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Hoffmann, E. T. A.

Category: Writer


Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (commonly abbreviated as E. T. A. Hoffmann; born Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann; 24 January 1776 – 25 June 1822) was a Prussian Romantic author of fantasy and Gothic horror, a jurist, composer, music critic, draftsman and caricaturist.

Hoffmann is one of the best-known representatives of ‘German Romanticism’, and a pioneer of the fantasy genre, with a taste for the macabre combined with realism that influenced such authors as Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), Nikolai Gogol(1809–1852), Charles Dickens (1812–1870), Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), George MacDonald (1824–1905), Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881), Vernon Lee (1856-1935), Franz Kafka (1883–1924) and Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980). Hoffmann's story Das Fräulein von Scuderi is sometimes cited as the first detective story and a direct influence on Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue".

His stories form the basis of Jacques Offenbach's famous opera The Tales of Hoffmann, in which Hoffmann appears (heavily fictionalized) as the hero. He is also the author of the novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, on which Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker is based. The ballet Coppélia is based on two other stories that Hoffmann wrote, while Schumann's Kreisleriana is based on Hoffmann's character Johannes Kreisler.  The exotic and supernatural elements in the storyline of Ingmar Bergman's 1982 film Fanny and Alexander derive largely from the stories of Hoffmann.

The madness of E T A Hoffman

Horst Janssen: E.T.A. Hoffmann, 1974
"Der Doppelgänger Ernst Theodor Wilhelm

Hoffmann died of syphilis in Berlin on 25 June 1822 at the age of 46.  Well before he died he was showing signs of mental unbalance, apparently seeing ghosts and also being haunted by his double.  The book "Die Doppeltgänger" (1821) is largely autobiographical.  Syphilis was treated at the time with mercury, and mercury poisoning can produce terrifying visions, hallucinations and brain damage and it appears that Hoffman was suffering from all these things:

Krys Svitlana - Intertextual Parallels Between Gogol' and Hoffmann: A Case Study of Vij and The Devil’s Elixirs. - Canadian-American Slavic Studies (CASS) 47.1 (2013): 1-20. (20 pages)

Critics have noted similarities between Nikolai Gogol”s three early horror stories Vecher nakanune Ivana Kupala [St. John’s Eve], Strashnaia mest’ [A Terrible Vengeance], and Vii; and the works of …. E.T.A. Hoffmann, … By comparing and contrasting Gogol”s Vii to Hoffmann’s Die Elixiere Des Teufels [The Devil’s Elixirs], this article argues that the “Ukrainian tales” .. betray some influence of Hoffmann, and that, in particular, there are intertextual connections between these two stories. This is evident on several levels:
 (1) in the similar depiction of the monstrous beings that appear to the protagonists in both works and influence their lives;
(2) in the transformation of the protagonists into villains under the power of evil forces;
(3) in the presence of a sinister double, at the “hands” of which the protagonists find their death; and
(4) in the doubling of a female into an innocent and a corrupt (lustful) being.

 The paper contends that Gogol’ was recapitulating, consciously or unconsciously, Hoffmann’s The Devil’s Elixirs in Vii both in terms of plot detail and, as my psychoanalytical reading shows, also on the level of latent content found in both works.


One of the undoubted fears that manifested themselves in Hoffman’s damaged brain, was the rise of science as a religion and the consequent decline – not of old style religion of which he had little interest - but of magic, illusion, mysticism and imagination. 

Philosophy in its old form – philo [seeker] after Sophia [wisdom] was in decline and science had largely split from philosophy anyway.  It is worth adding that Hoffmann's work is contemporary with Frankenstein (1818).  Science creating a monster.

Martin Willis (2006). Mesmerists, Monsters, and Machines: Science Fiction and the Cultures of Science in the Nineteenth Century
His interest in the machine culture of his time is well represented in his short stories, of which the critically renowned The Sandman (1816) and Automata (1814) are the best examples. ...Hoffmann's work makes a considerable contribution to our understanding of the emergence of scientific knowledge in the early years of the nineteenth century and to the conflict between science and magic, centred mainly on the 'truths' available to the advocates of either practice. ...Hoffmann's balancing of mesmerism, mechanics, and magic reflects the difficulty in categorizing scientific knowledge in the early nineteenth century.

