Sunday, 20 March 2016

On the Nachtstücke collection (1816-17) by E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822)

‘Das durchgehende Thema aller Nachtstücke ist die Unfreiheit des Menschen, seine Bedrohung durch das Unbegreifliche und das Unheimliche’ (Hartmut Steinecke). What insights does this reading shed on the stories in the Nachtstücke collection?

E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Nachtstücke collection contains a number of stories that engage with the ‘Unbegreifliche’ and the ‘Unheimliche’, crucially binding the both of them to the everyday life of the real world and thus fixing his protagonists in a lattice within which they cannot quite understand what lies beyond what they see: thus the ‘Unfreiheit des Menschen’.

One such story, Das öde Haus, concerns itself with a narrator, Theodor, whose vision goes beyond the banal urbanity of nineteenth-century Berlin and into its lower levels of Unwirklichkeit. Theodor is drawn to the aspects of his recognisably familiar environs which he is unable to understand or clearly perceive; his response is to trace the ephemeral nature of the day-to-day, as though Berlin itself were a text within which there is more to study, more to understand, further allusions and arguments to be detected. This is clear right from the story’s very first line, ‘Man war darüber einig, daß die wirklichen Erscheinungen im Leben oft viel wunderbarer sich gestalteten als alles, was die regste Fantasie zu erfinden trachte.’ The message is instant and unambiguous: it is in the reality of the world that we can perceive the most fantastical shapes and forms, not in flights of fancy.
Of course, in a Romantic framework it takes a particular set of gifts to be able to see the transcendent world beneath reality, and naturally this skillset is not one shared by everybody (‘viele sind berufen, und wenige auserwählt!’). It emerges that Theodor has the ‘Sehergabe’ and is capable of glimpsing the ‘Zweige mit Blättern und Blüten’ which hail from some ‘wunderbare Stamm’. An inability to perceive this higher plane is roundly denounced, and even framed in quasi-biblical terms as a result of the ‘Sündenfall’ – since mankind has lost its ‘sight’, as it were, the modern world is a broken and fractured thing with only subjective, partial and limited versions of reality; an apt inclusion, given that a principal trend binding Romantic science with Romantic literature was the emphasis on loss of religion as a unifying world view[1]. The particular phenomenon which captures Theodor’s attention is not in itself anything supernatural – an old, decrepit house on Unter den Linden – but it is what seems to lie within or beyond it that troubles the narrator (‘ganze wunderliche seltsame Weise’). Its unyielding frontage is a mask, a concrete and ‘real’ front behind which the ‘tiefe Wahrheit’ may hide; the house is an illegible palimpsest, a text on which Theodor is unable to discourse.
Following Schelling’s advice to “Wirf einen Blick in dein Inneres”[2], Theodor’s response to this ‘Unbegreifliche’, to the inscrutability of this phenomenon, is to progress inwards – via the potent imagery of the reflection of the window within his little mirror: it is through interiority of the self that the realm of the fantastic is to be reached, by those who have the ability to do so. And yet the earnestness of this Romantic formula is stoutly undermined by the appearance of a wry, sardonic old Berliner. The old man’s assertion that the woman Theodor sees at the house’s window, the woman with whom he has a certain fascination, is in fact a portrait – another layer of visual representation of the real – shakes him and ultimately proves the house’s nature incomprehensible and unknowable. It remains something not to be understood, something indefinable, on the fringes of Theodor’s narrative, the unfathomability of it alarming our central character. Steinecke’s diktat seems tailor-made for Das öde Haus, as Hoffmann elegantly bridges Schelling’s concept of a monistic Weltgeist governing all things[3] with the timorous uncertainty of modernism.
Picking up this strand of “partial” views of reality is Der Sandmann, which takes a firmly polyperspectivist approach, constantly withholding any narrative perspective that might establish definitively the nature of the Sandmann. Like all the Nachtstücke there is a focus on darkness, this time drawing on the vivid chiaroscuro painting traditions of Caravaggio and others. Perception is absolutely central to the tale (Hoffmann relies on a telescope here instead of a mirror), and Hoffmann’s rich exploration of “optische Motiven”[4], including a stunning passage in which eyes enter the protagonist’s breast, links it again to Das öde Haus. The ‘Unheimliche’, here represented by the mythical figure of the Sandmann who tears out children’s eyes, is an inducer of psychological instability.
Klara, who demonstrably represents Aufklärung – right down to her aptronymic name, viz. ‘klar’, from the Latin ‘clarus’; it is in her nature to rationally explain things and make them clearer, not to give in to obscurity – is the one who exclaims along with the protagonist’s mother that ‘es gibt keinen Sandmann’, and yet the story’s narrative does not belong to the Aufklärung, but to the fluctuating Nathanael, torn between two women and two philosophies. The rupture between them results in his eventual demise, leaving him with a shattered cranium, the head as the locality of reason having been destroyed. There is no chorus to proclaim which side of the divide between imagination and reason had got it right; Hoffmann judiciously leaves both hanging in the air, both guilty, both innocent; the two must coexist in the human mind as surely as an author blends the genres of observational realism alongside grotesque fantasy. The work depends on our uncertainty.
Much as Theodor’s Romanticism is undermined in Das öde Haus so too do we see this in Hoffmann’s treatment of musicians, who are unstable figures pilloried by the narrative as often as they are treated sympathetically. In Das Sanctus, it is an utterly mundane setting which provides the truly transcendental performance, not the virtuoso opera house; aspersions are cast on the illusion of phenomenal rapture, such that “the Romantic experience of music is thus relativized through narrative technique and typecasting; it is presented as a perspective, or even a pose, rather than – as it claims to be – a glimpse of ultimate reality”[5]. The treatment recurs with the painter Berthold in Der Jesuiter Kirche in G, whose destabilising at the words of a fellow artist means he sees nature as a thing of terror: ‘die ganze Natur, ihm sonst freundlich lächelnd, ward ihm zum bedrohlichen Ungeheuer’, and this promising artist eventually spirals into a man who can kill his wife.
The theme of art, of the Romantic quest for the ‘Erhabene’, being too closely aligned to madness and instability, to a world where meaning can break down and chaos reign, is present to varying degrees throughout the Nachtstücke collection, and displays Steinecke’s view that these works are concerned with ‘die Unfreiheit des Menschen, [und] seine Bedrohung durch das Unbegreifliche und das Unheimliche’. The obscure at best remains obscure, and at worst reveals itself as housing something spiritually terrifying beneath its material veneer.

