Olimpia, Samantha, Will. A discussion of man-machine love stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann, Spike Jonze, and Jack Paglan

Seminar Paper, 2014

15 Pages, Grade: A/ 1,0










Man´s relationship to machines has taken on various forms through the centuries and stages of machinic development. Departing from a notion of machines as instruments that function as extended organs, I have previously discussed the ambiguous discourse evaluating man-machine relations. Technophile and technophobic tendencies respectively unfold under the presumption of machines taking over physical or cognitive functions. Consequently, their impact on our way of perceiving and evaluating as well as performing in and interacting with the world is either appreciated or dreaded. Much has also been said about machines organizing and filtering interpersonal communication and thus shaping the very nature of our engagement with both human and nature. However, all these discourses conceive of the resulting man-machine interaction in terms of a paradigm that sets man as the user of the machine. Even in approaches that recognize tendencies of man more or less consciously submitting to the power of the machine, it is the machine employed by man as a means to a certain end which is construed as the counterpart in a relationship established under the premise of use. Entering the realm of Science-Fiction and following the course research on Artificial Intelligences has taken, it becomes clear that man´s emotional engagement with machines and artificial intelligences pose a completely new set of problems going beyond questions of our qualitative and quantitative engagement with the world. It leads to questioning the very human itself and pushes the boundaries regarding our ideas of actually living with machines in terms of an emotional involvement.

This paper wants to trace three different textual representations of emotional relationships between man and machine. It will start off with E. T. A. Hoffmann´s Der Sandmann, proceed through the movie Her and end up with a most recent example of the movie Transcendence. Within the limited context of this paper, no comprehensive analysis can be achieved. Instead, key moments of each narrative shall be identified to gain insights into how the narratives design the man-machine relationships. Furthermore, the contrastive potential of the texts might appear enormous. However, the great time gap between the first and the two latter narratives will reveal to what extent the discourse about man-machine (emotional) interactions has remained the same or has changed over time. The following questions shall guide the discussion of the examples: How is the significant other portrayed, i.e. what is specifically machinic about her/ him and in how far does the notion of a machine still apply at all or needs to be revised? How does the physical relationship manifest itself between man and machine? Are there identifiable specific aspects of this new kind of emotional interaction? What prospects do these textual representations formulate regarding man-machine relationships?


Hoffmann´s text enumerates several qualities that define Olimpia faultlessly as an automaton: die Augen schienen ihm gar seltsam starr und tot (Hoffmann: 36 ), [e]iskalt war Olimpias Hand (Hoffmann: 39), eiskalte Lippen begegneten seinen glühenden! (Hoffmann: 40). Her mechanical nature is first alluded to by the stiff and lifeless eyes and the motionless rigidity of her pose. It is further supported by the coldness of her hands and lips Nathanael senses when touching and kissing her. The warm and aroused man is opposed to the cold and motionless machine. The result is some horror, a innere[s] Grausen (ibid.) the protagonist feels when seeing, touching and finally kissing Olimpia. In addition to Nathanael´s first impressions of her lifelessness, the reader learns about the reaction her sight evoked in him: Mir wurde ganz unheimlich (Hoffmann: 25). These lines perfectly illustrate the uncanny as described by Freud: Nathanael´s and the other characters´ “Zweifel an [Olimpias] Beseeltheit”(Freud 1970: 253) is rooted in her perfectly resembling a human figure but at the same time exhibiting some features that deviate from the “normal human”. The definition of the genuinely human in Hoffmann´s story is achieved in simple terms: spontaneous speech and (re)action, irregular movements, a lively expression and a body temperature that indicates that no clockwork is the motor of the organism. Several moments in the narrative enable the reader as well as Nathanael and other characters to identify Olimpia as a lifeless doll that is set in motion by some mechanism:

Ihr Spiel, ihr Singen hat den unangenehm richtigen geistlosen Takt der singenden Maschine, und ebenso ist ihr Tanz. Uns ist diese Olimpia ganz unheimlich geworden, wir mochten nichts mit ihr zu schaffen haben, es war uns, als tue sie nur so wie ein lebendiges Wesen (Hoffmann: 42).

However, such suspicious observations are partly negotiated by finding “logical” explanations:

Der etwas seltsam eingebogene Rücken, die wespenartige Dünne des Leibes schien von zu starkem Einschnüren bewirkt zu sein. In Schritt und Stellung hatte sie etwas Abgemessenes und Steifes, das manchem unangenehm auffiel; man schrieb es dem Zwange zu, den ihr die Gesellschaft auflegte (Hoffmann: 38)

The deviations from what is conceived of as human are fit into the human logic in order to render them “normal” again.

However, the protagonist´s ambiguous feelings towards Olimpia soon change into a state of wild adoration. The dreadful feeling takes possession of him repeatedly but her non-human characteristics are somehow transformed into the normal human:

… die Augen schienen ihm gar seltsam starr und totDoch wie er immer schärfer und schärfer durch das Glas hinschaute, war es, als gingen in Olimpias Augen feuchte Mondesstrahlen auf (Hoffmann: 36)

er starrte Olimpia ins Auge, das strahlte ihm voll Liebe und Sehnsucht entgegen, und in dem Augenblick war es auch, als fingen an in der kalten Hand Pulse zu schlagen und des Lebensblutes Ströme zu glühen (Hoffmann: 39)

und in dem Kuß schienen die Lippen zum Leben zu erwarmen (Hoffmann : 40)

Much of Nathanael´s and Olimpia´s interactive experience is based on his emotional projections onto the machine. This is furthermore illustrated by Nathanael´s reflections on his appreciation for his mechanical significant other as a projection surface for him to be heard:

. [N]noch nie hatte er eine solche herrliche Zuhörerin gehabt. Sie stickte und strickte nicht, sie sah nicht durchs Fenster, sie fütterte keinen Vogel, sie spielte mit keinem Schoßhündchen, mit keiner Lieblingskatze, sie drehte keine Papierschnitzchen oder sonst etwas in der Hand, sie durfte kein Gähnen durch einen leisen erzwungenen Husten bezwingen – kurz! – stundenlang sah sie mit starrem Blick unverwandt dem Geliebten ins Auge, ohne sich zu rücken und zu bewegen (Hoffmann: 43).


Excerpt out of 15 pages


Olimpia, Samantha, Will. A discussion of man-machine love stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann, Spike Jonze, and Jack Paglan
New York University  (Department of German)
Seminar: The Myth of the Machine
A/ 1,0
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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machine, man-machine, machine love, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Der Sandmann, Olimpia, Nathanael, Automat, Spike Jonze, Her, Johnny Depp, Transcendence
Quote paper
Thérèse Remus (Author), 2014, Olimpia, Samantha, Will. A discussion of man-machine love stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann, Spike Jonze, and Jack Paglan, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/275609


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