The Stakes of Mimesis: Tracing Narrative Lines in the works of E. T. A. Hoffmann and Honoré de Balzac

Dickson, Polly Letitia 

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My project offers a set of comparative close readings of texts by E. T. A. Hoffmann and Honoré de Balzac. Balzac’s early fiction, I contend, grapples with questions relating to the representational practice of mimesis through an explicit engagement with Hoffmann’s work. Hoffmann’s fiction, in turn, proves itself repeatedly to contain the traces of a proto-realist tendency, through its playful interventions into the staging of narrative creation. The contribution of my project to scholarship is twofold. First, it offers comparative readings of texts that have not yet been drawn together, hoping to re-adjust the common ascriptions of ‘Romanticism’ and ‘Realism’ to Hoffmann and Balzac respectively, and to identify a new complication in the relationship of those generic categories. Second, it articulates a new account of mimesis. By drawing on the work of twentieth-century theorists such as Erich Auerbach, Walter Benjamin and Merleau-Ponty, it shows that ‘mimesis’ refers not merely to the imitation of an object, but rather to the reproduction of a particular sensory experience of that object. This perspective on mimesis allows me to unfold new readings of the two authors.

How is life compromised in the name of fiction, of the artwork? This question recurs compulsively in Hoffmann’s tales, figured in repeated and near-repeated scenarios in which the everyday is pitted against an ideal or delusional alternative. When Balzac imitates or repeats this mimetic question in the works I consider, it is invariably figured in the image of Hoffmann, called upon as a fictional co-author or authorial double, or as a para-textual element, often in highly visual terms. The thesis thus addresses what I have come to term the ‘stakes of mimesis’. If a particular compromise, or particular stakes, are involved in the creation of fictions, for Balzac those stakes are drawn in distinctly Hoffmannesque terms.

The thesis is structured according to the conviction that the relationship between the two writers is not simply a linear one of filiation or influence, but one led by a more complicated sense of imitation. To this end, I take to task the conventional figure of the narrative ‘line’ and follow it through various Romantic and modernist complications. My first chapter, ‘Chiasm’, works as a conceptual introduction to the readings, tracing a particular account of literary mimesis from Plato to Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The four subsequent chapters each read a pair of texts by Hoffmann and Balzac alongside one another. Chapter Two, ‘Line’, focuses on the arabesque lines of Der goldne Topf and La Peau de chagrin. Chapter Three, under the emblem ‘Trope’, examines the paper identities of characters in Die Abenteuer der Sylvester-Nacht and Le Colonel Chabert. Chapter Four, ‘Figure’, considers the delusional artist figures and ekphrastic narrative frameworks of Der Artushof and Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu. Finally, Chapter Five, ‘Cross’, examines questions of inheritance between Die Elixiere des Teufels and L’Élixir de longue vie. In unfolding these emblematic figures as models of reading, I seek new ways of thinking about the relationship between these two authors, and about the act of comparative reading.

Webber, Andrew
White, Nick
E. T. A. Hoffmann, Honoré de Balzac, mimesis, narrative, narrative lines, Realism, Romanticism, representation, imitation, comparative literature, nineteenth century, France, Germany
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
This project was funded by a Wolfson Foundation Postdoctoral Scholarship in the Humanities and by a Hanseatic Award from the Alfred Töpfer Stiftung.