‘Illusional Optics: Motifs of Mental Image Projection in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Literary Narratives’

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)


The German Romantic E. T. A. Hoffmann employs optical lenses and instruments such as the telescope, microscope and magnifying lenses as motifs in a discourse on the power of the gaze that questions the validity of viewing from a single perspective, and criticizes the literal, rational and scientific approaches to viewing. His literary work provides the most sustained commentary in German literature of the Romantic era on the subject of perspective and on the search for alternative modes of viewing relating to the unconscious and the imagination. In his narratives the naked “eye” is marked by its failure to establish objective truth and is characterized by a subjectivity that can only cause ambiguity. His characters gain insights via lenses and glass that are deceptive and alienating, and when combined with the power of the imagination, they allow the viewer through the lens to see the imagined, the supernatural and the fantastical; this usually enhances the character’s failings. Untypical for Hoffmann, is the positive treatment of the motif of the telescope in his narrative Des Vetters Eckfenster (1822) which is no longer a misguiding prosthetic, as in Der Sandmann (1816), that distorts vision, but is instead an instrument that allows the viewer to engage the imagination positively because the disconnectedness and limitations of this viewing strategy leaves space for invention, projection and the construction of an alternative reality and truths. Optical motifs then, encapsulate the idea of the outward projection of the mental image during the creative act; this idea is also significant for Hoffmann’s use of microscopic lenses in Meister Floh (1822). Ultimately Hoffmann points to a Romantic crisis of vision, and the modern subject’s awareness of the fracture between the sign and its meaning, and the word and image.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationin Etudes à la loupe. Optikinstrumente und Literatur
EditorsRaluca Hergheligiu
Place of PublicationSuceava
PublisherEditura Universităţii “Ştefan cel Mare”
Number of pages10
ISBN (Print)978-973-666-354-6
Publication statusPublished - 2010


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