Hoffmann is, of course – as anyone knows who has read anything by him – as mad as a bag of cats; and The Golden Pot is certainly no exception. One wonders at times if, unbeknown to the author, his characters haven’t been taking hallucinogenic drugs and leaving poor Hoffmann the difficult task of trying to justify their thoughts and actions.
The basic plot of The Golden Pot is this: a student, running through the market one day, upsets an apple-cart of an old woman (who is actually the progeny of the feather of a black dragon and a mangel-wurzel; the apples are her children), who places a curse on him so that, subsequently sitting under a tree, he imagines there are beautiful snakes in it talking to him, one of which he falls in love with; meanwhile, he is given a job with the local archivist, who is in fact a salamander fallen to this earthly kingdom on account of his love for a green snake etc. etc.
I quite liked the sheer madness of the first part of the story, but must admit to not liking so much the creation-myth-like elements around salamanders and lilies. (To be honest, I really dislike made-up creation myths – that is, as opposed to true creation myths). Luckily though these are fairly short, and Hoffmann doesn’t bother in general to explain much of his story. Indeed, I was left afterwards wondering what it was all about: whether it was all just whimsy, or whether Hoffmann didn’t intend some sort of Swedenborgian symbolism in all this (I have no real idea about Swedenborg or what he stood for, but all the same it seems a fair bet). Rather like Borges, my hope is he intends it as nonsense (because, like Borges, if he intends it seriously, then unfortunately it still seems to be nonsense).
The narrative has about it a certain dream-like quality. Take this piece for instance, where our hero, the student Anselmus, is showing the archivist his beautiful calligraphy:
“My dear Mr Anselmus,” said the Archivist, “you have an excellent natural gift for the art of calligraphy; but for the present, I see, I must rely more on your hard work and good will than on your skill. Part of the trouble may be the bad materials that you have been using.” The student spoke at some length about how everyone else had acknowledged his skill, and about his Indian ink and his specially chosen raven’s-quill pens. But the Archivist handed him the sheet in English style and said, “Judge for yourself!”
Anselmus was thunderstruck to see how wretched his hand-writing looked. The strokes were not rounded, the pressure had not been properly applied, the capitals and small letters were out of proportion; here and there a line was written with moderate success, but spoiled by horrid pot-hooks such as schoolboys might scrawl.
“Besides,” went on the Archivist, “your ink is not durable.” He dipped his finger in a glass of water, and dabbed it gently on the letters, whereupon all the writing vanished without a trace.
Throughout the story, everyone thinks the protagonist is mad – at least, until the same things start happening to them – and of course, it might all be madness or a dream, as for instance, the section where our hero finds himself trapped in a glass-bottle, as are some other students around him, though they claim they aren’t and are free to stroll about:
“But, my good sirs!” said Anselmus, “can’t you feel that every one of you is sitting in a glass bottle, unable to move a muscle, let alone go strolling about?”
Thereupon all the sixth-formers and solicitors’ clerks let out a peal of laughter and shouted: “Our scholarly friend is mad; he thinks he’s in a glass bottle, when he’s standing on the Elbe Bridge and looking into the water.”
There’s another story in this collection called Princess Brambrilla, which the introduction describes as Hoffmann’s “most bewildering tale”. Really, more so than The Golden Pot or The Devil’s Elixirs.