#37. “I stand between two worlds”: Thomas Mann
Philip Kitcher is the author of Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach, a study of Thomas Mann’s famous novella of 1913. Thomas Mann (1875–1955) is a heavyweight of German letters, the sort of serious Teutonic writer for whom there is always another stone to turn, as it were. In his essay ‘Franz Kafka or Thomas Mann?’, Georg Lukács defined the difference between the two writers as a choice between Kafka’s “aesthetically pleasing, but decadent modernism” and Mann’s “fruitful critical realism”. “The deeper Thomas Mann probes into the complexity of present day reality, the more clearly we come to understand our position in the complex evolution of mankind”, says Lukács (who, like us, is an admirer of Mann’s 1903 novella Tonio Kröger). Philip considers which contemporary issues might have prompted Mann to pick up pen and probe.
Words: Philip Kitcher
1. Same-sex relations
Mann’s famous novella, Death in Venice, endows its central figure, Gustav von Aschenbach, with Mann’s own sexual orientation. Once passion has fully gripped him, Aschenbach wanders around Venice in pursuit of the beautiful young boy, Tadzio. What he wants to do is, apparently, to gaze… and keep on gazing. Looking is the thing: Mann’s surviving diaries recall several occasions on which “a vision by the roadside” entranced him. His most satisfying relationship with a younger male seems to have culminated in a (chaste) kiss. As he puts it in Lotte in Weimar, “in love the best is the kiss – the poetry of love.” Or, in the words of a late diary entry, “How can one sleep with men?” (a sincere rhetorical question.)
So how would he have reacted to western societies in which same-sex relations are increasingly accepted? If he had been transported from his maturity into the present, he would surely have been unsettled by gay liberation. Where has the poetry gone? On the other hand, if he had grown up in today’s world, his own sexual life would almost certainly have been far more fulfilled and less conflicted.
2. Women’s place
The strongest female character in Mann’s fiction is the heroine of his second novel, Royal Highness, the heiress Imma Spoelmann. She is modeled on Mann’s wife, Katia (née Pringsheim) and the novel celebrates their courtship. It closes by predicting for the (fictitious) marriage a “severe” or “demanding” happiness. That was certainly true of the real thing, at least as far as Katia Mann was concerned. It’s often been remarked that Mann’s diaries lavish enormous attention on the details of his daily routine, while Katia’s life barely rates a mention – even on days when he’s forgotten a birthday or anniversary. She labors tirelessly in the background, ensuring that the Great Man can undertake his Great Work undisturbed. Similarly, after the Second World War, Erika Mann, the eldest daughter, is recruited as helpful amanuensis, and her own career lapses.
Mann would probably be bemused by the thought of wives “working outside the home”, or of excelling in academic settings (as Katia Mann might have done). Wouldn’t it lead, he might ask, to interference with the projects of Great Men? Echoing Nietzsche, one of his acknowledged trinity of influences, he would probably deplore pleas for female equality as another dilution of life by “herd morality.”
Mann failed to complete the German equivalent of high school (he left the Lübeck Gymnasium without graduating). Yet he wrote novels that engage with many complex issues in many fields, from the philosophy and theology of The Magic Mountain through the comparative study of religion in Joseph and his Brothers to music theory in Doctor Faustus. When he writes about death from disease, in Buddenbrooks, in Death in Venice, in The Magic Mountain, and in Doctor Faustus, he is consistently exact about medical details. His central figures are typically self-educated: Aschenbach, Hans Castorp, and Adrian Leverkühn. Even the businessman, Tom Buddenbrook, reads Schopenhauer (another of Mann’s trinity of influences).
I suspect Mann would be appalled by the professionalisation of education in the affluent societies of the western world, seeing the focus on majors and degrees and higher degrees as a travesty of genuine immersion in culture. He would oppose the thought that what is needed is more emphasis on STEM subjects, and would be dismayed by a world in which education is infected by scientism.
4. Religious fanaticism
During much of the 1920s and 1930s, Mann was occupied in writing one of his greatest novels, too little read today, the four-part Joseph and his Brothers. Central to the technique of the novel is the intertwining of narrative voices, one that sounds like high religious text, another that ventures commentary, yet another that traces links across mid-eastern religions, and others that offer narrative and ironic undercutting. The many voices embody Mann’s complex attitude to religion, interested, sympathetic, skeptical, and inclusive. One of the harshest portraits of any figure in the book is that of the Egyptian priest, Beknechon, rigid, dogmatic, severe, and insistent on getting religious doctrines and rituals right.
Confronted with the religious violence and the fervent fundamentalisms of today, Mann would surely have been puzzled. Hadn’t civilization long outgrown such simplistic and intolerant views? Didn’t everyone know that religion was myth, sometimes extremely valuable myth to be sure, but not to be taken as the literal basis for vilifying or even slaughtering others?
5. Organic food
One of the most charming scenes in Mann’s first (and brilliantly successful) novel, Buddenbrooks, depicts young Antonia (Tony) Buddenbrook meeting a young man with whom she will fall in love. As she is helped to the family’s home-produced honey, he tells her that she can “trust” the honey: “It’s a natural product … you know just what you’re eating.” Faced with the lists of artificial ingredients listed on the backs of packaged food today, Thomas Mann would probably echo that endorsement of “natural foods.”
But his celebrated irony might also be evident in comments on food faddism. Tony remains an appealing woman, but she easily falls into stock gestures and well-worn judgments. So, throughout the novel, she returns to her once-beloved’s praise for natural food – it becomes one of her tics. She is, as she says, correctly and disarmingly, “a silly goose.”
Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach is published by Columbia University Press (2013)
© 2014, The Fertile Fact / Philip Kitcher