Lebensansichten des Katers Murr von E.T. A. Hoffmann
by Kateryna Radko

One of his most acclaimed novels is Lebensansichten des Katers Murr ("The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr", 1819–1821). 

This novel deals specifically with the need for transcendence, the importance of being in touch with one’s Higher spirit as the source of inspiration and ‘the modes of self-transcendence that accompany any genuine endeavour to create’.

Hoffmann's portrayal of the character Kreisler (a genius musician) is wittily counterpointed with the character of the tomcat Murr – a virtuoso illustration of artistic pretentiousness that many of Hoffmann's contemporaries found offensive and subversive of Romantic ideals.  Hoffmann's literature indicates the failings of many so-called artists to differentiate between the superficial and the authentic aspects of such Romantic ideals.

Essentially the egotistical self-conscious effort to impress completely destroys the ability to create anything worthwhile.

Dr/Professor Jean Lhermitte, was a neuropsychologist and a member of the French Academie Nationale de Medecin; he published numerous studies on the biological foundations of hallucinations, dreams, miracles and mystical phenomena and had this to say about ‘atheism and science’:

In the world of life, as well as in the physical field, there is no completely isolated event. ‘Satan’ no longer appears as a personage, an isolated figure, but rather as an essence insinuating craftily into the hearts of certain [things] whose sin is pride – for pride is always seen to be the essential base of the diabolic.  The Prince of Darkness disguises himself willingly, or even preferably under the appearance of corporate personalities and institutions…..
Jean Paul Sartre well describes the abandonment, the dereliction of man on the earth and the anguish that grips him… but the author of Being and Non-Being seems to have no conception that things can be comprehended, not only with one’s reason, but with one’s heart.  The heart has its reasons too – which Sartre knows not. 
Atheist existentialism, by repudiating all lyricism, reduces the human condition to nothing but a ‘little true fact’.  Man dispossessed of God, now knows that he can count only on himself.  In the vacuum left by the divine dispossession, may there not be a real possession, ?....  evil is substituted for his personality and all transcendence establishing the relation of a real subject to the fact of sin, keeping them face to face, is abolished.  The subject has disappeared.  There is nothing left but the evil which is its guest.
He who believes in the devil believes in God, but here we are very far from all the atheist philosophers to whom destiny has refused that indefinable gift, that perfume of the spirit which is charity.


Pierre-Auguste Lamy-Les contes d'Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach, prologue

Hoffmann's ancestors, both maternal and paternal, were jurists. His father, Christoph Ludwig Hoffmann (1736–97), was a barrister in Königsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia), as well as a poet and amateur musician who played the viola da gamba. In 1767 he married his cousin, Lovisa Albertina Doerffer (1748–96). Ernst Theodor Wilhelm, born on 24 January 1776, was the youngest of three children, of whom the second died in infancy.  The acclaimed neuropsychologist Professor Jean Lhermitte described Hoffman’s mother as an ‘hysteric’.

When his parents separated in 1778, the father went to Insterburg (now Chernyakhovsk) with his elder son, Johann Ludwig Hoffmann (1768–after 1822), while Ernst's mother stayed in Königsberg with her relatives: two aunts, Johanna Sophie Doerffer (1745–1803) and Charlotte Wilhelmine Doerffer (c. 1754–79) and their brother, Otto Wilhelm Doerffer (1741–1811), who were all unmarried. This trio raised the youngster.

The household, dominated by the uncle (whom Ernst nicknamed O Weh—"Oh dear!"—in a play on his initials), was ‘pietistic and uncongenial’. Nevertheless, he remembered his aunts with great affection, especially the younger, Charlotte, whom he nicknamed Tante Füßchen ("Aunt Littlefeet"). Although she died when he was only three years old, he treasured her memory and embroidered stories about her to such an extent, that later biographers sometimes assumed her to be imaginary, until proof of her existence was found after World War II.

