Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Devil’s Elixirs - E.T.A. Hoffmann

There were moments while reading this book where I almost began to enjoy myself. The narrative while at times obscure and hazy is at least fast paced and the constant barrage of new characters provide the reader with a never ending cornucopia of beautiful but sinister people. True, some of the characters were a bit Dickensian, a little too outlandish; but they seemed to provide a cattle prod that zapped the narrative forward in stutters and starts, which is preferable to a total lack of motion. It’s never a good sign when there’s an archaic family tree hidden in the back of the book…

The messy incestuous family tree reminded me of 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. While the characters are almost secondary to the plot in Marquez’ book, we are carefully urged to memorize the messy family zen diagram by the “editor” that occasionally pops up and cuts off the narrative at the most intense and important parts. (The first time felt like “WHAT! Oh no he didn’t just “lose the manuscript”…but by the second or third time the “manuscript became illegible” I wanted to punch the fictitious editor in the face…a part of my joy died and I felt somewhat used and jaded.) 

After a list of names the editor says: “Everything will become clear to you, good reader, if you remember these names and their relations to each other. What follows is the continuation of that family history.” 

Obviously the genre of “the family tree” is not really my favorite. 

Our protagonist is the monk Medardus, who from a young age has devoted himself to the church. His background is a bit murky, but he is led to believe that his Father died not long after his birth, and while his mother never mentions his occupation, he assumes he was a man uncommonly gifted and well educated. 

As Medardus begins his memoirs it is clear that he isn’t going to selectively remember anything with rose colored glasses. As he grows into a healthy and boisterous youth he encounters his first temptation in the form of the choirmaster’s sister who he accidentally walks in on as she’s dressing. He is deeply mortified and in an instant his innocence is lost and a small toe hold has been carved out for the devil. While he struggles to resist his congenitally lascivious nature, it is a struggle he is not equipped for and one wishes a prior would sit him down and have a discussion about the nature of puberty. 

Instead, as the choirmaster’s sister shamelessly flirts, Medardus is caught in a vortex of all consuming passion:

“She had been sitting by the grand piano for some time, until she finally stood up and stopped at a chair, leaving a glove behind. I seized this glove and in madness stuffed it into my mouth.” 

Within a paragraph, the shame from this glove ingesting incident is enough to provide a form of penance, and he devotes himself to a life of monastic chastity, promising himself that no temptation will ever divert him from his now confirmed true calling. 

His constancy lasts until his next temptation, which occurs on the next page. He is a youth and lives the consequential ebb and flow of mixed emotions and raging hormones. He feels suspicious of the authenticity of the ancient relics and is gently reminded that “unbelief is the worst superstition of all,” a lesson he is destined to learn the hard way. When cautioned not to drink the little bottle filled with an ominous elixir, we must suffer along with Medardus as he wages war against a pinprick of temptation that turns into a never ending gale of voices encouraging and prompting him to drink the elixir. Like the snake in the garden, craftily misconstruing the admonishment, he is convinced that knowledge is more powerful than obedience. He finds himself drinking the sacred liquid only to find instead of a curse a deep and powerful feeling of joy and immortality rising within him. 

It is not long before he finds himself a renowned orator and believes himself a step away from sainthood, but as his motives become saturated with pride and impurity he finds his hold on lucidity shaken. The devil has stepped into his life and what follows will be a contest between sin and virtue fought to the death. 

The first 30 pages described above set the stage for what is to follow, a feedback loop of growing strength, power and vitality only to be shaken and pitched back into a teeming sea of madness. 

This book has been described as a Gothic romance…and while I totally see the Gothic element in the figurative gargoyles that litter every page…the romance is a little harder to get on board with. When a women, dressed as Saint Rosalia confesses her love for Medardus and then quickly leaves before he can ascertain her identity, he decides he must escape his monastery and track this vision of a woman down. In a strange turn of events that involve Medardus accidentally pushing off a cliff his doppleganger/cousin Viktorin and then assuming his identity he spends the next 200 pages lost in a world of multiple personalities, each personality becoming more believable to him and less so to the reader. 

Since he has given reign of his soul to the devil he transforms from a pubescent youth eating gloves to a degenerate womanizer. He is preoccupied with deflowering his love interest Aurelie, which occasionally provides a spasm of regret at what he has become…but only a spasm and he quickly rights himself and continues Operation Seduction, while he takes up a liaison with Aurelie’s stepmother who is under the impression that he is Viktorin, her secret lover. Thankfully his plot to seduce Aurelie is poorly conceived and involves a lot of tutoring sessions dressed in his Capuchin monk garb, and an occasional “accidental” profession of love and man-handling. 

