Translated from German by Ritchie Robertson

Utterly bonkers! I haven’t the foggiest what’s going on … Just a couple of statements from the members of an online discussion forum I was a member of years ago, I remember this group read well – not that I participated. I didn’t feel up to the challenge. Fast forward somewhere between 15-18 years and I got there finally. With the aid of a Hoffmann seminar and exhibition last June, and a series of pictures by Stefan Klenner-Otto which condensed the plot and gave me enough insight to make a start.. Without it and my recent readings of other Hoffmann tales I’m afraid my verdict might well have been “bl**dy bonkers!”

That said, The Golden Pot is easily summarised. Simply put: a man is torn between two lovers, and must decide between Veronika, the one who wishes only a settled bourgeois life married to a respectable privy councillor, and the other one who does not only support Anselmus’s poetic ambitions, but actively fosters them. (This is where it gets more complicated.) Her name is Serpentina, and she, the daughter of the archivist Lindhorst, introduces herself to Anselmus in the form of a green snake with deep blue eyes. Her father is also a shape-shifter. He appears in many guises, but he is actually a salamander, the Elemental Spirit of Fire, exiled from Atlantis. He cannot return until he has found loving, childlike and poetic husbands for his three snake daughters …

There is a very good plot synopsis on Wikipedia for those whose curiosity is aroused by this seamless though mind-boggling blend of reality and fantasy.

In The Golden Pot Hoffmann, bureaucrat by day, creative artist by night, fictionalises his own dichotomies. That he never gave up the bureaucratic day job (well, not until he was forced) accounts for the reason why he does not pillory his bourgeois characters. Their choices are legitimate, even if limitations are imposed by them. (cf the symbolism of Anselmus’s imprisonment in the glass bottle when he’s about to choose Veronika). Artistic choices are more exciting, opening doors into fantastic worlds, far removed from the physical reality of the Dresden in which his characters are moving. Transposing the fantastic, the supernatural, from the forests and the medieval settings of earlier stages of German Romanticism onto recognisable contemporary streets turned The Golden Pot into the modern fairytale that Hoffmann advertises in the story’s subtitle.

It feels really bizarre to talk about taking the Golden Pot at face value, but I’ll do that for a moment.

*** Spoiler alert ***

The fact that Anselmus is released from the glass bottle shows that he finally plumps for Serpentina. They marry, and live happily ever after in Atlantis with the moral of the story summarised by Archivist Lindhorst in the final sentence: Indeed, is Anselmus’s happiness anything other than life in poetry, where the holy harmony of all things is revealed as the deepest secret of nature?

Hang on, why the question mark? Could Anselmus’s happiness be in doubt? Has he fallen for a con. Why is his wife a snake, a serpent? What was Atlantis’s fate? Could it be that the fantastic in this story is simply an allegory for a man being driven out of his mind by his poetic ambitions and ending up in a watery grave? There is some foreshadowing that could lead to this conclusion, and it wouldn’t be the only Hoffmann tale with such an ambivalent ending. (Cf The Sandman).

*** End of Spoiler ***

What an imagination Hoffman had, and what literary control. The three creatives Lindhorst, Serpentina, Anselmus are balanced by the three members of the bourgeoisie, Paulmann, Veronika, Heerbrand. Flights of fancy balanced with reality. Warnings against dabbling in the occult. The creation of a modern fairy tale. So many layers to peel back. I understand now why Hoffmann is the subject of so much academic research. But I’ll stand by my original assessment. The Golden Pot is bonkers, but it’s bonkers written by a genius.

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