Reality Check


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E.T.A. Hoffmann’s stories don’t make sense. That’s how they first work into your brain. “The Sandman” may be his best for that very reason. It’s the typical tale of a young dreamer tortured by childhood nightmares/memories of a bogeyman (The Sandman) who turns out to be a friend of the family who tries to steal the boy’s eyes and then kills the boy’s father. Later the Sandman returns (or does he…?), and sells the young man a telescope that he uses to watch a beautiful girl across the way, the daughter of an elusive professor. The young man falls in love with the daughter and spurns his wonderful fiancé in the name of his obsession. But it turns out that the beautiful daughter is actually a robot and the young man goes mad. Later, his senses revive and he goes back to his fiancé. All are content and set to leave town when they decide to go up to the tower and look down upon their beloved home one last time. They notice a bush moving in the distance. The young man takes out his spyglass and, presumably, sees the robot girl sneaking around in the bush. He goes mad again, tries to push his fiancé out of the tower, and then later thinks better of it and jumps to his own death. At the very end of the story, we learn that the young man’s fiancé went on to live in the countryside with her two children and enjoy “that quiet domestic happiness which was so agreeable to her cheerful disposition.”

Thus, the plot. Freud was always a fan of Hoffmann and particularly of “The Sandman.” He made the story a centerpiece of his now famous essay “The Uncanny.” Ultimately, Freud boils the central meaning of Hoffmann’s story down to castration complexes and other Freudian whatnot. This is of little interest to us. The idea of the uncanny, however, is. The German word Freud uses is unheimlich — the negation of the word heimlich, which means, basically, “comfortable,” “known,” or more literally, “homely.” Something unheimlich is therefore something uncomfortable.

Hoffmann’s story is uncanny, unheimlich, all the way through. It is unsettling primarily in how much it veers between normal events, and events that are utterly fantastic. But that’s not exactly it either. The young man, the protagonist of the story, is experiencing the same world that other characters in the story are experiencing. So it is not that two different sets of things are happening, uncanny things and perfectly normal things. It’s that we’re unsure about the true nature of the events that unfold. Even the upsetting revelation that the professor’s daughter is actually an automaton is absorbed and accepted by the townspeople. It is made normal. There is a wonderful passage in which Hoffmann describes the general suspicion as everyone tries to make sure their own loved ones are not robots. “To be quite convinced they were not in love with a wooden doll, many enamored young men demanded that their young ladies should sing and dance in a less than perfect manner, that while being read to they should knit, sew, play with their puppy and so on, but above all that they should not merely listen but sometimes speak too, and in such a way that what they said gave evidence of some real thinking and feeling behind it.”

For most people, in short, even the shocking feeling of the uncanny, the sense that things are not right at their very core, gets smoothed over and becomes the way of things soon enough. Human beings are creatures seeking and creating that which is heimlich, that which they can be at peace with in order to proceed with the business of life. But there are those individuals, like our hapless young man and his obsession with the Sandman, who are never quite convinced. An experience of the uncanny alerts them to the odd and disturbing impossibility of all experience. The uncanny becomes primary, or perhaps more disturbing still, heimlich and unheimlich lose all meaningful differentiation. Such people cannot get back to the world again.

“The Sandman” is the expression of such inchoate and unsettling feelings. E.T.A. Hoffmann continues to make sure they do not go away. • 3 December 2008