115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Glimpses of a Camera Obscura: Ocular Motifs in the Novels of E. T. A. Hoffmann

Christopher Clason, Oakland University

This paper intends to examine ocular motifs in both of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s novels for evidence of visual discourse as a significant textual mode for narrating the life history of the monk Medardus, and the jumbled autobiography of the tomcat Murr and the biography of the Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler.

Proposal: 

Numerous critics have identified the great importance that vision, visual media, and visual motifs bear for E. T. A. Hoffmann’s shorter prose works, his fantastic stories and tales. Few critics, however, have engaged with the visual theme in Hoffmann’s two novels, Elixirs of the Devil and Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr. Nevertheless, visual phenomena play a most significant role in the novels as well. While the eyes themselves become direct carriers of psychic energy in, for example, the Night Piece “The Sand Man,” visual discourse permeates virtually all of Hoffmann’s works including Elixirs and Kater Murr, whether it involve optical instruments, sight or lack of vision, the visual arts, the reliability of what one sees, and other ways in which visual elements dominate the texts.

In this presentation I would like to examine both novels for evidence of visual discourse as a significant textual mode for narrating the life history of the monk Medardus, and the jumbled autobiography of the tomcat Murr and the biography of the Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler. In Elixirs of the Devil, the fictional editor’s preface becomes a framing device for introducing, essentially visually, the monastic environment as an idealized, sculpture and fresco-laden space. The images Hoffmann creates function to stimulate the reader’s imagination, aiding her or him to conjure mental images resembling a Baroque locus amoenus of pious, prayerful monks gazing upward into the heavens. Also in the preface, the editor employs the metaphor of a camera obscura, to which the tale is likened in its reflection of reality. Thus, the reader is prepared to allow the text to work especially visually on the imagination: from the ekphrastic descriptions of paintings, through Medardus’s visual encounter with his Doppelgänger, to the ubiquitous language of visual disguise and unmasking, vision and seeing form a most significant complex of themes and images throughout the novel. 

Similarly, visual images and vision dominate the narrative modality of Kater Murr. From the outset, Hoffmann engages the reader’s vision in the novel as material object: on the front and rear covers of the two volumes the reader is greeted by drawings of Murr, Kreisler, a second image of Murr with another cat, and a priest, respectively, in each of which the depicted eyes play a significant role. In the feline autobiography Murr extolls the “habit” of vision on several occasions, whereas in the Kreisler biography the eyes both express loving interest as well as deceitfulness and treachery. Meister Abraham, patron and mentor of both Kreisler and Murr and counselor to a princely court, is renowned as a kind of magician, whose most impressive ruse, the so-called “Invisible Girl,” reflects both the character of a sleight-of-hand trick as well as an exercise in actual magic. Such visual motifs signal the importance of disguise and discovery throughout both plot strands of the novel, wherein the revelation of true identities (that Murr is a cat who writes, or that various characters in the Kreisler story are deceptive and dangerous) becomes a central textual concern.