Thursday, November 12, 2015

He often doubts the existence of the present - E.T.A. Hoffmann idealizes

In some important ways, E. T. A. Hoffmann was an original, but he was not what I would call a thinker.  His work is full of philosophical ideas, but they have already been filtered through literature, especially that of Goethe, who was working on Kant and subsequent thinkers directly.  The real and the ideal, that is the big issue. Like Hoffmann, I find them a lot easier to handle when they have been converted into imagery.

“Be my own true love, and rule with me over the trivial world of puppets which gyrates around us.”  (69)

Especially when the imagery is funny.  That is not the narrator-monk but his evil girlfriend, who thinks he is his double disguised as a monk.  She is on to something.  But if it is a world of puppets, is she not then one of them?  Is there a way – passionate love, for example – to escape that world, to find the ideal, or to become real?

I had contrived to introduce a fictitious character who could in future represent either the escaped Medardus or Count Victor, whichever the situation required.  (177)

Now this is the narrator, who is Medardus but at this point is presenting himself as his double Count Victor, who at this point is wandering about in the costume of a monk, calling himself Medardus.  Or vice versa.  The introduction of an additional, fictional double of the doubles is a brilliant move.

Hoffmann was a composer of distinction.  Music, formal but abstract, is to him a kind of reach for the ideal.  Prose, even fiction, even Hoffmann’s fiction, is more over in the real.  Perhaps it can provide a glimpse behind the veil, but not much more.  In The Devil’s Elixir, the wizard / composer figure is a religious painter, possibly a ghost, who appears in mysterious and unlikely circumstances.  He has an earthly counterpart, my favorite character, the barber Peter Schönfeld / Pietro Belcampo – he contains his own double.

As a barber he physically transforms people.  But his one self tells his other “do not be such a fool as to believe you actually exist” and enumerates his sins:

“This evil creature, who calls himself Belcampo, Sir, commits all manner of crimes: amongst other things he often doubts the existence of the present, gets horribly drunk, starts fights and ravishes beautiful virgin thoughts.”  (105)

It is an unusual list of sins.  It is also parodies the behavior of the narrator, who murders, (attempts) rapes, and drinks the devil’s elixir, which is wine or blood or both.  “Ho, ho, ho!  I am king and shall drink your blood!”  (227).

Belcampo, who is also linked to tailoring, another source of transformation, is the inspiration for a considerable amount of Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, which was a desperate attempt to convert Hoffmann and German Romanticism into English prose.

Please note that the character has a German and an Italian identity.  A good part of the structure of the novel is built on a journey to Italy, that great Goethean obsession.  Rome, in the novel is the center of civilization but also completely rotten, nothing but corrupt, murderous Papal conspiracies, just like in The Portrait of a Lady.  Any hope for atonement and transcendence will have to take place back in Germany.

I was tempted to write about the chapter satirizing Goethe’s Weimar.  I’m telling you, Goethe, German literature just radiates out from Goethe.


  1. Your final paragraph sold this to me ... Finally. The novel has been languishing on the shelves for more years that I care to count ....

  2. The Weimar chapter is pretty funny. Imagine that the Prince thinks he is as talented as Goethe. That's basically the joke.

    Next year is the 200th of "The Sandman" and "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," so expect more Hoffmann from me.