E. T. A. Hoffmann: Background Context

E. T. A. Hoffmann, “The Sandman”


The term “romanticism” not only has various literarymeanings, but its usefulness is directly dependent upon its flexibility. It is a comprehensive and imprecise termrepresenting various tendencies for change in such areas as subject matter, attitude, and form. On the one hand,it may be a basically optimistic expression of belief in the natural goodness of man; on the other, it may viewman through much darker lenses, see him as a victim of demonic, hostile, and unpredictable forces. In either case,emotions are elevated above reason, the ideal above the actual, and so on. But regardless of the angle of viewingand of the particular tone and mode of expression of romanticism during the later eighteenth and earlier nineteenthcenturies, imagination may well be one of the keys to the concept. Coleridge’s words supply helpful information:

The incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural; and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections in the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency.1

The German romantic in general, and Hoffmann in particular,was essentially concerned with the artistic depiction of a world in which the ordinary and the prosaic were imbuedwith the extraordinary and incomprehensible, where the “supernatural agency” was given full sway. Thedeliberate rejection of the prosaic, everyday world led the romantic writer at first to the idyllic past. In Germanythis past was synonymous with the medieval world (which surely never existed as the Germans wished to see it) ,and it led to the world of the fairy tale and the dream, not as these were viewed through the roseate lenses ofthe English, who had been greatly influenced by Rousseau, but often, most especially in Hoffmann and his contemporaries, through a much darker and more ominous lense.Unlike the experience in other countries, in Germany romanticism encompassedall fields-art, music, religion, philosophy, history, political science, natural science-and these were no lessaffected than literature itself.2 It was the hope of the poets that a large cultural synthesis could be achievedto erase the artificial boundaries separating these intellectual areas so that such polar concepts as intellectand feeling, art and life, reality and illusion, would be fused. This is what the German writer Novalis (Friedrichvon Hardenberg) meant when he announced that “The world must be romanticized.”

German romanticism was not only a continuation of the German Sturmund Drang (“Storm and Stress”) literary movement of the 1770s-a violent protest against the precepts of the Enlightenment–but it was, in great measure, a strong reactionagainst German classicism (despite the fact that the two terms are often united under the name German idealism).3 Goetheand Schiller had gone beyond the Sturm und Drang Movement; they reemphasized classical restraint and, by so doing, hadmore or less isolated themselves.

By 1805 great waves of irrationalism dominated Germany: the imaginative, the fantastic, the colorful, the emotional,the ecstatic, the moody, the hyperbolic, and the patriotic were in vogue. A yearning for freedom was reflectednot only in lives, but in works. The harmoniously balanced creations in the classical vein now made way for a cascadeof moods and inspirations, an extreme variety of works, a formlessness which had as a common denominator the strongdesire for something different and better. The philosophical groundwork for German romanticism was prepared bymany-and one always narrows possible sources of indebtedness somewhat arbitrarily-most prominently, by ImmanuelKant, Johann Fichte, and Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling.

The German romantic writers turned to the Middle Ages for their subject matter, especially because they saw itas an era in which society had been unified and made strong by the Catholic Church. They saw modern Germany aspolitically bankrupt and Napoleon as an inexorable threat to their country; and their vision sought an earlierworld of splendor. (Indeed, so attractive was this medieval world to a number of poets that they became convertsto Catholicism.) Hoffmann, who at first considered himself essentially a musician, composed music for the Church.The’Grimm brothers collected fairy tales and laid the foundation of philological studies with their investigationof early Germanic languages. Clemens Brentano and his brotherin-law Achim von Arnim collected and published folksongswhich were hailed asthe “true” expression of man unspoiled by society.6

The dark side of German romanticism stemmed in part from the fact that the German Kunstmdrchen (the art fairy tale)is, perhaps especially clearly in Hoffmann, different from alleged folklore -for one thing, often taking placein contemporary caf6s or in the busy streets of Dresden, Berlin, Frankfurt, or Paris. The uncanny, the mysterious,the horrible, the grotesque, and the prosaic merge and juxtapose with startling and deceptively simple ease. Itis this merging and juxtaposition which account for much of the horror beneath the surface, because it shocks thereader into the recognition that the world of the fantastic and the supernatural is not comfortably removed from everydayexistence. The novella, which flourished in the Germany of the time, also exploited the uncanny and the mysterious.7

