the experiences and confessions of sister monica (en)

German Pornography

(Afterword to The Experiences and Confessions of Sister Monica, attributed to E.T.A. Hoffmann, in: Anonym: The Experiences and Confessions of Sister Monica. Tver: Kolonna Publications, 2012, p. 171–180, translated from Russian)

It does not matter whether or not E.T.A. Hoffman was the author of Sister Monica, a novel anonymously published in 1815 in Poznan. The fact is, that there is probably no other work in German literature which collects, as if in a cabinet of curiosities, all possible literary clichés of its time.
Sister Monica is a fragment of a novel about the adventures of a nun. It claims to be a manuscript discovered in a secularized convent. It also includes a story about Monica’s mother, an account of Monica’s father’s libertarianism philosophy, a story about their housemaid told in a series of letters, and the confessions of a trickster which is interrupted by ecstatic monologues by an emancipated, eccentric French aristocrat.
The protagonists of Sister Monica’s narrative become narrators and characters of their stories, and, in their turn, they launch their own stories. There are evil monks, brigands, knights in shining armour, sober-minded Germans, lusty Frenchmen, pale virgins and depraved villainesses. There is even a child-bride, a favourite convention of all German Romantic writers since Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. The novel’s setting moves rapidly from the Bohemian woods to Italy (both adored by German writers), from estates and parks to gloomy gothic cathedrals and cloisters, from gorgeous French mansions to Swiss health resorts. The novel is filled with erudite discourses. Characters reflect upon all matters possible, from perpetual peace and principles of natural law to the predestination of women, from the physiology of martyrdom to the etymology of the word “nun”. In their discussions, they not only refer to the key figures of the intellectual life of their time, such as William Shakespeare, Voltaire, Johann Kasper Lavater, Immanuel Kant, Christopf Martin Wieland, Friedrich Schiller or Johann Jakob Bodmer, but also quote Marquis de Sade and Arthur Schopenhauer, who would have been unknown to the broad readership. In its form and content, Sister Monica is quintessential for its time: Gothic horrors are mingled with sentimental moralism and erotic stereotypes, masonic allegories with ideas of Weimar classicism and Romantic desire for the synthesis of genres, and everything merges into a bizarre text, the only original feature of which is probably its complete unoriginality.
Bewildering narratives that should mirror the “chaos of life” and at the same time comment on the nature of literature itself were not new at the beginning of the nineteenth century, one might think of Clemens Brentano’s Godwi or Charles Maturin’s Melmot the Wanderer. Sometimes this very complex nature of a Romantic text became the object of parody and self-irony, as in novels by Jean Paul Richter (Titan, 1800–1803) or E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (1819–1823). In Sister Monica, many of Romantic tendencies, not least because of the novel’s pornographic, hence subversive, nature, push the envelope. By speaking of what was usually left out of more “serious” works of contemporary literature, by going beyond the limits in fulfilling the innermost fantasies and dreams of Romantic heroes, Sister Monica uncovers new configurations of individuals, bodies and power at the turn of the nineteenth century.
The novel’s full German title, Sister Monika Erfährt und Erzählt (The Experiences and Confessions of Sister Monica), could be related to what, as Michael Foucault claims, in the late eighteenth–early nineteenth century becomes typical for interrelations between power (Foucault understands it as a complex arrangement of forces in society within which systems of knowledge and social institutes are constituted), its subjects and its objects.
In his Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) as well as in his unfinished History of sexuality (1990), Foucault argues that, since the late eighteen century, new types of power, namely disciplinary power and biopower, as he calls them, have emerged instead of sovereign power representative for the feudal system. This forms of power tries to regulate and discipline the bodies of individuals in order to use them for the benefit of socio-economic processes that underlie bourgeois capitalistic system, “the mechanisms of power are addressed to the body, to life, to what causes it proliferate, to what reinforces the species, its stamina, its ability to dominate, or its capacity of being used” (Foucault 147). This power is anonymous and omnipresent, “it is not possessed, but exercised”, it comes “from below, there is no binary and all-encompassing oppositions between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations” (Foucault 153), and it is interested in a productive body; it turns a biological human body into a machine, and it is concerned with the body’s training, with use of the body’s abilities and forces. Disciplinary power seeks to increase the body’s usefulness and controllability; it also tries to regulate the body’s biological processes not least by regulating sexuality: this power speaks “of sexuality and with sexuality”.
Erfahren (“to experience”) and erzählen (“to narrate” or “to confess”) in the title of the novel are an important part of this new power structure. The German word erfahren (“to experience”) in its meaning is inextricably linked with the notion of the body, with the body’s movement through different sites and spaces. The word erfahren is derived from the Middle High German word irfaran, which means “to travel“. What is noteworthy is that the characters of the novel are constantly on the move. They travel from one disciplinary institution to another: From convents and monasteries (according to Foucault, religious houses were prototypical for the modern techniques of body control practices) to barracks, from the barracks to a boarding school, and back to the convent, or to a balneotherapeutic health resort, where their bodies are disciplined according to attendants’ instructions.
Erfahren also means “to experience”, “to endure”, or “to undergo changes”; it assumes self-knowledge, knowledge of one’s own body, knowledge through the body.
The story of Linchen, Monica’s parents’ maid, is a particularly striking example of rapid changes that occur around the beginning of the nineteenth century in relations between power and its subjects’ bodies. As a child, Linchen still receives corporeal punishment from her master. Power over her body is – literally – concentrated in her segneur’s hands. Towards the end of the novel, however, when she is the wife of an “enlightened” landlord, she describes in a letter to Monica not only feasts during which she and her husband are birched by their peasants, but also a strange dream in which she is punished (although not without pleasure involved) by masked actors on a theatrical stage under the rousing cheers of an anonymous, invisible crowd.
A similar redistribution of power relations determinates a difference between Monica and her mother, Louise. At first glance, their life stories seem fairly similar. However, while Louise receives a home education, which is typical for the Old Regime’s aristocracy and is raised by her mother and a caplain, Monica is sent to boarding school. Authority over Monica’s body is passed from her parents to a pedagogue, who should discipline and educate her according to the practical need of society. Interestingly enough, in the beginning of the second part of the novel, there is an opposition between an initially amorphous subject and a distinct form, which should be given to this subject by the instance of disciplinary power. As the eponymous heroine approaches the philantropinum, she experiences her own shapelessness and remarks that she feels like a “foetus, dissolved in alcohol”. As soon as Monica crosses the school’s door, the housemother threatens to cut off her nose in order to show Monica her power over the schoolgirls. Madame Chaudelüze wants literally to reconfigure Monica’s body and in so doing she forces Monica to experience – erfahren – her own body. The moment of Monica’s appropriation of her own body, which is already anticipated in a previous chapter where Father Gervasius measures Monica and discusses human anatomy with her, registers a moment of a change: from now on the heroine is subjected to a disciplinary power: she is taken away from her family, patrimonial power is replaced by pedagogical power, and hierarchical blood relations are replaced by the uniformity of punishments in Monica’s “new family”, the school.
It is hard not to notice how insistently the narration is focused on the eponymous protagonist’s body, on its normality – only “normal” bodies can operate in a proper way – and on changes that this body should undergo in order to become functional. Young Monica regards herself in a mirror; her body is measured and is considered as “perfect”; the heroine compares herself with a Hellenistic sculpture of Aphrodite (Venus de’ Medici), which at the time was commonly regarded as a standard of female beauty. Moreover, if Monica’s mother still can control her own body and desires, Monica herself represents a body that had been created and normalized by disciplinary power: her body is a moulded, punished and suffering material. Against her will, she was sent to a boarding school; she was drugged and deflowered; on many occasions, she was raped; she constantly loses her conciseness, and therefore, control over her own body. Unable to control even her own voice, she allows others to penetrate the body of her narrative. The one who constantly disturbs Monica’s narrative is her antipode, a mysterious Fredegunde/Camille: a young man, disguised as a woman, neither homosexual, nor heterosexual, Monica cannot even decide whether she should call this character “she” or “he”; a trickster, deprived of any clearly articulated traits and characteristics, Fredegunde/Camille symbolizes that which escapes disciplinary power.
To confess – erzählen – in the novel’s title is correlated with another function of new power. Biopower tries to encourage its subjects to confess, to tell about their sexual experience in order to integrate it in “perpetual spirals of power, pleasure and truth”, to make such experience an essential part of a dispositif, “a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement of discourse, the formation of special knowledges, the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power“ (Foucault 106). This confession renders sexuality as a tool of control and submission.
Significantly, the novel is concerned with women’s experiences and confessions. One of the key knots of the dispositif of sexuality around which, as Foucault claims, biopower focuses its efforts is a female body, and Sister Monica registers the beginning of the process “whereby the feminine body was analysed – qualified and disqualified – as being thoroughly saturated with sexuality”, in the course of which “it was integrated into the sphere of medical practice … and placed in organic communication with the social body… family space… and the life of children” (Foucault 104).
Certainly, a female narrator was nothing new in a pornographic genre; many of the pornographic novels, especially those at the beginning of the genre, were written in a female voice. A woman as a narrator is a sign of the subversive nature of the pornographic genre. Her voice should not only arouse a male readership but also criticise a stable order of things. Moreover, most of the female narrators in pornographic texts are marginal figures, such as prostitutes, nuns or orphans; they have been excluded from mainstream society, and hence they are allowed to observe it from a critical point of view. But in contrast to many of Sister Monica’s predecessors, the author is not interested in social critique (as is, for example, the author of Fanny Hill), or political discussions, important for the French libertine novel. Here political questions, in a manner typical for the Germans, are substituted for questions of aesthetics. What is obviously of interest to the author here is a classification and analysis of rapidly multiplying types of female sexuality: the novel is crowded with female characters, which is surprising, especially given the modest size of the novel. A “righteous” woman, a child-bride, a tribade, a bisexual woman, a promiscuous mother – these are only a few of sexual types to appear on pages of the novel.
Furthermore, in Sister Monica, the female body stops being a site where men—both the novel’s characters and its male readers—connect themselves in a paroxysm of desire as was typical of the novels written in a female voice. In contrast, despite their differences, all the female characters in the novel have something in common: an excessive and dangerous sexuality that disrupts male unions. By the end of the nineteenth century, this fantasy of dangerous femininity will thoroughly occupy the Western culture.
“To confess” and “to experience” also refer to the Bildungsroman, a popular genre in the nineteen century which was replete with bourgeois ideology. The term Bildungsroman itself means not only an “educational novel” but also “a novel of formation”. The Bildungsroman fixes the moment of the birth of a modern subject in Foucauldian sense. The protagonist of such a novel is usually a bourgeois man; the reader follows the protagonist’s life from the very beginning until the point when, after a number of rites of passage, the main character becomes a fully functional member of society. In the course of a narrative, the protagonist balances between different cultural oppositions and finally emerges as a harmonious self who realizes his function in society and within a network of social relationships, and his place in the world in general. This formation, the act of acquiring knowledge about the world, of course, amongst others, includes the knowledge of what “normative” sexuality is; the protagonist of the Bildungsroman passes through number of erotic encounters in order to govern his sexual desire, to understand sexual difference and to stabilize his normative sexual identity by the end of the novel. One can read Sister Monica as a subversive Bildungsroman. In this regard, it faithfully continues a tradition of the pornographic novel that, from the beginning, like a shadow, follows the modern novel and brilliantly parodies its actual forms and trends. Sister Monica subverts contemporary Bildungsroman in its very core. The novel does not end with integration in society, but with voluntary exclusion from it: retirement in a convent. An activity for the benefit of society, the culminating point for the protagonist of the Bildungsroman here corresponds with dysfunctionality of the eponymous heroine, who changes her name, withdraws herself from her network of social relationships, and concentrates on her own pleasures: “This is why I had chosen a convent ... with the help of my ten fingers and other comforters I’d like to forget about existence of stronger sex“. But this dysfunctionality is nothing but an illusion: proclaiming the truth about female sexuality is the protagonist’s primary purpose.

Literature used and consulted:

Foucalt, M. History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: An Introduction. NY: Vintage, 1990.
Hunt, L.: Obscenity and the Origin of Modernity, 1500–1800 // L. Hunt (ed.): The Invention of Pornography. Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500–1800. NY, 1993. P. 9–45.

Jacob, M. C.: The Materialist World of Pornography // Ibid. P. 157–202.

Magris, C.: Das andere Elixier des Teufels: E.T.A. Hoffmann und die Schwester Monika. Königstein, 1980.

Schwester Monika. Vorwort v. Gustav Gugitz. Nachw. v. Rudolf Frank. Faks. d. ersten Nachdr. d. 1815 erschienenen Erstausgabe. – Hamburg: 1965.

Segebrecht, W.: Schwester Monika oder Die Demokratisierung der Pornographie // Mitteilungen der E.T.A. -Hoffman-Gesellschaft. 29 (1983). S. 61–66.

This post is tagged

Leave a Reply