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"Narrative Complexity in the Talking-Dog Stories of Cervantes, Hoffmann, Gogol, Bulgakov, and Kafka"

Barking Humans (c) 2010 Taelyen LLC


A Thesis in the Field of Foreign Literature, Language, and Culture for the Degree of Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies

Harvard University, March 2012



Chapter III: Hoffmann's Symphony


While walking through a park on the way home from a smoke-filled tavern, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Traveling Romantic” comes across a talking dog, none other than Berganza from “The Dogs’ Colloquy.” They form a friendship, and in the ensuing conversation, the Traveling Romantic assumes the roles of Scipio as a conversation partner, of Campuzano recording the encounter in his diary, and even of Licentiate Peralta, when in Berganza’s estimation he hints briefly at being “one of those who hold everything untrue until they have physical proof of it.” [42] Berganza relates four major episodes in his life: first, his wrenching departure from the hospital in “The Dogs’ Colloquy” and subsequent encounter with a witches’ coven; second, his musical education with the composer Kreisler; third, his exposure to contemporary society as the companion of the musically-talented young Julia, the daughter of a prominent salon hostess who ends up marrying a lewd philistine; and finally, his stint in the theater, which instead of providing a story gives Berganza the occasion to vent his displeasure with the state of the theatrical arts. The entire story from the perspective of the Traveling Romantic is presented within Fantasy Pieces as “A Report on the Latest Adventures of the Dog Berganza.”

Although the degree of narrative complexity in “Berganza” is substantial, it is difficult to make a clear case that it exceeds the narrative complexity of other stories within the collection. Fantasy Pieces in Callot’s Manner poses complexities of narrative at every turn, as it includes other fictional and non-fictional characters as part of discovered letters and diaries, and characters describing dream-like reveries in which even the embodiments of musical notes and sunflowers possess a voice. Narrative complexity is one of Hoffmann’s most characteristic devices. Within his literary laboratory, “Berganza” sits as a different specimen of experimental narrative rather than, as was the case with Cervantes’ Exemplary Novels, an exceptionally complex piece among relatively straightforward stories.

Hoffmann foregoes the specific device used by Cervantes in which the dogs’ dialogue was overheard by a third party, collapsing the four main characters of “The Deceitful Marriage” and “The Dogs’ Colloquy” into two characters. Yet Hoffmann has a more elaborate frame story for the entire collection, the “Pages from the Diary of A Traveling Romantic.” Hilda Meldrum Brown writes that “Hoffmann’s development of the well-established German tradition of frame narrative takes the form to new heights.” [43] Fantasy Pieces was Hoffmann’s first collection, originally published in four volumes and marking the start of an experimental narrative style that would continue to develop through Hoffmann’s later works. Within the same published volume as “Berganza” we find “The Mesmerist,” which starts with a “family story” that turns out to have been an essay discovered in the papers of one of the story’s characters (153). Then, in the third volume of Fantasy Pieces, “The Golden Pot” ends in the Twelfth Vigil with a theretofore unannounced narrator interposed between the reader and The Salamander Lindhorst (222). Brown writes: “In the Fantasiestücke there are already signs of Hoffmann’s leanings towards the frame narrative… […] in late works written after the Die Serapionsbruder…he would develop new strategies of internal analysis to replace the more disjoined format of the frame narrative.” [44] As an early example of the experimental style, “Berganza” holds an exceptional and pivotal role in Hoffmann studies, with threads that reach into other Fantasy Pieces and into later works of Hoffmann.

Befitting Hoffmann’s musical instincts, “Berganza” has a particularly symphonic quality. Motifs are introduced in tantalizing glimpses, and then repeated through repetition and exposition later in the work. For example, after the encounter with the witches’ coven, Berganza has an annual compulsion to act like a cultured human: “I want to walk on my hind legs, tuck in my tail, wear perfume, speak French, and eat sherbet while everyone shakes my paw and calls me “mon cher Baron” or “mon petit Comte!” and no one notices anything doglike about me” (77). The abrupt shift in tone, from the perils of the supernatural to those of the modern world, is announced by the introduction of this surprising motif. Hoffmann hints at these motifs, whether the salon or society women or the state of the theater, well before he illustrates them through storytelling. From a narratological standpoint, these introductions of motifs can be interpreted as prolepses, a device of narrative order defined as “any narrative maneuver that consists of narrating or evoking in advance an event that will take place later.” [45] It is this feature that most distinguishes “Berganza” from other stories in the collection from a narratological standpoint.

