Diplomatic cat in the Nutcracker
December 5, 2019 9:20 PM   Subscribe

In E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”, why is the baker’s cat referred to as a “legation secretary”?

I know what a legation is, and I know that cats eat mice, but I feel like I’m missing a joke here. The passage in question.
posted by mr_roboto to Media & Arts (2 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The reference seems to be to the chapter "The Story of the Hard Nut Continued", where it reads, "The family of Baron Purr would be able to keep Lady Mouserings [the Queen of the Mice] from the cradle. Most of that name were secretaries of legation at court, with little to do, though always at hand for an embassy to a foreign power, but they must now render themselves useful at home."

The idea seems to be that Baron Purr's and his family are all cats, Hoffmann is comparing them to or imagining them as secretaries of legation at the court, or, though cats, they really do hold various positions of nobility and at the court, much as Lady Mouserings claims to be related to the royal family as well, though a mouse, and the waiting-woman to Princess Perlipat must hold these cats on their laps and pet them all night in order to keep them continuously purring, which will scare off the Mouse Queen.

But of course the women fall asleep eventually, the purring stops, and the Mouse Queen is able to come in and complete her magical mischief with the princess, turning her into a nutcracker.

The page you linked to is later in the story, during daytime when the adults are about, and their explanation for the damage to the sugarplum fairies etc is that the housemice have gotten in and nibbled at the various sugar figures etc. So, the suggestion is to borrow a cat from the neighbor, a baker, and the cat will make short work of the mice.

So referring to the baker's cat now as a "Secretary of Legation" is kind of the reverse metaphor to the above, where Baron Purr was envisioned as an actual noble of the court and his family members secretaries of legation. Now the humans are more or less humorously calling an actual cat a 'secretary of legation', presumably because it is a creature that sort of hangs around the house fairly uselessly, like hangers-on around a court, which appear to be quite useless most of the time but every once in a while spring into action when they are sent off or lent out on a secret and deadly diplomatic mission to 'take care of some diplomatic problem'.

So, a bit like keeping a cat around the house, where it spends most of its time lazing about doing a lot of nothing, but once in a while you lend it out to a neighbor or friend to make quick work of all their mice--mice being the feline equivalent of a diplomatic problem that needs a quick and deadly solution.

Secretary of Legation (formal definition) is the translation of Legationsrat in the original German. It seems to be a sort of generic minor diplomatic functionary, but in this case it's probably best understood as defined in context above, as a sort of minor court functionary who mostly hangs around and appears quite useless but is occasionally sent off on a secret and deadly diplomatic mission of some sort.

FWIW Hoffman's masterpiece was the The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (full text in German here). Murr is a cat brought up to act the part of a human and his human counterpart--brought up and trained by the same mentor--is a Legationsrat.

So again, the implicit comparison of a Legationsrat and cat, though the exact context is very different.

(FYI the "mentor" I mentioned is Hoffmann's Johannes Kreisler, inspiration for Robert Schumann's Kreisleriana as well as a few other things.)

Disclaimer: Hoffmann is pretty avant-garde--and as Alex Ross points out, surprisingly postmodern for someone born in 1776--what with all the human/animal/dream/live action metaphorical type stuff, and I'm no particular expert in any of this, so I might be missing or misunderstanding some things.
posted by flug at 12:40 AM on December 6, 2019 [13 favorites]

Hoffmann was writing at the height of the Prussian Reform Movement, a programme to overhaul and modernise state institutions such as the civil service, the diplomatic service and the army. Hoffmann was connected with the reformers via his friend Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel, who worked for the reforming Chancellor Hardenberg.

The running joke about secretaries of legation seems to be directed at the nepotism of the pre-reform Prussian diplomatic service, where -- as in the rest of Europe -- the aristocracy ruled, and family connections counted for everything. The joke is that junior diplomats, like cats, are all related to one another. This is playful fantasy rather than biting political satire, but it's a way for Hoffman to signal his sympathy with the reformers.
posted by verstegan at 2:29 AM on December 6, 2019 [11 favorites]

« Older Am I in (yet another) toxic job? Fitting in...   |   How to make dealing with hospital staff more... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments