the sand man

Maria Bonomi, Faber, woodcut on paper, 118 x 80 cm.
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By AFRANIO CATANI*

Commentary on ETA Hoffmann's novel.

the sand man, originally published in 1817, represents just one facet of the work of German writer, composer, theater entrepreneur and lawyer Ernest Theodor Whilhelm (1776-1822). Having adopted the pseudonym ETA Hoffmann, he changed the W from his real name to an A, in honor of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Throughout his life, Hoffmann did many things. However, musical activity was the occupation that most fascinated him, having left compositions for opera and a series of critical articles on Bach and Beethoven, among others. He was a lawyer for many years, until he was removed from an official position because of cartoons he published in the press that were considered disrespectful to the authorities. He only returned to legal activities in 1814, having been appointed in 1816 as a consultant to the Court of Appeal.

But there was also literature. In the presentation of one of the editions of the novel (ed. Imago), Fernando Sabino points out that Hoffmann “established himself as a writer with his mystery and terror stories, which made him known and acclaimed as one of the most expressive German novelists”, even influencing , over time, great writers such as Baudelaire, Maupassant, Poe, Wilde, Dostoievski, Álvares de Azevedo and Fagundes Varela.

The Sand Man brings together the main characteristics of Hoffmann's texts: his sense of the grotesque, the morbid, the fantastic, the supernatural. In this short novel, divided into three parts – actually, three episodes – one can observe, as the story unfolds, the transmutation of the narrator: he is no longer Natanael, Clara or Lothar, becoming omniscient. The first part begins with Nathanael telling his friend Lothar about some ghosts that have accompanied him since childhood.

The most terrible of them is the Sandman, understood by Nathanael as “a bad man, who comes looking for children who don't want to go to bed. He throws handfuls of sand in his eyes, which fall down bloodied, and carries them to the moon to feed his little grandchildren ”. That is to say, there would hardly be anything more horrifying to be ingrained in a child's mind. Furthermore, Nathanael holds Coppelius the lawyer responsible for his father's death – both Coppelius and his father secretly practiced alchemy. Nathanael later became convinced that Coppola, the merchant of barometers, was not Coppelius in disguise, even going so far as to say: the two “only exist in my mind, ghosts of my own eu, and they will turn to dust as soon as I recognize them as dust.” As time goes by, however, events confirm some of Nathanael's initial concerns.

Undoubtedly, the third part of the novel is the most fascinating, as it is there that Natanael's suspicions are realized. There is also an unsettling relationship between the main character and an automaton, programmed to perform almost all operations. It is precisely this automaton that is responsible for the somewhat unexpected outcome of the plot.

Fernando Sabino, in the aforementioned presentation by The Sand Man, insists on highlighting Hoffmann's extraordinary intuition in penetrating the domains of the subconscious, not hesitating in classifying him as the “true precursor of the explorations of modern psychology”. I don't know if Hoffmann's text goes so far. But it is full of situations that are close to absurdity and the best existing horror literature – the one that revives the Sandman that is latent in each of us.

*Afranio Catani, retired professor at USP and visiting professor at UFF, is the author, among others, of Origin and Destiny: thinking Bourdieu's reflexive sociology (Letter Market).

Originally posted on extinct Jornal da Tarde, on October 31, 1986.

 

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