The Golden Pot, by ETA Hoffmann

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.

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8 thoughts on “The Golden Pot, by ETA Hoffmann

  1. If it’s more bewildering than ‘The Devil’s Elixir’s’ I’m not sure I’d be able to take it 😉 Glad to see that the one Hoffman I’ve read seems to be the norm rather than a madcap exception…

  2. Maybe I’m a bit mad too, I ‘m very fond of this type of madness. I’m not sure anymore whether he took it all seriously, but I don’t think so, not all of it. He called many of his pieces capriccios. I suppose you read a collection? That’s problematic with Hoffmann, he is very conceptual.
    Fräulein Scudéry and Der Sandmann are two of the most “logical”. I should re-read the first.

  3. I have been meaning to read something by Hoffmann for some time. This sounds extremely odd. I have this idea of a sort of folk Murakami in my head.

  4. T: I think all of Hoffmann is to a greater or lesser extent mad (apart from one short story I’ve got which is dull and realist). I am looking forward to being even more bewildered by Princess Brambilla.

    C: I am fond of Hoffmann’s madness too. – I’ve read before the Penguin Classics collected tales (although I remember none of it), and currently I’m reading a World’s Classics collection. I did notice the other day looking for things to read for GLM a book by him called the Serapion Brethren – which is an original collection of stories (from which some I’ve read have been excerpted), but which seems to have themes, and people discussing the stories in between them. I might read this next.

    Hi Seamus. I thoroughly recommend Hoffmann and it is exceedingly odd. Although he has folk elements, I don’t know if he really comes across that way (he’s not at all like, say, the brothers Grimm) – he’s very imbued with literature and the occult (hence the Borges comparison – a cross perhaps between Borges and Sterne).

  5. That is what I meant exactly. There are always bits and pieces in between which give a deeper meaning or titles point out something. the Golden Pot is from Fantasiestücke in Callot’s Manier and when you look at Callot’s engravings, it makes sense, adds more meaning. There are authors where it is not important to read the original collections but in his case I think it is.

  6. I have trouble remembering Hoffmann, too. Crazy illogical stuff is hard to remember.

    Hoffmann should be available in a set, original order, frame stories, everything as it was.

    Fantasiestücke in Callot’s Manner actually was translated and published as a book. The translator writes about his plans to keep going with a complete Hoffmann. That was many, many years ago.

    I didn’t know about the recent start on The Serapion Brethren. A while ago I tried to read everything available in English. I at least read everything I could find.

  7. There you are: I just read The Sandman, which I’d read before, but none of it really seemed at all familiar. A bit more explicable psychologically than The Golden Pot.

    The Serapion Brethren can be read here on Project Gutenburg. It has 2 volumes, which may or may not be all of it (I think it was originally published in 4).

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