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Hoffmann's Serapionsbrüder are in agreement about the general suitability of the Supernatural — whether malign or benign — as material for the imaginative processing of sense data, which is a characteristic feature of the Serapiontic principle in art, while being sharply divided on the question of the extent to which malign forces can be in control of human destiny. This distinction between the different functions of the Supernatural was, of course, also discernible right from the start of the Serapionsbrüder collection in the members's various interpretations of the complex signals emanating from the Einsiedler tale, in which the hermit'ss success as a teller of tales was bought at the price of recognition or acceptance of the fundamental dichotomies that characterize human life. The tales associated with the “Nachtseite” featured, through their main characters Elis and Cardillac, the tortured psychology of characters whose subconscious urges — triggered by external circumstances — would dominate their lives and in each case lead to their destruction, albeit in Das Fräulein von Scuderi the misery of Cardillac'ss situation is partially counterbalanced by the reassuring image of the court poetess. This character, the précieuse Mlle de Scudéry, is treated sympathetically, though not without irony, and reveals courage and resourcefulness in helping, at one level of the tale, to bring about a happy end culminating in the union of the young lovers.
As for the Märchen, Hoffmann makes it clear from the frame discussions that he is working with a form that is well-established in the Romantic tradition but that he intends to develop very much in the spirit of the Serapiontic program.
Hoffmann's first collection of tales, the Fantasiestücke, was published in four books between 1814 and 1816, and right from the start of his compilation in 1813 he adopted deliberate principles in the order and presentation of the individual works. Not yet at this point favoring the route taken by Goethe in his Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten or Ludwig Tieck in his Phantasus, and which he himself would develop in Die Serapionsbrüder, of providing a frame narrative, he did not wish to throw his works before his public in a random fashion, either. Instead he adopted two unifying structural elements to place around the tales, first an overarching title: Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier: Blätter aus dem Tagebuch eines reisenden Enthusiasten, which he himself justified as having been deliberately chosen as a preface (“Vorrede”) to the succeeding tales. The second consisted in a succinct programmatic opening piece, Jacques Callot, in which he sought to provide his readership with what amounts to a concise statement of the artistic principles that he was proposing to adopt in the collection as a whole. In this connection it is relevant that several of the tales themselves were still taking shape at the point when the first two volumes had already been published (Der goldene Topf, for example, followed as volume 3 later in the same year, 1814, after the appearance of the first two books).
The above investigation of Hoffmann's ideas on aesthetics and their application to his own works has suggested a rather different image of the writer from that to which we are accustomed. We have been able first to identify a persistent undercurrent of reference to the fundamental issues that were being discussed by thinkers of the day, especially the relationship between “Geist” and “Natur.” Far from mere name-dropping — which has hitherto mostly served as an explanation for this phenomenon — Hoffmann consistently annexes this intellectual framework, which hinges for him on the centrality of the faculty of imagination, to his more practical concerns and applications of the creative process and its reception. The Serapiontic Principle is the chief unifying factor that brings together the more abstract and theoretical and the genial and inspirational aspects in this process. As we have seen, it is itself a multifaceted notion composed of various strands and developed continuously over the entire breadth of Hoffmann's career as a prose writer from the Fantasiestücke to Des Vetters Eckfenster, and it reaches a point of particular intensification, clarity, and elucidation in Die Serapionsbrüder. As a point of intersection between the general and the particular the principle serves, as I have demonstrated, to draw together the many and various insights that have for too long made Hoffmann's efforts at theorizing appear to be haphazard.
Hoffmann's constant, almost obsessive revisiting of the themes of imagination and creativity links him with the English Romantics such as Wordsworth and Coleridge.
This study offers a new angle on the works of the great Romantic writer, composer, and eminent judge, E. T. A. Hoffmann. Hoffmann's status — especially in the Anglo-Saxon world — has been overdetermined by images emanating from such sources as operetta and ballet. He has been regarded mainly as a quaint eccentric with a penchant for paranoid “gothic” characters and spooky, sensationalist scenarios. Conversely, in his native country Hoffmann has been hailed as a leading practitioner of postmodernist theory. The writers of numerous highly technical monographs have strayed ever further away from their starting point in his fiction and failed to demonstrate his breadth and skill as a writer and thinker.
By focusing attention on the collection entitled Die Serapionsbrüder I have two aims in mind: first, I wish to demonstrate the coherence and consistency with which Hoffmann puts forward a series of interconnected ideas about the creative process and its reception that add up to a highly individual, if unorthodox, “Poetics.” It is amazing to find how dismissive (or blind) many commentators have been about this important aspect of Hoffmann's oeuvre and how this lack of awareness has often distorted readings of the Tales. Hoffmann was a leading spirit in German Romanticism, which, as a powerful literary movement, was unique within the European context for its close connection to contemporary philosophical ideas, and which strongly influenced English literature (for example, Coleridge).
