intellectual vanities… about close to everything

Notes About Romanticism, The Uncanny, Automata and E. T. A. Hofmann

with 7 comments

The Sandman & Mademoiselle de Scuderi – E.T.A. Hoffmann


The term “romanticism” not only has various literary meanings, conveying various tendencies for change in such areas as subject matter, attitude, and form. On the one hand, it may be a basically optimistic expression of belief in the natural goodness of man; on the other, it may view man through much darker lenses, see him as a victim of demonic, hostile, and unpredictable forces. In either case, emotions are stressed as source of the aesthetic and opposed to reason, the ideal is placed above the actual, and so on. But regardless of the angle of viewing and of the particular tone and mode of expression of romanticism during the later eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries, imagination may well be one of the keys to the concept. Coleridge’s words supply helpful information:

The incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural; and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections in the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency.1

The German romantic in general, and Hoffmann in particular, was essentially concerned with the artistic depiction of a world in which the ordinary and the prosaic were imbued with the extraordinary and incomprehensible, where the “supernatural agency” was given full sway. The deliberate rejection of the prosaic, everyday world led the romantic writer at first to the idyllic past. In Germany this past was synonymous with the medieval world (which surely never existed as the Germans wished to see it) , and it led to the world of the fairy tale and the dream, not as these were viewed through the roseate lenses of the English, who had been greatly influenced by Rousseau, but often, most especially in Hoffmann and his contemporaries, through a much darker and more ominous lense.Unlike the experience in other countries, in Germany romanticism encompassed all fields-art, music, religion, philosophy, history, political science, natural science-and these were no less affected than literature itself.2 It was the hope of the poets that a large cultural synthesis could be achieved to erase the artificial boundaries separating these intellectual areas so that such polar concepts as intellect and feeling, art and life, reality and illusion, would be fused. This is what the German writer Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg) meant when he announced that “The world must be romanticized.”

sandman_hoffmann.jpgGerman romanticism was not only a continuation of the German Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) literary movement of the 1770s-a violent protest against the precepts of the Enlightenment–but it was, in great measure, a strong reaction against German classicism (despite the fact that the two terms are often united under the name German idealism) .3 Goethe and Schiller had gone beyond the Sturm und Drang Movement; they reemphasized classical restraint and, by so doing, had more or less isolated themselves.

By 1805 great waves of irrationalism dominated Germany: the imaginative, the fantastic, the colorful, the emotional, the ecstatic, the moody, the hyperbolic, and the patriotic were in vogue. A yearning for freedom was reflected not only in lives, but in works. The harmoniously balanced creations in the classical vein now made way for a cascade of moods and inspirations, an extreme variety of works, a formlessness which had as a common denominator the strong desire for something different and better. The philosophical groundwork for German romanticism was prepared by many-and one always narrows possible sources of indebtedness somewhat arbitrarily-most prominently, by Immanuel Kant, Johann Fichte, and Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling.

The German romantic writers turned to the Middle Ages for their subject matter, especially because they saw it as an era in which society had been unified and made strong by the Catholic Church. They saw modern Germany as politically bankrupt and Napoleon as an inexorable threat to their country; and their vision sought an earlier world of splendor. (Indeed, so attractive was this medieval world to a number of poets that they became converts to Catholicism.) Hoffmann, who at first considered himself essentially a musician, composed music for the Church. The’Grimm brothers collected fairy tales and laid the foundation of philological studies with their investigation of early Germanic languages. Clemens Brentano and his brotherin-law Achim von Arnim collected and published folksongs which were hailed as the “true” expression of man unspoiled by society.6

The dark side of German romanticism stemmed in part from the fact that the German Kunstmärchen (the art fairy tale) is, perhaps especially clearly in Hoffmann, different from alleged folklore -for one thing, often taking place in contemporary cafés or in the busy streets of Dresden, Berlin, Frankfurt, or Paris. The uncanny, the mysterious, the horrible, the grotesque, and the prosaic merge and juxtapose with startling and deceptively simple ease. It is this merging and juxtaposition which account for much of the horror beneath the surface, because it shocks the reader into the recognition that the world of the fantastic and the supernatural is not comfortably removed from everyday existence. The novella, which flourished in the Germany of the time, also exploited the uncanny and the mysterious.7

