Thomas Mann
Thomas Mann; drawing by David Levine

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.

So in the end Death in Venice has the same moral as The Portrait of Dorian Gray, a work to which it bears a strange resemblance. The difference is, of course, that Wilde is much simpler minded than Thomas Mann and uses the moral of the sad death of his hero insidiously to suggest that Dorian Gray has nobly sacrificed himself on the altar of ideal beauty, an example which the reader should imitate. Thomas Mann shows how the pursuit of the Platonic ideal embodied in the almost sexless image of the boy leads to the destruction both of the much admired world famous novelist Gustave von Aschenbach, and also to the complete corruption and degradation of that side of Aschenbach which has pursued the ideal:

There he sat, the master: this was he who had found a way to reconcile art and honours: who had written The Abject, and in a style of classic purity renounced bohemianism and all its works, all sympathy with the abyss and the troubled depths of the outcast soul. This was he who had put knowledge underfoot to climb so high: who had outgrown the ironic pose and adjusted himself to the burdens and honours of fame: whose renown had been officially recognized and his name ennobled, whose style was set for a model in the schools. There he sat.

The world’s fame is a façade set up only to be knocked down—and only supportable if ironically so viewed—but the purist pursuit of beauty which knocks it down is the pursuit of degradation and death.

The problem of the hero who was at once bourgeois and in the last resort an aesthete ceased to be central when experiences crowded in on Thomas Mann which were vaster than those already present within his own inclusive persona. This began to happen with the First World War, and nearly everything that occurred between the two wars and during and after the Nazi period was of this kind. The self-enclosed chamber of pure art was pierced by the events of contemporary history. There is a world of difference between the passage I have just quoted about Aschenbach and Mann’s observations in 1945 to his publisher Frederic Warburg concerning Doctor Faustus:

The artist shares the fate of, let us say Nietzsche and Hugo Wolf which, however, in my representation becomes less a clinical than a moral and theological affair. It is characteristic of the book that it contains a long conversation of the infected artist with the devil. Also, this work is by no means free from more or less secret relations to the events of the present and particularly to the fate of Germany.

Here art is not regarded—for better or worse—as self-sufficient. The decay with which it may infect its lovers is not that of its own decadence, or the result of an ambiguity implicit in the pursuit of beauty. On the contrary, Mann now thinks that there is a complicity between a certain Fleurs du Mal diabolism in modern art and the wickedness in contemporary history.

Writing to Erika Mann, in 1926, when he was planning Joseph and his Brethren, he explains that he is laying “a kind of essayistic or humorously pseudo-scientific” foundation “just for my own amusement” and that he contemplates a work in which “meaning and being, myth and reality, are constantly passing into one another.” This might seem to bring him in spirit close to Joyce’s “Tales of Shem and Sham,” but the use of the word essayistic draws the line which divided Mann’s world from that of Joyce. In introducing the essay into fiction the parallels with Mann are Hermann Broch in The Sleepwalkers and Gide in Les Faux-Monnayeurs (where the essayist was thinly disguised as the diarist). The Joycean imagination went back to Dante and Aquinas, that of Thomas Mann to Montaigne.

In Doctor Faustus Thomas Mann was more successful than either Broch or Gide in making the essay, or essayistic excursions, a kind of protagonist, set down among characters in fiction. This is perhaps his most original contribution to the technique of the novel.

His relationship with Germany was first of all one of those love affairs with “the true German spirit” that has so little resemblance to the actual contemporary Germany, which one finds also in Goethe, Hölderlin, Nietzsche, and Heine, and which almost inevitably leads to those shattering denunciations of their own compatriots which fulminate in the works or correspondence of all these writers. Mann considered from the First World War onward that he supported a “high-principled conservatism,” an “authentic native Germanism” of a kind which he found in the music of his friend, the composer Hans Pfitzner.

He knew though that the real Germany was not like this, and probably never had been. In fact he thought the complete division between his own traditionalist views and the cosmopolitan, socialistic, internationalist ones of his brother Heinrich was typical of the whole condition of Germany. In 1916 he wrote to his fellow nationalist Ernst Bertram that he saw the fate of Germany as “symbolized and personified in my brother and myself.” Germany, simply, was not a nation. “Rather, we are something like the quintessence of Europe, so that we are subject to the clash of Europe’s spiritual contradictions without having a national synthesis.”

“You have no idea with what spite and nasty glee a reputation could be smeared in Germany,” Mann wrote (in 1941) to Mrs. Meyer. He was speaking out of bitter memories of the atmosphere of hatred and recrimination by which he was surrounded in Germany after the war, at the time of the Weimar Republic. He was appalled by the narrowness, brutality, and loud-voiced vulgarity of the German nationalists of that time, who included not only the members of the notorious FEM organization which was responsible for the murder of Rathenau, the Jewish foreign minister of Germany, and others, but also professors of Munich University. He retained his sense of belonging to a spiritual Germany, but with increasing despair.

