The Burden of the Ordinary


The cover of The Golden Pot and Other Tales of the Uncanny

THE DILIGENT Prussian bureaucrat E. T. A. Hoffmann had a mischievous double. By day, he worked as a jurist in the courts of present-day Poland and Germany; by night, he wrote impassioned music criticism in the voice of his alter ego Johannes Kreisler, a tempestuous composer who also appears in several of Hoffmann’s stories and novellas. The wild cry that rings out in his first novel, The Devil’s Elixirs (1815), could just as well describe his own adventure in bifurcation: “I am what I seem to be, yet do not seem to be what I am; even to myself I am an insoluble riddle, for my personality has been torn apart.” Hoffmann seemed to be a fastidious civil servant; in reality, he was a magician. 

Then again, he knew better than anyone that a doppelgänger and the life it apes are closely imbricated. That is to say, Hoffmann’s fantastic fiction is more autobiographical than it seems. Born Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann in 1776 in Königsberg, Prussia, he endured a lonely childhood after his parents separated, leaving him in the care of a severe uncle and a horde of batty aunts. Music was his core consolation—he later adopted the middle name Amadeus in homage to Mozart—but he was destined to suffer the artist’s characteristic curse, that of misjudging his own talents. His opera Undine (1816) survives as a minor classic, but he is much better remembered as the visionary writer who intrigued Charles Baudelaire, inspired Fritz Lang, and anticipated Edgar Allan Poe. His contemporaries, however, were somewhat less impressed. He was never successful enough to make a living from his art, and he earned his bread as a lawyer until he succumbed to syphilis at the age of forty-six. As he once put it, “On weekdays I’m a jurist, and a bit of a musician, my Sundays are devoted to drawing, and come evening I’m a quick-witted author until late at night.”

The banalities imbued with secret sorcery, the adults stalked by the specters of childhood traumas, the days dry with drudgeries, the nights dusky with divinations—all of this makes its way into the fiction. Hoffmann’s stories are delirious enchantments populated by living dolls and seven-headed mice. Their narrators are at once ironic and ingenuous, scornful of middle-class stuffiness yet quick to credit magical potions and talking trees. Like so many of his contemporaries, Hoffmann was not exempt from the obligatory Romantic obsessions: his stories contain their fair share of sinister scientists, stormy artists, and celestial maidens. Yet his nightmares are possessed of a humor and an eeriness all their own. 

Who but Hoffmann could imagine a literate cat who pens a pompous memoir? Who but he could devise such remarkably modern experiments in unreliable narration, among them a novel purportedly written over the pages of another book, which keeps butting into the text we are reading? Hoffmann is the most charming and the most contemporary of the Romantic cohort (with the possible exception of the brooding Heinrich von Kleist), yet he has gone underappreciated in an anglophone world with a pigheaded preference for Goethe.

A little more than a century after his death, there are happy indications that his time has come at last. This past year brought two new anthologies of his work, an illustrated volume from Yale University Press and a thick collection from Archipelago Press. The Golden Pot and Other Tales of the Uncanny omits several of Hoffmann’s best stories, among them “The Mines of Falun” and “The Nutcracker,” but it also contains essential writings that have long been difficult to find in English, such as “The Automaton” and “The Fermata.” Its centerpieces, “The Golden Pot” and “The Sandman,” are two of the most singular classics of German Romanticism, works that burrow deep inside anyone who reads them. All the light in the world cannot dispel the strange shadows they cast.

Marisa Adesman, Snake Eyes, 2019, gouache and colored pencil on paper, 11” × 14”. Courtesy of the artist and Anat Ebgi, Los Angeles / New York.
Marisa Adesman, Snake Eyes, 2019, gouache and colored pencil on paper, 11” × 14”. Courtesy of the artist and Anat Ebgi, Los Angeles / New York.

WHILE HOFFMAN WAS A CHILD daydreaming in Königsberg, another resident of that picturesque city was busy codifying the laws of human nature. Rumor had it that the man in question was so predictable that you could set your watch by his daily constitutionals. This inflexible figure, steady as clockwork, was none other than Immanuel Kant, high priest of the Enlightenment and human avatar of Reason. The world wrought by Königsberg’s most celebrated thinker and his rationalist predecessors was every bit as regular as he was. To hear them tell it, nature was a neatly ordered affair, governed by the placid principles of Newtonian physics. It was thoroughly mechanistic—and utterly unmysterious.

