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Mann and the Magician

Pro and Contra Wagner

by Thomas Mann, translated by Allan Blunden, with an introduction by Erich Heller
University of Chicago Press, 229 pp., $10.95 (paper)

How many professions and confessions I have already made on the subject of Wagner, for Wagner and against Wagner—it seems as if it will never end,” Thomas Mann wrote in 1951, four years before his death. Indeed, Wagner was not only to preoccupy Mann as an artist (“I can never forget what I owe to Richard Wagner in terms of artistic pleasure and artistic understanding—no matter how far I move away from him in spirit,” Mann had written in 1911); he was, it so happened, to have an important practical effect on Thomas Mann’s life. In February 1933, two weeks after Hitler’s appointment as German chancellor, Thomas Mann delivered a lecture in Munich to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Wagner’s death; and he went on to repeat it in Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris. It is indeed a masterpiece of criticism and remains one of the best things ever written about Wagner. But because it provided a subtle and critical analysis of Wagner and his work, obliquely attacking the Nazi view of Wagner as a prophet of German nationalism and indeed of National Socialism, and especially because it had been delivered to foreign audiences, it was at once the object of a violent public attack organized by the conductor Hans Knappertsbusch and signed by the composers Richard Strauss and Hans Pfitzner as well as an array of Munich notables: “We are not disposed to tolerate such disparaging treatment of our great German musical genius from anyone—and most certainly not from Herr Thomas Mann.” Nor did it stop there. Mann, on holiday in the Swiss Alps after his lecture tour, was warned by friends that he would be in personal danger if he returned to Germany. It was the start of his sixteen years of exile.

The long essay based on the offending lecture, “The Sorrows and Grandeur of Richard Wagner,” and the public attack on it provide the centerpiece of this fascinating book, which brings together in a very readable translation an extensive collection of the novelist’s writings about the composer, based on the selection originally published in Germany in 1967 as Wagner und unsere Zeit. Even the repetitions—and Mann was never one to waste a good phrase—are evidence of his obsession with Wagner. The book tells us much about Mann’s own attitudes, his complex and shifting relationship to German culture and politics; but because he was also a great critic with an exceptional sensitivity to music, it also tells us much about Wagner’s work and his place in the German tradition.

Erich Heller, in a characteristically stimulating and penetrating essay which forms the introduction to this collection, points out that Mann’s 1911 essay on Wagner, “Coming to Terms with Richard Wagner,” was written on notepaper headed “Grand Hotel des Bains, Lido–Venise,” and that his recollections of his youthful experiences of Wagner (“wonderful hours of deep and solitary happiness amidst the theatre throng, hours filled with frissons and brief moments of bliss”) immediately remind one of Aschenbach’s fatal infatuation with Tadzio in Death in Venice, which Mann was writing at the time, or of Hanno Buddenbrook’s obsession with what the local church organist called “infamous” music, which was one of the signs of the decline of the Buddenbrook clan.

Certainly Mann never lost his readiness to succumb to the spell of Wagner, but also he never lost his sense that there was something about Wagner’s music that prevented him from being a true artist in the sense that Goethe or Beethoven or Mozart had been. In the 1933 lecture the word that gave particular offense to his critics was “dilettante” as applied to Wagner’s relationship with the individual arts out of which his Gesamtkunstwerk was to be created. His feeling for the visual arts was, to say the least, limited. “Absurd though it may seem,” Mann wrote, “there is an element of the philistine about it.” Wagner himself admitted that he had “lived in Paris for a year and never…set foot in the Louvre.” One painter whom he considered commissioning to paint sets for his operas was Hans Makart; and, as Mann writes, “Ultimately Wagner’s art is a product of the same historical and aesthetic milieu as those elaborate dried-flower arrangements (complete with peacock feathers) by Makart which used to grace the padded and gilded salons of the bourgeoisie.” Wagner’s opera texts

often seem somewhat overblown and baroque, naive, with an air of grandiose and overbearing ineptitude: yet interspersed with passages of sheer genius, of a power, economy and elevated beauty that banish all doubt, though they cannot efface an awareness that these are creations which stand outside the tradition of great European literature and poetry.

Yet without the stage pictures and without the words the music would never have acquired the power over us that it retains, just as without the music the words often seem pretentious and inflated—a kind of fake antique. In his exile in Hollywood, Mann used to laugh at the composer Hanns Eisler’s demonstrations at the piano of the technical tricks that Wagner used; but it is the music that gives form and continuity to the whole. His technical mastery not only enabled him to produce coherent, highly organized music with an unprecedented time span; it also brought to his works, in Mann’s words, an “infinite power of characterization that can unite such spiritually disparate works as Die Meistersinger, with its bluff, Lutheran-Teutonic jollity, and the death-sick, death-drunk world of Tristan.” Mann is right when he says that the music “seems to shoot up like a geyser from the precivilized bedrock depths of myth (and not only ‘seems’: it really does); but in fact—and at the same time—it is carefully considered, calculated, supremely intelligent, full of shrewdness and cunning, and as literary in its conception as the texts are musical in theirs.”

