Myths of Poesis, Hermeneusis, and Psychogenesis: Hoffmann, Tagore, and Gilman

By Smith, Lansing Evans | Studies in Short Fiction, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Myths of Poesis, Hermeneusis, and Psychogenesis: Hoffmann, Tagore, and Gilman


Smith, Lansing Evans, Studies in Short Fiction


The myths of the maze, the goddess, and the descent to the underworld play a key role in the "Mines of Falun" by E. T. A. Hoffmann, "The Hungry Stones" by Rabindranath Tagore, and "The Yellow Wallpaper," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. All three works present images of women imprisoned within a labyrinthine underworld that represents the threat of madness; and in each case the myths become metaphors for poesis, hermeneusis, and psychogenesis. While the three myths are archetypes frequently found in world literature, it is rather rare to find them so intricately combined to fashion a complex allegory of writing, reading, and the birth of the self.(1)

In Hoffmann's "The Mines of Falun," Elis, the romantic protagonist, descends into the mines of the Metal Queen, lured downward by the mysterious old miner, Torbern, who leads him through a "gate" ("dem Tore") on the road to the mines (930; 176). Torbern is what van Gennep would recognize as a threshold guardian, and what Karl Kerenyi would call a "Seelenfuhrer"--or psychopomp. As such, Torbern is associated with doorways (archaic icons of liminality and descent), which lead to the entrance to the mines. Elis stands in between identifies (sailor and miner, bachelor and husband), drifting in a marginal limbo, literally "standing at the door," neither in nor out (932). Though initially afraid to go down into the "hell like abyss" of the mines (927), Elis follows Torbern bravely to "the enormous gulf, like the jaws of hell itself," from which stupefying vapors rise, as if from a "hell-broth ... brewed down below" (930). He compares the mine entrance to the place where "Dante went down and saw the Inferno" (930); the miners themselves look like "diabolical creatures" (931). When Elis first goes down to work in the mines, the "uncanny" Torbern appears like a "black shadow," to strike his hammer with the force of "distant thunder," before disappearing "amongst the black labyrinths of the chasms" (934). Later Elis sees the "desolate crags" at the entrance to the Inferno as a "numberless horde or horrible monsters, the dire brood of hell" (936). Hence, Hoffmann's evocation of the underworld draws from Dante, Norse legend, and classical mythology: Torbern is a Virgilian guide, leading Elis into the Inferno; he is a type of Thor, swinging his hammer to strike fire and thunder; and he is a type of Hades, albeit servant to his Persephone, the Metal Queen who rules down below, and to whom Elis is irresistibly drawn.

For the labyrinthine underworld of the cave is also the archetypal domain of the Earth Goddess. Eliade suggests that the cave was assimilated to the labyrinth and the goddess from prehistoric times: "To penetrate into a labyrinth or cavern was equivalent to a mystical return to the mother" ("Terre-Mere" 75; my trans.). By the same token, the "ores extracted from mines are in some ways embryos" (42), and "the kiln where enameling material was smelted (schmelzofen) was designated by the name of matrix or maternal bosom (Mutterschoss)" (38). Hence, Elis ultimately collapses into the arms of "the mighty queen" of the caves, who draws him "to her breast" (936). The alchemical dimensions of mining and the imagery of the Great Goddess emerge later in the story, when Elis resolves on his marriage night to go down into the caves in order to retrieve the "queen's heart," which he imagines as a "glorious red carbuncle" that is the maternal source of all "hearts and souls" (938). Like the image of the Goddess herself, the metallurgical operations leading to the forging of the philosopher's stone in alchemy are natural symbols of creative processes of poesis, a point Joyce would later make clear in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which closes with Stephen Dedalus's resolving to "forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race" (253). Other feminine symbols of creativity in "The Mines of Falun" include the notions of cooking and brewing (the vapors rising from the "hell-broth" brewed down below [930]), old Germanic symbols of the union of the loving and terrible aspects of the Goddess to be found in, for example, "Hansel and Gretel," or in the image of the "Black Witch" ("Schwarze Kochin") in The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. …

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