Between 1781 and 1792 he attended the Lutheran school or Burgschule, where he made good progress in classics. He was taught drawing by one Saemann, and counterpoint by a Polish organist named Podbileski, who was to be the prototype of Abraham Liscot in Kater Murr. Ernst showed great talent for piano-playing, and busied himself with writing and drawing. He read Schiller, Goethe, Swift, Sterne, Rousseau and Jean Paul, and wrote part of a novel titled Der Geheimnisvolle.  During 1792, he attended some of Immanuel Kant's lectures at the University of Königsberg.

His problematic love life

Les contes d'Hoffmann -Antonia act - Dr. Miracle and Antonia

Hoffman’s love life was to prove problematical his entire life.  Early on there were hints that he led a somewhat wild life style once he had left home – a possible source for the syphilis.  But this was not the only occasion, where women caused him anguish. 

In 1794, Hoffmann became enamoured of Cora Hatt, a married woman to whom he had given music lessons. She was ten years older, and in February 1796, her family protested against his attentions and his uncle sent him to Glogau (Głogów), Prussian Silesia. 

He married "Mischa" (Maria, or Marianna Tekla Michalina Rorer, whose Polish surname was Trzcińska) and they moved to Płock in August 1802.

In 1810, when he was both married and employed at the Bamberg Theatre as stagehand, decorator, and playwright, he also gave private music lessons. He became so enamoured of a young singing student, Julia Marc, that his feelings were obvious whenever they were together, and Julia's mother quickly found her a more suitable match.

A hesitant start

Pierre Auguste Lamy - Les contes d'Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach, Giulietta act

From 1796 Hoffmann obtained employment as a clerk for his uncle, Johann Ludwig Doerffer, who lived in Glogau with his daughter Minna. After passing further examinations he visited Dresden, and during the summer of 1798 his uncle, Minna and he moved to Berlin.  It was there that Hoffmann wrote the operetta called Die Maske – the Mask.

From June 1800 ,  he worked in the Prussian provinces of Greater Poland and Masovia.  Unfortunately, Hoffman was no respecter of authority and he was ‘promoted’ to Płock in New East Prussia, the former capital of Poland, after caricatures of military officers were distributed at a ball on Shrove Tuesday 1802. 

Hoffmann despaired because of his exile, and drew caricatures of himself drowning in mud alongside ragged villagers. He did make use, however, of his isolation, by writing and composing. He started a diary on 1 October 1803. An essay on the theatre was published in Kotzebue's periodical, Die Freimüthige, and he entered a competition in the same magazine to write a play. This was one of the few good times of a sad period of his life, which saw the deaths of his uncle J. L. Hoffmann in Berlin, his Aunt Sophie, and Cora Hatt in Königsberg.  At the beginning of 1804 he obtained a post in Warsaw.

Illness and death of his daughter

Hoffmann assimilated well with Polish society; the years spent in Prussian Poland he recognized as the happiest of his life. In Warsaw he found the same atmosphere he had enjoyed in Berlin.

His fortunate position was not to last: on 28 November 1806 during the War of the Fourth Coalition, Napoleon Bonaparte's troops captured Warsaw, and the Prussian bureaucrats lost their jobs. They divided the contents of the treasury between them and fled. In January 1807 his wife and two-year-old daughter Cäcilia returned to Posen, while he pondered whether to move to Vienna or go back to Berlin. A delay of six months was caused by severe illness.

Eventually the French authorities demanded that all former officials swear allegiance or leave the country. As they refused to grant him a passport to Vienna, he was forced to return to Berlin. He visited his family in Posen before arriving in Berlin on 18 June 1807, hoping to further his career there as an artist and writer.

The next fifteen months were some of the worst in Hoffmann's life. The city of Berlin was also occupied by Napoleon's troops. Obtaining only meagre allowances, he had frequent recourse to his friends, constantly borrowing money and still going hungry for days at a time; he learned that his daughter had died. Nevertheless, he managed to compose his Six Canticles for a cappella choir: one of his best compositions.

Literary breakthrough

On 1 September 1808 he arrived with his wife in Bamberg, where he began a job as theatre manager. After losing this job, he began work as music critic for the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung; and it was in its pages that the "Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler" character made his first appearance.

