Wednesday, 6 November 2013

E.T.A. Hoffmann's Olimpia

Here’s yet another tale about a man’s erotic obsession with a female android, or automaton as it used to be called at the time: E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman”, which was first published in 1817 as part of the story collection Nachtstücke (Night Pieces). It is the story of a young university student called Nathanael who, haunted by the memory of a traumatic childhood experience connected to his father’s death and a mysterious malevolent figure called Coppelius whom as a child he used to identify with the monstrous, eye-stealing Sandman, and who might or might not be real, gradually slides deeper and deeper into madness and eventually throws himself off a tower and kills himself.

But before he does, he becomes infatuated with what at first seems to be a beautiful young woman called Olimpia, who appears to be the daughter of his neighbour (and professor), but later turns out to be nothing but a cleverly constructed (moving and talking) wooden doll. This might be evidence of his growing insanity or a factor contributing to it, but in any case it is rather odd given that he seems to be the only one who does not realize that there is something seriously wrong with the object of his infatuation. Although Olimpia is so superbly crafted and so life-like that when she is introduced to people at a ball, they do not immediately recognise her as what she is, namely a machine, they all sense her strangeness and want nothing to do with her. They find her “strangely stiff and lacking in animation”, her eyes lifeless, as if they were blind (which they are, of course), “as though her every movement were produced by some mechanism like clockwork” (which it is). They believe her to be a “complete imbecile, who plays music and sings “with the disagreeably perfect, soulless timing of a machine”, as if “she was only pretending to be a living being”

Yet Nathanael is blind and deaf to her mechanical nature and only sees and hears what his imagination prompts him to perceive. He flatly refuses to pay heed to the warnings of his friends whom he deems “cold and prosaic”, and prefers to project his own self into the invitingly blank slate that the automaton offers him - which he obviously finds so enjoyable and rewarding that he completely forgets his fiancée Clara who waits for him in his home town and who not only loves him dearly, but is also very bright, sensible and down-to-earth. Yet precisely that may be the problem. When she writes to him and very competently tries to argue him out of the gloom that has come over him as a result of an encounter with what he perceives to be a new incarnation of his childhood nemesis, the Sandman, he writes back to her brother Lothar, complaining about her attempt to dissuade him from his fears in her “damnably sensible” letter and voicing his suspicion that it was really Lothar who had taught her to argue like that. Obviously he finds it inappropriate for a woman to be so clever: “Really, who would have thought that the spirit which shines from such clear, gracious, smiling, child-like eyes, like a sweet and lovely dream, could draw such intellectual distinctions, worthy of a university graduate?” Apparently he feels that there is something unfitting about a sharp intellect in a woman, something that threatens to destroy the “sweet and lovely dream” that her features evoke. And he is right of course. A sharp intellect is by its very nature critical and unobliging. It resists the projection of another’s self. It insists on, and serves as a constant reminder of, its bearer’s independence. And, vain and self-absorbed as we usually are, that is not necessarily what we want in a lover. (I was tempted to write: not necessarily what a man hopes to find in a woman, but I’m not entirely sure that this is, on the most fundamental level, an issue that men have with women, rather than one that human beings have with other human beings.)

The narrator describes Clara as follows: “Clara had the vivid imagination of a cheerful, ingenuous, child-like child, a deep heart filled with womanly tenderness, and a very acute, discriminating mind. She was no friend to muddle-headed enthusiasts (...) Many people accordingly criticized Clara for being cold, unresponsive, and prosaic.” Although Nathanael is reported not to belong to those people, his words and actions indicate that in fact he does. When it becomes clear to him that she doesn’t believe in “the mystical doctrine of devils and evil forces”, Nathanael blames her disbelief on her “cold and insensitive temperament”, and when she persists in her gentle and loving attempts to talk some sense into him, he accuses her of being a “lifeless automaton”.

