality repeatedly breaks apart, integral elements battling one another as life-size enemies. Presented with a chance to assume another identity—which in fact appeals to everything he has suppressed during his years as a monk—Medardus wantonly enters an adulterous affair with a baroness while, at the same time, falling in love with her angelic stepdaughter, Aurelie. The resulting emotional turmoil culminates in a scene of horror in which Medardus poisons the baroness and tries to rape Aurelie. Momentarily exorcised from his evil self by the enormity of the crime, he hurries away in frantic fear of his own passions.
After further wanderings, Medardus meets Aurelie again. This time, he is determined to court her with genuine love and devotion, yet the demoniac compulsion to subjugate and destroy the love he awakens never completely leaves him. On their wedding day, the indomitable strain in Medardus’s soul flares up with renewed ferocity. As he sees his alter ego carted off to execution, he refuses to let it die, rejects Aurelie and everything noble in himself, and runs off, his satanic double on his back, until rage and frustration deprive him of his senses. Several months later, Medardus revives, finding himself in an Italian insane asylum. He proceeds to submit his body to a rigorous course of penance, and, after many additional adventures, he returns to the monastery from which he had set out. He arrives the day before Aurelie is to take her religious vows in a nearby convent. Overwhelmed by the coincidence, Medardus feels rent apart again. He claims Aurelie for himself and slays her on the steps of the altar. Having thus destroyed the object of his passion, Medardus is at last free to reject the call of instinct and to reenter the tranquillity of monastic life.
The Devil’s Elixirs can be read on at least two levels. Late in the novel, the reader is told that the main characters are, unbeknown to themselves, members of one family that for several generations has lived under a curse resulting from a sacrilege committed by an ancestor. That curse can be laid to rest only if the remaining members of the family renounce earthly love and thus mark the family for extinction. Medardus and Aurelie, the last of the unholy clan, embrace the necessary self-denial and break the chain of sin and guilt. The notion of an inherited curse was the stock-in-trade of the gothic novel. The introduction of supernatural agencies allowed authors to explain the many otherwise inexplicable coincidences needed to sustain the suspense of their stories. The real impact of The Devil’s Elixirs, therefore, does not arise from Hoffmann’s belated revelations about Medardus’s guilt-ridden family but rather from his relentless depiction of a man’s fearful struggle with instincts that lie, in stubborn and hostile cynicism, beyond the reach of his moral self.
Medardus, of course, does put an end to the curse, not only for his family but also for his own troubled self. The Devil’s Elixirs, after all, is his autobiography; it contains his retrospective creation of a continuous self and signals a significant victory over his chaotic past. The success with which Medardus has managed to construct—from the fragmented impulses of his psyche—the notion of a responsible personality shows that he has established for himself a basis for moral behavior. Still, he has stabilized his personality at a high price: the exclusion of all instinct, the truncating of his very life. Secure as Medardus’s self now might be, a unified self it is not, and no amount of Catholic pageantry can disguise the pessimism of that conclusion.
The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr
Hoffmann’s second novel, The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr, remained a fragment, a fact that—considering the less-than-convincing end of The Devil’s Elixirs—rather enhances its effectiveness. In contrast to The Devil’s Elixirs, which in spite of its confusing plot follows the traditional technique of a chronological narration, The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr surprises the reader with one of the most amusingly original structures in German literature. The novel is composed of two distinctnarratives bewilderingly conflated: the autobiography of a tomcat (Murr) and the biography of a musician (Kreisler). Murr, so the editor apologizes, had, while writing his memoirs, torn up the biography of Kreisler in order to use its pages as writing pad and blotting paper. When Murr had his work published, the printer mistakenly thought the sheets from Kreisler’s life to be part of the tomcat’s autobiography, so that in the finished product two very dissimilar stories interrupt each other with maddening regularity.
