On Refraction and the Fragmentary Muse


The idea of a fragmentary Muse comes from a fragmentary opera, The Tales of Hoffmann (Les Contes d’Hoffmann), by Jacques Offenbach. Such a Muse, I argue, embodies a complex metaphor that I sum up in one word, refraction. 

This metaphor, which recurs several times in that opera, derives from the idea that light ‘breaks’ through a prism or lens. That is, light refracts or ‘breaks’ just as things break.


This idea combines with another idea, that sound refracts or ‘breaks’ as well.

When I speak of a refraction of sound, I am aware that there is no such thing in terms of physics. But there is such a thing, as we will see, in terms of a poetic metaphor that extends from the physics of sight to the metaphysics of sound.

The optical effect of ‘breaking’ light and the imagined acoustical effect of ‘breaking’ sound combine to form the complex metaphor I call refraction.


In the music of Offenbach’s opera, this metaphor is used to express the sensation of experiencing a disintegration of identity, a shattering of the self.

That is what I mean when I speak of a poetics of refraction. Besides the opera of Offenbach, such a poetics is found also in two fragments of ancient Greek poetry. One fragment is from a song by Sappho, while the other is from a song embedded within a drama by Sophocles.

(I must note at the outset that I use the word music here in the holistic sense of the ancient Greek word mousikē, which means ‘art of the Muses’. This art, in the era of Sophocles as also in the earlier era of Sappho, was a holistic combination of song and dance and instrumental accompaniment.)



At that moment, the singing woman experiences a breakdown in her mind, and this breakdown leads to the sensation of experiencing a disintegration of identity.

In the original Greek, she ‘seems’ or ‘appears’ to herself to be losing consciousness. Why?

It is because she is no longer her own selfThere is now another self who is looking at her.

That is why she can say that she ‘seems’ or ‘appears’ to herself to be reaching the razor’s edge of dying.


Similarly, the sensation of a break in consciousness - and we have seen that the Greek medical term for such a break is syncope (συγκοπή) – is created within an overall framework of consciousness.

Further, I suggest that the self cannot experience the sensation of disintegration without a preexisting sense of an integral ‘I’.


Another example of discontinuity as an aspect of overall continuity in music is the sound effect of the refrain. To make a refrain, as we are about to see, is to make an echo.

The Greek noun I translate as ‘echo’, ēkhō, refers to a sound that results from a breaking of sound.

A single sound is broken or refracted into a multiplicity of sounds, and the single source of the original sound disintegrates into a multiplicity of seemingly alien new sources that echo that original sound.


So the echo is a breaking or refraction of sound, and its musical equivalent is the refrain, which is the breaking of a single original sound into a multiplicity of secondary sounds that follow.

Like the echo, which can only follow and multiply the original sound but never originate a sound on its own, the refrain can only follow and multiply the original tune but never originate a tune on its own.


This is the essance of the refrain, and this essance is replicated in the myth of Echo as retold in the Metamorphoses of Ovid (3.339-401)... Thus when Echo falls in love with Narcissus, she cannot ever initiate what she yearns to say to him.

Instead, she can only replicate pieces of whatever he says, mere fragments, and those fragments are always the final pieces of his wording:

natura repugnat
nec sinit, incipiat, sed, quod sinit, illa parata est
exspectare sonos, ad quos sua verba remittat. 
Nature resists
and does not let her begin, but, what it does allow she is ready for,
to wait for sounds to which she can send back her own words.

Ovid Metamorphoses 3.376-378



The metaphor inherent in the Provençal verb refranhar can be explained as an auditory equivalent of a visual metaphor, the ‘refracting’ of light (as in Latin refringere).

The driving image of refraction also accounts for two Provençal nouns: refrins, meaning ‘echo’ (as a part of sound that repeats itself), and refrim, meaning ‘birdsong, sound, refrain’. [13

The verb refranhar can also refer to the musical process of modulation in song: much as light is refracted through glass or a prism, so also the musical sound of song is modulated. [14


And, as we will see in the music of Offenbach, this metaphor of refraction expresses the sensation of a disintegration of identity, a shattering of the self, comparable to what we have seen in the music of Sappho and Sophocles.

The musical meaning of the opera comes to life in its fragmentation, and the Muse of Hoffmann is a fitting symbol of that fragmentation.

This Muse of the opera is not recognized as the Muse until the very end of The Tales of Hoffmann

Whereas Hoffmann is consistently recognized as a poet singing the role of a poet in each of his three Tales, the Muse of Hoffmann maintains her disguise as the boy Nicklausse, and Hoffmann fails to recognize her for what she really is, that is, the Muse who inspires the poet - and who truly loves him.

The failure extends throughout the master narrative that frames all three of the Tales narrated by Hoffmann.

This narrative is an extended flashback that starts at the very beginning of the opera, in the Prologue (Act 1).


And what was happening to Hoffmann while the Muse was maintaining her disguise?

He has been narrating three different Tales about three different women he has loved - Olympia in Act 2, Antonia in Act 3, and Giulietta in Act 4.


Act 2 of the opera by Offenbach

Hoffmann loves a mechanized doll named Olympia. Her body - or let us call it her frame - is literally broken into pieces. 


Act 3 of the opera by Offenbach

Hoffmann loves a would-be operatic diva named Antonia. She dies of heart failure - her heart literally breaks down. And this breakdown is timed to coincide with the operatic moment when her singing reaches a peak of sublime musical virtuosity.  


Act 4 of the opera by Offenbach

Hoffmann loves a courtesan named Giulietta. Her soul is damned, and this damnation is timed to coincide with a shattering of mirrors. Giulietta had used a mirror to capture the reflection of {81|82} Hoffmann and thus imprison his own precious soul - let us call it his identity. When Hoffmann discovers that his reflection has disappeared, he panics and shatters all the mirrors he sees around him. 


The truth is, these three lady-loves of Hoffmann are distinct from one other only in the mind of the beholder who is narrating his three stories of three loves.

As the Muse knows from the start, one unique lady-love is being refracted into three ‘mistresses’ through the lens of the narration performed by Hoffmann.

So the lens that produces this refraction is the opera itself.



All three of these shattered women turn out to be refractions of a seemingly unique lady-love. Her name is La Stella, and she plays the role of a diva or prima donna in the opera.

In her role as a phantom rival of the Muse, the diva Stella belongs not to the opera that is the Tales of Hoffmann. She belongs to a higher form of opera. She is a diva who sings in an opera composed by Mozart himself, Don Giovanni.

The woman who is the anonymous diva in the short story breaks, as we have seen, but the woman who is the diva named Stella in the opera of Offenbach does not break. So, is Stella a true diva?


No. The true diva is the fragmentary Muse of the opera by Offenbach. As for Stella, she is a false diva who rivals the true diva - so long as the Muse maintains her disguise.



The Fragmentary Muse and the Poetics of Refraction in Sappho, Sophocles, Offenbach
Gregory Nagy
verseEssa Li