Wednesday, November 26, 2014

it is very far from absurd or even allegorical, but literally true - The Golden Pot is not literally true

‘… you may well think it mere crazy nonsense; nevertheless, it is very far from absurd or even allegorical, but literally true.’  (Third Vigil)

Yeah, well.  Maybe some of The Golden Pot is on the allegorical side, even if the allegory is essentially private.  Transcending earthly things or becoming an artist, something like that.  And even though some elements that look like they ought to be part of the allegory are just there for fun.

But other parts of the story are literally true, and those have meaning, too.  Hoffmann seems to have written The Golden Pot as a response to the Battle of Dresden, when Napoleon’s army invaded the city and defeated the Allied army outside the city.  Hoffmann wrote a “Vision on the Battlefield of Dresden” that I have not read.  The Golden Pot is stripped of the war – almost:

Angelica… was betrothed to an officer who was serving in the army, and he had not been heard of for so long that he must surely be dead, or at least badly wounded.  This had plunged Angelica into the deepest grief, but today she was cheerful and almost boisterous, which Veronica, as she frankly declared, found most surprising.  (Fifth Vigil)

She knows that her officer has been lightly wounded in the arm, which “prevents him from writing,” but will be home soon, and with a promotion to boot.  She knows this because a fortune-telling witch told her.  “’I don’t doubt it’s truth for a single moment.’”  All of the magical nonsense is resolved by the end of the story, but not this detail.  Hoffmann never says is the officer arrives or not.  Perhaps he knows and does not want to say.

These two sisters are the Realists set against the Idealist hero.  It is a Kantian novel.  In the last Vigil, the narrator reveals that although he would like to be an Idealist, he, too is stuck in reality.  He cannot even describe the hero’s happy ending:

I perceived with disgust the inadequacy of every possible expression.  I felt entangled in the petty tedium of daily life; my tormenting dissatisfaction made me ill; I crept around as though lost in dreams…

Luckily, the salamander magician intervenes for him, too, ordering Hoffmann to “leave your garret, come down your damned five flights of stairs [poor suffering writers], and pay me a visit.”  He brings the author “the favorite drink of your friend Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler,’” who is featured in other Hoffmann stories, “’a flaming arrack… sprinkled with sugar.’”  The wizard then plunges into the goblet.

Undeterred, I blew the flames gently aside and took a sip of the drink.  It was delicious!

And Hoffmann is able to finish his story.  If he cannot physically travel to the happy land of the lily and salamander, he “’at least [has] a pretty farm there, as the poetic property of [his] mind.’”  Maybe a little bit of an allegory.

Thus ends German Literature Month at Wuthering Expectations.  Thanks to Lizzy and Caroline for the impetus to read and reread.

I’ll take a couple of days off for the Thanksgiving holiday.  Back Monday with some books about India; that is the current plan.


  1. I yield the floor to Hermann Hesse:
    "ETA Hoffmann, the last authentic narrator of the Romantic period, the demonic salamander, the ardently beloved writer of passionate nights of youthful reading. It's completely useless to try to catch him while he performs his little technical tricks, it's futile to try to debase him for his psychological ambiguities. The strength of his highly original personality has created a particular language, inimitable, musically sensitive, almost always slightly syncopated on its rhythm. His only great novel, "Elixire des Teufels" ("The Devil's Elixirs"), is not his best work, but must be included on our selection. Nor should we leave out "Der goldene Topf" ("The Golden Pot"), "Fräulein von Scuderi" ("Miss von Scuderi"), "Nussknacker" ("Nutcracker"), "Prinzessin Brambilla" ("Princess Brambilla") "Der Sandmann", "Rat Krespel", "Ritter Gluck" ("The Knight Gluck"), "Martin Meister" ("Master Martin')."

    Princess Brambilla belongs to the marchen Hoffmann wrote near the end of his life and of which he admitted that they've been written with his butt. Heine and Baudelaire disagreed: they considered it to be Hoffmann's very best. "Princess Brambillo is a very lovely beauty, and whoever does not end with his head dazzled and dizzied after experiencing her extravagances, must be because he has no head " Heine here is alluding to the disorienting changes that take place until the very end of Princess Brambilla. A much tamer predecessor of Brambilla would be Corneille's The Comic Illusion. A more direct influence and inspiration was the set of Callot's Balli di Sfessania prints. Here's one which depicts particularly well what Hoffmann is doing to Brambilla's readers' heads: (warning! NSFW or sensitive, prudish souls).

  2. Yes, excellent. Hesse's list is excellent, except that I do not remember "Master Martin" so must defer to him. His judgment about The Devil's Elixir is exactly right.

    I'm in good company in my esteem for "Princess Brambilla."

  3. Thank you for some great and detailed posts. I'll be re-reading a few things soon, I think.

  4. Thank you, Caroline, for the hosting. Always a pleasure. No shortage of things to read.