Sunday, February 21, 2016

a higher, unearthly realm of things - "The Artushof," sweet, gentle counterpart to "The Sandman"

“The Artushof” is E. T. A. Hoffmann’s sweet inversion of “The Sandman,” an uncanny tale about the development of an artist that looks like it could take a turn towards the horror of “The Sandman” but instead ends with a friendly return to domesticity and art as a career.

Both stories were published in 1816, but I know nothing else about their publication or what Hoffmann thought about them.  “The Artushof” follows “The Sandman” in the Penguin Classics Tales of Hoffmann, tr. R. J. Hollingdale.

The title could be translated – not sure why it is not – as “Arthur’s Hall” or something like that.  The story begins in that building, a Danzig merchant’s hall richly decorated with pseudo-medieval paintings and sculptures.  The art is what attracts – hypnotizes – Traugott away from his intended career in business and life as a merchant’s son-in-law.  The story launches when he draws two of the figures, perhaps a knight and his page, and is suddenly confronted with their living doubles.

A standard Hofmann move.  Later in the story, the doubles turn out to have doubles.  Triples are more rare in Hoffmann.  The real-life version of the knight turns out to be an old artist.  In many – all too many – Hoffmann stories he would be the wizard figure who sets the dream-like weirdness in action, but in this case young Traugott sort of just muddles through the story on his own.

The real-life page is a version of Olympia the clockwork girl from “The Sandman,” except here the protagonist escapes doom by eventually accepting that women are real.  Marry a real girl and work on your craft, that is more or less where “The Artushof” goes.  Pursue the Ideal while grounded in the Real.

In The Golden Pot (1814), the hero is engaged to an earthy bourgeois woman but falls in love with a magical snake woman.  In “The Sandman,” he is engaged to an earthy bourgeois woman but falls for a clockwork girl.  In “The Artushof,” he is engaged to the merchant’s daughter but falls for a cross-dressing artist’s daughter.  Hoffmann was in many ways astoundingly inventive.  Not in all ways.

Luckily for the hero of “The Artushof,” he goes to Rome.

Life took on a wonderful new meaning for Traugott when he at last found himself in the land he had so long desired to visit.  The German artists living in Rome accepted him into their circle, and it so happened that he remained there longer than seemed consistent with the desire to find Felizitas [the dream-girl] which had hitherto been propelling him on.  But the desire had grown somewhat cooler; he was now aware of it rather as a beautiful dream which permeated all his life, so that he felt that all he did, the practice of his art, was devoted to a higher, unearthly realm of things of which he had only a blissful presentiment.  (150-1)

In German Romanticism, this is a move towards mental health.  Italy holds the solution to all German problems.  Goethe’s Italian Journey was also published in 1816.  I wish I knew the dates.  That passage is like a summary of Italian Journey.  Hoffmann must be responding to Goethe’s book.  Must be, must be.

Hoffmann wrote many versions of this story, but this seems  to me like one of the better versions.  I guess that is my point.


  1. I never returned to Hoffmann after reading "Tomcat Murr" a few years ago, but that was still one of the most enchanting things I ever read.

  2. Tomcat Murr is an expanded version of "The Artushof" - I mean the part about the composer, not the part about the tomcat. Except Tomcat Murr ends with a party, which is more typical of Hoffmann. Normality is put on hold until after the party.

  3. I have an innocent question (which I've probably asked previously in a different way): how do you make your reading selections and decisions? Your range is so impressive and eclectic (yeah, I'm jealous), and I wonder about your choices. I'm curious.

  4. Compared to most readers, I am more interested in literary history, so I often follow a trail of books organized accordingly. Goethe to Hoffmann to whomever. Or in this case, English Romanticism leading me back to German Romanticism.

    "I'm curious" - exactly, that's exactly it. Hey, what is German Romantic literature like? Let's find out.