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Thomas Mann’s Frustration

In response to:

The Mann Nobody Knew from the February 29, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

Reading Professor Craig’s account of the life of Thomas Mann [NYR, February 29] Iask myself: Can the sexually frustrated (if suitably talented)redirect their sexual energies into art and thus end the frustration? Something of the kind seems to be implied by Professor Craig and yet the evidence provided is not satisfying. There is not enough evidence; and what evidence there is suggests a contrary conclusion. In his seventies, for one thing, after all that writing, Thomas Mann was obviously as frustrated as ever. It is true that he often wrote, directly or indirectly, of a desire for the male body—Tadzio’s or Joseph’s, to give examples several decades apart: it is not true that he depicted this desire as other than…frustrated. Tadzio and Joseph are—by definition, so to speak—the Unattainable, Beethoven’s ferne Geliebte.

It is true that Mann’s homosexual desires were frustrated at all periods of his longish life, and perhaps, as Professor Craig says, totally—in the sense that he may never have had sex with a man. But he definitely had sex with a woman: wouldn’t this when it occurred do more to end physical frustration, for the time being, than writing a book?

If one tried to take in Mann’s sexuality as a whole, one would ask further questions about frustration. There is agreement among biographers that Mann was extremely “self-centered”—narcissistic, in Freud’s terminology. Accordingly, such a thing as Aschenbach’s interest in Tadzio has the character more of masturbation fantasy than of active desire for another person. Aschenbach doesn’t wish to KNOW Tadzio either in the biblical sense or the everyday sense: in other words, he is drawn neither to his penis nor to his personality. He wouldn’t want to know much of anything about Tadzio, let alone wish, as lovers do, to penetrate the body and the soul.

Thus, in this period when the biographers have been discovering that Mann was homosexual, one could reasonably argue that he was not—or that he was so only in a limited, partial, fashion. The fascination with young men was real enough, and the bewilderment and the distress, but did he ever wish anything other than failure in those adventures? In which case, one would have to conclude that he never really wanted a man.

Does it matter, if it is his art we are primarily interested in? Perhaps not. But it is of interest that while Mann’s books do not confirm Freud’s theory of sublimation, they do reflect, rather faithfully, the sexuality I am talking about: that of a bisexual man who acted out the full drama of heterosexuality—marriage, children—but only dreamed of homosexual union. The homosexual urges were not “sublimated” in the art—at least one cannot know that they were—but Mann’s sexual situation as a whole, as a Gestalt, is directly reflected in the work, which therefore, symbolic as it so ostentatiously is, one might well call flatly realistic.

Eric Bentley
New York City

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