Thursday, June 25, 2009

"The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr" ETA Hoffmann

A constant mind, a firm resolve, but most of all, a deep true feeling that lies in the breast like a wonderfully prophetic perception, if united together will do more than the keenest understanding, the most experienced judgemental eye.

The structure of this astonishing book is the result of a happy accident: the memoirs of a tomcat named Murr have been printed and bound together with pages from a biography of the Kappellmeister Kreisler, which the tomcat had been using as blotting paper and as a desktop for his own writing. The novel thus alternates between the life of Murr (pages marked ‘M’) and the biography of Kreisler (pages marked ‘Waste Paper’). The Editor’s Forward and Postscript and frequent interventions, the two author’s prefaces, and the way the stories interchange in mid-sentence all add verisimilitude to this conceit.
The two stories appear to be unconnected, but they are joined by the character of Master Abraham, a magician/alchemist who appears as the master of Murr in one story, and as the tutor, mentor and key figure in the Kreisler story. The book describes two separate worlds: the world of urban realism in the Murr sections, and the world of magic and fantasy in the Kreisler sections, in effect two disparate tales between which the reader is always looking for connections. At the same time, the book presents a dialogue between the two contrasting sensibilities of the Enlightenment, and Romanticism, or as Hoffmann and his contemporaries would have seen it, between an outmoded intellectual movement of the past, and a radical modernity.

Murr and The Enlightenment

The Murr sections predominantly provide a focus for the Enlightenment sensibility. In the discussion between Murr’s master and the Professor of Aesthetics who visits him, the latter says: what do you think of the principle that, only provided he is physically healthy but regardless of native intellectual capacity, latent or genius, any child may be made a hero of scholarship and art within a short time…by means of a specially regulated education, and then accuses Master Abraham of conducting an educational experiment on his cat. A lot of space is given to how Murr acquires literacy and the use of language and reason. This is a parody of the ‘education’ stories of the Enlightenment: Sterne, Rousseau, Jean Paul, Pestalozzi, Witte, Itard and perhaps even Leopold Mozart, in which an innocent being receives his education at the hands of the world and of a mentor, with corresponding issues of the gradual darkening of a Lockean tabula rasa, of the loss of innocence, of the corrupting influence of experience and language, and of the importance and correct method of education. Like the Wild Boy of Aveyron, the infant prodigy Mozart, (or indeed the slightly later Caspar Hauser), Murr’s education proceeds from feral innocence to a civilised veneer, in which a sauvage attends salons and joins fraternities, and writes and publishes poetry. However, the veneer of civilisation is constantly threatened or disrupted by feline/savage nature: Murr lusts after his own offspring, indulges in intemperate catfights, attacks his critics with his claws, naps in the midst of social engagements and is unable to resist a nice herring, snatching it from under the nose of his starving mother. All this parodies the central Enlightenment preoccupation with the relationship between the animal or the natural, and the acquired or the civilised (a kind of neo-classical nomos and physis) within the human being.

The prose of the Murr sections is typical of Enlightenment prose. Witty, aphoristic, urbane, dry, with a fondness for the mock heroic and the classically symmetrical, Murr’s authorial voice is reminiscent of the sustained elan of such Enlightenment luminaries as Diderot, Voltaire, Pascal, Sterne, and Boswell, with the added touch of the self-complacency of a very conceited cat, masquerading under a false modesty which is charmingly amusing, and very true to how one imagines cats to be if they could but talk. I hope that all my kind readers will appreciate the excellence of this wonderful sonnet says Murr, after introducing one of his verses to the reader, a model of its kind, an effusion from the deepest depths of my soul, and you will admire me all the more when I tell you it is one of the first I ever wrote! It is part of Hoffmann’s genius that such a smug creature is not objectionable, but rather endearing.

Kreisler and Romanticism

The Kreisler sections, on the other hand, are more firmly Romantic. In contrast to the recognisably real urban environment where Murr lives, with its sausage sellers, stray dogs and pigeons on the rooftops, the Kreisler sections are set in an idyllic pastoral landscape, described most beautifully, complete with such standard Romantic motifs as lofty mountains, bosky woods, rushing rivers and deep still lakes, and in which such artificialities as a fisherman’s hut in a park and a bridge over a lake abound. The Romantic sensibility of these descriptions is heightened by the presence of a certain ambiguity concerning the real nature of the Court of Sieghartsweiler. There is the disconcerting suggestion that Prince Irineus, lost his Kingdom when it slipped out of his pocket on his morning walk one day, and that the Court is nothing more than an illusion in the mind of a rich bourgeois landowner: Prince Irineus retained both his court life and his love of the arts and sciences by bringing to life a sweet dream in which he himself figured with his entourage…. The town was kind enough to take the false brilliance of this imaginary court as something that brought it honour and renown… and in general sacrificed themselves for the amusement of the court. Prince Irineus’s father liked to walk abroad in his kingdom, in a round hat and a grey overcoat so everyone knew at first sight that the prince was in incognito. This ambiguity concerning reality and appearance appears frequently in Hoffmann’s Tales as the presence of the uncanny. Here it appears as a whole fairytale kingdom. The description of Sieghartsweiler and the goings on there are strongly reminiscent of Stendahl’s Parma, with the same sense of enchantment and artificiality.

The Kreisler sections are full of heightened and uncontrollable, perhaps irrational states. Kreisler feels the need since early childhood to be alone and wander, Hedwiga displays symptoms of hysteria and catalepsy, Chiara is in contact with the beyond, Master Abraham is consumed with melancholy, doppelganger walk the earth, dreams are taken seriously as expressions of unconscious desires or forebodings, and castles and medieval abbeys nestling in forested crevices are described in loving detail. These are typical Romantic topoi, for which Hoffmann, as one of the leading Romantic authors, was largely responsible for creating in his Tales. The Kreisler sections are much more familiar Hoffmanesque territory than the realism of the Murr sections.

Another Romantic topos which is given prominence in the novel is the tortured nature of the artist, and the role of art. In contrast to Master Abraham, who merges the modern sciences of chemistry and physics with alchemy and magic in his conjuring tricks, fireworks and organ building, Kreisler is much more a victim and channel of his art than he is craftsman, and he is tormented by dark spirits which so often have power over him, sinking their talons mercilessly into his wounded breast. Master Abraham describes him as someone who has dealings with higher things, and for this reason he is regarded as an outsider by the court. The painter Ettlinger, who is Kreisler’s mysterious double, goes mad and is incarcerated. While the Murr sections focus on the Enlightenment concerns of language and literacy, the Kreisler sections focus on music, which, for the Romantics, was the ultimate art form in that it alone was capable of describing a world beyond, of either banishing evil sprits or of conjuring up powerful spirits that arouse fear, horror and all the torments of hopeless longing in the human breast, and of expressing states of soul inaccessible to reason and language. In one of the last Kreisler sections, in a discussion with the new, Puritan, Abbot on the role of music in divine worship, Kreisler exclaims: if it is sinful to rise on the seraph wings of song above all that is earthly, aspiring to what is highest in devout love and longing, then…I am a wicked sinner. Not only is this view of music essentially Romantic, but so also is the ultimate commitment of the artist to his art in the face of damnation. I will create whatever the cost to my self, says Faust, says Beethoven, says the Romantic artist Kreisler/Hoffmann.

The Self

Enlightenment and Romantic sensibilities come face to face in the description of the self, which is one of the minor themes of the novel. The self, and consciousness of it through the power of a guilty conscience, come to the fore especially in those moments when nature and nurture struggle for supremacy in the soul of Murr: I then fell into a state that, dividing my Self in a curious way from my Self, yet seemed to be my real Self, he says as he eats the fish head intended for his starving mother. For the Enlightenment Philosophes, self was equated with reason. However, Murr amusingly denigrates this: I know that they make a great deal of something that is supposed to sit in their heads, which they call reason. I am not altogether sure of what exactly they mean by that. But this much is certain: if I am correct in concluding from certain discourses of my master and patron that reason is nothing other than the capacity to act with consciousness, and not to play any dumb tricks, then I would not change places with any human being, and Kreisler wonders if in their elevation of reason and the intellect, the philosophers have lost sight of another kind of intelligence, that associated with dreams, and denigrated by the philosophers as a mere ‘instinct’: We’ve dismissed the entire intellectual capacity of the animal kingdom… Can the idea of instinct as a blind involuntary urge be reconciled with the ability to dream?, which animals – and artists- undoubtedly possess. A consciousness of self induces loneliness and an awareness of mortality, which was one of the key images of Romanticism (c.f. Freidrich’s paintings): for how can I help noticing that everywhere I am alone, as if in the most desolate wilderness, says Murr. For the Romantic Kreisler, the self is equated with dawning consciousness: Our first awakening to clear consciousness remains forever impenetrable to us! If it were possible for that awakening to occur suddenly, I believe the shock of it would kill us. Consciousness of self is like waking from a sleep in which the individual has to feel himself and remember who he is. For Kreisler, and for the Romantics generally, creativity was itself a human instinct: The most wonderful divine miracles occur in the mind of man himself, and he must proclaim these miracles aloud as best he may, in words, musical notes, or colours.

At the same time, Murr, and his conceitedness acts as a humorous warning on the dangers of solipsism which an acute awareness, a wonder even, of the miracle of consciousness can engender. (It’s of course necessary for him, and for us, that Murr is a cat, so as to make visible the miracle of consciousness in an animal). In his second author’s Forward, a candidly solipsistic document intended to have been suppressed, Murr (the ego) says he hopes the reader will recognise the full extent of his excellence, as no doubt Murr experiences his self. The Editor, one ‘Hoffmann’, then remarks, if many another sensitive author’s modest preface were translated into the true language of his inmost thoughts, it might not sound very different. The first Author’s Preface then gives a more modest and artificial version of the author’s thoughts when the necessities of publication, of dealing with the requirements of the social sphere, somewhat mitigate the wild excesses of the ego’s self love: Yet it is for you, he addresses the reader and his public, I write, and a single fair tear in your eye will […]heal the wounds inflicted upon me by the cold reproofs of insensitive reviewers. The two signatures nicely encapsulate the difference: in his ego fantasy, Murr signs himself Very renowned Gentleman of Letters, and in the more socialised version, Student of literature. Later in the novel, Hoffmann describes the relationship of the self and the social sphere in the narrative of the fight between the Philistines and the Feline Fraternity, as we shall see.

Murr and the Philistines

Modern commentators have seen in the duel nature of the book a dialogue between the Philistine and the artist/intellectual, have seen the tomcat as the bourgeois Philistine, and Kreisler as the cultured artist. But to read the book this way is to fall victim to a critical and cultural anachronism and a mistranslation of the word Philistine. A person deficient in liberal culture says the OED, but this English meaning was only coined in 1827, five years after the book’s publication in German, by the great Victorian critic Matthew Arnold. Whatever Murr is, he is not deficient in liberal culture: he is extremely well read in both contemporary and classical authors, composes poetry, publishes, and is as much concerned with his soul as with his appetite. According to the Grimm Brothers’ Dictionary (an archetypal Enlightenment endeavour begun in 1838), the word Philister in German dates from 1706, when it meant: one who was not, or no longer, a student. It also appears in 1785 in the context of a riot between students and townspeople in the town of Jena, in which the Town Superintendent called the brawlers who had slain innocent students Philister. For Hoffmann and his contemporaries the word was applied to people who were not members of the student fraternities, outsiders, townspeople, brawlers. In a long passage Muzius, Murr’s friend and feline mentor defines a member of such a fraternity like this: open, honourable, disinterested, good hearted, ever ready to help a friend, taking no account of considerations but those incumbent on honour and good sense. (There is no mention of culture in this description.) And then defines the Philistine as the very opposite of this, as someone who is concerned only for his own selfish desires, puts himself first rather than his brothers, shuns danger, and is in short a terrible egoist. Philistinism for Hoffmann and his contemporaries was not a corollary of culture or class as it was to the Victorians and is now to us, but was a corollary of moral and ethical behaviours concerning a person’s relationship with his fellows as well as his relationship with his natural self; the Philister was an image of the rampant self only partially socialised, outside a fraternity: in other words, Murr, a symbol of the Enlightenment civilised-savage. His story is that he is given the choice, and does indeed fraternise. The dialogue with the Philistines in the novel is not a struggle against those lacking culture, and those possessing it, but a struggle between those who are members of a fraternity, those who put the needs of their fellows first, and those who don’t, or in other words between those who are well socialised and those who are not; between the insider and the outsider.

The Circle

More than anything, the novel is a book about books. The text is studded with references to classical and contemporary authors, fictional and non-fictional, Enlightenment and Romantic, lending the entire discourse a greasier gleam, as Murr would say. Over it all hang the spirits of Hoffmann’s great heroes, Shakespeare and Mozart. The book is particularly inventive and playful in its structure. In contrast to the more straightforward narrative of the Murr sections, which describe in an apparently simple linear trajectory the life and opinions of the tomcat, the Kreisler sections have a plot that is dazzlingly complex, and never fully graspable by the reader. The Abbot tells Kreisler you are entangled in a mystery which you do not fully understand yet, and Kreisler himself thinks that he is becoming entangled in a web of ominous secrets from which he must escape. This exactly mirrors the position of the reader in trying to decipher the plot of the Kreisler sections. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that these sections are not told in a linear narrative, but jump around in an anachronical game of cat and mouse. The book ends abruptly with the death of Murr, and is left in an apparently unfinished, fragmentary state. However, like one of Master Abraham’s tricks with mirrors and smoke, this is illusory, as the novel is actually highly symmetrical and circular in its design. The last Kreisler section mentions the Princess’s name day festivities, which are described in the first Kreisler section; and Murr’s opening quotation from Goethe’s Egmont is on death, when he is describing his birth; again, another circularity: in my beginning is my end. The reader is fooled into looking for intertextual references between the two tales, but this is because the reader is tempted to think of the book in terms of interlocking texts rather than in terms of music. In fact the structure of the book is closer to that of a fugue or cannon (both musical circularities), in which each voice enters with the same theme in a different place at a different speed and perhaps in a different key or even inverted, and in which the voices are entirely separate, but nonetheless, weave together in a formally organised counterpoint to create a rich and harmonious whole.

A brilliant mind like mine will always have its singular and characteristic ideas on any occasion, at every experience life brings, and so I myself, meditating on my own cast of mind and my relationship with Ponto, fell into all manner of very pretty reflections which are well worth further communication.

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