Elove: What Does Fiction Know?

Hoffmann Effect

There is more to Villiers’ Edison’s “reciprocity of action” as “the essential condition of all reality” (15). What conceptual component will permit that reciprocity in the composition of his android? It turns out that it is Hoffmann that invents it in “The Sand-Man” and elsewhere. Villiers picks it up and pushes it further. I call this component the Hoffmann effect.
For Siegmund, Nathanael’s friend, as well as for us readers, Olimpia is a simple body able to sit elegantly and to dance in a rather mechanical way. It has a vocabulary quite limited to “Ah! Ah!” repeated for all circumstances, just like those talking dolls children manage to love, imagining themselves to be loved by them temporarily when they are in a play mindset. Nathanael mistakes her for a human being with whom he is able to converse. Every time he asks it a question – for instance, does she like his poetry? Does she love him? – Olimpia answers with that same “Ah! Ah!" But each “Ah! Ah!” is interpreted in a different way. They take on each time a different meaning: yes, she likes my poetry; she's the only one who understands me; yes, she loves me. This repetition of the same syllables regardless of the question and the different meanings those syllables take on is, by the way, exactly what happens in Edgar Allan Poe's poem “The Raven.” Every “Nevermore” pronounced by the raven takes on a different meaning determined by the stanza preceding it.  Upon reflection, however, it is Nathanael who speaks for Olimpia. Not only does he speak for her but he thinks for her. More importantly, he feels for her and even invents her feelings. In fact, he puts himself in Olimpia’s shoes, simulating her, except that what he thinks that she thinks or feels is exactly what he’d like her to think or feel. Usually, when we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, what we empathize with is something different from the state we are in. When a friend tells you she is sad because she lost her cat, you are not yourself sad but you recognize and imagine your friend’s sadness and understand it. That’s not how it works for Nathanael. What he recognizes in Olimpia’s syllables are his very own feelings. There is indeed an illusion of reciprocity between them but it is an invented, illusory reciprocity composed of carbon-copy feelings between a human being and an automaton.

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