Revisiting the magic and mystery of Thomas Mann
“The task of a writer,” Thomas Mann (1875-1955) said, “consists in being able to make something out of an idea.” He also said, “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
Mann illustrated these two statements by writing classic novels of ideas (and many short stories and essays) at a rate of 500 words a day. Along the way, he feuded with his older brother Heinrich Mann (1871-1950) about World War I, nationalism and democracy, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, mostly for what he had accomplished in his first novel, Buddenbrooks, about the decline of a wealthy merchant family in his hometown of Lübeck, and, turning against the strident nationalism expressed in Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, spoke out against the Nazi movement bearing fruit in political assassinations, book burnings and extreme antisemitism.
In March of 1933, while he was on holiday with his Jewish wife in Switzerland, two of Mann’s children, Klaus and Erika, phoned their parents from Germany. According to Nigel Hamilton, author of The Brothers Mann: The Lives of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, 1871-1950 and 1875-1955, “The weather, they said as pointedly as possible, had worsened.” What this meant in real terms was that Mann had been declared an enemy of the state, and his chauffeur, a secret member of the Brownshirts, was coveting the family car.
So Mann spent the rest of his life in exile from the country he had so vociferously and irrationally (more on that in a moment) defended in Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man. He made it to America, where he taught at Princeton, then moved to Los Angeles, where a prominent German expatriate community, including Bertolt Brecht, Franz Werfel and Heinrich, with whom Thomas had reconciled, provided an intellectual home.
Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist hysteria discouraged Mann so much that he moved to Switzerland for good and died there in 1955.
After the war, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist hysteria discouraged Mann so much—it seemed to him America was succumbing to the same kind of thinking that had produced Nazism—that he moved to Switzerland for good and died there in 1955. He had gone from supporting the Kaiser’s war fever to becoming an advocate of democratic socialism. How and why did this change take place?
The answer can be found in the two books under review. Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, published in 1918, just as the war was winding down to an end and Germany knew it had lost, is ably introduced by Mark Lilla, Professor of Humanities at Columbia University. Lilla points out how Mann’s relationship with his elder brother, Heinrich, throbs at the center of this book: Thomas felt compelled to fight against his brother’s cosmopolitanism and championing of democracy, especially after taking something Heinrich had written as a personal insult and running with it.
But there is more to it than that. As Lilla writes:
For all that has been written about Reflections as a historical and biographical document, it remains an undiscovered book. And a timely one. For buried within it is a serious argument about art’s relation to politics. Mann wrote at a time, like our own, when artists were under great pressure to declare their political allegiances and shape their work accordingly. He would always resist that pressure and encourage others to as well. But it took the experience of two world wars for him finally to recognize just how large a stake the artist has in healthy politics. That is the lesson he would eventually draw from this wild and petulant apologia pro vita sua.
Lilla is right that this argument for artistic freedom is “buried” within Mann’s book. Reflections is a fascinating slog to read through. It is a reactionary political tract of the most hackneyed kind shot through with brilliant philosophical and artistic insights, especially about Goethe, Schopenhauer, Wagner and Nietzsche, as well as pathetic pleas for understanding. You can hear Mann saying through his convoluted arguments: These great artists and thinkers were basically conservative, therefore I am, too.
Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man howls and writhes and excoriates by turn.
Reflections howls and writhes and excoriates by turn. Mann’s relationship with his brother and his tendency to see everything in personal terms explains this. As Heinrich said about Thomas, “My brother enjoys it [the war], as he does everything, aesthetically.”
Mann, angry and resentful that his brother had insulted him, angry at the rest of Europe, with its worship of money and veneer of civilization, maintained that Germany was a culture of life, vitality and enlightened aristocratic rule. He harps about Europe ganging up on Germany, but laughs away how Germany attacked first through neutral Belgium. He never mentions the horrific human cost of the war, and says the German people did what had to be done because they are “not inclined to moral pussyfooting.”
The following gives a brief taste of the worst of the book:
They [the German people] approved of the destruction of that impudent symbol of English mastery of the sea and of a still comfortable civilization, the sinking of the gigantic pleasure ship, the “Lusitania,” and they defied the world-resounding hullabaloo that humanitarian hypocrisy raised.
As Lilla writes, “‘What I the ‘nonpolitical man’ oppose, Mann seems to be saying in this flurry of verbal gestures, is all that. (Every reactionary has an all that.)”
“Conservatism,” Mann writes, “in general, one may say, is a mood, while progressiveness is a principle; and here lies, it seems to me, the human superiority of the former over the latter.” That is, moods move the common people to action more than principles; they are not intellectual enough to devote themselves to a principle of, say, freedom or democracy.
Or, to flip it around, the eggheads become Jacobins who line the nonbelievers in reason up against the wall. To which the response is: some eggheads do, but not all, and letting “moods,” which usually have to do with our nation being superior to others and cruelty to people who are not like “us” engulf society, does not seem to be the answer.
