Smile for the camera

EAB attendees: Mustafa et al.

EAB attendees: Mustafa et al.

Turkey has an incredible number of archaeological sites, 52 in Ankara alone according to a display at the outstanding Anadolu Medeniyetleri Müzesi (Museum of Anatolian Civilizations).

The museum was selected as the first “European Museum of the Year” in 1997. It has examples from Paleolithic, Neolithic, Early Bronze, Assyrian, Hittite, Phrygian, Urartian, Greek, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuq and Ottoman periods.

More EAB: Fatih, Ömer, Fettah

More EAB: Fatih, Ömer, Fettah

But whether in the museum or at an actual site, whether the people are Turkish or foreign, whether it’s a recreational event or a conference on educational research, the event of the day is the photo op, often in the form of a selfie.

Our civilization adds the latest sediment on top of layers of complex and beautiful artifacts. This is the digital photo, often destined to reside forever within the memory of a smart phone, and occasionally to be shared on a social media site.

Everywhere there are people taking photos or asking to have theirs taken. I hear “one, two, three, cheese” spoken with a variety of accents. But there are many other ways to alert people to the click of the camera and to get them to smile. In Turkey, i’ve heard “one, two, three, peynir,” or “bir, iki, üç, peynir,” substituting the Turkish for “cheese,” just as an Italian might say “uno, due, tre, formaggio.”

People in China sometimes say “Qiézi (茄子),” which sounds a bit like a three-syllable version of “cheese.” Continuing the food theme, many Korean speakers say “kimchi.” In Norwegian, some say “smil,” both requesting a smile and making one happen. One of the more interesting ones I’ve heard is the Turkish, “üç yüz otul üç,” a tongue-twister meaning “333.” However, there are always some spoil sports, including some who say that “cheese” and expressions like that are not good for photos anyway:

Global understanding

 

Finding Turkey

Finding Turkey

It makes sense that global understanding starts with understanding the globe. At least that’s what some children and I think.

It was a Monday in the Multipurpose Unit Early Classroom Intervention Program (MUECIP) in Çanakkale, Turkey. This program is an innovative approach for 4-5 year-olds from low-SES families, which integrates music and arts. The student teacher, Dilsad Korkmaz, did an excellent job of keeping the children engaged and allowing for the inevitable individual differences.

The program draws from approaches such as Orff, Babies with Identity, and High-Scope. There is ample use of graphic displays on class size, seasons, daily activities, birthdays, responsibilities, etc. Family participation is encouraged through interviews with the families and home visits to observe children in their natural lives. Parents rotate in providing breakfasts, which also gives them an opportunity to observe the class and engage in the activities.

Finding Cape Cod

Finding Cape Cod

Research by Özlem Çelebioğlu Morkoçc and Ebru Aktan Acar at Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University has shown that the program supports overall development, including cognitive and psychomotor skills, self-care, language, and personal-social skills.

It was more compelling to me that the children seemed so engaged in learning. They were excited to talk and share, to dance, and to investigate everything. I had to remove my electronic fitness bracelet when it became too great a distraction. Besides, it was embarrassing that they figured out how to operate it in about 1/10 of the time I had taken.

At one point we drew upon a globe for some collaborative map work. Using many fingers, we first found Turkey, then Cape Cod. I’m not sure how much they comprehended about the globe versus how much they just wanted to interact with each other and their American “uncle.”

Personal questions

Lonely Planet publishes a good Turkish phrasebook, which has been handy in many situations. It provides some basic information about the language, the country, and the culture. I’d recommend carrying a copy, unless you’re fluent in Turkish.

But like any guidebook, the advice about social interactions is necessarily simplified, often essentializing differences. For example, the book advises:

Avoid asking questions about someone’s age, religion, or sexual preference, as the Turkish prefer not to discuss these topics openly. They love talking about politics, but exercise a little caution when expressing your opinion – some Turks verge on the fanatical when it comes to the ‘p’ word.

Phrases such as “the Turkish” or “They” are red flags, which can never be universally valid. I accept the advice to avoid personal questions on a first meeting, but I’ve found that at least some of the “They” actually like to talk about these topics. I’ve been asked: How old are you? Where do you live? What religion are you? How tall are you? What do you think about Obama? What do you think of Turkey?

