The Tales of Hoffmann
by Kyla Ward
First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#6, 1995
Jentsch has taken as a very good instance 'doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not in fact be animate'; and he refers in this connection to the impression made by waxwork figures, ingeniously constructed dolls and automata. To these he adds the uncanny effect of epileptic fits, and of manifestations of insanity, because these excite in the spectator the impression of automatic, mechanical processes at work behind the ordinary appearance of mental activity. Without entirely accepting this author's view, we will take it as a starting point for our own investigation because in what follows he reminds us of a writer who has succeeded in producing uncanny effects better than anyone else.In his seminal essay, 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. The 1977 movie of the title is an anthology about cats (Milton Subotsky, Amicus). But properly, this is the domain of Germanic horror. This is the twilight realm of mad scientists who are half sorcerer; like Rotwang the Inventor whose lab in Metropolis features a huge pentagram on the wall above the robot; of robots, or rather automatons and living puppets, the nutcracker which comes to life; of mesmerism and alchemy, a contemporary artist can lose his shadow to the enchantment of an ageless courtesan, and the Devil is a local businessman still plying his old trade.
Sound familiar? Hoffmann is one of those artists whose works were so influential in their own day that they have been adapted into oblivion. Certainly it is fair to say that more people have read Freud's essay or the numerous commentaries on that than Der Sandmann, or seen Tchaikowsky's Nutcracker Suite than read Nussknacker und Mausekonig, or Wagner's Die Meistersingers von Nuremburg than Meister Martin Der Kupfner und Sine Gesellen. Of course, we all know the stories and generally yes, would consider them to have just that touch of something uncanny.
Hoffmann is generally considered as part of the German Romantic movement. This is considered to have commenced in the 1780's with the impact of the writers Johann Schiller and Johann Goethe upon the theatrical and literary scene. A metaphor this tossed up, to describe the new plays, was Sturm und Drang -- storm and stress. German romanticism seems to have interacted with the Gothic craze in England by fairly direct translation. Hoffmann's first literary work, and only completed novel Die Elixiere des Teufels (The Devil's Elixir) was written in 1816, and translated into English in 1824, thence to a stage production (by Fitzball) with the alactricity characterising the period (as far as decadent young monks were concerned, anyhow). Hoffmann can, even in his short stories, be described as gothic; but if you take the term 'gothic' in it's literal sense this is hardly surprising.
The basis of the Romantic movement -- or at least, as it is categorised today -- was a reaction against the highly formularised and morally didactic traditions of art as it was. It professed to find alternative inspiration in nature, the myths and folktales of the country of origin, and above all in the individual genius of the artist. While the aforementioned Schiller worked mainly in a historical vein, Goethe did produce a number of macabre pieces, most notably the vast Faust. Hoffmann must certainly must have drawn on traditional tales for some of his material. German Romanticism cannot with any firm hand be untangled from German nationalism, at a time when the country was suffering the military encroachments of France during the Napoleonic Wars. But as far as its literary effects, the English author Ann Radcliffe could be considered more 'romantic' than Hoffmann, in her epic works making full use of the grandeur and awesome spectacles of nature. Her heroines and heroes, certainly, always have the 'romantic' sensibility. 'Romantic' can mean Storm and Stress, it can mean the medieval past, it can mean extreme emotionalism and emotional states; it can mean this was or was not a good thing. In short, as a definition it is much broader than 'Uncanny' (or even, 'Byronic') and scarcely as useful.
How Hoffmann himself saw his work is another matter. For a start, he considered himself as much a composer and an artist as a writer, and it was only for brief periods in his life that he actually earned his living at these pursuits -- he was a public servant attached to the Prussian judiciary. As one might expect, there are a number of stories such as Meister Floh (1822) that ridicule the boredom and absurdities of his position. His full name, Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, bears witness to his passion for music -- the Amadeus was originally Wilhelm, and changed in honour of Mozart. His earliest published writings are musical criticisms in various journals, and for a period during the Wars he did acquire the post of musical director for the theatre and opera in Bamberg. Some of his own musical compositions have stood the test of time; one, the opera Undine (1816) which is based upon another nasty German folktale, still forms part of the usual opera repertory. Something of his evolution can perhaps be glimpsed in the piece, from 1809, Ritter Gluck, which is a discussion of that seventeenth-century composer presented as taking place between the writer and a mysterious visitor who arrives one night. A fair piece of musical analysis, only at the end, the visitor is revealed to be the immortal composer.