It was Novalis who, in one of his novels, verbalized the tenor of much German literature of the time: “Die Welt wird Traum, der Traum wird Welt” (The world becomes the dream, and the dream becomes the world) .8 It was he who celebrated night and death and expressed ineffable yearning for the “eternal bridal night.” For him light represented the finite world, night the infinite world. Death, not life, seemed more desirable, because death, having been conquered by Christ, was no longer to be feared, but rather to be desired. German romanticism also drew heavily from Anton Mesmer and “scientific” and occultist doctrines. In considerable measure, the development of the double, for example, seems to have stemmed not only from earlier depiction of twin-doubles (in Shakespeare and Moli~re, among very many others), but from studies in psychology and from Mesmer’s theory of the magnetic union of souls. The German romantics were eager to exploit imagination, and in the whole question of “doubleness” and duality they found material consistent with their mood and taste and eminently susceptible to imaginative treatment.

Closely related to the yearning for night and death was the German romantic’s interest in dreams, in part stimulated by the writings of Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert, who wrote two very influential books-one on the night side of science and one on the symbolism of dreams. He called the language of dreams a “hieroglyphic language,” a language which man need not learn because it is innate and understood and spoken by the soul when the soul is released from its imprisonment in the body. In The Symbolism of the Dream, Schubert wrote:

The series of events in our lives seem to be joined approximately according to a similar association of ideas of fate, as the pictures in the dream; in other words, the series of events that have occurred and are occurring inside and outside of us, the inner theoretical principle of which we remain unaware, speaks the same language as our soul in a dream. Therefore, as soon as our mind speaks in dream language, it is able to make combinations that would not occur to us when awake; it cleverly combines the today with the yesterday, the fate of distant years in the future with the past; and when the future occurs we see that it was frequently accurately predicted. Dreams are a way of reckoning and combining that you and I do not understand; a higher kind of algebra, briefer and easier than ours, which only the hidden poet knows how to manipulate in his mind.

The romantic writers knew well how to use this hieroglyphic language to reveal the dark forces within man. They focused on areas not accessible to reason, on the subconscious and all its manifestations.9 To depict these dark forces artistically, various techniques were employed; but generally the fairy tale, the myth, and the dream were the three elements that fused in the Mdrchen, as in Hoffmann’s “The Golden Pot,” where the student Anselmus, ostensibly an ordinary, clumsy boy, is inwardly torn apart. He lives in two worlds, that of the everyday, where nothing goes well, and a fantastic and allegorical dream world, where everything succeeds. The struggle for his soul, or his mind, is carried on by fantastic characters on a supernatural field of battle.

The number of dreams in earlier literature is enormous, but before the German romantics brilliantly exploited the substrata of consciousness (of which the dream is a striking manifestation) , the dream most often served literature as an effective and highly stylized device of another kind-actually of several other kinds.10 Perhaps no one prior to the German romantics understood or consistently and fully explored the dream device and its implications as an organic and inseparable part of a literary work; and in Hoffmann the symbolic dream seems to have fulfilled its potential.

The sentimental novel and the Gothic novel, both very popular in eighteenth-century England and France, contributed to German romanticism as well, the first because it may well have redefined the hero image by removing social position and knowledgeability per se as requisites, thus making possible the pathetic and introspective hero of nineteenth-century literature; and the latter because it more Or less stumbled on the whole realm of the unconscious and converted reality into nightmare, even as it stimulated the individual imagination.

But possible sources aside, German literature of the period was filtered through a particularly German vision, and it is different from almost all of that produced elsewhere at the time. For example, the castles and moats and twilight so much a staple of the traditional Gothic novel were irrelevant or incidental to the designs of the German authors. The overtly frenetic tone of the English Gothic novel would be relaxed because the Germans knew that a single scream shatters an everyday world as many screams can never affect a world of shrieks. The “Italian” villains of “Monk” Lewis and Ann Radcliffe would reappear in some of Hawthorne and Poe, but it is precisely to the point that the Germans found evil beneath the mask of normality. Their attitude, and the quality of their horror at the realization that “the power of blackness” lurks everywhere, pervade their works.

Given the German romantic’s predilection for the uncanny, his essential anti-Rousseauism,” his sense of the grotesque, his detachment, his concern for what is now called “alienated man,” his loathing for Philistinism and burghers, he could not join Melville’s Bartleby (“I prefer not [to become involved]”) in his self-imposed asceticism. The American romantics were, after all, believers. The Germans had no need to pay for their share of Original Sin. The world as they often saw it, was not an evil place because God willed it to be, but simply because it was.

