Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Tales of Hoffmann: The Golden Flower Pot

"The Golden Flower Pot" is one of Hoffmann's longer, and more critically acclaimed, stories, and a good starting point. It came out in 1814 and is his first major published work, as well. I read it in E. F. Bleiler's anthology "The Best Tales of Hoffmann," published in 1967 and still in print, and this particular tale was translated by Richard Carlyle. (My semester of college German does not leave me up to reading Hoffmann in the original language...)

Anselmus, a student from Dresden, is rushing to a local park on Ascension Day (May 14th, long a public holiday in German-speaking countries), when he accidentally knocks over a basket of apples and cookies that were held by an old peddler lady. She curses him volubly, he gives her what money he has to calm her, and then is left penniless for the celebrations. So, making the best of it, he ends up sitting alone under a tree...and ends up hearing magical bell-like voices coming from beautiful green-and-gold snakes. Enchanted, his vision opens up and he sees more than just the mundane realities of life.

He eventually finds employment and finds himself torn between the mundane, worldly Conrector Paulmann and his beautiful daughter Veronica (who love Anselmus but also wants him to become a great official and keep her in the manner to which she'd like to be accustomed) and his employer, Archivarius Linhorst, who seems to be a salamander (or fire elemental) from Atlantis, and his daughter, Serpentina, who is one of the snakes he saw on Ascension Day. Meanwhile, the old apple-lady seeks to destroy him; she is a witch and a sworn enemy of Lindhorst.

The story is really of Anselmus' choice between a mundane life as an official and government functionary, and the dreamy life of a poet. He has father-figures to guide him in either way, and all seem to appreciate his gifts in his own way. Two women desire him, but although Veronica loves him, she also has a strong desire for what he can do for her, while Serpentina sees his potential as a poet and wants him to develop that. Neither seems to want him Just As He Is but at least Serpentina's love is unselfish and she just wants to be at his side as he grows. Not to say Veronica is a bad person, but she is easily misguided and for a while falls under the influence of the old witch.

And the golden flower pot of the title? It's an Atlantean relic in the Lindorf home that's desired by the witch!

There's lots to enjoy in this story, and it's a great candy-box of Hoffmann's style. There's some light and funny parts, like the party where various people get drunk and dance about, throwing their wigs and the punchbowl hither and thither. But there's also scenes of menace and horror, like Veronica's attendance at a dark ceremony performed by the witch.

Of course, interpretations of this vary. Some say it's positive and optimistic, reflecting a embrace of art and creativity. Other say it's negative and pessimistic, the story meant as a snide satire of a pretentious artist's foibles and fantasies. Being a romantic, I like to think of it as positive, and also a reflection on Hoffmann's own rejection of an official career for one of art and writing. There's just a bit too much joyousness to the story that I saw to take it so negatively.

It's debated among critics and readers if the magical happenings in the story are really taking place in the "real" world or are part of some parallel fairyland. Personally, I think they're in the real world; it's a classic case of how being touched by the spirit of...well...Atlantis, or creativity, or whatever, can open your eyes to things you never noticed before, and how those with minds focused only on worldly, mundane things like money or just getting by don't seem to stop and smell the roses. It's just in this case the roses are enchanted and may get up and follow you around.

At any rate, this is a grand story, and worth reading. It's in a lot of Hoffmann collections and can be found free online. Good reading for those seeking inspiration.

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