It was Novalis who, in one of his novels, verbalized the tenor of much German literature of the time: “DieWelt wird Traum, der Traum wird Welt” (The world becomes the dream, and the dream becomes the world) .8 It was he who celebratednight and death and expressed ineffable yearning for the “eternal bridal night.” For him light representedthe finite world, night the infinite world. Death, not life, seemed more desirable, because death, having beenconquered by Christ, was no longer to be feared, but rather to be desired. German romanticism also drew heavilyfrom Anton Mesmer and “scientific” and occultist doctrines. In considerable measure, the developmentof the double, for example, seems to have stemmed not only from earlier depiction of twin-doubles (in Shakespeareand Moli~re, among very many others), but from studies in psychology and from Mesmer’s theory of the magnetic unionof souls. The German romantics were eager to exploit imagination, and in the whole question of “doubleness”and duality they found material consistent with their mood and taste and eminently susceptible to imaginative treatment.

Closely related to the yearning for night and death was the German romantic’s interest in dreams, in part stimulatedby the writings of Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert, who wrote two very influential books-one on the night side ofscience and one on the symbolism of dreams. He called the languageof dreams a “hieroglyphic language,” a languagewhich man need not learn because it is innate and understood and spoken by the soul when the soul is released fromits imprisonment in the body. In The Symbolism of theDream, Schubert wrote:

The series of events in our lives seem to be joined approximately according to a similar association of ideas of fate, as the pictures in the dream; in other words, the series of events that have occurred and are occurring inside and outside of us, the inner theoretical principle of which we remain unaware, speaks the same language as our soul in a dream. Therefore, as soon as our mind speaks in dream language, it is able to make combinations that would not occur to us when awake; it cleverly combines the today with the yesterday, the fate of distant years in the future with the past; and when the future occurs we see that it was frequently accurately predicted. Dreams are a way of reckoning and combining that you and I do not understand; a higher kind of algebra, briefer and easier than ours, which only the hidden poet knows how to manipulate in his mind.

The romantic writers knew well how to use this hieroglyphiclanguage to reveal the dark forces within man. They focused on areas not accessible to reason, on the subconsciousand all its manifestations.9 To depict these dark forces artistically, various techniques were employed; but generallythe fairy tale, the myth, and the dream were the three elements that fused in the Mdrchen, as in Hoffmann’s “TheGolden Pot,” where the student Anselmus, ostensibly an ordinary, clumsy boy, is inwardly torn apart. He livesin two worlds, that of the everyday, where nothing goes well, and a fantastic and allegorical dream world, whereeverything succeeds. The struggle for his soul, or his mind, is carried on by fantastic characters on a supernaturalfield of battle.

The number of dreams in earlier literature is enormous, but before the German romantics brilliantly exploited thesubstrata of consciousness (of which the dream is a striking manifestation) , the dream most often served literatureas an effective and highly stylized device of another kind-actually of several other kinds.10 Perhaps no one priorto the German romantics understood or consistently and fully explored the dream device and its implications asan organic and inseparable part of a literary work; and in Hoffmann the symbolic dream seems to have fulfilledits potential.

The sentimental novel and the Gothic novel, both very popular in eighteenth-century England and France, contributedto German romanticism as well, the first because it may well have redefined the hero image by removing social positionand knowledgeability per se as requisites, thus making possible the pathetic and introspective hero of nineteenth-centuryliterature; and the latter because it more Or less stumbled on the whole realm of the unconscious and convertedreality into nightmare, even as it stimulated the individual imagination.

But possible sources aside, German literature of the period was filtered through a particularly German vision,and it is different from almost all of that produced elsewhere at the time. For example, the castles and moatsand twilight so much a staple of the traditional Gothic novel were irrelevant or incidental to the designs of theGerman authors. The overtly frenetic tone of the English Gothic novel would be relaxed because the Germans knewthat a single scream shatters an everyday world as many screams can never affect a world of shrieks. The “Italian”villains of “Monk” Lewis and Ann Radcliffe would reappear in some of Hawthorne and Poe, but it is preciselyto the point that the Germans found evil beneath the mask of normality. Their attitude, and the quality of theirhorror at the realization that “the power of blackness” lurks everywhere, pervade their works.

Given the German romantic’s predilection for the uncanny, his essential anti-Rousseauism,” his sense of thegrotesque, his detachment, his concern for what is now called “alienated man,” his loathing for Philistinismand burghers, he could not join Melville’s Bartleby (“I prefer not [to become involved]”) in his self-imposedasceticism. The American romantics were, after all, believers. The Germans had no need to pay for their share ofOriginal Sin. The world as they often saw it, was not an evil place because God willed it to be, but simply becauseit was.

Aside from Novalis, the list of authors leading towards Hoffmann is considerable. Lawrence Sterne, among the English,exerted a very strong influence, and it is hardly accidental that Hoffmann’s long title for Kater Murr is itselfa parody of Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of TristramShandy, Gentlemen .12 Goethe, to be sure, left a profound and indelible mark on all who followed him. Among the otherGermans, Brentano, Arnim, Kleist, Fouque, Chamisso, Eichendorff, and Kerner also had some influence on Hoffmann,-thefirst two especially in the area of the grotesque; but Jean Paul (Friedrich Richter) and Ludwig Tieck, other contemporaries,seem to have exerted very considerable and direct influence. Jean Paul’s forte is the fantastic, the grostesque,lacerating humor-realism turned inside out–inverisimilitude. It was he who invented the term and exploited theconcept of the doppelganger [This is what people are who see themselves]) . His are “little” heroeswho utilize lush imaginations to remove themselves to the world of fantasy. In his work there is an intrinsicduality in which an “I” participates in life while another “I” merely observes, both in a stateof perpetual coexistence. His depiction of the world as appearance and reality, as wakefulness and dream, as rationaland absurd, as disjointed and whole, as lyric and grotesque, appealed greatly to Hoffmann. In Tieck the fictionalworld is often kaleidoscopic, bewildering, unfathomable; here, too, as already noted, the worlds of dream and realitychange places. Unlike jean Paul, there is little compassion, little that can be characterized as gentle. Tieck’sworld is terror-filled and bizarre, one in which peculiarities of personality become manifest simply because charactersare forced to react to the unintelligible forces which engulf them. The Miirchen describe an escapist world,but only ironically, for it is a world of irrational foreboding and of the swift and merciless execution of aninexorable fate.13 It seems clear that Hoffmann also owed to Tieck some thing of his fascination for the puppet-mancontrolled by a capricious or spiteful fate.
In Brentano and Arnim, Hoffmann found, as a direction towards which their tales pointed, the grotesque vision ofthe world and the artist’s concern with its effect on man.

The term “grotesque” has been so injudiciously and widely used that it is often confusedwith the horrible or the bizarre. Orig inally used to designate a certain kind of late Roman ornamental painting, later associated with the decorativework of the painter form, without any necessary referenceto real life…. This is the reverse conception to Hoffmann’s, according to which the dream revealed a higher realityreality as we know it, but projected in in wondrous dimensions and colouring, so as to transcend present reality,but not to negate it.” (Ralph Tymms, German RomanticLiterature [London, 19551, P. 76).

Raphael (who abolished all rules of reality and deliberatelydistorted objects) , it is the effect of this art on man rather than the pictorial image itself which leads toan understanding of the true nature of the grotesque. In the eighteenth century it was this effect of the workof art on the recipient that became a major point of interest. Whether a work was objectively grotesque was notvery important; what was important was that the reader, or the viewer, experience the grotesque in a highly personalway.

The essence of the grotesque is that it erases the boundaryseparating the human and animal realm and, by so doing, frequently reduces man to an impotent puppet who sinksin the fateful determinism of hostile forces. Through personification, the grotesque extends its range to encompassthe mechanical, which develops a threatening life of its own (as in the case of Olympia in Hoffmann’s “TheSandman”). Also, most decidedly in Hoffmann, the grotesque is assigned a reality which contradicts realityas we know it, while at the same time being seen as a true reality, a higher reality, even perhaps the reality.It is when the unreality described becomes real and the grotesque ceases to become a game that fears become intenseand an abyss yawns before us, because we are invaded by the feeling of the true absurdity of the world. We areled to a vision of the world which is topsy-turvy, one in which madness is the only sanity, because the world isitself a lunatic asylum. In the introduction to his collection FantasyPieces in the Style of Callot, Hoffmann says of JaquesCallot, a French engraver and etcher of the seventeenth century:

The irony which mocks in an’s miserable actions by placing man and beast in opposition to each other only dwellsin a deep spirit, and thus Callot’s grotesque figures, which are created from man and beast, reveal to the penetratingobserver all the secret implications that lie hidden under the veil of the comical. Shakespeare’s plays, beautifullytranslated by A. W. Schlegel, were a revelation to the Germans-who lacked the advantage of a Shakespeare tradition-notleast of all because they felt a strong affinity to his use of supernatural elements and to his view of man asan actor. Hoffmann, perhaps at least as much as any of his contemporaries, admired Shakespeare. He was extremelysympathetic to the view expressed by the melancholy Jacques in As YouLike It: “All the world’s a stage and all the menand woman merely players.”


E. T. W. Hoffmann


ON 24 JANUARY 1776









What is interesting about the inscription on Hoffmann’s tombstoneis not that it supplies some biographical information, which is, of course, readily available elsewhere, but thatby listing his official position and avocations in a certain order it establishes priorities which tell us somethingof what his friends thought of the whole man. Further, the inscription strongly suggests that Hoffmann was veryconscientious, versatile, and gifted, a judgment which has been amply and consistently confirmed by his biographers.

Hoffmann’s parents were members of the upper bourgeoisie who had been connected with the law and respectabilityfor generations; but theirs was a preposterously ill-fated marriage, and what Hoffmann called “a comedy ofdomestic dissension” ended divorce before he was three. The father was a man of c-Karm and professional ability(he had risen to become councillor of the High Court of justice), and he was a talented musician as well; but hewas less than stable emotionally. He married a cousin, a highly nervous and hysterical woman whose rigidity andcoldness and addiction to her peculiar family doomed the marriage. Following the divorce, Ernst Theodor Wilhelm,the younger of two surviving sons, remained in K6nigsberg with his mother; some three years later his father disappeardtotally and forever from his life, except as a very occasional memory.

To say that the situation in which the young Hoffmann foundhimself was something less than conducive to sound mental healt is to understate the case. The houselhod in whichhe lived was, almost with exception, barren, senitle, and sickly; the grandmother, “a woman of Amazonian proportionswho had spawned a race of pymies” ventured from her room only rarely, and then primarily to talk to God andget ready for the final jounery; his mother seems from all accounts to have specialized in staring vacantly intospace; his uncle had once taken a law degree, but after mangling his first and only case, he had withdrawn fromthe world to engage in compulsive rituals hardly befitting a man who saw himself as a disciple of the great Kant;and there was a maiden aunt, by far the most sympathetic adult member of the bedlam, who was extremely overindulgentand seems not quite ever to have have reached emotional maturity.

Despite all this, or perhpas, at least in part, because of it,before Hoffmann was twelve he could play the harpsichord and the viollin beautifully, write musical compositions,and draw devastating caricatures. His uncle, who was entrusted with his early education, instructed him in musicand developed in him a sense of discipline, regularity, and hard work which was never to leave him.

Hoffmann, most fortunately, met Theodor Hippel, a boy who wouldsoon attend a Lutheran school with him and would become a life-long friend who more than once would rush to helpHoffmann. . . . Hoffmann was 16 when he became a law student. He was nineteen when he passed the law exam and fellin love with one of his piano students a bored and sentimental married woman. Later he fell in love (one-sided)with his sixteen year old piano student. He did marry a Polish woman who main talent was that she spoke Polish… . .He died the best drinker in town, asking only that he be turned to face the wall. He had become paralyzedfrom the neck down.


1. “Occasion of the ‘Lyrical Ballads,’ ” Biographia Literaria (1817),chap. 14.

‘ Kant had helped to undermine rationalism with his assertionthat knowledge is limited.4 Fichte, his disciple, not only accepted the limitation of the power of human reason,but developed a concept of the limitless potential of the imagination. When he asserted that ego is the only being,he helped prepare the way for a solipsistic world in which one of Ludwig Tieck’s characters can proclaim: “DieWesen sind, weil wir sie dachten” (Beings exist because we thought of them). Fichte did something to shakethe fundamental premise that there was both a subjective andan objective world. In may ways, objectivity ceasedto exist as a separate entity and became a subjective creation.5 From Schelling the poets adopted the idea of theexistence of a harmonious partnership between man and nature -a most appealing pantheistic relationship. If theworld is indeed what the poet sees it to be, psychotic states would inevitably be mirrored in the world of nature.Even when the hostile forces in nature conspire to doom man, these forces seem to be projections of a diseasedmind. When Hoffmann’s eccentric Kapellmeister Kreisler looks into the lake, what he sees is not his own reflectionbut the face of the insane artist Leonardo.

2. In England,for example, music “had ceased to be a creative art.” The English romantic poets seem to have known nothingof Mozart, Beethoven, or Handel. To appreciate how very different the situation was in Germany, one need only lookat Hoffmann’s wonderful character in Kater Murr, Kapellmeis ter Kreisler, who is a musician precisely because Hoffmann and theGerman romantics saw music as “the highest art, the art which leads us into the dark abysses of our soul andthe mystery of the world.” (See Rene Wellek, “German and English Romanticism,” Confrontations [Princeton,19651, PP. 3-33, from which the preceding quotations are taken.)

3. The entire matter is far too complex for adequate discussion here, but it may be of interest to observe thatthe classical and the romantic coincided in Germany, and it is not surprising, therefore, that the first movementto actually call itself romantic, in 1798, focused primarily on criticism and philosophy rather than on highlyimaginative and inventive art.

4. Another of his arguments, that there are necessary rulesand limitations in life, literature, and morals, went unheard, or at least unheeded.

5. It is true that when Fichte wrote about imagination he conceived it primarily as a metaphysical faculty, butit is hardly surprising to discover that the German romantic writer interpreted it to mean something deeply personaland special-the poet’s fantasy. They believed the world to be what the poet sees it to be.

6. This strong concern with the German past was perhaps alsoresponsible for awakening a love for the fatherland, for a growing national consciousness; paradoxically, whathad begun as a determined flight from contemporary reality ultimately led the Germans back to the present, to aclamorous patriotism directed against the French.

7. It is perhaps revealing to note that neither the Mdrchennor the novella, two genres which were especially fosteredin Germany, seem to have been generally known or written at that time outside of Germany.

8. At the end of Der blonde Eckbert (Blond Eckbert),Tieck concludes the story with the following: “He[Eckbert] could not now solve the riddle, whether he was now dreaming or whether he had dreamed before of a wifecalled Bertha. The- marvelous fused with the ordinary, the world around him was enchanted and he was not capableof thought or memory.”

9. See L. J. Kent, “Towards the Literary ‘Discover,. ~Subconscious,” The Subconscious In Gogol’ and Dostoevskii,and Its Antecedents (The Hague: Mouton, 1969), pp. 15-52.

10. For example, an introductory, “launching” device; an escape-from reality technique; one admirablysuited for allegory, for love and dream visions; a prefiguring (suspense-creating) device.

11. Hoffmann’s own attitude toward Rousseau seems to have beenambivalent. Kapellmeister Kreisler, a strongly autobiographical character in Kater Murr, tells us that he wasonly twelve when he began reading Rousseau, and in Hoffmann’s diary, 13 February 1804, Hoffmann confesses thathe was reading the Confessions “perhaps for the thirtieth time,” etc.; but, if the thrust of Hoffmann’sfiction is to be believed, what he loved in Rousseau had much less to do with his pervasive optimism than withHoffmann’s feeling of kinship to his

12. Hoffmannadmired Sterne’s apparently haphazard technique of narration and saw this purposeful breaking of illusion and “detachment”(romantic irony) as a refined and subtle technique which found a parallel in the willful caprice of many of theGerman novels of the time, especially jean Paul’s. SentimentalJourney was one of Hoffmann’s very favorite books because,among other things, Hoffmann admired Sterne’s humor and felt that he had developed the storyteller’s art to a highdegree of perfection. (Hoffmann and his close friend Hippel often called one another Yorick and Eugenius, two charactersin Sterne’s book.)

13- It has been pointed out that Tieck’s “success withthe Mdrchen genre depends on the more or less successful translation of the dream into literary

14. See especially Wolfgang Kayser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature, tr. Ulrich Weisstein (New York, 1963).

“confusion, his love of and ability in music, his strongattachment to nature, his autobiographical bent, and so on.