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In an extended prologue to his 1819 novella “Das Fräulein von Scuderi,” E.T.A. Hoffmann offers an account of a sudden outbreak of violence in Paris in the seventeenth century. A new form of poison is invented that is virtually untraceable. And although the initial perpetrator is quickly caught and executed, the technique for manufacturing the poison begins to spread, passing from one perpetrator to another, claiming ever more victims, and escaping juridical efforts to suppress it. What I find most striking about Hoffmann's novella is that he represents the migration of violence across Paris as disrupting traditional forms of reciprocity: the giving of gifts, the granting of charity, and the expression of hospitality. What makes the violence so disruptive, so calamitous for society, Hoffmann seems to say, is that it contaminates, indeed literally poisons, rituals of gift exchange. The gift, and the granting of gifts, becomes the site of violence. These themes – first developed in the prologue to the novella, in which Hoffmann describes the invention of the poison – persist in the main body of the narrative, in which he offers an account of a seemingly unrelated series of murders and jewelry thefts that take place in the streets of Paris after dark.
My reading of Hoffmann, in focusing on rituals of reciprocity, goes against the grain of much recent criticism on the novella, which has tended to emphasize either questions of genre (whether or not the text is an early example of detective fiction), of genius (to what extent the gifted but murderous jeweler René Cardillac represents a parody of the Romantic cult of the artist), or of criminal psychology (to what extent the novella locates the origins of criminality in early childhood). I proceed here instead by examining a set of tropes and idioms that Hoffmann makes use of to describe the spread of violence, and I argue that Hoffmann's novella constitutes an attempt, in the face of this violence, to develop a set of resources – be they political, judicial, or even literary – that, in the absence of traditional forms of gift giving, might contain violence, once it has begun to spread.
Invited to Bamberg as musical director (Kappelmeister), Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann served variously as theater manager, playwright, composer, stage artist, and decorator through five seasons from September 1, 1808 to April 21, 1813. In his sketchbooks, stage designs as well as in his literary imagery and description, he replicated details of Bamberg architecture. Financial difficulties at the Bamberg Theater during these years required him to augment his income through musical instruction and to exert his abilities in most aspects of theatrical production including costuming and stage designs. In examining his stage designs I became especially interested in Hoffmann's setting for Verbrechen und Strafe, oder, Die Wiederkehr der Verstorbenen in das Reich des Lebens (Crime and Punishment, or, The Return of the Dead into the Realm of Life). All that had been previously documented concerning this play was that Hoffmann prepared for the production two sheets with set designs, and that it was listed in the Bamberger Theater-Journale for performance on December 26, 1811 under the direction of Franz von Holbein (Bamberger Theater-Journale, f18 recto).
In spite of the efforts of other scholars in retrieving further information about Hoffmann's involvement in the Bamberg Theater (Köppler 1–36; Lewandowski 1995 28–82; Dengler-Schreiber 46–67), no account of the play or playwright has yet emerged. I have identified the source for the play in a tale by August Lafontaine (Lafontaine 1800 91–139), and I will argue that Hoffmann himself adapted the tale for the stage. Among his adaptations one might compare Liebe und Eifersucht (Love and Jealousy) from August Wilhelm Schlegel's Die Schärpe und die Blume (The Sash and the Blossom, 1809, translated from Calderón's La banda y la flor). The distinctive characteristics of his stage designs provide primary evidence for Hoffmann's manner of adapting Lafontaine's tale.
The relevance of Hoffmann's stage designs to his subsequent narratological strategies has been observed by others (Rottenbach 324–25; Lewandowski 2009 174–98). As I will emphasize, Hoffmann favored in his representation of space on stage the same elements of liminality that were crucial to his narrative tales. Think of his frequent reliance on gates, doors, windows, and passageways and their crucial role in acts of witnessing, spying, gaining or hindering access.
