Monday, February 25, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“THE DEVIL’S ELIXIRS” by E.T.A.Hoffmann (“DIE ELIXIERE DES TEUFELS”, written 1814, first published 1815)

            It’s a melancholy pursuit in which I have never been successful. For years now, I have been looking for the perfect Gothic horror novel that will give me the same type of shudders and shocks I got when, as a kid, I first saw the classic black-and-white horror films and tales of murderous nineteenth century intrigue. I mean the old Universal Studios versions of Dracula and Frankenstein from the 1930s; or the 1940s British film of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas. But alas, no Gothic novel I’ve found has ever given me the requisite frisson. Always, I find, the intended horror becomes, on the printed page, tedious plot-spinning and artificial melodramatic effects. While I should, in fairness, note that adult re-viewings of the old films themselves don’t do so much for me now, I think my disappointment has a lot to do with the way Gothic literature was written.

            Take my most recent experience of the genre – a reading of E.T.A.Hoffmann’s The Devil’s Elixirs in the translation of Ronald Taylor, which was published in 1963. Hoffmann (1776-1822) was the Prussian whose bizarre short stories became the template from which Poe, Baudelaire and others worked, not to mention composers of opera and directors of ballet films. But his most famous novel is so clogged with narrative matter that it is hard to breathe its air, let alone feel its intended shocks, and it seems to be played out before pasteboard stage sets.

            In the convention of so much literature of its age, it is supposedly a manuscript left in a library and being “edited” by the author. The manuscript is the first-person narrative of Medardus. Like all characters in the novel he has an artificial Italianate name. His parentage is mysterious and unknown, as the ancestry of a Romantic-era hero should be, but he is the protégé of Prior Leonardus and of the saintly Father Cyrillus, so he grows up to be a monk in a German monastery. But, through the bars of his monastic cell, he falls madly in love with the beautiful Aurelia, whose image becomes mixed up in his mind with that of the Saint Rosalia, to whom the monks sometimes pray.

            One day, among ancient relics, he finds cordials that were concocted by the Devil himself. He drinks them. He is transformed into a powerful preacher. The eloquence of his sermons rocks the monastery. But his perceptive superiors realize that he preaches only for vainglory and fame.

            So they send him off on a pilgrimage to Rome to purify his soul.

            But en route to Rome he – perhaps accidentally – kills a nobleman by pushing him over a cliff. He takes the nobleman’s place and goes to his home. Suddenly possessed by an evil spirit, he has an affair with the noblewoman Euphemia and kills the young nobleman Hermogenes…. in the presence of his beloved Aurelia, who happens to be related to this noble family.

            Shocked at being so witnessed, Medardus flees, flinging off his monkish garb and passing himself off as a Polish nobleman. Sometimes he is pursued by a demented Doppelganger. He is put on trial for murder, but acquitted. And now Aurelia is convinced of his innocence of murder and falls madly in love with him. Medardus and Aurelia are going to marry… at which point, the evil spirit again possesses Medardus and he stabs Aurelia to death.

            And so at last he comes to Rome.

            He hears the complicated story of his parentage, with an explanation of why he has an evil “double”. He hears the tale of the Renaissance painter who painted, for an Italian monastery, a portrait of Saint Rosalia in a Pagan-Greek spirit; but the goodness of heaven triumphed over the painter’s pagan intention, and the resulting painting was so powerful that it was sold off to a German monastery. After talking to the very urbane pope – who, oddly enough, has time to talk to this slightly demented German monk – Medardus becomes involved in grubby Roman ecclesiastical politics, in which saintly Father Cyrillus is secretly murdered by Dominican monks…..but it is in the midst of this that Medardus learns that his own stabbing of Aurelia was a mere hallucination.

            Medardus returns, chastened and penitent, to his German monastery and his monkish life. Miraculously, Aurelia just happen to come to the local convent. She takes her religious vows and becomes Sister Rosalia – the beloved and the saint are now one. The ceremony is a beautiful one…. whereupon Medardus’s evil Doppelganger rushes out and stabs Aurelia to death.

            The novel closes with the clear implication that the Medardus who has written it is really insane and his narrative should be trusted only as much as madmen’s narratives are trusted. A precursor of Dr.Caligari, perhaps? At least in this respect it has much in common with James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner [see my review of it via index at right] – a primitive sense of the unreliable narrator and an awareness of the split personality; although Hoffmann has nothing like Hogg’s relatively sophisticated satire on forms of theology.