What, then, of the humans left to make a home amid these arid formulas? Were they permitted outbursts that the laws of nature did not sanction? Could they fall in love, or lose their minds? The Romantics feared that human agency would not withstand the onslaught, a prospect vividly illustrated by a burgeoning fad for automata. The humanoid contraptions displayed at festivals and commissioned by noblemen throughout the German-speaking kingdoms told a cautionary tale. They were walking demonstrations of the fate that might befall us if we did not muster every ounce of irrationality at our disposal: that is, the quaint phenomenon of the person might grow obsolete.

Fittingly, Hoffmann’s stories are crawling and clanking with the machines that threaten to usurp humanity. In “The Sandman,” a student named Nathaniel falls in love with Olympia, a peculiarly inert woman who lives across the street. Unlike his childhood sweetheart, who “could by no means be considered beautiful,” his new fixation is suspiciously perfect. She dances without stumbling and sings without faltering, yet everyone besides Nathaniel is disturbed by her stilted movements and the glassy tint of her eyes. Olympia is less creepy than she is comic: when Nathaniel goes on professing his love, undeterred by her obstinate silence, the doll is not the one who chills us.

At least as offensive as the prospect of automating affection is that of mechanizing music, by Hoffmann’s lights the most intransigently human of the arts. When two friends in “The Automaton” visit a professor who has constructed an orchestra of androids, they recoil. One tells the other, “the effort of mechanics to imitate more and more closely the effect produced by human organs in eliciting musical notes, or by mechanical means to substitute for the same, constitutes for me a declared war against the human spirit.”

Hoffmann was by no means the only notable soldier in the battle on behalf of humanity. Many of his contemporaries, among them Ludwig Tieck and the operatically named Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, opted for similar stratagems. Their weapon of choice was the Kunstmärchen (the literary fairy tale), a form so suffused with the supernatural that it promised to baffle even the most determined Newtonians. Like its cousin, the Volksmärchen (the folktale), the Kunstmärchen sparkles with sorcery—but unlike stories with oral origins, the Romantics’ efforts were erratic. Evil might be punished, but it might just as easily be rewarded; good often failed to prevail. 

In none of the Kunstmärchen is there anything resembling a template, but Hoffmann’s revolts against the expected are especially spirited. Like his peer’s stories, his strange fables dramatize the volatility of artists and the unreliability of the supposed “laws” of nature. Yet they also go further, for they are devices designed to invite, then playfully thwart, explanation. At the end of “The Automaton,” one character asks how the story’s various conundrums are resolved, and his interlocutor replies that the tale “must necessarily remain fragmentary. What I mean is, the reader’s or listener’s imagination should only receive a few hefty jolts and then string out the rest for itself.” We never learn how the mysterious automaton of the title works, or whether there is a person concealed inside it. Instead, we are left to wonder: Is the machine really acting of its own accord? 

Throughout The Golden Pot and Other Tales of the Uncanny, the antidote to the Enlightenment’s mania for answers is questions and more questions, in particular questions about whether Hoffmann’s heroes are inspired or insane. In “The Sandman,” Nathaniel is plagued by memories of Coppelius, a brutish lawyer who conducted alchemical experiments with his father when he was a boy. He is convinced not only that Coppelius is the wicked Sandman of childhood legend, and not only that this ogre murdered his father, but also that an Italian salesman named Coppola is Coppelius’s doppelgänger. “Let me confess here and now my firm conviction that all the awful and frightening things you speak of only happened in your imagination,” an intimate reprimands him. Hoffmann never quite clarifies whether this sober acquaintance is right, or whether Nathaniel is losing his mind. He is so volatile that his own account is suspect, but Coppola’s unearthly air is difficult to square away. Regardless of the truth, by the end of the story, its protagonist is so anguished that he leaps to his death. And what makes a monster real if not our terror? 

“The Golden Pot” presents us with more whimsical but equally intractable confusions. One evening, another student, this one named Anselmus, is smoking his pipe on the banks of the River Elbe. Moments later, he hears a tree whispering his name. Formerly, he had the sensible ambition of becoming “privy councillor,” a position not unlike Hoffmann’s; now, he is bent on marrying a beguiling snake named Serpentina, the daughter of a magical salamander masquerading as a local official. “The gentleman is not in his right mind!” an onlooker remarks as Anselmus embraces the tree that addressed him. Hoffmann provides just enough evidence to support this withering assessment, at least if we are determined believe it. A snake who seems to serenade Anselmus might be an illusion produced by fireworks reflected in the river; a friend of Anselmus’s who embarks on a nocturnal adventure with a witch might only have been fitfully dreaming. 

But these deflations are not serious temptations: they are only a test that mediocre imaginations are bound to fail. “Do you believe in me, Anselmus?” Serpentina asks her suitor when his faith in her existence begins to waver. “You can’t love without believing!” You can’t read fiction, especially Hoffmann’s, without believing, either. 

Marisa Adesman, Blue Bind, 2020, oil on panel, 10” × 8”. Courtesy of the artist and Anat Ebgi, Los Angeles / New York.
Marisa Adesman, Blue Bind, 2020, oil on panel, 10” × 8”. Courtesy of the artist and Anat Ebgi, Los Angeles / New York.

WALTER BENJAMIN DESPERATELY WANTED to believe, even when it hurt him. In one of his radio broadcasts, he puzzles over the oddly masochistic effect that Hoffmann has on his readers. “My eyes clung to the pages of the book, the source of all these terrors, as if to a life raft,” he recalls.

Like the young Benjamin, riveted by appalling visions, the characters in Hoffmann’s stories cleave to the very phantoms that menace them. In The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr (1819), his final novel, Johannes Kreisler is disappointed to learn that what seems like a stroke of black magic is only a clever conjuring trick. He reflects with considerable irritation that “dreadful terrors please a man more than their natural explanation.” Our friend Nathaniel agrees. “There is no Sandman, my dear child,” his mother assures him when he is a boy, but as he relates years later, “mother’s answer didn’t satisfy me.” He keeps asking around until his nanny informs him that the Sandman is

a bad man who comes to visit children when they won’t go to sleep and flings a handful of sand in their eyes, so they scratch themselves bloody. Then he flings them in his bag and carries them off to the half-moon to feed his children. They sit up there in their nest and have crooked beaks like owls with which they pick out the eyes of naughty human brats.

At last, a villain that vindicates all his trembling! 

The Sandman is ominous not because he is alien but, on the contrary, because he is like a dimly lit memory, like a tune we hum but cannot place. When Nathaniel sees Coppola, the man’s resemblance to Coppelius unnerves him, but Coppelius was not an original, either: he, too, was only an echo of an apparition first conjured up by a bedtime tale. In his classic essay on “The Sandman” and the uncanny, Freud characterizes that curious category as “in some ways a species of the familiar.” An uncanny occurrence is the physical form of a memory that is at once recognized and repudiated; it is, in Freud’s justly famous phrase, “a return of the repressed.” When Nathaniel reads a poem that he has written aloud, he screams, “Whose terrible voice is this?” But he soon realizes that the shriek issues from a region at once remote and proximate: from his own recesses. 

The posit of Hoffmann’s fiction is that we can all access our guts, if only we can be coaxed to cast off what Serpentina describes to Anselmus as “the burden of the ordinary.” The narrator of “The Golden Pot” prescribes the appropriate method, a kind of therapy for pathological rationalists: if you are tempted to question the reality of the events related in the tale, “put yourself in that state of mind so often at the very least revealed to us in dreams,” he instructs. “You will then, as I most sincerely hope, believe me when I maintain that this marvelous realm lies much closer to you than you previously suspected.” This dark domain is abominably other, yet it is already ours.

A FUNNY THING about Hoffmann’s fiction is that it is true, or so it loudly proclaims. Most of his stories and novels begin by assuring us of their accuracy: The Devil’s Elixirs purports to be “from the posthumous papers of Brother Medardus, a Capuchin Friar,” and the narrator of The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr vows to repeat only what he can verify. He declines to elaborate on a story because he has discovered “that all the information on this point he has at his disposal is poor, scanty, inadequate and disconnected,” and when Murr is giving an inflated account of his honorable conduct in a duel, the narrator gleefully interjects, “I catch you out in an authorial lie!”

Elaborate framings lend almost all the pieces in The Golden Pot and Other Tales of the Uncanny a pseudo-documentary air. The first part of “The Sandman” is told in letters, the second by a narrator who goes out of his way to insist that he was scrupulous about collecting the facts. “The Golden Pot’s” thorough narrator treats us to a meta-textual interlude in which he visits one of the other characters in order to obtain more authoritative information about the land of the salamanders. “At times, truth may not seem probable,” a character reminds us in “Madame de Scudéry,” a detective story about a murderer “who in the daylight hours fulfilled all the virtues of . . . the upright burgher.” 

Just in case all of this carefully marshaled evidence is not enough to persuade us that the truth is often improbable, Hoffmann resorts to the occasional threat. “The Golden Pot” cajoles us into believing, and The Devil’s Elixirs warns us that it is dangerous to dismiss fantastic stories as mere allegory. When a visitor stops to peruse the reliquary of an old monastery, he is skeptical that a potion in the monks’ possession has been brewed by the Devil, as legend has it. “As for stories such as the one you have just told,” the visitor scoffs, “I believe them to be simply ingenious allegories invented by the saints, which have mistakenly come to be regarded as events from real life.” But when a monk tastes the elixir, he discovers that it is real—as real, anyway, as anything in Hoffmann’s writings. Whether it is a psychic apparition, a repressed desire returning, or a cocktail mixed by Satan himself, it is powerful enough to drive the monk to murder and debauchery. 

Like Hoffmann the bureaucrat, the inanimate landscape of the rationalists has a lively double: a shadow world in which any object, no matter how seemingly unexalted, can house spirits both benign and malevolent. A magician takes up residence in a kettle to spy on a party in “The Golden Pot”; gingerbread men distributed to children at Christmas awaken at night in “The Nutcracker.” Nothing—not even the Prussian civil service—is as drab as it looks to inattentive observers. As Benjamin remarks on his radio show, “this storyteller insists with a certain obstinacy that all the reputable archivists, medical officers, students, apple-wives, musicians, and upper-class daughters are much more than they appear to be, just as Hoffmann himself was more than just a pedantic and exacting court of appeals judge.” 

The haunted world of his fiction is horrifying when it is cursed by cruel sorcerers, sweet when it is charmed by well-meaning ones. But in either case, it is infinitely preferable to a province annexed by automata, in which the last ghost has been exorcised from an empty machine. 

THE HUMAN CLOCK of Königsberg was dogged by a dissolute doppelgänger, a man as syphilitic as Kant was chaste and as eccentric as he was punctilious. Even as a lawyer, Hoffmann was prone to lapses: he was exiled to the Polish provinces when he drew unflattering caricatures of Prussian officers, then nearly sued for a satirical novel mocking a superior. As Benjamin writes, “Sometimes in the middle of the most innocent dinner-table conversation, over a glass of wine or punch, more than once he interrupted one or another of his dinner companions with these words: ‘Pardon me for cutting you off, my dear, but do you not see that accursed little imp creeping out from under the floorboards in the corner, just over there to the right?’”

The imp was Hoffmann’s reward for escaping “the burden of the ordinary” when he sat down at his desk each night. He knew that fiction, the world’s double, was absolutely real: when the narrator of “The Golden Pot” laments, “Oh you lucky Anselmus, who cast off the burden of the mundane responsibilities of daily life,” the salamander king replies, “Don’t be so upset! Were you not yourself just transported to Atlantis, and do you not yourself at least possess a goodly domain as the poetic estate of your spirit?” 

Like all spells, Hoffmann’s are as effective as we are willing to allow them to be. They are at least as true as reality, at least as alive as we are. Don’t we prove it every time we read?

Becca Rothfeld is the nonfiction book critic at the Washington Post. Her debut essay collection, All Things Are Too Small, will be published by Metropolitan Books in April.