When in an eczane (drugstore), I took advantage of the free scale to weigh myself. A druggist peered at the scale to check my number and then gave his approval. That may have been professional monitoring, but I sensed simple curiosity at work as well.

I’m sure that some of the They “love talking about politics,” but we were cautioned not to bring up politics with two men, who despite being friends and colleagues, had radically different political views. On the other hand, in the US, I know many people who “verge on the fanatical when it comes to the ‘p’ word.” Maybe they all have Turkish heritage.

The phrasebook also suggests,

When you meet someone of the opposite sex who has strong religious beliefs, avoid shaking hands or kissing them. Instead, greet them with the Arabic words selamin alekküm. (p. 105)

Again, broadly useful advice, but off in so many particulars. Turkish people we have met seem to vary widely in terms of talk and gestures. Some women initiate the double cheek kiss. Moreover, in a city, especially in university communities, there are people from all over the world with diverse habits. “The Turkish” vary a lot in terms of their international experiences and customs. And I haven’t heard selamin alekküm used in greetings.

One might also ask how to know whether someone has strong religious beliefs if that topic hasn’t come up. You can guess by clothing styles, but that’s far from infallible. I have a friend here who is deeply religious, but dresses in a modern style and drinks alcohol. Some women dress very conservatively, but for reasons of family or personal choice, not religion.

At another point, the phrasebook suggests,

When talking with people you’ve just met, or those you’re talking to in the polite siz (you) form, it’s considered rude to cross your arms or place your hands in your pockets. (p. 108)

This reminds me of a different guidebook that warns “the Chinese” do not like it when you point a finger at them. In my experience, most people sense that crossed arms, hands in pockets, pointing at people, and so on, are at best informal, and usually off-putting. I might just as well suggest to a Turk, “when meeting someone in the US for the first time, especially in a formal situation, don’t stand there with your arms crossed or point your finger at them. The American doesn’t like that.”

World Englishes

Kachru's three circles of English

Kachru’s three circles of English

The concept of World Englishes has been much studied by groups such as the International Association for World Englishes (IAWE), including my own colleagues at the University of Illinois. They consider localized English in global contexts, how it’s spoken and written, along with pragmatic factors such as appropriate use and intelligibility.

When traveling, I notice these issues frequently on a very personal level. For example, one day we were waiting for the elevator (i.e., lift) in a hotel in İstanbul. A couple of people from Munich came up to us to ask about the hotel. We described our room, and then began to talk more generally. They then asked where we were from and were surprised to hear that it was the US. They had judged by our accent that we were from the UK.

Norwegian Star

Norwegian Star

In this case, I don’t think the confusion was due to our having British accents. Instead, it was from having enough interactions with speakers of various World Englishes that we had unconsciously muted our marked US accents, especially my Texas talk. That possibly more subdued and more clearly articulated dialect has proved necessary in travel and work with international colleagues.

Another example arose later the same day. A different couple approached us on a sidewalk, with one saying in a strong Arkansas accent, “Are y’all cruise people?” What was interesting then is that we were marked by appearance as possible cruise people without having said a word, an example of non-verbal language. Moreover, Susan couldn’t understand them, but I, who had grown up in a neighboring country, could.

We had to confess that we weren’t cruise people, but we were able to tell them where their ship was docked. It was a 2000 passenger Norwegian cruise ship about three blocks away. I’m not sure that it was the Norwegian Star, but it was one that looked similar to the one shown here. In any case it was hard to miss, but we were happy to help them find their way home.

Performing at the National Conservatory

The piano

The piano

On Thursday, I was able to practice piano at the National University of Music Bucharest (UNMB).

My venue was ideal. Set at one end of a small performance hall, there was a new Yamaha grand piano, similar to the one shown here. There were plenty of chairs, but no actual people listening. There was a nice view of trees and the rest of UNMB outside the fourth-floor windows.

On the wall was a poster advertising the George Enescu annual international music festival. As one of the world’s best modern composers, Enescu was also an outstanding violinist, pianist, and conductor. The poster displayed his image looking directly at my seat at the piano.