Mann harps about Europe ganging up on Germany, but laughs away how Germany attacked first through neutral Belgium.
Mann’s argument for the freedom of art from politics is something we need to hear right now, but it is better expressed in his novel The Magic Mountain (1924). Reading this book after Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man is metaphorically very much like what it would be to ascend from what in the novel is called “the flatlands,” to the thin but clear pure mountain air of the Alps.
Which is where the protagonist, Hans Castorp, a young engineer just about to join a shipbuilding firm, ventures to visit his tubercular cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, staying at a sanatorium in Davos. He plans to stay three weeks but, having been diagnosed with tuberculosis himself, ends up staying seven years.
However, unlike his cousin Joachim, who hates the inactivity of life in the sanatorium and longs to return to the flatlands to join his army regiment, Hans finds himself loving the routine and the chance to educate himself (first in the science of the human body, then botany and astronomy) during all the rest periods allotted to him during the day. Hans’s parents had both died when he was a child, and he had been raised by an uncle; his inheritance provides enough money to pay for his treatment at the sanatorium.
Here in the mountain air of a timeless environment, Hans becomes truly himself, something that is not attended to in the flatlands, where the emphasis is on money, getting ahead and power politics. Huge, succulent meals are provided, walks and rest periods prescribed, X-rays and various treatments undertaken, and the patients are always free to visit the village below.
So what actually happens in the novel? Mann makes the sanatorium, the Berghof, a microcosm of pre-World War I Europe. He takes Hans through all the philosophical and political arguments of the time and shows how that world, in the words of Yeats, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre,” was losing its way and heading toward a great conflagration.
The Magic Mountain is so vivid and detailed that readers, as Hemingway said they should, feel as though they have also lived on the magic mountain for seven years.
But he does this through naturalistic techniques. You could read this novel and not realize you had read a history of pre-war Europe because you have been reading about individual people, places and weather portrayed in such vivid fashion that they are more real than the various arguments and movements of the time they represent.
The Italian lawyer Lodovico Settembrini, who always wears the same heavy coat and checked pants, takes Hans under his wing and teaches him the tradition of liberal humanism. Settembrini is for civilization and democracy, for science and progress. Against him is Leo Naphta, a Jewish Jesuit who because of his health issues has never been ordained. Settembrini finds in Naphta a worthy but dangerous opponent. Settembrini argues for rationalism and light, while Naphta argues for mysticism and darkness. Naphta, although a Jesuit, is not really an orthodox Roman Catholic. In a chilling exchange with Settembrini, he says what the world needs now is not love, but “terror.” He says that the world brotherhood proclaimed in Christianity will come true only through communism and world revolution.
In addition to these two influences there is a Russian woman, Frau Chauchat. She lets the dining room door slam shut every evening, annoying Hans until he finally looks up at her and Cupid strikes. This is another reason Hans, even though his love is unrequited, is glad to stay at the Berghof.
Thomas Mann: “And out of this worldwide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all round—will love someday rise up out of this, too?”
Later, both Joachim and Frau Chauchat leave—Joachim to a military life, from which he will soon return again ill, and Chauchat to Dagestan, where her husband lives. But she will be back too, this time with a Dionysian Dutchman, Mynheer Peeperkorn, who overwhelms the Berghof with his jovial feasts. Hans, though jealous of Chauchat’s relationship with him, admires and tries to fathom the secret of Peeperkorn’s vitality. Political arguments dissipate like mist in his presence.
The last episode in Hans’s education occurs when a teenaged Danish girl displays parapsychological powers. Soon the analyst in residence, Dr. Krokowski, is arranging seances with her as the center of occult phenomenon. These seances disturb, even nauseate, Hans, and Mann’s detailed descriptions of the seances makes the reader feel the same way.
In fact, the entire book is so vivid and detailed that readers, as Hemingway said they should, feel as though they have also lived on the magic mountain for seven years. Over, under and through the whole story, Mann weaves reflections on time that are an education in philosophical reflection themselves. The first 200 or so pages of the novel cover the first three weeks of Hans’s visit. As the novel progresses, time slowly speeds up until the last few years speed by in less than 200 pages.
In these two books, Mann ascends from an over-emotional nationalistic reaction to a changing Europe to a reasoned but no less passionate and principled working-out of the need for progressive democracy and socialism. Although Hans sees holes in both Settembrini’s and Naphta’s arguments, by the end he sides much more with Settembrini than with the self-destructive and voluptuous Naphta.
The Great War breaks up the party at the Berghof, and Hans returns to the flatlands to fight for Germany. Finally, Mann admits the human cost of war in the last scene of the book as three thousand German soldiers, Hans Castorp among them, hurl themselves against enemy lines.
In the last line of the novel, Mann asks something he had not dared to in Reflections: “And out of this worldwide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all round—will love someday rise up out of this, too?”