Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Reading Hoffmann: Mythmaking and Uncanniness in Jean Lorrain's Monsieur De Phocas

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Reading Hoffmann: Mythmaking and Uncanniness in Jean Lorrain's Monsieur De Phocas

Article excerpt

When E.T.A. Hoffmann's tales were introduced to France in translation in 1833, they became so popular as to inspire an entire genre. Scholars generally contend that in the second part of the nineteenth century, authors associated with the fantastic shifted attention from supernatural phenomena to the inexplicable within the human mind (Wandzioch 207). The French decadent writer Jean Lorrain (1) only occasionally brings the supernatural into play in his stories; scholars have nonetheless categorized his work within the field of the fantastic, citing the troubled psychic state of his characters, the frequent sense of deja vu and the emphasis on hallucinations. (2) In what follows, I examine the significance of E.T.A. Hoffmann's "The Sand-Man" (1816) for Lorrain's novel Monsieur de Phocas (1901). Further, I demonstrate that the "Freudian" imagery in Lorrain's novel also derives from Hoffman's story, which was in fact the point of departure for Freud's analysis of the uncanny (1919). To draw out the narrative parallels between Freud's and Lorrain's reading of the same source, I will note how Lorrain uses "Sand-Man" imagery as a subtext for his story and discuss the common features of the two works; I will then examine the similarities between Freud's reading of "The Sand-Man" and Lorrain's elaboration of its central motifs. The analysis will shed light on Monsieur de Phocas as a bridging text between the "natural" fantastic of the early nineteenth century and the "inner" fantastic of the fin de siecle and illustrate the extent to which decadent literature engages in an inquiry on the human psyche.

In 1930, Mario Praz described the fin de siecle author Jean Lorrain as "a fumiste [ether addict] of quite deplorable taste" and "a case of 'virility complex' in a being of feminine sensibility, a hysterical, with homosexual tendencies" (338). Today, Lorrain's eccentric personality continues to influence the way in which his fiction is read. Biographers underline how Lorrain was teased and condemned for his ether addiction and sexual inclinations, the latter though he had little solidarity for other homosexual intellectuals. At the time, popular theories such as Von Krafft Ebing's defined homosexuality as a pathology. Lorrain, as Christophe Cima notes, was probably familiar with these treatises and seemed to have perfectly assimilated the homophobic discourse of his contemporaries (121). He was fascinated by "monomanie," a term that in medical discourse was soon to be replaced by "obsessional neurosis," and regularly attended Jean Charcot's lectures on hysteria at the Salpetriere school (Noir 13). Besides his familiarity with Charcot and the interest in hysteria, Lorrain shared with Freud a great appreciation for the German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822). At the turn of the century, Hoffman's stories enjoyed an extraordinary popularity encouraged by Jacques Offenbach's operatic version Les Contes d'Hoffmann (1881). Both Freud and Lorrain were particularly struck by the short story "The Sand-Man," which prompted their reflections on the causes and implications of the passion for the inanimate, on the significance of bodily fragmentation, and the relation of both phenomena to uncanny feelings.

Hoffmann's story opens with an exchange of letters through which we learn of Nathaniel's obsession with the Sand-Man, a legendary figure who makes children's eyes pop out of their sockets by throwing sand in their faces. Though this correspondence we learn that as a child, Nathaniel identified the Sand-Man with the unpleasant lawyer Coppelius, his father's friend and collaborator in alchemical experiments. Nathaniel recalls how he hid in his father's studio during one of their reunions and saw blinking, eyeless faces in the fire. He was discovered by Coppelius, who threatened to gouge his eyes out and finally spared him because of his father's pleading. Here Nathaniel's memories become confused: he describes how he fell into an hallucinatory state and sensed Coppelius seizing him violently, taking his limbs apart and reassembling them. …

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