“Master Flea” by E.T.A. Hoffmann

“Master Flea” is, I suppose, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s idea of a Christmas story. A Christmas fairy tale, really, since that’s what all his stories are. And not just in the way that “A Christmas Carol” or “The Chimes” have elements of fantasy; Hoffmann’s work is overblown and Romantic in this department, entirely taken over by dream logic. It even starts out, “Once upon a time…”

Peregrinus Tyss is a strange man. Around his coming of age he left home to do not much in school and wander around for a few years. When he returned to Frankfurt am Main and found his parents had passed away, he holed himself up alone in their house with his old nurse. Every Christmas he buys an elaborate set of gifts for himself—children’s toys—opens them ceremoniously, and then brings them to the homes of his poorer fellow citizens. This Christmas, he finds himself accosted by a mysterious woman making mysterious demands, and so begins the fairy part of the tale.

This is pretty classic Kunstmärchen stuff, with a parallel paradise universe where everyone is a flower and plotting scientists who live for hundreds of years. Peregrinus is befriended by a flea who has fled from Leeuwenhoek’s flea circus and who can give Peregrinus the smallest lens of all, one that will sit inside the eye and allow the wearer to read people’s thoughts.

Peregrinus makes some interesting findings this way. For example,

that when these people talked with exceptional eloquence about art and learning and the main currents of intellectual life, their veins and nerves did not penetrate into the recesses of their brains, but curved back, so that it was impossible to discern their thoughts with any clarity. He communicated this observation to Master Flea, who was sitting as usual in a fold of his neckerchief. Master Flea remarked that what Peregrinus had mistaken for thoughts were nothing more than words, vainly endeavouring to become thoughts.

Master Flea has clearly shown Peregrinus he can read thoughts by seeing the tangible bits and pieces of people’s brains. He recalls Spinoza—especially with all the lenses—and his substance monism when he describes how “[e]ver since chaos gathered into plastic material—which must be quite a while ago—the World Spirit has used this material to shape everything that exists, including dreams and their images.” Where Peregrinus believes that dreams “arise merely from some disorder in our physical or mental organization,” Master Flea explains instead that “the spirit draws them rapidly for its own pleasure, when the tyrant called the body has released it from its slavery.”

Among other lessons, Peregrinus eventually learns that he doesn’t actually want to read others’ thoughts, as it only comes between us. He nobly decides that “I shall bare my soul to you because it is a relief to do so, and the momentary bitterness if you disappoint me is of small account compared to the joys of a fair departed dream.” All very good Romanticism—baring your soul to your brothers and sisters for the sheer relief of it, ah! And it also turns out to be genuinely Christmassy; Peregrinus gets a nice family of his own with presents made specially each year by his flea friends. I like this silly* Hoffmann. Flights of pure fancy, the always at-least-half-winking narration. Thistles in love with tulips. Not understanding the half of it, for sure, but lots of fun all the same.

*Silly, yes, but there’s also a whole satire thing here which Hoffmann was investigated for and everything. Rather outside my scope though.