His first collection of short stories, Phantasiestücke in Callots Manier (Fantasy Pieces in the Callots Manner) was published in 1815. He was 38, and had moved more or less permanently to Berlin after his stint in Bamberg, and postings to various places in the Prussian Empire -- including one punishment posting to a backwater village after caricatures he had made of his superiors were found circulating at a local ball. Phantasiestücke included such works as Der Goldene Topf (The Golden Flower-Pot), Die Abenteuer der Silvester-Nacht (A New Years Eve Adventure, aka The Lost Reflection), and of course, Der Sandmann. Some of these had reached England, via a French translation, by 1827. Although this is the tail end of the gothic craze, it would appear that it was still sufficiently fashionable, as it certainly was in Paris.
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. They concern the death of his father whilst in the company of a mysterious visitor he knew only as 'the Sand Man', because on the nights this man was due to appear, his mother would hurry him off to bed with the words 'the Sand Man is coming.' His nurse informed him that the Sand Man was an evil spirit who comes to check if children are asleep. If their eyes are open he throws sand in them that makes them fall out all bleeding; he gathers up the eyes and takes them back to his nest in the crescent moon, where he feeds them to his own children. One night, the boy stays awake to try and see the mysterious visitor; he is caught, the Sand Man threatens to throw burning coals from a brazier in his eyes, his father intervenes and the boy runs. Behind him, he hears a terrific explosion -- in the destroyed room, his father is found dead but the Sand Man is nowhere to be seen. And that's just the set up -- then things start to get really strange.
In 1821 a second volume of stories appeared, entitled Die Erzählungen der Serapionsbrüder (The Serapion Brethren). It is in this that we gain some idea of Hoffmann's own considerations on his work. Literature had clearly proven to be easier to disseminate and more gracious in its returns than opera. Twenty-nine short stories, including Rath Krespel (Councillor Krespel), Die Automata and Der Vampyr (aka Aurelia) are linked together by the discussions of the Brethren, four friends and writers who meet periodically to judge each others work by the principle of 'Serapionism'. Serapion was an insane nobleman of Hoffmann's creation, who lived as a hermit, devoting his time to the writing of horror stories remarkable for their psychological realism. The device supposedly reflects the gatherings Hoffmann would hold with his friends in the cafes of Berlin. But in the book, they are used both to set the background for the tale -- the introduction to Der Vampyr provides some quite fascinating detail, including a reference to The Vampyre by 'Lord Byron' -- and expound on the why and how of fantastic literature.
On the whole, I believe that the imagination can be moved by very simple means, and that it is often more the idea of the thing than the thing itself which causes our fear... We all know how wonderfully great writers have moved men's hearts to their very depths by means of that lever.
If Hoffmann is to be considered Romantic, then this is the reason, his insistence on manipulating and unleashing genuine emotion in his audience. It happens that his preferred emotion was what he described as 'that profound sense of awe which is innate in our hearts, and when touched by the electric impulse from an unseen spirit world causes our soul to thrill, not altogether unpleasantly after a fashion.' Der Serapionsbrüder was not translated into English until 1892, and Hoffmann himself died in 1822. In the meantime, however, his life combined with certain of his stories had been made the subject of first a play, then an opera with music by the French composer Jaques Offenbach in 1851. Wherever his literature of the Uncanny may fit, it seems that Hoffmann had become a very Romantic writer indeed.
* Tales, E.T.A. Hoffmann. trans. variously L.J. Kent, E.C. Knight, C. H. Lazare, J.M. Cohen; ed. Victor Lange. The German Library, series ed. Volkmar Sander, Continuum Publishing, New York, 1982. Contains Der Sandmann, Rath Krespel (aka Councillor Krespel), and Der Goldene Topf, among others. A good translation of Der Vampyr is to be found under its alternative title in Christopher Frayling's Vampyres -- Lord Byron to Count Dracula, Faber and Faber, 1991.
 The 'Uncanny', Sigmund Freud, Art and Literature, trans. James Strachey. The Penguin Freud Library, vol 14. series ed. Albert Dickson. Penguin Books, 1990 (1985).
* Les Contes Des Hoffmann, Offenbach, libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carre from their stage play. These are the same pair responsible for the Faust opera, by the way. Hoffmann is elevated to the position of the Romantic hero in three tragic love stories based upon Der Sandmann (Act I), Die Abenteuer der Silvester-Nacht (Act II) and Rath Krespel (Act III). The last is genuinely, magnificently horrific, in the sequence of the consumptive girl being lured to sing herself to death.
* The Sandman, dir. Paul Berry, Cosgrove Hall Productions, 1991. Oscar nominated short animation, difficult to find but well worth it. Goes back to the original Sandman legend. Make sure you watch till the end of the credits...
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