October 31, 2016 — In 1816, only four years after the Brothers Grimm brought out a collection of fairy tales carefully selected and edited for the use of children, E. T. A. Hoffmann published his “Nutcracker and Mouse King.” To the extent that Hoffmann’s fairy tale introduced rather weird, even scary elements, his story departed significantly from what the Grimm brothers would have considered proper. It would seem that Hoffmann had a very different approach to what was uncomfortable and upsetting for children. But most of his fantastic tales that focus on the scary aspects of childhood memories—involving children, dolls, or automata—were actually written for adults. Thus “The Sandman,” published in the same year, might shock its readers by reminding us of the fragility of our sane and safe reality. At the same time, however, this story also demonstrates how literature and the arts are uniquely able to deal with the uncanny elements lurking in our midst.
In “The Sandman” we learn how an aspiring young poet, Nathan, is confronted with his most traumatic childhood memories and ultimately driven into madness and death. A certain salesman of optical devices, Coppola, seems to Nathan to be the very same sinister visitor who used to visit his father during Nathan’s childhood. Each evening before the visitor’s arrival, Nathan’s mother would send the children quickly to bed. She would scare them with the old wives’ tale of the Sandman, who throws sand into the eyes of unruly children to make the eyes jump out of their heads, allowing the Sandman to collect and feed them to his own children. Young Nathan, overwhelmed with curiosity, manages to hide behind the curtain of the closet in his father’s study and watch the two men conduct an alchemical experiment. Their faces hideously distorted by the flames of a hidden stove, what he sees both fascinates and utterly frightens the boy. When Nathan is discovered, his father’s visitor utters the most violent threats and the boy loses consciousness. One year later the visitor returns for one final evening, which ends with an explosion that kills Nathan’s father.
Although this scene contains the traumatic core of the story, it merely constitutes part of the story’s introduction. The main section of “The Sandman” deals with Nathan’s attempts at coping with the revivals of his trauma, beginning with his effort to convince his rationalist girlfriend, Clara, of the acute threat embodied by Coppola. Nathan’s effort takes the form of a fantastic poem—a narrative about how Coppola appears at the moment of their marriage, tears out Clara’s eyes, and throws them as glowing projectiles into Nathan’s heart—but it misfires. Clara is not impressed and calmly tells Nathan to toss his crazy tale into the fire, which leads him to push her away while yelling, “You lifeless, accursed automaton!” This brings about the first onset of Nathan’s madness, followed by more reminders of his childhood trauma. A fire forces him to move to another apartment, which faces the home of a Professor Spalanzani and his beautiful “daughter” Olympia. At a festive soirée it becomes clear that, in contrast to everybody else, Nathan alone does not see that Olympia is not alive. She is, in fact, merely an automaton, a doll that moves only when wound up.
The tale heads into its dark conclusion when Nathan finds Spalanzani violently fighting with Coppola over Olympia’s eyeballs. Nathan would have killed the professor, but passersby come to his rescue. After a temporary stay at the lunatic asylum Nathan returns to his senses. Sometime later, on a promenade through town, Nathan invites Clara to climb with him to the top of an observation tower. As they gaze at the distant mountains and forests, Clara calls Nathan’s attention to a gray bush that seems to be approaching. Retrieving Coppola’s telescope from his pocket, Nathan glances sideways at Clara and starts yelling, “Turn around my little wooden doll,” as he tries to push her off the tower. Clara’s brother manages to rescue her, but the mad Nathan throws himself off the tower while yelling Coppola’s sales pitch, “Sköne Oke—Sköne Oke” (Pretty eyes—pretty eyes).
Hoffmann’s fantastic tales provide a rich and complex account of traumatic encounters as scenarios of seduction and sexualization.
