Thomas Mann’s persona fits bulkily into much of his fiction, like an outsize old-fashioned oblong brass-tacked trunk—the sort that Gustave Aschenbach might well have had carried into his suite at the Hotel des Bains on the Lido, in Death in Venice. Mann was almost insistently conscious of this autobiographical presence. He writes to Felix Bertaux in 1923 explaining that Death in Venice is the autobiographical Tonio Kröger “retold at a later stage of life,” while Tonio Kröger itself is the autobiographical continuation of Buddenbrooks.
In his early letters to Katia Pringsheim, later to become his wife, he writes of himself as though he were emerging from the chrysalis of Tonio Kröger. He confesses that up to the time of meeting her, “where I had loved I had always despised. The mingling of longing and contempt, ironic love, had been my most characteristic emotion. Tonio Kröger loved ‘life,’ blue-eyed commonness, nostalgically, mockingly and hopelessly. And now? A being sweet as the world…: ‘something absolutely and incredibly new!’ ” This echoes “Welch ein fremdes, neues Leben!” bringing us back, as so often with Thomas Mann, to the universe which is Goethe. Life is literature even when he has emerged from the chrysalis of Tonio Kröger.
In dramatizing the hero as the artist living his life but always conscious of his art (and thus introducing a note of “insincerity” into living) Thomas Mann was, in the first decade of this century, very much of his time. The idea that the Dichter, the imaginative writer, had, for the purpose of creating a work about, and yet detached from, himself—and in order to relate himself to the world around him—to adopt a deliberately self-conscious pose, make and wear a “mask,” still lingered on from the 1890s. With Tonio Kröger, as with Stephen Daedalus, the mask became the persona of the writer himself.
The Stephen Daedalus persona ultimately became absorbed into the dream, larger than the poet’s individual character, of Finnegans Wake. A disappearance of the figure of the subjective artist into objective art also takes place with Thomas Mann, a process beginning with The Magic Mountain and finally achieved in Doctor Faustus. But the process of objectivization in Mann is very different from that in Joyce. For with Mann the external world does not become transformed into a Joycean inner world (a kind of subjectivity which becomes objective—objective, say, as sleep—by being flooded with unconscious forces). The Joycean imagination implicitly stakes claims to be more significant than the historically real world (hence Joyce’s remark to Cyril Connolly shortly before the outbreak of war, to the effect that what happened in his Paris workroom was more important than those insignificant events going on outside).
In Mann’s work the historic and contemporary retains its outsideness. He is a Wagnerian spellbinder, a mythmaker, but the myth always refers back to the real world: the shallow Bohemians sitting in the Munich cafés, the fact that Venice is, or was, an unsalubrious city, the Nazis—all count. As his work develops, the problem of the relationship of the artist with his artistic temperament, concerned only with producing the aesthetic art object, ceases to be central.
That it remained central for so long was not because his Tonio Kröger, Gustave Aschenbach, Hans Castorp were instruments of consciousness, like Stephen Daedalus, capable of transforming the gritty substance of real life into a self-sufficing, independent verbal world of the imagination (melting the Flesh back into the Word), but because they were Janus-faced, looking both ways, at poetry with one face, at the world with the other. Like their creator, they had one foot in the world, one foot in art. Thomas Mann did not have to look far outside his own personality and his autobiography to arrive at these personae that, divided between art and world, were vehicles for expressing his own attitudes and experiences.
His letters show how thoroughly he was aware of his own genetic, physiological, racial, psychological complexity. He had enough divisions in himself to consider that looking at the world outside he saw conflicts and clashes of personality which he already knew by looking within. He was Yeats’s antinomies incarnate, incorporating in himself the interpenetrating gyres whirling in opposite directions.
In the letter to Félix Bertaux from which I have already quoted, he draws attention to this inbred multiversity. He points out that his father was a senator of the Hanseatic Free City of Lübeck, whereas his mother was born in Rio de Janeiro and was half Brazilian. Hence the North German was mixed with the “Latin” in his blood. At the same time, he does not feel at home in Catholic “communal” Munich. He is an individualist of a patrician northern type, “moulded by protestant inwardness.”
His book The Reflection of a Non-Political Man, which he wrote during the First World War in defense of a Germany which he identified with Goethe and Nietzsche, is not, he explains to Bertaux, reactionary. It represents “apolitical humanism.” He goes on to state that he is a family man with six children, though with, he hints, a fixation on one of his daughters. He then describes The Magic Mountain as an attempt to revive that eminently bourgeois genre, the Bildungsroman, though in a letter to another correspondent, he rather undermines this account by mentioning that the lessons the novel arrives at are by way of the experience of illness as falling in love with decay and death.
