Insects and Automata in Hoffmann, Balzac, Carter, and del Toro

By White, Eric | Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Insects and Automata in Hoffmann, Balzac, Carter, and del Toro


White, Eric, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts


FROM THE ROMANTIC ERA ONWARD, REPRESENTATIONS OF INSECTS AND automata have provided compelling metaphors for conflicting manifestations of imaginative process in the literature and, more recently, cinema of the fantastic. In the following essay, I will survey an array of works--by the German Romantic fantasist E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), the nineteenth-century French novelist Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), the late twentieth-century British writer Angela Carter (1940-1992), and the contemporary Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (1964-)--that prominently employ metaphors for mechanistic and biological automatism as vehicles for reflecting upon the nature of the imagination. Among the earliest instances of these metaphors are Hoffmann's The Golden Pot (1814) and "The Sandman" (1816) and Balzac's The Wild Ass's Skin (1831), in which, on the one hand, Hoffmann's and Balzac's protagonists enjoy visionary interludes that anticipate the desiring fantasia the Surrealists would later call "psychic automatism." On the other, as they succumb to a very different form of "automatism" whose restriction of behavioral possibility to predictable routine recalls the clockwork mechanisms of the Enlightenment, they turn away from the prospect of metamorphosis when it threatens their respective investments in unitary identities.

The conflicting impulses intrinsic to the imagination take on a new metaphoric incarnation in Angela Carter's and Guillermo del Toro's recent fantastic narratives. Thus, in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972), Carter posits the specifically phallocentric character of the machinelike automatism that Hoffmann and Balzac depict as negating the metamorphic potential of the imagination. And in Cronos (1993) and Pan's Labyrinth (2006), del Toro extends Carter's critique by augmenting mechanistic metaphors with biological figurations for imaginative process. The two films extensively feature images of insects, creatures traditionally emblematic for marvelous alterity but whose behavioral repertoires, from a cultural standpoint influenced by modern biological science, have often been invoked as exemplifying the automatism of instinctual drives. Del Toro thus implies a biological basis both for the inventive automatism of imaginative shapeshifting and for its destructive twin intent on devouring the world. In the essay that follows, then, I will first of all discuss Balzac's and Hoffmann's depictions of contrary manifestations of "automatism" before turning to Carter's and del Toro's more recent reflections upon the ultimate significance of this constitutive contradiction.

The term "automata" commonly refers to a class of intricately contrived machines designed not only to reproduce the outward physical appearance of living beings but to imitate their typical behavior as well. Although such devices have been manufactured since Antiquity, popular interest in automata grew over the course of the eighteenth century coincident with developments in the technology of clockwork mechanisms and in the context of the characteristic philosophic preoccupations of the era. As Gaby Wood has shown, Enlightenment Europe witnessed both theoretical and practical ripostes to the distinction made in Cartesian doctrine between humans and other animals on the grounds that humans "possessed a 'rational soul,' whereas animals were incapable of reasoned thought" and should therefore be regarded as mere biological machines "all of [whose] faculties could be explained by mechanical means" (Wood 7). The materialist philosophe Julien de La Mettrie thus argued in his notorious 1748 treatise, The Man Machine, that consciousness itself is fundamentally a mechanistic process: "To be a machine and to feel, to think and to be able to distinguish right from wrong, like blue from yellow--in a word to be born with intelligence and a sure instinct for morality and to be only an animal--[is] no more contradictory than to be an ape or a parrot and to be able to give oneself pleasure. …

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