In times of major scientific and technological advances, we tend to think of our social world as a product on inevitable progress (or “manifest destiny’) originating with the emergence of the Enlightenment movement in eighteenth-century Europe. We associate the Enlightenment with the rigorous thinking of logic and mathematics; and, for the most part, we embrace the Enlightenment ideal that all problems may be solved through the systematic engagement of reasoning. We then view history as a direct path from scientific practices in the eighteenth century to contemporary neuroscience dependent on sophisticated scanning devices.
This view of history tends to overlook the emergence of a Counter-Enlightenment movement towards the end of the eighteenth-century, a period also associated with the rise of romanticism in opposition to the sterile formalities of classical structures. The term itself may have been coined only in the twentieth century by Isaiah Berlin, for whom the movement was highly significant in his study of the history of ideas. While Berlin had no trouble recognizing the material progress due to Enlightenment thinking, he felt that one should also acknowledge the limitations of the Enlightenment stance.
Most important was Berlin’s conviction that reason is not a solution for everything, coupled with a rigorous critique of idealist thinking. Ironically, he could take on the latter issue by accepting Enlightenment on its own terms. Within than context one assumes that reason will lead one to an “ideal state.” That state may be in the distant future, but one can still gauge one’s progress in approaching it. Berlin, however, decided to extrapolate into that remote future with the innocent question, “What do we do when we get there?” The fallacy of idealism is the very idea that the ideal is a state, some static configuration that can no longer admit of change. In biological terms the only time an organism achieves such a static state is in death, and in ecological terms not even death is static.
Berlin preferred to think that life is not a matter of solving problems, as if all problems could be cast neatly in the mathematical style of Enlightenment thinking; Rather, life is a matter of “making do” in an ever-changing series of situations, both adverse and beneficent. Rather than aspiring to any state, life is an ongoing process, much of which involves taking false steps and then compensating for them. The point of view was nicely captured in the title Berlin gave to one of his collections of essays, The Crooked Timber of Humanity.
If Jacques Offenbach had confronted Berlin’s writing and taken the time to negotiate his often highly convoluted writing, he probably would have nodded in agreement. Most of his operettas are about human foibles and how, in spite of the adversities of those foibles, things can still work out by making the right compensatory moves. Thus, one way to view Les Contes d’Hoffmann (the tales of Hoffmann) is as an effort to escalate such Counter-Enlightenment thinking from operetta to serious opera. E. T. A. Hoffmann was, after all, one of the earliest authors to explore the aesthetic of romanticism, the “literary face” of Counter-Enlightenment thinking.
Laurent Pelly’s staging of the current San Francisco Opera production of Les Contes d’Hoffmann does much to advocate the Counter-Enlightenment message. It is at its most explicit in portraying Spalanzani as some B-movie version of Victor Frankenstein the ultimate lampoon of Enlightenment thinking. (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can easily be read as a confrontation between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment thinking cast in the literary framework of the Romantic movement.) However, there is also Pelly’s decision to play up the diabolical side (reinforced by the libretto text) of the nemesis figure in all four of his guises. It is almost as if Pelly knew that, in Hebrew, satan is a common noun meaning “opposition.” It is because of the presence of opposition that we do not advance along straight lines, growing, instead, that “crooked timber” brought about by false steps and compensations.
The integral edition of Les Contes d’Hoffmann edited by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck makes it clear that Offenbach, himself, had to contend with many of his own false steps and compensations while working on this opera. Indeed, death intervened before it could be said that he had resolved those false steps to his satisfaction. (In Enlightenment language, Hoffmann’s score never achieved its “ideal state.”) Thus the legacy of Les Contes d’Hoffmann is one of Counter-Enlightenment thinking applied not only to the characters of the narrative but also to the very nature of making an opera.