The GDR writer Franz Fühmann, in an effort to make Hoffmann compatible with East Germany's cultural politics, argued that Hoffmann was a realist, because his ghosts were real rather than illusory. Fühmann defined ghost (Gespenst) as something contrary to reason (“das rational zunächst Unbegreifliche” [Fühmann 229]), for instance, something that shouldn't exist – because it is in some way aberrant or anachronistic – yet does. The term ‘ghost’ was no doubt suggested to him by the wealth of supernatural effects in Hoffmann's fiction, yet ‘monster,’ meaning something that transgresses a norm, arguably fits his definition better. The two terms share the notion of transgression, but the first applies specifically to the laws of nature, whereas the second is broader in its applications. Fühmann's notion, thus qualified, offers an apt starting point for an exploration of scientists in Hoffmann's oeuvre: it draws attention both to their monstrosity and to the metaphorical nature of their supernatural associations. I will argue that transgression operates in two directions. First, science and scientists are most often monsters because they violate or transgress against nature; this is true of both mainstream, empirical and mechanistic science and of Romantic science, such as magnetism. Secondly, Hoffmann's portrayal of science is itself transgressive because it runs counter to and demonizes notions of scientific progress, again, both rationalist-empiricist and Romantic ones. The close parallels in the criticism of empiricism and Romanticism lead to a further hypothesis: Hoffmann perceives what one might call a scientific mindset, which runs deeper than, and thus undercuts any divisions into, rationalist and Romantic philosophies, and this mindset is the actual monstrosity his tales demonize. One could admittedly object that it is not the scientific mindset itself he wishes to critique, but rather perversions of it. Yet such a distinction may well be immaterial, since this mindset as conceived by Hoffmann is all too easily liable to perversion.
In attempting to define what is monstrous and transgressive about Hoffmann's scientists, it is useful to distinguish a surface level and a deeper, essential one, for which the former acts as a metaphor. Some keywords help to circumscribe the essential level: violation, violence, hubris, desire to dominate and possess.
E.T.A. Hoffmann's story Prinzessin Brambilla (Princess Brambilla, 1820) has been read in many ways, for example, as a version of Schiller's aesthetic education (Slessarev); as a summary or satire of Fichte's or Schelling's idealism (Frischmann); as a handbook of sorts for Romantic irony (Strohschneider- Kohrs 155–60 and 362–424); or as a proto-modernist depiction of an initiation rite (Wellbery). Above all it is an apotheosis of the aesthetic on many levels. Not only does the work describe and evaluate a number of art objects of various forms as well as feature a variety of performances – architecture, cooking, costumes, dance, music, narration, a theatrical presentation, even a ‘flash mob’ as part of a Gesamtkunstwerk of sorts – it also claims to be derived from a series of sketches by the eighteenth-century French artist Jacques Callot. As an illustrated book, it exhibits these pictures as well as its own exhibition of them. It is also prominently a theater book, a book whose central character is an actor and whose fundamental plot achievement is a change in a city's aesthetic taste. These aesthetic events, like the carnival time which forms the setting of the story, transgress and overflow conventional distinctions, at times confusing and at times mediating between a variety of different categories: not only artistic media (as in the interplay between the text and the images), but also between nations (a German book about Rome, with a chorus of expat German artists), between reality and the virtual, between art and nature, existentially, between life and death, and, most importantly for my purposes here, between the private and the public. The narrative is divided between the thoughts and, at times, delusions of the main characters and their publicly visible actions, and much emphasis is placed on the relationship between the two, which serves to define and defend the rights of art and the imagination in public space. Prinzessin Brambilla, among its other achievements, is a key text in the history of aesthetic subjectivity in a mass society.
Any attempt at an overview of this “Capriccio after Jacques Callot” (119) must necessarily oversimplify, but this most complicated and confusing story in eight chapters is fundamentally structured as a romantic comedy, though with two additional layers of narrative.