I decided to start with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A♭, Opus 110. I’ve been working on this one for a long time. It’s very challenging for me, although there are moments when I can play it well enough to get lost in the beauty of the music.

Universitatea Națională de Muzică din București

Universitatea Națională de Muzică din București

When I started I couldn’t help but notice Enescu’s stare. According to Wikipedia/Vincent d’Indy, if Beethoven’s works were destroyed, Enescu could reconstruct them all from memory. Would he approve of my feeble efforts? Was it an insult to his memory to be playing that beautiful sonata in front of him?

As I began to play, these thoughts disturbed me. Then I heard Enescu say, “why are you paying attention to me? You should focus on Beethoven, even more on this particular piece.” I turned back to the music, but other thoughts interfered. The score was backlit by the sunlight through the windows; the bench didn’t seem to be adjusted right; I wondered whether I should have had coffee first. Enescu spoke up again: “Yes it’s a wonderful spring day in Bucharest, but you want to play this sonata. Forget the light, the bench, the coffee. Leave it behind and feel the music.”

I knew that he knew I was missing notes, stretching the rhythm, and phrasing in ways Beethoven never imagined. It must have pained his musical ear, if not his musical soul. But he knew, as I’m beginning to learn, that with practice those things can improve. What mattered was to bring my full attention to the music.

I plodded along, trying to ignore all the distractions. Then it happened.

Maybe it was because I realized this was just between Beethoven, Enescu, and me. No one else was there. The wonderful venue didn’t matter. And Enescu had made it clear he wasn’t relevant either. For the first time, I really began to hear the music. I played the entire sonata beginning to end. Forget the fact that my tempo was about a third of Enescu’s and that the list of “areas for improvement” would be longer than War and Peace.

Enescu helped me, just for a moment, to go from struggling to experiencing. I think of his lifelong passion of music, and what it must have meant to him to feel that kind of loss of self and immersion in music as he both traversed and added to the repertoire.

We don’t have any further performances scheduled at the Conservatory on this trip. I’m sorry if you missed it!

The video clip (1978) is of Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody N° 1 Op 11, with Sergiu Celibidache conducting the Bucharest George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra at the Romanian Athenaeum.

Héloïse and Abélard

Tutoring

Tutoring

In 1971, I was fortunate to see an excellent play at Wyndham’s Theatre in London. It was Abelard and Heloise, by Ronald Millar. Keith Mitchell and Diana Rigg(!) had the title roles. The play was moving and the acting was superb. I can still visualize scenes, not so much from the stage setting, which was fine, but because the story caught my imagination.

Under the pretext of study we spent our hours in the happiness of love, and learning held out to us the secret opportunities that our passion craved. Our speech was more of love than of the books which lay open before us; our kisses far outnumbered our reasoned words. –Abélard

Père Lachaise Cemetery from apartment

Père Lachaise Cemetery from apartment

Over the years I would read whatever I could find by or about Héloïse d’Argenteuil and Peter Abélard, including biographies, fictionalized accounts, children’s stories, poetry, song, and of course the letters themselves. I saw several movie versions, some better than others. I began to learn how the story had inspired copies, re-mediations, satires, and endless allusions in a wide variety of artforms.

Héloïse had seen this coming, with her own perceptive reflections on pictures, letters, talk, and physical presence. For example,

If a picture, which is but a mute representation of an object, can give such pleasure, what cannot letters inspire? They have souls; they can speak; they have in them all that force which expresses the transports of the heart; they have all the fire of our passions, they can raise them as much as if the persons themselves were present; they have all the tenderness and the delicacy of speech, and sometimes even a boldness of expression beyond it. –Héloïse

My obsession with the topic became worse in 2004, when we lived not far from Notre-Dame de Paris, where Abélard had studied and taught. I found an English translation of Régine Pernoud’s book in a used book store. Pernoud lists Héloïse first, which makes sense. Abélard was a great orator and writer, one we might revere even more if most of his works hadn’t been destroyed for his heresies. Yet, Héloïse (a great scholar herself) is the one who makes their story come alive, whether you interpret it as a love story, a theological debate, an example of 12th C patriarchy, or an invention of later writers.  His letters are fascinating to read, but hers leap to the heights of the written art, even in translation from the original Latin.

