Tuesday, 29 September 2015

On "Die Elixiere des Teufels" (1815) as a 'deconstructive commentary in the Romantic tradition on the Romantic tradition' (Nicholas Saul)

E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Die Elixiere des Teufels is rife with dualism, the story peppered with doubles, reflections, copies, echoes, evocations, Doppelgänger, thematic parallels, opposites and contrasts, between innocence and experience, chastity and lasciviousness, virginity and sexual violence, Christianity and heathenism, female and male, free will and determinism, pure art and desecrated art, self-knowledge and loss of self-identity. Any reading of the work must thus concede that it will by necessity be incomplete, self-contradictory and indeed paradoxical: such is the nature of the various crossed wires running throughout the narrative. It is an irony which Hoffmann would surely have appreciated, even as he both relied upon and utterly undermined the Romantic trappings of his day.
What is of perhaps most interest to the modern reader is the way in which Hoffmann uses the instability of the narrative and the central figure’s attempts to reconstruct events as a mirroring of the quest for moral identity as recompense for sinful acts. Where Medardus once sought sexual consummation he now seeks both pious living and the narrative skill to imbue his story with clarity and solidity[1]. Viewing the work in terms of seeking ‘knowledge’, that elusive catch-all term so pregnant with the weight of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, is in fact extraordinarily helpful: it is arguable that one can find three principal examples of seeking knowledge. There is the knowledge and wisdom of religion, the quest for spiritual enlightenment and shelter, which forms a predominant of the monk Merdardus’ early life and to which the story returns at the end. There is the insatiable pursuit of carnal knowledge, of passions and of the yearning to fulfil sexual desires, which is a key aspect of the novel’s extended middle section. But there is also, of course, the knowledge that we, as readers, seek; Hoffmann’s novel is self-consciously a page-turner and his style both delightfully and frustratingly developed to confound the reader’s expectations, denying satisfaction and narrative closure such that the hope of a plot strand’s resolution always remains tantalisingly round the corner[2]. All three ‘quests for knowledge’, therefore, involve continual obstruction, denial of fulfilment and yet a determination to proceed; when we come across Hoffmann’s single great cliff-hanger, as the story transitions from the Erster to the Zweiter Band, and we read “Die Flügeltüren öffneten sich, die Fürstin trat herein, mit ihr die Fremde. Ich erkannte Aurelien,” the reader is raised to a fever-pitch level of excitement and agitation that can only be matched by the vivid experiences of the figures within the novel itself. To resurrect Agatha Christie’s infamous dictum, the thrill is in the chase, never in the capture.
This ‘Zyklus’ of ‘Wiederholung’[3], wherein characters are brought to the height of an erotic or fear-inducing fever, only for the tension to dissipate, often very abruptly, reoccurs throughout the novel in various forms. By it Hoffmann knowingly imitates the actions of Schauerromantik and the English Gothic that was by this point spreading across the continent (The Castle of Utranto, the “first” Gothic novel was translated into German in 1768 and Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk, a key influence on Die Elixiere des Teufels, in 1796). Not only did Hoffmann borrow from Gothic authors a penchant for stories set in the “Mönchs- und Rittermittelalter” replete with “schauerlichen Panoramen nächtlicher Klöster- und Ruinenszenen”[4], but he also imported the technique of deploying the rising and falling of narrative tension. He did so, however, by an unusually prescient means: the author fundamentally fragments his own narrative, leaving it a broken whole. Die Elixiere des Teufels has, in fact, six different narrators – Hoffmann the historical author; Hoffmann as the fictitious “Herausgeber” of Medardus’ manuscript; Medardus himself, who records the bulk of the story; Pater Spiridon, who pens the afterword wherein we learn of Medardus’ death; the “alte Maler” whose Pergamentblatt reveals much of the story’s complex backstory; and Aurelie, who takes over the for a sequence of short but significant epistolary narration.
This fragmentation does not simply confound narrative reliability, but serves up a challenge to questions of identity. This is manifest most obviously in the uncanny similarity between Medardus and Viktorin, who meander their way through the narrative in a sequence of “symmetrically alternating episodes”[5], with Hoffmann deliberately obfuscating enough information such that it is difficult for the reader to maintain a firm hold on which character is where and which character does what. As Passage identifies, where Medardus is fleeing his former monkhood to find a secular existence, Viktorin attempts to put his secular identity behind him in the guise of a Capuchin friar. The Teufelsgrund is where the two characters’ fates initially coincide, whereupon they continue travelling in opposing directions to one another, crossing again in the re-exchange of garments in the forest. Both stalk the narrative of the other: the boundaries of self break down (“bin ich entzweit von meinem Ich!”) and Medardus seems to actually become Viktorin, or thinks he does. Upon committing murder in the castle Medardus seems to see before him “Viktorins blutige Gestalt”; the “wahnsinniger Mönch” is a figure of fear for other characters in the narrative; and in one of the story’s most crucial passages, Medardus awakes from feverish dreaming to see a nightmarish vision of the monk himself (“ein Dominikanermönch stand vor meinem Strohlager. Mein Traum trat in das Leben”). A whole century before Freud und Jung, we have here in Die Elixiere des Teufels an artistic representation of erotic desire as gruesome physical manifestation, as one’s “Other” self.
If linking death with the erotic had not quite yet reached its zenith as it would in the late nineteenth century, the obsession of coupling religion with the erotic is relatively blatant in Hoffmann’s work. Indeed, it is present long before the obvious symbolism of a man of the cloth, a monk of alleged devotion, being a lascivious wanton; it can be found even in the earliest stages like Medardus’ sexual awakening being in part focussed around the Äbtissin, a former lover of his notoriously sinful father’s, and her unintentional branding of his neck with the “diamantne Kreuz”. It is, however, clearest in the presence of Aurelie, the novel’s other major thematic parallel set alongside the central figure of Medardus.
As Medardus’ cathexis to an almost ludicrous degree throughout the novel, Aurelie seems oftentimes merely an object for the male gaze – a projection, a reoccurring fantasy or a vision: a reading easily defended by Medardus’ constant confusing of Aurelie with the Saint Rosalia, dating back to their initial meeting in the church. In sharp contrast to the ultimately flat and stale love affair Medardus carries out half-heartedly with Aurelie’s stepmother Euphemie, between Medardus and Aurelie themselves there is no consummation – a huge factor in Hoffmann being able to stretch out their erotic fascination with one another (as Clason puts it, “passion reaches lofty zeniths because it remains unfulfilled”[6]). What passes between them are not so much erotic encounters as almost-encounters, as near-misses and disappointments. This fits well with the key construct of the veil Aurelie is wearing in their first meeting; the veil is not merely the traditional staple of a Gothic heroine, nor is it just the garb of the pious when they enter a Catholic church – it serves furthermore as a means of hiding the erotic and concealing the sexual. Yet just as the continual cycle of bringing the reader to peaks of interest or arousal of the senses before letting the tension drop disappointingly serves merely to keep them reading, so too does the veil come to represent the sexuality whose function it is to inhibit; in Sedgwick’s words “the veil that symbolizes virginity in a girl or a nun has a strong erotic savor [sic] of its own, and characters in Gothic novels fall in love as much with women’s veils as with women”[7]. The pleasure of uncovering the mysteries of a work of art, and persistent denial of that pleasure, is strongly equated with the pleasure of unveiling the female body as a sexualised object.
Importantly, however, both are explicitly presented as dangerous; Hoffmann champions neither. Medardus’ overpowering passions and the lascivious spree with which he acts upon those passions lead only to the “Geist der Rache”, to murder, poison and stabbing, and ultimately first the attempted and then the actual murder of the woman who was the original aim of his acquiring carnal knowledge in the first place. In other words, blindly acting upon base desire feeds vampirically upon itself, destroying identity and selfhood just as surely as the ouroboros, the ancient symbol of the snake devouring its own tail. Similarly the enjoyment of art is problematized by the tale (and reappearance) of the “alte Maler”, Medardus’ forefather for whose guilt he must himself suffer; the very colour of his violet coat seems to wind together chastity and violence, to both of which it is symbolically linked. Medardus, of course, has control over the narrative and yet it is fundamentally patchy, incomplete, and fragmented. Even art is limited by the artist.
It is never, of course, entirely satisfactorily tidied up as to whether the “wahnsinniger Mönch” is Medardus himself, in a deluded, intoxicated state[8], or he is really “eine Erscheinung mein eignes Ich in verzerrten gräßlichen Zügen”. But that is Hoffmann’s final twist of the knife with regards to his “günstiger Leser”, his final act of denying us our desires and sabotaging our quest for knowledge. In this regard we are reminded that “without memory and identity, Viktorin and Medardus are unable to construct the narrative that makes them aware of their own moral accountability”[9]: where narrative depends upon reconstruction and a careful ordering of recollections, which is what we as readers are seeking, the act of writing one’s own past is in itself a re-formulating of identity just as we see Medardus and Viktorin conflated, and it is also a confusion of moral positions. Hoffmann uses the paraphernalia of the “gotisch” to split open the Romantic paradigm of art’s perfection just as surely as he blows open the sanctity of the Vatican by exposing it as worldly and corrupt. The effect alternately enlightens and blinds us, much like it does Medardus.