“It is impossible to subject tales of this nature to criticism … In fact, the inspirations of Hoffmann so often resemble the ideas produced by the immoderate use of opium, that we cannot help considering his case as one requiring the assistance of medicine rather than of criticism … [Hoffmann's] works as they now exist ought to be considered less as models for imitation than as affording a warning how the most fertile fancy may be exhausted by the lavish prodigality of its possessor.”
Sir Walter Scott, “Novels of Ernst Theodore Hoffmann” (1827), 330–32.
Scott's infamously derogatory opinion, which was published five years after the death of Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776–1822), summarizes a general tone of disapproval voiced by other well-established, contemporary literary pundits regarding one of German Romanticism's great storytellers. For example, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's disparaging declaration that Romanticism was “the sick” while his own classicism was “the healthy” might have been directed at Hoffmann's writings perhaps more than those of other Romantics. He admired Scott's essay greatly, reviewing it and translating perhaps the most condemnatory parts of it for the German public (Hennig 369–72), thereby helping to ensure that Hoffmann's domestic reputation would remain that of an imaginative but dangerously irrational, extreme, and, finally, dismissible artist-type for decades thereafter – despite the fact that his writings were warmly embraced by a number of American, French, and Russian artists. Throughout the nineteenth century, German literary historians, if they mentioned Hoffmann at all, proved extremely unsympathetic (e.g., G.C. Gervinus or Ludwig Börne [Kremer 2010, 594–95]). One of the most significant of early Hoffmann critics writing at the turn of the twentieth century, Hans von Müller, could tolerate some of his works, but when, for example, it came to the double novel Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr (Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, 2 vols., 1820–22), he condemned its “suicidal fooling around with form,” and then published the Kreisler half of the novel alone, after excising the feline autobiography, denouncing it as “padding that annihilates the novel's atmosphere” (Müller 1974, 736, my translation).
In the fourth chapter of E.T.A. Hoffmann's “Der goldene Topf” (“The Golden Pot,” 1814) the narrator begins to collapse the familiar world – the “everyday lives of ordinary people” – with the “fairy realm of glorious wonders” – a place revealed to us in dreams (GPOT 20). Surprisingly, the act of revelation or dreaming that foists us into the spiritual realm is more likely to occur than our perception of the world around us – at least, the narrator depicts this paradox in his own struggle to write. If he ostensibly desires to recount the extraordinary story of the student Anselmus, his articulated goal is countered by the surprising appeal with which he ends the passage. Rather than requesting our belief in the fantastic elements of his tale, he asks that we learn “to recognize the well-known shapes that, as the saying goes, cross your path every day” (GPOT 20). His difficulty derives, then, not from the extraordinary nature of Anselmus's recent history – his encounters in the preceding three vigils with the magical green snakes and the shape-shifting door-knocker, for example – but from an attempt to re-discover the phenomena of our own familiar world, the ordinary appearances of characters who, like the Sub-Rector Paulmann and Registrary Heerbrand (to take the narrator's own examples), may still stroll about our city streets. The expected, categorical difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary vanishes: if the narrator cannot persuasively re-visualize Anselmus's existence, then this failure also obscures our perception of persons still visible in our familiar world, consequently drawing a parallel between the reality of the narrative's extraordinary events and the reality of characters existing in our concrete present. Exploring this parallel as constitutive of the “everyday,” “Der goldene Topf” suggests that the “common” phenomena “met with every day” are an amalgamation of the ordinary and the extraordinary.
I argue that the narrator's intense concern with identifying familiar characters indicates an investment in the ordinary as idiosyncrasy: the juxtaposition of particular and type occurring in a moment of distinctness. This is first evident in the consistent denomination of characters by both particular name and typifying title: “the student Anselmus,” the “Sub-Rector Paulmann,” the “Registrary Heerbrand,” and, later, the “Archivist Lindhorst.”
When Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes E.T.A. Hoffmann's “Der goldene Topf ” (“The Golden Pot,” 1814) as “the Book of the Two Worlds” in his riotous 1822 translation of “sundry select chapters” (SWF 2: 964) from the tale, he seizes on a theme that – in typical fashion for Coleridge the translator – holds no small relevance to his own anxieties regarding his relationship as poet and philosopher to a society he feared was unwilling to understand him. Had Coleridge read more Hoffmann – he certainly possessed a copy of Hoffmann's debut collection, Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier (Fantasy-Pieces in Callot's Manner, 4 vols., 1814–15), in which “Der goldene Topf ” appears – he would have seen that nearly all of his German counterpart's work offers variations on the theme of the “Two Worlds.” Be it the student Anselmus, torn between the poetic world of Atlantis and the quotidian confines of Dresden, or Nathaniel, unable to reconcile Clara's appeals to rationality with the uncanny machinations of the Sandman, or Prinzessin Brambilla's use of commedia dell'arte to navigate the intersections between carnival-season Rome and the mythic kingdom or Urdar, Hoffmann's portrayal of such seemingly irresolvable binaries reflects a deeper ambivalence regarding the compatibility of a life in art with the quotidian demands of life in a bourgeois, materially-oriented German society. As is borne out in his correspondence and notebooks, Hoffmann himself felt this ambivalence keenly through his struggles to reconcile various official duties as jurist and theater-manager with his artistic aspirations of writing, composing, and drawing. Coleridge's suggestive diagnosis of the existential divide that characterizes “Der goldene Topf ” finds resonance still in modern critical assessments of Hoffmann such as that of Horst Daemmrich, who holds that “to do justice to Hoffmann's works one must observe the prevailing ideological and structural tension between self-transcendence in a sublime vision of cosmic consciousness and self-realization in a harsh, adverse world” (23).
Cyprian's “horrific story” from E.T.A. Hoffmann's collection Die Serapions- Brüder (The Serapion-Brothers, 4 vols. [1819–21]) offers one of the first literary adaptations of the vampire motif in the German language. Later editors supplied the title “[Vampyrismus]” (“[Vampyrism]”) for the story, owing to the conversation about vampires and Gothic literature that the “Serapion Brothers,” Lothar, Theodor, Vinzenz, Sylvester, Ottmar, and Cyprian, hold in the volume's framing fiction. Surprisingly, the strange tale that occurs to Cyprian because of this discussion does not contain any vampire figure per se: there is no “cursed character who gets buried as a dead thing and soon rises from the grave and drinks people's blood while they sleep,” as the framing conversation suggests. Instead, the story's main characters, a baroness and her beautiful daughter Aurelie, increasingly assimilate themselves to the realm of the dead on account of their necrophagic tendencies. This introduces a striking, almost chiastic tension between the framing narrative and the embedded story: the former concerns the living dead, who drink the blood of the living, while the latter has to do with living persons who feed on corpses. Why does Hoffmann build up the promise of a vampire story so emphatically, only then blatantly not to present the reader with a single undead figure? The topic would have fit his interest in the uncanny and the fantastic well – one thinks, for example, of his Ignaz Denner, who drinks the blood of his children and his children's children in Nachtstücke (Night Pieces, 1816) or the murderous Medardus in Hoffmann's Gothic novel Die Elixiere des Teufels (The Devil's Elixirs, 2 vols., 1815–16) whose uncanny Doppelgänger craves to drink blood. It would appear that the figure of the vampire cannot be reconciled with the “Serapiontic Principle” as it is developed over the course of the Serapions-Brüder collection. The inverse relation between Cyprian's tale and the conversation that frames it suggests instead that, through its association with vampirism, the Serapiontic Principle transforms into its abyssal opposite. The figure of the vampire emerges as the dark, aporetic flipside of Serapiontic poetics.
