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Lame Shadows

Tonio Kröger and Other Stories

by Thomas Mann, translated by David Luke
Bantam, 256 pp., $1.25 (paper)

Anyone who offers a fresh translation of a prose work—poetry is another matter—is in duty bound to justify his undertaking by explaining why he thinks that earlier versions are unsatisfactory, a task which can only be congenial to the malicious. Dr. Luke has felt, quite rightly, obliged to cite some of the errors made by Mrs. Lowe-Porter, and anybody who knows German will agree with him that many of these are serious. But he does so with obvious reluctance and concludes by paying her a just tribute.

Her task, as the exclusive translator of [Mann’s] entire work, was, of course, Herculean, and her mistakes were probably as much due to understandable haste as to an inadequate knowledge of German. Her achievement deserves credit for its sheer volume, and it would be churlish to deny that her renderings are often by no means infelicitous. My own method in retranslating these six stories was to avoid consulting the existing versions of them until I had at least decided on my first draft for a given sentence or paragraph. The corresponding passage in Mrs. Lowe-Porter would then occasionally suggest second thoughts.

Dr. Luke had already demonstrated his extraordinary gifts as a translator in his versions of three Novellen by Adalbert Stifter, an author who is probably more difficult to “english” than Thomas Mann. Of his latest offering, I can only say that I cannot imagine anybody thinking the job must be done a third time. His brilliant Introduction, too, puts a reviewer in an awkward spot: what on earth is he to say about these six stories which Dr. Luke has not already said better?

Five of them are variations on the same theme, the incompatibility of “Life,” that is to say, unreflective vitality, innocence, happiness, a “normal” existence, with alienating self-consciousness. The sixth, “Gladius Dei,” deals with the difference between healthy and decadent art.

In all of them, the chief character feels himself, with a mixture of pride and shame, to be an Outsider. In “The Joker” and “Tristan,” he is a contemptible dilettante who imagines that a refined sensibility gives him the right to think of himself as “artistic,” though he never gets down to fabricating a satisfactory art object. Before “Tonio Kröger” ends, however, its hero has justified his claim by producing good work. In the farcical and cruel “The Road to the Churchyard,” he is simply a drunken failure, in “Little Herr Friedemann,” the first written of the stories, a cripple.

This story does not, in my opinion, quite come off. Mann seems to be using the feeling of isolation felt by a cripple as a symbol for that felt by an artist. But cripples and artists both exist in the world and their reasons for feeling isolated are quite different. The cripple’s physical deformity is a visible fact, patent to all. He knows this, and is therefore absolutely certain that he can never hope to win the love of a young, beautiful, and “normal” girl. At the age of sixteen, Herr Friedemann, after watching a flirtation between two of his contemporaries, realizes this:

Very well,” he said to himself, “that is over. I will never again concern myself with such things. To the others they mean joy and happiness, but to me they can only bring grief and suffering. I am done with it all. It is finished for me. Never again.”

That he should fail to keep his resolution and fall madly in love with Frau von Rinnlingen is not surprising, but I find it incredible that he should have openly declared his passion. What could he possibly have expected to happen except what did happen—to be rejected with scorn and laughter? An artist’s problems, on the other hand, are private to himself unless he chooses to disclose them. He may be, for example, by temperament incapable of falling in love or of fidelity, but if he does fall in love and is reasonably personable to look at, he stands a perfectly good chance of marrying the girl he loves: and a number have.

If I call these stories “dated,” I do not mean that they are out-of-date, only that, like most works of art, they could only have been produced at a particular period in social and cultural history. The notion of the alienated artist is a phenomenon of the second half of the nineteenth century. In earlier times we do not find it and, in our own, alienation has become almost a universal problem. The causes for it were, I think, three. Firstly, after the disappearance of patronage, artists ceased to have a professional social status. Individual artists might become famous public figures but, collectively, they ceased to have status in the way that doctors, lawyers, businessmen, farmers, etc., have, whether famous or obscure, successful or unsuccessful.

Secondly, European society in the nineteenth century and, indeed, until the First World War, was still a class-stratified society, in which almost everybody was born into an identifiable “station” and would spend his life in it. (It is to be noticed what a pride Mann’s heroes take in their upper bourgeois background, and their feelings of guilt at having chosen “art” instead of going into Father’s business.) The artist, that is to say, was a special case. Earlier, this had not been so. In an oral culture, a poet has a social importance irrespective of the aesthetic merit of his work, as the man who makes immortal the great deeds of the past: in a polytheistic culture, as the recounter of its myths, he is a theologian as well as an artist. Then, in any society where the rich and powerful, whether out of genuine love of the arts or because they think it enhances their prestige, include artists in their retinue, the latter have the status of an Upper Servant. Haydn wore the Esterhazy livery.

Lastly, until the Industrial Revolution, writers, composers, and painters were not the only kinds of artists. Cobblers, blacksmiths, carpenters, etc., were equally craftsmen, concerned in giving the objects they made a gratuitous aesthetic value as well as a necessary utility value. In such a society, therefore, it was taken for granted, even by those who never read a book or looked at a picture or listened to music, that beauty was as valuable as utility. But, by the end of the nineteenth century, machine production had reduced most workercraftsmen to the status of laborers, whose only interest in their labor was as a means of earning their livelihood, and beauty came more and more to be regarded as a social luxury, making both the creators of beautiful things and their specialized public objects of social suspicion.

When a man finds himself a social oddity, he is very apt to alternate between feelings of guilt—there must be something wrong with me—and megalomania—the fact that I am an oddity proves that I am superior to the average mass. Polar opposites as in appearance they look, the two literary doctrines of Naturalism and Art-for-Art’s-Sake, as propounded by Zola and Mallarmé, are really both expressions of the same megalomania. The aesthete is, at least, frank about this. He says: “Art is the only true religion. Life has no value except as material for a beautiful artistic structure. The artist is the only authentic human being: all the rest, rich and poor alike, are canaille.”

