Camera Obscura. Hans Christian Andersen and the Fantastic - from Journey on Foot to "Auntie Toothache"

Ib Johansen

(summary for pages 453-63)

In my paper I propose to take up the question of Hans Christian Andersen's links with the literary fantastic in European literature, i.e. with a trend or "mode" that gathered momentum in the nineteenth century with writers like E. T. A. Hoffmann, Charles Nodier, and Edgar Allan Poe. One of the points I want to make is that there are a number of texts in Hans Christian Andersen's oeuvre that seem to contradict the notion of a consolatory peripety, usually connected with the ethico-political "message" of Andersen. In those "other" stories one may identify a drift towards a nihilistic stand - a stand that is obviously present in "The Shadow" (1847) and "Auntie Toothache" (1872), but which may be found in other texts as well. A demonized facticity - associated with a secularized and disenchanted world - destabilizes the symbolic order in these narratives. A play of light and shadow, or what Brian McHale has called an "ontological flicker", characterizes the chiaroscuro world of these texts belonging to the tradition of the literary fantastic in nineteenth-century fiction.

I analyse Hans Christian Andersen's Journey on Foot (1829) in the light of Friedrich Schlegel's reference to the (literary and philosophical) notion of "really transcendental buffoonery" ("eine wirklich transzendentale Bouffonerie") as well as to Mikhail Bakhtin's discussion of the generic characteristics of the Menippean satire, emphasizing the subversive and carnivalistic elements in Andersen's text. At the same time the reference to "satanic" inspiration and the intimation of a compact with the devil also point in the direction of the fantastic "mode" (cf. Irène Bessière's emphasis on the "Faustian" aspects of fantastic literature in her Le récit fantastique, 1974). Finally, Hoffmann's Die Elixiere des Teufels (1816) is also taken up as one of the essential narrative models of Andersen's Journey on Foot.

Similar structural and thematic traces are pursued in "The Shadow'' (1847), "The Will-o'-the-wisps are in Town, said the Moor Woman" (1865), "The Gate Key" (1872), and "Auntie Toothache" (1872). In "The Will-o'-the-wisps are in Town, said the Moor Woman" the authenticity of the fairy tales - and the story-tellers - of the premodern world is contrasted with the demonic lack of substance of the will-o'-the-wisps. And in a similar way the main character in "The Gate Key" has been absorbed by the inauthenticity of his own bourgeois life-style; he is only capable of clinging to his "gate key" as a panacea against all the miseries of the modern world, as a key to a thoroughly secularized, "fantastic" Beyond - a Beyond that is a purely rhetorical or linguistic Beyond.

Finally, the demolition of the modern subject in "Auntie Toothache" turns out to be based on a kind of archetypal opposition between a male and a female principle. In this story the downward curve of Hans Christian Andersen's series of fantastic narratives develops into a gloomy portrayal of a state of total entropy - bourgeois values and bourgeois stability are refuted by the troublesome and haunting presence of the terrible figure called "Satania infernalis" or "Auntie Toothache". The student in this tale is unable to come to terms with femininity as well as with his own subjectivity, and therefore he, like most of the other characters, has to meet his death in the universal slaughter-house of this world ("Everything ends up in the dustbin").