Reading and Studying Literature

Posted: June 9th, 2021

Chapter 4

E. T. A Hoffmann: fantasy lives

In this seminar
You will be introduced to a brief biography of Hoffmann’s life.
You will see the ways in which Hoffmann self-dramatizes his Romantic self in his writings.
You will explore different works by Hoffmann and see ‘The Sandman’ within that particular context.
You will read some excerpts from ‘The Sandman’ and explore the key themes.
See how reality and fantasy are evoked in ‘The Sandman’.
Observe how vision (seeing) and eyes are linked to identity, and are metaphors to Romantic ways of approaching reality.

Brief Biography (pp. 101-104)
Hoffman (1776-1822) experienced the changes brought by the Napoleonic wars and his experience was more immediate than that of British writers.
Hoffman had a difficult life: he moved a lot during the war, lived in poverty, fought in battles and then resorted to music and writing (mainly journalism) to make a living.
In 1813, he published his first collection of short stories, Fantasiestücke.
Hoffman continued to support himself until his death largely by producing fiction and criticism.

Dramatizing Hoffman
Hoffman had a habit of crafting personae for himself (this can be witnessed in his musical writings).
Hoffman also tried to borrow some of Mozart’s celebrity by adopting ‘Amadeus’ (Mozart’s middle name) as his middle name.
In his stories, he repeatedly appears as a character under his own name as either ‘Theodore’ or ‘Hoffmann’.

Dramatizing Hoffman
An example of Hoffmann’s presence in his own work can be found in forward of ‘A New Year’s Eve Adventure’ (1815), that presents Hoffmann as the ‘editor’ of the journals of a man called ‘the travelling enthusiast’.
These journals are addressed to Hoffmann as their first reader:
‘ You can see, my dear Theodore Amadeus Hoffmann, that a strange dark power manifests itself in my life too often, steals the best dreams away from sleep, pushing strange forms into my life’.
Hoffmann himself (ad the editor) distances himself and comments that the enthusiast ‘has apparently not separated the events of his inner life from those of the outside world; in fact we cannot determine where one ends and the other begins’.

Where is the line between reality and imagination?

Realism VS. Fantasy
Hoffman’s tales were published under titles such as Fantasiestücke (Fantasy-pieces) and Nachtstücke (Night-pieces).
The titles evoke ideas of darkness, obscured vision and the world of dreams.
In particularly, they evoke fantasy and the fantastic (events that could not happen in real life), which is the opposite of realism.

‘The Sandman’
The story was first published along with other stories in 1816 in Nachtstücke. Hoffmann’s stories have since come to be known as kunstmärchen (literary tales), to create a link with another type of story Kinder-und hausmärchen(children and household tales) published in 1812 by Brothers Grimm (writers of Cinderella, Repunzel…etc).
Hoffmann’s stories could also be linked to allegorical tales, especially in the longer stories.
Everett Bleiler notes that these allegorical tales ‘often appeared as symbolic kernels or germs within the larger context of a story, offering in frankly poetic and mythical form the point offered more or less realistically in the full story’.
This suggests a complex structure of doubling and parallelism, and suggests the juxtaposition of the supernatural with the everyday.

Fantasy in ‘The Sandman’
‘The Sandman’ insists that the real world and the fantastical are contiguous and simultaneous.
It is the nature of the Romantic vision to apprehend this simultaneity, but this seeing is not necessarily benign (harmless). This is especially the case with the adult protagonists who, when granted the ability to see a world beyond the ordinary, are often tormented and destroyed by the memory.

What are the dangers of seeing the contiguity between the fantastical and the real worlds?

Fantasy in ‘The Sandman’

Hoffmann as the editor in his own story ‘A New Year’s Eve Adventure’ does not explain the strangeness of the tale that the travelling enthusiast tells, but rather writes about the pleasure it will grant the readers:

The Geisterseher [spirit-seer] may beckon you to his side, and before you are even aware of it, you will be in a strange magical realm where figures of fantasy step right into your own life, and are as cordial with you as your oldest friends. I beg of you – take them as such, go on with their remarkable doings, yield to the shudders and thrills that they produce, since the more you go along with them, the better they can operate.’

