Hoffmann, Goethe, and Miyazaki's Spirited Away

By Knox, Julian | Wordsworth Circle, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Hoffmann, Goethe, and Miyazaki's Spirited Away


Knox, Julian, Wordsworth Circle


E. T. A. Hoffmann called his first collection of tales Fantasiestucke in Callots Manier, or Fantasy-Pieces in Callot's Manner, which meant that his stories were in the manner of the 17th century French engraver, Jacques Callot. Since the volume contained no visual reproductions and only a few references to specific works of graphic art, writing in Canoes "manner" described a common impulse that crossed the boundaries of representational art--including music, as Stucke in German refers to pieces of music more commonly than to pieces of visual art or writing. Like Callot, Hoffmann evoked the two worlds of the supernatural and the commonplace in his tales in a philosophy of representation that regards the otherwise distinct worlds of the arts as related beyond the subject matter. The absence of Callot's works (and, save for Hoffmann's brief introductory essay, references to them) called for a different way to think about their presence.

Hoffmann's multiple avenues of representation that enter a single work of art belongs to the thread of multimedia aesthetics running through German Romanticism via the art-novels of Goethe, Wackenroder, and Tieck, and the totalizing aesthetic philosophies of the Schlegel brothers. In addition to literature and philosophy, this thread runs through the expanding genre of opera in the 19th and early 20th centuries--Wagner's idea of "Gesamtkunstwerk" or total art and Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman being two prominent examples--into the new genre of film, and further still into animated film. The most recent director to acknowledge the importance of these Romantic artists is the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, whose 2001 film Spirited Away doubles as a meditation on Hoffmann and Goethe as pioneers of the "two worlds" theme that he explores in the context of Japanese culture, and as harbingers of the dynamic medium in which he works.

In his Lectures an Aesthetics delivered in Berlin throughout the 1820s, Hegel diagnosed a position such as Hoffmann's as the product of an inherently "Romantic" dissatisfaction with the formal constraints of artistic expression. Unappeased by the harmony of form and content that Hegel attributed to classical art, content or "spirit" in Romantic art takes flight "out of externality back into itself' (440). Form no longer in equilibrium with its exalted content, the result would be a proliferation of forms, and a mixing of genres within each individual work. However theoretically-sound, Hegel's position cannot offer justice to a Hoffmann, who wrote with a contagious and staggering sense of the sheer possibilities of writing, art, music, and theatrical performance shedding their accepted parameters--a contagion he might have caught from Friedrich Schlegel and his idea of a "progressive Universalpoesie" that brings together poetry and prose, art and nature, word and image, in order to render poetry "living and spirited" and life itself "poetic" (1.2: 182-83).

Despite his firsthand experience with the performing arts as a composer and theater-director, Hoffmann's own account of the integration of the arts is less detailed than Hegel's and Schlegel's. As he said in the essay, "Jacques Cal-lot," that begins the Fantasiestucke, "Could a poet or writer, for whom the figures of everyday life appear in his inner romantic spirit-realm, and which he depicts in the sheen with which they appear in this inner-world, as if in foreign, wonderful finery--could this poet not make the slightest concession to the Master and say: he wanted to work in Callots manner?" (17 translation mine). This idea resembles Coleridge's description of Sir Thomas Browne to Sara Hutchinson as seeing everything "by the light of the fairy glory around his own head" (1: 796-7), and it is fitting that Coleridge would publish these comments on Browne in Blackwood's, the same magazine in which several years later he printed a partial translation of Hoffmann's Fantasy-Piece, "Der Goldne Topf" or "The Golden Pot," under the title "The Historic and Gests of Maxilian" (1822).

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