Aside from Novalis, the list of authors leading towards Hoffmann is considerable. Lawrence Sterne, among the English, exerted a very strong influence, and it is hardly accidental that Hoffmann’s long title for Kater Murr is itself a parody of Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen .12 Goethe, to be sure, left a profound and indelible mark on all who followed him. Among the other Germans, Brentano, Arnim, Kleist, Fouque, Chamisso, Eichendorff, and Kerner also had some influence on Hoffmann,-the first two especially in the area of the grotesque; but Jean Paul (Friedrich Richter) and Ludwig Tieck, other contemporaries, seem to have exerted very considerable and direct influence. Jean Paul’s forte is the fantastic, the grostesque, lacerating humor-realism turned inside out–inverisimilitude. It was he who invented the term and exploited the concept of the doppelganger [This is what people are who see themselves]) . His are “little” heroes who utilize lush imaginations to remove themselves to the world of fantasy. In his work there is an intrinsic duality in which an “I” participates in life while another “I” merely observes, both in a state of perpetual coexistence. His depiction of the world as appearance and reality, as wakefulness and dream, as rational and absurd, as disjointed and whole, as lyric and grotesque, appealed greatly to Hoffmann. In Tieck the fictional world is often kaleidoscopic, bewildering, unfathomable; here, too, as already noted, the worlds of dream and reality change places. Unlike jean Paul, there is little compassion, little that can be characterized as gentle. Tieck’s world is terror-filled and bizarre, one in which peculiarities of personality become manifest simply because characters are forced to react to the unintelligible forces which engulf them. The Miirchen describe an escapist world, but only ironically, for it is a world of irrational foreboding and of the swift and merciless execution of an inexorable fate.13 It seems clear that Hoffmann also owed to Tieck some thing of his fascination for the puppet-man controlled by a capricious or spiteful fate. In Brentano and Arnim, Hoffmann found, as a direction towards which their tales pointed, the grotesque vision of the world and the artist’s concern with its effect on man.

The term “grotesque” has been so injudiciously and widely used that it is often confused with the horrible or the bizarre. Originally used to designate a certain kind of late Roman ornamental painting, later associated with the decorative work of the painter form, without any necessary reference to real life…. This is the reverse conception to Hoffmann’s, according to which the dream revealed a higher reality reality as we know it, but projected in in wondrous dimensions and colouring, so as to transcend present reality, but not to negate it.” (Ralph Tymms, German Romantic Literature [London, 19551, P. 76).

Raphael (who abolished all rules of reality and deliberately distorted objects) , it is the effect of this art on man rather than the pictorial image itself which leads to an understanding of the true nature of the grotesque. In the eighteenth century it was this effect of the work of art on the recipient that became a major point of interest. Whether a work was objectively grotesque was not very important; what was important was that the reader, or the viewer, experience the grotesque in a highly personal way.

The essence of the grotesque is that it erases the boundary separating the human and animal realm and, by so doing, frequently reduces man to an impotent puppet who sinks in the fateful determinism of hostile forces. Through personification, the grotesque extends its range to encompass the mechanical, which develops a threatening life of its own (as in the case of Olympia in Hoffmann’s “The Sandman”). Also, most decidedly in Hoffmann, the grotesque is assigned a reality which contradicts reality as we know it, while at the same time being seen as a true reality, a higher reality, even perhaps the reality. It is when the unreality described becomes real and the grotesque ceases to become a game that fears become intense and an abyss yawns before us, because we are invaded by the feeling of the true absurdity of the world. We are led to a vision of the world which is topsy-turvy, one in which madness is the only sanity, because the world is itself a lunatic asylum. In the introduction to his collection Fantasy Pieces in the Style of Callot, Hoffmann says of Jaques Callot, a French engraver and etcher of the seventeenth century:

The irony which mocks in an’s miserable actions by placing man and beast in opposition to each other only dwells in a deep spirit, and thus Callot’s grotesque figures, which are created from man and beast, reveal to the penetrating observer all the secret implications that lie hidden under the veil of the comical. Shakespeare’s plays, beautifully translated by A. W. Schlegel, were a revelation to the Germans-who lacked the advantage of a Shakespeare tradition-not least of all because they felt a strong affinity to his use of supernatural elements and to his view of man as an actor. Hoffmann, perhaps at least as much as any of his contemporaries, admired Shakespeare. He was extremely sympathetic to the view expressed by the melancholy Jacques in As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and woman merely players.”

