E.T.A. Hoffman & Romanticism

As a Roger Kimball fanboy, I appreciate the cultural commentary at The New Criterion, his publication dedicated to covering high culture.  Kimball proves that you can appreciate, understand, and analyze the best of Western civilization’s cultural output while still supporting Donald Trump.  If these “artistic” types on the Progressive Left were truly tolerant, they’d read The New Criterion.  Yes, Executive Editor James Panero sounds like someone you’d want to give a wedgie, but he’s a bonafide cultural conservative (side note:  check out that link to his lecture on Russell Kirk’s ghost stories).

Regardless, Hannah Niemeier wrote a charming piece about E.T.A. Hoffman, “The man who made Romanticism“; it is well worth the read.  Hoffman is a somewhat forgotten figure whose literary works inspired (and were inspired by) some of the great composers of the classical and Romantic periods.  For example, Hoffman wrote the short story that served as the source for Tchaikovsky’s beloved The Nutcracker.

His life eerily mirrors one of his most famous devotees, Robert Schumann:

Both were reluctant lawyers, right-brained men in a left-brain profession, with personalities subject to extreme moods that bordered on mental illness. Schumann’s music famously spans the creative continuum between mild and wild, and in his compositional method, he was like Hoffmann’s Kreisler: “sometimes mad, sometimes lucid.” He wrote the eight-movement Kreisleriana, a representative work of Romantic-period piano music, in four days in 1838.

Yet both men were aware of the dangers of artistic passion. Schumann was a genius, but an unstable one. He often went into creative depressions in which he could hardly function, let alone make music. Haunted by the idea that creativity and madness came from the same place, he said his greatest fear, which increased along with his musical mastery, was of losing his mind. But it was a fate he couldn’t escape; in 1856, at the age of forty-six, he died of syphilis. In a coincidence that seems to belong in one of his “uncanny stories,” Hoffmann had died at the same age, and of the same disease (though more than three decades earlier).

That moody artistic temperament is distinctly Romantic.  It no-doubt influenced some of the cultural instability of the 1960s counterculture, with its emphasis on the individual as his own god, ironically a slave to his inner emotional turmoil.  But it also served as a powerful counterbalance to the cold, mechanistic progress of the Enlightenment, reminding us that we have deep connections to God, to the land, and to each other.

Like the Romantic period his work inspired, Hoffman was a man of contradictions and tensions; a fascinating, brilliant individual.

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