E. T. A. Hoffmann was an artist with many talents and a lover of the performing arts. He wrote 49 tales and two novels, composed eight operas, and was also a productive music critic and a conductor. He liked to drink and smoke, especially in Berlin’s famous Lutter und Wegner restaurant, where he would socialize with fellow artists and writers. Apart from his life as an artist, he was intermittently employed in the domain of law and criminal justice for nearly 20 years. Late in his life he served as a judge in an appellate court; he was also actively engaged in the very first legal debates about the insanity defense. Well-read in the medical literature about madness, he knew his own demons but he was not mentally deranged. As one of the leading writers of fantastic fiction, however, he kept exploring the porous boundaries between sanity and madness, between everyday reality and sudden, unsettling intrusions of the supernatural into our familiar world. His work influenced poets, writers, choreographers, and composers of music and of opera across the 19th and 20th centuries. As the author of “Nutcracker and Mouse King,” the tale that gave rise to Marius Petipa’s famous ballet set to Tchaikovsky’s score, he is still with us.
But E. T. A. Hoffmann’s work, especially “The Sandman,” also encountered fierce criticism. In 1827, five years after Hoffmann’s death, Walter Scott published a detailed discussion evaluating Hoffmann’s use of the supernatural. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe made immediate use of Scott’s essay by condensing its argument into a generalizing condemnation of Hoffmann’s work. According to Goethe, Hoffmann’s writings do not even merit critical study. In his judgment, they are the feverish dreams of a sick brain, symptoms of an undisciplined imagination, just like the products of opium consumption. Even more so than Scott, Goethe was offended by the fact that Hoffmann did not relegate the uncanny to a remote fairy tale of the past, but instead explored the unsuspected appearance of violence and unsettling madness in the bosom of present-day family life.
Goethe’s judgment—his scathing condemnation of Hoffmann’s work as unworthy of critical attention, together with his characterization of “The Sandman” as the product of its author’s sick mind—ignores the fact that the figure of the artist is an integral part of much of Hoffmann’s fiction. This figure, not to be confused with the author himself, invites the reader’s critical reflection. In “The Sandman,” for example, the protagonist of the tale is an unsuccessful poet. The tale also features Professor Spalanzani, the maker of the singing mechanical doll Olympia, who becomes the talk of the town after having her perform in public. This kind of character—part technician, part impresario—is a common figure in Hoffmann’s work. Another example of this kind of artist figure is Professor X from Hoffman’s 1814 tale “Automata,” who is involved in the highly effective public display of “the speaking Turk,” an automaton capable of showing profound insights into his human interlocutor’s secret psychic past. And, of course, there is Drosselmeier, the beloved but also scary guest of the Stahlbaum family, who presents his automata to the children in “Nutcracker and Mouse King.” This kind of artist figure manages to capture the imagination, especially of some of the characters, in a profoundly transformative fashion. He is also the figure closest to the authorial narrator persona who makes an appearance in “The Sandman.”
The authorial narrator persona appears after the three introductory letters from the beginning of “The Sandman.” He explains that he chose to begin his story with these letters because he wanted to lead his reader to approach the narrative like a real portrait, a painting whose actual sitter was unknown. He does not want us to banish the uncanny, scary events to the distant unreal world of fairy tales. Instead, he wants to convince us that real life is more marvelous and bizarre than any fantastic fiction. Thus he tries to intervene in the readers’ understanding of their own reality. However, since this authorial narrator persona reveals himself to be a writer who chooses his devices to their best effect, what at first appears like an extension of our common reality turns out to be also a cleverly constructed verbal artifact. And in that respect the reader has the opportunity to analyze the portrait as a work of art, rather than confuse it with its unknown sitter. The presentation of a shocking, traumatic encounter is thus brought very close to home, but then also examined as part of a world made up of consciously chosen signs and performances.
With his generalizing rejection of Hoffmann’s work as unworthy of critical engagement, Goethe refuses to acknowledge what the story actually offers to its readers: a careful reflection on what constitutes a trauma, what would reactivate it, and how it could be rendered in narration. In fact, one might argue that the art of Hoffmann’s tale consists in how he stages these unsettling encounters, and yet calls attention to this “staged” aspect of his performance. It is noteworthy that the letter containing Nathan’s narrative, intended for his friend Lothar, is unintentionally addressed to his beloved Clara. In her response she admits that although she knew that the letter was not meant for her, she could not stop reading. The narrative excited her too much, making her feel like she was being pierced by a glowing dagger. In this respect Clara’s reaction resembles Nathan’s intense excitement when he is spying on his father. The letter is a document of a reader’s reaction to the sudden exposure to a narrative about a trauma, and thus highlights several aspects about the transmission of traumatic experiences. It brings out the exciting, sexualizing nature of this experience—fraught with mystery, prohibition, and conflicting emotions—situated at the core of the nuclear family. However, and this is just as important, Nathan’s narrative does not make Clara subscribe to his anxiety about Coppola. Instead, she attempts to persuade Nathan to approach his fears by understanding how they are related to his deepest childhood memories.
It is not the tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann that should be rejected as the mere acting out of a madman, as Goethe’s criticism suggests, but rather the approach of the fictional character Nathan. Only Nathan attempts to seduce his beloved Clara into his version of reality, by reciting to her his narrative poem about the violence the Coppola figure inflicts on the two lovers during their wedding ceremony. And the poem’s failure to achieve its desired effect is what precipitates Nathan’s descent into madness. He accuses Clara of being a lifeless automaton, and yet soon after falls in love with an actual automaton. The contrast could not be stronger. Nathan wishes to recruit others into his reality, into accepting his projected anxieties as given. But the authorial poetics, and with that also Hoffmann’s poetics, emerge as the counterpart to Nathan’s “poetics” of the madman.
E. T. A. Hoffmann’s fantastic tales, especially “The Sandman,” provide a rich and complex account of traumatic encounters as scenarios of seduction and sexualization. He presents these encounters as deeply embedded in the world of bourgeois familial intimacy, which gives them a concrete historical reality. But Hoffmann also weaves through his tales a deep engagement with the arts—with storytelling, masquerade, dance, and music—which introduces complex patterns of marvelous surprises, grotesque distortions, and fantastic twists and turns. These make the reader wonder about the status of such materializations from the most terrifying, ridiculous, and ardently desired dreams of our childhood. The doll that might be actually alive when she sings and dances, or the larger-than-life mice that come at night and threaten to bite the beautiful princess, whose parents offended them, these grotesque and uncanny elements are already externalizations. Such elements beg to be illustrated, staged, and marveled at by readers and audiences of adaptations of Hoffmann’s work. In other words, what makes these tales special is their artistry that invites not only their readers’ critical engagement but also the productive, active engagement of other artists.
Clearly, Hoffmann’s tales allow for engaged criticism, as well as productive reception in the living arts. Opera and dance seem to be especially conducive to the adaptation of Hoffmann’s work. Olympia’s famous song as performed by Natalie Dessay at the Chorégie d’Orange in 2000 is not only very comical but also quite scary: through the invocation of the grotesque, the change of scale, the presence of dolls of an enormous size in the background, and the fusion of a human body with the legs of a marionette. To the extent that these performance-based artworks require continued creative adaptation for a contemporary audience, artists might draw further inspiration from a return to Hoffmann’s work. Mark Morris did so when he abandoned the traditional choreography of Petipa, which is based on a sweetened adaption of Hoffmann’s “Nutcraker and Mouse King” (in the form of Alexandre Dumas’s translation). Instead, Mark Morris’s “Hard Nut” goes back to Hoffmann’s original tale. He choreographs a ballet that integrates Drosselmeier’s scary tale, “The Hard Nut,” told to the sick Marie. In doing so Morris not only bring into the ballet the darker sides of sibling rivalry—as well as the particular intimacy and similarity among uncle Drosselmeier, the Nutcracker, and Marie’s lover—but also allows for flowers and snowflakes with all kinds of bodies and genders.
These quite wonderful performances and adaptations show us something familiar about the practice of translation. In most cases the shelf life of a translation is much shorter than that of the original. Consequently, translations need to be redone and updated by returning to the original. If we wonder how we are still haunted by Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” two hundred years later, it will be worthwhile to go back to his story and reread it.