And in other letters Mann has plenty to say about the sides of him that are quite the opposite of that which is upstanding, honorable and honored, responsible and bourgeois. In an intensely concerned discussion of Death in Venice, written in 1920 to Carl Maria Weber, he moves on from the conventional account of himself as the typical family man to mention: “If we were to speak of eroticism, of unbourgeois intellectually sensual adventures, things would have to be viewed a little differently. The problem of eroticism, indeed the problem of beauty, seems to me comprehended in the tension of life and mind.” He quotes himself: “The relationship of life and mind is an extremely delicate, difficult, agitating, painful relation charged with irony and eroticism.”
In a very veiled passage written to this correspondent, who evidently liked Death in Venice partly because he put a homoerotic interpretation on it, Mann, while convincingly rejecting this interpretation, writes sympathetically about deviant love and ends by quoting Hölderlin’s beautiful little poem about the love of Socrates for Alcibiades: “Wer das Tiefste gedacht, liebt das Lebendigste.” It is clear from all this that the moral basis of Mann’s humanism is Humani nil a me alienum puto, and the remark of Goethe to Eckermann that he had never heard of a crime which, in his heart, he did not know himself capable of having committed.
So I should vary the metaphor with which I started out of Mann’s persona as a massive piece of luggage, by saying that, like one of those phonographs or cocktail cabinets disguised to look like something else—say, Lucrezia Borgia’s wardrobe—this trunk conceals a very complex machinery of sensibility, in which built-in inner parts correspond to psychological types and varieties of moral and immoral behavior outside: so that to write a novel of anything up to a thousand pages this master-magician had only to turn the knob of an immensely populated world of opposites inside himself. He is thoroughly aware of this, right to the end, as the extremely illuminating correspondence with Mrs. Agnes E. Meyer (whom he seems to have delighted to shock) shows. Defending Aldous Huxley’s Time Must Have a Stop he writes, in a manner which one might characterize as modestly boastful:
It is reprehensible—you’re right about that. But my own conscience is not so clear when the question of morbidity and decadence is raised. In that regard I have a long and rather sinister record—actually ever since Buddenbrooks. Death in Venice, too, isn’t so unobjectionable and right now in Doctor Faustus the atmosphere again is not exactly of the healthiest. In connection with all this, I imagine one must think of the novelist in that old sketch of mine, “At the Prophet’s,” of whom it is said: “He was on good terms with life.”
On good terms with life because on terms of accepting the conflict of the Yeatsian antinomies inside him. He knew too, as he told Mrs. Meyer, that he could be “monstrously polite, stiff and buttoned up.” Yet he greatly resented the article by Janet Flanner in The New Yorker in which he considered himself portrayed as nothing else but this. He was bewildered at people complaining of his “Olympian arrogance.” “Basically all I want is to make people laugh, and for the rest I am the soul of laborious modesty.”
This is the remark of a man who, however tragic and even macabre his view of life, writes fundamentally out of himself to amuse himself. We would not be surprised to read it coming from the author of King Lear or of War and Peace. It explains why deep down Lear saying, “Howl, howl, howl, howl,” or Pierre Bezukhov rushing into a building of burning Moscow to rescue a baby which turns around and bites him, on one level is funny. For life to have come to this, what a joke! The more one thinks about the remark the more it seems a tribute to Mann’s greatness. It is what rescues him from his heavy responsibility, the self-importance, the love of honors and being honored, the lectures and banquets. These were externals, like his moustache and his dark suits.
All the time his inner eye was watching the comedy going on inside himself, the dangling of the puppets, a comedy of black humor like that shown in the triumphantly repellent story The Black Swan. His morbidity entered into God’s joke against humanity, shown in tricks like the cancer of the uterus of a lady after her “change of life,” who thinks that the bleeding means that as the result of her inappropriate love for a young man she has recovered her youth, signified by the return of the menstrual flow. She dies of it. Thomas Mann was a revered public man who played games of private irreverence. He shared with Thomas Hardy the characteristic of thinking that what seemed to others morbidity in him was his special brand of humor.
As long as he was autobiographical, and his heroes were his own persona, his values were ultimately aesthetic. But it is the aestheticism of a vicious circle of the Hanseatic bourgeois Protestant who, despising art and himself for being an artist, nevertheless as the result of art sees through the sham of the bourgeois world; then he brings to the practice of his art bourgeois industriousness and makes of himself, the decadent aesthete, a solid and responsible much honored citizen who stays in the best hotels. And all the time he knows that the aesthetic view of life is dust and ashes.