As we have already noted, topical issues such as magnetism and somnambulism play an important part in Hoffmann's thinking, and link up with the fundamental mind-body question that was being formulated at the time in terms of the relationship between “Geist” and “Natur.” Hoffmann had followed debates about these topics in contemporary thinking at a theoretical level, in the writings of Schelling and Schubert, and at a more practical, psychological level in the influential treatises of Reil and Pinel. His close personal acquaintance with the influential medical director of the Bamberg hospital, Adalbert Friedrich Marcus, suggests that he had plenty of direct access to authoritative sources of information, and enough certainly to have formed his own opinions.
After the carefully planned first volume of the Serapionsbrüder tales, themes relating to the Occult occur more and more frequently: the third “Abschnitt” for example, contains two such tales (Die Automate and the untitled Eine Spukgeschichte) as well as an introduction to this entire section in which there is lengthy discussion about the Occult among the members of the Bund; this is then followed by two anecdotes by Theodor that are presented as illustrations. Hoffmann clearly intends — in his typically undogmatic way — to provide his readers with an introduction to these topics as preparation for the subsequent tales in the collection that will draw on these areas to which Schubert had given the useful portmanteau term “Die Nachtseite der Natur.”
This essay (or, as Theodor describes it, “kleine Abhandlung”) can be regarded as a continuation — and, as will be presently suggested, the climax — of Hoffmann's exposition in the Serapionsbrüder of his theoretical program as it had been outlined up to this point in the various formulations of the Serapiontic Principle. Hoffmann has moved on from the literary aspects to a consideration of two major ways in which music can achieve its potential as the most expressive of all art forms: the first (outlined in “Der Dichter und der Komponist”) is in the hybrid form of opera, the second, in the form of church music (“Über alte und neue Kirchenmusik”). Both forms, significantly, involve the interdependence of music and words (or texts). We saw how the first iteration of Hoffmann's literary program, based on the “Serapiontic Principle,” had been (fictionally) prompted by the spontaneous response of a group of friends to the stimulus of a literary reunion after a long absence — and in an atmosphere where a strong collective will is evident among the group to set up a program of renewal of their creative mission and release their long-dormant imaginative powers. A similar missionary zeal accompanies “Der Dichter und der Komponist,” which calls for a new program of Romantic opera and has all the greater sense of immediacy in that, at the time the original version was written in 1814, the Allies were moving towards victory against Napoleon.
Critics have long sought to elucidate the multilayered texts of E. T. A. Hoffmann by applying to them a particular set of theories and ideas that Hoffmann himself subsumed under the heading of the 'Serapiontic Principle.' This principle, which Hoffmann expounded in his collection of tales 'Die Serapionsbrüder,' involves a complex intersection of the artist's faculties of imagination and perception. However, Hoffmann's mode of presenting his theory presents an unusual problem: rather than the usual form of an essay or treatise, he adopts a fictional framework, complete with a set of "characters"; this in turn sets up a number of perspectives on the theory itself. This combination of literary and theoretical elements presents a severe challenge to critics, and not surprisingly there has been little agreement about what the 'principle' actually entails or its wider relevance. With the principle as prime focus, this book provides detailed analysis of a broadly based selection of Hoffmann's texts, both theoretical and literary. It offers new perspectives on his narrative invention and the range of his theoretical interests, thus redefining his place at the forefront of German Romanticism. Hilda Meldrum Brown is professor of German at St Hilda's College, University of Oxford.
The Serapiontic Principle has revealed itself to be a multifaceted concept, some of its strands opening out onto issues of a general aesthetic nature, others generating specific narrative techniques. Lothar's broadly grounded “Erkenntnis der Duplizität,” for example, rooted philosophically as it is in a primary dualism between subject and object, leads directly, through the Serapiontic artist's “Erkenntnis” of this dual state of affairs to his adoption of an ironic stance (what Hoffmann himself termed “eine durchgehaltene Ironie). Whether in a humorous or a more serious vein, this is a hallmark of virtually all Hoffmann's literary oeuvre. Once more deriving from this fundamental dichotomy and starting point for his “poetology,” the creative “directive” suggested by the “Himmelsleiter” metaphor determines a pattern of two contrasting levels — earthbound and heavenbound, the one giving access to the other — over which the Serapiontic artist can range, thus potentially covering the entire scale of human experience. Hoffmann is the only Romantic artist who insists on treating both these levels evenhandedly. Scrupulous attention to his source material, to the vivid presentation of character traits and personal mannerisms (though not, however, pictorial description) together with an unerring ability to bring the two levels into a convincing juxtaposition is, in his finest works, so perfectly matched that the higher world of fantasy actually gains credibility from its relationship to the lower level and the reader has no problem in suspending disbelief.