Hoffmann's breakthrough came in 1809, with the publication of Ritter Gluck, a story about a man who meets, or believes he has met, the composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–87) more than twenty years after the latter's death. The theme alludes to the work of Jean Paul, who invented the term Doppelgänger the previous decade, and continued to exact a powerful influence over Hoffmann, becoming one of his earliest admirers. With this publication, Hoffmann began to use the pseudonym E. T. A. Hoffmann, telling people that the "A" stood for Amadeus, in homage to the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91).

The Battle of Dresden

When Joseph Seconda offered Hoffmann a position as musical director for his opera company (then performing in Dresden), he accepted, leaving on 21 April 1813.

Prussia had declared war against France on 16 March during the War of the Sixth Coalition, and the family’s journey was fraught with difficulties. They arrived on the 25th, only to find that Seconda was in Leipzig; on the 26th, they sent a letter pleading for temporary funds.

The situation deteriorated, and in early May Hoffmann tried in vain to find transport to Leipzig. On 8 May, the bridges were destroyed, and his family were marooned in the city. During the day, Hoffmann would roam, watching the fighting with curiosity. Finally, on 20 May, they left for Leipzig, only to be involved in an accident which killed one of the passengers in their coach and injured his wife.

They arrived on 23 May, and Hoffmann started work with Seconda's orchestra. On 4 June an armistice began, which allowed the company to return to Dresden. But on 22 August, after the end of the armistice, the family was forced to relocate from their pleasant house in the suburbs into the town, and during the next few days the Battle of Dresden raged. The city was bombarded; many people were killed by bombs directly in front of him. After the main battle was over, he visited the gory battlefield. His account can be found in Vision auf dem Schlachtfeld bei Dresden. After a long period of continued disturbance the town surrendered on 11 November, and on 9 December the company travelled to Leipzig.

On 25 February Hoffmann quarrelled with Seconda, and the next day he was given notice of twelve weeks. When asked to accompany them on their journey to Dresden in April, he refused, and they left without him.

Back to being a jurist

During July his friend Hippel visited, and soon he found himself being guided back into his old career as a jurist.  At the end of September 1814, in the wake of Napoleon's defeat, Hoffmann returned to Berlin and succeeded in regaining a job at the Kammergericht, the chamber court. His opera Undine was performed by the Berlin Theatre. Its successful run came to an end only after a fire on the night of the 25th performance. Many masterpieces date from this time.



During the period from 1819 Hoffmann was involved with legal disputes, while fighting ill health. Alcohol abuse and syphilis eventually caused weakening of his limbs during 1821, and paralysis from the beginning of 1822. His last works were dictated to his wife or to a secretary.

Prince Metternich's anti-liberal crusades began to put Hoffmann in situations that tested his conscience. Thousands of people were accused of treason for having certain political opinions, and university professors were monitored during their lectures.  During the trial of "Turnvater" Jahn, the founder of the gymnastics association movement, Hoffmann found himself annoying Commissioner Kamptz, and became a political target. When Hoffmann caricatured Kamptz in a story (Meister Floh), Kamptz began legal proceedings. These ended when Hoffmann's illness was found to be life-threatening. The King asked for a reprimand only, but no action was ever taken. Eventually Meister Floh was published with the offending passages removed.

Hoffmann died of syphilis in Berlin on 25 June 1822 at the age of 46. His grave is preserved in the Protestant Friedhof III der Jerusalems- und Neuen Kirchengemeinde (Cemetery No. III of the congregations of Jerusalem Church and New Church) in Berlin-Kreuzberg, south of Hallesches Tor at the underground station Mehringdamm.


Hoffmaniada -The first 30 minutes of the movie Stanislav Sokolov

- an enchanting animation based on the life of Hoffman, Hoffmaniada is a film Stanislav Sokolov started more than fifteen years ago; the film has met many difficulties in finding funding. The first 30 minutes were broadcast by the Russian government with coproducer Soyuzmultfilm to find financial partners. 'It should be out in 2016'.  I do not know whether it ever was released but it deserves to be.


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