David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: An Incident…

His eyes were gradually opened to the way all the world’s shapes and colors lived in his objects. He saw in the intricacy of their ornaments an enchanted image of the intricate wonders of the world. He discovered the forms of animals and the forms of flowers, and the gradual transition from one to the other…and he discovered the moon and the stars, the crystal ball, the mystical circles sprouting wings of seraphim. For a long time he was drunk on this great, profound beauty that was his, and all his days were more beautiful and less empty among these objects, which were no longer dead and insignifcant, but a great legacy, the divine work of all the generations.

Yet he felt the triviality of all these things along with their beauty. The thought of death never left him for long, and it often came over him when he was among laughing and noisy people, at night, or as he ate.

“Tale of the 672nd Night”

My mind’s been on Kleist lately, a figure whom Gabriel Josipovici says had no contemporaries or followers, and he didn’t–not for a while, at least. But by the end of the 19th century, the spirit of Kleist’s anti-fairytales come back in full force in the stories of Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Hofmannsthal mixed a brew of German traditions together and came up with something that, in his prose, is alternately gauzy and brutal. (His ghastly “Tale of the 672nd Night” throws E.T.A. Hoffman in the mix and produces something even more violent and disturbing than Kleist.) Amongst all the beauty there is always a worm of destruction to sever, to corrupt, to poison. The worm emerges more slowly and linearly than it does in Kleist, who tends to spiral out of bounds very rapidly, but when it does, it is more insidious and sometimes more punishing, as it is for the merchant’s son in “672nd Night,” who is methodically arranged for death. But in both, that worm is never something that comes from a logical procession of romantic ideas, as it is in Goethe or Buchner, but something that attacks the supposed underpinnings of the story itself.

His most Kleistian moment comes in “An Incident in the Life of Marshall de Bassompierre.” The Marshall rides through Paris and meets a flirty shopkeeper, then invites her to bed. She accedes, and from there we descend to fire, plague, and death, and only the Marshall escapes to tell the tale. The herald of misfortune is the shopkeeper’s announcement, “May I die a miserable death if I have ever belonged to anyone other than my husband and you or desired anyone else in the world!” And then there is the spectral, wordless appearance of her husband, seen by the Marshall through the window of the shop….

It is not only that the adultery ends so morbidly, but that the motivations of the shopkeeper are so inverted from their initial appearance. Once she is undermined, the Marshall himself turns from a romantic nobleman into a diseased lothario, and narratively speaking, it is the shopkeeper who brings about this change in perception. The shopkeeper, who meets an end not so far from Dido’s after she was spurned by Aeneas, fails in the revenge architected by her husband, but succeeds in impressing himself on the Marshall much as Dido did:

“I shall die unavenged, but I shall die,”
she says. “Thus, thus, I gladly go below
to shadows. May the savage Dardan drink
with his own eyes this fire from the deep
and take with him the omen of my death.”

IV 909-913

When the shopkeeper dies on her pyre, having offered herself up to the Marshall in what he thinks of as a casual affair, she and not her husband turns the “incident” into something far more serious. The purported motive of revenge fades in front of a far more sordid affair invoking powers beyond the control of the Marshall or the cuckolded husband.

[Request to readers: can anyone fill me in on the sources for this story in Goethe and in Bassompierre’s actual memoir? Online searches turn up nothing in a language I read.]


  1. “An incident in the Life of Marshall de Bassompierre” incorporates material from Goethe’s “Conversations of German Refugess” (1795). Hoffmanstahl’s failure to include attribution in his story as first published in 1900 attracted some unfavourable notice at the time. Karl Kraus had this to say about the controversy: “What ignorant persons are calling plagiarism here is actually quotation.”

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