E.T.A. Hoffmann's fairy tale “Das fremde Kind” (“The Strange Child,” 1817) is one of Hoffmann's lesser known texts and has received only marginal scholarly attention. The underexamined fairy tale “Das fremde Kind” opens up new insights into Hoffmann's innovative representation of transgressive playfulness, which entails a multifaceted critique of both Enlightenment and early Romantic ideas of creativity and imagination. Hoffmann's fairy tale endorses imaginative ludic experiences because they allow for creative transgressions of societal limitations. However, the text is also a warning against the uncanny dangers of unmediated transgressions into the ambiguous imaginary. The study of ludic elements in “Das fremde Kind” draws attention to its critique of Enlightenment rationalism and philistine materialism with their aversion to imaginary playfulness, and it reveals a late-Romantic critique of the dangers of losing oneself in the fantastic. The tension between the benefits and dangers of transgressive imaginary play is resolved by transposing it into the liminal dream sphere, which offers an unrestricted creative space between everyday reality and the realm of the fantastic.
In Hoffmann's “Das fremde Kind,” artificiality and automation appear as negative principles that threaten transgressive play. The protagonists of the fairy tale are two children, the siblings Felix and Christlieb von Brakel, who receive automated and artificial toys as presents from their aristocratic relatives. Their uncle, Count Cyprianus von Brakel, and his family bring the toys with them from the city when they come for a visit to the idyllic rural village where Felix and Christlieb are growing up. The relatives are accompanied by a hunter, who functions as a servant; this domesticized hunter reflects how far removed the urban relatives are from rural life and nature. Christlieb and Felix are handed the toys by their stilted cousins Adelgunde and Hermann.
The hunter entered with two big boxes; Adelgunde and Hermann took them and gave them to Christlieb and Felix. “Do you love toys, mon cher? here I have brought some of the finest kind for thee,” Hermann said, bowing gracefully. Felix looked discouraged, he became sad; he himself did not know why. He held the box thoughtlessly in his hands and murmured, my name is not Mon share but Felix and also not thee but you. – Christlieb, too, was closer to crying than to laughing.
Much has been written on the work of E.T.A. Hoffmann but so far little has been clarified about his specific contributions to the ongoing debate on mimesis. It is Hoffmann who argues in the introduction to his story “Das öde Haus” that sometimes reality as it truly is may be more surprising, marvelous, or uncanny than any fictional narrative, thus unsettling the expected hierarchy between nature and art, outer and inner worlds. This essay explores how Hoffmann challenges, even more than Lessing before him, the ut pictura poesis tradition and the idea of the “sister arts,” concerning the similarity, or rivalry, between painting and poetry, the visual and the verbal. Lessing in his famous 1755 essay “Laokoon: Oder über die Grenzen der Malerei und Dichtkunst” in response to Winckelmann's notion of imitation based on Greek Antiquity proposed that the visual arts belong to the dimension of space, whereas Dichtkunst (“Literature”) oscillates between the visual (its “Zeichen” or “signs” he calls “Körper im Raum” or “bodies in space” arranged sequentially) and the acoustic (its signs he calls “Töne” or “sounds,” “übereinander” or “with simultaneity”). Long before Jean Baudrillard, who suggested that simulacra replace mimetic relations in the twentieth century, Hoffmann already seems to suggest that the mind creates so many of the images we see and that memories are fictional, perhaps even when their recollection seems most realistic to us. Three narratives in particular written by Hoffmann between 1814–17 indicate a development in his style of representation that finds him experimenting with unstable signifiers and imaginative technologies, that suggest increasing degrees of a person's removal from what could be safely referred to as the “real,” into a realm of the hyperreal that involves reified images and objects of a different nature, his realm of art.
Hoffmann had studied painting at secondary school before he began legal studies at the University of Königsberg in 1792. After completing his degree, in 1800 he obtained a position as a legal councilor in the Highest Court (“Assessor am Obergericht”) in Posen. Then he became acquainted with Zacharias Werner and Julius Eduard Hitzig, who introduced him to the ideas of Romanticism. In 1805 Hoffmann created a “Singspiel” based on a text by Clemens Brentano in which he links the disciplines of art, fusing vocal music and theatre.
