|My little joke.|
Tuesday, 29 September 2015
On the Romantic dichotomy of earthly life as set against artistic inspiration
-Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22 (2010)
Within the Novellen of E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), a vivid engagement with real and unreal, with the extraordinary breaking into the everyday, is handled with such meticulous vagueness that critics have not yet remotely reached a consensus as to Hoffmann’s views on perception, imagination, reality, Romanticism, art, love, and family, among other matters. What is significant is less the debate’s minutiae as its apex: Hoffmann’s ambiguity. It is most present in his famous tale ‘Der Sandmann’, which goes out of its way to undermine our certainties in the face of a world of nightmarish terror.
If Romanticism was in one sense the original avant-garde, challenging as it did the new waves of Aufklärung which swept across Europe in the 18th century, Hoffmann seems to position himself as both within and without the new phenomenon – the former, because he works self-consciously within the Romantic tradition, because he deals with the artist as creative conductor for an inner flame; and the latter, because he seems to critique the values which the early Romantics so faithfully upheld. This apparent dichotomy is one of the most fascinating elements of his work, since it allows us to see in his writing not only the conflict of inner priorities, but also a kind of cultural commentary.
The most obvious dualism between the earthly life, that which practises pragmatics and reason, and the transcendence of the Romantics comes in the form of the two women in ‘Der Sandmann’. Where Klara is cold, reasoning, and rational, Olimpia enables Nathanael to channel his poetic energies. One woman refutes his status as imaginative power, the other nurtures it. Where Klara is associated with the domestic realm, Olimpia encapsulates the possibility of the true Romantic ideal of passion, transcendence and Poesie. There is an alchemical war between them, a war of symbols and representation, and Hoffmann clothes the plot of ‘Der Sandmann’ in a host of familiar imagery to convey this struggle of opposites.
One of the most significant, as identified by Brantly in her thermographic reading of the Novelle, is fire: since the days of Prometheus the harbinger of creativity, of life and survival, of reaching up and out of one’s lowly existence of mud and dirt to try and equal the gods. Such imagery remains potent in 1815, not least because of the importance of the Greeks to 18th century Germany, and Prometheus’ representation in recent German art forms such as Goethe’s poem of the same name. Where Klara’s lack of emotional response (her ‘kaltes prosaisches Gemüt’) disappoints Nathanael and leads him to try and ignite her still further (‘es war ihm, als müsse Klaras kaltes Gemüt dadurch entzündet werden’), he is thrown into Olimpia’s path by a literal conflagration – his former home having burned to the ground. The heat of poetic inspiration and the heat of passion are here very much interchangeable; Nathanael’s erotic and sensual connection to Olimpia is conveyed primarily through his reading poetry aloud to her. Romantic inspiration is the poetic flame within oneself. Yet Hoffmann makes it clear this is not just blissful rapture, but rather it can be formidably dangerous.
Both Nathanael and the fictitious, passionate narrator of ‘Der Sandmann’ find themselves possessed by their own ‘innere Glut’, by creating external representation of the inner flames of passion. This, too, is alchemical and consciously evoked in the narrative by the glimpse of Coppelius and Nathanael’s father at the forge, creating the homunculus (wherein the leaping flames make the beloved father demonic in outlook – yet another example of Romantic inspiration being fundamentally incompatible with a truly loving nature). Both Nathanael and his father are undone by the flames they conjure, the latter in an explosion, and the former at the hands of ‘dem Feuerkreis’: the process of alchemy, whether literally in a forge, or figuratively on the poet’s page, takes one as close to the sun as Icarus and yields equally disastrous results. Thus by exposing themselves to the fires of the furnace and the fires of the imagination, these two central figures meet with external and internal combustion. Kohlenbach’s reading of ‘Der Sandmann’ as being a satire of the Kreislerian view of the difference between the loves of artists and ordinary people makes it clear: we are being encouraged to read the imagination as a dangerous force of madness, however much Hoffmann may use the imagery and structure of a Romantic work to convey this.
However, in ‘Des Vetters Eckfenster’, written eight years later, we have a new perspective on the matter. Gone is the thematic resonance of flame; instead, Hoffmann concerns himself with perception, with ‘die Prinzipien der Kunst zu schauen’ in the words of the disabled cousin. The window through which Berlin’s market-place is viewed is the central focus of the story, allowing the characters to see without having to participate, to take the position of distant, secure observers collecting data about the world around them. As Zocco points out, we can only comprehend the chaos we survey if we try and fashion it into a kind of order, which necessarily involves the self-conscious structuring of our perceptions and building our own reality. The window serves as a metaphor for art in general – indeed in one sense it is an art medium, a literal framing device, through which we can observe the world as if we were viewing the world as an image. In the case of the cousin in ‘Des Vetters Eckfenster’, a telescope is used to view the figures down below (a repeated motif for Hoffmann in terms of perception, as a telescope is also used in ‘Der Sandmann’), to identify their extraordinary physiognomic features. Hoffmann’s characters are seeing the extraordinary in the everyday; just at the point of sickness and of no return, the writer is invigorated by the daily life around him.
Romantic inspiration feeds off earthly life, and is a sickness of the heart without it, when it becomes too insular (as will reappear in Kafka’s Ein Hungerkünstler). Illness paralyses not just our bodies, but our creative faculties; and earthly life can return it to us. We cannot fail to read Hoffmann as a character in his own story, sick and debilitated as he was when it was written. In writing the story, he is the sick cousin teaching us, his own readers, his techniques of observation and the powers of imagination. Observed metafictionally, the story’s power lasts far beyond its ending, as we the denizens of the everyday world he has been observing are left free to wander that everyday world, except now we are illumined by Hoffmann’s views on imagination. The earthly life that fed the Romantic inspiration has now become a part of it, is now imbued with it.