Monument to Ablard & Héloïse

Monument to Ablard & Héloïse

One thing that comes through in every retelling is the tragedy of it all. There is of course the castration and the subsequent separation of Héloïse and Abélard. But there is also the tangible agony of struggles between possibility and reality, spirituality and desire, trust and betrayal. Their love always entailed suffering with happy moments that became recollections before they were fully realized. Even their son Astrolabe appears as a shadow of a world they imagined, but never had.

Later, when their connection was only through letters, Héloïse seeks a way to share the loss, to find meaning in the emptiness:

Let me have a faithful account of all that concerns you; I would know everything, be it ever so unfortunate. Perhaps by mingling my sighs with yours I may make your sufferings less, for it is said that all sorrows divided are made lighter. –Héloïse

You can read one version of this in Alexander Pope’s poem, Eloisa to Abelard. Eloisa is in anguish over her powerful feelings for Abélard, especially as manifested in her dreams:

Black Melancholy sits, and round her throws
A death-like silence, and a dread repose:
Her gloomy presence saddens all the scene,
Shades ev’ry flow’r, and darkens ev’ry green,
Deepens the murmur of the falling floods,
And breathes a browner horror on the woods.

She realizes that Abélard, now as a eunuch who is free from the “contagion of carnal impurity” cannot return her feelings even if he wants to. And so she begs, not for forgiveness, but for forgetfulness.

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;

Today, one can walk near Père Lachaise cemetery on rue Pierre-Bayle. Bayle was a 17C philosopher. Where Abélard committed the heresy of seeing reason as a path to faith, Bayle advocated a separation between the spheres of faith and reason. He wrote about Héloïse and Abélard in his Historical and Critical Dictionary, a forerunner of the encyclopedias. One can also walk on the rue du Repos, which, were it not for the cemetery wall, would lead directly to where they lie in “repose” at their monument.

Cynics will point out that the monument was placed there in 1817 simply as a marketing ploy to convince Parisians to be buried among the famous; that the bones of the famous lovers are probably at the Oratory of the Paraclete, or the church of Nogent-sur-Seine, or most likely, just lost; that their love, if it existed at all, was no more than an expression of medieval structures of religious oppression, patriarchy, abuse of position, class, and power; and that the famous letters themselves were a literary concoction made long after the actual events.

Héloïse d'Argenteuil

Héloïse d’Argenteuil

Abélard would disdain these worldly concerns, and urge the cynics, along with Héloïse to

Strive now to unite in yourself all the virtues of these different examples. Have the purity of virgins, the austerity of anchorites, the zeal of pastors and bishops, and the constancy of martyrs.

But Héloïse would know that “the truth is more important than the facts.” She’d recognize that the Père Lachaise monument shows their eternal love, which endured politics, religion, castration, and even Abélard’s pomposity and coldness. She’d also see that just like Keats’s youth, they can never touch, so encased in granite, their suffering also endures forever.

References

The Icon Walk

Merchant's Arch, Temple Bar

Merchant’s Arch, Temple Bar

Temple Bar is an area with narrow, cobbled streets on the south bank of the Liffey in central Dublin. It’s famous the world over for its lively nightlife, but that’s not high on my list of reasons to visit it. There are better places in Dublin to experience Irish food and music, ones where you’re more likely to encounter people who actually live in Ireland. However, the area does offer much that’s special, such as the Irish Film Institute.

One that we just discovered is The Icon Walk, a project of The Icon Factory. It’s located just off Fleet Street, along Aston Place, Bedford Lane, and Price’s Lane. Local artists have transformed the lanes into an open air gallery of Irish culture. It’s recently been awarded approval as a UNESCO City of Literature site.

Someone described the Walk as a twenty minute activity, but it deserves more than that. There’s a great collection of photographs, drawings, paintings accompanying sayings of famous writers and artists, descriptions of moments in the history of sports, movies, fashion, and more.

Arriving at the Playwrights section, we read,

Around 1610, Shakespeare wrote the “The Tempest” and retired to Stratford on Avon where he died in 1613. Queen Elizabeth I having completed the conquest of Ireland was dead. The last of the great leaders, O’Neill and O’Donnell were gone to Spain and Ulster planted with Crown subjects.

