The Hoffmann Connection: Demystification in Angela Carter's 'The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman.' (E.T.A. Hoffmann) (Angela Carter)

By Christensen, Peter | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

The Hoffmann Connection: Demystification in Angela Carter's 'The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman.' (E.T.A. Hoffmann) (Angela Carter)


Christensen, Peter, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


IN THE AFTERWORD to Fireworks (1974) Angela Carter expresses her admiration for E. T. A. Hoffmann and Poe, who write in such an extreme fashion that they do not trick us about the nature of social problems. She states, "I'd always been fond of Poe, and Hoffmann--Gothic tales, cruel tales, tales of wonder, tales of terror, fabulous narratives that deal directly with the imagery of the unconscious--mirrors; the externalized self; forsaken castles; haunted forests; forbidden sexual objects." However, instead of justifying these stories as an entry point to a world of expanded knowledge in a Romantic vein, she praises them because the "tale cannot betray its readers into a false knowledge of everyday experience." Not only does Carter not want daily existence mystified, she also warns, "Let us keep the unconscious in a suitcase, as Pere Ubu did with his conscience, and flush it down the lavatory when it gets too troublesome."(1)

The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman (1972), published in the U.S. as The War of Dreams (1974), shows Carter as both an heir of Hoffmann and a writer against mystification. The young male narrator, Desiderio, on a mission for the Minister, kills both the master illusionist Dr. Hoffman and Albertina, his equally dangerous shape-changing daughter. He saves his society from a world in which dream and reality will be confused to the point that Dr. Hoffman can use human desire as his means of taking totalitarian control. Desiderio becomes a national hero while doing his duty and murdering the beautiful Albertina, the great love of his life.

Although Carter points out Desiderio's male chauvinism, we should not consider his triumph either meaningless or sinister, given the alternatives. Desiderio's nameless South American city is presented as both masculine and colonial, that is, reactionary in itself, but Dr. Hoffman's attacks on it only make it worse, for he brings about wholesale unemployment and outbreaks of typhus. Furthermore, statistics for "burglary, arson, robbery with violence and rape"(2) rise to astronomical heights, and citizens are safe neither at home nor outside. Carter wants us to think that the novel's outcome, despite the triumph of prosaic reality, is a better one than the victory of an irrationality manipulated by the power hungry. We can understand this idea better through a contextualization of the novel with reference to E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), whose influence is reflected in the choice of the novel's title and in the name of one of the characters, "Drosselmeier," borrowed from the enchanter in the fairy tale "Nutcracker and Mouse-King."

Hoffmann's defense of rationality helps us analyze the debate which has arisen over the outcome of the ideological struggle in Carter's novel. Dr. Hoffman is not at all an elegy for the public defeat of the ideas of Marcuse and Reich, as David Punter sees it. Instead, as Elaine Jordan indicates, "The Minister can represent both conservative common sense, and Marxist claims to be scientific, emerging historically out of positivism. Hoffman is both the surreal, liberatory opposition to both, and capitalist control of desire throught the media." For Jordan, the novel's ending appears to be ironic or despairing, and we are not to prefer one side to the other. In a similar vein Sally Robinson notes that both the Minister and Dr. Hoffman "are complicit in the same ideological agenda: they both position Man as an imperialist subject whose desire gives free reign to exploitation and domination." Ricarda Schmidt appears more sympathetic to Desiderio's triumph, stating, "Carter does not write about a revolution that went wrong, because...[the] reactionary forces were still too strong, but about the painful insight that such a revolution would not be liberating." Schmidt comes closest to the sympathy that Carter herself expressed in an interview with Santiago del Rey for the triumph of rationality at the end.(3)

One way in which we can understand Carter's exposure of the dangers of unchecked desire in Dr. …

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