‘The Sandman’

‘The Sandman’
– The story sheds light on a crisis in the Romantic vocation:
a suspicion that language may be inadequate to the enormity of the Romantic visionary’s endeavour to both capture and transcend reality.
The three fictional personas in the letters ‘Nathanael’, ‘Clara’ and the narrator, we have a construct of the Romantic writer whose imagination has in some way exceeded their control.
The narrator also explains that ‘the poet can do no more than capture the strangeness of reality, like the dim reflection in a dull mirror’.

Ways of Seeing
Seeing, sight and vision form a strand of connected imaginary in ‘The Sandman’.
Emphasis on darkness is also related to vision or lack thereof.
The idea that there is more than one way of seeing, and that the Romantic writer/artist might be equipped with a special and privileged way of seeing is explored in ‘The Sandman’.
Try to explore how different ways of seeing is depicted in the extracts we will read next.

Ways of Seeing
Eyes (and their loss) are seen as central in ‘The Sandman’, especially to the child Nathanael.
Seeing becomes the symbol for existence: to see is to be.
If the Sandman throws sand into your eyes, you are forced to close them, and this you’re cut from feeling and thinking. Existence returns only when you open them up again.
There is a pattern of imagery of seeing, eyes, spectacles and spyglasses.
By showing the difference between spectacles and spyglasses, and the different visions they offer, Hoffmann establishes two ways of seeing: spyglass which improves vision, and spectacles which show reality from a subjective perspective that is bewildering and confusing.

Ways of Seeing
The different ways of seeing can be seen as metaphors for different Romantic ways of perceiving reality.
The distorting lenses of spectacles demonstrate that perception is VULNERABLE to the vagaries (illusions) of individual subjectivity.
Eyes can represent the different ‘I’s who see the world in different ways.
William Herschel (1738-1822) was creating a telescope during that time in England, which like the spy glass, gives privileged access to a single truth.

The Inner Self and the External World
‘The Sandman’ shows that even the perceptive faculty of the Romantic imagination can render the truth obscure and inaccessible, and even fatal when misapplied.
Depicting Coppola as a barometer-seller who also sells spectacles shows that the spectacle’s significance lies in it being an instrument that mediate between ourselves and the External world and conditions our sense of reality.
However, such objects is not always entirely reliable.
Seeing is fundamental to one’s identity, and when seeing fails, the ‘I’, the self, fractures.

Part II
Hoffmann’s ‘The Sandman’

In this seminar
We will explore the theme of childhood trauma in ‘The Sandman’ through the Freud’s ‘the uncanny’.
We will see how Freud also viewed ‘The Sandman’ and how he analysed the character of Nathanael.
We will see what role does the uncanny play in Clara’s and Olimpia’s characters.
How does Hoffmann’s depiction of women in his work critique the male Western imagination and pursue of the ideal?
How does Hoffmann treat imagination in ‘The Sandman’? Think of this in relation to Clara and Olimpia, and Nathanael’s state of mind.
Is imagination (a human ability that is celebrated by Romantic writers and artists such as Wordsworth and Shelley) something that is healthy or not? Is it advocated in the story, or is it criticised? If so, how?

Childhood Trauma
A Psychoanalytical (Freudian) perspective

Freudian reading of ‘The Sandman’
A comparison with Wordsworth’s The Prelude
Freud’s discussion of ‘The Sandman’ first appeared in an article written in 1919 on ‘the uncanny’.
Freud’s thinks that the experiences we have as a child shape our adult identities, and in particular our sexual selves.
This link between childhood experiences and adulthood is seen in Wordsworth’s own writings, especially in The Prelude, where he explores the effect of his memory of a drowning, and how that influenced his adult poetic self.
Wordsworth refers to what he calls ‘spots of time’ as childhood memories as a reservoir for the Romantic poetic imagination.
This link between childhood and adulthood is also emphasised in Jean- Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy.

Freudian reading of ‘The Sandman’
A comparison with Wordsworth’s The Prelude
Read the two accounts in ‘The Sandman’ and in Wordsworth’s The Prelude reproduced on pp. 114-115 and think of the following:
How does each speaker recount his memory of the traumatic event?
How do they explain its impact on them?

Freudian reading of ‘The Sandman’
A comparison with Wordsworth’s The Prelude
Wordsworth, describes this memory as one of many others that form the ‘tragic facts of rural history’.
Such memories do not just refer to the feelings experienced in childhood, but also evoke other new feelings.
These memories thus serve as a nourishing source for other feelings and emotions.
To Wordsworth, the memory shaped by ‘loss, guilt and death’ turns to a story of a maturing poetic imagination. Suggesting that memory is valued for its enriching qualities to the poetic imagination.