Between 1613 and the War Of independence in 1922, which won back self rule for most of Ireland, no play of real merit was written in the English language by anyone other than by an Irish-born writer.

The selected icons–Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge, and Oscar Wilde–won’t be enough to convince everyone of that claim, but their collective oeuvre is amazing.

Along the walk, you can see many great images produced by a wide variety of artists. A few of those are on the website, but the majority are visible only on the walk itself. They’re best seen that way, in any case, in the context of the other artworks and Temple Bar itself.

One of the best parts for me was the individual quotes, both from writer’s works and from their lives. For example, we read,

Beckett went on to live with an older woman who was not exactly a barrel of laughs. She took the phonecall that informed them of Samuel’s Nobel Prize. “This is a disaster, our lives are ruined” she responded.

In the eighties, Beckett was invited to Germany to direct “Waiting For Godot”. When presented with the script which he had not read in many years he exclaimed; “This thing needs a good edit”.

John Hume, third from left

John Hume, third from left

(Again, however, most of these texts exist only on the walls. I hope there will be an exhibition book at some point.)

One thing I learned was that in 2010 John Hume was chosen in an RTÉ survey as Ireland’s Greatest. He was also the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize (1998), the Gandhi Peace Prize, and the Martin Luther King award. He had modeled his own work for equality in citizenship on that of Gandhi and King. Unfortunately, his peaceful work was disrupted by violence and the “troubles” began. Hume became a leading figure in the civil rights movement in the late 1960s. Through speeches, marches, hunger strikes, dialogues, and long-term negotiations, Hume was behind many of the developments and agreements toward peace in Ireland, and later for European unity.

You can get a sense of the walk from the video below (only part of which is in English):

Las Misiones Pedagógicas

burros

Traveling libraries

As we’re about to set off on a trip both to explore and to discuss progressive education, I’m thinking about the example of the Misiones Pedagógicas in Spain in the early 1930’s.

My colleague, Iván M. Jorrín Abellán, just sent a link to a digital copy of the 1934 report: Patronato de Misiones Pedagógicas : septiembre de 1931-diciembre de 1933, in the collection of the Bibliotecas de Castilla y León. It tells the story of the Misiones  through text, photos, and a map. Even if your Spanish is as poor as mine you can enjoy the many photos and get enough of the text to appreciate the project.

Some of the photos of uplifted, smiling faces are a bit much for today’s cynical eyes. Still, it’s hard to deny that something important was happening for both the villagers and the missionaries.

el-teatro

Watching theater

The Misiones Pedagógicas were a project of cultural solidarity sponsored by the government of the Second Spanish Republic, created in 1931 and dismantled by Franco at the end of the civil war. Led by Manuel Bartolomé Cossio, the Misiones included over five hundred volunteers from diverse backgrounds: teachers, artists, students, and intellectuals. A former educational missionary, Carmen Caamaño, said in an interview in 2007:

We were so far removed from their world that it was as if we came from another galaxy, from places that they could not even imagine existed, not to mention how we dressed or what we ate, or how we talked. We were different. –quoted in Roith (2011)

phonograph

Listening to music, outdoors

The Misiones eventually reached about 7,000 towns and villages. They established 5,522 libraries comprising more than 600,000 books. There were hundreds of performances of theatre and choir and exhibitions of painting through the traveling village museum.

We are a traveling school that wants to go from town to town. But a school where there are no books of registry, where you do not learn in tears, where there will be no one on his knees as formerly. Because the government of the Republic sent to us, we have been told we come first and foremost to the villages, the poorest, the most hidden and abandoned, and we come to show you something, something you do not know for always being so alone and so far from where others learn, and because no one has yet come to show it to you, but we come also, and first, to have fun. –Manuel Bartolomé Cossio, December 1931

There’s an excellent documentary on the Misiones, with English subtitles. It conveys simultaneously the grand vision and the naïveté, the successes and the failures. As Caamaño says, “something unbelievable arrived” [but] “it lasted for such a short time.”

