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...
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