Perhaps Mann’s sense of Wagner as an outsider in relation to the tradition of European art is indeed expressed by the fact that the composer whom he himself created, Adrian Leverkühn in Doctor Faustus, is as unlike Wagner as possible. As Erich Heller writes, “Leverkühn’s was the desperate response and attempted conquest of an epoch in music whose most powerful exponent was Richard Wagner.” It is interesting to speculate what Mann’s reactions would have been to the revival of a Wagnerian time scale and Wagnerian pretensions in a work such as Karlheinz Stockhausen’s opera Licht.

But if it is hard for Thomas Mann to deal with the unique nature of Wagner’s art and the forms he used, it is even harder for him to accept the symbolic position that Wagner acquired within the German tradition. This comes out clearly in the most ambiguous of Mann’s works, Reflections of an Unpolitical Man, in which, during the First World War, Mann expressed an agonized conservatism and a passionate attachment to German Kultur as opposed to Western Zivilization. It is illuminating to read in this volume the passages on Wagner extracted from the Reflections, which show how central the theme of Wagner and Wagnerism was in Mann’s troubled attempt to define what it meant to be a German and an artist. On the one hand Wagner is the essentially unpolitical man (“A politically minded man is repugnant,” he had written in a letter to Liszt); on the other hand he himself had been involved in politics of a contradictory kind—a revolutionary in 1849, a romantic monarchist in the 1860s, a supporter of Bismarck in 1870 when he was, Mann wrote, “more fanatical than any of those who welcomed war in 1914; for none of us was big enough and unbridled enough to compete with him in philistine impropriety.”

Yet for Mann Wagner’s art, although often identified with German nationalism (as on the occasion when as a young man he had witnessed a demonstration by Italian nationalists in Rome against the municipal orchestra which was playing Siegfried’s Funeral March), was nevertheless “a spiritual experience of supra-German significance.” It is yet another instance of the ambivalence of Wagner that both he and his bitterest critic, his former friend and admirer Friedrich Nietzsche, were “leading critics of German culture and civilization,” in Mann’s phrase, but at the same time such strong symbols of German culture that in the First World War, Nietzsche was denounced in the London Times as one of those responsible for the war, while Wagner’s works were banned in the Allied countries. Wagner has remained in the minds of many people particularly associated with the worst excesses of German nationalism in this century, so that his works are still not performed in Israel.

One cannot help feeling, reading the passages on Wagner in Reflections of an Unpolitical Man, that Thomas Mann’s misgivings about Wagner were in some sense misgivings about himself and that he sometimes identified with Wagner to a surprising extent. In a moving lecture “Richard Wagner and Der Ring des Nibelungen,” given in Zurich in 1937, he refers to Wagner’s exile in Switzerland as a political refugee after his participation in the revolution in Dresden and writes (and he must surely have been conscious of his own position):

It must mean a great deal to the Swiss that they looked after and played host to this extraordinary man for so long…. For it is only right and proper that this bold work of the German mind [the Ring], which was destined to conquer the world, should have come into being in the free and congenial atmosphere of this city: a truly international city, not in terms of its size, but by virtue of its situation and function, and one that has always looked with kindness on the innovative endeavours of the European avant-garde—and will, I hope, continue to do so.

But, of course, as Nazi Germany expanded, and after the war had broken out, Mann’s attitude to Wagner tended to harden. It was, he wrote in 1940 in an American magazine, commenting on an article by Peter Viereck, only “sentimental innocence” that would not admit

the intricate and painful interrelationships which undeniably exist between the Wagnerian sphere and the National Socialist evil…. I find an element of Nazism not only in Wagner’s questionable literature; I find it also in his “music,” in his work, similarly questionable, though in a loftier sense—albeit I have so loved that work that even today I am deeply stirred whenever a few bars of music from this world impinge on my ear…. With its Wagalaweia and its alliteration, its mixture of roots-in-the-soil and eyes-toward-the-future, its appeal for a classless society, its mythical-reactionary revolutionism—with all these, it is the exact spiritual forerunner of the “metapolitical” movement today terrorizing the world.

Yet Wagner remained for Thomas Mann a standing temptation, a besetting sin, so to speak. In 1949 he was approached with a view to his becoming honorary president of the board which proposed to revive the Bayreuth Festival. He refused, but

it was a strange, weird, and in a sense shattering sensation…. I was incapable of taking it seriously. All I could take seriously were the thoughts, feelings and memories that it stirred within me—memories of my lifelong allegiance to Wagner’s world, which was only encouraged and reinforced all the more in my early years by Nietzsche’s spellbound critique, memories of the tremendous and highly formative influence that the equivocal magic of this art had on my youth. Hideously compromised by the role it had played in the National Socialist state, it was now to be restored to its original purity (but had it ever been “pure”?); and in belated reality I had been singled out to occupy an official position within the mythology of my youth.

