Two earlier posts commented on the nature of robots in stories by Edmond Hamilton and Ambrose Bierce; this short series concludes with a discussion of a still earlier story, E.T.A. Hoffman’s classic of German Gothic fiction, The Sandman (1817). The direction of this review has not been forward, into the brighter, technologically more elaborate contraptions of early science fiction, but backward, towards the automaton’s darker roots in idolatry and hubris.
Originally, the robot’s menace lay not so much in its speed, strength, and mechanical otherness as in its ability to become a döppelganger, a double of one of us. Insofar as the robot, like an egregore, takes on the characteristics imagined for it by its creators, it becomes literally much more than the sum of its parts. Worse, this artificial creation, man-made in shoddy imitation of the Creator, soon becomes independent of us, with grim consequences.
In Gothic horror, Mary Shelley’s masterpiece exemplifies this insight, and is the template for much subsequent literature about terrifying robots. It is no coincidence that by the early 20th century, Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”—essentially an abridged version of the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount—had to be imposed on robots, despite the relative ineffectiveness of such moral and ethical guidelines for their human predecessors.
H.P. Lovecraft gave E.T.A. Hoffman short shrift in his Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927), calling his novels and short stories
…a byword for mellowness of background and maturity of form, though they incline to levity and extravagance, and lack the exalted moments of stark, breathless terror which a less sophisticated writer might have achieved. Generally they convey the grotesque rather than the terrible…
Hoffman’s inclusion of levity—he himself appears as a character in the form of an intrusive author in The Sandman—as well as his preoccupation with strong and mysterious female characters may have rendered his work less interesting to Lovecraft, even unintelligible. This is unfortunate; one wonders how Lovecraft might have fared had he been strongly influenced by other Gothic writers besides Edgar Allan Poe.
Hoffman’s story is not primarily about a robot, though there is one who appears midway through the work, a female automaton named Olimpia. She precipitates the lead character’s demise, but is not the cause of it. The Sandman is mainly a psychological case study of one Nathanael, a romantic prone to extremes of mood and grandiosity. Hoffman’s description of the young man’s emotional state and shifting perceptions may suggest the modern diagnosis of bi-polar disorder.
Hoffman anticipates Freud and psycho-analytical approaches to mental illness; The Sandman was published well over a century before discoveries in brain science illuminated the neurological and genetic origins of some psychiatric problems. A childhood trauma predisposes Nathanael to later delusional behavior and suicide. The titular “sandman” refers to a fairy tale the young Nathanael hears from an old woman. Here is a description of the evil Sandman and what he does:
“He is a wicked man who comes when children won’t go to bed, and throws handfuls of sand in their eyes so that they jump out of their heads all bleeding. Then he puts the eyes in a sack and carries them off to the moon to feed his children. They sit up there in their nest, and their beaks are hooked like owl’s beaks, and they use them to peck up naughty boys’ and girls’ eyes with.”
Nathanael is very impressed with this story, which is later conflated with the mysterious death of his father, possibly at the hands of the story’s villain, Coppelius. This mysterious figure reappears at various times in Nathanael’s life, and takes the form of one Giuseppe Coppola, “the weather-glass hawker” who also sells eye-glasses, and a pocket sized telescope with near magical properties. The theme of vision and perception—eyes—pervades the entire story. There are also at least two döppelgangers in this complex story, the evil Coppelius/Coppola and the beloved Clara/Olimpia.
Nathanael’s deterioration is chronicled in three letters which open The Sandman: Nathanael writes his cousin Lothair, but sends it by accident to Clara, Lothair’s sister; Clara writes Nathanael back, chiding him for his dark ruminations about Coppelius; Nathanael, getting the address correctly this time, writes Lothair again, this time offhandedly mentioning his discovery of Olimpia, his professor’s daughter, “whom he keeps locked in a most wicked and unaccountable way, and no man is ever allowed to come near her.
Clara’s letter is the most interesting. She is self-effacing, as women of that social class were expected to be in that era, but also shrewd and perceptive. A natural psychologist, she offers an explanation of Nathanael’s neurotic anxiety and paranoia about Coppelius:
Naturally enough the gruesome Sand-man of the old nurse’s story was associated in your childish mind with old Coppelius, who, even though you had not believed in the Sand-man, would have been to you a ghostly bugbear, especially dangerous to children. His mysterious labours along with your father at night-time were…nothing more than secret experiments in alchemy, with which your mother could not be over well pleased, owing to the large sums of money that most likely were thrown away upon them; and besides, your father, his mind full of the deceptive striving after higher knowledge, may probably have become rather indifferent to his family, as so often happens in the case of such experimentalists. So also it is equally probable that your father brought about his death by his own imprudence, and that Coppelius is not to blame for it.
To lend credence to Clara’s analysis, the author then interjects—“Strictly speaking, indulgent reader, I must indeed confess to you…”—and provides additional back story about the family and Nathanael’s mental status.
Nathanael tries to apply Clara’s therapeutic recommendations, but is distracted by Olimpia, with whom he becomes increasingly obsessed. The special telescope that Coppelius/Coppola had sold him seems to alter and magnify his misperceptions of Olimpia—he overlooks her blank stare, wooden legs and repetitive speech, does not hear the whirring of the clockwork mechanism inside her, becomes the butt of his friends’ jokes, forsakes his beloved Clara.
Olimpia seems to adore him and have no other interest but to respond to his needs and sit with rapt attention as he reads to her his stories and poetry. She is all he ever wants in a woman, but all he wants is a machine. (Ironically, when Clara did not appreciate Nathanael’s work, he called her a “damned lifeless automaton.”)
Nathanael enjoys an ecstatic evening of dancing and intimacy with Olimpia, but is later devastated when he discovers that she is a robot. One horror of the tale is that Nathanael is unable to save himself despite the psychological insights offered by his friends. He remains prey to both Coppelius and Olimpia because his perceptions of reality, especially his visual perceptions, remain forever colored by his childhood trauma. The eyes have it.
The Sandman was famously deconstructed by Sigmund Freud in his essay The Uncanny (1919) a century after Hoffman’s story was published. (See also Horror Theory: Sigmund Freud’s “The Uncanny” (Par....) The summary and analysis presented here cannot do justice to the marvelous subtlety and complexity of this work. Hoffman’s story is in the same category as Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Walpole’s earlier The Castle of Otranto (1764) and other Gothic classics—important foundational works of horror.