The New York Review published over fifty poems, essays, and reviews by W.H. Auden (1907–1973) between 1963 and 1986. The following is an extract from “Lame Shadows,” his review of a new translation by David Luke of Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger and Other Stories, which appeared in the September 3, 1970, issue. It may be read in full at www.nybooks.com/50/Auden.
If I call these stories “dated,” I do not mean that they are out-of-date, only that, like most works of art, they could only have been produced at a particular period in social and cultural history.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 worker-craftsmen 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.
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 different 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.