ETA Hoffmann on the 200th anniversary of his death: “Caught with an iron fist”

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FROM: William v. Sternburg

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In admiration for Mozart, he changed his middle name from Wilhelm to Amadeus and became ETA Hoffmann. Engraving around 1820 © epd

On the 200th anniversary of the death of the writer, composer, painter and Prussian official ETA Hoffmann

At the time, many believed that the little man they met on the streets of Bamberg or Berlin jumped into the real world right in front of them from one of his scary and grotesque stories. Often engrossed in monologues, rushing forward in vivid sentences, excessively nervous, and after a few glasses of punch with a slightly hesitant pace. Few could have guessed that this strange, strikingly short man would be admired for the next two centuries as one of the most important German-speaking authors of his time.

Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann is a writer, composer and painter. He is a romantic and a realist who draws a comical and terrifying, ironic and sarcastic picture of the world and its vibrant inhabitants. He is an artist and a Prussian official. Concern for money accompanies him throughout his life, because the salaries of officials and book fees quickly end up in taverns or get lost at the gaming table. He’s outgoing during the nighttime punch hours, yet he becomes increasingly lonely in his mostly sparse rooms and apartments. He drinks too much, has small and big affairs, but he loves his Polish wife who likes him very much, changes places of residence and professions: a restless existence. “Everyday life disgusts me more and more,” he tells his most important friend, Gottfried Friedrich von Hippel, in 1806 as a 30-year-old.

This year, Napoleon’s Polish campaign will drive out the Prussians from Warsaw, and with them Judge Hoffmann. Even earlier, he had problems when he exposed the city’s society with ironic caricatures in Poznań, and then was transferred to the Polish province for two years. The pain of love and unsuccessful career plans later led to an escape from Bamberg, where he worked as a conductor, playwright and set designer in a theater. Hoffmann’s compositions rarely find a publisher, the opera “Undine” shares the fate of the romantic operas of Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann, and is also overlooked.

His first literary publications appear late. “On weekdays I am a lawyer and a little bit of a musician at best,” he wrote to Hippel as early as 1796, “I draw on Sundays, and in the evenings I am a very funny writer until late at night.” the short story “Ritter Gluck” was presented to the public in 1809. His last great short story, Meister Floh, was published shortly before his death in 1822. In these nearly 13 years, the poet ETA Hoffmann had become immortal. masterpieces appear. They range from “The Golden Pot” to the novel “Piasak”, from “The Devil’s Potions” to “Views from the Life of Murr’s Cat” and fantastic reports by conductor Johannes Kreisler. A literary work will not enrich its creator, but Hoffmann’s name sounded exceptional even during his lifetime.

His stories focus on horrors and comics at the same time. It captivates and worries. It reflects down to the smallest detail the reality of Hoffmann’s times (places, streets, apartments), and at the same time smoothly transforms into what is improbable and fantastic. The famous composer Christoph Willibald Gluck had been dead for over twenty years in 1809, when the narrator met him personally and very much alive in Berlin’s Tiergarten. Naturalist Antoni van Leuwenhoek also stated “Master Flea” in his “Second Adventure”. “:” You are the only person in the whole city of Frankfurt who knows that I am buried in the old church in Delft … “

The double is present in almost all fairy tales and stories. This is not only a stupid idea – the artist Hoffmann’s life is actually always followed by a shadow of a Prussian official, Hoffmann. In 1806, he noted in his diary: “All nerves excited by spiced wine – fits of premonition of death – a double.” that I never had an idea to return to the judiciary, because art is too heterogeneous, for which I have sworn “. He writes this after re-entering the civil service, because poetry and music alone cannot feed him.

After the poet’s death, Hippel’s friend recalls his student days: “At that time, Hoffmann was also a peculiarity that he never spoke of religion, politics, or government,” he said, and he quickly fell silent in political discussions. This changed much later. Hoffmann – this sets him apart from most of his intellectual colleagues in the “romantic school” – remained a staunch enlightened and liberal even after Napoleon dictated his memoirs on St. Helena and after the re-assumption of power by reactionary Germany. After the wars of liberation, brothers Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck, Achim von Arnim and Clemens von Brentano became conservative confessors who, although excellent in Berlin salons, crept into their prose with increasingly embarrassing pious tones. In Arnim’s correspondence with Brentano, anti-Semitism becomes evident.

On the other hand, bigot, reaction and suppression of reality remain deeply alien to Hoffmann. His satirical view of social reality is incorruptible, which is reflected not only in his literary works, but also in his caricatures, mostly humorous, but sometimes also sharply emphasizing his contemporaries. In 1820 he describes the policy of censorship and “persecution of demagogues” defined by the decisions of Carlsbad as “a whole network of hopeless arbitrariness, brazen disregard for all rights, personal hostility.”

Hoffmann also does not close his eyes as he faces the horrors of war. In 1813, he witnessed the bombing of Dresden and told a friend about the scene in the style of a coolly watching war reporter: “We were looking out the window quite comfortably with a glass of wine in our hands when a grenade fell in the middle of the square and burst – at the same moment a Westphalian soldier who had pump water, he collapsed with his head shattered. “

Hoffmann was born as absolutism entered its final phase and the storming of the Bastille heralded a political and social turning point. During these years, Immanuel Kant announced his philosophical “Critics” in his hometown of Königsberg, and the ruler of Prussia was the war brawler and reformer Frederick II. Only six months after Hoffmann’s birth on January 24, 1776, the North American colonists had their independence from the English crown explained. an overture to an era in which politics and science, technology and business are changing at a dizzying pace. The poet Hoffmann knows how these revolutions threaten to overwhelm people, upset them, increase their longing to return to a past that seems so manageable, and try to in the humorous grotesque “Little Zaches called Zinnober”, the admirer of the writings of Kant and Lessing not only criticizes the erroneous development of the misunderstood Enlightenment, but also knows how to rebuke state arbitrariness with biting irony: we will grow potatoes, improve village schools, plant acacia trees and poplars, young people will sing morning and evening songs for two voices, build highways and be vaccinated on vaccinia, it is necessary, all people with dangerous feelings, who no one obeys their reason and seduces people with pure stupidity to banish them from the state ”.

The artist Hoffmann recognizes without any illusions the political dramas in which his life unfolds. “Which artist was concerned about the political events of that time,” says his alter ego, conductor Kreisler in 1813, “he lived only with his art and walked only with it through his life; but a fateful, difficult time has squeezed a man with an iron fist, and pain squeezes out of him sounds that would be alien to him. “

Even in the months of his death, the politician does not let him out of their grip. Although Hoffmann distanced himself from the growing fanaticism of students and professors, deeply disenchanted with the social development of the post-Napoleonic era and their agitation against princes and clergy, against French literature and Italian music, he rejected a growing policy of violent repression against the Viennese and Berlin state chancellery.

As early as 1815, he mocked the daily work of a clerk: “On a green table there are all kinds of thieves, rapists, swindlers, etc., waiting for me to beat them and send them to prison. Since the fatal assassination of the poet August von Kotzebue by student Carl Ludwig Sand on March 23, 1819, there is nothing to smile about. Hoffmann, meanwhile, a councilor at the Supreme Court of Berlin, is appointed a member of the “Commission for the Immediate Investigation of Treacherous Relationships and Other Dangerous Activities.” He protests against the arrest of Jahn’s “father of gymnastics” and demands his release from the persecuted state body. Hoffmann did not live to see the end of the disciplinary proceedings with which the Prussian state wanted to punish its stubborn officials. “In the evenings I woke up with difficulty – with wine and punch” – we read in one of the last entries in my diary. 200 years ago today, on June 25, 1822, a long-suffering poet died.

A biographer wrote in 1926 with admiration: “Hoffmann gave Berlin a literary face. He did for Berlin what Balzac, who had such a strange emotional bond with him, did for Paris ”. But that’s not all: when European modernity begins to dawn, he finds in ETA Hoffmann one of the first critical interpreters and skeptical warnings. Finally, it is a harbinger of the absurdity of human existence.

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