Sunday, June 14, 2015

Tales of Hoffmann: The Sand-Man

"Vilhelm Pedersen, OLE LUKØJE, ubt" by Vilhelm Pedersen (1820-1859) - Eventyr og historier for børn 1905.
And now we tackle one of the strangest and most notorious of Hoffmann's works, "The Sand-Man," first published in 1817.

An epistolary tale, the central character is Nathanael, an unstable fellow who feared the Sandman when he was growing up. His father was often visited by the obnoxious lawyer Coppelius, and Nathanael and his siblings are always sent to bed when Coppelius visits. Nathanael soon begins to think Coppelius IS the Sandman, and hides himself one night to watch when he comes. It turns out his father is working on some alchemical experiments with Coppelius; when discovered, Coppelius threatens to tear out the boy's eyes and tortures him until he passes out. (And the kid was already freaking out, thinking that the Sandman would throw sand in his eyes and then steal them.)

Nathanael's father later dies in a fire caused by Coppelius' experiments, and Coppelius leaves town. As a grown student, Nathanael sees a man selling barometers and optics named Coppola, and is convinced he is being stalked by Coppelius.

Nathanael is bethrothed to the lovely Klara, and his best friend is her brother Lothar. Klara worries about her beloved's obsessions; he writes gloomy poetry and is terrified that Coppelius/Coppola will come back to ruin his happiness. Klara dismisses his fears, there's a blow-up, and nearly a duel between Lothar and Nathanael until Klara intervenes, bring peace, temporarily.

But when Nathanael returns to his studies, he finds his lodgings have burned down and he seeks shelter in a building across the way from physics professor Spallanzani, who has a lovely daughter, Olympia. Nathanael naturally forgets about Klara and falls for Olympia. He also tries to make peace with Coppola by buying some optics from him, and uses them to spy on Olympia.

Spallanzani gives a party to present Olympia to the community; she plays the harpsichord, sings, and dances, but everyone notes how pale and stiff she seems. Nathanael still swoons for her, and reads her his ghastly poetry, to which she only responds with "Ah! Ah!" which he interprets as her understanding hid Deep And Significant Soul, while the others find her dull and stupid.

Nathanael goes to Olympia to propose, but finds Spallanzani and Coppola fighting over her, arguing over who made her eyes and the clockwork. Olympia is an automaton that Spallanzi has been passing off as his daughter, and Coppola really was Coppelius after all. The sight of Olympia's eyes torn out drives him into a frenzy, and he attacks Spallanzi and ends up being thrown in an asylum while Coppelius escapes.

Nathanael recovers, and resolves to marry Klara. On a romantic afternoon, they climb a church steeple to look at the view, when she points something out to him. He pulls out one of Coppola's optics to look, and gets Klara in his view....and sees her as Olympia. Going insane again, he tries to throw Klara over, and after she's saved by Lothar, Coppelius (who is standing in the crowd) wryly jokes that Nathanael will come down soon enough....and he does, throwing himself over the parapet, screaming about the pretty eyes. Coppelius vanishes, and Klara eventually finds happiness with someone else.

It's a hell of a ride, and at first seems full of disconnected episodes, until you put together that Coppelius had roped Nathanael's father into an early version of the clockwork robot scheme. And really, this one of the earliest literary uses of a robot.

It's also interesting from a psychological point of view. Klara dismisses Nathanael's obsessions as existing only in his head, and explains them away as the result of his early trauma at Coppelius' hands...making this an early jab at exploring post-traumatic stress disorder. Nathanael is also horribly narcissistic, thinking only of himself and seeing things only as reflections of himself. It's also up to debate how much of this is real and how much is in Nathanael's imagination. It's no wonder that Sigmund Freud extensively dissected this tale in his essay, "The Uncanny." Clearly Hoffmann understood the human psyche pretty well for his time, not only noting abnormal psychology but also how self-deceptive the narcissistic young can be. This definitely counts as one of the first psychological horror stories, in addition to the above-noted literary use of a robot.

There's also elements of satire that I didn't note in my summary; there's many conversational asides and an occasional snarky tone that might detract for some. But there's also a great bit when, in conversation with Klara, Nathanael rants about how Coppelius is an evil genius ruining his life, and Klara responds with how Coppelius is an evil genius ruining her coffee. It's a good, very human moment of comedy, but also is often seen as a satirical jab at the self-importance of young Romantics. (So you see, since he was a Romantic himself, he was also not above poking fun at himself.) It's also often seen as taking jabs at Enlightenment-era science; after all, Hoffmann was a great nonconformist, and loved criticizing society.

This has been one of the favorite Hoffmann stories for adaptation. Most notably, an episode of Offenbach's opera "Tales of Hoffman" is based on it, including a gorgeous aria sung by Olympia, which has her winding down and having to be rewound several times. Also, Delibe's ballet "Coppelia" is a very loose adaptation. I won't bore you by yet again posting something from Offenbach, and Delibes' ballet is frequently performed, with many recordings, and a film of the ballet was made with Walter Slezak in 1968, and while not great, it does have a certain charm.

It was also adapted in 1852 as the opera "La poupée de Nuremberg" by Adolphe Adam; here's the overture:

...and then again in 1892 as "La poupée" by Edmond Audran; here's some selections:

...and again in 2002 as "The Sandman," by Thomas Cabaniss, but I can't find any samples.

An unexpected influence was in a work by John Bellairs, a noted author of young-adult horror novels. His book "The Eyes of the Killer Robot" concerns a clockwork automaton who is brought to life by enchanted eyes...of course, this robot is more concerned with playing baseball and going berserk.

So, this is really one to track down and read. Thankfully there are free versions everywhere and it's frequently anthologized, so it's easy to find. I have yet to read Freud's dissection of it...I may, I may not; I think Freud was a trailblazer in some ways but also full of shit in many others.

So...more on the way!

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