            In so many respects, The Devil’s Elixirs is the epitome of the Gothic (or should that be Gothick?) novel. I am not at all surprised to learn that it was heavily influenced by Matthew Lewis’s English shocker The Monk, which appeared nearly twenty years earlier (in 1796). Hoffmann liberally rips off whole chunks of Lewis’s plot, but acknowledges his debt and has one character in his own novel actually reading The Monk.

            Both The Monk and The Devil’s Elixirs were written hastily, in a matter of a few months, both authors going at white-hot speed and not caring too much for stylistic niceties.

            In both there is that Northern European Protestant fascination with, and yet fear of, Catholicism, Catholic ceremonies and Catholic monasteries. Monks, according to both Hoffmann and Lewis, are either obsessed with erotic visions or are engaged in committing murder in Roman cellars. And yet there are also dithyrambs on the beauty of Catholic art, Catholic ceremony and Catholic ritual. This seems to be the ghost of something that Protestant lands had lost, mixed with a certain envy of the power that Catholic art still exerts. In the same spirit that agnostic and atheist novelists now write novels about Jesus Christ, so did Gothick novelists write about monks and monasteries. It was and is a case of love-hate. Apparently Hoffmann was partly inspired by visits to a Carthusian monastery when he had taken a job as a music director in a predominantly Catholic part of Germany far from his Prussian home.

            Then there are all those other Gothick elements. The Doppelganger (saint or devil sometimes mixed in one character). The beautiful picture with magical powers. The ancestral curse. The evil stranger. The character who comments and moralizes upon the narrative (in The Devil’s Elixirs he is called variously Pieter Schonfeld and Pietro Belcampo). How often have we met mixtures of these themes – like familiar stage props – in other novels of the era.

            When I read The Devil’s Elixirs, I reacted exactly as I did when I first read The Monk. I rushed through its piling-on of extreme and improbable incidents and as a result sometimes became lost in its messy and illogical (and hastily-banged-together) plot. Particularly irritating were the frequent anterior explanations of events, by means of self-exposition in conversations, diaries etc. And not once did I feel fear or a real sense of the uncanny. Reading it was like viewing a set of lurid period woodcuts – or, at best, Fuseli prints. The only parts that engaged me were certain self-contained episodes and anecdotes, such as the interrogation of Medardus, when he slips out of the charge of murder by pretending to be a Polish nobleman; or the tale of the Renaissance painter who tries to fool monks by painting an erotic image of Venus, but finds that the saintly spirit of Saint Rosalia triumphs anyway. At such points I reflected – is it any wonder that Hoffmann is better remembered as a short-story-writer than as a novelist? His imagination simply could not sustain the full-length narrative.

            And yet, in this novel, I did find one gem, which I quote in full. It comes from Part 2, Chapter 2 of the novel, where Pieter Schonfeld offers advice to Meldardus thus:

            “…whether you know it or not, Medardus, I myself am the Folly that is always pursuing you in order to assist your power of reason. And whether you realize it or not you will only find salvation in Folly, for your much-vaunted reason is an utterly worthless thing and cannot sustain itself; it stumbles backwards and forwards like a frail child and has to enter into a partnership with Folly, which then helps it along because it knows how to find the right way home – to the madhouse. And that is where we have both arrived, my dear Brother Medardus, which is as it should be….Folly, my dear Brother Medardus…appears on Earth as the true Queen of Spirits. Reason is nothing but an inefficient charge d’affaires who never troubles about what goes on outside his sphere and makes the troops drill on the barrack-square out of boredom; as a result, they are incapable of firing a decent shot when the enemy attacks. But Folly, the true Queen, enters in triumph with trumpets and drums, followed by jubilant crowds. The serfs rise from the corners to which reason has banished them, and will no longer stand up and sit down at the chamberlain’s behest. Looking down his list, this worthy says: ‘Look, Folly has knocked my best pupils off their balance; in fact, they have all become unbalanced’. That’s a play on words, Brother Medardus; and a play on words is a hot curling iron in the hand of Folly, which uses it to shape its thoughts.”

            The last part of this quotation leads me to believe that Hoffmann and the Gothick novel had hit on the concept of the Freudian Slip a full century avant la lettre. The notion of “Folly” leading “Reason” by the nose is indeed an anticipation of the Subconscious ordering the Conscious mind, and gives me a greater respect for the imaginative Gothick artists of the Romantic era than their limping narratives do. I am unsurprised to learn that Freud admired Hoffmann, presumably seeing in his fictions fantastic and symbolic images of the suppressed Libido and its struggle with Thanatos.

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