Bibliography.

Barkhoff, Jürgen, ‘Romantic science and psychology’, in The Cambridge Companion to German Romanticism, ed. Nicholas Saul, Cambridge: CUP, 2009.
Benjamin, Walter, "Das dämonische Berlin," Nachträge. Gesammelte Schriften VII,1, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1992.
Brand, Dana, The Spectator and the City in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, New York: Cambridge UP, 1991.
Brantly, Susan, ‘A Thermographic Reading of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann’, The German Quarterly 55, 1982.
McFarland, Robert, ‘Reading Das öde Haus: E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Urban Hermeneutics’, Monatshefte, 100:4, 2008.
Victor Sage, ‘Scott, Hoffmann, and the Persistence of the Gothic’ in Andrew Cusack and Barry Murnane (eds), Popular Revenants: The German Gothic and its International Reception, 1800-2000, Rochester NY: Camden House, 2012.




[1]Barkhoff, Jürgen, ‘Romantic science and psychology’, in The Cambridge Companion to German Romanticism, ed. Nicholas Saul, Cambridge: CUP, 2009.
[2]Schelling, FWJ, quoted in Barkhoff, Jürgen, ‘Romantic science and psychology’, in The Cambridge Companion to German Romanticism, ed. Nicholas Saul, Cambridge: CUP, 2009.
[3]Barkhoff, Jürgen, ‘Romantic science and psychology’, in The Cambridge Companion to German Romanticism, ed. Nicholas Saul, Cambridge: CUP, 2009.
[4]McFarland, Robert, ‘Reading Das öde Haus: E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Urban Hermeneutics’, Monatshefte, 100:4, 2008.
[5]Riley, Matthew, ‘E.T.A. Hoffmann beyond the ‘Paradigm Shift’: Music & Irony in the Novellas 1815-1819’, in Words and Notes in the Long Nineteenth Century, ed. Weliver & Ellis, Boydell & Brewer Ltd., 2013.

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