The naturalist is more disingenuous. Officially, he says: “Down with all art that prettifies life. Let us describe human life and nature as they really are.” But his picture of life “as it really is” is a picture of human beings as animals, enslaved to necessity, who can only manifest behavior and are incapable of personal choice or deeds. But if human beings are really as the naturalist describes them, then they cannot be loved or admired. Who can be? Only the naturalist himself for his accurate clinical observations. Like all kinds of behaviorists, he does not apply his dogmas to himself. He does not say: “My books are examples of behavior, conditioned by blind reflexes.” The hidden link between the naturalist and the aesthete is revealed by the total absence in both of any sense of humor.

Aestheticism, as Mann saw very clearly, has an even more pernicious effect upon art lovers than upon the artists themselves. The latter must, at least, work hard in order to win their own self-respect, but their public is passive and does nothing, yet feels itself superior to the Philistines. The nineteenth-century respectable bourgeoisie imagined that a “moral” novel meant one in which the good were rewarded for their virtues by coming into money and a happy marriage, while the bad were punished for their vices by ending in penury and disgrace. This was silly of them, but they were nearer the truth than the aesthetes who, in reaction, denied any relation between art and morality. In “Gladius Dei,” Mann describes a decadent picture:

It was a Madonna, painted in a wholly modern and entirely unconventional manner. The sacred figure was ravishingly feminine, naked and beautiful. Her great sultry eyes were rimmed with shadow, and her lips were halfparted in a strange and delicate smile. Her slender fingers were grouped rather nervously and convulsively round the waist of the Child, a nude boy of aristocratic, almost archaic slimness, who was playing with her breasts and simultaneously casting a knowing sidelong glance at the spectator.

Now it is possible to argue that pornography has a legitimate social function, but only on condition that it claims to do nothing except act as a sexual stimulus. If, as in this case, it claims to be not only a work of art but also a religious work of art, then Hieronymus is right: it should be burnt.

In his treatment of the self-conscious sensitive artist vis-à-vis “the bright children of life, the happy, the charming and the ordinary,” Mann’s irony and humor reveal that, however much he may have been influenced by Nietzsche, he took him with a grain of salt. As an analyst of Pride, the primal sin of self-consciousness, Nietzsche is the greatest of all psychologists, but he should have accepted it as an unchangeable factor in the human condition. His Super-Man, who combines the self-consciousness of a man with the self-assurance of an animal, is a chimera.

In these stories Mann describes very convincingly the nostalgia felt by his “sensitive” characters for the “normal,” but he makes it clear that their conception of the “normal” is subjective and not objective. In clarifying this, he amusingly makes use of an autobiographical fact: he was born with dark hair in Northern Germany where blond hair is the norm. So Tonio (and, incidentally, Spinell in “Tristan”) is dark-haired and dark-complexioned. Now, it is natural enough for a person to be attracted by his physically opposite type, as Tonio is by Hans, but if he identifies physical appearance with character traits, he is clearly indulging in a private fantasy. Nobody, for instance, could possibly contend that only fair-haired people are athletes, only dark-haired ones writers. Mann never lets us know what Hans or Ingeborg think of themselves, only what Tonio thinks about them.

Toward the end of the story the following sentence is italicized: Hans Hansen and Ingeborg Holm walked through the dining-room. By this device, Mann informs the reader that the sentence is, in fact, untrue: they are not Hans and Ingeborg, but another couple belonging to the same type. It was as types not as persons that Tonio had admired them. To make sure that the reader gets the point, Mann gives us Tonio’s verdict on Italy. It is well-known that artists and intellectuals from Northern Europe have often fallen in love with Mediterranean countries, finding them, in contrast to their own, the home of unreflecting happiness and vitality. Not so Tonio:

All that bellezza gets on my nerves. And I can’t stand all that dreadful southern vitality, all those people with their black animal eyes. They’ve no conscience in their eyes, these Latin races.

Though Tonio Kröger is the only representative of the aesthetic in these stories whom one can respect, he is not the most interesting to read about: he talks far too much. Of them all, the one I like best is “Tristan.” The title is clearly ironic. Anybody who is familiar with Wagner’s opera will recognize at once that Spinell is not Tristan but Melot, the malevolent troublemaker, in disguise. He will also relish the contrast between the aged, melancholic, probably impotent figure of King Mark, and the exuberant, gourmandising Philistine to whom Frau Klöterjahn is married.

My, how times have changed since these stories were written! Less than seventy years ago, it was still possible to raise the question: Is a love for racehorses more “normal,” more echt than a love for poetry? Today the question would be: Are these diffent loves the truthful manifestation of personal taste and choice, or have they been assumed in order to be popular in the social circle in which the individual happens to move? (Personal choice and taste do not, of course, exclude learning from other persons: they do exclude group influence.) In all technologically “advanced” countries, fashion has replaced tradition, so that involuntary membership in a society can no longer provide a feeling of community. (The family, perhaps, can still provide it, but families are temporary societies which dissolve when the children grow up.)

In consequence, the word “normal” has ceased to have any meaning. Community still means what it always has, a group of persons united by a love of something other than themselves, be it racehorses or poetry, but today such a love has to be discovered by each person for himself; it cannot be acquired socially. Society can only teach conformity to the momentary fashion, either of the majority or of its mirror-image, the rebellious minority. To belong to either is to be a member, not of a community, but of a “public” in the Kierkegaardian sense. Today, all visible and therefore social signs of agreement are suspect. What a pleasant surprise it would be to meet a crew-cut hippie or a company director with hair down to his shoulders.

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