“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
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