Der Sandmann itself is the tale of a young legal student, who in spite of his happy present and promising future cannot rid himself of certain memories from his childhood, that he still does not understand.sandman_perspektiv.gif

In his seminal essay “The Uncanny“, Freud uses Hoffmann’s tale The Sand Man to illustrate his theories on the roots of uncanny sensations. I think it fair to use the essay of, surely, Hoffmann’s greatest fan, as an introduction to his tales.

The ‘uncanny’, which is the English approximation of the German unheimlich, is described by Freud as an especial kind of fear. ‘…everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.’ He adds further examples; the presence of the dead, the figure of the ‘double’, coincidences; seldom anything gruesome or revolting or even overtly dangerous, but still fearful.

Here is Freud’s brilliant synopsis:

This fantastic tale opens with the childhood recollections of the student Nathaniel. In spite of his present unhappiness, he cannot banish the memories associated with the mysterious and terrifying death of his beloved father. On certain evenings his mother used to send the children to bed early, warning them that “the Sand-Man was coming”; and, sure enough, Nathaniel would not fail to hear the heavy tread of a visitor, with whom his father would then be occupied for the evening. When questioned about the Sand-Man, his mother, it is true, denied that such a person existed as a figure of speech; but his nurse could give him more definite information: “He’s a wicked man who comes when children won’t go to bed, and throws handfuls of sand in their eyes so that they jump out of the heads all bleeding. Then he puts the eyes in a sack and carries them off to the half-moon to feed his children. They sit up there in their nest, and their beaks are hooked like owls’ beaks, and they use them to peck up naughty boys’ and girls’ eyes with.”

Although little Nathaniel was sensible and old enough not to credit the figure of the Sand-Man with such gruesome attributes, yet the dread of him became fixed in his heart. He determined to find out what the Sand-Man looked like; and one evening, when the Sand-Man was expected again, he hid in his father’s study. He recognized the visitor as the lawyer Coppelius, a repulsive person whom the children were frightened of when he occasionally came to a meal; and he now identified this Coppelius with the dreaded Sand-Man. As regards the rest of the scene, Hoffmann already leaves us in doubt whether what we are witnessing is the first delirium of the panic-stricken boy, or a succession of events which are to be regarded in the story as being real. His father and the guest are at work at a brazier with glowing flames. The little eavesdropper hears Coppelius call out: “Eyes here! Eyes here!” and betrays himself by screaming aloud. Coppelius seizes him and is on the point of dropping bits of red-hot coal from the fire into his eyes, and then of throwing them into the brazier, but his father begs him off and saves his eyes. After this the boy falls into a deep swoon; and a long illness brings his experience to an end. Those who decide in favor of the rationalistic interpretation of the Sand-Man will not fail to recognize in the child’s fantasy the persisting influence of his nurse’s story. The bits of sand that are to be thrown into the child’s eyes turn into bits of red-hot coal from the flames; and in both cases they are intended to make his eyes jump out. In the course of another visit of the Sand-Man’s, a year later, his father is killed in his study by an explosion. The lawyer Coppelius disappears from the place without leaving a trace behind.

Nathaniel, now a student, believes that he has recognized this phantom of horror from his childhood in an itinerant optician, an Italian called Giuseppe Coppola, who at his university town, offers him weather-glasses for sale. When Nathaniel refuses, the man goes on: “Not weather-glasses? not weather-glasses? also fine eyes, fine eyes!” The student’s terror is allayed when he finds that the proffered eyes are only harmless spectacles, and he buys a pocket spy-glass from Coppola. With its aid he looks across into Professor Spalanzani’s house opposite and there spies Spalanzani’s beautiful, but strangely silent and motionless daughter, Olympia. He soon falls in love with her so violently that, because of her, he quite forgets the clever and sensible girl to whom he is betrothed. But Olympia is an automaton whose clock-work has been made by Spalanzani, and whose eyes have been put in by Coppola, the Sand-Man. The student surprises the two Masters quarrelling over their handiwork. The optician carries off the wooden eyeless doll; and the mechanician, Spalanzani, picks up Olympia’s bleeding eyes from the ground and throws them at Nathaniels’ breast, saying that Coppola had stolen them from the student. Nathaniel succumbs to a fresh attack of madness, and in his delirium his recollection of his father’s death is mingled with this new experience. “Hurry up! hurry up! ring of fire!” he cries. “Spin about, ring of fire—Hurrah! Hurry up, wooden doll! lovely wooden doll, spin about—.” He then falls upon the professor, Olympia’s “father,” and tries to strangle him.