Thomas Mann’s writings on Wagner tell us a lot about the complex, ambivalent figure of Mann himself. But these essays and notes also raise as strongly as in Mann’s lifetime the question of the nature and value of Wagner’s art and why it continues to attract and repel so many people. I remember when some thirty years ago, while at a performance of Die Walküre in Munich, the elderly German in the seat next to me remarked during the intermission—somewhat defensively, it seemed to me, as if to apologize for being there—“Es ist ein bisschen abgeschmackt,” suggesting that to perform Wagner after all that had happened was, in post-Nazi Germany, somehow tactless and out of place.

Indeed, quite apart from Wagner’s polemical writings and his notorious anti-Semitism (a subject discussed with insight and historical understanding in a forthcoming study by Jacob Katz* ), there is an aspect of his music that remains equivocal, and not just because of Hitler’s own fondness for Wagner’s work. It is not enough to dismiss the more bombastic sentiments, the invocation of the “German sword” in Lohengrin, or Hans Sachs’s appeal to maintain the purity of German art, as Mann did when he wrote, “It is thoroughly inadmissible to ascribe a contemporary meaning to Wagner’s nationalist gestures and speeches.” It is impossible, as indeed Mann himself came to see, not to ascribe such a meaning to them when confronted with the phenomenon and experience of National Socialist Germany.

But even apart from these overtones, there are times when we share with Mann his distaste for the pretentiousness of the whole Bayreuth project or for the bombast and longueurs to be found in the works themselves. There were moments when Mann himself tried to exorcise Wagner’s spell by leaving him firmly situated in the nineteenth century, a characteristic product of a “bourgeois” epoch that was now past, superseded by an art that “differs radically from that of Wagner: something conspicuously logical, well formed and clear…something that does not seek its greatness in the monumentally baroque, nor its beauty in the sweep of emotion”—the art of some of the composers contemporary with Mann himself, perhaps his friend Schoenberg, but certainly at any rate Adrian Leverkühn.

When stressing Wagner’s roots in the nineteenth century Mann makes some rather surprising juxtapositions. Wagner, he writes, is like Zola in creating characters that seem to represent an epoch: Nana, for example, is “both symbol and myth,” her name “an elemental sound, a first, instinctive utterance of mankind in its infancy,” and at the same time one of the names of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. But Wagner is also, according to Mann, like Ibsen (“Nordic sorcerers…the pair of them, crafty old magicians both”), who somehow transcended his age and created works which, however rooted in their time, still have a universal message.

The comparison seems a strange one: the greatest of Ibsen’s plays deal with individuals and their particular moral predicaments within a society that necessarily constricts them. Ibsen’s moral analyses recall Wagner in that they explore the inner compulsions driving the characters on to their doom. However, Ibsen’s characters are real people whose actions reveal psychological conflicts and evasions familiar to most of us. Thomas Mann made much of a comparison between the late works of the two masters, When We Dead Awaken and Parsifal; but even if Ibsen set some of his dramas in a timeless Nordic world, the most powerful plays are those firmly situated in a very specific Scandinavian society and at a very specific historical moment.

Wagner, on the other hand, except in Die Meistersinger, is usually working in a zone outside time and history, a world of myth composed from a number of eclectic sources—the Eddas, Christian legends, the philosophy of Schopenhauer. It is this that provides the opportunity for the many possible rival interpretations of Wagner: G.B. Shaw in The Perfect Wagnerite suggested a Marxist message; Robert Donington in Wagner’s Ring and its Symbols showed how to analyze the work using the theories of Jung, and Thomas Mann is not the only critic to see how easily episodes from Wagner’s dramas fall straight into a Freudian mold. These wider interpretations which transcend the personality of the man himself or his own political views or even nineteenth-century bourgeois society would not be possible without the music, music, as Mann repeatedly points out, quite unlike any other: the famous E flat major chord with which the Ring opens is scarcely even music. “It was an acoustic idea: the idea of the beginning of all things,” a subliminal sound reaching straight into the subconscious of the audience. It is this feeling that Wagner’s art works on us in an uncanny, almost magical way, the sense that we are somehow being influenced by a hypnotist almost against our will, that makes his work at once so disturbing and so fascinating; and no one has conveyed this fascination better than that other complex and ambiguous artist, Thomas Mann.

  1. *

    The Darker Side of Genius: Richard Wagner’s Anti-Semitism (University Presses of New England, May 1986).

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