Along with its central characters – Nathanael, a young student; the optician Coppelius; and Olimpia, his daughter – E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1817 story Der Sandmann has firmly established a place for itself in the European cultural canon.1 For instance, the tale presented composer Jacques Offenbach with the material for one of the acts of his 1881 opéra fantastique Les contes d’Hoffmann. As Hoffmann’s story unfolds, Nathanael falls madly in love with Olimpia, while perhaps also falling into madness. Consequently, his discovery that she is actually an automaton constructed by her ‘father’ Coppelius, who in turn doubles as the menacing sandman Coppola out on the hunt for Nathanael’s eyes, hovers in an insolubly ambiguous state between the literary depiction of a mad person’s delusions and the representation of a world in which the common laws of reality don’t apply. As such the text has served as prime subject matter for by now classical interpretations and first rank theorizations.
For Freud, this scenario in which a mechanical doll functions as repository for a type of animation, i.e. aliveness, that clearly exceeds its mere technological set up, constituted a topical rendering of the feeling of the uncanny.2 This he traced to the partial return of repressed psychical contents, being expressed via an exterior entity/object, in this case an insufficiently regulated or controlled belief in the aliveness of things. According to literary critic Tzvetan Todorov, Hoffmann’s story can be read as a prime example of what he called ‘the fantastic’ in literature, a register which generates an ontological instability between moments that seem to conform with the reader’s expectations of reality, and a context in which these rules are at least partly suspended.3 With media theorist Friedrich Kittler, Hoffmann’s text could in turn be described as one instance of the Aufschreibesystem (discourse network) 1800, in which writing itself has the capacity to evoke quasi-hallucinatory modes of un/consciousness and perception.4 In all of these readings the figure of Olimpia plays a central role. Many important questions about this literary character could be, and indeed have been asked; not least, for example, what type of gender arrangement the reader confronts here, in a scenario which assigns a purely mechanical identity to the female role, which thereby functions as a blank screen for the projections of an essentially male audience.
Yet there is one question that seems not to have been posed so far. It is a question that might at first seem strangely out of place, or rather, temporally misplaced – anachronistic, if you will. And yet, this question might suggest a larger contextual setting within which Hoffmann’s story functioned: Why, one could ask, is Olimpia a doll? Why not a statue? This question may at first sight appear arbitrary but its logic is dictated by historical circumstances. In quite a number of texts written only thirty to fifty years earlier than Hoffmann’s story, one encounters casts of figures, or motifs, which are precisely that: sculptures. Let’s think of them as Olimpia’s elder cousins. Although in a different manner, Olimpia still combines many of the attributes that were associated in 18th-century thought and writing with the figure of the sculpture; the sculpture of the human body, to be precise. Just like them, Olimpia incorporates the very characteristics of an image, for Olimpia clearly exists to be looked at, as an object for contemplation. She has, as it were, visuality written large all over her beautiful artificial body; starting from her crippled oral capacities, which deprive her from fully accessing the domain of the aural (all she utters is ‘Ach’, that most German of all sighs, echoing the sounds of lovesick Nathanael), up to the point that for her observer their intertwined story becomes one of Nathanael potentially losing his eyes.
In texts like Winckelmann’s 1756 Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst (Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture), Herder’s 1769/70 and 1778 Plastik (Sculpture), or Lessing’s 1766 Laokoon; or, in Rousseau’s scène lyrique Pygmalion (1762) this concrete embodiment of the image was figured throughout in stone. And even the play of aliveness and death which we find in Olimpia in its characteristic (Freudian) ‘uncanny’ vacillation could be seen as having its various precursors in all those sculptures in 18th-century texts which embodied the doctrines of classical aesthetics by which art achieved the semblance of life, i.e. by which an artwork, although composed of mere matter, evoked an impression of inexhaustible aliveness in its viewers.5 In her study Im Zeichen Pygmalions (1998), literary scholar Inka Mülder-Bach has analyzed the centrality of the artistic medium of sculpture for 18th-century aesthetics, and the topos of Pygmalion in particular.6 Art historian Victor Stoichita’s The Pygmalion Effect (2008) further traces the long history of this ancient Greek myth for European culture’s understanding of images.7 The Pygmalion-scenario, then, could be said to constitute a specific constellation in which art, understood as an animating force, is most clearly expressed in the sculptural representation of the human body: the statue. This functions both as an image of art, and an image for images, in which what was dead matter comes to life. Within this paradigm, sculptures became travelling image-agents between the soils of antiquity and modern, northwestern Europe. They were pictures, equipped with an actual bodyliness, which for their observers served as counterparts in the very encounter with art.
Returning to Olimpia, one is struck by the rearrangements of this topos, which seem to have taken place. Stone has turned into mechanical metal; aliveness now hovers disconcertingly between death and a disturbingly incomplete, deficient animation; and the entire meeting of viewer and embodied image may very well be the mere product of a disturbed psyche. What is perhaps even more puzzling is the fact that, at least within the panorama of German-speaking theory, literature, and art, Olimpia seems to be marked by a nearly complete lack of contemporary relatives, so to speak, or so a cursory survey suggests.
Where does one find sculptures as object-foci for an aesthetic discourse and a reflection on images at that point of time? In Kleist’s 1810 Über das Marionettentheater (On the Marionette Theater) the Hellenistic Boy with Thorn functions as a mere shadow, a barely palpable blueprint for a boy who unwittingly adopts a pose of perfect grace; in Wackenroder’s and Tieck’s 1796 Herzensergiessungen eines kunstliebenden Klosterbruders (Outpourings of an Art-Loving Friar), a central image-theoretical piece for the context for German Romanticism, sculpture is entirely absent, effectively shunned for other media like painting; one strange exception, to be considered at a later point, may be Brentano’s ‘verwilderter’ (‘overgrown’) novel, the 1800 Godwi oder das steinerne Bild der Mutter (Godwi or the Stone Image of the Mother).
Overall, one begins to sense that Hoffman’s Olimpia stands in a context, in which the centrality of sculpture to aesthetic discourse and to theorizations of the role and functioning of art and images, which had characterized the second half of the 18th century, had abruptly ended. Olimpia’s identity as an automaton, rather than a sculpture, may in fact reflect this decreased power and presence of sculpture as a medium for figurative reflection. One wonders why. Or, more simply: Where did all the statues go?
5. On the various interconnections of aliveness, life, art, and 18th century aesthetics see the contributions in Vita Aesthetica. Szenarien ästhetischer Lebendigkeit. Eds. Armen Avanessian, Winfried Menninghaus, Jan Völker. Berlin, Zurich (Diaphanes) 2009.