Rallying from a long and serious illness, Nathaniel seems at last to have recovered. He intends to marry his betrothed, with whom he has become reconciled. One day he and she are walking through the city market-place, over which the high tower of the Town Hall throws its huge shadow. On the girl’s suggestion, they climb the tower, leaving her brother, who is walking with them, down below. From the top, Clara’s attention is drawn to a curious object moving along the street. Nathaniel looks at this thing through Coppola’s spy-glass, which he finds in his pocket, and falls into a new attack of madness. Shouting “Spin about, wooden doll!” he tries to throw the girl into the gulf below. Her brother, brought to her side by her cries, rescues her and hastens down with her to safety. On the tower above, the madman rushes round, shrieking “Ring of fire, spin about!”—and we know the origin of the words. Among the people who begin to gather below there comes forward the figure of the lawyer Coppelius, who has suddenly returned. We may suppose that it was his approach, seen through the spy-glass, which threw Nathaniel into his fit of madness. As the onlookers prepare to go up and overpower the madman, Coppelius laughs and says: “Wait a bit; he’ll come down of himself.” Nathaniel suddenly stands still, catches sight of Coppelius, and with a wild shriek “Yes! ‘Fine eyes—fine eyes’!” flings himself over the parapet. While he lies on the paving-stones with a shattered skull the Sand-Man vanishes in the throng.16

About Automata (see more at History of Robotics)

• The chess-playing Turk created by Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen is one excellent example, though the automaton selected need not be human in form. Many automated animals were produced in the 15th to 18th centuries, notably Leonardo da Vinci’s lion, as well as automata that replicated the human and animal voice. Edgar Allen Poe witnessed the Turk, and wrote an article attempting to explain how the chess playing automaton worked.17

kempelen_turc.jpg The Turk

• Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782), a celebrated inventor of automata, once created a life-sized replica of a duck. It cackled, swam, drank, ate, and—to the delight and amazement of onlookers—excreted.

vaucanson_duck1.jpgVaucanson’s Duck

turing_test.gifIn 1950, Alan Turing conceived a test consisting of a person asking questions via keyboard to another person and to a machine. Turing believed that if the person administering the test could not distinguish between the machine and the human after a reasonable amount of time, the machine was somewhat intelligent. Devising a computer that can pass the Turing Test has become the “holy grail” of artificial intelligence.

• Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot is expressly concerned with the demarcation between human and human artifact, and the rules that should apply to intelligent machines. Ask students what rules they would impose on their creations.sandman_android_mensch.jpg

About the Uncanny

• Is Nathaniel delirious? Is the story of Coppelius/Coppola a projection of Nathaniel’s laboured mind, influenced by a traumatic childhood experience? Is the story thus a story of the growth of mental illness and a descent into madness? Or did Nathaniel actually have these experiences? Can both interpretations be true?

Note the frequent references to eyes in the story. (These include: Coppelius’s threat to destroy Nathaniel’s eyes, the destruction of the dancing doll’s eyes, the fact that “coppola” in Italian means eye-socket.) Freud, in the essay mentioned above, uses castration fear to explain this symbolism.


The Early Whodunit

E.F. Bleiler’s introduction to Richmond (1827) is the most elaborate look I know of at the earliest English language detective tales, writings from 1790 – 1840, from Godwin to just before Poe. In it, Bleiler identifies several main strands of the early detective story: the most common being tales in which circumstantial evidence implicates one person in a crime, but in which someone else is actually the guilty party. Eventually elucidation follows, and with greater or lesser ingenuity, the real villain is finally exposed. This is a good description of Bulwer-Lytton’s Pelham (1828), for example, a novel that was very famous in its day. In Pelham we see other features of this tradition, less mentioned by Bleiler: foreshadowings of the crime, and building up of motives, detailed descriptions of the murder scene, considerable “sinister” atmosphere, the discovery of the crime and the preliminary investigation, much speculation about the identity of the actual guilty party, and the gathering of clues at the scene. In short, this tradition seems directly ancestral to the “whodunits” of today’s mystery fiction. It includes elaborate looks at murder, a mystery centering largely and simply around the identity of the criminal, looks at motives and physical evidence implicating various parties, and has a hidden villain, whose actual commission of the crime involves ingenious explanation. A good deal of emphasis is laid on describing every detail of how the real villain committed the crime, and there is often real ingenuity in showing how the reality of the crime differs from its surface appearance. I am proposing a name for this tradition: The Early Whodunit.

