Tuesday, 29 September 2015

On Hoffmann's Der goldene Topf (1814) as ‘the Romantic vision of a rift between actual experience and a yearned-for ideal’ (Roger Cardinal)

“Great wits are to madness near allied;
And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”
-John Dryden

In one sense Der goldene Topf is a form of Bildungsroman – Anselmus is the archetypal hero of a German Bildungsroman, cast firmly in the mould of Goethe’s young Werther, naïve, soon to be initiated “into poetically conceived truths about man and the universe”[1]. The end of the story does not see him slotting into a societal position, but rather abandoning the ‘realistic’ life in Dresden for ‘das Leben in der Poesie’. McGlathery discusses how this shift in Anselmus’ fortunes is clearly the quitting of mortal life, and yet discussion of our protagonist’s death is rather conspicuous by its absence. The character has entertained suicidal fantasies earlier in the text – much as it appears Hoffmann did in connection with a romantic interest in a pupil of his – which crop up most notably as he passes over the Elbe and thinks mistakes the reflection of fireworks for Serpentina moving through the water, whereupon he ‘machte dabei eine heftige Bewegung, als wolle er sich gleich aus der Gondel in der Flut stürzen’; though the intertwining of romantic feeling and the extinguishing of one’s life had not yet necessarily reached its late-19th-century height by 1814, the imagery is nonetheless incredibly potent. It is as though he is trying to pursue Serpentina into the water, as though his visions have in some sense led him on to suicidal urges.
Liese the Äpfelweib’s foreboding prophecy, right at the start of the text, that Anselmus will endure ‘ins Krystall bald [sein] Fall’, does by all accounts seem to come true; the fall is symbolic rather than physical, as Anselmus is enveloped in a crystal bottle by Archivarius Lindhorst and imprisoned upon a shelf. Yet it could be argued that the River Elbe itself is the ‘Krystall’, wherein Anselmus appears to be drowned at the story’s end (‘Geliebter…schaue in unser Krystall – dein Blick wohnt in uns’, as the narrator hears the ‘Quellen und Bäche’ murmur in the Twelfth Vigil). There is a division, therefore, between Anselmus’ real and the supernatural fates: on the one hand he has fallen into the crystal waters of the Elbe, on the other he lives on in the crystalline waters of heaven in Atlantis (‘then the Angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal’, Revelation 22:1-2). McGlathery calls it simultaneously “poetic apotheosis, but factual suicide”[2], which is certainly well-phrased and apt – yet typically for Hoffmann, neither is confirmed nor denied; equally typically, such an ambiguous denouement is a marriage of the transcendental with the everyday, in such a manner that both is somewhat humorously challenged and undermined (the ‘durchgehaltene Ironie’ of which John Reddick speaks[3]).
It is not, however, the marriage of the terrifying with the everyday, as in the novella Der Sandmann. It is the marriage of a wondrous, elemental space, the gateway to ‘Faerie’, with a world we recognisably know. This is particularly notable in the sense in which Der goldene Topf casts the rather foppish and impressionable young student in the role of Christ the martyr; mocked and spurned for his (in this instance Romantic) faith, he is nonetheless vindicated by eternal life. Worth examining in conjunction with this is Hoffmann’s tinkering with chronology. One of the things that initially most strikes the reader about the opening sentence of Der goldene Topf is its spatial and temporal precision – the scene is set not just in Dresden, but explicitly at the ‘schwarze Tor’; the time is not simply ‘one afternoon’, but ‘am Himmelfahrtstage Nachmittags um drei Uhr’. Yet Ascension Day is a remarkably imprecise date. Ascension Day, traditionally both a Thursday and the fortieth day of Easter, is a specifically symbolic day, as is the autumnal equinox (when Liese produces the mirror for Veronika in the Fifth Vigil). But Ascension Day has of course been picked because it is that day upon which he first feels ‘ein nie gekanntes Gefühl der höchsten Seeligkeit und des tiefsten Schmerzes’, and three o’clock in the afternoon has of course been picked because it is infamously at the time that Christ dies on the cross on Good Friday – his moment of triumph over the Devil. Right from the very first sentence of Der goldene Topf, right through the tolling of the bells in the ‘Kreuzkirche’ during his next hallucinatory experience outside Lindhorst’s door, Anselmus’ fate is already being signposted. Der goldene Topf is an ascension story, even if it is not one that reinforces “orthodox” religious beliefs.
Hoffmann’s relationship with Christianity is complex in all his works, but reaches an intriguing fever-pitch here, wherein it is the apple (the temptation) which is symbolically aligned with the disruptive and thieving Liese whereas the ‘Schlänglein’ (the tempter) is a beautiful object of Romantic passion, the Serpentina with whom Anselmus falls in love. It’s worth pointing out that it’s very clearly the erotic that is Anselmus’ weakness and passion; there are few signs of a yearning after knowledge as we might expect in a more straightforward evocation of the Book of Genesis. His longing is transcendental and metaphysical, yet also rooted in real-life sexuality.
The “Romantic vision of a rift between actual experience and a yearned-for ideal” is thus very distinctly expressed in Der goldene Topf, but as often as not it is a source of ironic, wry comment as opposed to an expression of Goethe-esque Weltschmerz. One of the story’s cleverest uses of irony comes in the increasingly ludicrous monologue in the First Vigil, beginning at ‘Ach! Ach! Wo seid ihr hin, ihr seligen Träume künftigen Glücks, wie ich stolz wähnte, ich könne es wohl hier noch bis zum Geheimen Sekretär bringen!’ – one can almost imagine Hoffmann gleefully leafing through poems such as Goethe’s 1775 lyric ‘Auf dem See’ (to which the first half of the above line bears more than a passing resemblance) seeking for high-flying Romantic phrasing he could parody and reshape as an enjoyably comic bourgeois lament rather than a universal mourning of past joys. As the monologue goes on and we come across clichés as hackneyed as the alliterative tricolon crescens ‘Tassen, Teller, Tintenfaß’, it becomes increasingly visible that we are meant to find this as funny as we do pathetic – as, indeed, we should find a world in which ‘the fundamental bourgeois/poetic dualism of the story means that they periodically jostle one another’[4].
For all that Anselmus experiences ecstatic visual evidence of Romanticism’s innermost truths, it is a straight-faced possibility that he is simply going out of his mind. We hear of his ‘Sinne-verwirrender Rede’; he is thought to be ‘betrunken’ and ‘wahnsinnige’; he is asked, ‘rappelt’s Ihnen im Kopfe?’; the book is as a broader whole itself concerned with what the narrator calls Anselmus’ ‘toller Zwiespalt’. It is not just other characters who use such words, therefore (though that is in itself highly understandable); the narrator, too, implies Anselmus is suffering from delusions of grandeur.
And, in a sense, who can blame Anselmus, given the world he finds himself in? Der goldene Topf retains an aversion to stability and fixedness akin to Kafka’s; the realistic backdrop – the city of Dresden – is just that, a backdrop, a corporeal canvas upon which Hoffmann’s remarkable watercolours and doodles take shape (this makes it all the more ironic that the work’s title is a very definite material object, like the title of a ‘Dinggedicht’). The succession of surreal visions, the artifice and the theatricality off the back of a career writing for the stage keep us in the metaphorical dark even as we witness Dresden’s ‘lichten Türme’ and the sky’s ‘tiefe Dämmerung’. Lindhorst, for instance, is never properly defined (most statements about him filtered by ‘man sagt’ or ‘so halte ich ihn eher für’ or such like); in the end we can only be told by Heerbrand that he is ‘ein wunderlicher alter Mann, aus dem niemand klug wird’, and the nature of Liese remains similarly unfathomable – particularly in the Fifth Vigil wherein Veronika sees her distinctly differently over the course of a couple of pages.
As Reddick points out[5], the key difference between Der Sandmann and Der goldene Topf is that in the former there is at least a reasonably clear indication of the world of sanity in which Nathanael is loath, or unable, to partake – a world visibly and demonstrably represented by Clara, that spirit of the Aufklärung. In Der goldene Topf, nothing and nobody is an unmovable pillar of sanity and certainty; rather, the lattice with which we are presented is ‘a flickering projection of contrasting possibilities, with discrete archetypes of more or less traumatic empirical experience at one end of the spectrum, and blueprints for an ideal existence at the other’[6]. Though both pieces have a strong emphasis on eyes and the fascinating fallibility of perception, Der goldene Topf refuses to let us focus and indeed does not deign to give us a single fixed narrative perspective. Modernism’s seeds are well strewn. If the story presents us with the aforementioned dichotomy between the noumenal and the notional, both aspects are alternately subtly undermined and blatantly fragmented by the other. Reddick suggests that ‘dualism constitutes both the pattern and the import of the story’[7] – in other words, that one must be Joseph Campbell’s ‘master of two worlds’, of the noumenal and the notional; one must straddle both, or one is lost. To land firmly on one side of the divide, it appears, is insanity.
Perhaps this insanity is where Romantic inspiration comes from, as Dryden hints above, and as we see in the exalted state in which both Anselmus in the Eighth Vigil and the narrator in the Twelfth transcribe events under celestial inspiration; they certainly share this vivid inspiration in common with Hoffmann’s other Romantic artist figures, of whom Nathanael is only one of many. But Anselmus is relatively unique among them in actually succeeding in the desire to ‘attain’ the spiritual realm, where he ends up, and thus we come full circle to the discussion of the young student’s eventual fate. Tatar interprets this Romantic ‘attaining’ of the spiritual ideal as being one wherein his true aesthetic self is released in the exact moment that his body is permanently extinguished[8]. Insight of the one world truly comes as one departs the other. While it is an over-abundance of thought that has introduced the split and that leads to a conception of Anselmus as ‘wahnsinnig’, it is also thought which bears him aloft to ‘die Erkenntnis des heiligen Einklangs aller Wesen’. The ‘toller Zwiespalt’ remains just that – a rapturous discord, never to be resolved even in the moment it bears most fruit.