In a series of unfortunate events Euphemie, the step-mother and Hermogen, Aurelie’s brother, end up dead/murdered making the tally of collateral damage three. As the dust settles and the estate is alive with the search for the obvious suspect, Medardus, our hero finds himself in dwelt with the spirit of the murdered Viktorin.

As Medardus in the guise of Viktorin makes his way through the forest to a place he can lie low and practice his assumed identity he ponders what went wrong with his fleetingly short and unsuccessful courtship of Aurelie.

“Her destiny seemed so inextricably linked with my own, and we were both so magically joined by some irresistible force or some unbreakable bond that, in the end, she could not fail to be mine.” 

“Aurelie lived, and that was enough to encourage my hopes of possessing her in the end! And better still, it was certain that she would be mine. Fate was sure to prevail, and even she would be unable to resist fate. For surely fate was just another word for my own actions.” 

Medardus has confused creepy stalking with true love and while the reader can hope that’s the last we see of Aurelie…there is no doubting that some inextricable force will undoubtably bring them together again and again.

Throughout his misadventures, Medardus has been given an obscure task that involves going to Rome, and like Jonah and his call to Nineveh, despite his obstinance Medardus continues to find himself moving along a trajectory that brings him closer to his preordained destination. 

Now deeply shrouded in the persona of Viktorin, he seems to be followed by an insane Capuchin monk and his reality becomes a muddied pool of interwoven narratives combining the life of Viktorin and Medardus into a singular being. 

Eventually Medardus/Viktorin ends up at the court of Prince P. and there assumes yet another identity, this time as a member of the Polish gentry Leonard/ Leonardus Kwiecziczewo. For a while everything seems to be going well for Medarus/Viktorin/Leonardus. He is embraced by Prince P. and they have many proficient discussions that range from architecture to gambling. One day the physician at court sits down and discusses all the intimate family secrets of the life of Prince P. revealing that the father of Medardus murdered the prince’s brother and was a diabolical wretch among other things, and as he pauses to ingest this piece of horrific news who walks into the door with the Princess as a new member of the ladies in waiting, but Aurelie. 

Aurelie is of course disconcerted to see the man that has murdered her brother at court, but since he’s wearing different clothes and has a different haircut it’s enough to persuade her that maybe she’s mistaken about his identity. Medardus, who at this point is on the brink of insanity and driven wild by his creepy licentious lusts briefly manages to convince everyone he is not a murderer, until they decide to throw him into prison just to make sure, where he sifts through his murky self conscious and tries to figure out who he is. 

Eventually he is annoyingly let out of prison and goes through the process of convincing everyone he’s the Pole Leonardus, so convincingly that Aurelie agrees to marry him. All seems to be going well, despite his tenuous hold on sanity and the never abating taunts from his sinister doppleganger…until Medardus and Aurelie make their way to the altar and in a fit of passion Medardus attempts to murder Aurelie and then runs into the forest where he has a midnight wrestling match with his doppleganger/satan/his un-dead cousin Viktorin. 

He awakes 3 months later and this time the reader is too jaded by the cyclical storyline to hope for anything but a swift and painful death for our hero…but alas there’s more to come for our little chrysalis Medardus has now transformed into a truly penitent sinner, who for once seems to be a singular person. As he self flagellates and lives off of crumbs and water he lives a life of penance for his many sins. 

Then there is a long discussion about his family history with the take away being: his father was such a reprobate born of a line of reprobates destined to give themselves to the devil…that how much sin is he responsible for? Wouldn’t one expect the son of a murderer to murder almost as a hereditary trait? Medardus seems to be given an out, while it is true he committed the crimes, in a way he was merely an automaton doing the perfunctory bidding of the devil. 

Eventually we get to the thesis: “…for you were given the strength to defeat Satan, no matter how fierce the struggle with him. What man does not have evil raging in his heart, striving to overthrow the good that also resides there? But without this conflict there can be no virtue, for what is virtue unless it is the victory of the principles of good over those of evil; and sin is what arises when the outcome of battle is reversed.”

Medardus struggles against temptation until his death. And while he is victorious, it is never a landslide victory but one that must be fought again and again with only creeping strides and minuscule advancements. Medardus must hold the burdens of his predecessors’ sins on his shoulders and while their repetitive histories intertwine and dilute his lucidity, he must struggle against not only his demons but a generation of demons that perch around him screaming cat calls as he stands precariously on the edge of damnation. 

In its most distilled summation this book is about the struggle for virtue amidst a barrage of temptation when the scales have been unevenly measured and failure is a requisite element of redemption. Ultimately we can have victory, like Medardus when our “giant of consciousness and choice” struggle with the beast of temptation and sin. When the giant wins there is virtue: when the beast wins there is sin. 

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