“Ce chien est a moi,” disaient ces pauvres enfants. “C'est la ma place au soleil.” Voila le commencement et l'image de l'usurpation de toute la terre.
“This is my dog,” said those poor children. “That is my place in the sun.” Here is the beginning and the image of the usurpation of the whole earth.
Blaise Pascal, Pensées
The opening description of R … sitten, the ancestral seat of the von R. family and its Baltic environs in E.T.A. Hoffmann's night piece “Das Majorat” presents a world of clear boundaries and dichotomies, of oppositions in human life and social organization so stark that they appear reflected in the very landscape in which they unfold. Indeed, these human distinctions seemingly spring from the properties of the ground itself, as is only fitting for a story whose eponymous legal instrument is meant to bind future first-born male heirs to inalienable landholdings in order to preserve the splendor familiae et nominis and to ensure that an aristocratic family's economic power and influence, grounded in its property, would not be divided and dispersed over the generations. For readers familiar with the purpose of a Majorat, the irony of the story's opening sentences is immediately apparent, however, for Hoffmann's narrator could not make it any clearer that no splendor whatsoever is connected to the von R.'s utterly bleak family seat. The immediate surroundings of castle R … sitten are “rough and desolate” and “barely a blade of grass grows here and there from the groundless drift sand.” On one side the castle faces the Baltic Sea, on the other, its naked walls are abutted, without the transition of a park or garden and their symbolic mediation of wild nature and human culture, by “a scanty pine-forest, which spurns the colorful ornament of spring in its eternal, gloomy grief, and where, instead of the cheerful jubilations of songbirds awakened to new desire, echo only the eerie croaking of the ravens and the whizzing screeching of storm-proclaiming seagulls.” Such uncanny desolation, in which the cycle of the seasons itself seems interrupted, pertains to the family seat alone, and a mere fifteen minutes away, nature is suddenly altered, when, “as if by a stroke of magic” one is “transported” to an alternative world of “blossoming fields and abundant farmlands and meadows.”
Soren Kierkegaard (1813–55) was a gifted reader and critic. His essay on Mozart's Don Giovanni, for example, is a classic text for philosophicallyminded music critics, and his treatment of the Romantic conception of irony in his dissertation maintains a secure position in the literature on the topic. A much wider audience, of course, is familiar with his interpretation of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac in Fear and Trembling. Even in those cases when one might ultimately decide to disagree with his interpretations, it is always stimulating to look through his critical eyes and in so doing to see the works he reads in a fresh light.
Kierkegaard read German fluently and German-language authors are frequently discussed in his works. But while Kierkegaard's readings of such figures as Goethe, Friedrich Schlegel, and Lessing have been well studied – to say nothing of Hegel and Schelling – much less attention has been paid to his reading of E.T.A. Hoffmann. This is understandable: Kierkegaard wrote much less about him. No extended passage in any published work discusses Hoffmann, not even in The Concept of Irony, where he considered at length such modern figures as Schlegel, Tieck, Jean Paul, and Solger. Still, it would be mistaken to conclude that Hoffmann was unimportant to Kierkegaard. His library contained two complete editions of Hoffmann's works, and references or allusions to many different Hoffmannian texts are sprinkled throughout Kierkegaard's works. In his journals and letters he declares Hoffmann very “refreshing” and asserts a great personal affinity with him, and he also records multiple reflections on Hoffmann in relation to humor and irony. Further, Kierkegaard's engagement with Hoffmann can be seen in the way he employs pseudonymous characters as authors, and in several editorial prefaces. The nature of the evidence does make assessing Kierkegaard's view of Hoffmann somewhat difficult, but there is certainly enough material to suggest the effort can be worth pursuing. Indeed, attention to Kierkegaard's engagement with Hoffmann is of value not only for understanding the development of Kierkegaard's ideas especially about humor and irony, but also because it is suggestive in its own right as an interpretation of his German predecessor.