Freudian reading of ‘The Sandman’
A comparison with Wordsworth’s The Prelude
Nathanael, associates this memory with ‘fear and terror’.
This memory serves as an introduction to Nathanael’s father’s death.
The memory and its effect on Nathanael is not seen as enriching or improving like that of Wordsworth. He notes the immediate physical impact on him as a child, but this disturbing feeling accompanies the event of his father’s death.
This memory also burdens Nathanael with feelings of unresolved loss and inescapable fate, and a poetic imagination that is driven by force.

Freudian reading of ‘The Sandman’
A comparison with Wordsworth’s The Prelude
Wordsworth talks about his father’s death in later parts of the autobiographical poem, but he sees it as an event that ‘corrected’ his intense ‘anxiety of hope’ and brought more balance to his life. The father’s death, therefore, provides him with a steadying perspective.
For Nathanael, the death of the father does not supply perspective, like that of Wordsworth, but rather distorts his perspective.
His traumatic childhood experiences, therefore, remain unprocessed and undiluted.

Freud: The Uncanny
In ‘The Sandman’, Freud explains the impact of this childhood memory in relation to his concept ‘the uncanny’, or ‘unheimlich’: (something strangely familiar, evokes unsettling and alienating feelings).
The term gets its meaning as the opposite of ‘heimlich’ which means homely or familiar.
Friedrich Schelling explains the uncanny: is that which ought to have remained unhidden, but has nonetheless come to light’.

Freud: The Uncanny
When discussing ‘The Sandman’, Freud explains:

An uncanny experience occurs either when infantile complexes which have been repressed are once more revived by some impression, or when primitive beliefs which have not been surmounted seem once more to be confirmed.
(Freud, 1955, 249)

Freud: The Uncanny
You can read more about Freud’s analysis here:

Freud’s idea could be seen in Nathanael’s reaction after the sudden appearance of the barometer seller.
His appearance revives a repressed memory (threat that Coppelius will pull his eyes out’.
His retelling of the story links his experience in the room with the return of Coppelius a year later, and the death of his father.
The ‘infantile complex’ that Freud refers to is seen in the light of the ‘Oedipus complex’: a concept that refers to a child’s unconscious desire for the opposite-sex parent, a necessary stage of psychosexual development.
In ‘The Sandman’, this is the fear of castration (Coppelius acting as the bad father threatening Nathaniel’s body). Without dealing with the fear of castration, a boy cannot develop as an adult and independent personality.
Freud deals with ‘The Sandman’ as a case study which shows Nathanael’s (a boy’s) failure to pass beyond and repress the fear of castration (seen in the fear of Coppelius pulling his eyes).
This forces Nathanael to suffer from unresolved guilt, and fear or Coppelius who seems to be a double of his father.

Clara and Olimpia: the ideal woman?
The two female characters have parallels between them. It could also be said that they double one another.
1- both are calm, composed, and balanced.
2- both are unresponsive and prosaic.
3- both women are described as cold (or lifeless).
Both women, then, fulfil the socially approved role for women as the PASSIVE, modest exemplars of domestic virtue.
The two women also are presented as the direct or indirect products of masculine creative endeavour.

How are the two women described?
Read the narrator’s description of Clara on p. 319 and Nathanael’s and Siegmund’s descriptions of Olimpia on p. 30 and think of the following:
1- what are the similarities and differences in the description?
2- How are the women constructed as the artificial creations of men?
3- How does Hoffmann want his readers to respond to this idealistic image women?

Similarities and Differences

– we learn a little about her physical contributes and the narrator implies instead that we should look into her internal personal qualities (warm-hearted, tenderness, acute and discriminating mind).
We are told twice about her ‘sly’ and ‘ironic smile’.
Siegmund focuses on her physical body, regular figure but her eyes and movements are uncannily lifeless.
Nathanael praises the depth of Olimpia’s soul.
Both opposing descriptions use opposing images of cold and warmth.
The reader is persuaded by the author to believe that Nathanael’s view is deluded.

Clara and Olimpia: artificial creations of men?
The description of both women is framed by reference to art.
Clara, for example, is described through the ways in which painters, poets and creative workers have attempted to present female beauty in artistic form.
Architects and sculptors ‘perfect’ the female figure.
Painters use lines and colouring to idealise the female form.
Poets use imagery and comparisons with the landscape as a way to capture the ‘vivifying’ or animate effects of feminine allure.
Musician also locate their inspiration in the gaze of the female muse.

Clara and Olimpia: artificial creations of men?
Siegmund’s description of Olimpia, by contrast, credits her appearance of beauty to the creative work of craft, rather than art.
Her movement is produced by some mechanism like clockwork.
Her singing, playing and dancing show the ‘soulless timing of a machine’.
Her regular, measured and perfect qualities are attributed to an evident artifice.
Both Clara and Olimpia, therefore, are described in terms of forms and masculine idealisation.

St. Mary Magdalene, by Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787)

Hoffmann’s Perspective
Hoffmann’s comic jibes at the devices and pretensions of painters and poets invite scepticism towards the artistic idealisation of the female form.
The satire aimed at the odd description between Clara’s eyes and the landscape paintings show an unoriginal artistic image, where the female fertility is equated with the productivity of the landscape.
Imagination is dismissed by both the narrator and Clara (the voice of reason) in the story, and is seen as the product of ‘muddle-headed enthusiasts’ who make shadowy images for real things.
Also, the attempt at using science to manufacture the ideal woman is ridiculed.
The story thus suggests a critique of the efforts of both artists and scientists to reconstruct the feminine ideal in an imaginary form.

The Stepford Wives is a 1972 satirical thriller novel by Ira Levin.
The story concerns Joanna Eberhart, a photographer and young mother who begins to suspect that the frighteningly submissive housewives in her new idyllic Connecticut neighbourhood may be robots created by their husbands.

Art and Automata: animating the inanimate
The sceptical assessment of creative genius, whether artistic or scientific, has continuities with other Romantic texts such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (enthusiastic student of science sets about creating another human being).
Nathanael in ‘The Sandman’ is similar by wanting to animate the inanimate, but it is literary rather than scientific.
He reads his creative pieces to Olimpia for hours to awaken her spirit.
Nathanael can be seen as the embodiment of the Romantic imagination, which becomes self-destructive in its excess of hope and aspiration.
His love for Olimpia is the love of the invisible world of transcendence.
The problem with Nathanael is that he is trapped in ‘a temporal world while his imagination makes him yearn for the higher realm of the ideal’ (Roder, 2003).

Nathanael, then, represents a distorted version of the Romantic author. This can be clearly seen in his process of writing.
In the beginning, Nathanael is seen as a man who has a special gift for composing charming and vivid stories (of having special qualities).
This special gift, however, is framed by the introspective mood (reflections of his inner-self) that makes him dwell in his imagination.
This results in compositions and written works that are ‘gloomy, unintelligible and formless’ that Clara conceives as vague and difficult to understand.
Read the section when Nathanael reads the story to Clara (pp. 321-322).

How does Hoffmann see imagination?

Is it a destructive delusion (think of Nathanael as a child and his illusions as he grows up)?

Or is it a healthy practice? (think of Clara who has a vivid imagination).

-What does Hoffmann’s representation of imagination in the story tell us about his views about Romantic writers?

Read the two extracts pp. 122 & 123
The first passage describes the professor as a man of the utmost ingenuity in producing musical machines, but also as an imposter, show man and ironist.
The second passage describes him as a true Romantic artist who produces music which, despite its reliance on technology, seems to transcend it.
The story is concerned to distinguish true art from fake.

True VS. Fake
True art shapes humans’ transcendent or ‘spiritual’ experience, and is associated with the natural despite its imperfection.
Fake art may be perfect, but is merely mechanical.
Like other Romantic writers, Hoffmann tried to find the right form and language to convey or express intense feelings (the transcendent).
This is reflected in the open-endedness of his stories that do not reach a final resolution and rather appear more dream-like or visionary (but ‘The Sandman’ is the least imperfect).
‘The Sandman’ also ascribe the supernatural to psychological disturbance.

Important notes about ‘The Sandman’
The treatment of the character, Nathanael, offers a sceptical view of the tendency of the Romantic artist to fantasise and idealise.
The story shows how imagination is sometimes tied to illusion (and thus seen negatively and can have devastating consequences).
The story shows how adulthood is majorly shaped by childhood experiences, and unresolved childhood issues could haunt adults and trouble their existence.
The story tackles the theme ‘reality and appearance’ or ‘true vs. fake’, especially in the way it represents female characters, namely Olimpia.
‘The Sandman’ critiques the ideal, something that other Romantic writers pursued in their writing career.

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