On a thematic level, the obvious point of differentiation for “Berganza” is that it features a talking dog. Hoffmann signals one of the reasons for the device of the dog when Berganza notes that he can “lie unobserved beneath the stove and watch human nature reveal itself to me without shame or shyness” (86). “Berganza” uncovers how artistic efforts are received by the public, whether in the salon or in the theater, offering a single consistent perspective that can report on these worlds as a silent yet intelligent observer. Berganza’s observations of society round out the perspectives on artistic creation visible in other Fantasy Pieces, including an encounter with a composer (“Ritter Gluck”), the letters of a composer (“Kreisleriana”), and a diary entry that describes an opera performance (“Don Juan”).

The revival of Cervantes’ dog in particular allowed Hoffmann to respond to the trends of both Neoclassicist and Enlightenment thinking with a dizzying Romantic reply. German Romanticism embraced nature as a palliative to the rapidly-mechanizing industrial age, rejecting the aesthetic of hierarchical classification. The spread of Enlightenment thinking was a turning point in the idea of the animal. Previously, Cartesian thought conceived of animals as soulless machines, and by extension, the 18th-century classification project of natural historian Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, “drained the animal of its experience and secrets,” further contributing to a conception of animals as mechanical parts of an industrializing society. [46] Against this idea of the animal, the Traveling Romantic reassures Berganza: “I dare not divide and classify Nature narrow-mindedly” (76). Hoffmann later amplifies this theme in The Serapion Brothers, in which the hermit Serapion “reveals his contempt for the empiricist, sense-based, mechanical theories of perception that were associated with Enlightenment philosophy.” [47]

As a Romantic, Hoffmann was also reacting to the Neoclassicist movement and its paradigms of Greek and Roman classical models. By contrast, Hoffmann drew upon the German Romantic movement pioneered by Goethe and Schiller which imitated and celebrated the “expressive powers” and “mixed narrative with lyrical flights” of the medieval literary romance. [48] Yet the choice of Cervantes as source material was a bold one for Hoffmann, who drew from neither the common neoclassical influences nor canonical medieval romances, but rather from Cervantes’ parodic and novelistic synthesis of multiple genres in “The Dogs’ Colloquy.” Hoffmann made a powerful statement as to which canon he was paying tribute—that of the novelistic innovator rather than the standard-bearers of genre.

Hoffmann presents Berganza as a strong proponent of a specific strain of Romanticism. Much as there were rival wings of the European Enlightenment, as indicated by Jonathan Israel’s conception of a “moderate mainstream” seeking synthesis between classical and modern thought contrasted to a “Radical Enlightenment” seeking to sweep away existing structures, [49] there were multiple conceptions of Romanticism being considered by Hoffmann’s contemporaries. Berganza comments on the vision of German Romanticism presented by Mme. de Staël, of whom Warren Breckman writes:  “…much of Europe learned about Romanticism through Mme de Staël, whose political campaign against Napoleon had motivated her to portray German Romanticism as a progressive, liberal movement.” [50]

Through his human speaker, the Traveling Romantic, Hoffmann reflects the perception of Mme de Staël as a leading voice for the Romanticism, even while using the voice of Berganza to criticize sharply the way in which her ideas were understood in contemporary society. Although the Traveling Romantic reacts to the mention of de Staël’s Corinne with praise for the “lovely poetess Corinne…the lovely myrtle tree…whose branches spread so wide that the perfumes of the South waft over us as we rest in its shade” (98), Berganza takes a less charitable interpretation of how de Staël’s vision of Romanticism was received. Berganza’s vision of Romanticism is an artistic liberation that runs deeper than the “superficialities” of the women devotees of Corinne. Berganza says of his mistress:

From the time she read [de Staël’s Corinne], she went about baring more of her chest and arms than was seemly for a women of her age. She bejeweled herself with elegant chains, antique cameos, and rings. She also spent many hours having her hair dressed with expensive oils and braided in delicate hairdos to imitate this or that ancient empress (99).

Berganza’s mistress, by imitating an ancient empress, belies her attachment to Neoclassicism, and Berganza’s critique of Corinne evokes an alternate vision of Romanticism that prioritizes the preeminence of artistic liberation going through the mysterious realm of the sublime accessible only via music. Hoffmann’s musical aesthetics emphasized “the status of music as a privileged medium that transcends the constraints of everyday language, and the listener’s responsibility to understand the composer.” [51] The mechanization of nature was antithetical to the privileged and even spiritual medium of music.