The Early Whodunit goes back at least to Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794). In that book, two different people are suspected of the murder of an obnoxious squire. Bleiler cites two authors whose work directly derives from Godwin, the American Charles Brockden Brown’s Arthur Mervyn (1799-1800) and George Walker’s Theodore Cyphon (1796), and a host of others whose work looks at circumstantial evidence for murder in general.

One can see this pattern surviving after Poe; Abraham Lincoln’s “The Trailor Murder Mystery” (1843) adheres to much of this approach, for instance. It was also a major influence on many writers of the British Sensation school.

With Poe, we see a fundamentally different approach. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), we have a detective tale in which real, multi-purpose mystery is the centerpiece, in which it is the detective’s job to elucidate all of the mysteries surrounding a crime, not just identify the guilty party. Poe’s approach here greatly extends the scope of detective fiction. Dupin here is as much concerned with the How as the Who, and needs to explain both an apparent locked room, and contradictory testimony by the witnesses. Poe also emphasizes the use of reason in crime investigation, making the detective story a fiction about human reason in solving mysteries.

The Early Whodunit seems to be largely a British tradition, influencing British writers from Godwin and his numerous immediate successors, through Bulwer-Lytton, “Waters” and the police school, Dickens, on through Mrs. Henry Wood, all the way from 1795 to 1877. (For that matter, “The Mystery of Essex Stairs”, by Sir Gilbert Campbell, seems to be in this tradition; it was collected in book form in 1891. Campbell was also a translator of Gaboriau for British editions.) Continental writers such as Germany’s Hoffman and France’s Gaboriau seem to have used other approaches, as did the Americans Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville. The British Wilkie Collins used a richer approach, as did such British Poe-influenced police casebook writers as Charles Martel and Andrew Forrester, Jr.

Marquise de BrinvilliersE.T.A. Hoffmann in his “Fräulein von Scuderi” (written 1818, published 1819) went far beyond the paradigm of The Early Whodunit. He includes extra mysteries, too, such as: how does the gang of jewel thieves know how to attack? how does an assassin seemingly vanish into thin air? Hoffmann’s work is unusual as well, in that the mystery elements are woven into a complex tale, in which the very shape of the crime becomes a mysterious issue. Hoffmann’s tale recalls nothing so much as the pulp fiction pieces of a hundred years later, in which several independent groups of people each get involved with a crime, and the reader is kept in the dark about the role each is playing, and how they all fit into the overall picture. Hoffmann’s ingenuity at fooling the reader about the real significance of events, and the real role of each character in the tale, is impressive – and even more ingenious is the concept of trying to fool the reader about such things – after all, Hoffmann had apparently few models of such mystery plotting ingenuity to draw on.

Hoffmann was an extremely famous writer in his day; like Godwin, Brockden Brown, and Bulwer-Lytton, his work had very wide circulation, and presumably influenced Poe and other writers. While I am impressed with Hoffmann’s ingenuity, and his pioneer status as both a mystery writer and as a pioneer writer of science fiction about robots (“The Sandman” appeared in 1816!), I confess I do fall for his often as disturbing as enjoyable, satisfying or uplifting fantasy. Reading Hoffmann can be a depressing experience, I admit. But it will always be a thrill.


E. T. W. Hoffmann










What is interesting about the inscription on Hoffmann’s tombstone is not that it supplies some biographical information, which is, of course, readily available elsewhere, but that by listing his official position and avocations in a certain order it establishes priorities which tell us something of what his friends thought of the whole man. Further, the inscription strongly suggests that Hoffmann was very conscientious, versatile, and gifted, a judgment which has been amply and consistently confirmed by his biographers.

Hoffmann’s parents were members of the upper bourgeoisie who had been connected with the law and respectability for generations; but theirs was a preposterously ill-fated marriage, and what Hoffmann called “a comedy of domestic dissension” ended divorce before he was three. The father was a man of c-Karm and professional ability (he had risen to become councillor of the High Court of justice), and he was a talented musician as well; but he was less than stable emotionally. He married a cousin, a highly nervous and hysterical woman whose rigidity and coldness and addiction to her peculiar family doomed the marriage. Following the divorce, Ernst Theodor Wilhelm, the younger of two surviving sons, remained in Königsberg with his mother; some three years later his father disappeard totally and forever from his life, except as a very occasional memory.