That view is essential to Hoffmann’s work as an oeuvre in itself and as a critique of the earlier Romantics. Heine identifies his key features in comparison to Novalis: ‘for [Novalis], with his idealistic figures, is always floating in the blue air, while Hoffmann, with all his bizarre grotesques, still always keeps a firm grip on earthly reality… the poet is strong and powerful so long as he does not leave the firm ground of reality, and he becomes impotent as soon as he floats around rhapsodically in the blue air’. That the grotesque fairy-tales and fantasies Hoffmann has left behind, however soaked they may be in German legend, should also be so anchored in the everyday ‘separates him from the first generation of German Romantics’, in Robertson’s words. The emphasis is on the outer world as an alchemical representation of the inner world: as above, so below, if we use the language of Crowley and the occult.
What does this mean for Romantic inspiration? We have already identified the two opposing readings of ‘Der Sandmann’, the rational and the fiercely imaginative. It is too simplistic to read this as a Manichaean dualistic struggle between good and evil, however. Granted, Klara unambiguously represents Aufklärung – right down to her aptronymic name ‘Klara’, viz. ‘klar’, from the Latin ‘clarus’; it is in the nature of her very being to rationally explain things and make them clearer, not to give in to obscurity – but she is not without poetic faculty. However much she and Nathanael’s mother may exclaim ‘es gibt keinen Sandmann’, they are not creatures of pure rationality. Klara is very much human in comparison to the ludicrous automaton that is Olimpia (look no further than the latter’s ridiculously obliging attention span, for example). She is capable of poetic truth: ‘dich niemals wiedersehen, der Gedanke durchfuhr meine Brust wie eine glühender Dolchstich’, she writes to Nathanael; she suffers from nightmares about Coppelius too. Yet Nathanael does not see this, and lambasts her as a ‘lebloser, verdammter Automat’. It is, however, Olimpia that is proved to be the automaton, as Hoffmann subverts Kreisler’s dualism by having Nathanael get it fundamentally wrong. He is unable to distinguish the living from a rude mechanical, and as such for all his Sehnsucht the ‘hand that dare seize the fire’ is actually inferior to those he dismisses.
Nathanael’s rejection of Klara’s rational, proto-psychoanalytic explanations, and his turning towards Olimpia, the vessel in which he can pour all his desire for emotional response, sees him leaving the world of the living and falling for a creature of his own invention. In short, like Narcissus, he ends up wholly inward-looking, in love with himself. This is most vividly and grotesquely rendered when we read the image of eyes entering his breast. He sees too deeply such that he can only see poetic flames within himself. Much as in ‘Des Vetters Eckfenster’, this takes certain trappings of Romanticism and shows us how they have led to sickness and debilitation. Nathanael’s gruesome end leaves him with a shattered cranium, the head as the locality of reason having been destroyed.
The polyperspectivist structure of ‘Der Sandmann’ makes it extremely difficult to come to any one prevailing or indeed coherent reading, and any criticism will have to ignore certain elements of the story in order to make its rationalist or its Romantic reading fit. Why should we force a reading in this way? Can we not allow the work to be ‘fairy-like and wondrous, but stepping boldly into ordinary everyday life’? Can the human mind not simultaneously comprehend the truth of the everyday and the truth of Romantic inspiration? The grotesque fairy-tale horror of Hoffmann’s universe, the portal to Faerie, functions as an aspect of the mundane, not as an antithesis to it. This false conflict, this false dichotomy, is ultimately unhelpful. The same author presents us with a vision of Romantic inspiration as madness, as suicide, but also as enlivened by the daily bustle of a marketplace. There is, nor can there ever be, no conclusion in Hoffmann’s work as to which is the “true” representation of reality. Earthly life both feeds into and denies the artist the possibility of Romantic inspiration: s/he would be lost without it, but so often s/he is lost because of it. A prosaic life such as Klara’s might be death to a Nathanael, but he fares little better by fulfilling his own artistic vision. It is worth examining what Hoffmann’s work has to say about Romantic inspiration, but to claim that as an author he refutes earthly life and earthly love seems unconvincing. Certainly, he signposts quite how ‘rending’ an internal conflict this blend of Romanticism and rationality can be, but ultimately they coexist in the human mind as surely as can the genre of observational realism alongside grotesque fantasy.
Barkhoff, Jürgen, ‘Romantic Science and Psychology’, in The Cambridge Companion to German Romanticism, ed. Nicholas Saul, Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Brantly, Susan, ‘A Thermographic Reading of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann’, The German Quarterly 55 (1982).
Hitchens, Christopher, Hitch-22, Atlantic, 2010.
Hoffmann, Ernst Theodor Wilhelm, Der Sandmann (1815), Des Vetters Eckfenster (1822)
Kohlenbach, Margarete, ‘Women and Artists: E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Implicit Critique of Early Romanticism’, The Modern Language Review, 89:3 (1994)
Robertson, Ritchie, ‘Introduction’, in E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Golden Pot and Other Tales, trans. by Ritchie Robertson, Oxford University Press, 1992.Zocco, Giana, The Art of Watching: The Literary Motif of the Window and its Potential for Metafiction in Contemporary Literature, TRANS-, en ligne (16).