Kiermeier-Debre, Joseph, ‘Nachwort’ in Der goldene Topf, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 6. Auflage, 2013.
McGlathery, James M., ‘The Suicide Motif in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Der goldene Topf””, Monatshefte Vol 58 No 2, University of Wisconsin Press, 1966.
Reddick, John, ‘E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “Der goldne Topf” and its "durchgehaltene Ironie"', Modern Language Review Vol 71 No 3, Modern Humanities Research Association, 1976.
Tatar, Maria M., ‘Mesmerism, Madness and Death in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Der goldene Topf””, Studies in Romanticism Vol 14 No 4, Boston University, 1975.

[1]McGlathery, James M., ‘The Suicide Motif in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Der goldene Topf””, Monatshefte Vol 58 No 2, University of Wisconsin Press, 1966.
[3]Reddick, John, ‘E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “Der goldne Topf” and its "durchgehaltene Ironie"', Modern Language Review Vol 71 No 3, Modern Humanities Research Association, 1976.
[4]Reddick, John, ‘E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “Der goldne Topf” and its "durchgehaltene Ironie"', Modern Language Review Vol 71 No 3, Modern Humanities Research Association, 1976.
[8]Tatar, Maria M., ‘Mesmerism, Madness and Death in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Der goldene Topf””, Studies in Romanticism Vol 14 No 4, Boston University, 1975

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