To say that the situation in which the young Hoffmann found himself was something less than conducive to sound mental healt is to understate the case. The houselhod in which he lived was, almost with exception, barren, senitle, and sickly; the grandmother, “a woman of Amazonian proportions who had spawned a race of pymies” ventured from her room only rarely, and then primarily to talk to God and get ready for the final jounery; his mother seems from all accounts to have specialized in staring vacantly into space; his uncle had once taken a law degree, but after mangling his first and only case, he had withdrawn from the world to engage in compulsive rituals hardly befitting a man who saw himself as a disciple of the great Kant; and there was a maiden aunt, by far the most sympathetic adult member of the bedlam, who was extremely overindulgent and seems not quite ever to have have reached emotional maturity.

Despite all this, or perhpas, at least in part, because of it, before Hoffmann was twelve he could play the harpsichord and the viollin beautifully, write musical compositions, and draw devastating caricatures. His uncle, who was entrusted with his early education, instructed him in music and developed in him a sense of discipline, regularity, and hard work which was never to leave him.

Hoffmann, most fortunately, met Theodor Hippel, a boy who would soon attend a Lutheran school with him and would become a life-long friend who more than once would rush to help Hoffmann. . . . Hoffmann was 16 when he became a law student. He was nineteen when he passed the law exam and fell in love with one of his piano students a bored and sentimental married woman. Later he fell in love (one-sided) with his sixteen year old piano student. He did marry a Polish woman who main talent was that she spoke Polish. .. . .He died the best drinker in town, asking only that he be turned to face the wall. He had become paralyzed from the neck down.


1. “Occasion of the ‘Lyrical Ballads,’ ” Biographia Literaria (1817), chap. 14. ‘ Kant had helped to undermine rationalism with his assertion that knowledge is limited.4 Fichte, his disciple, not only accepted the limitation of the power of human reason, but developed a concept of the limitless potential of the imagination. When he asserted that ego is the only being, he helped prepare the way for a solipsistic world in which one of Ludwig Tieck’s characters can proclaim: “Die Wesen sind, weil wir sie dachten” (Beings exist because we thought of them). Fichte did something to shake the fundamental premise that there was both a subjective and an objective world. In may ways, objectivity ceased to exist as a separate entity and became a subjective creation.5 From Schelling the poets adopted the idea of the existence of a harmonious partnership between man and nature -a most appealing pantheistic relationship. If the world is indeed what the poet sees it to be, psychotic states would inevitably be mirrored in the world of nature. Even when the hostile forces in nature conspire to doom man, these forces seem to be projections of a diseased mind. When Hoffmann’s eccentric Kapellmeister Kreisler looks into the lake, what he sees is not his own reflection but the face of the insane artist Leonardo.

2. In England, for example, music “had ceased to be a creative art.” The English romantic poets seem to have known nothing of Mozart, Beethoven, or Handel. To appreciate how very different the situation was in Germany, one need only look at Hoffmann’s wonderful character in Kater Murr, Kapellmeis ter Kreisler, who is a musician precisely because Hoffmann and the German romantics saw music as “the highest art, the art which leads us into the dark abysses of our soul and the mystery of the world.” (See Rene Wellek, “German and English Romanticism,” Confrontations [Princeton, 19651, PP. 3-33, from which the preceding quotations are taken.)

3. The entire matter is far too complex for adequate discussion here, but it may be of interest to observe that the classical and the romantic coincided in Germany, and it is not surprising, therefore, that the first movement to actually call itself romantic, in 1798, focused primarily on criticism and philosophy rather than on highly imaginative and inventive art.

4. Another of his arguments, that there are necessary rules and limitations in life, literature, and morals, went unheard, or at least unheeded.

5. It is true that when Fichte wrote about imagination he conceived it primarily as a metaphysical faculty, but it is hardly surprising to discover that the German romantic writer interpreted it to mean something deeply personal and special-the poet’s fantasy. They believed the world to be what the poet sees it to be.

6. This strong concern with the German past was perhaps also responsible for awakening a love for the fatherland, for a growing national consciousness; paradoxically, what had begun as a determined flight from contemporary reality ultimately led the Germans back to the present, to a clamorous patriotism directed against the French.

7. It is perhaps revealing to note that neither the Mdrchen nor the novella, two genres which were especially fostered in Germany, seem to have been generally known or written at that time outside of Germany.

8. At the end of Der blonde Eckbert (Blond Eckbert), Tieck concludes the story with the following: “He [Eckbert] could not now solve the riddle, whether he was now dreaming or whether he had dreamed before of a wife called Bertha. The- marvelous fused with the ordinary, the world around him was enchanted and he was not capable of thought or memory.”

9. See L. J. Kent, “Towards the Literary ‘Discover,. ~ Subconscious,” The Subconscious In Gogol’ and Dostoevskii, and Its Antecedents (The Hague: Mouton, 1969), pp. 15-52.

10. For example, an introductory, “launching” device; an escape-from reality technique; one admirably suited for allegory, for love and dream visions; a prefiguring (suspense-creating) device.

11. Hoffmann’s own attitude toward Rousseau seems to have been ambivalent. Kapellmeister Kreisler, a strongly autobiographical character in Kater Murr, tells us that he was only twelve when he began reading Rousseau, and in Hoffmann’s diary, 13 February 1804, Hoffmann confesses that he was reading the Confessions “perhaps for the thirtieth time,” etc.; but, if the thrust of Hoffmann’s fiction is to be believed, what he loved in Rousseau had much less to do with his pervasive optimism than with Hoffmann’s feeling of kinship to his

12. Hoffmann admired Sterne’s apparently haphazard technique of narration and saw this purposeful breaking of illusion and “detachment” (romantic irony) as a refined and subtle technique which found a parallel in the willful caprice of many of the German novels of the time, especially jean Paul’s. Sentimental Journey was one of Hoffmann’s very favorite books because, among other things, Hoffmann admired Sterne’s humor and felt that he had developed the storyteller’s art to a high degree of perfection. (Hoffmann and his close friend Hippel often called one another Yorick and Eugenius, two characters in Sterne’s book.)

13. It has been pointed out that Tieck’s “success with the Märchen genre depends on the more or less successful translation of the dream into literary

14. See especially Wolfgang Kayser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature, tr. Ulrich Weisstein (New York, 1963).

15. Walter Scott, “On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition” in The Foreign Quarterly Review 1, no. 1 (July 1827): 74, 81.

16. From: Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 17, trans. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1955), 227-230.

17. See: Tom Standage, The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine (New York: Walker & Company, 2002). 

Written by huehueteotl

April 28, 2007 at 12:30 pm

Posted in Literature, Movies/Books, Music, Psychology

Tagged with

7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Interesting stuff–glad you posted it. I’ve been researching Hoffmann and having a difficult time finding his illustrations (drawings from his letters abound, but I’d like direct references to the writings). The Federzeichnung you posted is the first I’ve come across. Do you know of any publications that might have them?
    Gratefully, C

    C. Decera

    April 7, 2008 at 6:46 am

  2. ETA150.
    E. T. A. Hoffmann’s / gesammelte Schriften. / Bd. 1-12. / Mit [24] Federzeichnungen von Theodor Hosemann. Berlin: Reimer / 1844/1845. I: 3 Bl., 351 S. – II: VI, 357 S. – III: VI, 342 S. – IV: 1 Bl., VI, 340 S. – V: 3 Bl., 399 S. – VI: 2 Bl., 400 S. – VII: VI, 466 S. – VIII: 2 Bl., 519 S. – IX: VIII, 307 S. – X: IV, 327 S. – XI: 2 Bl., 308 S. – XII: IV, 324 S.
    Signatur: L.g.o.387t(1-12.

    Combes, Charles: Zeichnungen eingefügt in Contes fantastiques. Paris: Charpentier 1858 (Titelzeichnung, 9 Illustrationen im Text, 11 Federzeichnungen).
    Signatur: Sel.248.

    would be two… did you happen to check these?


    April 7, 2008 at 4:07 pm

  3. Sincere thanks–I’ll check them out.

    C. Decera

    April 7, 2008 at 8:19 pm

  4. […] romanticism could extend from the dreamy and enchanting to the darker and visceral; what E.T.A. Hoffman would call the ” terrifying anticipation of the unspeakable and its tremendous conflict between the […]

  5. This is fascinating. I wonder, if, as you say, the German notion of the “gothic” was filtered through a particularly Germanic vision, how that vision was then translated and absorbed throughout the rest of European culture (I’m thinking in particular of Kierkegaard here, but others come to mind). As a side note, could you perchance point me in the direction of the source for the etching illustrating the summary of Der Sandmann? It seems to perfectly encapsulate the duality between objective and subjective, and I’m interested in examining it in its original context. Thanks for this!

    N. Spencer

    February 19, 2010 at 2:47 am

    • thank you for your thoughtful comment. as about the edgings, see comment above about. all the sources are indicated.


      February 28, 2010 at 4:22 pm

  6. Reblogged this on alizab10g and commented:
    Great Read!


    December 9, 2014 at 2:31 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: