Friday, October 05, 2018

Classic Ghost Story Writers: E. T. A. Hoffmann

In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know, a world without devils or vampires, there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world.
So says Tzvetan Todorov, in his famous essay on The Fantastic. He continues:
The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination – and laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event had indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality – but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us.
This moment of doubt, during which the person experiencing the event is unsure whether it is truly supernatural or just an illusion of some kind, constitutes the "fantastic" (for Todorov, at least):
The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighbouring genre, the uncanny or the marvellous. The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.

Tzvetan Todorov: The Fantastic (1970)

So far, so good. I think we can easily understand the distinction he makes between the marvellous - a world where the supernatural does prevail (the world of Dracula, for instance) - and the uncanny, a situation where everyday events present themselves in a strange and deceptive light.

Further attempts to unpack just precisely what is meant by this term "the uncanny" take us rapidly into deeper waters, though. In terms of fiction, it has a tendency to bring us to the door of the German Romantic writer and musician, E. T. A. Hoffmann.

Freud's touchstone essay on 'The Uncanny' [unheimlich in German] first appeared in 1919. In outlining his sense of just what it actually consists of, he was forced to rely on the work of Hoffmann, whom he referred to as the "unrivalled master of the uncanny in literature."

German Psychiatrist Ernst Jensch had earlier suggested, in his own 1906 essay 'On the Psychology of the Uncanny,' that it should be defined as a product of:
... intellectual uncertainty; so that the uncanny would always, as it were, be something one does not know one’s way about in. The better oriented in his environment a person is, the less readily will he get the impression of something uncanny in regard to the objects and events in it.
Jensch goes on to specify Hoffmann's story "The Sandman" as a fruitful source for this anxiety, mainly because of the presence of the lifelike doll, Olympia, who is one of its principal characters:
In telling a story one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton and to do it in such a way that his attention is not focused directly upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be led to go into the matter and clear it up immediately.
Freud, however, saw Jensch's analysis as somewhat simplistic:
I cannot think – and I hope most readers of the story will agree with me – that the theme of the doll Olympia, who is to all appearances a living being, is by any means the only, or indeed the most important, element that must be held responsible for the quite unparalleled atmosphere of uncanniness evoked by the story.
Instead, Freud stresses "the idea of being robbed of one's eyes" as a "more striking instance of uncanniness" in the story. He goes on to link this to the uncanny effects that result from instances of "repetition of the same thing," linking this to his infamous repetition compulsion. He also comments on the central theme of blindness in 'The Sandman':
A study of dreams, phantasies and myths has taught us that anxiety about one's eyes, the fear of going blind, is often enough a substitute for the dread of being castrated. The self-blinding of the mythical criminal, Oedipus, was simply a mitigated form of the punishment of castration – the only punishment that was adequate for him by the lex talionis.

Masahiro Mori: The Uncanny Valley

Roboticist Masahiro Mori's 'uncanny valley' diagram, which attempts to analyses our persistent anxiety at the idea of the inanimate made animate, clearly owes a good deal to Jensch as well as Freud.

This influence can also be seen in Julia Kristeva's concept of abjection. Abjection can also be uncanny, when the observer recognizes something within the abject, possibly some component of what it was before it was 'cast out', whilst still simultaneously being repulsed by whatever it was that caused it to be cast out in the first place. Kristevan abjection lays special emphasis on the uncanny return of the past - particularly in the form of the 'uncanny stranger'.

'The Sandman' is certainly one of the strangest and most complex stories Hoffmann ever wrote. Whether it can quite bear the burden of all this weight of analysis is another question, but certainly repeated readings do little to dissipate the strange atmosphere it creates.

Perhaps a better source for Hoffmann's own views on the subject is his later story "The Uncanny Guest" (Der unheimliche Gast in German). The story begins with a long discussion of:
"... that incomprehensible, mysterious condition - deeply grounded in our human organism - which our minds strive in vain to fight against, and which we ought to take great care not to allow ourselves to yield to overmuch. What I mean is, the fear of the supernatural. We all know that the uncanny race of ghosts, the haunters, choose the night (and particularly in stormy weather) to arise from their darksome dwellings and set forth upon their mysterious wanderings. So that we are right in expecting some of those fearsome visitants just at a time like this."
The speaker, Dagobert, friend of Moritz (the main character in the story), turns out to be right to expect a 'fearsome visitant' as the culmination of the expectations engendered by the storm which is raging outside. He comes, in fact, at the climax of a story told by Moritz about just such a supernatural outsider, in the form of a mysterious 'Count' who (it eventually proves) was actually the subject of the anecdote. And, just as that story ends as a door crashes open, so does this story begin with another door - their own - crashing open.

One can see here that Hoffmann does not hesitate to employ the standard toolkit of the Gothic novelist: mysterious strangers, haunted ruins, buried treasure, and childhood loves which persist beyond the grave. However the element of psychological acuity lying behind these rather stagey properties may explain the comparative longevity of his stories. They always seem to imply more than they actually say: to promise more than their rather conventional denouements can ever provide.

I have a number of different translations of Hoffmann's tales, but the stories in them overlap. Some, such as 'The Sandman,' are in all of them. Others occur only in one or two. There are 35 stories in the four collections I own. When you eliminate repetitions (or should I say doppelgängers?), there are only 21 left. Here's a list of them all, in rough chronological order:
  1. Ritter Gluck
  2. Don Juan
  3. The Golden Flower Pot
  4. A New Year's Eve Adventure (aka The Lost Reflection]
  5. The Sandman
  6. The Vow
  7. The Jesuit Church in Glogau
  8. The Entail
  9. The Deserted House
  10. Councillor Krespel
  11. The Mines of Falun
  12. Nutcracker and the King of Mice
  13. A Ghost Story
  14. Automata
  15. Tobias Martin, Master Cooper, and His Men
  16. The Uncanny Guest
  17. Mademoiselle de Scudéri
  18. Gamblers' Luck
  19. Signor Formica
  20. The King's Betrothed
  21. The Doubles

And here they are listed, in bold, according to which of the various collections of his work they first appeared in:

    E. T. A. Hoffmann: Kreisler

  1. from Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier [Fantasy Pieces in the Manner of Callot] - 7 stories (1814)
    1. Ritter Gluck [Ritter Gluck]
    2. Kreisleriana
    3. Don Juan [Don Juan]
    4. Nachricht von den neuesten Schicksalen des Hundes Berganza
    5. Der Magnetiseur
    6. The Golden Flower Pot [Der goldne Topf]
    7. A New Year's Eve Adventure [Die Abenteuer der Silvesternacht]

  2. E. T. A. Hoffmann: The Sandman

  3. from Nachtstücke [Night-pieces] - 8 stories (1817)
    1. The Sandman [Der Sandmann]
    2. The Vow [Das Gelübde]
    3. Ignaz Denner
    4. The Jesuit Church in Glogau [Die Jesuiterkirche in G.]
    5. The Entail [Das Majorat]
    6. The Deserted House [Das öde Haus]
    7. Das Sanctus
    8. Das steinerne Herz

  4. E. T. A. Hoffmann: The Double

  5. from Die Serapionsbrüder [The Serapion Brotherhood] - 28 stories (1819)
    1. Der Einsiedler Serapion
    2. Councillor Krespel [Rat Krespel]
    3. Die Fermate
    4. Der Dichter und der Komponist
    5. Ein Fragment aus dem Leben dreier Freunde
    6. Der Artushof
    7. The Mines of Falun [Die Bergwerke zu Falun]
    8. Nutcracker and the King of Mice [Nußknacker und Mausekönig]
    9. Der Kampf der Sänger
    10. A Ghost Story [Eine Spukgeschichte]
    11. Automata [Die Automate]
    12. Doge und Dogaresse
    13. Alte und neue Kirchenmusik
    14. Tobias Martin, Master Cooper, and His Men [Meister Martin der Küfner und seine Gesellen]
    15. Das fremde Kind
    16. Nachricht aus dem Leben eines bekannten Mannes
    17. Die Brautwahl
    18. The Uncanny Guest [Der unheimliche Gast]
    19. Mademoiselle de Scudéri [Das Fräulein von Scuderi]
    20. Gamblers' Luck [Spielerglück]
    21. Der Baron von B.
    22. Signor Formica [Signor Formica]
    23. Zacharias Werner
    24. Erscheinungen
    25. Der Zusammenhang der Dinge
    26. Vampirismus
    27. Die ästhetische Teegesellschaft
    28. The King's Betrothed [Die Königsbraut]

  6. E. T. A. Hoffmann: Hand drawings

  7. from Letzte Erzählungen [Last Stories] - 13 stories (1825)
    1. Haimatochare
    2. Die Marquise de la Pivardiere
    3. Die Irrungen
    4. Die Geheimnisse
    5. Der Elementargeist
    6. Die Räuber
    7. The Doubles [Die Doppeltgänger] (1821)
    8. Datura fastuosa
    9. Meister Johannes Wacht
    10. Des Vetters Eckfenster
    11. Die Genesung
    12. Aus dem Nachlass:
      • Neueste Schicksale eines abenteuerlichen Mannes
      • Der Feind

E. T. A. Hoffmann: The Entail

Jacques Offenbach: The Tales of Hoffmann (1881)

So what are they like to read? Well, they're a fruitful source of opera libretti, for one thing. As well as The Tales of Hoffmann, above, Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker is also based on one of Hoffmann's stories.

Some of them ('Tobias Martin,' 'Mademoiselle de Scudéri') are largely historical in inspiration - based on considerable research on Hoffmann's part. The ones he's most famous for are psychological tales about divided selves, automata and various other idées fixes - as much of the author as any of his characters, one often feels.

Have they stood the test of time? Certainly one can see the seeds of many of the ideas and motifs we associate with such giants as Gogol, Dostoevsky and Poe in Hoffmann, though there's no sense in pretending that his work is on a par with theirs in literary merit.

At times, though, in such works as 'The Sandman' or 'Councillor Krespel,' there's a kind of visionary power in Hoffmann which gives one the sense of an author who never quite reached his full stature. He was only in his mid-forties when he died, and much of his time up till then had been devoted to music rather than literature. He was, in fact, the first German composer who could really have been said to have been a Romantic, before Weber and Beethoven, and a potent influence on both of them.

Finally, Hoffmann must be seen more as a seedbed of ideas than the source of their complete fruition. The idea of combining complex psychological insights with the machinery of the horror story is all his, however. So much is owed by so many to his intuitions that it's unlikely that his work in this genre will ever be entirely superseded.

Todorov prefers to discuss such works as Count Jan Potocki's Manuscript Found at Saragossa not so much because he can't find useful analogues for his ideas in Hoffmann, but rather because Hoffmann had been such a fruitful source of inspiration to Freud and others that Todorov may have felt that it was time to find some texts that were less familiar. Hoffmann is, in that sense, perhaps best seen as equivalent in influence to a German Poe.

Here, then, is my own Hoffmann collection: by no means complete, but perhaps a good place to start:

E. T. A. Hoffmann: Gesammelte Werke

Ernst Theodor Wilhelm [later 'Amadeus'] Hoffmann

  1. Hoffmann, E. T. A. Werke in zwei Bänden. Band 1: Romane. Ed. Carl Georg von Maassen & Georg Ellinger. Afterword by Walter Müller-Seidel. Notes by Wolfgang Kron. Jubliäumsbibliothek der deutschen Literatur. 2 vols. München: Winkler Verlag, n.d.

    • Die Elixiere des Teufels (1815)
    • Lebensansichten des Katers Murr (1820)

  2. Hoffmann, E. T. A. Werke in zwei Bänden. Band 2: Erzählungen und Märchen. Ed. Carl Georg von Maassen & Georg Ellinger. Afterword by Walter Müller-Seidel. Notes by Wolfgang Kron. Jubliäumsbibliothek der deutschen Literatur. 2 vols. München: Winkler Verlag, n.d.

