Don Juan

[This page by Seán Williams]

Don Juan (1813)

The full title of Hoffmann’s story reads: Don Juan. Eine fabelhafte Begebenheit, die sich mit einem reisenden Enthusiasten zugetragen; Don Juan. A fabulous event that befell a music enthusiast on his travels. It refers to an adventurous womanizer of Spanish legend, who became the main character of the libretto for Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787). Hoffmann’s text is in part a critical appraisal of Mozart’s opera, hence its initial appearance in Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung; General Music Journal in 1813. In this respect, it is historically significant for the 19th-century reception of whether Mozart’s Donna Anna suffered reprehensible sexual violation or – more controversially – whether her passion was awakened by the night-time transgression. However, Hoffmann’s piece is also of formal, literary merit. It was more obviously presented as fiction the following year, in the first volume of Hoffmann’s collection Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier; Fantasy Pieces in Callot’s Manner (1814).

The story and structure of Don Juan seem simple. The protagonist, who is never named, wakes up in a hotel room to the sound of music. It turns out that a performance of Don Giovanni (which is called ‘›Don Juan‹ von dem berühmten Herrn Mozart aus Wien’; ‘Don Juan by the famous Mozart from Vienna’) is starting next door. Our character takes a box in the auditorium. Sitting there alone, he becomes so engrossed in the opera that he says he retreated into himself in a state of musical and poetic enthusiasm. However, he begins to feel an additional presence nearby. The actress who plays Donna Anna in the opera has appeared beside him in the box, to the protagonist’s amazement – and possibly as a figment of his imagination, though he claims that it was her without a doubt. The occurrence is strange, and this sense of strangeness is conveyed to the reader by self-relexive comment about the mediation of the story. Our main character states that the woman spoke in a Tuscan dialect and that he had to reply in Italian; and yet he recounts the conversation in German, a language which in his opinion is regrettably awkward (‘ungelenk’) in expressing the ease and grace of the foreign exchange. The protagonist writes down what happened for a fictional recipient named Theodor, and this is why we receive the story as a document. The second half of Hoffmann’s Don Juan is then an extended critical account for Theodor of the protagonist’s thoughts about Don Giovanni, which are penned in the same theatre box but in the early hours of the morning. The narrator could not sleep, and returned to the auditorium to write.

The protagonist’s deep and emotive response to art is contrasted with the superficial and detached opinions of other audience members. These lament the exaggeration of the singers, and of the actress who plays Donna Anna in particular. In a similar way, Hoffmann’s story seems simple only if we scan it inattentively, whereby it appears to be over-the-top and unsatisfactory prose. But if we engage with the text more thoroughly, its numerous ambiguities complicate our understanding. Above all, there are three main reasons that we might become confused.

First, the extent to which the protagonist’s intoxicating experience develops from an initially conscious and sober state is unclear. He writes of the effect of music: ‘Es war, als ginge eine lang verheißene Erfüllung der schönsten Träume aus einer andern Welt wirklich in das Leben ein’ (‘it was as if a long-promised fulfilment of the most beautiful dreams moved from another world into my life’). We read that our character is awoken and, later, that he cannot sleep, so the story ostensibly takes place while he should be cognizant of things going on around him. However, he is at first probably hungover, and he continues to drink. The narrator had stumbled into his hotel room inebriated, or possibly high – ‘im Rausche’ – the night before, and he describes himself as having been ‘halb gerädert’, or ‘half knocked-out’. The previous lunchtime he had been drinking champagne as part of the set-price menu; when in the auditorium for the second time, he drinks punch. In this moment, Hoffmann’s description becomes eerie: there is a cross-breeze that stirs the curtain, and the protagonist imagines Donna Anna as frightened by spectres. Thus, is the fabulous event in fact real, or is it rather the result of too little sleep, too much drinking – or does it have a supernatural dimension?

The second ambiguity concerns the narrator character and the actress who sings the part of Donna Anna. Neither of them is named. Especially in the case of the protagonist, this is odd: in transcribing his conversation with Donna Anna for Theodor, he deletes his own name and instead inserts ‘(hier nannte sie meinen Vornamen)’ (‘here she used my forename’). We learn that he is a composer who specialises in opera, whose works the actress has sung – she apparently embodies his melodies. The male character might therefore be a fictional version of Hoffmann himself, who shortly before writing Don Juan had fallen head over heels for the singing student Julia Marc. The protagonist might also be the Doppelgänger of the legendary figure of the story’s title. For as David E. Wellbery notes:

‘why else, in a text that so emphasizes the use of Italian, refer to Mozart’s Don Giovanni by his Spanish name if not to indicate a certain duplicity, or doubling, of the character? And why else, in a text where the narrator is the central figure, select the title Don Juan if not to indicate an affinity between the Spaniard and the writer-protagonist? Don Juan is, quite simply, the narrator’s double; the narrator is Don Juan.’ (David E. Wellbery, ‘E.T.A. Hoffmann and Romantic Hermeneutics’, p. 466)

This would also explain why the actress is referred to as either the character she plays or ‘Signora’, with her identity solely defined by her role: she is perhaps the real-life equivalent of Donna Anna. If the actress and the narrator were Doppelgänger of characters in opera, the actress’s intense personal understanding of the protagonist prior to the pair’s actual meeting in the theatre box would make even more sense. They would already know each other from the stage, in art.

Thirdly, there is a confusing coincidence regarding the end of both the narrator’s fantastic experience and the actress’s life. As the protagonist closes his letter to Theodor at precisely two in the morning, he imagines the scent of the woman who had appeared to him in the theatre. He later hears that the actress died at the stroke of two a.m. This is the most salient, sinister, but also the least explicable correspondence of Hoffmann’s captivating story. The author has embedded many more examples of conflated and conflicting worlds within Don Juan, a text that thematizes, and itself holds, complex meaning.

Further Reading in English

Ricarda Schmidt, ‘How to Get Past Your Editor: E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Don Juan as a Palimpsest’ in: Rachel Langford (ed.), Textual Intersections: Literature, History and the Arts in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009), pp. 63-78

Francien Markx, ‘E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Don Juan: Views of an Eccentric Enthuiast?’, Seminar 41:4 (2005), 367-79

Birgit Röder, ‘“Ich sah aus tiefer Nacht feurige Dämonen ihre glühenden Krallen ausstrecken”: The Problem of the Romantic Ideal in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Don Juan’, Colloquia Germanica 34:1 (2001), 1-14

Birgit Röder, A Study of the Major Novellas of E.T.A. Hoffmann (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2003), pp. 129-41

Andrew J. Webber, The Doppelgänger: Double Visions in German Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), Chapter 3: ‘Hoffmann’s Chronic Dualisms’, pp. 113-94

David E. Wellbery, ‘E.T.A. Hoffmann and Romantic Hermeneutics: An Interpretation of Hoffmann’s Don Juan’, Studies in Romanticism 19 (1980), pp. 455-73

Further Reading in German

Hartmut Kaiser, ‘Mozarts Don Giovanni and E.T.A. Hoffmanns Don Juan: Ein Beitrag zum Verständnis des “Fantasiestücks”’, Mitteilungen der E.T.A. Hoffmann-Gesellschaft 21 (1975), 6-26

Alexander Klüglich, ‘Aufstieg zu vollendetem Künstlertum: Ein Beitrag zur Kunstauffassung in E.T.A. Hoffmanns Erzählung Don Juan’, E.T.A. Hoffmann-Jahrbuch 8 (2000), 13-26

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