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E.T.A. Hoffmann’s capriccio Princess Brambilla explores a narrative realm of liminality and metamorphosis that reveals the fundamental instability of our most basic epistemological distinctions. Set during the irreverent days of the Roman carnival, Brambilla delights in a disorienting chaos of masks, costumes, dream images and hallucinations as Hoffmann pulls all the stops in a fantastical narrative of extraordinary complexity. The text unfolds a carnivalesque universe that – in the spirit of Early German Romantic irony – plays with the inescapable mediatory “distortions” brought about by the structures of human consciousness itself. Just as the carnival is a ritual of life-affirming renewal, Hoffmann’s self-reflexive narrative, too, is a story of change and healing, in which the self comes to understand that it has no access to a stable and unmediated self-knowledge. If this moment of insight initially appears as a near-psychotic threat to the very basis of identity, the laughter it triggers is ultimately a laughter of liberation. The self, now reconstituted in the mirror of laughter, the textual movement of meta-narrative irony, comes to embrace itself as a process of continuous change, a recognition that then allows it to be made whole in the mediatory gaze of another.


This work was originally published in European Romantic Review.


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