    • Die Serapionsbrüder (1819)
        Erster Band:
      1. Der Einsiedler Serapion
      2. Rat Krespel
      3. Die Fermate
      4. Der Dichter und der Komponist
      5. Ein Fragment aus dem Leben dreier Freunde
      6. Der Artushof
      7. Die Bergwerke zu Falun
      8. Nußknacker und Mausekönig
      9. Zweiter Band:
      10. Der Kampf der Sänger
      11. Eine Spukgeschichte
      12. Die Automate
      13. Doge und Dogaresse
      14. Alte und neue Kirchenmusik
      15. Meister Martin der Küfner und seine Gesellen
      16. Das fremde Kind
      17. Dritter Band:
      18. Nachricht aus dem Leben eines bekannten Mannes
      19. Die Brautwahl
      20. Der unheimliche Gast
      21. Das Fräulein von Scuderi
      22. Spielerglück
      23. Der Baron von B.
      24. Vierter Band:
      25. Signor Formica
      26. Zacharias Werner
      27. Erscheinungen
      28. Der Zusammenhang der Dinge
      29. Vampirismus
      30. Die ästhetische Teegesellschaft
      31. Die Königsbraut

  3. Hugo Steiner-Prag, ed.: The Tales of Hoffmann (1943)

  4. Hoffmann, E. T. A. The Tales of Hoffmann: Stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann, Translated out of the German by Various Hands, Illustrated with Lithographs by Hugo Steiner-Prag Together with a Prologue from the Illustrator. Introductory Essay by Arthur Ransome. Trans. J. T. Bealby, E. N. Bennett, Alex Ewing, Maria Labocceta, Jacques Le Clercq, Barrows Mussey & F. E. Pierce. The Limited Editions Club, for the George Macy Companies, Inc. New York: The Heritage Press, 1943.

    1. The Sandman
    2. The Mines of Falun
    3. Councillor Krespel
    4. Don Juan
    5. The Mystery of the Deserted House
    6. The Vow
    7. Mademoiselle de Scudéry
    8. The Entail
    9. The Uncanny Guest
    10. Gamblers' Luck

  5. J. M. Cohen. trans.: Eight Tales of Hoffmann (1952)

  6. Hoffmann, E. T. A. Eight Tales of Hoffmann. Trans. J. M. Cohen. London: Pan Books, 1952.

    1. The Lost Reflection
    2. The Sandman
    3. The Jesuit Church in Glogau
    4. The Deserted House
    5. Councillor Krespel
    6. The Mines of Falun
    7. A Ghost Story
    8. Gamblers' Luck

  7. E. F. Bleiler, ed.: The Best Tales of Hoffmann (1967)

  8. Hoffmann, E. T. A. The Best Tales of Hoffmann. Ed. E. F. Bleiler. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1967.

    1. The Golden Flower Pot
    2. Automata
    3. A New Year's Eve Adventure
    4. Nutcracker and the King of Mice
    5. The Sand-Man
    6. Rath Krespel
    7. Tobias Martin, Master Cooper, and His Men
    8. The Mines of Falun
    9. Signor Formica
    10. The King's Betrothed

  9. E. T. A. Hoffmann: Tales (1972)

  10. Hoffmann, E. T. A. Tales. Ed. & Trans. Leonard J. Kent & Elizabeth C. Knight. Illustrated by Jacob Landau. 1969. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

    1. Ritter Gluck
    2. The Golden Pot
    3. The Sandman
    4. Councillor Krespel
    5. The Mines of Falun
    6. Mademoiselle de Scudéri
    7. The Doubles

  11. E. T. A. Hoffmann: Tales of Hoffmann (1982)

  12. Hoffmann, E. T. A. Tales of Hoffmann. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.

    1. Mademoiselle de Scudery
    2. The Sandman
    3. The Artushof
    4. Councillor Krespel
    5. The Entail
    6. Doge and Dogaressa
    7. The Mines of Falun
    8. The Choosing of the Bride

  13. E. T. A. Hoffmann: The Golden Pot and Other Tales (2009)

  14. Hoffmann, E. T. A. The Golden Pot and Other Tales: A New Translation. Trans. Ritchie Robertson. Oxford World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    1. The Golden Pot
    2. The Sandman
    3. Princess Brambilla
    4. Master Flea
    5. My Cousin's Corner Window

E. T. A. Hoffmann: Kater Murr

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