Watching a film

Watching a film

In her study of Spanish visual culture from 1929 to 1939, Jordana Mendelson (2005) examines documentary films and other re-mediations of materials from the Misiones experience. Her archival research offers a fascinating contemporary perspective on the cultural politics of that turbulent decade, including the intersections between avant-garde artists and government institutions, rural and urban, fine art and mass culture, politics and art.

I’m struck by several thoughts as I view the documentation on the Misiones. Today’s Spain is more literate, more urban, more “modern”. But although the economic stresses are different, they have not disappeared.  There are still challenges, in some ways greater, for achieving economic and educational justice.

Iván and other educators are asking how the spirit of the Misiones might influence community-based pedagogy in current times. Their experiences have lessons for those outside of Spain as well.

References

Mendelson, Jordana (2005). Documenting Spain: Artists, exhibition culture, and the modern nation, 1929–1939. State College: Penn State University Press.

Roith, Christian (2011).High culture for the underprivileged: The educational missions in the Spanish Second Republic 1931 – 1936. In Claudia Gerdenitsch & Johanna Hopfner,  (eds.), Erziehung und bildung in ländlichen regionen–Rural education (pp. 179-200). Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Summer clarinet and piano

Photos courtesy of Luz Zambrano

Photos courtesy of Luz Zambrano

Like the TARDIS, Wellfleet seems bigger on the inside. The array of activities seems impossible for a town its size.

Last night I saw that the array was not just in quantity, but in quality as well. Monika Woods on clarinet and Deborah Geithner on piano offered a concert worthy of any featured event in a major city. The full house, the standing ovation, and the encore were testament to the beautiful music.

coverIt is easy to understand why Monika was the first prize winner at the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra Soloist competition this year. You can listen to one of her performances here.

The programme yesterday evening featured Bach, Schumann, Saint-Saëns, Vaughn Williams, and Massenet. Every piece was a pleasure to hear, not something I’d say about many concerts. The feeling of a special event is enhanced by the fact that each attendee’s copy of the programme is individually penned, as is Deborah’s tradition.

The Saint-Saëns Clarinet Sonate in E-flat major, Op. 167, which he composed in his 86th and last year of life, was a highlight that elicited wows and bravos. The Allegretto first movement was especially ethereal and welcomed when its theme returns in the fourth movement. The piece as a whole was captivating.

The Sonate showed off the dialogue of clarinet and piano, as did Massenet’s Méditation from the opera Thaïs (Andante Religioso). That was another very moving selection. but it’s futile to make too much of any one piece, since every offering was excellent.programme

It was no surprise that the audience would demand an encore. The reward was Este a székelyeknél (Evening in the Village), by Béla Bartók. It’s a simple, lyrical piece, with two contrasting themes, which balance beautifully.

Drawing on elements from Transylvanian folk songs, Este a székelyeknél completed the evening’s theme of familiar, entrancing melodies, revealed by great composers and two great performers.

Monika Woods & Deborah Geithner

Monika Woods & Deborah Geithner

The concert was part of the Summer 2013 Concert Series at the Wellfleet United Methodist Church. This series has been a big plus for the community, drawing in people even while it’s still light enough for beach-going. The sanctuary last night was filled with nearly 100 concert goers.

Hoffmann’s feverish dreams

E. T. A. Hoffmann

E. T. A. Hoffmann

One doesn’t just read, but rather descends, into the tales of Hoffmann. Sir Walter Scott must have agreed when he judged that Hoffmann didn’t need literary criticism as much as he needed medical assistance:

It is impossible to subject tales of this nature [referring to “The Sand-man”] to criticism. They are not the visions of a poetical mind; they are scarcely even the seeming authenticity which the hallucinations of lunacy convey to the patient; they are the feverish dreams of a light-headed patient.

Lunatic he may be, but somehow Hoffmann manages to convey essential truths through his grotesque tales and drawings.

The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker

In conventional stories, a character has an identity that we learn about as events unfold. Often that identity develops or evolves, but generally, we at least know whom we’re talking about. Supernatural elements, if they appear, may be hard to explain, but we can usually distinguish them from the ordinary. There’s typically some sort of resolution, which gives us a semblance of coherence.

