Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 609

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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 universe only to watch it run down without interfering.

His chosen name, Priest Serapion, associates him with the beginnings of a religion called Christianity. Surviving martyrdom like the Savior himself, Serapion remembers awakening from death when “the spirit dawned, and shone bright within me.” Even the rationalistic storyteller recognizes in him a “lofty, invulnerable higher spirit.”

Serapion emerges from the story as a portrait of the Romantic artist. At first sight the storyteller likens him to a figure in one of painter-poet Salvator Rosa’s wild mountain scenes. He tells the storyteller tales “only the most imaginative poet could have constructed.” Dr. S—— finds in him “remarkable poetical gifts” and “a most brilliant fancy.” The departed spirits who visit him are fit companions, Ludovico Ariosto, Petrarch, and Dante, early heroes of Romantic sensibilities in literature.

For artists such as Serapion, faith, art, and imagination are synonymous. All command a prophetic power that penetrates material reality to expose deeper, unexpected truths. Serapion’s notion that time and space are relative, for example, was considered hopelessly visionary and impractical until, almost a century later, Albert Einstein demonstrated its truth.

Serapion’s isolation from society typifies the predicament of the Romantic artist. Art in the Age of Reason had been, for the most part, more concerned with public life, common sense, and general truths than with cultivating private fantasies and personal eccentricities. Romantic artists’ obsessions with introspection and personal visions, however, cut them off from society. Serapion’s hermitage symbolizes the Romantic artist’s alienation from society.

Serapion goes back to nature as many Romantics have longed to do since Jean-Jacques Rousseau explained how under such natural, primitive conditions, devoid of the corrupting influence of society, humanity could enjoy his innate goodness in simple happiness. Serapion does live a placid, cheerful life in his hut. However, he is not quite the untutored noble savage Rousseau had in mind. Indeed, his return to nature is an ironic enterprise, undertaken as an alternative to incarceration in a lunatic asylum. His whole attitude toward nature is ambivalent. He considers it a desert. Like many Romantic artists, he loves the immortal spirit more than mortal nature. His death occurs not in the Theban desert but in a German forest.