Olimpia, on the other hand, “the beautiful statue”, who really is a lifeless automaton, strikes him as the ideal woman. It appears to him that she “gazes at him yearningly” when he sits with her, holds her hand and talks to her about his love “in fiery, enthusiastic words”. And although she never says anything in response but “oh! oh! oh!”, Nathanael feels himself, apparently for the first time in his life, completely understood. Enraptured, he exclaims: “O you splendid, divine woman! You ray shining from the promised afterlife of love! You profound spirit, reflecting my whole existence!” What an interesting choice of words: the machine is addressed as a goddess, the less than human as more than human. She is all that a woman is meant to be and that a real woman can never be. She makes good on the promise that her beauty has made, and she does that by reflecting his whole existence. Yet it stands to reason that whatever reflects another’s whole existence cannot have an existence of its own. A real person can never be a pure reflection. But a machine can. That is of course its greatest advantage. It can be anything we want it to be, and it allows us to be whatever we want to be. In return, we only too willingly allow its essential vacuity to masquerade as profundity. Characteristically, Nathanael is unperturbed by Olimpia’s taciturnity and interprets her persistent sighing as proof of a deep mind: “she doesn’t engage in trivial chit-chat, like other banal minds. She utters few words, certainly; but these few words are true hieroglyphs, disclosing an inner world filled with love and lofty awareness of the spiritual life led in contemplation of the everlasting Beyond.” She is of course a “perfect listener”, who is never distracted by other things, never in need of concealing “her yawns by a slight artificial cough”. With the peculiar binary logic that may work just fine when applied to humans, but fails utterly when we apply it to machines, her undistractibility is perceived as attentiveness, as utter concentration on what he has got to say and an implicit acknowledgement of its importance. If she doesn’t speak then that’s because words are too profane for her. She is a “child of heaven” that cannot “adjust itself to the narrow confines drawn by miserable earthly needs”. Her lack of earthly needs is reconstructed as a clear indicator of a higher, more “heavenly” existence. Absences are turned into presences.

When Nathanael eventually learns the truth about Olimpia, that she is in fact merely a wooden doll, he completely breaks apart:”Madness seized him with its red-hot claws and entered his heart, tearing his mind to pieces.” And as the story of his fate spreads, those who hear it, instead of congratulating themselves on their own good sense, start doubting their own judgement and suddenly see robots lurking in every corner and behind every human face: “In order to make quite sure that they were not in love with wooden dolls, several lovers demanded that their beloved should fail to keep time in singing and dancing, and that, when being read aloud to, she should sew, knit, or play with her pug-dog; above all, the beloved was required not merely to listen, but also, from time to time, to speak in a manner that revealed genuine thought and feeling. The bonds between some lovers thus became firmer and pleasanter; others quietly dissolved. ‘One really can’t take the risk’, said some.”

Although this passage strikes a rare humorous note in an otherwise pretty depressing tale, what is being described here is actually the most uncanny event in the whole story. It is the moment when Nathanael’s insanity turns epidemic. Everybody has been infected with uncertainty. The difference between humans and machines has become blurry: no longer can people tell for sure which is which. Your neighbour, your best friend, your lover, could all turn out to be machines. This is Descartes’s methodological doubt turned into a fact of life. Nobody is unquestioningly certain anymore. The existence of the human other has become problematic, their actual non-existence a permanent possibility. It is the same uncertainty that is later so hauntingly brought out by Don Siegel in his 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And contrary to what Sigmund Freud argued in his highly overrated essay The Uncanny (1919), this uncertainty is indeed at the heart of that peculiar feeling that the events related by Hoffmann excite (whatever you want to call it). Freud famously analysed Hoffmann’s Sandman in his essay, but he focuses entirely on the figure of Coppelius alias the sandman (who, in Freud’s analysis, embodies the son’s fear of being castrated by his father) and all but ignores Nathanael’s relationship to Olimpia and Clara (which is odd considering that Clara with her superior intelligence and moral strength may quite reasonably be seen as threatening to “castrate”, i.e. emasculate Nathanael). For Freud, there is no uncertainty: the reader knows that Olimpia is an automaton, and we also know that the strange events witnessed by Nathanael are all real and not just a figment of his overwrought imagination. But of course we don’t really know any of this. Nathanael might be haunted to his grave by unnatural forces, or he may just be insane and imagine the whole thing. Ernst Jentsch whose paper on the “The Psychology of the Uncanny” Freud references (and promptly dismisses) captures the essence of Hoffmann’s tale far better than Freud does when Jentsch emphasises the role of the “doubt as to whether an apparently inanimate object really is alive and, conversely, whether a lifeless object might not perhaps be animate” (Jentsch’s paper was originally published in 1908; an English translation appeared in 1997 in Angelaki. Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 2/1: 7-16).

There is, however, one passage in Freud’s essay that I think may well prove relevant to a proper understanding of not only Hoffmann’s Sandman, but also of all related tales about men who develop an erotic obsession with artificial women, such as Ovid’s Pygmalion or Villiers’s The Future Eve. “It often happens”, Freud informs us, “that neurotic men state that to them there is something uncanny about the female genitals. But what they find uncanny (‘unheimlich’ = lit.: unhomely) is actually the entrance to man’s old ‘home’, the place where everyone once lived.” This would certainly explain the appeal of the artificial lover (whose genitals are new and ready-made and do not threaten us with annihilation as that from which we have originated, the old home, does).

In another of his tales, “The Automata” (which may not have been translated into English), Hoffmann has one of his characters express his disgust for all automata that attempt to assume a human shape. He calls them “those true statues of a living death or a dead life” (“diese wahren Standbilder eines lebendigen Todes oder eines toten Lebens”). This sums up the ambiguity quite nicely.

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