Saturday, February 20, 2016

everything marvellous, glorious, terrible, joyful, harrowing - E. T. A. Hoffmann's "The Sandman"

Polidori’s Byronic vampire gave me a taste to read something similar but, how to say this, better, so I turned to a couple of E. T. A. Hoffmann stories, “The Sandman” and “The Artushof,” both published in 1816.  Bicentennial year!  I read both in the Penguin Classics edition of Tales of Hoffmann, translated by R. J. Hollingdale.

“The Sandman” is the premier example of creepy Hoffmann, the, or a, beginning of horror fiction.  “The Artushof” is an especially fine version of his more typical preoccupations, the intrusion of the Ideal on the Real.  I guess that is also what goes on in “The Sandman,” but in most Hoffmann stories like “The Artushof” it is a mere dream, not a nightmare.

I liked nothing more than to read or listen to gruesome tales of kobolds, witches, dwarfs, and so on; but over them all there towered the sandman, and I used to draw the strangest and most hideous pictures of him on tables, cupboards and walls everywhere in the house.  (88)

This narrator, Nathaniel, identifies the sandman with a grotesque man who visits his father at night possibly in order to practice alchemy.  He was

altogether loathsome and repellent; but what we children found repugnant above all were his great knotty, hair-covered hands, and we lost all liking for anything he touched with them.  He had noticed this, and took pleasure in touching, under this or that pretext, any little piece of cake or delicious fruit which our mother had secretly put on to our plate…  (90)

Commonly in Hoffmann any supernatural phenomena can be explained, with effort, leaning heavily on insanity and waking dreams, but these passages show the subtle weirdness Hoffmann brings to the reality of the tale.  Monsters drawn on walls, guests who torment children, that sort of thing.  The uncanniness of the Real.

I have never been able to remember the story of “The Sandman” because it is a little too dream-like to keep straight.  The title creature and his human avatar are actually secondary characters in Nathaniel’s love affair with Olympia, the clockwork girl.  One of the great advantages of a robot girlfriend is that she lets him read his godawful poems to her “for hours on end” with unflagging attention, “in short, she sat motionless” (118).  That Nathaniel enjoys this kind of attention is a sign that his attraction to the Ideal is a form of destructive egotism.  I mean, come on, robot girlfriend.  That’s terrible.  Olympia is one of Hoffmann’s greatest creations, or for all I know thefts.

“The Sandman” is at first epistolary, but Hoffmann eventually interrupts with an omniscient narration.  His interruption begins with a statement of purpose, fifteen pages into the story.

… you wanted to express your inner vision in all its colours and light and shade and wearied yourself to find words with which even to begin.  You felt you had, as it were, to compress everything marvellous, glorious, terrible, joyful, harrowing that had happened to you into the very first word, so that it would strike your hearers like an electric shock, but every word, everything capable of being spoken, seemed to you colourless and cold and dead.  (100)

“You” is him.  Hoffmann in a passage.  “The Sandman” is where this desperate attempt to penetrate the veil goes wrong.  For a fictional character, not for Hoffmann.

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