Artistic inspiration for Hoffmann derives from many sources. The origins of a process that he sometimes metaphorically terms “kindling” (“entzünden”), and the spark that ignites the imaginative faculties, may be traced to random associations formed between things seen and things interpreted, visual perceptions and mental transformations. As we have observed, the supremacy of visual perception in Hoffmann's time is rapidly being challenged by other faculties that are less easy to identify precisely — hence Hoffmann's portmanteau term “inneres Schauen” to describe the one to which he attaches special importance, a term that makes it clear that his aesthetic aim has to be distinguished from mimesis. One of the most interesting features of this approach is the fact that everything observed — the entire world, whether in the raw state or “gedeutet” — is a candidate for further transformation, and that this principle applies as much to artworks created by others, which themselves may have been the finished product of similar transformations, as it does to straightforward, unprocessed material. In order to make his position abundantly clear, Hoffmann himself will regularly point the reader in the direction of his source material, whether this be an anecdote by G. H. Schubert (as in the case of Die Bergwerke zu Falun) or, as in the case of the three tales from the Serapionsbrüder that are based on contemporary paintings, by giving details in two of the three cases about the date and place of the exhibitions in Berlin at which the works were displayed, the names of the artists, and their titles.
This very late tale, written in 1822, only a few months before Hoffmann's death, has had a particularly contradictory reception from commentators. Perhaps this is the result of the editorial inconvenience created by a text that was posthumously published and therefore often absent from editions, or else incorporated into the miscellaneous collection of “späte Prosa.” Such a detachment from any fixed moorings may have contributed to, or may have encouraged, readings of the work as a kind of “odd man out,” its late date giving room for speculations about its ground-breaking status as a forerunner of nineteenth-century “realist” prose narrative and thus a clear indication of new beginnings, or a development in Hoffmann's own progress as a writer. However, as we shall see, this masterly tale actually consolidates the theoretical program (or what has been termed “die Poetologie des Schauens”) that Hoffmann had steadily been expounding alongside his literary works ever since the publication of the Fantasiestücke, that program for which the Serapiontic Principle serves as a convenient principal focus. Furthermore, the tale itself can be viewed as decidedly Serapiontic in the way in which it utilizes visual perceptions as a lever by means of which to present the reader with a highly poetic, non-material vision of life, albeit one tinged with sadness and regret. As with my study of Prinzessin Brambilla, where important poetological aspects are to be found embedded in the text itself rather than in the form of a clearly disjoined, authorially or narratorially sanctioned metatext, it will be necessary to examine these theoretical implications in context.
Since his first attempts in the Fantasiestücke (the Callot preface and the “Kreisleriana”) to formulate his aesthetic ideas, Hoffmann's Romantic program had been developing apace alongside his growing experience as a writer. The need for an appropriate medium to present his ideas was therefore becoming urgent. Like his fellow Romantics who had a theoretical bent, Hoffmann could not use forms like manifestos or treatises, all of which had associations with Enlightenment systems. His need was for a flexible instrument that could accommodate his ever-expanding thoughts about the creative process and give scope for the expression of different shades of an argument — a requirement that may have reflected his cast of mind or, possibly, have been a by-product of his legal training. He was clearly committed to delivering his ideas in a form that was both lively and flexible. His preferred mode of presentation — an elaborate frame narrative — and the demands it makes on the reader somewhat resemble those created by a sophisticated modern literary text — and in elucidating any such text, as present literary criticism reveals, one can expect ambiguities rather than categorical statements.
The form of presentation employed for the exposition of the Serapiontic Principle in Die Serapionsbrüder is particularly complex. Here confusion has reigned about the relationship between the tale of the hermit, the narrator (Cyprian's) interpolations, the initial discussion of its meaning by members of the group, and Lothar's subsequent summarizing and definitive statement, which is based on gathering up all the strands of the previous discussion to form a “principle.”
The Serapiontic Principle is a term much bandied about in Hoffmann criticism. However, as a concept or critical tool it has not found wide-spread acclaim nor been deemed to have much application to Hoffmann's literary works, let alone much relevance outside these. Even when it is invoked, there is little agreement about its precise meaning, nor have there been serious attempts to unravel its multifaceted exposition. Some are disposed to deny its importance altogether and complain of muddled presentation on Hoffmann's part; others are skeptical about the meaningfulness of terms such as “inneres” or “wirkliches Schauen.” Few, if any, seem to wish to extend its scope beyond the literary to fields like the visual arts and music. It is my intention in this book to clarify Hoffmann's theory and to show its relevance to a large portion of his creative output. Because for Hoffmann the process of reception is, as we shall see, closely linked to the creative process itself, this scrutiny may produce some new insights into the narrative works and the seriousness of Hoffmann's purpose as a contributor to the Romantic program.
There are good reasons for the neglect and misunderstanding with which the Serapiontic Principle has been received. Hoffmann's was one of the most acute, perceptive, and wide-ranging critical minds of his generation, not only in the realm of prose fiction and narrative but also in that of musical criticism, in which he was a pioneer, writing regular reviews of compositions by the leading composers of the day in the Leipzig Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung.