German Grotesque - Interregnum - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

German Grotesque
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

The first German supernatural writer of any significance is Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776—1822), whose promising career, both as a writer and as a composer, was cut short by an early death. Hoffmann himself may be of greater importance as an inspirer of art than as an artist himself: his work was the basis—partial or complete—of such musical works as Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, and Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Die Meistersinger. Hoffmann’s own work, indeed, tends toward the grotesque and extravagant to such a degree that it can seem freakish, unfocused, and confused. And there is, in many of his works, a genuine doubt as to whether the supernatural actually comes into play. His extensive interest in what would later become the fields of psychology and psychiatry—especially as found in such early theorists as Johann Christian Reil and Gotthilf Heinrich Schubert—causes many of his tales to flit uneasily between supernatural and psychological horror, especially when the element of dreams (a particular focus of Schubert’s work) is involved.

The great majority of Hoffmann’s weird work is confined to his two principal story collections, Fantasiestücke in Callot’s Manier (1814—15; Fantasy Pieces in Callot’s Manner) and Nachtstücke (1816—17; Night Pieces), and the first of his two novels, Die Elixiere des Teufels (1815—16; usually translated as The Devil’s Elixirs). The latter, as the most sizeable of Hoffmann’s weird works, may be taken as typical of both his virtues and his failings. It would be cumbrous to trace the plot of this convoluted, and at times confused, novel. Suffice it to say that it focuses on the life and thoughts of Medardus, a monk whose intense sexual urges—especially as directed toward a young woman, whom he once sees half-naked, and whom he perversely identifies with a portrait of St. Rosalia found in his monastery—leads him to a life of dissipation and even murder. The ostensible trigger of his actions, however, is his imbibing several bottles of an elixir purportedly offered by the Devil to St. Anthony, the celebrated ascetic of early Christianity. Medardus, ordered to guard this elixir, fails to resist the urge to open the bottle and partake of the contents. Its effects—as he tells of them in his own words—are instantaneous: “Scarcely had I taken a single nourishing draught when a fiery glow poured through my veins and filled me with a feeling of indescribable good health. I drank once more, the joy of a new and wonderful life rising within me” (31). Of course, this—as well as his supposed glimpse of the Devil himself a little earlier—can be interpreted psychologically, as the flaring up of the guilty conscience of a tormented soul. Indeed, throughout the novel there does not seem to be a single episode that can be construed as genuinely supernatural—unless it be the surprising appearance of several doppelgängers who look precisely like him, some of whom are accounted for by their being near or distant relatives of Medardus’s fiendishly complex family line, full of both legitimate and illegitimate offspring. Medardus, at any rate, is convinced that he is the “plaything of some dark power which hurls [me] this way and that, driving [me] to commit ever more despicable crimes” (184). But we never receive any definitive confirmation of this supposition.

Perhaps the only genuinely weird passage in this rambling, unfocused novel is a scene toward the end when Medardus, having confessed his various crimes, is confined to the dungeon of a monastery near Rome where he both undergoes torture (as penance) and experiences fantastically bizarre dreams in which his previous victims appear to plague him. But even here the effect is a piquant fusion of physical and psychological horror, and there is not the slightest suggestion of the supernatural. This passage in particular betrays the influence of earlier Gothic fiction, as indeed the overall scenario of the corrupt and irreligious monk does so even more emphatically. (Lewis’s The Monk is cited by name at one point [203].) But overall, The Devil’s Elixirs is a novel that tries the reader’s patience in its seeming incoherence and lack of aesthetic rigour.

Much the same could be said of many of Hoffmann’s short stories and novellas. A number of these are pure fairy tales (Märchen) that would now be classified as fantasy, although one of them—“Der goldne Topf” (“The Golden Flower Pot”; in Fantasiestücke) has a number of interesting supernatural elements. Here again the plot is quite complex, but generally focuses upon a student, Anselmus, who becomes involved with an elemental spirit, posing as the Archivist Lindhorst, who wishes to marry off his three daughters—who alternately appear in the form of snakes or beautiful young women—so that he can resume his true form, which is evidently that of a salamander (the representative of a fire elemental). Early in the tale, Anselmus appears to be beset by supernatural phenomena in which Nature itself becomes animate; he can only conclude that he is mad. Ultimately, Anselmus marries one of Lindhorst’s daughters, Serpentina, and ends up in Lindhorst’s kingdom in Atlantis. The fairy-tale atmosphere of the story does not detract from several powerful scenes of (apparent) supernaturalism.

“Der Sandmann” (“The Sandman”; in Nachtstücke) is no doubt Hoffmann’s most celebrated weird tale; its fame was augmented by the fact that Freud used it as the springboard for his discussion of “The Uncanny.” No doubt Freud was fascinated by the prospect of an infantile fear having baleful, even deathly, consequences in later life: the protagonist, Nathanael, remembers the chilling tales that his nurse told him in early childhood about the horrible creature known as the Sandman, who comes to wicked children:

“Oh! he’s a wicked man, who comes to little children when they won’t go to bed and throws handfuls of sand in their eyes, so that they jump out of their heads all bloody; and he puts them into a bag and takes them to the half-moon as food for his little ones; and they sit there in the nest and have hooked beaks like owls, and they pick naughty boys’ and girls’ eyes out with them.”

After this I formed in my own mind a horrible picture of the cruel Sand-man. When anything came blundering upstairs at night I trembled with fear and dismay; and all that my mother could get out of me were the stammered words “The Sand-man! the Sand-man!” whilst the tears coursed down my cheeks. Then I ran into my bedroom, and the whole night through tormented myself with the terrible apparition of the Sand-man. (185)

Very Freudian, indeed. The end result of this childhood trauma is that, as a boy, Nathanael thinks that the lawyer Coppelius, a friend of his father, is the Sandman, and indeed Nathanael blames Coppelius for the death of his father in an explosion: “Coppelius, you atrocious fiend, you’ve killed my father” (190). Much later, Nathanael comes to believe that a pedlar named Coppola is Coppelius, and he proves to be correct. Along the way, Nathanael becomes fascinated with a young woman named Olimpia, apparently the daughter of one Professor Spalanzani; Olimpia for a time takes Nathanael’s attention away from his betrothed, Clara—but Olimpia turns out to be an automaton. At the story’s conclusion, Nathanael and Clara ascend a high tower where Clara points out a “strange little gray bush” (213) that proves to be Coppelius. In an access of madness, Nathanael attempts to hurl Clara from the tower; but her brother, Lothair, comes to her rescue and saves her, pummeling Nathanael in the process. Nathanael himself then jumps to his death.

It is, in all honesty, difficult to make sense of “The Sandman” as a coherent narrative; once again, its seeming randomness and lack of focus defy any attempt at harmonising its incidents, or even its symbolism, into a unity. Overall, the crippling influence of childhood terror is clearly evident, but the precise role of other elements of the story—in particular the function of Olimpia the automaton—is by no means evident.

“Das Majorat” (“The Entail”; in Nachstücke) is worth some discussion—not intrinsically, but because of its influence on a later masterwork, as shall become evident in the next chapter. In itself it is almost intolerably verbose and meandering. We are here concerned with a nobleman, Baron Roderick von R——, who dwells in a dismal, unfinished castle and dreams of an “evil spirit” that is haunting the castle. His wife, the baroness, believes that “there is some dark family secret locked within these walls” (264). But this promising scenario is confounded by a long, prolix history of the family, involving murders, questionable inheritance, and so forth, so that the supernatural elements in the story—if, indeed, they are genuinely there—have no chance to develop.

Other tales by Hoffmann are much more clearly within the domain of the supernatural than The Devil’s Elixirs or “The Sandman.” “Ignaz Denner” (in Nachtstücke) is the hideous tale of a man who uses the blood of children to maintain eternal life and youth. It was considered so grisly that Hoffmann’s publisher excluded it from the Fantasiestücke, and it had to be relegated to his later collection. “Vampirismus” (“Vampirism”; in Die Serapions-Brüder, 1817) is an uninspired vampire tale; “Die Automate” (“The Automata”; in Serapions-Brüder) involves both ghosts and automata; “Die Abenteuer der Silvester-Nacht” (“A New Year’s Eve Entertainment”; in Fantasiestücke) involves a man whose reflection is stolen by the Devil. The influence of earlier Gothic literature on these tales is manifest, and Hoffmann has made some advance upon these already conventional themes by his focus on mental aberration and the inscrutable nature of dreams and hallucinations. On the whole, however, Hoffmann’s work is a bit too erratic and confused to be aesthetically successful, and he will remain significant more for his influence—especially upon Poe, as we shall see—than for the merits of his own writing.

The final word on Hoffmann, much to the dismay of his supporters, was written so early as 1827, when Sir Walter Scott, in a lengthy review of several of Hoffmann’s books, entitled “On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition,” uttered a warning that is in some ways truer now than it was when it was written:

It was … discovered that the supernatural in fictitious composition requires to be managed with considerable delicacy, as criticism begins to be more on the alert. The interest which it excites is indeed a powerful spring; but it is one which is peculiarly subject to be exhausted by coarse handling and repeated pressure. It is also of a character which it is extremely difficult to sustain, and of which a very small proportion may be said to be better than the whole. The marvellous, more than any other attribute of fictitious narrative, loses its effect by being brought much into view. The imagination of the reader is to be excited if possible, without being gratified. If once, like Macbeth, we “sup full with horrors”, our taste for the banquet is ended, and the thrill of terror with which we hear or read of a night-shriek, becomes lost in that sated indifference with which the tyrant came at length to listen to the most deep catastrophes that could affect his house… .

… it is evident that the exhibition of supernatural appearances in fictitious narrative ought to be rare, brief, indistinct, and such as may become a being to us so incomprehensible, and so different from ourselves, of whom we cannot justly conjecture whence he comes, or for what purpose, and of whose attributes we can have no regular or distinct perception. Hence it usually happens, that the first touch of the supernatural is always the most effective, and is rather weakened and defaced, than strengthened by the subsequent recurrence of similar incidents. (314—16)

Hoffmann wrote an opera based upon Undine, the short novel published in 1811 by his friend Friedrich Heinrich Karl, baron de La Motte-Fouqué (1777—1843). Although this work is even more in the fairy-tale tradition than “Die goldne Topf,” it is worth discussing as an exquisite example of the supernatural employed to evoke beauty rather than terror. The basic premise of the story is well known: Undine, a water spirit (as her name indicates, unda being Latin for water), marries a human being, Huldbrand, and for a time the couple seems happy; but the marriage deteriorates, and at one point Huldbrand chastises Undine while they are near a body of water—in express contravention of her wishes—and she plunges into the sea. Huldbrand, meanwhile, has been increasingly attracted to a human woman, Bertalda, and when they marry Undine returns to kill Huldbrand.

It is precisely because the “rules” governing the story—the notions that Undine, who has no soul, can only get one by marrying a human being; that she must not be scolded while near the water; that Huldbrand must not marry another—are essentially arbitrary that the story becomes a fantasy rather than a tale of supernatural horror, in spite of its manifestly real-world setting. But the element of the supernatural might be considered covertly present, chiefly in the figure of Kühleborn, her uncle, who increasingly dominates the narrative and becomes a kind of demon-figure. While the protagonists are staying at Castle Ringstetten, the appearances of Kühleborn are explicitly stated to resemble the appearances of a ghost in a Gothic castle:

… the circumstance that most of all disturbed the inmates of the castle, was a variety of wonderful apparitions which met Huldbrand and Bertalda in the vaulted galleries of the castle, and which had never been heard of before as haunting the locality. The tall white man in whom Huldbrand recognized only too plainly Uncle Kühleborn, and Bertalda the spectral master of the fountain, often passed before them with a threatening aspect, and especially before Bertalda; so much so, that she had already several times been made ill with terror, and had frequently thought of quitting the castle. (65)

Both the language and the overall imagery are taken directly from the Gothic novel. Kühleborn becomes increasingly threatening, to the point that Undine must come to the rescue of Huldbrand and Bertalda when Kühleborn attempts to kill them on a voyage down the Danube.

Of course, the chief thematic focus of the work is the contrast between paganism and Christianity. At the very outset Undine’s name is considered “heathenish” (17), and considerable attention is devoted to the question of whether she has been baptised. Indeed, when it is decided that Huldbrand and Undine will marry, a priest conveniently appears to conduct the ceremony. (We later learn that Kühleborn had led the priest to show up at the fisherman’s cottage where the couple was staying.) But Undine’s “heathenish” ways increasingly alienate Huldbrand, to such a degree that he makes what proves to be his fatal decision to discard Undine and unite with Bertalda. At that point, Undine can only declare sadly: “they have opened the spring … and now I am here, and you must die” (92). In a gorgeous metaphor that underscores her role as a water-spirit, Undine declares at last, “I have wept him to death” (92).

None of La Motte-Fouqué’s other works come even as close as Undine to the realm of the supernatural, and certainly not to that of supernatural horror. But if he had written nothing but Undine, he would deserve a place, and a place of no small significance, in the literature of the imagination.