Clason, Christopher R., ‘Narrative Teasing: Withholding Closure in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Die Elixiere des Teufels, Colloquia Germanica: Internationale Zeitschrift für Germanistik 42:1, 2009.
Dutchman-Smith, Victoria, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Alcohol, Maney, 2010.
Kremer, Detlef, ‘Die Elixiere des Teufels’ in E.T.A. Hoffmann: Leben –Werk – Wirkung, De Gruyter, 2010.
Negus, Kenneth G., ‘The Family Tree in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Die Elixiere des TeufelsPMLA, 73:5, 1958.
Passage, C. E., ‘The Devil's Elixirs: a flawed masterpiece’, JEGP 75, 1976.
Taylor, Ronald, ‘Introduction’ to The Devil’s Elixirs, Oneworld Classics, 2008.

[1] Dutchman-Smith, Victoria, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Alcohol, Maney, 2010
[2] Clason, Christopher R., ‘Narrative Teasing: Withholding Closure in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Die Elixiere des Teufels, Colloquia Germanica: Internationale Zeitschrift für Germanistik 42:1, 2009.
[3] Kremer, Detlef, ‘Die Elixiere des Teufels’ in E.T.A. Hoffmann: Leben –Werk – Wirkung, De Gruyter, 2010.
[4] Kremer, Detlef, ‘Die Elixiere des Teufels’ in E.T.A. Hoffmann: Leben –Werk – Wirkung, De Gruyter, 2010.
[5] Passage, C. E., ‘The Devil's Elixirs: a flawed masterpiece’, JEGP 75, 1976.
[6] Clason, Christopher R., ‘Narrative Teasing: Withholding Closure in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Die Elixiere des Teufels, Colloquia Germanica: Internationale Zeitschrift für Germanistik 42:1, 2009.
[7] Cited in Clason, Christopher R., ‘Narrative Teasing: Withholding Closure in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Die Elixiere des Teufels, Colloquia Germanica: Internationale Zeitschrift für Germanistik 42:1, 2009
[8] Dutchman-Smith, Victoria, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Alcohol, Maney, 2010
[9] Dutchman-Smith, Victoria, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Alcohol, Maney, 2010.

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