In Murr’s account, Hoffmann parodies the educational novel, the bildungsroman, of his day. Murr, a smugly egotistical tomcat, pompously details the stages by which he planned to advance himself in the world. With all the naïveté of his inflated ego, he tells how he first embarked on an academic career, then felt free to pursue romantic love, became involved in the political arena, and finally aspired to be recognized as a true gentleman. At the end, the reader is informed that the splendid cat has unfortunately died, a fate common to those who achieve too much at too early an age.
That Murr’s penmanship at least left much to be desired might be gathered from the fact that about two-thirds of all pages in the book were apparently needed as blotting paper. These pages tell of the life of Johannes Kreisler. The story opens at the small court of Sieghartsweiler, where for some time now the former mistress of Prince Irenäus has spun an intrigue that is to lead to a marriage between Irenäus’s half-witted son Ignaz and her own daughter, the beautiful and sensitive Julia.
The plot gets under way as the eccentric musician Kreisler joins the tedious life at the miniature court. He soon is asked to give Julia and Hedwiga, Prince Irenäus’s only daughter, music lessons, and the two girls are quickly attracted to Kreisler by the strange powers that his curiously extravagant behavior reveals. Their idyllic association is destroyed by the news that Hedwiga is to marry the handsome but unscrupulous Prince Hektor. Hektor, assured that in time he will possess Hedwiga, promptly sets out to seduce Julia. For a while, Kreisler manages to foil Hektor’s plans, until an attempt on Kreisler’s life forces the musician to flee from court. He takes up residence in a nearby Benedictine abbey and there resumes work as composer and music director. Unfortunately, Kreisler has barely achieved peace in his new surroundings when an urgent letter from Sieghartsweiler implores him to return to court, where a double wedding joining Hektor and Hedwiga as well as Ignaz and Julia is about to take place. Whether Kreisler was able to prevent this impending misfortune remains unclear, as the novel breaks off in the middle of a sentence.
Throughout the story, evidence accumulates suggesting that Kreisler, whose identity is the central mystery of the plot, may well be the victim of a long-standing court intrigue. The attraction that Kreisler’s character exerts, however, seems to depend even less on the unraveling of a web of fateful family relations than does the account of the friar Medardus. What the torn-out pages of Kreisler’s biography tell about the torn-up life of its hero, no clandestine schemes could possibly bind together. Kreisler’s existential rootlessness is ultimately the result not of clever machinations from without but of his own self-lacerating quest for human perfection in a petty environment. Sheltering a highly idealistic and highly vulnerable personality behind masks of cynicism and eccentricity, Kreisler is plagued by the sudden shifts of an artistic vision that shows the trivial to be sublime as often as it shows the sublime to be trivial. Thus barred from any consistent perspective on world or self, he is forced to vacillate between ecstatic joy and despondent frustration: ecstatic joy at the world’s grandeur, despondent frustration at its inevitable depreciation at the hands of unresponsive men. In contrast to Medardus, who could still reconstruct his divided will from the secure vision of an undisputed faith, Kreisler’s divided perception finds no such security; even his monastic retreat offers him hardly more than a brief respite from his self-tormented life.
It would be inaccurate, however, to think of The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr as a thoroughly pessimistic novel. It must not be forgotten that Hoffmann chained Kreisler’s volatile idealism to the pedestrian common sense of the tomcat Murr. If the musician unmasks the cat’s vain shallowness, Murr, too, provides a mocking mirror for Kreisler’s pursuit of perfection at the Lilliputian court of Sieghartsweiler. How serious Hoffmann was about seeing the perspectives of the conformist animal and of the nonconformist artist as complementary becomes clear when Murr ends his memoirs with the remark that henceforth he will live with a new master, the concertmaster Kreisler.
Murr’s death, of course, leaves it to the reader to imagine what the unlikely companions could have meant to each other. For Hoffmann, the outcome of their partnership cannot be in doubt. Whenever people admit to being part self-serving cat and part self-effacing idealist, self-irony—the tolerant smile at one’s own incongruous personality—will turn the menace of a divided ego into the promise of a healthily deflated, less commanding but also less aggressive self. Although Hoffmann’s creatures have not yet attained their creator’s humorous wisdom, the reader understands and is invited to rise to its challenge.