Hoffmann is quite different. Writing two centuries before post-modernism, Hoffmann turns the rules inside out. Neither we as readers, nor the characters, nor, as I suspect, Hoffmann himself, always know whether a given event is real or imagined. Is it an hallucination, a metaphor, a dream, or a supernatural occurrence? Is the kobold we encounter an independent entity, or simply a buried aspect of some character’s personality? Is this one a person, or a doll that the character assumes is alive? Is some occurrence the dream of a character, of Hoffmann, or one that we forgot that we’d been having and now can’t eliminate from our thoughts?

The Tales of Hoffmann

Spalanzani & Coppélius in “Tales of Hoffmann”

Combining rich, believable realism with extravagant fantasy, Hoffmann gets the reader to probe deep into the story, whatever the reader imagines that to be. He challenges Aristotle’s Poetics by offering only the beginning and the middle, but not the end, or resolution: He shows us that it’s a disservice to a good story to bring it to an end; the reader should be allowed to carry it onward.

In one of his best stories, The Golden Flower Pot, We struggle along with Anselmus to make sense of a world that doesn’t make much sense. The Archivarius tells him,

the gold-green snakes, which you saw in the elder-bush, Herr Anselmus, were simply my three daughters; and that you have fallen over head and ears in love with the blue eyes of Serpentina the youngest, is now clear enough.

The elder-bush, then a snake, now becomes the love of his dreams:

The Student Anselmus felt as if he now merely heard in plain words something he had long dreamed of, and though he fancied he observed that elder-bush, wall and sward, and all objects about him were beginning slowly to whirl around, he took heart, and was ready to speak; but the Archivarius prevented him; for sharply pulling the glove from his left hand, and holding the stone of a ring, glittering in strange sparkles and flames before the Student’s eyes, he said: “Look here, Herr Anselmus; what you see may do you good.”

It’s painfully obvious what Anselmus should not do, yet, he does. We as readers follow obediently and disastrously, learning along the way the preposterousness and the tragedy of romanticism from one its major initiators.

The Doll (DIe Puppe)

The Doll (DIe Puppe)

Thanks to these features, Hoffmann’s stories invite a variety of interpretations on multiple levels. The nutcracker may be Napoleon and the seven-headed mouse king, his seven cabinet members. But they may also be Hoffmann’s critique of romanticism, or a manifestation of buried aspects of the personalities of Clara and Fritz. Or, maybe they’re just idle fantasies, and Hoffmann has seduced the reader into unveiling his own psychic disturbances.

Ernst Theodore Wihelm Hoffmann is best known by his pen name, E. T. A. Hoffmann (Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann). But if my experience and that of a few friends is any guide, he’s not known well known by any name today, at least in the US beyond scholars of German romanticism, and certainly not anywhere near what his contributions deserve.

Some people are familiar with Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, an opera based on Hoffmann’s short stories with him as the main protagonist, or with the Powell and Pressburger film. Fewer still know that Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker was inspired by Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” That may be due to the fact that the sweet Christmas performances of the ballet lack the disturbing edge that Hoffmann works into all of his stories.

Kapellmeister Kreisler

Kapellmeister Kreisler

But I didn’t know that Hoffmann’s stories inspired many other famous works of music and film (e.g., Alfred Hitchcock, Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander); that his writings were a major influence on Edgar Allen Poe, Nikolai Gogol, Charles Dickens, Charles Baudelaire, George MacDonald, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Robertson Davies, Alexandre Dumas, père, and even Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung; that he wrote the first (Western) detective story, a novella (Mademoiselle de Scudéri); that his stories are the basis for much of modern gothic, ghost, sci-fi, and other genres; that he was arguably the first romantic composer in music, inspiring Robert Schumann and others; that his music and literary criticism were major influences on romanticism; or that he was an accomplished sketch artist, political satirist, and philosopher.

Worth getting to know. Just be careful about those dreams.

References

Hoffmann, E. T. A. (1967). The best tales of Hoffmann (edited with an Introduction by E. F. Bleiler). New York: Dover.

Scott, Sir Walter (1827). On the supernatural in fictitious composition. The Foreign Quarterly Review, I(1), 60-98.