“In political matters,” he wrote to an editor of the Suddeutsche Monatshefte, in 1928:

I aim for and desire nothing but the things that are sensible, necessary, favourable to life, concerned with human dignity—what one might be allowed to call “German,” I should think. In general, to use Nietzsche’s language, I regard myself as “very German,” and although I am of course subject to international influences in literary matters, I am personally as little international as possible. But I live in this new, shrunken Europe which is striving for unity; I have some contact with its spiritual forces and a very general insight into the conditions of its life. My intelligence and my character are repelled by certain stupidities and malignancies.

During the postwar years, Mann, in spite of his deep Germanism, attracted to himself all the envy, spite, and hatred—to use that very German word, Gemeinheit—for which his self-consciousness in genius and greatness, and facts such as that his wife was Jewish, his brother Heinrich was a prominent internationalist, and his children Erika and Klaus were always, sometimes outrageously, in the public eye, made him a target. German conservatism had been swamped by the ignoble, vengeful, arriviste, reactionary, vicious, and contemptuous; and its representatives—Hindenburg, Hugenburg, von Papen, and Schleicher—through a combination of senescence, stupidity, decadence, gross selfishness, and ill will, played into the hands of one more purely evil than themselves—Adolf Hitler.

Part of the German tragedy for Mann during the postwar years was that friends of his like Ernst Bertram, with whom even during the war he had shared his Germanism, supported Hitler. That they were capable of this self-deception showed that the corruption of the conservative intellectuals had gone very deep indeed. Whenever he is confronted by the symptoms of Nazism, Thomas Mann’s letters become surgical. Not only is he never taken in, but he has a hatred for the capacity of his correspondents to be deceived which equals almost his hatred for the Nazis. He sees that the least symptoms of the disease are fatal.

Even today this searching, surgical moral clarity seems to me magnificent. In a letter to Albert Einstein (May 15, 1933), he diagnoses the disease:

It is my deepest conviction that this whole “German Revolution” is indeed wrong and evil. It lacks all the characteristics which have won the sympathy of the world for genuine revolutions, however bloody they may have been. In its essence it is not a “rising,” no matter how its proponents rant on, but a terrible fall into hatred, vengeance, lust for killing, and petit bourgeois mean-spiritedness. I shall never believe that any good can come of it, for either Germany or the world.

The letter to Prince Hubertus von Loewenstein, who had written, in 1940, an article in The New York Staatszeitung criticizing the Western powers for their anti-Nazi propaganda, is a great piece of invective. Mann’s moral rage against the Nazis reached the point where he felt deeply critical of Stefan Zweig for committing suicide and thus discouraging other refugees by admitting to his own spiritual defeat in exile and providing the Nazis with a triumph.

His rage did not cease after the war, and its flames were fanned by apologetic letters he received from Germans who had accepted official positions in Nazi Germany and who now turned to him for comfort and sympathy. One of them, Hans Friedrich Blunck, who had accepted a seat in the German Academy in Munich from which Thomas Mann had been expelled, wrote to Mann in 1946 explaining that his activity was “limited to…offering advice and proposals for instruction in the German language abroad,” to which Mann replied:

Every child in the whole wide world knew what was meant by this euphemism, namely the undermining of the democratic forces of resistance everywhere, their demoralization by Nazi propaganda. Only the German writer did not know. He had no problem; he could be a purehearted simpleton and cultivate a placid temper, without moral indignation, without any capacity for detestation, for anger, for horror at the almost infamous Teufelsdreck which National Socialism was to every decent soul from the first day on.

In their informative Introduction Richard and Clara Winston explain that this 700-page volume is only a selection from the vast quantity of Thomas Mann’s letters. They recollect his daughter Erika’s saying that he probably wrote more than twenty thousand letters by hand. Unfortunately some of the more personal and intimate of these are lost, as a result of the Nazi seizure of his personal possessions after he left Germany in February, 1933. Perhaps as a result of this gap in the correspondence, one feels in many of these letters a lack of the personal touch: though there are some exceptions, especially among the early ones, and occasionally in letters to correspondents who touch some chord of deep feeling, as happens with Ernst Bertram, and with the nationalist writer Josef Ponten who had some kind of love/hate attachment to Thomas Mann.

The note consistently struck in the letters is responsibility. Thomas Mann thought of himself as answerable to questioners, complainers, and critics. They are the letters of a writer who saw himself in many roles and who felt obliged to state his position when challenged in any one of these. Where all the roles meet is in the sense of responsibility, the feeling that genius, fame, honor, all imposed on him the task of having to give to those who asked to be spiritually fed. I should add too that during the early years of emigration, he gave immensely of his time and attention to helping fellow exiles, as many of the letters in this volume testify. When one has read these letters one feels that one knows an immense amount about him—most of which is rewarding—but that one scarcely gets to the center of what he was. The most public and accessible of the great modern writers, he also seems the most alone.

This Issue

May 6, 1971