Hoffmann’s other talking-animal story in Fantasy Pieces explores this theme further with a portrayal of a philistine,  “The Epistle of Milo, an Educated Ape, to his Lady Friend Pipi in North America.” Peter Bruning points out that  Hoffmann draws upon “mechanical theories of his time…to show the philistine as a mechanically drilled animal,” [52] this antipathy fueled by a “conviction that the artist is lonely in a hostile world.” [53] Unlike Berganza, who rejects the salon’s “pretended image of humanity” (77) unless compelled to transform his tastes through the witches’ curse, Milo embraces the “captivity” of his education among humans. The characteristic of the ape is being able to imitate humans, and Hoffmann applies this characteristic to imitating original artists. With his exposure to humans and training through a professor of aesthetics, Milo turns into a dilettante “busy with all sorts of art: some painting, some sculpture” (268-269); and becomes the parody of a musician, using his simian physiology to cover an extended range of octaves; a singer with “a knack for expelling hundreds of notes in a single breath” (270); and even a composer according to his own tastes, judging other composers as “inferior drudges whose only reason for existence is to serve us virtuosi by providing works that enable us to demonstrate our virtuosity” (271). In this way, Milo parodies what Berganza describes as the “nest full of children … [that] have to sing and play and paint and recite verses, regardless of whether they have the slightest intelligence or talent for it,” who later deign to pass judgment on true poetic or musical “genius” (79).

Hoffmann’s later talking-animal novel features Kater Murr, a “conceited pseudo-poet.” [54] In it, the cat writes his narrative on the back of pages containing an autobiography of his master, the musician Johannes Kreisler. The two sets of pages get mixed up, often to humorous effect. Although we will not go into depth with the talking-cat motif in this thesis, it suffices to say that in its narrative structure and readability it was “Hoffmann at the height of his powers,” [55] according to Jeremy Adler, who describes Kater Murr:

The book effectively reinvents reading. As we turn the page, we confront alternating fragments, to be hurled inexorably from one narrator to another, by turn delighted and bewildered, teased and enthralled. Just as we become familiar with a story, it breaks off at a dramatic climax, whereupon confusion and momentary tedium set in as we accustom ourselves to the other tale, which again stops just when we have become absorbed. By its repeated shocks the narrative buffets us between two worlds. [56]

Fantasy Pieces originally appeared in four volumes. The first volume contained previously-published pieces, and was published contemporaneously around Easter 1814 with the second volume, containing “Berganza” and “The Mesmerist.” [57] As such, “Berganza,” completed March 1813, [58] was the first fully-conceived story written with Fantasy Pieces in mind as a collection. Thus, “Berganza” was an integral part of the introduction to the writer’s presentation of himself to the reading public. His earlier pieces were written using Johannes Kreisler as his pen name, [59] and it was the positive reception of those pieces that spurred enough interest in his work to entice him to sign his work under the name E.T.A. Hoffmann.

Although the “Berganza” example does not provide strong support for the overall thesis in terms of whether it has narrative complexity exceeding other stories in the collection, it nevertheless represents an important milestone for Hoffmann and a strong statement of aesthetic intent that would find fuller voice in his later work. “Berganza” provided an early blueprint for a model of narrative Hoffmann would later hone to perfection with Kater Murr.

Patricia Stanley describes how Fantasy Pieces follow Friedrich Schlegel’s concept of the arabesque with “a flow of ideas and perceptions that trigger and succeed each other without connective (authorial or narrational) explanation.” [60] Stanley describes the method by which which Hoffmann employed the arabesque in “Berganza” as “a serpentine shifting of thematic materials, that is, a rapid alternation of one theme with several others.” [61]

            The effect of such writing is to promote reader participation, [62] making the interpretative demands upon the reader an intentional device of the author. In Fantasy Pieces, the narrative complexity acted as a filter barring the way to those with unrefined artistic sensibilities, the philistines who would abandon the effort to penetrate the text. Abigail Chantler writes:

The ironic tone which pervades many sections of the text originates in the disingenuousness of Hoffmann’s expressed admiration for the musical philistines, which only the true artists amongst his readers were intended to appreciate. Through the cultivation of this ironic tone, he not only tacitly emphasized the necessity for the reader to take an active interpretative role in order to understand his intended meaning, but excluded the philistines amongst his readers, who would fail to adopt such a role, from an insight into their superficiality and thus from a proper appreciation of music as a metaphysical medium. [63]

Considering this application of narrative complexity, we might reevaluate “Berganza” as to what degree the dog’s pronouncements were intended as sincere aesthetic statements or ironic reversals of the same. According to Keith Chapin, who cites the dog Berganza as a prime example, “Hoffmann… refracted his views into the mouths of a variety of speakers and thereby paid tribute to the variety of possible viewpoints on an issue.” [64]

Therefore, we have to question the degree to which Hoffmann wanted the reader to agree or disagree with Berganza’s more outlandish propositions, considered individually. We might consider Berganza’s view of educated women as a statement with calculated shock value, moderated both by an element of ironic reversal and by the presence of a more-sympathetic Traveling Romantic. The philistine woman would take offense at the surface insult of the talking dog, even as the artistic woman might peer through the layers of ironic reversal to intuit a more nuanced statement within.

Irony is a delicate instrument, and even Hoffmann himself remained unsure how “Berganza” would be received. In a July 1813 letter to his publisher Carl Freidrich Kunz, Hoffmann emphasized that the story be published precisely as intended: “I am very curious how the Dog [Berganza] is going to come off; for I assume, relying firmly on your discretion, that there will be no changes made aside from those I made myself.” [65] As it turns out, he may have strayed too far. In September 1814, prior to the publication of the third volume, Hoffmann wrote to Kunz about how the second volume had been received by in his new home of Berlin: “Through the Fantasy Pieces I have become quite well known here and, I might also say, notorious; Berganza had some controversial aspects, which incensed the ladies, whereas the Magnetiseur [Mesmerist] turned out completely to their liking.” [66]  

Hoffmann’s aesthetics called for active adulation and appreciation of genius, and his musical writings posited the composer as having contact with a transcendent realm through music, which is only comprehensible to the sensitive poetic listener through great effort, inaccessible to the philistine. In Fantasy Pieces, we can see the transposition of this musical aesthetic into the realm of writing and storytelling, with Hoffmann challenging his readers to follow his narrative perambulations in the same way that active listeners were expected to exalt the geniuses of musical composition.






[42] E.T.A. Hoffmann, Fantasy Pieces in Callot’s Manner: Pages from the Diary of a Traveling Romantic (Schenectady: Union College Press, 1996) 76. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the chapter.

[43] Hilda Meldrum Brown, E.T.A. Hoffmann and the Serapiontic Principle: Critique and Creativity (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2006) 119.

[44] Meldrum Brown 7.

[45] Genette 40.

[46] Steve Baker. Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity and Representation (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993) 12.

[47] Meldrum Brown 40.

[48] Warren Breckman, European Romanticism: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008) 1.

[49] Ann Thomson, Bodies of Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) 16.

[50] Breckman 29.

[51] Keith Chapin, "Lost in Quotation: The Nuances Behind E.T.A. Hoffmann's Programmatic Statements," 19th-Century Music 30.1 (2006): 47.

[52] Bruning, 119.

[53] Bruning 111.

[54] Bruning, 117.

[55] Jeremy Adler, Introduction, Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, by E.T.A. Hoffmann vii.

[56] Adler xxii.

[57] Hayse writes in the introduction to Fantasy Pieces that the first volume appeared in February 1814 (xi), but then a few pages later, writes that the first two installments appeared at Easter, 1814 (xvi) – which was in April 1814.

[58] Hoffmann 307.

[59] Hoffmann xv.

[60] Patricia Stanley, “Hoffmann’s ‘Phantasiestücke in Callots Manier’ in Light of Friedrich Schlegel’s Theory of the Arabesque,” German Studies Review 8.3 (Oct., 1985): 405.

[61] Stanley 406-407.

[62] Stanley 407.

[63] Abigail Chantler, E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Musical Aesthetics (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2006) 42.

[64] Keith Chapin. "Lost in Quotation: The Nuances Behind E.T.A. Hoffmann's Programmatic Statements," 19th-Century Music 30.1 (2006): 53.

[65] E. T. A. Hoffmann, Selected Letters of E. T. A. Hoffmann, ed. and trans. Johanna C. Sahlin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977) 203.

[66] E. T. A. Hoffmann, Selected Letters 238.